Sunday, July 31, 2005

Fun fact - power plants

[See previous]

Let's say that you have your typical coal-fired power plant that you are using to produce electricity. How much coal does it take to produce one kilowatt-hour?

If you look at Coal to Electricity, you find this: "Well designed, modern power plants can make one killowatt-hour (1,000 watt hours of electricity) using 9,500 btu's of energy from coal."

How much coal does it take to produce 9,500 BTUs? You can look at this chart to find out: BTUs in different types of coal. What you can see is that the BTU content depends on the type of coal, but roughly a pound of coal can create one kilowatt-hour of electricity.

That seems weird though, because there is something in the back of my head that says it takes a lot less BTUs than that to create a kilowatt-hour. Sure enough, this article confirms that: What is Energy? It says: "One kilowatt-hour equals 3,413 British thermal units and is equivalent to the energy needed to run ten 100-watt light bulbs for one hour." Does it mean that a modern coal-fired powerplant is really that inefficient? 3,413 / 9,500 = 36% efficiency. In other words, nearly two-thirds of the energy in a pound of coal is wasted?

This article shows that it is true: Completion of High-efficiency Coal-fired Power Plant. It points out that the highest-efficiency power plants waste more than half of coal's energy. It says: "Our planned design objective for the No. 4 system was to achieve 44.2% efficiency, the highest level generating efficiency of any coal-fired power plant. By applying the various performance enhancing technologies described in this paper, Hitachi was trying to reach a thermal efficiency of 49.83% in its turbine plant commissions, the highest level ever achieved for this kind of power plant."

On this page you find that gasoline contains 125,000 BTUs per gallon. So you should be able to generate 13 kilowatt-hours from a gasoline-powered generator, if it matched the 36% efficiency of a coal-fired power plant. But gasoline-powered home generators are only (at best) half as efficient as a coal-fired power plant, so you might burn a gallon of gas an hour to obtain 5 kilowatt-hours of electricity. A good long-life diesel generator like this one or this one might generate 10-12 kilowatt hours from a gallon of diesel fuel, which is surprising. You would expect that a huge, fully-optimized power plant would be a lot more efficient than a little diesel generator.

According to this page, the United States is consuming something close to 4 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity each year.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Fun facts - sunlight increases sales

[See previous]

Here's one of those fun facts that gets revealed in a casual side-comment. The article discusses a system that pipes natural sunlight into the interior of buildings using fiber optics:

Fiber Optics Bring the Sun Indoors

Inside the article, one of the justifications used for installing such a system is this: "Citing research showing that sales increase by up to forty percent in stores with natural light from skylights..."

If that is true, then a) it would be fascinating to know why it happens, and b) it is surprising that more stores don't have skylights. Most of these big-box stores are single-story structures with flat roofs. It seems like it would be easy to add lots of skylights to a Wal-mart or a grocery store to increase sales.

Thinking that thought, I walked into a Home Depot about 2 hours later. I found that I had never noticed it before, but the ceiling is full of skylights. Hmmm... Did I buy more because of the skylights? If so, what is going on inside my brain that I am totally oblivious to?

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Creativity at work

Here are three different companies that are trying to extract power from ocean waves in three completely different ways. All three sites have illustrations and explanations that show the different approaches. It's interesting to look at all three. It's also interesting to try thinking of your own new solution to the problem.
  1. Ocean Power Delivery Limited: "OPD announces the signing of an order with a Portuguese consortium, led by Enersis, to build the first phase of the world's first commercial wave-farm. The initial phase will consist of three Pelamis P-750 machines located 5km off the Portuguese coast."

  2. Ocean Power Technologies, Inc.: "Ocean Power Technologies, Inc. (OPT) is the leader in cost-effective, advanced, and environmentally sound offshore wave power technology. The electrical power generated by OPT's technology is key to meeting the energy needs of utilities, independent power producers and the public sector. OPT's PowerBuoy™ system extracts the natural energy in ocean waves, and is based on the integration of patented technologies in hydrodynamics, electronics, conversion mechanics, and computer control systems."

  3. WAVEenergy: "Established in February 2004, the company's main objective is to develop the Seawave Slot-Cone Generator (SSG) concept. Wave Energy is the owner of the patented wave power concept, which stores the incoming waves in several reservoirs placed one above the other. Using this method practically all waves, regardless of size and speed, are captured for energy production."
See also Replacing peak oil with waves.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Bizarrely real buildings

In the beginning there was Pong. Shortly afterwards came Pac-Man.

Circa 1980

In 24 years, rapidly advancing technology brought us Half-Life.

Circa 2004

Circa 2006 we can expect things to become even more real with the release of new gaming consoles like the Xbox 360. How real? This article offers a perspective on just how realistic things can get:From the article:When you look at the images in the article, you can see why.

If things can progress from Pac-man to this between 1980 and 2006, imagine where things will be in 2030...

Monday, July 25, 2005

How bad can operating systems get?

This weekend we bought Leigh a new laptop. It's your basic inexpensive laptop from HP.

From a hardware perspective, it is pretty amazing what you can get in a laptop for $650 these days: a fast processor, lots of RAM, a big hard disk, high-speed wireless networking, a nice screen, a DVD-RW drive, etc.

Plus it comes with a hardware warrantee, including 14-days "if anything goes wrong" protection and a 1-year parts and labor warrantee. The basic message is, "if we have sold you hardware that does not function properly, it is our fault, and we will fix the problem for you."

The same is not true of the operating system, and you see that when you open HP's "Getting Started" guide. What starts on page 3 is the "Protect your notebook" section. It really is quite sad.

Part one of the "Protect your notebook" section talks about viruses. It opens with this encouraging sentence: "When you use your notebook for e-mail, network or Internet access, you expose the notebook to computer viruses. Computer viruses can disable your operating system, applications or utilities, or cause them to function abnormally." The reason for this vulnerability is a poorly designed operating system. And, unlike the hardware, if something goes wrong it is YOUR problem, not the manufacturer's. To protect the operating system, you must purchase and install another piece of virus checking software, and then keep updating it every day. Even if you spend all of that time and money, things can still go wrong. If so, too bad for you. Neither Microsoft or the virus software company will take any responsibility or do anything to help you.

Part two of the "Protect your notebook" section talks about protecting your system files. These files are essential to the operating system, but the operating system does not protect them at all. Therefore you have to keep track of them yourself. If you ever screw up, your operating system and all of its data can be irretrievably destroyed. The manual advises, "It is recommended that you manually set a restore point before you add or extensively modify hardware or software. Also, you should create restore points periodically, whenever the system is performing optimally." Optimal performance, apparently, is a rare event.

Next up in the "Protect your notebook" section, it talks about protecting your privacy. The manual says, "When you use your notebook for e-mail, network or Internet access, it is possible for unauthorized persons to obtain information about your notebook and your data." Imagine if your bank said, "When you use this bank for normal banking stuff, it is possible for unauthorized persons to obtain information about your account and your data." The bank would be sued into oblivion. Not so with the operating system – it is so poorly designed that it is an open book. And that is YOUR problem. You have to "keep your operating system updated" and you must "use a firewall" to try to guard against these problems with the operating system.

Next up in the "Protect your notebook" section is a discussion about turning your notebook off properly. The operating system is so poorly designed that even the simple act of turning off your notebook (or, heaven forbid, the power goes off or the battery dies) can destroy the operating system. You are supposed to use a "standard Windows Shutdown Procedure." One would imagine, in a normal world, that the operating system would be able to handle something as common as "turning off the machine" or "experiencing a power failure" with complete indifference. But no, you can actually harm the machine by turning it off unexpectedly.

So let's say that you are willing to use the Windows Shutdown Procedure. Even this is so unreliable that the manual feels the need to address its unreliability. It says, "If your notebook does not respond (to the Windows Shutdown Procedure), try the following shutdown procedures." Then if THAT doesn't work, you are supposed to give up, cross your fingers and "press and hold the power/standby button for 5 seconds."

Note that the manual does not talk about backing up your data or spyware – two other aberrations that will waste a tremendous amount of your time as well because the operating system is so unreliable.

Then, if that is not enough, nearly the entire back half of the manual is devoted to an appendix called "System Recovery". It has sections like, "Repairing and reinstalling applications", "Repairing the operating system", "Reinstalling the operating system", Reinstalling device drivers and other software" and "Updating reinstalled software". In other words, even if you try to do everything asked of you in the "Protecting your notebook" section, shit will still happen and you will probably need to erase your hard drive and start over. In the process you will lose all of your applications, settings and data.

It is unbelievable that, in the 21st century, our operating systems are this fragile, and that it is so easy to completely destroy the operating system through no fault of your own. Just using your computer in normal ways opens you to a dozen serious vulnerabilities.

See also:

Friday, July 22, 2005

Replacing peak oil with waves

From a Peak oil will be a non-event perspective, this article is particularly interesting:From the article:That's only a 10-mile by 10-mile patch of ocean, which just is not that much when you realize how vast the ocean is. The part that is amazing is how simple the idea seems to be:See Peak oil will be a non-event, the Follow-up on peak oil and AltEng for details.

Hard to believe but true...

[See previous]

Childhood pastimes are increasingly moving indoors

From the articleThe question is, is this good or bad? Maybe, by providing extra stimulation for their brains, it actually makes kids smarter? Maybe the "education system" starts to figure out the power of video games and starts using them as a way of teaching? Sure kids are a bit more obese from the lack of physical activity, but maybe they end up better off intellectually?

Since I have four kids, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the differences between my kids' childhood and mine. I spent huge swaths of time outside doing "normal stuff" like baseball, basketball, bike riding, fort-building, hot-wheel-car playing (in little cities that we carved out of dirt in the backyard), etc. My friends and I spent hours every day outside without an adult in sight. Today kids are far less likely to be outside without adult supervision.

But when you think about it, hours of baseball do not really teach you much. I'm sure it does teach you something, but the density is pretty low. On the other hand, if the kid is inside watching a kid-level science video, information is definitely being absorbed.

It's funny that we don't know which is better. Is it better for kids to :
  1. spend lots of time outdoors with their friends, with no adults in sight?
  2. spend lots of time outdoors with parents supervising things?
  3. spend lots of time indoors watching TV and playing video games?
  4. spend lots of time indoors interacting with other people instead of machines?
As a parent, there is no way to know "which is best". You therefore end up with a huge range of parenting behaviors. Some parents let their kids do whatever they want (the path of least resistance). Some end up trying to keep things balanced, allowing the kids to do everything but not allowing any one activity like video games to dominate (anything in moderation). Some take firm positions like, "video games are evil, therefore you shall play no video games." Which sounds dictatorial until you realize that parents do this hundreds of times every day (no porn magazines, no cigarettes, no driving, no R-rated movies, no alcohol, no...), and video games are just another thing that parents may choose to restrict.

Which approach is best? I don't think anyone has any idea.

Outrageous business idea

In the How to Make a Million Dollars vein, here is an outrageous business idea that seems to be working:Sometimes it doesn't hurt to think big.

Thursday, July 21, 2005


[See previous]

EFF's Top 12 Ways to Protect Your Online Privacy

I sit on the board of, which was just named one of the 10 most innovative charities in the world by It is very cool to have been selected by Amazon for this honor.

What Amazon has done is collect together 10 of the most innovative nonprofit web sites, and there is a contest to see which site is the best. All 10 of the sites are interesting. From a WebKEW perspective, there is a lot to learn by looking at all 10.

By donating money to these web sites over the next 10 weeks, you "vote" for your favorite sites. Whichever site raises the most money by September 30, 2005 gets a matching contribution from Amazon (up to $1 million). It is a great way for these nonprofit organizations to get exposure, and the winner obviously gets a big boost as well, both monetarily and from the publicity.

Here are Amazon's 10 finalists:Look at all 10, and contribute to the ones that excite you the most. It's a great opportunity!

Something else to worry about...

[See previous]

Two for today:
  1. Online resumes turn risky / Job seekers post data that can be used by identity thieves

    From the article:
      Increasingly, online resumes are being accessed not just by legitimate employers but by offshore criminals out to steal identities or bring low-level recruits into international crime rings.

      Experts warn that in the past year, such fraudsters have gotten more aggressive about contacting people whose resumes are online, whether on personal Web sites or on large, reputable career search sites.

  2. Wi-Fi cloaks a new breed of intruder

    From the article:
      But experts believe there are scores of incidents occurring undetected, sometimes to frightening effect. People have used the cloak of wireless to traffic in child pornography, steal credit card information and send death threats, according to authorities.

      For as worrisome as it seems, wireless mooching is easily preventable by turning on encryption or requiring passwords. The problem, security experts say, is many people do not take the time or are unsure how to secure their wireless access from intruders. Dinon knew what to do. "But I never did it because my neighbors are older."

    From my office here, I have access to eight different wireless hubs that my neighbors have installed. When a new hub first lights up, it is normally completely insecure. Someone who is tech-savy in the neighborhood will knock on their door, sort of like the Welcome Wagon, and show them how to lock down the hub to prevent unexpected access. It takes only 5 or 10 minutes to secure everything, and it can prevent a whole bunch of problems.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

New idea - outsource yourself

[See previous]

There is something in here that feels both fascinating and sinister:

Outsource your job to earn more!

From the article:

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The compressed air car

This is related to the post on Cheap cars from China...

It has a "too good to be true" feeling about it:But if it actually is true, then what the press release is talking about is a compressed air car that:And the most amazing part -- the car will cost only 5,500 pounds in the UK, which translates into less that $10,000 in the U.S.

Apparently the car has been in the pipeline for awhile. Here is an article from the BBC dated 2002: France to unveil air-powered car. Wired covered it in 2003: Air Car Caught in Turbulence.

For more information, visit See also Cheap electric cars from China and AltEng.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Being a personal porn star

This article from advice columnist Amy Dickinson appeared in our local paper last week:The question that Amy is responding to comes from a new mother of twins whose husband is watching porn while feeding the babies at 2AM.

The part that is intriguing to me is these two sentences from Amy's reply:It's intriguing because I have never thought of my wife as my personal porn star. That puts a new spin on things.

It became even more intriguing a day or two later when I realized that if she is my personal porn star, then I must be her personal porn star as well. That puts another new spin on things.

Ultimately it causes you to ask an inevitable question -- is each couple's relationship an elaborate porn film featuring two porn stars as they live their lives? I'll leave that question for the philosophers. It certainly would be a different way to look at life.

Anyway, I can tell you that my porn movie has changed since I realized I am one of its stars.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Rocket video

The kids and I have been doing a lot with model rockets lately. It started with a cub scout outing, where the pack got together and launched a whole bunch of rockets. I took the four kids to that, and they were hooked.

We bought the $24 rocketry starter kit at Wal-Mart (complete with launch pad, rocket and altimeter). We lost that first rocket on its second flight (although we did find the altimeter). We got over the trauma of that and have now advanced to the point where we are thinking about trying this: That is a nice (if a bit crude) web site -- lots of demo video, installation instructions, etc.

That then gets you thinking, "what else can you do with a camera this small?" The mind reels...

Friday, July 15, 2005

Makes me smile

[See previous]

This is silly, but a friend sent it to me and it made me smile:

Flying dog

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Makes me smile

[See previous]

It's just not something that you see every day...

Jeremy Reid's Backyard Roller Coaster

New idea - transparent transitors

[See previous]

The Invisible Computer

The part that is unexpected:Another part that is unexected is this:And finally this:It's a very interesting article.

Monday, July 11, 2005

The end of anonymity

Thinking about the London subway bombings last week, it seems like one thing is certain. In just a few years, after one or two more incidents like this, we are very likely to see the end of anonymity in human society.

What happened on Thursday is that several people walked with complete anonymity into several subway stations. They planted their bombs invisibly and then either left the scene or remained to be detonated. We have no idea who they were, where they came from, who they associated with or where they went if they left the scene.

We consider anonymity like this to be completely normal today. And we see the effects of this anonymity constantly, simply by reading the paper or watching the news. Anonymity gives criminals a huge advantage. The O.J. Simpson case and its "trial of the century" brought this point home with a big splash 10 years ago. On June 12, 1994, two people died in a brutal murder and no one can conclusively prove who did it. We have no idea who was on the street near Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman at the time of the murder, or where O.J. Simpson was that night.

The O.J. case is one end of the spectrum – a gigantic murder mystery. At the other end are tiny crimes that happen anonymously everyday. For example, one of my neighbors found the envelope of a credit card bill torn open and lying on the grass near his mailbox last week. He has no idea who did it, and therefore had to cancel all of his credit cards that afternoon.

It would be relatively easy to eliminate anonymity today, and that is why its end is near. All that we need is a way to read biometric information (thumbprint, iris, whatever) whenever a person enters and leaves an area like a subway station. This might be done very simply with thumbprint-reading turnstiles. This type of identity gathering will occur at the entrance to every subway station, building, airport, mall, campus, park, stadium, etc. In addition, the identity of every car will be tracked as it moves around.

That will be the first level of the net. With these simple measures, we would know the identity of everyone who entered the subway stations on Thursday. That data would make it easy to discover the identity of the London terrorists in just a few days.

Then the net will tighten. Once it is known who is entering each facility, it will be possible to use cameras to track each person's motion and identify their exact location on a moment by moment basis. If Person X stops to talk to Person Y, that will be known. So will all of Person X's and Person Y's phone calls, email messages, package deliveries, purchases, etc. No longer will email messages and spam arrive with anonymity – we will know exactly who sent them, and so will "the authorities". That means that once the criminals are caught, all of their associates will be caught as well. Entire terrorist cells will be rooted out quite easily once anonymity disappears.

Is this good or bad? It doesn't really matter – it is inevitable. Anonymity is simply an artifact of our non-technological past. The only reason we have anonymity today is because, in the past, it would have been too expensive and too onerous to eliminate it. Today we can use technology to eliminate anonymity at low cost and with only small inconvenience. We will gladly deploy the technology to eliminate everything from petty theft to global terrorism. Given a choice between "anonymity" and "the potential to have a city blown up by terrorists", we will choose to lose our anonymity.

Once anonymity is gone, it is very likely that we will eliminate crime as we know it today. That will be a very good thing. According to this page, in the year 2000 in the United States there were:In 20 years, people will look back at the level of crime and terrorism that we endure today with a certain horror, in the same way that we look back in horror at all of the deaths caused by things like smallpox.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Makes me smile

[See previous]

When I opened this page and saw the photo, I was smiling and curious. When I read what it was for I laughed out loud - what a simple idea!


Thursday, July 07, 2005

New idea - online robot doctors

[See previous]

The idea of an "expert system" for medical diagnosis has been around for a long time. But it has been hard to find public examples. Here's a simple one that has come online recently in the "vitamins and minerals" space.

Health Web site launches online diagnosis

From the article: This is an incredibly primitive system (not an expert system at all...) but it is getting press and it definitely shows that people are interested.

What this has me wondering is the following -- could several teams or companies (Google? Microsoft? WebMD?) put full-blown digital doctors online to analyze symptoms and attempt diagnoses? These systems could compete against each other in the Grand Challenge sense and improve over time, until we come to the point that they are right 50% of the time, then 60% of the time, then 70% of the time...

Eventually these systems would become better than human doctors, because they would be able to account for all sorts of drug interactions, side effects, etc. that the human brain cannot manage. These robotic doctors would eventually replace human doctors and improve health care in the process.

We've been hearing about this as a possibility for 30 years. How long will it be before something like this actually happens?


[See previous] - The Windows XP Tweaking Companion (XPTC)

Here's a description: "The Windows XP Tweaking Companion (XPTC) is the complete Windows XP and system optimization guide. No longer do you have to put up with so-called XP Tweak Guides which have a handful of Registry tweaks and some vague optimization advice - the XPTC brings an enormous range of detailed descriptions and resources together in one free 170 page downloadable PDF file. Everything from the correct installation of Windows and critical software and drivers, through to recommendations for every significant setting in XP, all the major performance, visual and convenience tweaks, and descriptions of XP's functionality. The XPTC includes comprehensive chapters on overclocking, benchmarking and stress testing, troubleshooting and regular maintenance procedures. Basically the XPTC is the mother of all Windows XP Tweak Guides and System Optimization Guides, and it's right here for you to try for yourself."

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

New idea - mega-mall

[See previous]

The Mall That Would Save America - New York Times

From the article:It's an interesting article because the vision of the mall is so huge. For example: See also Mall of America and AltEng.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

New idea - speed spy

[See previous]

It's one thing to have your car recording your speed as you drive down the road so that it can tattle on you if you get in an accident. It's another thing if the car is actually pushing the brake pedal for you...

Forget cameras - spy device will cut drivers' speed by satellite

From the article:See also this post.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Fun facts - cars in the U.S.

[See previous]

According to this article, there are about 17 million new cars sold in America per year: "The seasonally adjusted annual sales rate for June was 17.5 million vehicles -- the highest rate so far this year -- up from 15.4 million vehicles last June. The rate indicates what sales would be for the full year if they remained at the same pace for all 12 months. Sales for 2004 were about 17 million."

That leads to the question, "How many cars are there in the U.S.?" This article suggests 226 million. This article suggests 200 million. There are about 230 million adults of driving age (16 and up) in the United States, so these statistics seem to indicate that nearly every America adult living in the U.S. has a car.

Dividing 225 million cars by 17 million new cars per year means that it takes about 13.25 years to replace all the cars in the U.S.

Makes me smile

[See previous]

The comparison in this article between Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama made me smile:

Conceit of Government

Friday, July 01, 2005

A small electric car from India

GM tried introducing a real electric car in the United States. It was called the EV1. This car had advantages (it was a real car, you could charge it at home, there were places to get a charge away from home, electricity is much cheaper than gasoline, etc.) and disadvantages (short range, pretty expensive ($35K), etc.). It was a valid experiment and many people loved the EV1, but ultimately GM pulled the plug.

In London, there is a company that is trying to make another attempt at a working electric car. The company is called GoinGreen and they have released an Automatic Electric Vehicle. Here are some of its features:Perhaps the most interesting thing about this project is the fact that it is primarily confined to a single locality (London). That means that GoinGreen can, perhaps, reach critical mass in that locality in terms of service, recharging stations and special dispensations (free parking, tax breaks). It is also interesting that, to keep costs down, the car is being sold over the internet, without any dealer showrroms, brochures or advertising. It should be a fascinating experiment to watch. Visit GoinGreen for details.

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