Archive for the ‘Geek’ Category

Who holds back the electric car?

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

By way of the Y Combinator Twitter, I found this rather interesting Fast Company article about “Better Place”.

Better Place was born to be revolutionary, the epitome of the kind of world-changing ambition that routinely gets celebrated. Founder Shai Agassi, a serial entrepreneur turned rising star at German software giant SAP, conceived Better Place “on a Davos afternoon” in 2005 when he asked himself, “How would you run a whole country without oil?” Four years later, onstage at the TED conference, Agassi, a proud Israeli with a bit of a Steve Jobs complex, wore a black turtleneck and promised, with the confidence of a man who has known the future for some time but has only recently decided to share his findings, that he would sell millions of electric vehicles in his home country and around the world. He implied that converting to electric cars was the moral equivalent of the abolition of human slavery and that it would usher in a new Industrial Revolution.

Shai Agassi was on FC‘s “2009 Most Creative People in Business” list. He was on the cover of Wired. Better Place raised almost a billion dollars.

And if being on the cover of Wired wasn’t a dead giveaway for you, they collapsed.

Agassi had assumed that the car would cost roughly half the price of a typical gasoline car and would have a range of at least 100 miles. Instead, batteries were delivered with a range of closer to 80 miles, and the terms with ­Renault meant he was selling an unsexy family car for about the same price as a nice sedan like the Mazda3 or the Toyota Corolla. (Not to mention that customers were asked to spend an additional $3,000 or so a year to rent the battery and pay for the use of charging and swap stations.)

I have been, and continue to be, somewhat critical of Tesla. But I think one thing they’re doing right is positioning their vehicles as a premium product that’s worth the asking price.

Random notes: April 8, 2014.

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

For the historical record, your Mickey Rooney obit roundup: NYT. LAT. A/V Club.

The author Peter Matthiessen has also passed away after an illness. The only work of Matthiessen’s that I’ve read so far is In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, which made a strong impression on me at the time. Further, I say not, as I’d sound too much like TJIC. Anyway: A/V Club. NYT. NYT Magazine article published shortly before Matthiessen’s death.

Thanks to “That Guy” for providing a Houston Press link with more details about the Damian Mandola story. There’s also an update in the Statesman: Austin Eater has a story which links to the Statesman, so this may let you get around the paywall.

…security researchers say that in most cases, attackers hardly need to go to such lengths when the management software of all sorts of devices connects directly to corporate networks. Heating and cooling providers can now monitor and adjust office temperatures remotely, and vending machine suppliers can see when their clients are out of Diet Cokes and Cheetos. Those vendors often don’t have the same security standards as their clients, but for business reasons they are allowed behind the firewall that protects a network.
Security experts say vendors are tempting targets for hackers because they tend to run older systems, like Microsoft’s Windows XP software. Also, security experts say these seemingly innocuous devices — videoconference equipment, thermostats, vending machines and printers — often are delivered with the security settings switched off by default. Once hackers have found a way in, the devices offer them a place to hide in plain sight.

Heh. Heh. Heh. (Also: remember some jerk saying “Titles like ‘Restaurant IT Guy’ or ‘SysAdmin for Daniel’ are going to become a thing, if they aren’t already.”? I didn’t even think about the “Hey, let’s put malware on the server for that Chinese place that everyone orders from! That’ll give us a back door into the Federal Reserve!” scenario.)

Al Sharpton: FBI informant.

Am I crazy?

Friday, March 14th, 2014

I know, I know, but seriously: am I crazy?

John Gruber linked to an interview with “The Setup” (“What do people use to get stuff done?”) by John McAfee. Yes, that John McAfee.

In the photo, it looks like he’s holding one of those GSG MP-5 clones in .22 LR. I’ll admit I could be wrong about that: it may be one of the Umarex guns instead, but I am 99 44/100ths percent sure it is one of those two .22LR clones. (The magazine is a dead giveaway.)

Quoth Mr. McAfee:

My tools for national security consulting are primarily a semi-auto .22 rifle with a silencer. They are virtually completely silent and can pierce car doors and other light armor. They are perfect for urban environments.

I will confess that I have not had a lot of occasion in my life to shoot through car doors. After all, I am not a tactical operator operating tactically in operations with tactics.

But a silenced .22 penetrating one? Yeah, I’m sorry. I’m going to have to see the Box of Truth or somebody shoot through a car door with a silenced .22 before I believe that.

Happy Pi Day, everyone!

Friday, March 14th, 2014

I’ve been messing around a little with QuickPi 4.5 on my free time at work; that’s a fun little program.

And here’s a Pi Day article from the LAT which includes complaints from the usual bunch of whiners who think pi should be replaced by tau. I bet these same people think Pluto isn’t a planet.

These people are why we can’t have nice things any longer.

Edited to add: So apparently, Tau Day is June 28th. Interesting. You know what else June 28th is? That’s right: Gavrilo Princip Day!

Edited to add 2:

o Intel(R) Core(TM) i7-3740QM CPU @ 2.70GHz detected
o Processor speed measured at 2.70 GHz
o Single processor with eight cores and 2-way SMT per core
o 4.0 GB of memory available
o Using custom training data

Computation of Pi to 1,073,741,824 digits
Method used : Chudnovsky
Started : Fri Mar 14 10:07:24 2014

Series size : 75713477 (1,073,741,838 digits)
Computing series, time : 2144.09
Computing final value, time : 397.05

Total time : 2541.15 seconds (42 mins, 21.15 secs)
Total memory used : 4,259,072,015 (3.97 GB)

Total disk space used : 3,319,660,544 (3.09 GB)
Time spent swapping : 198.01 (153.65 reading, 44.36 writing)

Processor utilization : 274.33%

My humps, my humps…

Friday, February 14th, 2014

A camel that escaped from a Palmdale property and began charging people and cars is now in the custody of animal control officials.


1. I admit I’ve written some bad Perl code. But I don’t recall writing any that ran away. SQL queries, yes, but not Perl code.
2. “Runaway Camel” sort of sounds like a stunt organized by those truth jackasses.
3. I have a “primates” tag; do I need a “mammals” tag?

Edited to add: I think I do need a “mammals” tag, and an associated “camels” tag. But even though primates are mammals, I don’t feel right moving the “primates” tag under the “mammals” tag, so I’m keeping them separate for now.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Friday, February 14th, 2014

How about a little musical interlude? This is one of my favorite songs; oddly enough, it is also the only one I can think of off the top of my head that works for both Valentine’s Day and Halloween.

And if you haven’t purchased something for your significant other yet, you may wish to check this out. Usual conflict of interest disclaimer applies.

Kickstart me!

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

I went shooting this afternoon with some folks, including Lawrence and Mike the Musicologist. Then we went to dinner. And at dinner, I came up with an idea. Even better, my idea has almost nothing to do with my previous post. (It does use some of the same technology.)

Those of my readers who are People of the Gun probably know what a ballistic chronograph is. For those who aren’t: briefly, a ballistic chronograph measures how fast a bullet is going. You place a stand that has two evenly spaced “screens” in front of your gun, and then fire a bullet through the screens. As the bullet passes through each screen, the screen detects the bullet’s passage. The screens are a known distance apart, so by measuring the time difference between the bullet’s passage between the screens, you can determine how fast the bullet is going. Typically, the screens are connected by a cable to a “head unit” that displays the velocity of the last shot, as well as keeping records for all shots in a session (including averages and standard deviations).

Ammunition catalogs will typically give you a muzzle velocity, but that assumes a certain barrel length, certain atmospheric conditions, and other factors. If you really want to know how fast a particular load from your gun is – or if you load your own ammunition, which wouldn’t be in a catalog – you want a ballistic chronograph. (Knowing velocities is also important in determining trajectories; for example, how much a bullet of a certain shape that starts out at a certain velocity will drop at 100 yards, 200 yards, 300 yards, and so on.)

That’s kind of a simplified introduction. Here’s my idea: why not put Bluetooth into the base that has the screens on it? And then, make your “head unit”, the part that displays the velocity and calculates averages, standard deviation, et al, an iPhone/Android app? You pair the screen base with your phone using the app; the phone has all the smarts and does all the calculations. You probably don’t need anything more complex in the base than the equivalent of a Bluetooth headset; just something to send the elapsed time over to the phone.

I see two good things about this: first, you’re saving some money on hardware because you don’t need a “head unit”, just the screens and an app. Second. when you want to upgrade the chronograph with “additional features”, all you really need to do is upgrade the phone app; the piece with the screens can be really dumb, since it just measures elapsed time between the bullet crossing the screens. All the real effort can be handled by the app that communicates with the screens.

Standard Bluetooth (like your wireless headset uses) has a range of about 30 feet, or 10 yards. My understanding is that most people put their chronograph screens somewhere around 5 yards from the muzzle, so that’s maybe 15 or 20 feet. We can figure that there won’t be any obstructions between the phone (which is probably sitting on the shooting bench) and the screen unit, so Bluetooth ought to work for this. If we’re really worried, we could make the link Bluetooth Class 1 instead of Class 2, which would give us about 100 yards of range between the screen unit and the phone, but I think that’s probably overkill.

The only possible drawback I can see is power: the screens are going to need their own power source, but you could easily put a fairly large rechargeable battery into the base of the unit. Enabling Bluetooth on the phone and using the app is going to suck up some battery power, but I’m thinking no more so than a Bluetooth headset. I’d be surprised if you couldn’t get at least two to three hours of chronographing with your iPhone before it needed recharging (depending on how much of a charge you started with). If your sessions at the range testing hand loads run all day, an external battery pack for your phone solves that problem.

A quick Google search turns up nothing like this idea, and I don’t see any reason why it can’t work. If you do, please post in comments. If you like this idea and have the skills to build it, you’re welcome to take the ball and run with it; I’d put up a Kickstarter for it, except I have no EE skills that would enable me to build this device, and I don’t know anyone who does have those skills.

Changing the face of dining.

Friday, January 31st, 2014

We have a noodle truck at the office on Thursdays.

The Forbidden. Beef stewed for four hours in an Indonesian-style red curry. DFG Noodles, Austin, Texas.

The Forbidden. Beef stewed for four hours in an Indonesian-style red curry. DFG Noodles, Austin, Texas.

And it is pretty damn good.

And they take credit/debt cards. You’ve seen it before, haven’t you? iPad with a credit card swiper, pick your tip, sign, have your receipt emailed to you?

This observation isn’t original to me, and I’m not sure it is terribly profound, but: services like Square have revolutionized credit card processing. I remember the old days, when setting up a merchant account was hard to do, and you needed a phone line, and you needed bulky equipment, and the credit card processors charged enormous fees. Now? I’m kind of far from retail, so I’m not sure if Square has resulted in downward pressure on fees (though I suspect it has).

Someone I know who is in retail and takes credit cards reviewed an early draft of this post and provided this information: they pay 2.61% for credit card processing, but each month’s statement also contains a laundry list of “cryptic inexplicable fees” that they have to pay as well. Square claims to charge a flat 2.75% for swiped transactions (Visa, MC, AmEx, Discover) with no additional fees. (I say “claims” because I have not used Square and can’t verify that for myself.)

Square also claims to deliver your money in one to two business days, no matter what type of card it is. The retail person I know says that AmEx fees depend on how long you let AmEx keep your money: they let AmEx hold their money for 15 days, and pay between 2% and 3%.

But fees aside, anyone who has a bank account can take credit cards these days, and all you need is an iPhone or iPad (or a supported Android device, though frankly that looks a little painful). Little to no bulk, no landline, and the money goes into your linked bank account.

The big thing, as I see it, isn’t the merchant charges: it is the portability. Your credit card machine is your phone or tablet, and it fits in a trailer. Or in a pocket. And you don’t need anything else – you don’t even need a printer, you can just email receipts to your customers. (Okay, you might want a charging cable, depending on how good battery life is on your device. But other than that, nothing.)



Random notes: January 22, 2014.

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

You’re going down in flames, you tax-fattened hyena!

He is the walrus, goo goo a joub.

Is Gary Kasparov trying to buy the presidency of the World Chess Federation?

Two months earlier, Kasparov and Leong negotiated a deal in which Leong would help Kasparov’s presidential run in exchange for $500,000, according to a draft contract reviewed by The New York Times. Kasparov also agreed, after his election, to open a new federation office in Singapore, to be run by Leong, for which he would be paid an undisclosed amount.

“Leong” is Ignatius Leong, who lives in Singapore and is the current general secretary of the federation. He serves under the current president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who is also running for re-election to the federation presidency. Kasparov’s spokespeople say that draft contract has been superseded. But if Kasparov is trying to buy the office, would that be a bad thing? In the last election

…Ilyumzhinov, who has been president of the federation since 1995, defeated Karpov, 95 to 55. Much of Ilyumzhinov’s support came from Asia and Africa, and many votes were cast by proxies.

(“Karpov” is Anatoly Karpov. You know, the former world champion and the Karpov who played Kasparov.)

And this is interesting:

Ilyumzhinov was, by any measure, a strange choice. He was a businessman who was born in Kalmykia, an impoverished Russian republic on the Caspian Sea, and amassed a fortune after the fall of the Soviet Union, though exactly how and how much are something of a mystery. He was largely unknown within the chess world, though he had been elected president of Kalmykia in 1993, at age 31. He stepped down from that presidency in 2010.

So he’s an ex-politician who went into chess?

Ilyumzhinov is well known for his eccentricities. He has said that he believes the game was invented by extraterrestrials, and he claims to have been abducted by aliens in yellow spacesuits on the night of Sept. 17, 1997. He built Chess City, a huge glass dome surrounded by a housing development, in Kalmykia’s obscure and inaccessible capital, Elista, and had the federation hold championship tournaments there.

Ilyumzhinov was also tight buddies with the late unlamented Muammar Qaddafi.

You’re going down in flames, you tax-fattened hyena! Part deux.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas acknowledged Tuesday that a taxpayer-funded project to install a security system in a converted garage at his home involved improvements “over and above” that job, but said he reimbursed the county for the upgrades.
The Times had disclosed that county-paid crews worked at the supervisor’s Leimert Park home for a week and replaced the garage’s interior walls, installed electrical wiring and equipment, and put in appliances, including a wall-mounted air conditioner and heater and a television.

How the Statesman got scooped on the Wendy Davis story. (No paywall.)

Obit watch: January 21, 2014.

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

John Dobson, inventor of the Dobsonian telescope design.

(The LAT obit is nice, but it doesn’t really give a sense of what the Dobsonian design is or how it works. Here’s the Wikipedia entry, if you’re curious.)

(And Dobson sounds like someone I would have very much liked to have had coffee with. A monk who allegedly got kicked out of the monastery because of his obsession with observational astronomy and telescope building? I bet he’d have been a lot of fun to talk to.)

Noted classical conductor Claudio Abbado. LAT.

Edited to add: Sorry, just ran across this one while reading the local news. Noted Texas songwriter Steven Fromholz passed away on Sunday. Various reports indicate that he died in a hunting accident:

…Fromholz, who lives in the area, and his girlfriend were going to hunt feral hogs. A rifle was in a case but unzipped at the bottom. The gun was being transferred from one vehicle to another.
Ariste says Fromholz grabbed the handle, the gun partly fell, hit the ground and discharged.

The Stateman reports it was a shotgun, not a rifle.

EtA2: Added link to non-paywalled Statesman blog entry.

You could hear the music on the AM radio…

Friday, January 17th, 2014

When was the last time you listened to the radio?

Actually, I still do, mostly when I’m driving around with Mom and Jeff Ward is on. If I’m alone in my own car, though, radio has become to me something like a buggy whip.

But there are some people who still need buggy whips, such as the Amish. And there are some people who still need radios. Like Federal prisoners.

The pocket analog radio, known by the bland model number SRF-39FP, is a Sony “ultralight” model manufactured for prisons. Its clear housing is meant to prevent inmates from using it to smuggle contraband, and, at under thirty dollars, it is the most affordable Sony radio on the prison market.

But what makes this New Yorker piece more interesting to me is…the SRF-39FP is actually a pretty good radio. It uses one AA battery, will run for 40 hours, and:

Others in the online DXing community argue that the SRF-39FP is superior to virtually every other pocket analog radio, praising it for its large tuning thumbwheel, over-all sensitivity and audio quality, and, above all, its reputed indestructibility. Electronics and radio collectors also marvel at features that are normally associated with professional equipment rather than consumer goods: in particular, an exceptional single-integrated-circuit receiver that insures reception in remote locations—or deep within heavy prison walls. In fact, the SRF-39FP was one of the first radios to use the breakthrough CXA1129N integrated-circuit chip, considered by DeBock to be the primary innovation among Sony pocket radios; it helped make the SRF-39FP the smallest and most sophisticated in a line of pocket radios that had launched two decades earlier, in the late nineteen-seventies.

I almost want to pick one up. (I checked; there aren’t any listed on eBay right now.)

(By way of the newsycombinator Twitter feed.)

Crossing the streams again.

Friday, January 17th, 2014

You know what I want?

A 3D printed chocolate gun that shoots.

(Yeah, I know: Hershey’s chocolate probably won’t be able to withstand the chamber pressure of even a .22LR round. But if a man can’t dream, what’s Heaven for?)