Archive for July, 2007

Skinsuits may become a reality soon

Tuesday, July 17th, 2007

Skinsuits/slimsuits, as they are variously called in the science fiction literature, may soon become a reality. It’s about time. The problem with current spacesuits is that they are bulky, heavy (as measured in units of mass), and restrict free movement. Spacesuits being heavy isn’t so much of a problem in space (though momentum remains unaffected by zero gravity, so heavy spacesuits are still unwieldy and hard to accelerate, i.e., move), but it is a real problem on surfaces that have appreciable gravity, like Luna and Mars. You’ve seen the Lunar videos of astronauts bunny-hopping around. Wonder why they weren’t covering so much more ground in the weak Lunar gravitational field, which is one-sixth the strength of Earth’s? It’s because their spacesuits are so darn heavy! Put them in something more reasonable and they’ll be able to move across the landscape in great leaps and bounds.

Thankfully, researchers at MIT are making progress in the development of skinsuits. They’re using mechanical counter-pressure, generated by tightly wrapped bands of material, rather than gas pressurization, to protect the astronaut from vacuum. Pressure on the body only needs to be about one-third of Earth’s atmosphere to prevent injury (and obviously pressure must be one atmosphere in the helmet to allow proper breathing). Researchers have nearly achieved the necessary 30 psi body pressures. And what a breakthrough it will be when they do.

No longer will astronauts have to endure bulky, movement-restricting suits that weigh hundreds of pounds. And it’s not just an issue of comfort, it’s an issue of efficiency. The right equipment can make the difference between a mission that takes one hour and one that takes ten hours. Or it can make the difference between an excursion from a Mars landing base taking one hour or three, all depending on how much extra weight the astronauts need to lug along with them just to keep them alive. Skinsuits are the next evolution in spacesuits. There’s no need to bring along an atmosphere with you to cover your entire body. You just need it on your head, and all of the savings in airtight material, pumps, and tanks really do add up. Science fiction has been writing about skinsuits for a long time now and it’s great that they’re coming close to being reality.

A brief stopover at Roby Cemetery

Monday, July 16th, 2007

I got back from a camping trip to Green Ridge State Forest in western Maryland with my dad yesterday. The trip itself was very fun precisely because it was so different from my usual experiences. The quality of the ungraded dirt roads leading to the camp site was atrocious — we were the only sedan in a field of SUVs and pick-up trucks at the campgrounds. Our campsite was about 40 meters away from the Potomac River, in which we waded half-way across to West Virginia on Sunday. The river was really nice, and looking out over the bends in the river from a scenic overlook really was a treat (see it on Google Maps). We did hear people shooting shotguns at all hours of day and night over in West Virginia across the river, though, helping to remind us just what part of the country we were in. At least the Maryland side was a State Forest, and thus had no hunting.

As we were driving along the dirt roads, we passed a little plot of land that was enclosed in a simple wooden fence and labeled with a sign that reads “Roby Cemetery”. We drove by that cemetery thrice, but on our fourth pass, as we were leaving the campgrounds for good, we decided to stop and check it out. It helps to paint a mental picture of the cemetery itself, as well as the surrounding area.

All of the land in the whole region around the Potomac in Green Ridge State Forest is very hilly. The Potomac River winds through in grand loops, cutting fiercely into the hills and forging a wide, considerably tall river channel. The cemetery is located in a small clearing dominated by three pine trees on a pretty steep hillside a good ways up from the river. It’s totally isolated from all civilization save for that lone single lane ungraded dirt road. There are only a few surviving houses in the area, though we did see a large free-standing chimney as evidence of others. The C&O Canal runs along parallel to the river, though it is unceremoniously filled in at one section so the dirt road leading to the campgrounds at Bond’s Landing can cross. The canal hasn’t been filled to the top with water in nearly a hundred years; it’s basically a swamp now, with luscious sheets of green algae strangling the low pools of stagnant water gathered from rainfalls.

And amidst all of this, in an area that once housed many locals living off the wealth brought in by the Canal, but is now home mainly to vacationers on weekends, sits the Roby Cemetery, a curious relic from the past. The earliest gravestone in the cemetery lies right at the entrance. It is for a man who died in 1851. The oldest gravestone is much further in the back in the cemetery; it is for a man who died in 1948. We could find nothing newer. The cemetery charts the rise and fall of regular human habitation in the area.

Roby Cemetery contains a dozen marked gravestones, most with the curious predilection for listing the exact age of the deceased in years, months, and days. The majority of the people in the cemetery died at ages that we would nowadays consider far too young. The cemetery is also home for lots of other assorted stones that appear to be grave markers that were either inauspicious when first laid down or simply haven’t survived the weathering of time. One small roughly hewn stone is simply labeled with initials. Many other stones, clearly carved in rough rectangular shapes, are unmarked. It’s hard to tell whether they are independent grave markers or merely foot stones for other graves. If I had to guess, just judging by all of the unusual stones on the plot of land, I would say that about several dozen people are buried in the cemetery. Many are children, either labeled on their parents’ gravestones or buried with nothing but an interestingly shaped rock from the local land to mark them. Their stories are permanently lost.

Amidst all of this history we found evidence of recent humanity. Several of the gravestones have flowers laid before them. A few have teddy bears and other stuffed animals. Inspecting all of the graves closely, we discovered evidence of teddy bears from seasons past, severely deformed and rotten remains that nevertheless remained unmistakably teddylike. Jokingly, I wondered whether the gravestones were really for humans, or merely for some macabre ritual of dead stuffed animals “buried” above-ground and left to rot.

It got us to wondering — who was leaving these mementos at the graves? Some of the teddy bears were left for people who died at the age of 50 during the 1800’s. No one currently alive can possibly have ever met them. Only one grave that had mementos laid out upon it could even possibly contain a person still remembered by anyone currently living, though due to the ages involved, that would be unlikely.

Somewhere out there is a person who makes a habit of leaving mementos upon the graves of long-dead people. It may be a stranger, a regular tourist, or it may be some descendant of the Roby family. Either way, it’s comforting to know that, somewhere out there, someone is going through the motions of comforting the long-dead, for no tangible rewards; they are doing it simply because it makes them feel good and they think it is making others feel good. I wouldn’t be one to do that myself, but sentimentality, even meaningless sentimentality, is touching in a way that reason can’t seem to explain.

As we scrambled down that hillside cemetery and loaded up into our car to leave for good, I couldn’t help thinking about people, and not so much the dead who are long gone, but the living, who are still carefully maintaining that cemetery that hasn’t seen anyone laid to rest in it for decades. The mowed grass devoid of leafed intruders from the surrounding forest, the recently erected wooden fence protecting the cemetery grounds from the road, and the thoughtfully laid out flowers and stuffed animals — all of these busy undertakings of still-living people dedicated towards maintaining hallowed grounds of the long-deceased impacted me a lot more than pondering the lives of the long gone. Cemeteries do give me a strange feeling, but it has little to do with the presence of remains.

Chex Quest – the best cereal promotion ever

Thursday, July 12th, 2007

Chex Quest screenshotOne favorite way cereal makers have of marketing to kids is including goodies in the box. There have been all sorts of goodies packaged into cereals over time, including little toys, Pogs, spoons, etc. But with the coming of the digital age we saw the advent of even better goodies: digital applications packaged on CD-ROM. And the best such goodie I remember was a game called Chex Quest, released in 1996, available exclusively in boxes of Chex cereal.

Chex Quest was awesome because it was essentially a re-skin of Doom, except instead of zombies shooting guns at you, there were “flemoids” shooting goo, and instead of you shooting back at them with guns, you employed an arsenal of a variety of cereal-themed weapons, such as a spoon, an electric spoon, a spinning electric spoon, and more. The game was actually good because it was based on a good game, and I remember playing through it for several hours. Talk about a good value for an add-in to a box of cereal!

Apparently, an enthusiast community built up around Chex Quest, and there’s still an actively maintained version that runs on the latest version of Windows. Not only that, it’s been updated and improved over time, adding difficulty levels and more levels to the original. It’s called The Ultimate Chex Quest, and it’s available for download, free. It doesn’t stand up very well against modern first person shooters, of course, but it’s great for anyone looking to fondly reminisce.

Plug-in hybrids 5-10 years away?!

Tuesday, July 10th, 2007

Why is Ford Motor Company Chief Executive Alan Mulally saying that plug-in hybrids are 5-10 years away? It makes no sense whatsoever. As I previously wrote, do-it-yourself plug-in kits for hybrid cars are already available. They are a bit on the pricey side, but that’s because they’re after-market. But the automobile production company itself has many advantages that a kit maker doesn’t, and should easily be able to make an automobile with a plug within a year. The hybrid already has batteries for gods’ sakes; all you have to do is add an external plug (easy) and a converter (easy) that plugs into the batteries. That’s it. It shouldn’t cost more than a couple hundred per vehicle at retail, and would be well worth it.

So why is Ford saying plug-ins are potentially five to ten years in the future? It’s not because they’re hard to make. It’s because they’re in bed with the oil companies. This was already amply demonstrated when GM killed the electric car. Unfortunately for them, everyone realizes that plug-in hybrids are inevitable. They’re just going to drag their butt as much as possible in the interim, continuing to scratch Big Oil’s backs with high gas consumption for as long as possible. What they should have learned by now is that this is a disastrous strategy, and it’s hurting them in the most direct way possible: last year Ford lost $12.6 billion and had to lay off thousands of workers.

As long as American auto companies continue their sickening, diseased relationships with Big Oil, they’re going to continually have their ass handed to them. Look at how badly they got beaten by Asian auto companies in the burgeoning small cars market following the recent gas price shocks. And does anyone seriously believe it’s going to take Toyota and Honda a full five to ten years to release a plug-in-capable version of their highly successful hybrid vehicles? Not likely! So once again Ford is going to be playing catch-up, and lose.

On the web, in-depth content is king

Tuesday, July 10th, 2007

Pardon the irony of me using a quick blog post to link to a well-written essay detailing why well thought out, in-depth essays are much more successful than quick blog posts. Just to be really lazy, I’ll use the same quote from the article that Slashdot picked up on:

“Blog postings will always be commodity content: there’s a limit to the value you can provide with a short comment on somebody else’s comments. Such postings are good for generating controversy and short-term traffic, and they’re definitely easy to write. But they don’t build sustainable value. Think of how disappointing it feels when you’re searching for something and get directed to short postings in the middle of a debate that occurred years before, and is thus irrelevant.”

I can definitely see the truth to that. Often I’ll be searching some obscure thing and I kind of cringe when I run across blog posts, because they usually don’t contain enough information. I’ve known this guy’s advice subconsciously for awhile, but it was just today that I finally saw it written down and talked about explicitly. I have tried to write in-depth posts that will continue to be useful for long periods of time, and I think I have partially succeeded. For instance, check out my my tutorial on installing WordPress in Ubuntu (which was actually my first post of any substance on this blog). It ranks highly in Google search results and still gets people commenting on it, and thanking me for it, to this day.

Now I can compare that against ten random blog postings from a couple months ago, which in aggregate took more time to write than the tutorial, but generate a sum total of far fewer visitors. It really is worth it to invest that extra time and write up something that is really good. If you just do a typical blog post you’re lost against the background noise of the web and your efforts aren’t rewarded, but if you write up a source of information that is so good that it becomes definitive and gets linked from places like Slashdot or Digg (like the aforementioned article), then that’s a good success.

Now, to think of something like that to write about …

Prescient BBS posting regarding oppressive governments and terrorism

Tuesday, July 10th, 2007

My friend sent me this old manifesto he dug up from a long time ago today and it was so apt I just had to post it. He recalls downloading it from a BBS sometime in the year 1994. The essay is by a group calling themselves the “Underground eXperts United”. It reads like anarchist paper literature, except this was out and breeding on the web, and is chillingly accurate regarding terrorism and the state’s response to it. You almost can’t help but think “Yeah, that happened” as you go through reading it. So here it is:

Read the rest of this entry »

Photography from our San Francisco trip

Monday, July 9th, 2007

I finally got around to offloading the photographs I took on our San Francisco trip from my mom’s digital camera (I didn’t bring my own and hers is much better anyway). Some of the photographs came out really nicely, and I guess I’ll go over those in the coming days. But first, some fun.

My dad at a restaurant in Napa

This is my dad at a restaurant in Napa. He sometimes doesn’t like his picture taken, but rather than being a complete wuss and trying to hide his face, he makes strange faces in the hope that the picture will end up being worthless and that I won’t bother with future pictures. But as you can see, his strategy backfires horribly, because the pictures of him making funny faces are generally hysterical, and only encourage me to take more and more pictures of him until I annoy him into making a funny face.

My mom at a restaurant in Napa

This is a picture of my mom at the same restaurant. I loved the beautiful landscaping the restaurant had. Not visible in this picture is the vineyard just beyond the trees, which encircles the restaurant in three directions, as well as the towering 6 meter cylindrical manicured bushes separating the restaurant from the parking lot. In terms of aesthetics, I would say this was my favorite restaurant that we ate at while in California.

Adjusting the length of the school year

Monday, July 9th, 2007

It occurs to me that we’re still dealing with an archaic tradition that has persisted despite lots of technology. I’m talking about the school year. Many decades ago, having a three or four month interruption in schooling during the summer made sense. Most Americans lived in rural areas, and many were farmers. The farmers needed all the help they could get during the busy summer harvest season, so of course they needed the assistance of their kids. Even my dad spent a summer or two at his uncle’s farm in Oklahoma, putting up fences, handling cattle, driving a tractor to till the fields, etc. But the times have changed.

More than half of all Americans now live in cities and towns, and the number of people who are actually involved in rudimentary farming are vanishingly small. Technology has also come a long ways, making farms much more mechanized, and requiring the use of less labor. Also, consider the changing American societal attitudes of child labor. Children don’t help out at the farm to the extent that they used to, and they really are no longer needed. So why do they need so many months off in the summer? They don’t.

It would be better for society in general if the school year was radically reshaped. Current school years (in the United States, anyway) have just 180 to 182 school days in them — that’s slightly less than half of the year! Think of all of the extra educational benefit we would get from increasing that number to, say, 70%. Simply eliminate the summer vacation and add more one week vacations, like Spring Break, throughout the year.

Now I’m not saying that summer fun should be eliminated, not at all. I went to a lot of educational summer camps when I was younger and I had a blast. But I also went to a fair number of leisure camps that, although they were fun, didn’t much educate me along the way to my adult life. Summer school should be a bit different than winter school. Kids would go on a lot more field trips. It’d almost be like an educational summer camp, except that it would be paid for and controlled by the state, which would do wonders for kids living in poverty whose parents cannot afford to send them to camp.

Looking back at my life, at the current age of 21, I can say there was a good amount of wasted time. It shouldn’t take so many years to get the equivalent of an undergraduate degree in knowledge. If the antiquated summer break were simply phased out, children would be getting much more instructional time each year, would learn more, would be smarter, and would be able to productively contribute to society at a younger age. One of the big problems we’re currently facing in America is stupidity. Increased schooling would fix that.

Beer kegs

Sunday, July 8th, 2007

This is either heartbreaking or glorious news, depending on your attitude towards the consumption of alcohol, anyway. Every year breweries lose millions of dollars in stolen and lost kegs. It’s a problem of simple mathematics: the typical deposit to get a keg is between $10-$30, but a keg is worth up to $50 when sold for scrap metal, and each replacement keg costs about $150 to manufacture. So some people, rather than returning their kegs, are forgoing their deposit fee and getting more money at the scrapyard. Even worse, others are simply going around behind restaurants and bars and stealing the unsecured kegs and then selling them for scrap.

It’s kind of hard to see what breweries should do at this point to cut down on their losses. They could simply stop selling beer in nice kegs, opting instead for multiple smaller thin-walled aluminum containers, but that would really take the fun out of throwing a kegger, and it wouldn’t work so well for bars, which would have to more frequently change out the supplies leading to the beers on tap. The deposit fee on kegs could be raised to the actual value of the keg, or at least an amount higher than its worth as scrap metal, but that would reduce the number of people buying kegs, and it wouldn’t solve the theft problem.

I suppose the best solution to this conundrum is two-fold. As much as I don’t like additional legislation, I think it might be necessary here: pass a law prohibiting scrapyards from buying kegs unless proof of ownership is provided. This way breweries will still be able to sell back kegs, but no one else will. It’s not really a loss of freedom because technically the customers never own the kegs anyway; they always remain property of the brewery. Also, make bars and restaurants responsible for the full values of the kegs, so if they use inadequate security measures then they incur the losses rather than the breweries. While it is unreasonable to ask “civilian” customers to pony up a $150 deposit, bars and restaurants that do a regular business can afford to pay market rates for whatever number of kegs they have in inventory, and then they can just trade in empty kegs for full ones, or get the full value back.

Even with these added measures, though, kegs may simply be becoming too expensive to continue to use. They do require the use of a lot of expensive metal. Maybe the future will see hard plastic kegs, or even large durable plastic bags full of beer? Restaurants are already buying their condiments and soda syrups that way.

Fake cheek kisses

Saturday, July 7th, 2007

You know what annoys the hell out of me? Fake cheek kisses. My aunt married an Italian and has been living over there for over twenty five years, so she knows how to do the cheek kissing correctly. Here’s a hint: it doesn’t count if there isn’t any actual contact. What annoys me is when I see this annoying American pantomime, usually amongst the elite, where they mimic the cheek kissing but don’t actually make any contact.

It’s absurd. It’s ridiculous. It’s not anything I’d want to be a part of. If you aren’t going to fully commit to the kiss, use something else. There are lots of other available greetings/farewells, including handshakes, pats on the back, high fives, real hugs, and fake hugs, none of which are nearly as corny as the fake cheek kisses. Though don’t get me started on fake hugs either (that’s where both people lunge forward with their shoulders, awkwardly making contact only at around the shoulders level).

Honestly, people, just use show some dignity with your human bodily interactions.