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Quick thoughts on the state-of-the-universe

                                       Posted 4/20/09
Yes, yes....I know. I have been ranting and raving about the evils of Microsoft, Apple, and Linux for decades. Well, it's time for me to shut up. I have met my match.

I just purchased a Dell netbook (the Mini 9) with Linux, specifically Ubuntu. I love it. There, I shouted it out...I LOVE IT. The computer, the operating system, and the programs. Finally, a Microsoft killer. Here is why I think buntu is so great:

1. It works, flawlessly. Not a single hangup (so far).
2. It comes with OpenOffice (a suite that leaves Word et. all in the dust), The Gimp (a Photoshop clone) and works perfectly with Filezilla (an FTP program), Firefox, Inkscape (an Illustrator clone), etc., etc., etc. And all for FREE! And did I mention...all of this stuff works.
3. Installation of (most) programs is a snap. Linux used to be a nightmare of installation instructions. Now, Ubuntu installs with a single click.
4. I have an older (3 years) scanner. On my new Compaq laptop running Windows Vista and my two desktops running Windows XP, I had to find, download, and install drivers. On Ubuntu, I plugged in the scanner and....IT WORKED! Just like that!

Is it perfect? Despite my drooling here, no. There are some minor glitches and annoyances. But nothing that would send this VERY picky geek over the edge. And even though there are Windows emulators out there, it still won't run all Windows programs, so I'll still have to keep a few Windows machines around. But not for long. Watch out Microsoft.

I just might be a new Linux convert.

BTW, these pages edited and uploaded on a Linux machine.

                                                                                                           Posted 6/20/07
I recently read an article in one of my technical journals (Electronic Design News, or EDN) regarding the development of a new integrated circuit. It isn't a component that I am ever likely to use, but one sentence caught my eye: "...it is a chip that has more than a billion transistors".

My first thought was "How much does this part cost"? Let's see, if a transistor cost one penny, that would be US$10,000,000. In actuality, the part is less than US$300.00, so that's US$0.0000003 per transistor, or 33,333 transistors for a single penny.

So, name one thing that you can buy for a penny. Pretty tough, isn't it?

Totally Unrelated But Interesting Fact: A billion pennies would weigh  2,500,000,000 grams or 5,500,000 lbs. If stacked, they would be 1,550,000,000 mm, or 61,020,000 in., or 963.07 miles tall.

Integrated circuits that contain a million transistors are very common. In fact, I am now using a part that contains over one million transistors and costs US$0.82. That's 82 cents....82 pennies. This part is a microprocessor chip (from Microchip) that can control, well, anything. Twenty-years ago, what would have taken a year to design and build, using big boxes of transistors and integrated circuits, now takes a couple of hours and only enough parts to barely cover the palm of your hand. And don't forget that the heart of this thing, the microprocessor, only costs 82 cents. And that's for one piece. Its even cheaper if you buy them by the thousands. BTW, these parts are about 20mm long by 6mm wide by 3mm thick (and they can be obtained in even SMALLER packages).

So where is all of this technology-in-tiny-pacakges taking us? I think I know (and I mention it below; see "END OF THE GARAGE?")...it's Star Trek. Its all of the little gadgets (and some bigger gadgets too) that Star Trek introduced us to over 40 years (!!!!!) ago. There are things out there, way beyond Star Trek, just waiting to be dreamed of, and for someone to come along, spend a few pennies on parts, put it all together, and WHAM...the next really cool thing.

OK, well, probably not the transporter. Those danged laws of physics tell us that transporters just aren't going to happen. See the book The Physics of Star Trek by Lawrence M. Krauss for more dream-crushing-through-physics.
                   Posted 9/7/06
I love technology, but I hate computers. I know, this doesn't make much sense, but its the way it is. I love my MP3 player and my digital camera, but I hate the computer they must connect to to function.

And now, we welcome in the age of the TECHNOTOILET. I think that I might soon hate toilets.

Airports have "updated" their bathrooms to "improve the quality of our lives while decreasing the chance for the spread of disease". Thank you, much appreciated. But have the creators of these "marvel bathrooms" ever used them? Either they never have or they just don't care.

INFRARED TOILETS- You know, these are the ones that flush when you leave the stall. Actually, they flush whenever they damn well please, usually just seconds after you have carefully placed the paper seat protector on the seat and are turning around to plop your bum down - WHOOSH - away goes the seat protector. Do it again-WHOOSH. The secret: keep one hand close to the infrared sensor and use your other two hands to maneuver the seat cover into place. Or just face the consequences of goin' down without the .005 inches of maximum protection afforded by the protector, taking your life into your own hands.

INFRARED SINKS- These dispense water and soap as soon as you place your hands in the appropriate area in the sink. At least in the airport in Eugene, Oregon, the soap and water sensors are so close together that you always have soap and water shooting out at you. Just when you think you have you hands clean-SPLURT-out comes MORE soap. The secret: rinse off one hand at a time and be VERY careful about hand placement. Do not lose concentration, even for a second. Pretend you are landing the space shuttle.

FRUGAL TOILET PAPER DISPENSERS- I guess the airports are in SERIOUS financial jeopardy. Single-ply toilet paper that you can actually SEE THROUGH and only half the width of normal TP. And worst of all, TP dispensers that actually force the sheets to tear.......EVERY SECOND SHEET! Insidious! I could be in here for hours! The secret: before pulling out the TP, slip a finger under the roll and lift up, then hold the lifted-ends of the plastic dispenser in place while pulling out TP to your hearts delight, giggling with supreme glee as you stick-it-to-the-man.
                                        Posted 9/7/06
A few weeks ago, whilst contemplating the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, I happened to be reading the ingredients of a bottle of juice (specifically, pineapple coconut). The front of the label stated "CONTAINS 100% FRUIT JUICE". Here's what was on the list of ingredients:

Pineapple juice from concentrate
Coconut juice from concentrate
Ascorbic acid
Vitamin C

I'm OK with the first three ingredients: no doubt they are 100% juice. But what about the last two? How do these sneak into the 100%? Depending on the amounts of these last ingredients, we may actually have, what, 99.8% juice, or something like that?

So off I go to the market to do some "research".

Several brands state "100% juice" and, in fact, as above, are not quite truthful. One brand states "84% juice" and kudos to them for their honesty. Another is very sneaky: "100% juice with other added ingredients". The "with other added ingredients" was in a MUCH smaller typeface then the "100% juice" part. Sort of honest, sort of not.

As always, buyer beware!
                                                                                                   Posted 9/7/06
I have a secret way to determine the ACTUAL rate of monetary inflation in the United States.

Back in 1962, a motel chain was charging $6.00 per room per night. You probably know the one I'm talking about: the name of the chain was based on the $6.00 rate.

Today, the same chain charges $49.99 per night (in our Southern California area). So over a period of  45 years, this amounts to an average adjustment of 3% per year. Therefore, I proclaim that inflation in the US has averaged 3% per year over the last 45 years.

Who needs the US government Federal Reserve? We have the [name deleted] motel chain!

BTW, actual inflation over the past 50 years has been about 4%.
                                                             Posted 9/7/06
I have the cure for inflation. Well, actually, its not a cure, its more like a magic cloak, something to cover it up so we can forget about it, at least for a while.

Here's my cure: everyone in the world rolls back every monetary unit by a factor of 10. So (in US dollars) a loaf of bread would cost 30 cents instead of $3.00. A house would cost $30,000, a car $2500. A steak dinner would come in at $2.75 and a decaf latte extra-strong no-whip extra hot would nip us for a mere 34 cents.

Of course, our salaries would be equally reduced. A brain surgeon would earn $15,000 per year, and someone flipping burgers at a hamburger joint would get $2000 a year, but hey, everything is relative.

If you REALLY wanted to go crazy, reduce everything by ANOTHER factor of ten, and get a tankful of gas for 50 cents. Now THAT makes sense!

THE garage - Hewlett-Packard

Interior view

                                   Revised 9/4/06
Have you ever read old issues of Popular Science or Popular Mechanics from the 1930's to 1950's? They're a hoot. It's so enlightening to see what occupied people back in the heyday of science and early technology (the newness of radio and airplanes, new cars that cost $450.00, the space-race, really-big computers, transistors, cars with tail fins, etc). Another thing one notices is the number of inventions made by individuals, usually farmers or accountants, just ordinary folk. Rarely does one see an invention credited to a company.

Back in the 1930's, William Hewlett and David Packard, two kids going to Stanford university, sat down in a garage and changed the world. (Two other guys, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, were to do the same thing some 40 years later, and in a garage). But what of today? Could H-P or Apple happen now? Could they withstand the China juggernaut, or a billion-dollar ad campaign, or the cut-throat competition that slices and dices companies so they can make a few pennies? What about the need for product design cycles measured in days?

Aside from some Internet examples (Yahoo and Google for example, which were started by college kids eating pizza), I don't think that it happens anymore. Personally, I know that as I try to develop new products and "killer apps", I find myself confronted with questions that need millions of dollars and lots of people to answer. And its gotta go fast: a month or two late getting out to the market is death.

I don't think that H and P, or Steve and Steve, thought about that too much. I think that they just had a good idea, doing what they loved to do, without the tiger of fierce competition prowling at their door. There were no corporations breathing down their necks and no fears of knockoffs costing one cent on the dollar.

But on second thought, maybe they are the very ones who created this new age. Maybe they are the ones who ushered in the big companies fighting to the death. Maybe this is progress.

They probably had no idea that it would lead to this.

BTW, I firmly believe in the "Star Trek vision", that someday we will live and be comfortable with amazing technology (think PDA's and cellphones, which are right out of Star Trek). In order to get there, garages won't cut it anymore. It will take an enormous amount of talent and money. But one way or another, get there we will.

I'm just depressed that the era of a couple of guys sitting in a dark crowded garage and their mom bringing them PB&J sandwiches and changing the world has ended.

UPDATE (12/26/06): If you are REALLY interested in the history of personal computers, I highly recommend the new book "WOZ" by Steve Wozniak. Although written in a "for 12 year old kids" style, its a fascinating trip through the Woz's childhood and a totally geeky look at the advance of technology. Man, I was in the middle of it and didn't even know it. This book also dispels a bunch of rumors and sets the record straight on a lot of issues.

Griffith Park's Tesla Coil

The "new" Tesla coil in operation

                   Posted 8/15/06
As a little kid, I remember spending a bunch of time in two places: the L.A. County Science Museum and  Griffith Park Observatory. At the time (probably in the sixties), these places were old and dark, and the exhibits were Frankenstinian in nature: big, dusty, loud and cranky. They thrilled me to death. This is probably why I am so geeky today: I had the opportunity to be thrilled. I can remember with great detail each and every exhibit that interested me.

I am sure that these exhibits are long gone. In fact, Griffith Park is undergoing a complete four-year-long remodel. (observatory history)

So, what's my point? In our town, we had a choice to build ANOTHER mini-mall or a kid's science museum. Guess which was built? I think it is extremely sad when education takes a distant back seat to, of all things, mini-malls. How many kids will never have the thrill of watching a Jacob's Ladder or the discharge from a Tesla coil. Did you ever see the Tesla coil at Griffith Park? What a loud, shocking monster that was. I hope it's still there.

UPDATE (12/26/06): I recently visited the NEW Griffith Observatory. WOW! What a terrific job they did. This place is gonna knock-socks-off for a long time to come. Its going to be especially wild with kids. Watch out science, here they come.

But there was one let down. While the Tesla coil is still there, it is in a soundproof room and it is surrounded by a wire cage. Not very loud or spectacular. It could hardly be heard over the din of the crowd. In the "old" days, this thing would scream. Oh well, at least its still there.

UPDATE (6/20/07): I am a volunteer for the Ventura County Discovery Center for Science and Technology. This is the organization that was SUPPOSED to get a science museum, but didn't. The GOOD NEWS: the city of Thousand Oaks is very interested in building the museum behind the previously mentioned shopping mall. Efforts to raise $50 million are in progress. It TRULY looks like this will happen, and in the very near future.

There is hope after all.

A laser lab bench

                                              Posted 8/7/06
While recently perusing one of my business publications, I was stunned by the number of articles dealing with the technology hotspots in the world, and how the majority of them were NOT the United States. As a resident of said States, this greatly concerns me, and so it should concern you too, if you are a U.S. resident. If you live elsewhere, in one of these hotspots, you should be elated.

So why has the U.S. apparently lost its tech edge in the world? Well, no surprise here. For how long (decades?) have we heard that if science and math are not emphasized in school, and if our kids are not raised in an environment honoring and cherishing these disciplines, that this would happen. BINGO - its happened!

Can this trend be stopped or even reversed? I don't know, but making science cool and fun (see Museums above) would be a good start.

A wind farm

                           Posted 8/3/06
I have been involved in the solar industry for almost 30 years. In that time period, much has changed. In about 1980, there was great celebration as Arco-Solar produced 1MW (mega-watt) of photovoltaic panels in one year (I was there for the party). Today, worldwide production exceeds 1000MW/year with a total installed capacity of over 5,000MW (these numbers vary depending on the source of information). And yet, with a total worldwide energy consumption of  500 quadrillion BTU's/year (sorry, I'm much too lazy to covert this to watts, but whatever the value, its big, REALLY BIG), its not even a dent; its not even a grain of sand on a beach...its nothing.

So I'm listening to an NPR tech piece about cellulose ethanol (CE) (audio), an alternative fuel made from wheat straw, you know, that leftover stuff from wheat production that we DON'T eat, as opposed to corn ethanol, which comes from corn, which we do eat. The process for creating CE is expensive, but the result is a fuel that can be mixed with gasoline (E85), AND IS MADE FROM TRASH, not food. The process is more complicated than that used to make corn ethanol and, of course, more expensive, but ITS MADE FROM TRASH. And the benefits from using this stuff are amazing.

In Canada, a company called IOGEN, has been making CE for decades, but the relatively low price of gasoline made it uneconomical to produce in quantity. My, how things have changed. For a mere $300 million, they can build a full-scale plant. Come on folks, that's $1.00 each for every U.S. citizen. Damn, I'd give them $25.00 if everyone else would chip in something.

Let's get on the ball here. Let's get going. Let's spend a few bucks on this stuff (and other alternatives) and not let politics or money get in the way. If we had REALLY put our collective noses to the grindstone 20 years ago, we'd probably be living the Jetson's life right now. And no dependence on mid-east oil. And no drilling in the Arctic Refuge. And no drilling in our coastal waters. And less contribution to global warming. And lower cost fuel. And. And. And.

Wouldn't it be nice if someday, maybe in a hundred years or so, instead of calling it alternative energy, they'll just call it energy, and oil wars will be a thing read about only in the history books?

BTW, I have no ties to Iogen. I just think they are working on a great product, as are many others, and we REALLY need to support these efforts.

UPDATE (6/20/07): It looks like efforts toward practical CE are gathering steam. Many other companies are jumping onto the bandwagon, with support from state and federal government agencies. I read one article that stated that the CE revolution is akin to the dawning age of atomic power, when great hope was held for this new energy source. (Well, of course, atomic power never really did take off, at least not in the US. But CE won't kill people and pollute the earth for millions of years, so there's hope).

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