Saturday, August 30, 2003

How Things Are Made

If you go to this page and click on the "How Everyday Things are Made" link, you will be rewarded with streaming video that shows you how lots of different things are made.

Friday, August 29, 2003

That feeling of chaos

I have four kids -- a 5-year-old (David), a 3-year-old (Irena), and identical twins (John and Ian) who are 16 months old. Leigh and I love our kids to death. But as you can imagine, with that many young kids under one roof, things can get a bit chaotic at times. For example, the amount of sleep we get on any given night is a crap shoot. Why do you think I am awake at 2:30AM writing this post?

To get a sense of the chaos, imagine the scene when Leigh or I are alone with the kids, and we need to go to Wal-Mart or the grocery store. David and Irena are on foot and they each have a mind of their own. The twins are in the stroller and immediately want to get out to "play"... Meanwhile you are trying to calculate in your head whether the 4-pack or the 8-pack is a better bargain... It can feel, at times, as though you don't have total control of the situation.

So, you can call me an expert in chaos. At this point in my life, I live with a fairly high level of chaos every day.

Last week, I think we all sensed that our world, as a whole, had gotten a bit too chaotic. We had:
  1. The huge northeast blackout, where 50 million people lost their electricity and life shut down for two days.
  2. One major Internet virus (SoBig.F) and one major Internet worm (MSBlaster) propagating aggressively, cutting people off from their email and the Internet.
  3. The California election "situation" reaching its initial boiling point, with 135 candidates registering to run for governor -- the whole notion of "normal" elections had broken down. (and don't forget the initial spark that caused the recall -- a budget crisis of massive proportions in the 5th or 6th largest economy in the world)
  4. The situation in Iraq, with random terrorists killing U.S. soldiers at a rate of one or two every day and ultimately killing 22 U.N. workers with a truck bomb.
  5. The chaotic breakdown of the peace process in Israel/Palestine.
  6. The heat wave in Europe, where even nature seemed to have come unhinged, and something like 15,000 people died in France alone.
Add to that other background issues from earlier in the year like the Iraq war (U.S./U.N. relations run amok), the shuttle disaster (NASA run amok), North Korea and its nuclear bombs (diplomacy run amok) and SARS (nature run amok), along with the daily scourge of spam (we cannot even control what is coming into our own email inboxes), etc., etc. and it just feels like something odd is going on. We live in a modern, technological society where humans should pretty much be able to control our world, yet it does not feel like we have that much control at all.

Now this week has passed, and things have actually been pretty calm. Most people I know are winding down in preparation for the Labor Day weekend, and many will take today off. No major new crises popped up....

It will be interesting to see what next week brings...

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Bigger is better

There's been a lot of press recently about portion sizes -- the "Supersize phenomenon", where everything you get at a restaurant is bigger. For example, at Hardees the normal hamburgers are now all one-third or one-half pounders and a "medium" drink is now 32 ounces. It used to be that a quarter-pounder (introduced in 1973) was BIG.

The funny thing is, this is happening in every part of our society. For example, last weekend I bought a lawn mower. It's been 20 years since I bought a lawn mower. 20 years ago, if you wanted to buy a normal, cheap push-from-behind lawn mower with a grass catcher, you bought a 2.5 horsepower mower. If you wanted to "step up" you got 3 horsepower. A riding lawn mower had a 5 horsepower engine, and 10 horsepower was mammoth. Today, the standard push mower seems to be 6.5 horsepower, and you can get riding lawn mowers with 25 horsepower engines. So, in 20 years, standard lawnmower horsepower has doubled. [Fun fact: the original Volkswagen Beetle had a 25 horsepower engine].

The same thing is happening in housing. in 1993 the average square footage for a house was 1,875 square feet in the U.S. By 2001 it had risen 10.2% to 2,066 square feet [ref]. Ceiling heights have gone from 8 feet to 9 or 10 feet. I was in a new subdivision last weekend and every house had a 4-car garage. It was a high-end subdivision, yes, but it is still funny that a "three car garage" used to be a big deal, but now the "upscale" standard has moved to a four-car garage.

You can also see it in the size of "big box" stores. The original Wal-Mart store opened in 1962 in Rogers, Arkansas. It was 35,000 square feet (a bit less than an acre). The newest Wal-Mart stores are 200,000 square feet (nearly 5 acres).

The Robotic Nation article talks about how, in 2040, computers will have advanced to the point where they are reaching parity with the human brain. A normal $1,000 home machine in 2040 will be running at 1 to 10 petaflops (quadrillion operations per second) with a 1 exabyte (1,000 quadrillion bytes) hard disk. What if we extrapolate out some of these other trends in the same way? It will be interesting to see where things start to "top out" and stop growing bigger. For example, with a 6 megapixel camera you can create good 11x17 enlargements of a photo. You would think that would be "enough" for any normal photographer. But if a 50 megapixel camera doesn't cost much more, and your home machine has an exabyte hard drive and there's a 10 terabit connection between the camera and the computer, who cares? Why not get 50 megapixels, so you can blow up an image as big as a billboard?

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Manna Chapter 2

Chapter 2 of the book Manna is now available -- click here.

Saturday, August 23, 2003

Free Plans

Sometimes I go on the web and I am amazed at what's out there. For example, if you want to build your own go-kart, you can build a simple one like the Viper ST Yard Kart:

Or you can get more advanced with the Homebuilt ATV:

Then there's adult toys, like this:

Of course, if you don't want to go to all that trouble bending steel tubing and welding it together, you can always build the world's best paper airplane:

Friday, August 22, 2003

This article from "The Economist" contains the following fascinating quote:Since the study was done only with Harvard students, it is not yet known if this way of thinking is unique to Harvard, or if it is true of the general population as well. Either way, what does this say about human nature? What is it about the human brain that makes it want to be "superior" to others, and how does this affect the community, the workplace, the political landscape, etc.?

Another question to ask is whether this is "nature" or "nurture". If we had all grown up in an economy where everyone is economically equal for the most part (no grinding poverty, and no stratospheric wealth), would Harvard students think differently about this?

Thursday, August 21, 2003

Donors Choose

A friend of mind told me about this site yesterday: Donors Choose. It's a fascinating idea (and a very well-constructed web site) -- teachers come up with projects and can post their requests for funding on the site, and people can make small or large donations to help fund the projects. There are hundreds of projects listed on the site, and you can make a donation of as little as $50. I made my first donation today.

More on the power grid

Why didn't circuit breakers seal off certain areas and contain last week's blackout to a single city or state? That question has come up a lot. In the Time magazine article, it talks about the fact that Vermont cut itself off power feeds from New York and saved itself. Circuit breakers between Ohio and Tennessee worked and kept the problem from spreading south. So why didn't the circuit breakers seal off Ohio completely and spare the whole Northeast? Think about it this way. Let's say that Ohio was supplying large amounts of power to the grid, and that power was heading toward the New York area. Ohio has a problem and starts to go down, so it cuts itself off of the grid. Since Ohio was supplying power, that creates a deficit in the next state over. Now the next state over blacks out. It ripples through the system to every state that is a net consumer rather than a net supplier of power to the grid. Circuit breakers are no help for net consumers -- when the circuit breakers trip, net consumers lose power, which causes them to fail.

For the grid to be able to have a cellular architecture that allows regions to "cut themselves off the grid", every cell has to be in a position to be energy self-sufficient when it gets cut off from the grid. But if every cell is self-sufficient, you don't need a grid. The whole idea of the grid is to let companies share power so that they can run deficits to increase profit. To prevent large scale blackouts, all we have to do is create self-sufficient energy cells and eliminate the grid. Or, we have to monitor every part of the grid and make sure power is not flowing across five states to supply New York. New York, in other words, has to become energy self-sufficient. The same holds true for every major city.

Recharging the Power Grid is an article about the world's largest battery. This battery has 4 million liters of electrolyte. The idea is to store power from the grid during off-peak hours and use them during peak hours. It also creates the world's biggest UPS. Right now the grid can't store power, so this is a very innovative approach. Maybe this is one solution to NY's problem.

In Time magazine's article on the blackout, there is this interesting quote:In other words, we can't decentralize the power grid because if we do, it will put too many people out of their jobs. Pity the poor company that develops inexpensive solar shingles that let every homeowner become energy independent...

Tuesday, August 19, 2003


Late last week I was able to do a number of interviews on blackouts and the power grid. Any time you take electricty -- something that is as essential to the economy as oxygen is to a person -- away from 50 million people, it is big news.

The interesting thing about the power grid is that it demonstrates a fascinating hole in capitalism. To understand the hole, imagine that you are a small power company. You have one power plant, and that power plant is an isolated system that serves one small city. If that is your setup, then you have a problem. If you ever need to take your power plant down for maintenance, or if the plant has a problem that requires an emergency shutdown, the city goes dark.

So you install a transmission line to a neighboring power company and form an agreement with that company. When you need to take your plant offline, you will buy power from your neighbor. And vice versa. This form of beneficial sharing gives birth to the power grid, and it evolves into a very large and complex system involving hundreds of cooperating companies.

All of these cooperating companies are also economic entities. For an economic entity, the goal is 100% utilization. That is, each power company is going to build enough capacity to handle peak demand and no more. By doing that, a company makes the maximum profit. The assumption on the grid is that, if something fails, there is always extra power available from your neighbor. With everyone searching for the best economics, the system drives itself tighter and tighter so that everyone can create maximum profit by depending on everyone else.

The problem with this approach is that, if several things fail at once during a period approaching peak demand, there is not enough capacity in the system to handle the failures. There is, in other words, no overcapacity, because overcapacity is unprofitable. Without any overcapacity to handle problems, the whole system becomes vulnerable to system-wide collapse.

The same thing is happening in the gasoline refinery space. Our refinery capacity is precisely balanced with gasoline demand because 100% utilization yields maximum profit. However, if a couple of refineries were to go offline simultaneously, we would have a big problem in the U.S.

We see this phenomenon all around us. When there is an emergency, the cell phone system saturates and becomes useless in the emergency area because there is no overcapacity. In most cities there are traffic jams during commute times because there is not enough overcapacity in the highway system to handle the peak demand.

Although there is no economic value in overcapacity, there is big societal value in it. Overcapacity helps to foster reliability. It also makes a system less vulnerable to attack (for example, by terrorists). If there were lots of overcapacity in the electrical grid, blackouts would be less likely. We would all have to pay a little more for electricity (and gasoline, and cell phone service), but these systems would work better and we would avoid meltdowns like we saw on the grid last week. Right now we choose not to build overcapacity to save money. It will be interesting to watch and see if we, as a society, start to change our minds about that. Are we being penny wise and pound foolish?

Sunday, August 17, 2003

Robotic Freedom

How do we solve the problems that are discussed in the Robotic Nation article? For example, if robots displace tens of millions of workers in the U.S. service economy, how will we avoid an economic meltdown?

Read the new article: Robotic Freedom.

Plywood Cows and Capitalism

One of the most interesting/wonderful/amusing things about capitalism is that fact that it is so spontaneous and unpredictable. When people have disposable income that they are free to spend in any way they please, there is absolutely no way to predict how they will spend it. Nor is there any way to predict what ideas people will come up with for consumers to spend their money on. Take, for example, this form of spending:

We can assume from the sign that Debbie is having a birthday. Her friends or family want to help her celebrate her birthday. So they rent a set of plywood cows from a company called Lawn Announcements. For the privilege of having 30 plywood cows in the yard, customers are willing to pay $40 for one day of fun (or $45 for three days).

You can imagine how Lawn Announcements got its start. Most likely, someone was having a baby. A friend thought, "Wouldn't it be a hoot to put a giant blue plywood stork in the yard and make a big deal over the baby's arrival?" So the friend did it. When the friend did it, he/she got an unexpectedly large positive response from it. At some point he/she realized people would be willing to pay money to rent large blue plywood storks. A new business was born.

Thursday, August 14, 2003


Chapter 1 of the book Manna is available tonight -- Click here.

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Robots that look completely human are coming soon.

The Latest Worm

A friend of mine got hit by the DCOM problem last night. My friend is the kind of guy who, even though he has an "always on" broadband connection, leaves his DSL modem off unless he is using the Internet. What he noticed was that, about 30 seconds after he turned his DSL modem on and his Windows XP machine connected to the Internet, his machine would reboot. It would pop up a message that said, "Remote procedure call (RPC) service terminated unexpectedly." He tried it a couple of times, and every time he connected, his machine rebooted.

His problem, of course, is now common: how do you fix a computer problem if you cannot connect to the Internet? He called me, and I was able to eventually find this page by typing his error message into Google. That page had a work-around -- turn on the firewall built in to Windows XP. We turned the firewall on, and his problem went away. Then I sent him email with the link so that he could download the required patch from Microsoft.

Look back at my post from August 6, 2003. Should both my friend and I get paid $20 by Microsoft for the hour we each wasted last night? If we did each get a check for $20, how would that change Microsoft? How would it change the software industry? Would we all end up with operating systems and software that work flawlessly, or would there be no software because it would be too expensive for anyone to buy? I doubt that the latter would be the case -- cars have to be recalled if they contain a flaw, yet we still are able to buy and drive affordable cars. The threat of a recall, however, means that car companies are a lot more careful about what they release.

Wired has a good article on how worms like this are designed and built - click here if you would like to learn more.

Sunday, August 10, 2003

David starts kindergarten tomorrow. Here are the forms that Leigh and I are filling out tonight to send to school with him for his first day:
  1. The student locator release card -- general name/address/emergency info.
  2. The Code of Cooperation and discipline policy form -- Signed by both the parents and the student, this form states that all of the school rules have been read and understood.
  3. The student interest survey form -- lets you list your kid's strengths and interests
  4. The photographic/videotaping permission form -- Gives the school system permission to photograph your child and use the photo for promotional purposes.
  5. The Internet parent Request to Deny form -- Lets you refuse your child access to the Internet and email while in school.
  6. The transportation verification form
  7. The carpool application form
  8. The physician/parent permission for medication at school form
  9. The student accident enrollment application
  10. The dental accident insurance application
  11. The free and reduced lunch application
  12. The family snack form
  13. The PTA "one-stop" form
  14. The MAGIC form
  15. The classroom student information form
I have always been amazed by teachers. What if all the kids are eating the family snack, it is time for Johnny and Kisha to go down to the office to take their medicine, one of the kids is inching toward a Web terminal and the school system's camera crew shows up? Does the teacher have to go look at all the videotape release forms and isolate the kids who don't have permission to be on tape? Why don't teachers go insane?

What if you extrapolate out 50 years? What will a kindergarten classroom look like in 2050, and how many forms will the parents have to fill out?

Friday, August 08, 2003

This article tells the story of rats in NY City. City officials have tried everything, but the rats have gotten so bad at one fire station that the only answer is to close the station, gut it and rebuild it.

With all the progress and technology and high-tech wizardry available in NY, rats hang on. There's the old expression "if you can build a better mousetrap..." Apparently we have not built one that is good enough yet.

Will we ever triumph over rats? This article on Centibots may hold the answer. Centibots are small robots that work in teams of 100. In the article they quickly map the interior of a building (images of the spiders in Minority Report come to mind).

Perhaps you could make the Centibots small and nimble enough to create a rat-exterminating army. The Centibots would engage in one-on-one street fighting with the rats. In other words, the centibots would find and kill the rats individually and then drag them out of the building. Sort of like an army of miniature robotic cats.

The obvious question that raises is, "How do you then exterminate the Centibots?" Once we have small, nimble robots with the ability slither through walls and crevices like rats do, it means that people can plant video cameras or listening devices anywhere they want to. They simply equip a few Centibot rats with cameras and microphones, release them near your home and let the robots crawl right in to record you.

Then you think some more. Could terrorists equip Centibot rats with poison aerosol sprays? A terrorist group releases its aerosol-enabled Centibot rats in a foreign harbor. The Centibots climb aboard ships just like real rats do. When the ships arrive, the Centibots disembark and make their way to the target.

The obvious response to that is to equip ships with Centibot cats that can find and eliminate the Centibot rats that climb on board. This is sounding, in fact, like a game of cat and mouse.

Maybe the real rats aren't so bad after all...

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Billing for Wasted Time

Last week as I was driving to a meeting I was listening to the Clark Howard show on the local talk radio station. If you've never heard the show, it's basically a 3-hour call-in session where listeners can get answers to financial questions. The show's tag line is, "pack a punch in your wallet, spend less, save more, and avoid getting ripped off!"

One of the calls I heard came from a woman who wanted to talk about Dell. She had bought a computer from Dell, had been promised a $100 rebate, but was having trouble getting her check. Lots of people have had similar problems, apparently. So she called Dell to complain. She was asked to fax in her information again. Nothing happened. She called and faxed again. Nothing happened. She sent a certified letter, and so on. She was quite persistent -- Clark even gave her a pitbull award. To make a long story short, in the end she was rewarded for her persistence -- she got three rebate checks instead of one.

This situation begs two questions. First, why is Dell offering rebates? You call up Dell, you order your computer, Dell ships you your computer... If they are going to give you a rebate, why not simply put the rebate check in the box with the computer? And if Dell is going to do that, why not simply reduce the price by $100 in the first place, rather than offering a rebate? It would cost Dell a lot less to reduce the price than to print a separate check, track the check, mail the check, etc. Something smells fishy.

The second question is this: Perhaps Dell has a legitimate reason for using rebates -- some weird tax law, for example. If so, how hard can it be to mail a rebate check? Dell already has the customer's name and address. Dell has successfully shipped a 50 pound computer and monitor to that address. How hard can it be to mail a check to the same address?

The woman's question to Clark was, "So Dell sent me three checks instead of one. Should I send back the extra $200 Dell sent me?" Clark's answer was that yes, she should be honest and send the $200 back, but she should deduct her expenses (for example, the cost of the certified letter).

Here's my question. Her expenses were a lot more than the cost of that certified letter. This woman has also had to waste a whole lot of her time calling Dell, wading through the voice mail system, waiting on hold to talk to somebody, actually talking to somebody and explaining the problem, etc. If the woman works and she makes $40,000 a year, her time is worth at least $20 per hour. Why can't she bill Dell for the wasted time as well? If she wasted two hours on all the phone calls, letters, etc., she would deduct $40 for her time.

Think about what this concept might mean at a societal level. How much time do we waste, and what if we got paid for all of that time? For example:That last example is especially interesting -- it is amazing how much of an effect one little fender-bender can have on a whole bunch of people (and the businesses they work for). And what about the case where over-development leaves traffic snarled every morning. What if you could bill the department of transportation or the developers for the time wasted on daily traffic problems?

In our lives we tend to think of our time as "free". If a company or government agency wastes our time, we have no way to recover it. That means there is no reason for companies not to waste our time -- they can do it with abandon. If we were to make all wasted time billable, it might be amazing to see how efficient our society could get.

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Info Orb

There's a very interesting new display technology being created by a company called Ambient Devices. The first product is a small glass orb that sits on your desk. The orb glows silently, and it also changes colors. The idea is to link the colors to some piece of information that interests you-- for example, the temperature outside (when it is hot outside the orb is red, cold it's blue, for example), or the value of a stock or a portfolio.

The orb is also interesting because it gets its information from existing wireless carriers -- for example, the existing pager network. You don't have to connect it to a computer.

The existing pager network is a wireless system that is already installed throughout every U.S. city and is largely under-utilized today. It makes you wonder what else you could do with it.

Sunday, August 03, 2003

Robots in 2015

The second article in the Robotic Nation series is now available. The new article is called Robots in 2015.

Saturday, August 02, 2003

Voice Recognition

For a taste of just how good computer voice recognition is getting, call (800) 555-1212 and ask for the listing for American Airlines or Delta Airlines. A robotic system will recognize what you are saying (even something like the phrase "American Airlines") and give you the number.

Then, once you have the number, call American or Delta and navigate their voice-operating arrival and departure systems. Just pick any two cities (like Atlanta and Orlando) and give a time like 9AM. One of these systems is provided by a company called TellMe.

In 10 years, voice recognition systems will be flawless. They will understand multiple languages and complex phrases with ease. By 2015, big box retailers will have deployed voice-recognizing robots and kiosks throughout the store to help customers find the items they need. Any drive-through ordering system at a fast food restaurant will be automated, and many restaurants that had been using kiosks for ordering will be switching over to a more natural voice entry system. Call centers and help desks will be heading toward complete automation for routine calls. And so on.

Friday, August 01, 2003

The Web's 10 Year Anniversary

It is hard to believe but true that the Web did not exist 10 years ago. On November 11, 1993, version 1.0 of the first Web Browser became available on the Internet. This piece of software was called Mosaic. The Web was born on the day that Mosaic appeared.

Think about everything that has happened in those 10 years:All in 10 years.

In other words, the Web absolutely did not exist in 1993. It appeared out of nowhere and then exploded. In 2003, the Web is completely woven into our lives and is used by more than half of the U.S. population. The Web has had huge effects on the way people do things. All in just 10 short years.

That pace of change seems fast, and it is, but it is not unusual in America. Even 100 years ago things could change very quickly. The first Model T Ford, for example, was sold in the 1909 model year, and in that first year only 10,000 were manufactured. By 1912 there were 3,500 Ford dealers selling 300,000 cars per year. Just a few years later, Ford was selling 2 million cars per year and there were over 100 companies competing with Ford. Even a century ago, a popular idea could catch on and spread very quickly.

[Interesting fact -- in 2002, Ford sold only 4 million cars.]

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