Category Archives: Tech

Animal’s Daily News

What kind of effect will driverless cars have on the transportation scene?  It may well be as big a change as the Model T Ford had on buggy-whip manufacturers.  Reason.com explains.  Excerpt:

Over at the New York Times, the op-ed page is featuring an article that asks, “Google Wants Driverless Cars, but Do We?” Who is the “We” of which author Jamie Lincoln Kitman speaks? Kitman worries about the “millions of truck and taxi drivers will be out of work, and owing to the rise of car-sharing and app-based car services, people may buy fewer vehicles, meaning automakers and their suppliers could be forced to shed jobs.”

This is akin to asking “Ford Motors wants horseless carriages, but do we?” The nascent automobile industry did not ask permission from the hostlers, hansom cab drivers, horsebreeders, passenger rail companies, and prominent carriage manufacturers like Brewster and Kimball to flood the roads with cheaper, faster, and more convenient transportation. In 1914 there were 4,600 carriage companies operating; by 1929 there were fewer than 90.

First up, note the title of that linked NYT article:  “Google Wants Driverless Cars, but Do We?”  My first thought when I cast optics on that headline was “What’s this ‘we’ shit, Kemosabe?”

 But it’s the conclusion to the Reason article that hits the real point:  I have got a better idea: Why don’t we let Americans choose for themselves in the marketplace without having to ask permission from politicians, bureaucrats and other would-be central planners?

Because crony capitalism, obviously.  The taxicab companies are doing some heavy lobbying to shut down ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft (full disclosure; I am a regular and enthusiastic Uber user) and the reason for that lobbying is obvious:

They can’t compete without it.  The old-style taxi companies can’t compete with the new ride-sharing model with their filthy cabs, long wait times and rude drivers.

The addition of cost-saving (eventually, at least) driverless cars just adds to the problems of cab companies.  In larger cities, it will remove any reason for plenty of folks to own a car, and it will forever change commuting.  Imagine riding in to your workplace while reading the news or answering emails, and on arrival ordering a car to pick you up at 5:00PM; no parking, no stress over traffic.

But whether or not driverless cars take off should be up to consumers, not government.

Animal’s Hump Day News

Happy Hump Day!
Happy Hump Day!

Say hello to LaundryBot.  Excerpt:

Hate doing laundry? Shin Sakane has a solution.

The Japanese inventor received 6 billion yen ($53 million) from partners, including Panasonic Corp., last month to advance “the Laundroid” — a robot Sakane is developing to not only wash and dry garments, but also sort, fold and neatly arrange them. The refrigerator-size device could eventually fill the roles of washing machine, dryer and clothes drawer in people’s homes.

Sakane, whose earlier inventions include an anti-snoring device and golf clubs made of space materials, said the funding will bring closer his dream of liberating humanity from laundry. Among his inspirations for the project is the 1968 Stanley Kubrick sci-fi classic “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Laundroid was designed to resemble the mysterious objects in the film that brought technology to prehistoric humans, and the project was originally code-named “Monolith.”

“That’s what we had in-mind: a technology that never existed on Earth descends from space,” the 45-year-old Sakane, head of Seven Dreamers Laboratories Inc., said in an interview at his Tokyo office. “If we could automate this, the act of doing laundry will be gone for good.”

They’re talking roughly $2,700 for the first iteration of the LaundryBot.  I have a funny feeling they’ll get plenty of takers even at that price; hell, a decent quality washer/dryer can cost you half that anyway.  Why not spring the the whole works?  Toss your laundry in just before leaving for work in the morning, come home to your laundry washed, dried, folded and ready to put away.

Now, if only someone could make a ToastBot.

Animal’s Hump Day News

Happy Hump Day!
Happy Hump Day!

Readers of these virtual pages know that I’m a fan of the Uber ride-sharing service.  Only last Saturday I used Uber to embark on an adventure in Boston’s historic North End, taking an Uber ride from my hotel in Braintree up to the Old North Church in the morning – spent the day wandering, partaking of fine beers in the North End’s wonderful Irish pubs and returning via Uber (again) to Braintree about eleven o’clock at night – all with no worries about whether I was one beer over the DUI limit, no worries about parking, no worries about navigating.

I like Uber.  I like it a lot.

Now Uber is making noises about making their service three-dimensional.  Excerpt:

In an onstage interview with me today at the Nantucket Conference, Uber products head Jeff Holden said that the fast-growing ride-sharing company was seriously looking at a new form of transportation to offer its customers: Short-haul flying in cities.

The technology is called VTOL — which stands for vertical takeoff and landing. Simply put, VTOL is an aircraft that can hover, take off and land vertically, which would also describe a helicopter. But, unlike the typical helicopter, these planes have multiple rotors, could have fixed wings and perhaps eventually would use batteries and be more silent. In time, like cars, such aircraft would be autonomous.

Holden said that he has been researching the area, “so we can someday offer our customers as many options as possible to move around.” He added that “doing it in a three-dimensional way is an obvious thing to look at.”

Holden said in the interview that such technology could be in use within a decade, which is an aggressive prediction, given the issues around the complexity of movement in the air above densely populated areas. (Also, you know, the possibility of these VTOL vehicles crashing into each other.)

Holden, who previously worked at Amazon and Groupon, has been deeply involved in Uber’s recent rollout of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. He noted that the company accelerated the development of that technology after it was first mentioned by CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick only a few years ago.

I prefer piloted air travel.
I prefer piloted air travel.

Now, ten years is probably wildly optimistic – unrealistically so.  Uber (as noted in the article) is already dipping a toe in the waters of driverless transport, and that’s interesting in and of itself; it promises to trim Uber’s costs and, presumably, prices, if they can make it work.  But VSTOL air travel at affordable prices – it cost me $16 one-way for the trip from Braintree to the North End – that’s quite a ways out, with serious technical, regulatory and navigational problems to overcome.

Still, Uber got to where they are today by breaking new ground in commuter travel.  If they want to hold their place in the transportation world, it’s in there interest to keep breaking new ground.  And new technology won’t be developed if someone doesn’t start.

Best of all – there’s no mention of Uber taking any Imperial funding for research.  That’s refreshing.  The market, not the Imperial City, is the wellspring of innovation.

Goodbye, Blue Monday!

Goodbye, Blue Monday!
Goodbye, Blue Monday!

Thanks as always to The Other McCain for the Rule Five links!

The first time I worked in Japan, in 2009, I took along my personal laptop for the job – an old Sony Vaio, the operating specs of which I forget, except that it was running Windows XP.

That laptop crashed and burned on the first day of a three-week stint in the Land of the Rising Sun.  The company gave me a loaner to get me working again, but it was a Japanese machine; the Windows and Office versions were Japanese.  I was able to use Western characters in Word, but the menus were all in Japanese; only my knowledge of “where shit is in Office” managed to make it usable.  That evening I went to Bic Camera in Kyoto, which is sort of a Japanese Best Buy, and looked for a laptop – great prices, but all Japanese keyboards and operating systems.

So I emailed Mrs. Animal to find me a new laptop and DHL it to me.  She did so – a wonderful Hewlett-Packard Pavilion, a big 17″ powerhouse that, in the years since, has been dragged all over the globe; Europe, Africa, Japan, China, Canada, Mexico and all over the USA – until a few days ago.

After almost seven years, the old Pavilion finally gave up the ghost.  So now I need a new laptop.  With that in mind, I would like to solicit the opinions of all you True Believers as to where to find a replacement.

My preferences:

  1. This might actually be a good sales pitch.
    This might actually be a good sales pitch.

    17″ laptop with a separate numeric keypad.

  2. At least an i7 quad-core processor.
  3. At least 16 gig RAM.
  4. Preferably a graphics or gaming rig, to handle recent gaming and photo/video manipulation
  5. Combo SSD/HDD for speed in loading OS and programs
  6. Windows 10

I can add peripherals, so a DVD/Blueray drive is optional.

Any thoughts?  I’m willing to run up to $2k for the right machine.

Animal’s Daily News

Confused BearWow!  Lockheed Martin may be close to building a Mach 6 (that’s right, six) aircraft!  Excerpt:

A hypersonic aircraft would give US military planners a significant advantage in reaching targets before opponents had time to react.

However, military engineers have struggled for decades with so-called scramjet engine technology to power such an aircraft.

Fuel burns in a stream of air moving at supersonic speeds inside the engine, but there have been far reaching questions about the technology’s efficiency and stability.

“We’re proving a hypersonic aircraft can be produced at an affordable price,” said Ms Hewson.

Granted this is research aimed at military applications, the possibilities of which are awesome in themselves – imagine an aircraft that can launch, reach 50,000 feet in minutes, and deploy a laser capable of knocking down Mach 10 ballistic missiles.  And military applications tend to trickle down into civilian applications; my grandkids may be able to fly from Denver to Tokyo in three hours.  Imagine how much that will shrink the world.

The 'Hog in action.
The ‘Hog in action.

But there’s a flip side to this, and as an old Infantry type myself I know how well there will always be a place for good old low-tech even on the modern battlefield.  One of the most useful pieces of military tech available today is the good old A-10 Warthog; a tough, durable, easy-to-maintain warbird that can carry a metric shitload of bombs and missiles besides its signature 30mm Avenger cannon.  The ‘Hog can can loiter low and slow over the battlefield while delivering withering fire on targets in close contact with friendly forces.

It’s still useful for today’s battlefield, where we are usually engaging low-tech foes.

Developing new, awesome military tech is important, especially if the U.S. is to maintain the military edge we have held since the 1980s.  But we shouldn’t neglect the low-tech boots and bullets end of things, either.

Animal’s Daily News

Friendly Skies.
Friendly Skies.

One of the better tech advances in recent years has been the installation of wifi on commercial airliners.  Excerpt:

Many of us spend a considerable amount of time flying and while it would be nice to sleep, watch movies, or hold conversations with those seated around us, we often have to get work done. There are a few types of technology providing internet access to those on airplanes flying over the US and the technology continues to advance in order to provide improved services.

The eDreams travel website has a consolidated list of airlines offering inflight Wi-Fi, but for this article we will start by taking a closer look at US domestic services. Service is currently provided by Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest Airlines, United, and Virgin America.

There are three technology solutions for providing inflight Wi-Fi, including Ku-band, Gogo, and Ka-band technology. Ku- and Ka-band technologies use satellites in orbit above the Earth while Gogo uses antennas mounted on a network of 160 cellphone towers on the Earth with an antenna on the bottom of the aircraft, thus the 10,000 feet requirement for Gogo service. American, Delta, Southwest, and United use Ku-band, JetBlue and United use Ka-Band, and Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, United, and Virgin America use Gogo. Some airlines use a mix of services.

This innovation is indeed a mixed blessing; on United, at least, your wifi signin screen warns you that bandwidth will not support streaming video and audio, so Spotify and Netflix are not on the menu (United does offer a so-so selection of in-flight entertainment through their app.)  The silver lining of that cloud is that VoIP apps like Skype are not supported, either.

Excellent BearWhy is that the silver lining?  For the same reason I hope in all earnest that the airlines never, ever, ever decide to offer cell phone coverage on airliners:  Because at present, the only place I can escape being subjected to everyone’s personal conversations is on airplanes or in my own house.

There are times when I’d like to be able to call into a teleconference that was scheduled while I was in the air.  But, to be honest, most of the time I’m just as glad to have an excuse not to call in, and the benefit of not having to listen to an endless gabfest more than makes up for that inconvenience.  Keep the wifi, airlines of the world, but leave the cell phones turned off.

Rockin’ New Year’s Rule Five Friday!

2016_01_01_Rule Five Friday (1)So, what is the tech that will change the way you do things in 2016?  The Wall Street Journal’s Geoffrey Fowler and Joanna Stern weigh in. Excerpt:

Science fiction will become science fact this year when you take virtual-reality vacations and your dishwasher reorders its own soap. Are you ready for a drone that follows you around like paparazzi?

When we gazed ahead at the devices, breakthroughs and ideas most likely to make waves, two themes emerged. One is liberation: We’re increasingly less shackled, be it to a phone charger or a cable subscription. The other is intelligence: As processing power and bandwidth increase, our machines, services and even messaging apps become more capable.

Here are our best picks for what’s coming, and what you can do to be ready for it.

Here’s the one I’m kind of looking forward to:

2016_01_01_Rule Five Friday (2)Smartphones and point-and-shoots alike are sprouting multiple lenses and sensors to improve image quality, capture depth and “see” in 3-D. Some laptops and tablets already contain multi-sensor cameras—such as Intel ’s RealSense—to measure rooms and use facial ID at login. A slim camera called the Light L16, due this summer, goes all out, employing 16 lens-and-sensor modules of varying focal lengths to capture massive 52-megapixel scenes.

We’ve been kicking around buying a really good digital SLR.  Mrs. Animal still has her treasured old Canon A-1, the flower of 1979 film camera technology and still as good a 35mm film camera as anyone 2016_01_01_Rule Five Friday (3)ever made.  But film and film processing is getting harder and harder to come by, while digital cameras are getting better, smaller, easier to use…  One would rightly assume that the age of the film camera is at an end.

But most digital SLRs are still big and bulky, nearly as much so as their film forerunners.  Why?  Lenses.  Big, long, heavy optical lenses.  It seems that the new multiple lens-and-sensors platforms will replace the big, clunky optical lenses of yore with a newer, high-tech solution that will be lighter, quicker and easier to use.

The question will be this:  How useful will these be for outdoor and wildlife photography?  Will one of these be able to replace a 500mm optical lens for taking pictures of birds and animals from some distance?  Digital zoom tech isn’t up to that yet; modern digital cameras are still relying on optical zooms for that, and for much of 2016_01_01_Rule Five Friday (4)an optical zoom, you need focal length.

It’s not yet clear whether the new tech will replace these kinds of lenses for this specialized photography.  We’ll see.

Here’s another good bit:

Finally, there’s a reason to connect household items to the Internet, thanks to programs like Amazon’s Dash Replenishment Service. Using sensors built into devices like Brita water pitchers, Brother printers and Whirlpool washers, it automatically orders more supplies when you’re running low. In 2016, expect to hear credible ideas about how everyday objects—from garage doors to air vents—can be connected to help run your house and reduce your worries.

2016_01_01_Rule Five Friday (5)Question:  Will I be able to buy a connected humidor, one that will automatically order me more cigars when my supply drops below a certain point?  How about a connected ammo cabinet that will ping MidwayUSA to send me more .45ACP when my supply drops below, say, 500 rounds – a reasonable reorder point for any active shooter?  Those are reasonable questions I will have to have answered.

In the meantime, happy 2016, True Believers!  May your new year be happy, healthy and profitable.

2016_01_01_Rule Five Friday (6)

Animal’s Daily News

Sleepy-bearHoly Crap!  The Death Star Weapon is Here! Japan Fires World’s Most Powerful Laser to Produce Energy Equal to 1,000 Times The Planet’s Power Consumption.  Excerpt:

Researchers in Osaka were able to produce a 2-petawatt laser beam using a device known as the Laser for Fast Ignition Experiment (LFEX).

The power of the ‘Death Star’-like beam is equivalent to 1,000 times the world’s total electricity consumption, the scientists claim.

While it produced a huge amount of power, the energy required for the beam itself is equivalent to that needed to power a microwave for two seconds.

The team were able to produce such a high output from low energy by only firing the laser beam for 1 pico-second, or a trillionth of a second.

To amplify the beam’s power, energy was applied to strategically-placed glass panels along the 328ft (100 metre)-long LFEX device.

These glass lamps were able focus the beam to boost its energy as it passed through.

From an insert in the article:

  • The device produced a 2-petawatt – or 2 quadrillion-watt – laser beam.
  • This is equivalent to 1,000 times the world’s electricity consumption. 
  • To put that in context, Rheinmetall Defense was recently able to shoot a drone down a mile away using a 50kW laser.
  • The 50kW laser was 10 billion times less powerful that the one used in Japan.

Again:  Holy crap!  You’d need a really big shark to put that frickin’ laser on its frickin’ head.

But seriously, interesting as this is, the tech involved has one obvious application:  Fusion reactors.  A laser-compression fusion reactor needs really powerful lasers – really, really powerful frickin’ lasers.  This is one such, but there’s a problem:  A one picosecond burst isn’t very useful.  Interesting, but not useful.   One would think a sustained burst would be what was needed.

But then, my background is biology, not physics.

Animal’s Daily News

Smiling BearThanks once again to The Other McCain for the Rule Five links!

Moving right along:  Holy crap!  Techies may be inventing a brain-putor.  Excerpt:

A new computer prototype called a “memcomputer” works by mimicking the human brain, and could one day perform notoriously complex tasks like breaking codes, scientists say.

These new, brain-inspired computing devices also could help neuroscientists better understand the workings of the human brain, researchers say.

In a conventional microchip, the processor, which executes computations, and the memory, which stores data, are separate components. This constant relaying of data between the processor and the memory consumes time and energy, thus limiting the performance of standard computers.

But wait!  There’s more!

To solve NP-complete problems, scientists are also pursuing a different strategy involving quantum computers, which use components known as qubits to investigate every possible solution to a problem simultaneously. However, quantum computers have limitations — for instance, they usually operate at extremely low temperatures.

In contrast, memcomputers “can be built with standard technology and operate at room temperature,” Di Ventra said. In addition, memcomputers could tackle problems that scientists are exploring with quantum computers, such as code breaking.

So what happens when a computer reaches self-awareness?

Apocalyptic visions aside, think instead of the moral implications.  Is a self-aware computer alive?  Does it have rights?  Responsibilities?  Can it make moral claims against people?

If computers ever get to that point, it will present some interesting problems.