Thursday, July 31, 2003

Why We Must End Spam

There is a tremendous amount of discussion about "spam email" going on right now in the press. Can we eliminate spam email? Should we eliminate spam? How best to eliminate spam - Should we use black lists, white lists, bayesian filtering, legislation? Is spam free speech? Do large companies have a right to send spam? The discussion seems nearly endless.

We each experience spam individually, but in all the articles I've read I have never seen anyone publish an actual example of the effects of spam. So... here is what a typical spammed inbox in America looks like today:

This image shows the inbox for a small business that my wife and I own. Spam, as you can see, overflows from this inbox. The highlighted entry in the list shown above is a single peice of legitimate email surrounded by a sea of spam. The spam arrives in a flood throughout the day, so it would also be easy to produce image after image like this where there is nothing but spam in the image. The ratio of spam to legitimate email is easily hundreds-to-1. Some of the subject lines for spam can be quite graphic, for example the one immediately following the legitimate piece of mail shown above. The subject line "Advertise to 35.2 million people = $129" that you can see above succintly explains the source of the problem.

We can debate spam all we want. However, the image above shows the reality of spam for a typical person or small business in America. It is out of control. When readers and potential business partners look up the email address for our company, they expect to be able to send email and get a response. The reality is that the legitimate messages can be lost in the sea of spam. When spam gets this bad, email becomes completely useless.

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

The Next Step for Open Source and Peer-to-Peer Software

This article in FastCompany magazine contains a remarkable statistic:$15 billion is an amazing amount of money (approximately equal to the total worldwide music industry), and $1.2 billion is a startling amount of revenue. If you assume that there are 10 million people selling stuff on eBay on a regular basis, it means they are spending $120 per year on average to access eBay's services. And eBay isn't the only big auction site. Amazon and Yahoo both have auction sites as well. The three of them together likely extract billions of dollars every year.

My question is this: could the "open source" and "peer-to-peer" mindset of systems like gnutella replicate all these auction sites and provide auction services to a worldwide community for free? It might be called FreeBay.

A big auction site can generate a huge amount of traffic. For example, according to this article, eBay processes 800,000 transactions per minute. That's a heavy load, but the idea would be to spread the processing and storage requirements of the system across thousands of user machines in the same way that gnutella and kazaa do. Because the load is completely distributed, there are no server costs or bandwidth costs for the service, and the service can be offered for free. Sellers save billions of dollars every year.

Another site ripe for this sort of treatment is NetFlix. NetFlix has over one million subscribers and they pay $240 per year each. That's a lot of money. Smelling that money, Wal-Mart and Blockbuster are both jumping in with systems of their own built on the NetFlix model.

The open-source/peer-to-peer version NetFlix might be called FreeFlix. FreeFlix is a more advanced problem than FreeBay because NetFlix actually carries inventory. One way to handle the inventory is to create a completely distributed warehouse, where people are holding all the inventory in their homes. When you sign up for FreeFlix, you tell the system about the DVDs you have in your collection that you would be willing to share with other users. Every user must contribute at least five DVDs in this way to the system. When you want a movie, you log into the system and request the DVD you want. At the same time, you mail a DVD to someone who needs one at the request of the system (it can be a DVD that was mailed to you previously by someone else, or a DVD from your collection). Every year the system also asks each user to specifically buy and mail out one DVD. This is how the system handles new releases and really esoteric stuff that no one owns. There is no particular reason why this has to stop at DVDs -- it is possible to imagine the same system working for books, CDs, etc. Each user of FreeFlix would save $240 per year.

You could do the same thing with, which charges users a $25 per month fee. Instead of paying, creates an open-source/peer-to-peer network that distributes the load and data across users' machines and charges nothing for the service.

The open-source/peer-to-peer movement has had a significant effect on the music industry. Linux is having a similar effect on the OS market. It is interesting to think about other industries that would change if open-source/peer-to-peer models focused on them. In the case of FreeBay, FreeFlix and FreeMatch, there are no copyright issues as with file sharing. Instead, there are a few very interesting distributed database concepts to implement.

[See also my July 8 post]

Sunday, July 27, 2003

The Effect of Slashdot

If you are interested in technology, chances are that you have heard of I visit Slashdot just about every day. Slashdot is, essentially, a blog. Go visit the site and you will find that it links to different articles on the Web that are of interest to geeks. Each link is accompanied by a blurb to describe it. Slashdot adds a new link/blurb about once an hour.

Slashdot is a force of nature in the geek world. When it points to an article, Slashdot can move a tremendous amount of traffic. It is not uncommon to see a blurb on Slashdot say, "Before the server melted..." In other words, a link/blurb on Slashdot can create an intense burst of traffic that, for small servers, acts somewhat like a Denial of Service attack. The server "melts" because so many Slashdot readers are coming to look at the page Slashdot linked to.

How much traffic can Slashdot send to a page? On Thursday I got to find out. Slashdot posted a blurb linking to my Robotic Nation article.

First of all, let me say that it is an honor to appear on Slashdot. It's like going before a "jury of my peers". It has also been extremely informative -- Slashdot readers left behind over 1,000 comments that have been very interesting to read.

If you look at the following chart (produced by a program called Webaliser from the log files for, you can see exactly how much traffic Slashdot can produce in one day:

It was an amazing traffic spike. There are only two web pages on at the moment -- the home page and the Robotic Nation article. Almost all of the traffic flowed into Robotic Nation. You can see that about 16,000 people came to see the article in a 14.5 hour period (the blurb appeared on Slashdot at 9:24AM on July 24). According to the Webaliser chart, those visitors consumed about 1.8 gigabytes of bandwidth. That's why small servers, or servers that don't have enough bandwidth to handle the load, melt when Slashdot links to them. I'd like to say thanks to (the hosting company for for handling the load without any problems.

The other side effect was email. I received over 100 emails from Slashdot visitors. Lots of people agreed with the article. Lots of people disagreed. Some of them disagreed intensely. However, all of the email I received was polite and rational. There was not a single flame, not a single four-letter word. This feedback has been helpful, and I appreciate it. I tried to respond to everyone last night.

One thing I can tell you after this experience is that there are a lot of people who are thinking about the U.S. economy and where it is headed. IT outsourcing, call center outsourcing, automated checkout systems... all of this is in-your-face and uncomfortable to lots of people, especially in an already-down economy. The fact that the Robotic Nation article generated over 1,000 comments on Slashdot tells you that this is a hot-button issue for lots of people. On August 1, 2003 the second essay in the Robotic Nation series will be available. It is a fascinating topic.

Thursday, July 24, 2003

This morning I am staying at a Hyatt hotel in Atlanta, GA. I am already up, but the alarm clock in the room just went off at 6:50AM. I did not set the alarm -- whoever was here yesterday set it, I guess. If I had been sleeping soundly at 6:50AM, I would have been pissed.

This is not an uncommon occurence. For example, this has happened to me: I am in a hotel with a big event coming up the next day. My flight has arrived late. I have crawled into bed at 1AM hoping to sleep until 8AM to be "rested and refreshed" for the event and... the alarm clock (set by a previous guest) goes off at 4AM. I can't go back to sleep, so instead of "rested and refreshed" I go to the event on 3 hours of sleep.

This has happened to me enough that I will now usually unplug the alarm clock when I walk into a hotel room. But the clock in this room today did not catch my eye last night and I forgot to unplug it.

This must happen every day to hundreds of people staying in hotels, and it must piss off lots of people. My question: Given that it pisses off lots of people, and given that the whole idea behind a hotel room is to be a place to SLEEP, why do hotels put sleep-robbing time bombs (aka alarm clocks) in their rooms? People who need an alarm can get a wake up call or bring their own clocks. The National Campaign to Eliminate Alarm Clocks from Hotel Rooms (NCEACHR) needs your support...

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

This article on CNN reports that otherwise healthy women are increasingly electing to have C-sections to deliver their babies. Since C-sections are more expensive, insurance companies are unlikely to embrace this trend. And some doctors are not too excited either. In the article is this quote: "When people say, 'I'm going to do something that's more dangerous to my health, more dangerous to my baby's health,' it seems to me our values are getting out of whack completely about giving birth," said bioethicist Art Caplan.

Let's ignore the monetary, legal and ethical implications of C-sections and look at them from a different angle -- an evolutionary angle. Right now, about 25% of all births are C-sections. Evolution has a tendency to take advantage of changes like that in the environment. What will evolution do with the opportunities that widespread C-sections present?

For example, think about a baby's head size. Right now, a baby's brain is about as big as it can get in order to have any chance of passing through the birth canal. Nature already does some rather remarkable things to try to fit as much brain as it can through the canal. The bones in a baby's head are not fused, so the baby's skull can deform during birth. The mother's pelvis changes shape because of the hormone relaxin released during pregnancy. The baby's head rotates as it pushes through the birth canal to help with clearance. Even with all that, childbirth is still an extremely painful exercise for the mother because of the baby's head size.

But with 25% of babies being born by C-section, there really isn't any constraint on head size any more. Evolution has total freedom. Does the C-section allow humans as a species to make an evolutionary leap and double our brain size? Once we've made the leap, we become a species completely tied to technology -- it is impossible for a child to be born without a C-section. We are dependent on technology for the survival of the species.

What other ways might evolution exploit to opportunities that C-sections provide?

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

There has been a ton of news this week on SCO's legal attacks on Linux. SCO thinks it sees a way to make a lot of money off the free operating system. According to the WSJ, Darl McBride of SCO sees a huge cash bonanza if their legal tactics succeed: 'Even if you take an average number, it gets to a few billion [dollars] pretty quickly,' McBride said.

This whole thing puts a cloud over Linux. So here's a question: The market cap of SCO today is $173 million. Could a million of the Linux faithful get together and pay $90 each to buy half the company? Then the new majority owners could vote to release UNIX to the public domain and end this whole thing. It would be the first open source corporate takeover. A group of corporations could get together and do the same thing. IBM could do it -- the company is already going to pay millions in legal fees. Why not put the money to good use? Google could do it. Google has thousands of processors running Linux, so it is in its interest to free Linux. A consortium of companies like IBM and Google could do it.

Governments or the U.N. might also use the concept of Eminent Domain -- which is defined as, "The right of a government to seize private property for public use, in exchange for payment of fair market value" -- to accomplish the same thing.

Given the number of people running Windows 98 and the fact that Microsoft is going to stop supporting it, it might be interesting to use Eminent Domain to buy the Windows 98 source and release it to the public domain as well. Microsoft if making zero dollars off of Windows 98 today -- it should not cost anything for the government to buy and release it.

The August, 2003 issue of Discover magazine has a blurb on children and test scores:Whenever I am doing a lot of writing, I've noticed I eat a lot more. The fourth book I wrote was especially long and had a very short deadline. It was one of those 18 hour a day kind of projects. I remember gaining about 10 pounds while I was working on it. One possible explanation: The fact that there was a McDonald's right next door. But now I wonder -- is it possible for the human brain to figure out what it needs to work most efficiently, and then to make sure it gets it?

One way to burn off those excess pounds would be to race in the Tour de France. This article mentions the fact that a Tour rider can burn 8,000 to 10,000 calories in a day of racing. That's a lot of calories. If you were to get those calories from spaghetti, you would have to eat more than 5 pounds of spagetti a day to replace 9,000 calories. If you were to get the calories from pizza, you would have to eat four large pizzas a day. It's hard to imagine how the riders take in that many calories.

Monday, July 21, 2003

This Web site is interesting for several different reasons.

The site describes how to build a "gauss gun" that shoots iron bullets electronically. Instead of using the explosion of gunpowder to launch the bullet, this gun uses a bank of capacitors that dump their charge to a coil of fine wire. The surge of electricity creates a powerful magnetic field in the coil that propels the bullet. The site claims these specs for the gun:From a technical standpoint, the site shows an interesting application of off-the-shelf components. No longer are you required to buy a gun from a manufacturer -- you can make one at home with parts available at Radio Shack.

Another interesting thing about this gun is that it is completely silent. The charging of the capacitors and their discharge creates none of the noise that gunpowder does.

The social implications are also interesting. If you can make your own gun in your basement, it is harder to ban guns. A gun like this also tends to limit the effectiveness of gun registration laws.

For additional information, see the magnetic gun club. This site on rail guns is also interesting.

Sunday, July 20, 2003

Concise Statement of Why

We have a down comforter on our bed. Because we have young kids, and because it is not unusual for one or more of the kids to end up crawling in bed with us, and because kids are kids, the comforter needs to be washed on occasion. On the comforter is this tag:

As you can see, this tag is pretty adamant about the fact that this comforter needs to be professionally dry cleaned. It is hard to misinterpret the phrase, "under no circumstances." But the obvious question is, Why? Manufacturers, government agencies, etc. would get a lot more mileage out of a tag like this if it included a Concise Statement of Why (CSW) so that people understood the reason for the warning.

Because it doesn't say why, and because you can readily find instructions for washing down comforters, down sleeping bags, down coats, etc. in books and on the Internet, we wash our comforter in water, throw it in the dryer for a couple of hours and it is fine. I half expect the comforter to spontaneously combust one night and burn the house down, but it hasn't happened yet. The other tag on the comforter says that it is made with 100% cotton filled with "all new material consisting of white goose down." Cotton and feathers are, as far as I know, washable. But maybe there truly is something that makes washing this comforter dangerous. If so, it would be nice to know what it is. A CSW would fill me in.

If you have ever been on an airplane flight, you know they are very big about making sure that your tray table and seatback are in the upright and locked position during takeoff and landing. Why? One day I asked the flight attendant after the flight. He had a very good explanation. Apparently the FAA runs tests on the time it takes to evacuate an aircraft, and if seatbacks and tray tables are down it adds time to an evacuation. That makes sense, so why not tell people that? Passengers would probably be a lot more likely to comply with the request if they knew the reason for it.

If you look on a bottle of chlorine or a bottle of ammonia (or household cleaners containing either chemical), the bottle often has a warning that says, "do not mix with other household cleaners." Why? Usually they don't tell you, but the reason is because the mixture of chlorine and ammonia will create pure chlorine gas in significant quantities, and the gas can be fatal. This page has a nice explanation of the reaction. If there was a Concise Statement of Why on the label, you'ld be less likely to make that mistake.

I have a bottle of acetaminophen (the ingredient in Tylenol) here that says, "Adults and children 12 years of age and over: 2 tablets every 4 hours, while symptoms persist, not to exceed 12 tablets in 24 hours, or as directed by a doctor." Why not exceed 12 tablets in 24 hours? Because, if you do, it is easy to overdose on acetaminophen. Your liver shuts down and then you die a couple of days later. The line between a "dose" of Tylenol and an "overdose" is a fine one. If the label stated that, people would be less likely to take too much.

And so on. Just about any warning label is guilty of omitting the reason why. If they would state the reason, we'd all be better off.

Thursday, July 17, 2003

I posted an essay called "Robotic Nation" to tonight.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Today was not the very best day to use the Web for eCommerce. Around 6:50AM this morning I was trying to look up a price on the Best Buy Web site and got this message:

I'm not a coffee drinker and I had other things to do, so I did not hang around and wait for the "aisles" to clear.

Around 9:40AM I was trying to reserve a rental car at Triangle Rent a Car and got this message:

I tried a couple different times, and could not find a telephone number on their web site to make a reservation by phone so I decided to go elsewhere.

I next tried to reserve a rental car at Budget. I went through the 3-step process, selected the type of car, selected my pickup and drop off dates and times, entered my name and credit card number and got this:

I called the 800 number for Budget and had to make my reservation by phone.

The fact that a normal person can hit three roadblocks like this with three separate companies in one morning is probably telling us something. According to this article, Orbitz was also down most of the day.

I have several UPSs that I purchased circa 2000. Because they contain lead-acid batteries, they have started to fail as the batteries lose their ability to hold a charge. A new UPS can cost anywhere between $60 and $200 depending on the size and the features it supports.

One way to resurrect a UPS with dead batteries is to replace the batteries. On many UPSs this is easy because there is a door built into the case that gives you quick access to the battery. Open the door, pull the battery out and check it for voltage and amperage. For example, one of my UPSs needed two 6-volt batteries rated at 5 amps. Then measure the dimensions of the batteries with a ruler. Sealed lead-acid batteries come in standard sizes, and you want the replacement to be the same size so it will fit in the case.

I happened to buy my new batteries at, but you can also get them at a retail place like Batteries Plus, or type "sealed lead-acid batteries" into Google and see who is advertising. Simply drop the new batteries in to your UPS, connect them the same way the old batteries were connected, and you have a good-as-new UPS for something around $20.

Monday, July 14, 2003

Today we celebrated my daughter Irena's birthday. That's unusual because her birthday is December 27. We celebrate her birthday in June or July, rather than December, because her real birthday is so close to Christmas. She gets her presents on Christmas day, so what is she going to get on December 27? More presents? It seems kind of pointless. So we celebrate her half-birthday on a convenient day in June or July.

The celebration of half-birthdays might actually be an innovative way to stimulate the economy. What about a national campaign to begin celebrating every child's half-birthday? When you think about it, a year is an immense amount of time for a child to wait between birthdays. A child's year is equal to 100 or 200 adult years. A birthday celebration every 6 months would be a much better timespan from the child's standpoint.

Here are some of the economic benefits of a nationwide push to celebrate every child's birthday every six months:There are something like 50 million school-age children in the U.S. Assume that an average child receives $100 in presents at a birthday party, and an average of $50 is spent on cake, ice cream, streamers, entertainment, etc. That means that if every child started celebrating two birthdays every year, it would add $7.5 billion to the U.S. economy. To put that into perspective, the entire world-wide music industry is worth $15 billion.

Given the greeting card industry's record on pumping holidays specifically to spur card sales (mother's day, father's day and secretary's day come to mind), I am surprised that the industry has not already thought of the half-year birthday as a way to boost sales. Let's see if we hear more about it in the weeks to come...

Thursday, July 10, 2003

If you use Windows XP, then you know that this little balloon dialog telling you about a new set of updates to XP is a common sight:

When you click on the balloon, you get a dialog that looks like this:

The majority of updates, like the two shown above, are security updates. Microsoft is repairing security holes that have been discovered in XP or various applications.

I measured it, and this batch of updates took four and a half minutes to install on my machine and a little over 6 minutes to install on my wife's. In other words, roughly 10 minutes of my life was spent on this batch of updates. It makes you wonder -- how much time does the nation spend patching Windows XP? Let's make some assumptions:With those assumptions, it means that 8,561 man-years are spent installing patches to Windows XP each year. In other words, it's like having a company with 8,561 employees who are devoted full-time to patching Windows XP. If you assume that the average person's time is worth $15/hour, it works out to $375 million per year.

Wednesday, July 09, 2003


This short video made me laugh out loud, even when I watched it a second time:

Pink Five

It also made me think about the movie Star Wars. If you have seen the original Star Wars movie (officially known as "Episode IV - A New Hope") or if you read the script, which was written in 1974, you can see that the premise of the entire movie rests on the stolen plans for the Death Star. The text crawl at the beginning of the movie says,

Early in the movie, Darth Vader says to Princess Leia:

What would happen today if the rebels got hold of the Death Star plans? They would immediately inject the plans into file sharing networks, post them on the Internet, send them to The Smoking Gun and so on. The plans would be everywhere instantly.

Also not mentioned in the movie is Digital Rights Management. In an advanced technological society like the one portrayed in Star Wars, the Death Star plans would be protected by highly evolved DRM software (Windows Media 9 being a primitive form early in the evolutionary chain). DRM would make it impossible for the rebels to open the plans even if they did receive them. Apparently rebel hackers have been able to break the DRM encoding...

I have a Motorola V60 cell phone that is about six months old. It's a small phone, meaning small batteries, and every two days or so it needs to be recharged. It's "low battery" signal is a full-volume "bleep-bloop" sound emitted every two minutes. It's a very loud sound that you cannot turn off -- loud enough that if the phone is downstairs on the kitchen counter and you are up in your bedroom with the door shut, you can hear it clearly. The phone will start complaining about a low battery approximately 18 hours before it dies.

Since the bleep-bloop sound is loud and unmutable, you can imagine that there are situations where a V60 phone can be very annoying. For example, if you are in a restaurant or in a meeting and the phone decides that it is time for charging, your only way to shut it up is to turn it off. But what if you are expecting a call?

Last night I had left my phone in my pants pocket when I undressed, and I left my pants in the closet. At 2AM the phone decided that it wanted to be charged, and it started the "bleep-bloop" thing. The phone woke me up with the first bleep-bloop, and then it's like a dripping faucet -- the only thing you can possibly do is get up, find the phone and turn it off. But in my sleepy haze, I could not figure out where the phone was. It only bleeps every 2 minutes, and the bleep is not long enough to zero in on a location. Eventually I had to find another phone, call my V60 phone so it would ring and then track down the ringing phone. So I am up at 2AM, now other people are up as well, the dogs in the neighborhood are barking and so on. All because a cell phone thinks that its batteries need to be charged at 2AM.

Why do we want devices to be this intrusive? What we need is a "polite device" initiative, where all of these electronic devices start to understand basic rules of etiquette. For example, in the case of a cell phone with low batteries, the basic logic could be, "if it's 2AM, people are generally asleep so don't bleep." Then there could be a set of menu options around the low battery signal. Such as:Even better, why can't you shout at the phone? Like: You could take this a little further and make the phone even more polite. For example, the phone could have a menu option where you tell the phone that you don't want to be disturbed, unless it is an emergency, between the hours of X:00 PM and Y:00 AM. If a call comes in at 3AM, the phone answers it and says, "The party you are calling {Marshall Brain} has asked not to be woken up unless it is an emergency. If this is an emergency, please dial 1 2 3 on your keypad to put the call through. Otherwise, please hold on the line to leave a voice mail." Why not? These devices now contain powerful CPUs and megabytes of memory (see my June 23 post) -- why can't they behave in a way that's helpful and non-intrusive to their owners?

Tuesday, July 08, 2003

This page by Jim Gray offers this interesting quote:I have been a long-time fan of SETI@home, and SETI@home is definitely a computing problem that needs every spare CPU cycle it can get. When you run the SETI@home screen saver, your computer downloads 400K or so of data and then spends the day grinding away on it.

Another effort that is trying to capitalize on the "donate your computer's idle cycles" phenomenon is Grub. The Grub screen saver is the "spidering" or "crawling" half of a search engine. When you run the Grub screen saver, your machine downloads a package of 500 URLs. Your machine then goes out and reads those 500 pages, and sends back the keywords it finds to the Grub servers. The Grub servers then use the data that everyone has contributed to implement a Google-like search engine.

The donation that people are making to Grub is different from the one they make to SETI@home -- with Grub, you are not donating much CPU time. Instead, you are donating your bandwidth. With a fast broadband connection, my machine can easily spider half a million URLs per day as a Grub donor. It is estimated that there are something like 10 billion pages on the Web. If 20,000 people donated half a million spidered URLs per day, then it would be possible to crawl the entire Web every single day. If you assume that the typical Web page has 10,000 bytes of text on it, that implies that Grub needs 100 Terabytes of bandwidth donated every day to spider the entire Web daily.

Grub offers people an incentive for donating their bandwidth. Donors can direct their machines to spider their own Web sites. This allows donors to make sure that their personal/corporate Web sites get spidered every day. The results are then available at the WiseNut search engine. If millions of people were using WiseNut in the same way that millions use Google, that would be a valuable incentive. Time will tell if WiseNut develops a significant following. This article from Wired News points out that bandwidth and spidering are only part of the equation for a successful search engine. The other half is the algorthms in the search engine that deliver the results. So far, Google is the best at creating good result algortihms.

When you think about it, Napster, Kazaa, Gnutella, and other file sharing programs are donation systems as well. With file sharing, people donate their CPU cycles, bandwidth and hard disk space so that others can download the files they need. The most brilliant part of Napster is the fact that one person -- Sean Fanning -- could build a system able to support 60 million visitors a month downloading terrabytes of data every day. He spent very close to zero dollars on hardware and bandwidth because all of it was donated by the users. It will be interesting to see what other uses people come up with for donated CPU cycles and bandwidth...

Friday, July 04, 2003

Smallest Cars

Smart is a car company based in Germany that has made a name for itself by making some of the smallest cars in the world. For example, the Smart City-coupe is the smallest production car available today. It is only 8.3 feet (2.5 meters) long and weighs just 1,600 pounds (730 kg). For comparison, a Mazda Miata (which is a tiny car by U.S. standards) is over 4 feet longer and weighs almost 800 pounds more than the City-coupe. The Smart City-coupe gets about 60 miles per gallon. It's not available in the U.S. yet, but can be found all over Europe.

The Smart City-coupe

In April, Smart released the Smart Roadster. It's powered by what is essentailly a turbocharged 700cc motorcycle engine that produces 80 horsepower. It is a bit longer at 11.2 feet and weighs 1,730 pounds.

The Smart Roadster

If you live in the U.S., probably the closest thing to the City-coupe today in terms of size and fuel efficiency is the Honda Insight. It is the same length as the Miata (12.9 feet, 3.9 meters) and weighs only 1850 pounds (840 kg). It is a hybrid vehicle with a 1,000 cc engine and an electric motor that shares the load. It gets 61 miles per gallon.

Just out of college I had a blue 1986 Chevy Sprint (like this one) and I have been fasinated with small cars ever since. The Sprint had a 1-liter 3-cylinder Suzuki engine and routinely averaged over 55 miles per gallon. It was a bit smaller than a Miata, but it could hold four people. With the rear seat folded down it had a decent amount of storage space inside. Despite all the extra room, it weighed only about 100 pounds more than the City-coupe. It is interesting that this car got such good mileage 17 years ago without any special technology.

There's some very interesting stuff on the horizon. The best example is the Vortex from Volkswagen. The prototype car weighs only 588 pounds (267 kg) and is powered by a tiny 0.3 liter diesel engine that produces 8.5 hp. The amazing part is the efficiency -- 260 miles per gallon.

The Volkswagen Vortex is largely carbon fiber and weighs just 588 pounds

See also this, this and this.

In honor of the 4th of July...

Here's a very nice picture tour that shows how to set up an aerial fireworks display for the 4th of July:

       See how professional pyrotechnicians prepare a large firework display

This page explains what is inside an aerial shell:

       Aerial shells

This page explains how to make an aerial shell:

       Aerial shell manufacture

This page demonstrates how to make black powder:

       How to make black powder

So that you can understand what is inside firecrackers:

       What is an M-80?

       How to make an M-80

All sorts of fireworks:

       Fireworks and Pyrotechnic Experiments

Thursday, July 03, 2003

In a newspaper interview recently I was asked when we might see the demise of newspapers, books and magazines printed on paper. It's a great question because there are lots of different angles to it. I think it will be awhile...

The PDF file for this single newspaper page is 306 KB.
A Sunday paper of these pages represents 100 megabytes of data.

Angle #1 is habit. Hundreds of millions of people in the U.S. have been reading newspapers, books and magazines all their lives. A majority of those people will go to their graves preferring the paper version of these publications simply because that is what they grew up with.

Angle #2 is access. Hundreds of millions of people either do not have, or do not want to have, access to the Internet. Computers are uncomfortable, computers are complicated, computers are expensive, and computers are intimidating to lots of people. As long as more than half the population never uses the Internet -- and that could be the case for decades -- we will have paper versions of newspapers, books and magazines.

Angle #3 is the "always on" aspect of newspapers, books and magazines. You don't need power to read a newspaper. You don't need Wi-Fi or network access. You don't have to remember a password. You don't have to turn a newspaper off during takeoff and landing like you do with a laptop. You can read newspapers, books and magazines easily on the subway, on the toilet, on the beach, in bed, by the pool....

Angle #4 is the fact that a magazine or a book provides a Really Good user interface. It's funny that this interface was invented centuries ago. Turning pages is a very quick, easy way to access the written word. You can also remember "places" in a book in a way that is easier than on the Internet.

Angle #5 is permanence. If you have a book on your shelf, a magazine on your desk or a newspaper article in a file, you know that: a) it will always be where you put it (barring a fire or other disaster), b) it will never evaporate (no broken links, no out-of-business companies, no "server busy" messages, no "Sorry but your cable service will be unavailable between Tuesday and Friday this week", etc.), and c) it will not change or be re-edited.

Angle #6 is the impressively large and extremely high-resolution screen that paper creates. Take newspapers. A typical newspaper, when you open it up, measures 22 inches high by 25 inches wide. It has approximately 300 DPI resolution. That means that an open newspaper has something like 6,600 x 7,500 pixels. The largest screens today can display 1,920 x 1,080 pixels. These displays tend to be heavy and expensive right now. They have perhaps 80 DPI resolution. You cannot carry a display like this with you in most cases. It will be a few years before we have lightweight, inexpensive, portable, always-on, foldable 6,600 x 7,500 pixel screens measuring 22 inches high by 25 inches wide. People would be very happy with lightweight, inexpensive, portable, always-on, foldable displays that are much smaller, say 8.5 inches by 11 inches, that have decent resolution. Even that will take a few years.

Finally, angle #7 is download speed. Think about a newspaper. A page of 6,600 x 7,500 pixels represents something like 66 megabytes of data. A big Sunday paper might have 150 full-size pages. So a newspaper arriving on your doorstep is like receiving a 10 gigabyte download. Even if you assume 100-to-1 compression, it's still 100 megabytes of data. When the guy throws the paper on your doorstep, he is throwing 100 megabytes at you in a few seconds. A magazine is normally printed in full color with 1,200 DPI resolution. A 150 page magazine uncompressed represents something like 50 gigabytes of data. 100-to-1 compression gets it down to 500 megabytes. Considering that more than half of the people on the Internet are still using dialup lines, a 500 megabyte download is difficult to imagine. Even when you reduce the resolution way down -- say 72 DPI -- it's a lot of data to move around page by page. The Web interface over a dialup line is slow and tedious compared to instantly flipping the beautiful, high-resolution pages of a magazine.

Oh yeah... then there's money. People will pay $20 for a book. They will pay $3 for a magazine. They will pay 50 cents for a newspaper. And advertisers are happy to pay thousands of dollars for newspaper and magazine ads. This tends not to be the case on the Internet at the moment.

Given all this, it might be a decade or three before we see the demise of paper...

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

Fun facts:[Source: Wired Magazine]

Tuesday, July 01, 2003

The latest thing at the movie theater is digital movie delivery. Instead of shining light through film with a projector, theaters are now retooling with digital projectors. I cannot explain why this is so fascinating to me, but it is...

A digital movie projector gets the movie as a file from a satellite feed or over the Internet. A typical file for a feature length film (in Media9 format) has a size of 7 gigabytes or so. For comparison, a DVD movie uses MPEG-2 compression, has about 1/8th the resolution and can consume about 4 gigabytes.

A 2048 x 1024 pixel Digital Micromirror Device

The movie file plays on a DLP Projector, the most modern of which are using three mirror arrays with 2048 x 1080 pixels.

A DLP projector

Most studios that are filming digitally are using HD cameras with 1920 x 1080 pixels. They film at the standard movie frame rate of 24 frames per second (fps).

A professional HD camera - current cost about $100,000

The big advantage of digital projection is that it lowers the cost of distribution. A typical film print that is 100 minutes long comes on 6 or 8 reels that are expensive to produce, weigh up to 80 pounds and have to be spliced together by hand.

One interesting thing about all of this is the compression ratio. If you took a 100 minute long film and digitized it frame by frame, you would have 24 x 60 x 100 = 144,000 frames. Each frame has 1920 x 1080 = 2,073,600 pixels. If you use 3 bytes per pixel (one byte for red, green and blue color information), that is over 6 million bytes per frame or 895,795,200,000 bytes total for the film. Roughly a terabyte, in other words. To shrink that down to 7 gigabytes, you are compressing the film by a factor of about 125. Over a T1 line, it takes 10 hours to transfer the 7 gigabyte file. With a T3 line, it takes 14 minutes.

What's funny is that 5 years from now, it is possible to imagine the same files being available at home, displayed on big 1920 x 1080 plasma screens or OLED panels that have fallen in price down to $500.

ARCHIVES © Copyright 2003-2005 by Marshall Brain


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