Archive for the ‘Geekery’ Category


A world without supercomputers

June 18, 2014

Nicely done.


The jig is up

April 8, 2014

As someone who ran Windows 2000 and Windows NT4 for many years past their EOL dates, I’m not too worried by Microsoft’s EOL plans for Windows XP.

But doesn’t the idea that XP still needs bug fixes and security patches after 12 ½ years seem a little odd ? (How long does it take, Redmond?)

Microsoft to Windows XP users: The jig is up

Starting Wednesday, Windows XP users will face a new world with no more technical support or OS updates. That world could prove hazardous to the health of their PCs, which why Microsoft is advising diehards to kick the XP habit.

Okay, so let’s say you still run Windows XP. Exactly what will happen now that Microsoft is cutting off support? First off, your installation of XP won’t mysteriously vanish or suddenly stop working. You’ll still be able to use XP just as always with all of the same features and programs you know and love.

What end of support does mean is that after today you will no longer be treated to bug fixes, security patches, and other updates from Microsoft to defend and protect XP. In fact, today’s Patch Tuesday marks the last round of updates for XP. If any new security issues or vulnerabilities are discovered in XP, Microsoft will no longer be in the job of patching them.


Another take on a Smart Home

April 7, 2014

Here’s a video from Honda about its Smart Home concept house.

If (like me) you’re not very worried about your "carbon footprint" then it will seem a little like a lot of to-do about nothing.

But on the other hand, if you’re interested in decentralization and self-sufficiency (again, like me) it will pique your interest. A 10 KWH battery is sort of intriguing by itself, since I’ve been making back-of-the-envelope calculations on how to store 20-30 KWH in a flywheel.

What I’d like to know, though, is what the carbon footprint is to ship volcanic ash around to make cement as well the answers to similar questions that occurred to me as I watched.

Via Gizmag


Dangerous drones

March 22, 2014

A few weeks ago, Jeff sent a link to this video about a quadrotor drone equipped with a 100-round machine gun. It can also self-destruct, as you’ll see in the clip.

The video comes from FPSRussia, who’s been making videos about small arms for a few years now. (And has 5,000,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel.)

Jeff’s comment was, "Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out get you."

Then today I ran across this hexarotor drone called CUPID via Gizmag.

That guy acting as the crash test dummy has an amazing confidence in technology, doesn’t he?

The comments for CUPID describe it this way.

Chaotic Moon built CUPID to raise awareness of technology that’s outpacing everything from regulatory agencies to social norms.

So now I’m wondering when I’ll see one of these or read about one of them being used here in the U.S.


A nice piece of work

March 2, 2014

Jason Murray describes & demonstrates a Gauss rifle he designed & built. He posts many of the design and construction details at his Delta V Engineering site. It’s a good write-up of a nicely done piece of engineering.

My younger son and I built a very simple, capacitor-driven Gauss gun for his science fair project some years back. It was on a much more limited scale than this one. We could fire small aluminum foil "bullets" a few yards; they might have knocked a fly out of the air (if we’d been able to hit one).


Air hockey robot

February 9, 2014

This is an interesting project I ran across at ViralViralVideos. It’s built on an Arduino; basically built from parts for a 3-D printer.

The motion control part doesn’t strike me as too big a deal but I’d like to check out the machine vision part. It’s pretty fast – despite running on a PC and communicating position to the Arduino over a serial port. (The robot uses an overhead camera that’s not visible in the video.)

New Project: Air Hockey Robot (a 3D printer hack)
[Version en español aqui]

After the last B-ROBOT project, this is what I’ve been doing the last months…really fun…

Everything started when I built my 3D printer. First, the posibility to design and build my own parts and second, how could I hack the components of a 3D printer to make something different?

I have seen several interesting projects of robots that paint or manufacture PCBs, etc … but I was looking for something different…

My daughter loves the Air Hockey game and I love robotics so one day an idea born in my mind… can I construct…??… Mmmmm …. it seemed very complicated and with many unresolved questions (puck detection??, robot speed??), but that is also part of the fun…


Raspberry Assistant

February 8, 2014

Paul sent a link this week to an interesting project using a Raspberry Pi.

It’s based on Steven Hickson’s voice recognition app and shell scripts that run Google’s text-to-speech. Here’s the article at instructables.

Raspberri Personal Assistant. by janw

Last summer, in a small store, I found half of a 1950s bakelite Televox intercom . I thought that it would make a nice cast for a project and I bought it as it only costed $9. It sat on a shelf until I bought my first raspberry pi. After I had played with the pi for some days, I was struck by the idea that the intercom would be ideal in combination with the pi, to build a voice controlled device.

Because of the intercom, the idea came that it would be funny to use the intercom for what it was intended: contacting your personal assistant to get information or to give him/her a task. The only difference is that this intercom isn’t connected to its other half but to the raspberry pi. And that there is no real person on the other side, but a smart little computer that can do a lot of the same things as that real person.


What libertarians do

January 17, 2014

I found this at What We Think And Why (via Dan Mitchell’s International Liberty blog) and was amused. Happy Friday!



A failure to communicate

December 23, 2013

Here’s some interesting news from Australia (with an interesting analogy for bad communications). I assume "late next year" refers to late 2014.

The potential fall-out from this one boggles the mind.

Cause of ageing that can be reversed
19 December 2013

Medical researchers have found a cause of ageing in animals that can be reversed, possibly paving the way for new treatments for age-related diseases including cancer, type 2 diabetes, muscle wasting and inflammatory diseases.

The researchers hope to start human trials late next year.

The study, published today in the journal Cell, relates to mitochondria – our cells’ battery packs – which provide energy to carry out key biological functions.

The work, led by David Sinclair from UNSW Medicine, found a series of molecular events enable communication inside cells between the mitochondria and the nucleus. As communication breaks down, ageing accelerates.

“The ageing process we discovered is like a married couple – when they are young, they communicate well, but over time, living in close quarters for many years, communication breaks down,” says UNSW Professor Sinclair, who is based at Harvard Medical School.

“And just like a couple, restoring communication solved the problem,” says the geneticist.

Via Gizmag


Paging Mr. Bastiat

December 8, 2013

What is seen

Here’s the start of a recent article at Gizmag about a Mexican inventor’s scheme to harvest energy from passing cars.

Low-cost system uses passing vehicles to generate electricity

Over the years, various researchers have developed systems in which the weight transferred through cars’ wheels onto the road – or through pedestrians’ feet onto the sidewalk – is used to generate electricity. These systems utilize piezoelectric materials, which convert mechanical stress into an electrical current. Such materials may be effective, but they’re also too expensive for use in many parts of the world. That’s why Mexican entrepreneur Héctor Ricardo Macías Hernández created his own rather ingenious alternative.

In Macías Hernández’ system, small ramps made from a tough, tire-like polymer are embedded in the road, protruding 5 cm (2 in) above the surface. When cars drive over them, the ramps are temporarily pushed down.

When this happens, air is forced through a bellows that’s attached to the underside of the ramp. That air travels through a hose, and is compressed in a storage tank. The stored compressed air is ultimately fed into a turbine, generating electricity.

What is unseen.


I’m not the first person to make this point about this type of scheme, but what Senor Macías Hernández’ system does is to steal a small bit of energy from each car that passes it. Ultimately, his system is powered by whatever is powering the cars – and petroleum is still a pretty safe bet.

Further, Macías Hernández’ system generates electricity through the rather cumbersome process of burning the refined petroleum in small-scale internal combustion engines (at 25 – 30% efficiency) to propel the cars over an air pump in the pavement (and I’d like to see how efficient that process is) to compress air to drive an electric generator.

Mr. Rube, meet Mr. Goldberg.

I think several factors probably go unseen in this picture.

1. There’s a cost imposed on the drivers of the cars. It’s probably so small that it would be difficult to measure but, still, it’s there. Otherwise, there’d be no energy to harvest.

In effect, there’d be a barely visible tax imposed on drivers using roads with this system in place. It wouldn’t be difficult to make a reductio ad absurdum argument showing a measurable result. What would happen to your car’s fuel economy if you had to drive over one of these air pumps every block or so?

2. What are the construction and maintenance costs of the recovery system? Unfortunately, the Gizmag article doesn’t give any figures for expected construction costs (despite calling it a "low-cost system") nor does it address the cost of maintaining the system.

Once the politicians have got a Green buzz on from sponsoring such a project, will they still be willing to vote for maintenance money after the buzz is gone?

How long will it take to pay back the capital investment? What will the cost be for a megawatt-hour generated from the compressed air? How will that cost compare to the market price for electricity?

3. What’s the opportunity cost of this system? Since it’s built into roads, my guess is that city, state or national governments (the typical road-builders) will be the agents building this thing. What else might be done with the taxes that would fund the building of Senor Macías Hernández’ system?

If a government agency wants to generate & sell electricity, doesn’t it make more sense for it to build a generating station and burn the petroleum directly instead? Of course it does.

What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen.

Note: I have no problem with people producing petroleum nor with people burning it. The unseen problem here is not the use of petroleum in itself.


Nicely put

December 7, 2013

Yesterday I watched a Reason interview of Arin Greenwood that was about her new book Save The Enemy. I haven’t read the book (nor her other book).

But I did follow Reason’s link to Ms. Greenwood’s tumblr site and I read some of the essays she’s written.

I especially liked her essay titled Wanted: Gullible Lawyers for several reasons. First, I thought she has a very pleasant written voice; I liked her style in other words.

Second, what she recounts in that essay was both pretty interesting and pretty amusing (in a dark sort of way). One of the interesting parts to me was the group-think that she and her team members got caught up in. Another was the Man-Behind-The-Curtain, Gerald Edward. He sounded like quite an operator (in the fourth sense given here).

Finally, I was struck by these sentences in her essay.

That is what you do when you’re a lawyer. You figure out how to learn what you don’t know, and you quickly become an expert in new, tricky fields. Haven’t you ever noticed that lawyers know everything?

That’s just how I think about engineering and I believe you could substitute ‘engineer’ for ‘lawyer’ in these sentences and they’d make just as much sense. (Though I’ll guess that our definitions of a ‘tricky field’ might be different.)

And I’ll add that those sentences can apply to almost any profession or trade, depending on the person practicing it. Put another way, the abilities to figure out what you don’t know and teach yourself what you need to know are really character traits. They’re due to attitude and adaptability more than they are to what you do for a living, what degrees you’ve been granted, or how you’ve been trained.



November 29, 2013

Here’s the start of an interesting article from The Telegraph.

The internet mystery that has the world baffled

For the past two years, a mysterious online organisation has been setting the world’s finest code-breakers a series of seemingly unsolveable problems. But to what end? Welcome to the world of Cicada 3301

One evening in January last year, Joel Eriksson, a 34-year-old computer analyst from Uppsala in Sweden, was trawling the web, looking for distraction, when he came across a message on an internet forum. The message was in stark white type, against a black background.

“Hello,” it said. “We are looking for highly intelligent individuals. To find them, we have devised a test. There is a message hidden in this image. Find it, and it will lead you on the road to finding us. We look forward to meeting the few that will make it all the way through. Good luck.”

The message was signed: “3301”.

A self-confessed IT security “freak” and a skilled cryptographer, Eriksson’s interest was immediately piqued. [...]

Sleepily – it was late, and he had work in the morning – Eriksson thought he’d try his luck decoding the message from “3301”. After only a few minutes work he’d got somewhere: a reference to “Tiberius Claudius Caesar” and a line of meaningless letters. Joel deduced it might be an embedded “Caesar cipher” – an encryption technique named after Julius Caesar, who used it in private correspondence. It replaces characters by a letter a certain number of positions down the alphabet. As Claudius was the fourth emperor, it suggested “four” might be important – and lo, within minutes, Eriksson found another web address buried in the image’s code.

Feeling satisfied, he clicked the link.

It was a picture of a duck with the message: “Woops! Just decoys this way. Looks like you can’t guess how to get the message out.” [...]


Early adopter story

November 27, 2013

I’ve mentioned previously that my family & I are subscribers to Republic Wireless‘ low-cost, no-commitment cellular service. Overall, it’s worked out well for us. Everyone got more service features and we cut our monthly bill in half. It’s been a great deal and I still recommend it.

In fact, four of my friends & extended family have bought Republic phones on my recommendation and they’re pretty happy with them.

But all that said, my experience with Republic hasn’t been without its vexations. It seems to be a universal truth that early adopters of anything will have their regrets as they learn the shortcomings of their adoptees.

The first wart I found was when I started the Republic enrollment process and read their Terms of Service. Yeah, I know… who does that? To be blunt, their Acceptable Use Policy scared me so much that I decided against enrolling. It took several days before I changed my mind and decided to sign up.

I had to agree to their ToS again recently and here’s the latest and greatest version, all 20 pages of it.

But what really bothers me — still — is Republic’s Acceptable Use Policy. It’s much worse than Sprint’s. Republic’s Use Policy is so open-ended that another subscriber can get your service terminated simply by complaining about harassment, inappropriate language, or similarly vague and poorly-defined matters. I know from experience with Google’s AdWords how that type of system works: the service provider will typically defend the complainer’s "Right Not To Be Offended" because that’s the easy way for the provider to deal with the problem.

Put another way, the squeaky wheel is very likely to get the grease regardless of the merits of the squeaking.

So read Republic’s Acceptable Use Policy carefully and think about how you’ll be using your phone. Republic will have the right to cancel your service if some Mrs. Grundy somewhere decides that your latest Facebook post, or Tweet, or e-mail is offensive.

Since I have other venues for my crazy and offensive ideas (hi, reader!) and since I never plan to publish those from my phone, I decided Republic’s A.U.P. wouldn’t affect me much.

The next pitfall was due to how we ordered our four Defy XTs. We ordered two at first, to check them out, and ordered two more later when we decided the first two worked OK.

But the wrinkle in this was that the first two phones we got were ‘single band’ phones, meaning that they could only use a single frequency range in Sprint’s cellular spectrum. (Sprint is the cellular carrier for Republic customers when the VoIP feature can’t be used.) The two phones we bought later were ‘dual band’ and could use two frequency ranges in Sprint’s spectrum.

The difference in coverage areas for these two types of phone is pretty striking. The dual-band phones work practically anywhere in the lower 48 states but that’s not true for the single-band phones. After getting my single-band Defy phone last year, I made a couple of trips to the Mississippi delta and as soon as I got about 25 miles south of Memphis, I had no signal. I didn’t even have roaming capability. The only way I could make a call was to find a hotspot in a hotel or restaurant where the phone could connect over WiFi.

"No problem," I thought. "I’ll just swap my single-band phone for one of the dual band phones." Then I discovered that Republic wouldn’t let me transfer my number to another phone, even though they were provisioning both phones.

Digging into it a little at Republic’s Community forum, I found that swapping number assignments on active phones wasn’t possible. Nice… very nice, guys.

I should add that Republic was upfront about the difference in coverage from the start, so I knew what I was getting into. I was just pushing my luck a little too far. What good is luck if you never push it?

As I said, overall it’s been a good deal and I’m a happy customer despite the drawbacks. Last week, Republic started selling the Moto X, running Android 4.2.2 (almost the latest version), and I upgraded. The Moto X is much nicer than the Defy XT and I’m liking it.

Upsides to the new deal:

  • Republic now supports call hand-off between media. That is, a call that originates on WiFi can now be switched to the cellular network when you walk out of WiFi range. With the Defy XT, when you walked away from the WiFi hotspot your VoIP call was simply dropped. That sort of sucked if your weren’t prepared for it or when you forgot about it. (T-Mobile used to offer this media-switching feature a few years ago, I’ve learned.)
  • The Moto X supports MMS; the Defy XT was limited to SMS only.
  • The hands-free control feature works better than I expected and is actually useful. It’ll do arithmetic by voice command.
    I’ve never used Siri, so I can’t compare the two but I like what I’ve seen on the Moto X so far.
  • The Moto X’s weight and thickness are the same as the Defy XT’s but the Moto X’s display is 25% larger and has a higher pixel density, so it’s much easier to read and type on. For me it’s the difference between needing my glasses or not. Huzzah! for more pixels.
  • Republic offers variable service plans for the Moto X. They’ll sell me text/voice/4G (LTE) data service for $40/month. Or they’ll sell me text/voice/data over WiFi only for $5/month. Or they offer other plans between those extremes. At the moment I have text/voice/3G data service at $25/month because the 4G coverage isn’t great in my area. (C’mon, Sprint! Git-R-Done!)
  • Republic sells the Moto X at a great price: $300 with a $100 rebate for Defy XT returns (mine’s already on its way back to Motorola). That’s not bad at all — but my Moto X is not an unlocked phone.

Downsides to the new deal (so far):

  • The Moto X battery can’t be removed. The Moto X seems to go easier on its battery than the Defy XT, but I can’t always charge the phone’s battery overnight. I kept spare batteries for my Defy XT so I could swap them when needed. Since I can’t do that with the Moto X, I bought an external battery pack.
    Luckily, those battery packs are fairly cheap on eBay and, better yet, I think they’ll charge an iPad too.
  • Since the Moto X has Republic’s proprietary VoIP code on its ROM, the phone is locked to Republic’s service. You can walk away from Republic’s service agreement at any time but you can’t get your Moto X provisioned by another carrier unless you want to root the phone.
  • There’s no place for a microSD card. Like the battery deal, this isn’t something Republic can change. Still, SD storage sure would be nice. The phone comes with 50GB at Google’s Drive (cloud storage) and that’s free for 2 years. If you don’t mind relying on a network connection for your data, that’s an alternative. Personally, I’ll get some local USB storage before I’ll gamble on always having a high-speed connection to cloud storage.
  • The internal memory on Republic’s Moto Xs is limited to 16GB. I’ll spare you the old-timer stories about what we used to run in only 512KB and just say that 16GB is too little by today’s standards. 32GB ought to be standard and 64GB ought to be an option.
  • Finally, Motorola offers a wide variety of colors for the Moto X (including a funky wood grain finish). But your only color choices from Republic are black and white.

In short, I like the Republic deal and it’s definitely improving. But, as always, your mileage may vary.


Super Zips

November 17, 2013

The Washington Post has an interesting interactive site showing demographics by zip code. I think the thrust of its article is about the concentration of income and college degrees around Washington, D.C. but it’s an interesting widget to explore with.


Washington: A world apart

This map highlights in yellow the nation’s Super Zips — those ranking highest on income and college education. The largest collection of Super Zips is around Washington, D.C. Learn more about this metric.

These are the top ten areas where "Super Zips" are clustered: Washington, D.C., E. Manhattan, San Jose, Boston, Oakland, Bridgeport, Newark, Chicago, N. of Los Angeles, Long Island.

Wow, Newark edged out Chicago? That’s gotta sting.

Via Carpe Diem (IIRC)


Into a black hole

July 20, 2013

I’m not a big fan of Vsauce but this clip about traveling into a black hole was very good, I thought. If you’ve ever been curious, this is the straight dope (an opinion based on my layman’s reading about astrophysics).



June 29, 2013

A little programming humor I found at imgur. (Click for larger, more legible view.)



What a lab test

June 29, 2013

Interesting news via The Register about a very long-term trial run for a piece of equipment.

NASA to flip ion engine’s ‘OFF’ switch after brilliant 5.5 year burn

NASA’s Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT), an ion-propulsion engine that has been firing continuously for five and one-half years, is due to be shut down at the end of this month.

“We will voluntarily terminate this test at the end of this month, with the thruster fully operational,” said NEXT’s principal investigator Michael Patterson in a statement. “Life and performance have exceeded the requirements for any anticipated science mission.”

Considering that the NEXT thruster has run steadily for over 48,000 hours, we would say that Patterson and his team have contributed mightily to NASA’s reputation of building devices with life spans that exceed expectations. The Martian mini-rover Opportunity, for one excellent example, was originally designed for a 90-day mission, but celebrated its ninth anniversary this January and set a new NASA distance record in May.


Working in America

July 15, 2012

Here’s an interesting 8 minutes of opinion from the guy who does Discovery Channel’s show Dirty Jobs.


A love letter to plywood

May 26, 2012

Since I just bought a sheet of 3/4″ plywood this evening, I was pleasantly surprised to run across this video at TYWKIWDBI a couple of hours later. (My son and I had gone shopping for a piece to build this.)

June 23rd: This video’s been udpated to the latest version, which adds ~3 minutes to talk about saw safety, kerfs, and the importance of matching Phillips bits to Phillips screws. These seem obvious to me now but I admit that they weren’t all that obvious 30 years ago.


Industrial bots

April 28, 2012

If you’re interested in heavy industry, here’s an interesting video about how a Mercedes E-class auto is built. Lots o’ robotic action going on.

I came across this in a post titled Feed The Monkey at Sippican Cottage. The gist of that post, as I took it, was useful work is nitpicked to death by Those Who Would Regulate.

Maybe so. I’ve often thought we have entirely too many people who want to manage, mostly by virtue of their credentials (as opposed to their acumen) — relative to the number of people who actually do useful work with their knowledge.

But what struck me about this clip was the amazing amount of skull sweat that had obviously gone into building this factory. Watch the robot set the dashboards and then back itself out of the vehicle, without leaving a mark on the piece or the vehicle. It takes an incredible amount of thought to design a robot that will do that. I’m sure it took a team of people to design that machine.

And it takes a fair amount of thought and concentration just to get the robot adapted to a particular task – after the robot itself has been designed and built. There’s a lot to understand about how an industrial robot controller works before you can actually put one to work. Getting the robot to move heavy things is pretty easy; getting it to move heavy things without damaging them or damaging other things is an entirely different kettle o’ fish.

Of course the Germans aren’t the only ones doing this. The Japanese are no slouches when it comes to automated manufacturing. Here’s a snippet from a Wikipedia article about "Lights Out" manufacturing.

FANUC, the Japanese robotics company, has been operating a “lights out” factory for robots since 2001.[7] “Robots are building other robots at a rate of about 50 per 24-hour shift and can run unsupervised for as long as 30 days at a time. “Not only is it lights-out,” says Fanuc vice president Gary Zywiol, “we turn off the air conditioning and heat too.”

I’ve been working with a FANUC ‘spider robot’ the last few months. It’s like the two in the center of the frame in this video. (They’re M-1iA models.)

It looks like the robots in the video are using Fanuc’s built-in machine vision system to see the things they’re picking up (when the red light appears). Our team used a custom, hyperspectral vision system to find particles and pick them out of a stream of material on a conveyor belt. But the end result is fairly similar.

These robots move pretty quickly: they’ll pick three particles per second. That may not sound like much until you calculate that it’s nearly 11,000 particles per hour — for however many hours you want to run them.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: