Saturday, September 27, 2008

Slashdot Does Science

All the cool science stuff was on Slashdot this week, so instead of linking to original articles, I'm going to give them some link love (as if they need it).

We'll start off on Mars, with the news that the Opportunity rover has just been sent on a new eleven kilometer, two year mission. That's a pretty big vote of confidence for a machine that's on day 1663 of its expected 90 day lifespan.

Closer to home, Congress has funded continued development on high energy laser weapons. It's going to be at least a decade before they go into service, so they remain science fiction, at least for a little while longer.

Sometimes, we aren't satisfied with turning the small things from sci-fi into reality. Imagine a large weight/space station in geosynchronous orbit around the Earth. Now imagine there's a cable running from it to the ground. That's a space elevator. Instead of needing rockets to reach high orbit, now you just need to pull yourself up the cable, which requires far less energy. The engineering challenges are monumental, naturally, but the Japanese figure they can tackle the problem for a relatively paltry $9.5 billion dollars.

And I won't leave you without your energy story this week. It's quite a bit more mundane than the rest of these links, and it's all the more impressive because of it. Those of you who like your automobiles powered by internal combustion may be interested to hear that a researcher at Temple University has created a device that boosts fuel efficiency by ten to twenty percent. It attaches to an engine's fuel line near the fuel injector and uses an electric field to reduce the viscosity of the fuel as it enters the injector. Lower viscosity leads to smaller fuel droplets which in turn produces more efficient combustion. Given the current market conditions, one would think this little dohickey may show up on the market relatively quickly.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Attempting Programmer Humor, You May Want to Skip This One

I'm violating my policy about posting during work hours and not mentioning work, but when I got in to the office this morning, I couldn't actually do anything. That and an early morning dose of The Beach Boys on VH1 Classic, and well, this is what happens. With apologies to The Beach Boys, this is set to the tune of Barbara Ann.

I went to the view, tryin' for a build
Saw vobs are locked, my momentum has been killed.
The VOBs are locked, VOBs are locked
(VOB VOB VOB VOB VOBs are locked!
This early morn)
I should be sleepin' in my bed now
Sleepin' in my bed now
VOBs are locked VOB VOB
VOB VOB VOB VOB VOBs are locked!

Yeah. Just be glad I left out the verse about swipin' cards...

Friday, September 19, 2008

So Many Alt-Energy Stories, They Get Their Own Post

I'll start with the relatively conventional nuclear fission story: NASA is interested in developing nuclear power reactors for use in surface missions such as a Lunar outpost. Sounds pretty normal until you notice the bit down toward the bottom about the reactor being the size of an office trash can!

If nuclear fission isn't your cup of tea, how about this: scientists continue to analyze the collapse of New York's Twin Towers, and the research could lead to the development of new, stronger, more heat resistant materials. Those materials could not only prevent building collapses, but they might also be just the thing for building fusion reactor containment vessels.

So you think nuclear power is too large scale or has its own massive drawbacks? Well let's get back to the two things we need to free us from our current energy sources: efficient solar cells and a replacement for chemical batteries. On the battery replacement side, ultracapacitors may be getting a huge boost if work with single-atom thick sheets of graphite pay off. Making full use of the large surface area of the graphite could boost energy density in the future-battery-replacements to double what is being done today. And finally, when I think of breakthroughs, I don't usually think about grade school science projects. Which shows what I know. One twelve-year-old seventh grader is getting twenty-five grand to put toward his education because it looks like he has created a novel type of solar cell. How novel? Well, the three dimensional nanotube design captures ultra-violet light in addition to visible wavelengths, theoretically absorbing five hundred times more light than a conventional cell. Congratulations to him, and kudos to his parents, teachers, and anyone else who helped him. Now we just need someone to build a working proof of his thories...

The DTV Transition is Here, Sort Of

Wilmington, NC was a pilot area for the coming transition from analog television broadcasting to the new land of digital. The News & Record chimes in with a statistics filled report, but as usual one must go elsewhere to get any real analysis of the reported data. This past Wednesday, the major networks' analog signals were briefly cut off here in Greensboro as well. Of course, there has been no reporting on the outcome of that test. Tune in this coming February for the shock and awe that occurs when people who aren't paying attention are deprived of the idiot box.

Watching the Watchers: The Privacy Violation Edition

I'm a bit surprised there was as little news about this as there was, but Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin's Yahoo e-mail account was hacked this week. There are allegations that she was using non-governmental e-mail accounts to conduct government business, which is a no-no. And it was also correctly pointed out by commentators that web mail services aren't exactly the most secure accounts in the world.

The car lovers in my audience will surely love the idea that red-light-camera companies are considering teaming up to create a national surveillance network that can recognize license plates and take pictures of drivers and passengers. Undoubtedly this would be useful for law enforcement. One could also make a case that drivers using public roads already have to register their cars with the government. But the idea of developing a tracking database sure sounds like a gateway to first, fourth, and/or sixth amendment violations.

I suppose it could be worse. Oh wait, it is. In Israel, the government is using DNA analysis to track whether pet owners scoop the poop or not. Sounds like an application of Rule 37.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Back in the last century when I started programming, you would create the canonical example program by opening an editor and creating a text file called 'hello.c' with these contents:
#include <stdio.h>

int main(
int argc,
char** argv
printf("Hello, world!\n");
You would feed this file to a compiler program, which would generate another file that you feed to a linker program, that would in turn generate the final executable program. Finally you would run the program from a command prompt and it would print:
Hello, world!
These days the same task might be accomplished with a single command:
ruby -e 'puts "Hello, world!"
This is an overly simple example of course, but I think it is an illustrative one.

Note for programmer types: The second example uses the Ruby programming language, which you can get a taste of without needing to install anything by using this nifty web site.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

I Need a Metaphor for Random. Cornucopia, Potpourri? Ah, how about this...

I've let the news stories pile up a bit over the past couple of weeks, so prepare yourself for a grab-bag!

My beloved town of Greensboro has really stepped up its game this year, moving from 37th in the nation to 1st in the nation... for fall allergy severity. We were number two on the list of spring allergies this year, but I have faith we can take the title next year. Eat that Charlotte.

Meanwhile over on the coast, Wilmington, NC is about to become the first place in the country to have its analog television signals cut off. The FCC is using it as a test market for the analog cutoff due to happen early next year. It's been a while since I wrote about the coming need for tech savvy people to be able to answer questions about why the TVs will stop working. Are you prepared yet?

Speaking of televisions, Samsung had some organic light emitting diode displays out at a recent trade show. OLED screens have the potential to give full 180 degree viewing angles (just like analog, very much better than current LCDs) and extremely good contrast ratios and color reproduction. Bascially, they could potentially give the quality of an analog TV in an inch thick form factor. I believe the correct way to respond in current internet parlance is: DO WANT.

If that isn't sci-fi enough for you, the wacky, money flush builders over in Dubai are talking about building a self contained structure capable of housing over one million people. That sure sounds like the textbook definition of an arcology to me...

If giant cities aren't your cup of tea, then how about an exoskeleton that can help a paralyzed man walk again?

As was probably inevitable given the setbacks of its proposed replacement, the 2010 retirement date of the Space Shuttle program is under review. Currently, the U.S. manned space program will be dependent on Russian rockets for at least half a decade. The recent events in Georgia have lawmakers questioning whether that is a good idea. Of course, shifting political motives don't necessarily a good engineering program make.

Finally, if you thought a couple of weeks would pass without some alternate energy news, think again. MIT researchers have quietly come up with a way for viruses to be used to grow two of the three major components of a battery on a nanometer scale. These are at a very early stage of development, but the potential is exciting. And Scott Adams (Dilbert creator) has a very similar idea of the future of alternative energy to what I've been saying. I don't know if that reflects well on me or poorly on him...