Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Reconfigurable House

If we didn't have plumbing, electricity, or communication devices, houses would be pretty simple. In fact, before those things, houses were. Four walls and a roof to keep the rain out. Floors came later.
So, I remember hearing on some TV show or other, probably either the science channel or the home improvement channel, that someone invented pre-fab walls that contain electric wire and pipes, and can be reasonably reconfigured. Throw together an arbitrary arrangement of walls and at least 99% of the time, the electrical wires, pipes, and telephone cables would all properly connect to each other. Admittedly there are some extremely bad problems if they don't. They did this so that one could just buy a bunch of these walls, slap them up over a cement slab, and call it a house. This saves a whole bunch of time. Especially all that window-fitting, plumbing, electrician time....
Housing is pretty strange worldwide, and even today in 2010, there are people living in straw huts. (Mostly because this is all they can afford.) Charities aim to change this, and with this system, they don't have to ship over a building team. Just a bunch of walls.
In fact, I remember one technology taking it further, and requiring only a bicycle-sized machine, a bag of cement-ish stuff, and the local dirt. This made cinderblock-like bricks by the metric ton, which was soft at first (and thus could be fit with pipes and whatnot), but hardened after a day to granite-like hardness. The machine cost $1000, a bag of the quasi-cement was $20, and together with a $30 shovel could build about three houses. $5000 would build an entire village, and between the 30 or so families that live in it, they could definitely scrape that much together on their own.
Whatever helps us live better, I'm all for it. Also, I have the strangest feeling of deja-vu about this post, like I wrote it before.

Monday, August 30, 2010


I'm thinking of a machine to dispense condements. All of them. Well, all of them that you eat. It would have many spigots with matching buttons, and pushing a button dispenses the product. Ketchup and mustard for meat products, sugar (with some water for delivery) for coffee, salt, vinegar, we've got it all.
You'd have to maybe replenish the internal stores once a month, but other than that, you'd never have to bother with sauces again.
The container would also be an artistic centerpiece for the kitchen table.
This cough syrup is great!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Active sound cancelation system

Physicists have long been aware that when it comes to sound, inverse-waves cancel each other. -1 + 1 = 0. This has been applied to some fancy pairs of headphones that listen to outside sounds, and emit a reversed version in the speaker near your ear, with the result that you hear nothing. Useful in noisy places where one may wish to concentrate, or sleep. (Like an airplane.) But let me come up with another, more appreciative, use for this technology.
Many people love listening to really really loud music. It's bad for them, and the reason why one quarter the people my age or older have massive hearing loss. It also annoys everyone around them, who have to listen to their bass-lines for hours and hours and hours. I can't do anything about the deafening besides turning down the music, and they'd just turn it back up again. But I can use this technology to make their neighbours less annoyed.
Experimentation will result in a stereo system that has some speakers outside. Why? Inverse signal. You can turn the knob to 11 and your neighbours will hear nothing. It can do that because the sound is a known quantity (it does have access to the original signal), and the muffling that the walls and floor and ceiling makes are also known quantities. It can produce an exact reverse of what would be audible outside, thereby canceling it. The house is now perfectly quiet on the outside. Very loud on the inside, where your favorite music blares.
In fact, if you have very thick, sturdy floors, you could throw a party without your neighbors noticing at all. You'd be as quiet as it would be on an isolated estate, just the way your neighbours like it. (Warning: Will not protect against footsteps. That's why you need a thick floor.)

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Haber Process

Once upon a time, there was a German chemist named Fritz Haber. He had a process that could extract nitrogen from air, hydrogen from water, (but more likely from fossil fuels, because electrolysis of water is an expensive undertaking), and combine them into ammonia. It was kind of slow, and mostly a novelty. The net reaction was:

2N2 + 3H2 => 2NH3

Then one day, a representative of the German government came to his office.
"Dr. Haber! Dr. Haber! The Fatherland needs your help!"
"What? How?"
"You know how we're fighting the great war? (The one the future would know as "World War I," but it wasn't known then that it would involve pretty much the whole world, nor that there would be a sequel.) England has cordoned off our supply of seagull poop!"
"Uhuh, remind me why you'd want that."
"Don't you see? It's our only source of ammonia! With no ammonia, we can make neither fertilizer nor explosives, so we'll starve and lose the war!!!!"
"Okay, so you'll need all my notes on my air-extracted ammonia process, then? Here you go."
So Dr. Haber worked with another chemist, Dr. Bosch, for the BASF company, to scale up his process. As Dr. Haber first wrote it, a cup of ammonia could be produced every 2 hours. Not very much. With Dr. Bosch's help, this turned into a veritable flow of ammonia, and Germany didn't starve. It still lost the war, though.
After the war, the allies were very interested in the Haber-Bosch process, and applied it to farming, which also needs ridiculous amounts of ammonia, because plants make their proteins from it. Before, you had to get it from poop, usually seagull poop from Chile. Now, you could have all the ammonia you want and the process is responsible for feeding 1/5th the world today due to massively increased farm yields. Chile was thrown into unemployment, until they discovered that they also have massive amounts of copper.
Dr. Haber went on to invent gas warfare, to extract gold from the sea, and to give the Nazis the finger and move to England. (Significant because he was the sort of patriotic German who they expected to fully back them. ) Dr. Haber died a year later, involved in work in the middle east, but his process is still used today, and still feeding the world.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Anti Submarine Warfare

Once upon a time, submarines were a major threat to the world's navies. They were hard to see, and could suddenly attack out of apparently nowhere, and disappear beneath the waves before retaliation was possible. So finding and destroying them became a very very big priority.
This is less a priority now, because all the modern enemies of the United States are insurgent groups that cannot afford submarines, and would have no use for them if they had them.
But back to the original topic, how do you find something that spends most of its time underwater, is painted the same color as the ocean, and is designed to be as hard as possible to see? Well, look into its characteristics. First, some past solutions:
* Light
Submarines might be painted ocean colors, but they're still metal. When they're on the surface, and before nuclear and aqua-lung technology that was rather frequent. (Diesel powered engine needs fresh oxygen and smoke disposal, plus need to refresh the air so the crew doesn't, you know, suffocate), shine a bright light from an airplane. If it hits a sub, it reflects, and then you know where to shoot.
This is only really effective when the sub is near the surface. A deep sub is obscured by the water, which absorbs light with depth.
* Sonar
Sound bounces. Bats learn where everything is by emitting a high pitched sound that bounces off of things, and notices where things are by the reflections. Bats use this to find bugs. Anti-submarine people run sound through the ocean, which bounces off rocks and subs, and they tend to be subtly different. Once you've seen it, or rather, heard it, depth charges away.
This is only effective when the submarine is below the surface. A surfaced submarine is indistinguishable from, say, a whale, or a glob of seaweed.
* Sea microphone
Submarines aren't completely silent. They move by propeller, which makes noise. They attack with torpedos, which makes a noise when launched, and while moving. They require electric power, and back in the diesel age, that made quite a lot of noise. (Nuclear reactors are nearly silent.) Various life support machines make noise too.
Submarines usually detect each other by listening to the sea. Experienced sound operators can tell the difference between a submarine and a whale by sound alone.
* Escorts
Submarines are like ninjas -- their strength is that they attack very suddenly and without warning. So send ships out in groups, and when one of them is attacked by the submarine, the others attack the submarine, whose position has been revealed in the attack.
* Radio Snooping
Submarines communicate with their parent organization through two means: One is radio, and the other are specially built submarine-communication cables, by a shorter-distance radio. Radio can be tracked by triangulation. Snoop enough signals and one can be reasonable sure where the submarine is. At which point, depth charges ahoy.l
* Hunter Killers
Why wait for the submarines to come to you? Hunter killers are boats with many of the above technologies, who actively search for enemy submarines, and destroy them.
* Magnetism
Submarines are made of metal, almost certainly steel. The movement of steel subtly warps the magnetic field of the earth. Keep a map of major ocean areas and their magnetic fields at all times. When something changes, it's a submarine. If you can't find records of it on any side friendly to you, it's depth charge time.
* Espionage
The parent organization of a submarine knows where it is at all times, mostly because it's the one issuing orders. Records must be kept. Have a spy steal these records. You now know where the submarine is.
* Possible other techniques
Navies around the world probably have other methods that they're not going to tell me. (After all, if your enemy discovers the nature of your technique, countermeasures can be developed.)

And to this list, I can suggest one other technique:

* Water Shadow Analysis
If you drag an object through the water, then let a seal into the area, they can use their whiskers to tell exactly what path the object took. If the object is one that interests them (because it's a toy, or contains fish), they'll almost assuredly make a beeline for it. However, their whiskers must be unobstructed to do this. A seal wearing a mask is not able to detect water shadows.
So, submarines must also make water shadows as they move. If you know where the submarine has ever been, and have water shadow detecting equipment, then you can follow it long enough to shoot it full of torpedos.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Psychology Metric

Remember long ago when I jokingly reported that people should try to take jobs based on what kind of character they would be, if they were in dungeons and dragons? I think I want to develop a more serious version of that.
Identify personal traits and characteristics that would allow prospective employers to match candidates to ideal jobs with a simple pen or pencil test. No more will we have programmers unable to program, people bitterly angry with their horribly mismatched jobs, or glass ceilings from being limited to doing what you did in the past. (What, people never change, ever?)
I'm not making this test. I don't know nearly enough about psychology to compose the test, nor the interdisciplinary studies to know what kind of person does well where. (Would an investment banker make a good, say, salesman, or lawyer?)
And if you'd like me to do more D&D, yeah, I suppose I could do that too.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


The bagpipes are a celtic instrument in which the player uses a bag full of air to pump air through numerous pipes, each of which makes a tone. One of the pipes has little finger-holes so that you can play notes. (The other three or four pipes play a sort of background-chord.) You need a strong pair of lungs to play the bagpipes, or you run out of air quickly.
So if you're asthmatic, or perhaps lazy, how would I automate it? Well, I would have an air-pump, the kind made for aerating a fish tank, and have that pump air into the bag at a steady rate. You'd still have to use the finger holes and squeeze the bag, but this way, you don't pass out. As a bonus, this system is much less wet than your own breath unless you live in an extremely humid area. (Though modern bagpipes have ways of dealing with the moisture.)
What's that, you have arthritic fingers too? I could whip up a set of midi-controlled valves, so an embedded computer can ensure that it plays the right tune. You'll still have to squeeze the bag, but that's so easy that a small child could do it.
What's that now? Now you want to automate the bag squeezing for some sort of 24-hour musical festival that you couldn't stay awake the entirety for? Okay, a simpler version of the finger valves squeezes a clamp around the bag.
And now your neighbors are angry? Well, not everyone likes bagpipe music, and that I can't do anything about.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Hero of Money

I think the IRS should look up who paid the most taxes in 2010, and give them a medal in a big ceremony. We'll call this person the "Hero of Money," since they made the most and were taxed the most, and give them a gold-leaf plated dollar sign, with moon rocks and all the other crazy things the government can gather. We'll publish their name in the paper, with much innuendo about their skill at making money. (Maybe illegal profits in greater quantities exist elsewhere, but this person was honest enough to obey proper procedure and pay taxes.)
Hopefully, this will make everyone else jealous and work harder next year. People will still whine about taxes, though, even if they do strive to be the person who earns the medal for 2011.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Engine Cooking

I once had a dream in which I was taking a number of bizarre, illogical classes. Psychologists would probably blame this on me worrying about my schooling as I fell asleep. Anyway, most of them were stupid, impossible, or both. But one of them strikes me as potentially useful in the real world. It was called "Engine cooking."
In it, we would take a metal mold, fill it with ingredients, stash the mold in the engine compartment of a car, and then go drive around a bunch, then afterwards, we'd retrieve the mold, open it, and note the condition of the food. In the dream, you had to produce not just edible, but good looking food too. No one wants to eat a flat suffle, after all.
This is a potentially useful idea, because engines make a lot of heat. Heat that we currently discard into the atmosphere. Cooking, meanwhile, requires a controlled application of heat. Why not feed one into the other? Especially if you're driving somewhere where you'll need food on the other end, like a party. Bake your cake....by driving there.
Well, the biggest objections would be that engines are full of things that you don't want in your food, like dirt, sludge, motor oil, and insects. Heat transfer isn't ideal without doing something crazy like running the coolant through pipes on the outmost layer of the mold, which would make removal difficult. Also, engines might be hot, but the heat is quite uneven. Food needs to be evenly heated, or you'll have one raw side and one burnt side, neither of which is edible.
So, probably not practical in the real world, where things like physics and chemistry and basic logic apply.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Teabag Filter

Water is a common substance on earth, covering over 75% of its surface. Potable water, that is, water free enough of salt or pollution to drink, not so much. People in many of the poorer parts of the world have only rivers and ponds to drink from. RIvers and ponds that often contain some kind of pollution and give them a bad case of the runs.
Well, that's all about to change, says PhysOrg, a science reporting site. South African environmental scientists have invented a new type of filter, one that resembles a common tea-bag. Only instead of tea, it contains a fiber-like material that absorbs mud, pollution, bacteria, and heavy metals. The water is then as clean as bottled water and can be drunk. The filter is inexpensive and can then be thrown away, where it will break down. (Please discard it away from the water source.) The filters cost three South African cents each, and even the poorest South African can afford to buy several per day. The filter can purify up to a liter of water.
The filter doesn't scale up very well, so it wouldn't be useful for, say, purifying a municipal source of water. There, heavier technology would have to be employed.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Indoor Climate Control System

We spend a lot of energy keeping our houses warm or cold. (Depending on the climate.) Much of this goes to heating or cooling empty rooms.

A more efficient system would involve many independent ducts, an infra-red system, and some complex electronics. The system would only heat or cool rooms where a verified human presence was, as detected by the infra-red change in the area. It would prepare to heat or cool neighbouring rooms, but distant rooms wouldn't be heated or cooled at all.
If the electronics are complex enough, it could even learn your habits. It knows that you go to the kitchen every day at 7am, so at 7am, temperature control for the bedroom is switched off, and temperature control for the kitchen is on. At 8am, it switches to the bathroom, because it notices that you go there then. It switches off as you leave at 8:30. It knows that you arrive back around 6pm, so it switches on at 5:30.
More comfort, for less energy, and lower energy bills. Oh yeah.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Tunnel Warfare

Are you fighting a war, and up against a significant barrier? Maybe your opponent has better firepower than you do. Maybe they've erected a ridiculously huge wall. Maybe there are so many landmines that a charge would result in unacceptable levels of losses.
Digging under such fortifications is a possible, and very under-used, tactic. Most military forces don't because it's an exceptional pain in the ass. Way too much work. But when was winning a war ever easy?
The plus side to this is both that they won't see you coming, and, if you've done a good job producing the tunnel, it's very hard to fight it. (Yes, there are bunker-busting explosives, and ways to detect tunnelling, even possibly at a distance. But their supplies are limited, and it's hard to tell where the tunnel even is without some serious heavy duty engineering, done under fire at that.) The minus side is that it's a lot of work, and incredibly slow.
And after the war is over? You could enlarge it into a subway system. Or collapse it and fill in the hole.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Talky Tablet

It's technically possible now for you to build yourself a tablet-style computer, with a touch screen interface, and the ability to receive your voice over microphone, transcribe it to text, and place it in any application. Therefore, in theory, you could do all your computer work with your voice.
The bad news? Well, a touch-screen computer tablet is available directly right now, in the form of an I-Pad, which is super expensive. The more reasonable priced one is a kit, one you have to build yourself. Doable if you're an IT expert like me. Less so if you're some other profession and just want to take it out of the box and get to work. Also, the kit only runs Linux, and while improvements have been made over the last ten years, Linux is not exactly famous for user friendliness.
There's bad news on the speech recognition end too. It still isn't entirely sure exactly what you said. It has a pretty good idea, but after every sentence, you have to go through a touch-based entry to point out what words were said. (It shows you the most likely ones. Sometimes what you said is none of the above, and you have to get out the virtual keyboard. Those are no fun.) Still, a very advanced system. It's called Parakeet. The creators have a video of it working on a Nokia-based phone.
In theory, I could write this blog with a notepad-like device and my voice from anywhere. In practice? Keyboard at the terminal is faster.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Workplace Authority

During the great depression, which lasted from 1929 to 1941 in the United States, with a near recovery in 1938, there was a program called the WPA. The idea being that unemployment was furthering the depression, and that a job, any job, would put money in people's pockets, which they'd go promptly spend, causing economic demand, and causing the depression to lift. WPA camps would have young men dig trenches, build roads, anything that the government considered worthwhile. Their salary was split between them and their family to encourage responsible spending. (Yes, Mr. Smith would like to spend his entire salary on gin, as he is an alcoholic. No, Mrs. Smith would not approve of that.)
I've constantly read that infrastructure in the United States is collapsing, and at the same time, unemployment is high. Let's bring back the WPA and let one solve the other.
If you made me regional head of the WPA tomorrow, here's what I'd order for my area:

* Repave any road lighter than a certain shade of grey. (American roads are typically asphalt-based, they're ink black when laid down, and slowly fade to cement-white as they wear.)
* Install curbs in the lesser-known streets
* Litter collection. By Tesla's mustache, litter collection.
* Rebuild rail lines.
* Subway system. (Shovels, pickaxes, and earthmovers ready, gentlemen?)
* Enormous office complex with enormous parking structure
* Rebuild all local freeways. More sensible HOV lane, please.
* Water purification plant. Pipe purified water west to the desert

That should employ a good sized population, and improve life in the area, I think.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Self-Cleaning Bird Cage

You notice how when people have bird cages, the cages are almost perpetually dirty?
See, most birds live in trees, and live with the assumption that anything dropped is taken away by gravity, to the forest floor, which they don't care about. So an accumulation of unwanted objects beneath the area that a bird lives is inevitable. The cage floor becomes covered in seed hulls, detatched toys, and poop. The bird's owner must clean this accumulation regularly, lest it become a breeding ground for bacteria.
But, with a little engineering, the balance of nature can be restored. This cage would have a slanted, teflon coated under-section, which the bird cannot reach due to a grill. Dropped seed hulls would fall through the grill, and slide down the under-section. Then, if we connect this to a vent that goes to a waste receptacle, the cage will now clean itself. All dropped waste slides away for easy collection. (Just take away the can on occasion.)

Monday, August 16, 2010

How Cloud Computing is Supposed to Work

You, like many other people in this country, have a computer. It sometimes has problems. Sometimes it crashes or freezes, hardware problems erase your data, and you're afraid of it being stolen. Maybe not even for financial reasons, maybe you'd be lost without some of the data on it, like your tax records. And then your favorite IT geekoid tells you about this new trend called "cloud computing." What is it?
I've spoken a lot about virtualization. That is a trend in which one big powerful computer pretends to be (and shows itself to the world as) very many smaller and weaker computers. The smaller, weaker, pretend computers can be thrown around the bigger powerful ones, thereby obviating the need for downtime. The virtual computer is always available, because at least one host is running it.
Virtualization also means that your computer can also be virtual. Instead of having an expensive computer, you have a super-cheap terminal. Your super-cheap terminal connects to my big expensive mainframe (which I keep in a huge room of many powerful computers and blinkenlights), and one of the small computers that it simulates is yours. I do not see into yours, but I move it around my big computers so that it's always available. Also, when you push the button, it patches the OS and reboots.
Power outages will not kill your computer. Your terminal will lose its connection. When you reconnect, your data is still there and can be saved. My center does not lose power, because it's centralized and has an elaborate backup power supply. You do not lose your data to hardware failure. Any big computer in danger of failure has all the smaller computers moved, and it is shut down for maintenance, which will consist of replacing all failing components. If I move your computer to another of my machines, you will not notice. Your computer will continue on as always, until your tell it to shut down. (Though, that's probably not a good idea, because then when you want to start it up again, you will have to call me and tell me to do so.)
You may still lose data to crashes. I do not see into your computer, and I do not patch the software. You will have to press the "Patch my OS and applications please" button on occasion. I can mirror the patches, so your download will be inconceivably fast. If you keep it patched, you will likely not experience crashes.
You will not experience hardware conflicts, ever. Your computer has no real hardware. Only simulated hardware, which is quite consistent to the underlying OS. Your terminal is hardware, but that doesn't need upgrading very much. Maybe a bigger screen, or a fancier keyboard, or a tablet, or a trackball mouse or something, but those will connect to virtual devices in your OS, which have been written in such a way that they cannot conflict with each other.
Your computer cannot be damaged by things that happen in your home. If someone breaks in and steals everything, you can just get a new terminal. If your terminal is vandalized, your computer is unaffected. New terminal. If your house burns down, your terminal may get destroyed, but your computer is fine. New terminal. If someone steals your terminal, this doesn't necessarily grant them access to your computer. (Presumably you have some form of authentication to prove that it's you at the terminal, and not just anyone who got a hold of it. Someone like your teenaged son, or a thief, or that one snoopy guest at your cocktail party.) If you move, just take the terminal with you, and the computer is waiting on the other side.
Now, on the downside: I will expect a rent for keeping your computer. It will be far less than buying one, but it will go on and on forever, on a monthly, or if preferred, weekly, basis. Part of this rent will pay for me to keep all the hardware working, part will buy new hardware so that everything can keep upgrading, part of it will pay the power bill, and part of it will keep a very powerful internet connection so that you can connect your terminal. More will be charged if you are particularly demanding of resources, like if you store hundreds of movies, or are a gamer and use lots and lots of CPU. Less will be charged if you do only light-duty things like checking email, writing letters, or spreadsheets. Data can only reach your terminal as fast as it can be transmitted, so if you have a slower internet connection, expect everything to move really slowly. Lastly, if I am unscrupulous, it is technically possible for me to break into your computer. This is a violation of my oath as a system administrator, but still technically possible. You will have to trust your datacenter maintainer. If you can't, you need to store your computer in a different datacenter. One you can trust.
I have various tricks that will improve your experience. The hardware can be set up such that data loss is impossible, as it is in at least two places at once. I can almost arbitrarily give you more disk space or memory, though really large loads will requite a fee, as it will mean I will need to buy more physical hardware. (And it'll take longer, as I'll have to physically set that up, and move your computer into it.) I probably have hundreds, or even thousands, of machines running, though you'll never see any but yours.
It might be great. Certainly corporations will like this, as virtual computers and terminals will mean fewer problems for their users, and they'll never know the difference. (Most users assume that the computer is contained in the screen, because that's the "face" they see day in and day out.)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Ideal Business Cycle

Ideally, a new product or service, which would make you and your company truckloads of money, would be developed step-by-step across many different departments, each of which has a certain specialty. People suited to one would perform terribly in another, but that's okay, because cooperation and distribution of labor are what civilization is all about.

First, the marketing department determines what the customers need and would pay money to solve. A problem they have. Let's say, as an example, that their feet are cold.

Next, the marketing department explains this to the engineering department. Puzzling through this, they come up with solutions of varying degrees of practicality. Let's say that "battery powered socks" are the best design we get from this.

The industrial design department takes the most practical invention of the engineering department, and remakes it into something artistic and eye-catching. The "battery powered socks" now have an elegant place for the battery, a cotton-like texture that conceals the internal wiring, and resembles an ordinary sock yet keeps your feet much much warmer.

Industrial design passes this on to manufacturing, who make a factory that cranks out ten quadrillion or so, depending on what marketing thought they could sell, of them, packs them, and ships them.

Sales gets the product, produces commercials with help from marketing, and convinces people that its worth trading money to get battery-powered socks, and that your warm feet are well worth what one would pay. This makes the company all the money it needs to stay afloat, pay everyone, keep the buildings operating, and a little extra profit to hand back to the shareholders, who expect this.

Accounting tracks the money flows, and raises the alarm if any spending gets out of hand.

Executive makes sure none of these departments gets side tracked, fights with themselves or the other departments,
Now, any one link by itself would fail. Marketing or sales alone would have no product to sell. (Except maybe loans, but the financial industry is kind of tapped out right now.) Engineering alone would design functional, but inelegant products, and have no clue of how to convince people to trade money for them. Industrial design could make stuff, but it would be lower quality without the pure-engineering department. Manufacturing alone could only make things they had made before. Accounting alone could tell how much money they had, but it would only dwindle, because there would be nothing to sell, and executives alone....would be Enron. Except with no oil money. Oh, and with no accounting, one unscrupulous person could write themselves huge checks and no one would notice, and with no Executives, the departments would likely quarrel themselves to death. No manufacturing department means everything gets made by hand, which means less of it and it costs way more. Way way more. No sales department means no money, and goodbye company.

And a person well suited to one would work out terribly in another. A marketer thrown into accounting would die of loneliness and boredom. An accountant thrown into sales would bore the customer to death. There's some overlap in engineering, industrial design, and manufacturing, though an industrial designer has to be the most artistic, the engineer has to be the most scientific, and the manufacturer has to be the most practical.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Hand Transportation

I'm imagining a light-weight, hand-powered cart-like vehicle, for taking short trips that not only take you there at a decent clip, but works out your biceps and pecs for that ripped, handsome look that everyone likes.
Kind of like the Irish Mail, but with plastic instead of wood, more energy capacitance, breaks, an outer shell, and a better steering column of some kind.
Would you drive it? Or would you fear SUVs?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Gutter and Sewer Bot

Civilization has a lot of tight spaces. Tight spaces which are difficult and unpleasant to clean. I'm specifically thinking of the gutter, a metal attachment to the roof that collects rain and funnels it to a specific downspout, and sewers, which takes used water away from human habitation. And by used, I mean, has waste in it. Waste that could cause disease if it hangs around too long.
Admittedly, gutters almost never have to be cleaned if you fit them with a tight grille that allows water through, but sloughs off leaves. But let's say that you don't or can't do that for some reason.
In either case, you have tight spaces, and this would best be navigated by a small, battery powered robot. With little scrubbing attachments to detach debris from the sides. It will need to be waterproof, because there's no guarantee of the area being dry, and great probability that it will be distinctly wet. The robot should scout around, loosening anything it can get its little brushes on. After a fixed but generous distance, it should return for recovery. When brought back to human hands, it deactivates, and should then be cleaned, maintained, and have its battery recharged. And you, the human owner, never left your house.
Though I understand your reservations about touching a sewer bot.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Remote Ditch Digger

A number of industries require holes in the ground. Plumbing (for water in, out), electricity, telecom, and so on. People have to come and dig. It's sweaty, sweaty work. And the pay kind of sucks.
However, telepresence gets better every day. A robotic digger sends telemetry to an office, where, on a computer, or shovel-like interface, a worker can operate the machine from air conditioned comfort. It still operates about as fast as before, but the working day is longer and more comfortable, so the low pay isn't quite so objectionable.
The machine is probably even the same shape, just with a computer and antennae instead of a human-cabin....

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Strange Confession

I have a very strange confession to you, reader. I hate to write. Yes, that's a weird thing for a blogger to say, but I do. I hate it. All those writing classes I had to take as a nerdlet made me want to end the whole world, myself included, that's how much I hated them.
So why do I have a blog? I have ideas. I want to share my ideas. If I could do it any possible way, I would not personally write my blog. I would mind-control an English major into writing it for me. Schematics would appear in their heads and they would write. And then I would, I don't know, fix their computer or something.
So, I've done my best to share my ideas, and to make them reasonably entertaining to read. I've done my best to compromise between people with deep knowledge of the sciences and those who require a walkthrough. I can only hope I've done a good job.
I also feel like I'm running low on crazy. It used to be that all kinds of bizarre notions rattled around in my head, and I had a strange invention practically on a daily basis. Now, I have to strain and strain just to keep up.
But I'll have something tomorrow. I promise.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Plants Renew Gasoline?!?!

Petroleum is a limited resource. Only so much was made, and as our use of it goes on, only the more expensive to get, and harder to get, stuff remains. To claim otherwise is to deny thermodynamics. (And yes, people have denied thermodynamics to my face.) Petroleum is also the source of gasoline, and when gasoline gets expensive, people get really, really freaky about it.
Discovery News is reporting today that a source can be found in our agricultural fields. Well, with a little chemical modification. Apparently nitrogen fixing bacteria, the kind that favors the roots of legumes and provides a major organic boost to nitrogen in the soil, can produce propane if exposed to carbon monoxide.
But carbon monoxide is a deadly poison, and propane isn't quite energy-dense enough to power your car. (Though you can cook with it, or heat with it.) So, biochemists are hoping to extract this process, and modify it to turn carbon dioxide into bio-buteral, which would function like gasoline in your car's engine. Not only would such a process be endlessly renewable, but it would leech carbon from the air. (Okay, admittedly that carbon would come right back when you drove, but it would change a carbon-producing process into a carbon-neutral one.)
I'm not entirely clear on what the energy source of this process would be. Bacteria use their stored ATP (the fuel of biological life) to fix the nitrogen, as a way of making protein for themselves, and feeding the plants that house and shelter them. If we used genetically engineered bacteria to produce gasoline, they would need to be fed. Probably with sugar. If we used a chemical process, energy would probably have to be added by some means. Which, knowing this economic environment, would be coal. In both cases, no longer carbon neutral. Sugar has to be grown, and shipped, with, you guessed it, gasoline. And coal? Coal is basically purified fossil carbon.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Pigovian Economics

Some hundred years ago, a British Economist, Pigou, had an interesting idea. Based on the idea that what you subsidize, you get more of, and what you tax, you get less of, he proposes that subsidies and taxes be based on the quality of a thing's externalities. College tuition leads to better workforces who earn more money, and who commit less crime, so it should be subsidized. Horn factories that play "La Cucaracha" are annoying, so you should tax the crap out of them.
Assuming that one finds at least as many annoying things to tax as beneficial things to subsidize, it doesn't hurt the budget. And if it really changes the balance of the market, it changes it for the better. Who wouldn't want less annoying things, and more beneficial ones?
Of course, this idea has its critics. Free market fundamentalists would loudly decry this massive government interference, arguing that if people buy things that are annoying, they do so for a good reason. Although frankly, such people are denying the very existence of externalities. And from the perspective of one who seeks to avoid negative externalities, the alternative is regulations, which free market fans hate even more.
Can you, my reader, think of some good things to tax? Good things to subsidize? Right now, the balance needs to favor the tax, because the budget is utterly in the toilet at the moment.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Why One World Government Will Never Happen

One item I've been repeatedly told by various conspiracy theorists is that there's a big conspiracy to combine all countries into one very large one that covers all territory on earth. This nation would unify the legal codes and currencies, and resistance would be futile. Mostly because it would be impossible to move away from it.
It's...not going to happen. For a number of reasons.
For one, governments literally can't just impose whatever dictate they feel like. And I can't think of an issue that this government could take a position on without driving some part of the world into riotous anger, with pitchforks and foaming mouthes and looting and burning. Economics? The kind that would please, say, India, would send the US's central regions into a fit. And vice versa. Religion? Everyone wants theirs to be the official one, and all the others banned. And no, no one cares about the massive contradiction this would involve. A few tolerant people are willing to live side by side, but there's not nearly enough of them.
Even currency will involve massive conflicts. Countries mostly choose strong currency or weak currency strategies based on what kind of industries they have. If we have only one country on Earth, we clearly can only chose one. Regions that have the "wrong" suiting on this will be infuriated.
But the biggest reason that this would fail is that we have no commonalities. Most countries have a shared identity, be it ethnic or ideological. And we humans can only, at the neurological level, comprehend the existence of about 150 people. Attempting the circumvent this leads to stereotyping, racism, and other means of "lumping" people you have little to do with into one person. So to try to "lump" 6, almost 7, billion people together, when they have nothing in common and will spend the entire time stereotyping each other, and all hell would break loose.
Lastly, the benefits to this are questionable. A unified government might have slightly increased trade, maybe, if it somehow managed to retain order, which it probably wouldn't. Mostly, it'd be like the current German - Greek crisis, to the billionth power, and with way more guns and pitchforks. And every country on Earth is, to a degree, in debt. A one world government would assume every last one of those.
So for pathetic benefits and massive drawbacks, this is worth basically no one's while, so it'll never happen.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Reinventing the battery

A battery is an electrochemical cell that, for all intents and purposes, stores electricity. Important, because electricity cannot be stored in its original form. Electricity is movement, and storing movement for later is nonsense.
It has become apparent that we need better batteries. More and more of our civilization depends on portable electronic devices, and electricity is a very good energy source, but not very portable. A better battery would mean not only longer lasting laptops, smartphones, and radios, but also would improve the plausibility of perfectly clean electric cars.
It's a matter of chemistry. The ideal battery would have high energy density, a reversible reaction (so that you can recharge it at the nearest outlet), inexpensive materials (because we need a bajillion of them, and the less they cost, the better), secondary reactions (so that two energy can be extracted from both, thereby extending running time), and be safe. (Exploding gadgets would be terrible!)
Unfortunately, I don't know enough about chemistry to help. Only the basics.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Mechanic's buddy

People who work on cars a lot may appreciate this one. I'm imagining a complex machine made of many tools that, when shown a car and specified its make and model, completely takes it apart. It is now an empty frame, and a large pile of parts. Why? You can then clean and check those parts easily, replacing any that are excessively worn or damaged. The machine could then reassemble the entire car.
I can imagine this leading to vehicle maintenance becoming way, way more trivial. You might have your car stripped and rebuilt daily, with a short cleaning between each. Your oil will never be able to build up contaminants, because it's removed daily, filtered a bit, and returned. Only a small amount is lost. A small amount with all the crap that ever got in your engine that day.
Why, it would be like having your own personal pit crew. Awesome!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Water Cooled Architecture

Evaporative cooling is a remarkably efficient way of cooling down a space, commonly used in desert regions before the invention of air conditioning. The phase-change of the water from liquid to gas absorbed a lot of heat from the building. The gas was condensed outside the building, where it released its heat.
The hottest part of a building in my region is the roof. The bright sun shines upon it, and most roofs are, for reasons that escape me, dark in color and absorb quite a lot of heat. Instead, we make the roof transparent with white underneath, and between the two layers flow a layer of water. When the water reaches the gutter-area, it is siphoned off into a recycling area that condenses it and vents the heat into something else, like a swimming pool, hot tub, or a greenhouse. Air conditioning bills will be reduced, though unless the water is carefully recycled, this would be harsh on the water bills.
A slightly less efficient version of this has a large, leaky hose on the topmost part of the roof, thereby making it rain perpetually at your house. Rain that absorbs 85% of the heat on your roof.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Motorized Fueling Options

Our industrial civilization uses an ever-increasing amount of fuel. Fuel that's getting harder to find. We've mined all the easy-to-get oil, and what remains is hard to get, has safety issues (like the gulf-well you've heard so much about on the news), is expensive to get, like Canada's immense oil sands, or has some other issue.
But without energy, our transportation will not go. Economists remind me that transportation powers civilization. As an example, they say New York has only 3 days of food. If all the trains and trucks stopped, the supermarkets would run dry of food, hunger would set in, and with it, anarchy and riots. And every time the price goes above a certain point, it's freakout city.
So. How to power the trucks and trains? Electricity would require inventing better batteries, because even a small car uses power on the order of kilowatts.
* Coal
America has a metric insane supply of coal. Coal-powered trains have been around practically since trains were invented. Unfortunately, an external boiler on a truck probably wouldn't work as well.
However, there's a second way to use coal. A number of chemical processes can make a gasoline-like fuel from coal or natural gas. This was discovered in World War II-era Germany, which had very few sources of oil available to it on account of world-wide blockade. They wished to use tanks to continue their war, and tanks need gasoline to operate. Strangely enough, this is not the first time that German chemists rose to the rescue for a wartime need, the Haber process was invented for the nitrogen-related shortages of World War I, which now feeds some 2/5ths of the earth.
So, the main advantages to this are that it would be super cheap, use only national resources in most countries, and has an excellent supply. The main disadvantages are that it would exacerbate environmental issues (even clean coal is merely extremely filthy compared to the absurdly filthy regular coal), and the costs of the coal mining industry (which tends to destroy both the land it mines and the people who do the mining.)
* Natural Gas
Natural gas is actually one of many types of hydrocarbons, generally a liquid or gas at room temperature. It would work well as a motor fuel, but the engine would have to be specifically tooled for it. It is widely available, worldwide.
It's reasonably clean, aside from the carbon.
* Nuclear
My favorite power source, available from Uranium, extractable in America in the southwestern desert, Australia, and Nigeria, or Thorium, extractable from seawater. Better suited to large vehicles. Vehicles would travel thousands of miles between fuelings.
Good plan if there's some sort of plan for the nuclear waste. (I recommend recycling it.)
* Solar
Impractical unless on Mercury. Solar energy density not quite high enough.
* Wood
A very plentiful substance produced by trees. Wouldn't work well outside an external boiler, which is far more practical for a train than a truck.
* Antimatter
This would be best, but we have maybe a nanogram of the stuff total. Not nearly enough to power much of anything. Antimatter could react with anything, and would produce no pollution whatsoever. I would recommend using things with negaive value, like toxic waste or garbage, as reaction mass.
* Methanol/Ethanol
These readily available chemicals are easily produced from organic sources, and burn like high octane gasoline. Brazil uses this, but in the US, we'd need to up the gas milage of our fleet, or else 110% of our land would have to be dedicated to fuel-crops. (Needless to say, a tad of a mathematical possibility!)
* Some not yet invented fuel
Chemistry holds a lot of promise.

So then...how to power the fleet?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Biochemical Cleanup

Plants have an amazing ability in polluted environments: They tend to concentrate pollution into their bodies, which then concentrates more in the bodies of things that eat them, and so on. This is normally bad. You don't want cadmium, mercury, or lead in your food. But, this same principle, applied intelligently, can lead to cleaner soil so that this ceases to be a problem. I think I read about this idea in a magazine before, but like most things I read, I cannot for the life of me remember where.
The original article suggested growing key plants (different species prefer to absorb different chemicals), then burning the plants to recover the pollution. The recovered pollution is disposed of, safely this time.
But I think modern chemists can do better than just burning. I think they can mash the plants (say, with a pestle), and chemically separate the plant from the pollution, siphon the pollution off into some safe (or at least safely disposable) form, and compost the organic parts.
As an example of this in action, chocolate plants have a major affinity for airbourne lead. They concentrate this in their shells. Bad news for chocolate fans, because some half the world's supply of chocolate is grown in countries that have legal leaded gasoline, and hence a rich supply of lead in their air, which winds up in the chocolate pods, and some of it leaches into the final chocolate. Good news for cleaning that lead, since you can grow sacrificial chocolate to remove the lead already in the air.
This could even have economic benefits. Lead may be the cheapest heavy metal, but people still mine for it, because it's useful as a cheap radiation absorber, in certain dyes, and a few other safe uses. Lead claened from the air not only ceases to poison humans, but can be sold to the medical scanner company as a radiation shield.
(I have a nagging feeling like I wrote this before. )

Monday, August 2, 2010

Trolling Big Brother

Though the totalitarian states of George Orwell's writings have diminished to just two, minor acts of big brotherish douchebaggery spread around the world, deeply annoying people. Various acts of activism are proposed to deal with it, none as effective as the planners hoped.
So what to do about it? How about trolling the authorities? Wait, no that won't work. They have absolute power over you. How can you annoy someone who's thousands of times more powerful than you? In Max's Stubfield's hillarious parody, he does it by being insufferably ignorant and trival, being too compliant to actually punish, but still grotesquely irritating and impossible to deal with. He gets privacy by being too boring and annoying to actually watch.
Which is what he wanted in the first place. Muahahahahaha!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Evolutionary Kernel

In the past, I mentioned genetic algorithms as a way of producing powerful code that not even the programmer thought of. Here's what I wrote, as a refresher:
Evolution is an important principle in modern biology, and the subject is frankly impossible to understand without it. Evolutionary biology states that genes drift over time, and successful ones predominate over unsuccessful. Therefore, life adjusts to current conditions, whatever they may be.
Genetic algorithms adjust computer code, or abstract computerized representations, according to a fitness function. When the genetic algorithm is trying to design something, the fitness function works according to the qualities of the thing trying to be designed. When the genetic algorithm is designing an algorithm, the fitness function determines how efficiently the target runs.
So, I realized that genetic programming works best when we know what the correct result is, but aren't entirely sure of how to get there. So we have genetic algorithms evolve to produce the most efficient solution. (This solution can then be generalized for more abstract problems. And because of this, I think we should try to evolve an operating systems kernel.
The kernel is the central part of the OS that must run all the time, never leaving memory. It handles the computer's resources, determines which program is allowed to run (is "database" more important than "solitare?"), and prevents errors in one program from taking down the rest of the system.
Various kernels would be run through an obstacle course of tasks, like starting a certain set of programs, one of which has a pointer-arithmatic error and will "crash" it unless the kernel intervenes. There should be memory access, disk access, scheduling, and conflict management issues. Afterwards, the run time of all these is recorded. The program with the most application run time and the least kernel run time (it efficiently ran as many programs for as long as possible) "wins," and is bred into the next generation. The one with most crashes "loses" and is killed, as is the one that ran the least efficiently. After many many generations, we would have the best possible kernel.
The next step would be to reverse engineer it...
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