Monday, May 26, 2008

Energy Technology and the New Survivalists

The AP has another story on the "new survivalists" who are springing up in increasing numbers. (Previous reference.) This latest story puts the source of the fears at the feet of rising energy costs, casting a Mad Max-ian slant on the previous one's more environmental source. In either case, I still find the ideas fascinating.

Meanwhile, scientists and business men are eying the increase in petroleum cost as an opportunity to explore increasingly competitive alternative sources. Ars Technica looks at recent efforts to allow non-food crops to be used efficiently in generating biofuel. And it wouldn't be a post about energy if I didn't include the latest effort to make solar cells more efficient, this time by using nanowires to connect the surface of the cells to the circuitry underneath.

So keep an eye on the headlines folks, will those who prepare for the worst-case scenario get the last laugh, or will the march of technology and enlightened self interest once again allow us to preserve civilization as we know it?

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Electronics, Aviation, Aliens, and Mobile Phone Bills

Scientists at HP labs have succeeded in creating a working version of a formerly theoretical fourth basic electronics component, the memristor. As it joins the resistor, capacitor, and inductor as the basic building blocks of circuitry, it should allow for an array of improvements over existing circuitry.

Airbus and Honeywell are teaming up to develop a new biofuel that would be a direct replacement for the kerosene currently used as jet fuel and would not affect world food supplies. I'm not a big fan of biofuel myself, but I can certainly see aviation being one of the last holdouts of the fossil fuel age. And anything that allows 1/3 of aviation fuel to come from a renewable source is a good thing.

Speaking of aircraft, someone is talking about personal aviation again. It's not a flying car, it's a drivable airplane. Slashdot had quite the reaction, as you might expect. Shockingly, the company actually took the time to respond to the criticisms. I'll leave it to you to judge whether you think the idea will fly this time.

Going even farther up, the Vatican's chief astronomer says that life on other worlds is not only possible, but they might even be free of original sin. He also indicates that searching for extraterrestrial life does not contradict belief in God. Seems obvious to me, but it's nice to hear someone say it.

If there is life out there, they will actually be relatively inexpensive to talk to. One space scientist did the math and determined that text messaging via mobile phone cost at least four times as much as downloading the equivalent data from the Hubble space telescope. Naturally, some interpreted this result as an indication that mobile phone data prices are ... inflated.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Adventure's Waiting Up Ahead! (Speed Racer "review")

I've just come home from seeing the new Speed Racer movie. When I sat down, I was going to write about how the Wachowski brothers, as with their Matrix trilogy, were drawing on the stylings of Japanese comics and animation to create a movie that was confusing to critics. I was going to say how those critics were looking for something that wasn't going to be there and somehow missed a really great family movie. I was going to go for a reasoned analysis, but I decided not to. Why not? Because I came out of it grinning from ear to ear. Because this isn't a movie for the critics, this is a movie about a family for families.

Certainly, I'm biased, because I was just the right age for Speed Racer when I saw it as a kid, and I spent many an afternoon taking Hot Wheels and Matchbox through death defying races in the canyons made by the furniture of my home. But you don't need to know the original to appreciate this reinvention. If you like your action movies with a little heart, and aren't afraid to let go and pull for the good guy to win the race, Speed Racer is worth a viewing on the big screen.

Just remember as you drive home: you don't have automatic jacks on your car.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Apocalypse Now, News at Eleven

I have a long held fascination with fiction concerning the end of the world, and what happens the day after. (My reference list of interesting apocalyptic literature is too long to go into here, so I'll just toss out a couple examples: Alas Babylon and Battlestar Galactica). The news recently have provided a cornucopia of scenarios along those lines, all of them far too real. Food shortages and debates over potential food shortages caused by climate change, lifestyle and population shifts, and the desire for biofuel have been all over the headlines for the past few weeks (too many stories to link, consult your local Google). There are warnings that a flu pandemic remains possible. A cyclone devastated Myanmar, with the death toll running on the order of tens of thousands. A volcano that had lay dormant for nine thousand years sends ash twenty miles into the air and hundreds of miles across the continent. Volcano eruptions have always been impressive sights, but the ones from this eruption are truly awe inspiring.

If collapse-of-civilization stories have any morals, they are that we should appreciate what we have and learn to work together instead of against each other. But, for some the lessons of the old tales remain unheard. Reports also tell of a return of the survivalist movement, though perhaps less drastic than in the heydays of nuclear fear.

The parallel fear and paranoia are there. Nuclear war then, terrorism and a rebelling planet now. So stash a couple of gallons/liters of water and a good first aid kit in your house, and keep them fresh. It won't hurt anything. Don't forget to tell your loved ones how you feel about them, and be nice to your neighbors. After all, the threads that bind civilization together are as frail as they ever were, and through it all, people remain people.