Sunday, November 30, 2003

November PopSci

The November 2003 issue of Popular Science covers the future of flight. Just about everything in the issue is about flight in some way. There were two articles that were particularly interesting.

The first was a one-page blurb on a model airplane built by Maynard Hill. The plane weighs less than 11 pounds with fuel, but was able to fly for almost 39 hours, traveling 1,900 miles and crossing the Atlantic Ocean from Newfoundland to Ireland. The 11 pound weight limit means that it carried only about 1 gallon of fuel. A GPS-based autopilot kept it on course. Average speed was 49 MPH. This BBC article has several photos.

The second was a panel discussion on the future of flight. The most provacative statement in it comes from Burt Rutan, known for his round-the-world-non-stop Voyager airplane, and now a serious contender for the X Prize. Here's the quote:It's a fascinating article overall, and gets you thinking about air travel and aircraft in a very different way.

For truly realistic virtual reality you need the Vertebrane System. Meanwhile, there's WebEx, LiveMeeting and Video Conferencing.

Super cheap memory

IHT: Cheap plastic grid holds promise of data storage:

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Forget Retina Scanners

Wired News: When Cash Is Only Skin Deep:

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Bread Bubbles

Is anyone else noticing giant bubbles baked into loaves of bread? Here's an example of the kind of thing I'm talking about, this one from a loaf of Bran'nola bread.

I'd guess that one out of every five loaves we buy is now affected by a big bubble. I've also noticed them in loaves of Nature's Own bread.

These are not small holes -- as you can see, the one here is larger than a U.S. quarter. These holes are big enough that they affect 3 or 4 slices of bread. If you are making toast it's not a big deal, but if you have kids who like PB&J sandwiches, holes this big are a problem -- The PB&J drips out.

My guess is that manufacturers have started to use new strains of fast-rising yeast to speed up their assembly lines, and that these strains produce CO2 so fast that they create the big bubbles.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

McNuggets on the move

Today was a spectacular Fall day in Raleigh -- 72 degrees, no wind, bright sunny skies. David, his Grandfather and I decided to ride our bikes down to McDonald's for an ice cream cone this afternoon, and we were sitting outside on the restaurant's patio watching people ride by on the bike path.

A car pulled up, and a woman got out of it wearing the outfit of a McDonald's manager or assistant manager. She walked past us and into the restaurant, and I assumed she worked there.

About 5 minutes later she walked back out of the restaurant, and with her was a man, also in a McDonald's uniform, carrying a big, plain cardboard box labeled CHICKEN MCNUGGETS. Given the effort he was expending carrying the box, I would estimate that it weighed 25 to 30 pounds. She asked him to put the box on her passenger seat, which he did, and then she drove away.

So what, exactly, happened? Here are three possibilities, in no particular order:I have no idea. But it was fun to sit there speculating.

It's similar to a recent mystery we watched unfold at a local Golden Corral restaurant (Golden Corral is an all-you-can eat buffet restaurant in the Southeast, and we often go there for Saturday morning breakfast/lunch. It's kind of a family ritual for us). We were sitting at our table eating, and a man and a woman put their tray down at the table next to us. Both of them were wearing black suits, and the woman additionally wore a long black jacket of some sort, along with black hose and black pumps. They both took their plates and walked to the buffet line. When they returned, their plates were piled high. I mean high -- enough food to feed the entire Brain family along with the two of them. They each took three bites, left a tip and walked out of the restaurant.

What was that??? Perhaps another chapter in the same novel. That Golden Corral and the McDonald's are about 2 miles apart....

Unusual Test

I was reading a book on testing this weekend, and it had an unusual quiz in it. It said, "In the next 5 minutes, name 20 new uses for a bucket of water." Then it had a blank page with 20 lines on it, like this (Go ahead and take the test now if you'ld like - answers are below):

1) _______________________________________
2) _______________________________________
3) _______________________________________
4) _______________________________________
5) _______________________________________
6) _______________________________________
7) _______________________________________
8) _______________________________________
9) _______________________________________
10) ______________________________________
11) ______________________________________
12) ______________________________________
13) ______________________________________
14) ______________________________________
15) ______________________________________
16) ______________________________________
17) ______________________________________
18) ______________________________________
19) ______________________________________
20) ______________________________________

I came up with all kinds of stuff. Things like, "freeze the water and use it as a building block for a house in Antarctica" and "put a tiny hole in the bucket and use it as a timer" and "pour the water through a small waterwheel/generator to power a cell phone."

The funny thing was, this quiz was actually a hidden test for sociopaths. The book said, "In particular, the usefulness of your answers can indicate whether your unique thought processes are the result of rational or irrational thought. Sociopaths may have unique uses for a bucket of water, but those uses are likely to involve drowning animals, committing suicide or murder, gaining revenge on those whom they feel have done them an injustice, and torture." I learned that I am not a sociopath -- none of my answers had any evil intent. I had never suspected that I was a sociopath, but it was an unexpected way to confirm this fact about myself. It makes you wonder how many other official tests and quizes you take are actually screening for something else.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Electric Blade

Tonight I met the owner of a new electric bike made by Electricmoto. It feels like a cross between a 2-stroke dirt bike and a mountain bike. It's powered by an electic motor rather than a gasoline engine.

This bike is extremely quick in terms of acceleration, and tops out around 45 MPH. Because it is electric it has tons of torque and can climb almost anything. You can click here to see a video of the bike on a BMX track. Range is 10 to 12 miles, and recharge time is less than an hour. Specs, FAQ and lots of photos are available at Electricmoto's web site.

It's a little pricey... OK, at $4,699 the price is nuts. A Segway is actually $200 less, and the price of a Segway is nuts. Still, it is a cool bike. With a fuel cell it would be even cooler, but that probably doubles the price right now.

[If you want to compare the HP/Torque of the Blade to a dirt bike, this page is interesting. The page mentions that a 125CC 2-stroke typically produces 15 lb/ft of torque, and a 250CC 4-stroke produces 19. In the Electrticmoto FAQ, 32 lb/ft peak is mentioned for the electric motor. This Yoshimura page has lots of horsepower graphs for various motorcycles.]

Monday, November 17, 2003

Fast food and the economy

We went to a pot-luck dinner, and this got me thinking about the "fast food industry."

The obvious thing about a pot-luck dinner is that you have to bring something. The other thing about a pot-luck dinner (especially if it is with a smaller group of friends, as opposed to a large picnic or a big church event) is that people are going to see what you bring. Therefore, you want to bring something "good."

You are unlikely to bring something that is "heart healthy" to a pot-luck event. A low-salt, low-fat, low-cholesterol sort of dish is the wrong thing to bring because no one is going to eat it. You want it to taste good, so that people think you are a good cook. You are therefore going to add in the ingredients that people like to eat -- salt, fat, sugar, etc. You want to make a good impression, and the easiest way to accomplish that goal is to bring really good-tasting food. It's unfortunate that the ingredients that make food taste "really good" have "really bad" health consequences, but for a pot luck dinner the health consequences are irrelevant. The short-term social value of making a good impression outweighs any long-term health effects.

Now you start to think about this in the context of a restaurant, and especially fast food restaurants. Fast food restaurants are businesses, so their goal is to make as much money as possible. Therefore, a fast food restaurant wants to make a good impression so you will come back again and spend more money. The easiest way to get you to come back is to serve you something that tastes really good. "Good taste" to a human being means lots of salt, fat and sugar. If a fast food restaurant does not use these ingredients, then there's a good chance that you are not going to come back -- the food somewhere else will taste better, and you will go there instead.

The same rules apply to businesses that produce "junk food" -- soft drinks, potato chips, cookies, candy bars, etc. Salt, fat and sugar taste good, so junk food contains lots of salt, fat and sugar. The more junk food you eat, the more money the company makes. Salt, fat and sugar cause you to eat more.

It really is unfortunate that these ingredients are unhealthy, but it is also irrelevant. The short-term desire to get you to consume more hamburgers, french fires, soda and chips -- and therefore to make more money -- far outweighs any health consequences. Those health consequences are not going to show up for years. Also, there is no penalty (so far) for leading customers toward obesity and diabetes. In that sort of environment, the short-term goal of revenue is going to win. The result is the fast food and junk food landscape we see today.

Here's another funny thing to think about. There are many large businesses that now benefit from the current fast food and junk food landscape. For example, any pharmaceutical company that makes medicines for high blood pressure, diabetes and other problems associated with obesity is going to think that obesity is good, not bad. These pharmaceutical companies actually have an interest in people eating poorly. Hospitals that treat obesity-related illnesses and perform procedures like heart bypass surgery also have a vested interest in obesity. Health insurance companies, which make a percentage of the money they charge the insured, would like to see health care costs go up rather than down because they make more money that way. Then there are all the companies that cater to the obese: dieting products, dieting books, dieting aids, exercise equipment, weight loss centers, gyms, etc. They all think fast food and junk food are great, because wide-spread obesity means more customers. Then think about all of the advertising dollars spent by fast food companies, junk food companies, diet product companies and pharmaceutical companies. That's probably half of all advertising dollars spent.

In other words, sugar, fat and salt are great for the economy in many different ways.

It's funny -- our economy would probably collapse if it weren't for fast food and junk food. It's unfortunate that the only people who don't benefit from sugar, fat and salt are the people who eat it, and there is no economic benefit in them being well.

Friday, November 07, 2003

The Register: "At an Apple financial analyst conference on Wednesday CEO Steve Jobs admitted that Apple makes no revenue from the online download service, the iTunes Music Store, that he launched in April. As iTMS is the leading download service, with 80 per cent market share (or so Jobs claimed), where's your 99 cents per song going?"

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Sound on the Web

I had to go to the doctor this week. She wrote me a prescription, and then went to her "sample room" to get me a sample of it. The sample room is an 8'x10' (3 x 3 meters) room lined with shelves. On each shelf is a row of small plastic bins and each bin contains samples for one or more drugs. I would guess that there are samples for hundreds of different drugs in this room. There was a drug company representative (dark suit, white shirt, tie) in the room at the moment we entered. He was taking inventory of the samples from his company and replenishing them as necessary.

She handed me a sample of Bextra, which I've never heard of. It's just a blister pack with no information beyond the name of the drug on the package. When I got home I went to the web site (conveniently and I wanted to know two things about the drug: 1) how does it work, and 2) what are the side effects. The dosage information was on the prescription, but I was curious about it too.

Obviously these are pretty common questions, because right on the home page there's a link to "How Bextra Works," where you find this animation:

This is a very long way of getting to my point. I looked at this animation and went through its eight different panes, and I thought, "Wow, no sound." In other words, I expected there to be sound, and there was none.

That reaction is becoming more common for me, and it's an interesting transition. Two years ago I would have considered sound to be an intrusion -- books don't have sound, so why should a Web page? Since then my feelings have changed. So many things on the Web have sound now that it is becoming expected (at least to my brain). Apparently, to my brain, the Web is looking less and less like books/magazines/brochures and more and more like TV/films, and sound is becoming a requirement in anything that is animated.

Monday, November 03, 2003

Smaller and Smaller PCs

The fad in minature PCs started with the mini-ITX boards produced by Via. The boards measure about 6.7 x 6.7 inches (17 x 17 cm) and are complete motherboards. They tend to use CPUs that are running in the 1GHz range to lower the heat built-up, but otherwise they are full PCs. For "normal stuff" like browsing, emailing, etc., they are perfect. Here's an example measuring only 2"x7.7"x7.7":

That set off a mini-PC trend that is producing smaller and smaller full-function PCs. For example, there is this:

It measures only 6"x4"x1.25", but it can run Windows XP and do everything you would expect from a normal PC.

It's also producing a variety of new form factors -- you can now stuff a full-feature PC in lots of smaller places:

And now Via is poised to release the nano ITX form factor so things can shrink again.

Only 4.7 x 4.7 inches.

ARCHIVES © Copyright 2003-2005 by Marshall Brain


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