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Sun, Oct. 17th, 2010, 07:13 pm
Another glimpse into the future

When you can see the future, some people who can't often just call you an idiot, and by the time they've caught up, they've forgotten. So it's a thankless gift, but along those lines, I present to you part of the future of surveillance. The device I'm about to describe sounds far-fetched to some, even paranoid, but every part of this system either already exists, or is being developed, and if you look at the parts being developed and who is funding them, there is only one sensible way that they fit together; I call it the surveillance time machine, welcome to your future.

Slight tangent - there was a small kerfuffle recently when a guy found an GPS tracking device in his car. He posted pics asking what it was, then FBI agents then appeared and demanded the return of their property. People are upset because his car was bugged and his movements followed without any kind of warrant. Courts are split as to whether you even need a warrant to bug a car, because roads are public therefore you can't claim an expectation of privacy against government search, but the bug is more intrusive than just following a car.
Well, bugs like that will eventually be a thing of the past. They simply won't be needed. The new system will look like this:

High above a city, there will be an eye in the sky. Initially this might be an aeroplane, but that's a dumb way to do it. Eventually the task will be carried out by solar "stratellite" - a small unmanned electric blimp, solar powered, maintaining a GPS-fixed location and altitude. With no need to come down for fuel or food, the device could eventually become a permanent fixture in the sky.

The eye in the sky is like a digital camera, but its resolution is measured in gigapixels (current designs are just one or two GP), and it views at a lower frequency of light than the visible spectrum, thus it can more easily see through clouds and other weather systems. It takes a photo every couple of seconds.

So, quick summary:
1) A realtime google-earth view of the city (in monochrome, not colour), but otherwise about the same level of detail or better.
2) It is video, rather than a photo (low framerate)
3) The video is stored. You can thus rewind the entire activity of anyone and everyone in the entire city, fast forward, whatever. Thus it becomes a time machine.
4) This surveillance (of everyone, all the time) is already legal.

Intuitive-but-dumb objections include the idea that if you exit a building amongst a crowd of other people, there is no-way that you could be personally identified - you're just a few pixels, a little blob just like everyone else, so what's the point? But obviously, that's just failing to think it through - the Time Machine neatly solves the problem. Pick a random person of hundreds of anonymous people pouring out of a shopping mall on a Saturday afternoon. Want their ID? Fast-forward to where they go to their car. Rewind until that car arrives in that parking spot, follow that car backwards through time until it exits the driveway of the owner's home. Look up the address. Not only is the shopper identified, but it was a trivial task to do so. (Thus, computer automation will eventually do most or all of such identification).

Similar intuitive but not-thought-out objections are that people would get shuffled and lost as groups moved in and out of sight, or that clouds would block the view, or that storing so much data would be expensive, or that (hand-waving) because it just sounds too... science-fictiony!
(It's not science-fictionary, it's a very basic and obvious use for fairly mundane real-world technology.)

Once it is in place there are no need for GPS tracking devices because everyone has already been tracked, and when you want to investigate someone (say, to get the details of a random pretty girl you passed on your way to work, find out where and with whom she goes for fun, go to those places too, and just randomly happen to "meet" her, and just happen to share all her interests), you don't need to start following them, because you've already being following them for years, you can just rewind their life.

I expect the first of these devices will be deployed by the US military over cities in warzones or under tension, probably within 10 years, but since there is no legal reason to not set them up for domestic spying, and no shortage of police and agencies that will be crying out to set these up domestically, I'd expect to see them used domestically within 20 years.

And the best bit, of course, is that the omnipotence the time machines gives to its operators is illusionary - but many won't really be competent enough to act accordingly. Much like the prosecution of Iraq by going public with satellite images of Iraq's WMD, when there were none, if you meet a friend of a friend to drop off the cellphone they left at your place at the party the other night, that's going to make great drug-deal-going-down footage. Even as it helps solve some crimes, the time machine will exacerbate investigation incompetence and laziness, and vaporize privacy.

Even today, privacy is a myth, but it's a myth people still believe in, and something people will still fight for. When a generation grows up having never known that the world has ever been different, with no expectation of or experience with privacy, I think the concept will largely die out. Modern living will mean things like having electricity and internet and running water and other people being able to know what you do.

A lot of kids in America these days have their hobbies assigned to them according to what will help them get into a good college, so they're already living a partially fake life in order to have their lives look "right" on paper. A huge number of American's structure their activities so that their lives will look "right" to the surveillance apparatus of the almighty Credit Score. The internet is another one. As surveillance becomes more and more ubiquitous, a larger and larger chunk of the things we do will be the maintenance of a fake flaw-free life, done for show.

People having to put significant time and energy into this kind of non-productive keeping-up-appearances bullshit is the opposite of a vibrant and efficient society. It is the path to a burdened, wasteful, unhappy society. As these qualities accelerate within a society, it seems that either something has to give (like how in the 60's a rebellion started against the social constraints of the 50's), or else I guess the whole society slowly falls into decline.

I think the USA has plenty of other, more pressing reasons to slide into decline, so I'm not betting on a surprise comeback, but knowing how and why things are going to happen can at least allow me to be better situated for their effects.

Fri, Oct. 15th, 2010, 08:05 pm
Chevrolet Volt

Chevrolet just released a bunch of new info about their upcoming electric car, the Volt, because their patent applications were just awarded so they’re now free to spill the beans! It’s a very interesting design, and also has some people up in arms.

Basically, the Volt has an electric engine, a battery that will give the car a 40 mile all-electric driving range, and a 300 mile “range extender” – a diesel generator to automatically start recharging the battery if you run them flat but are still driving.
(A diesel generator powering a battery and electric motor driving the wheels can be more efficient than a diesel motor driving the wheels, because a diesel motor has to be able to cope with a far wider range of load and revs, and much more horsepower is required, so it’s bigger and runs less efficiently. In contrast, a generator can simply sit in its most efficient band, and can also be smaller and less powerful and still output the same average energy, using less fuel to do so).
But we knew all that. Here’s interesting new stuff:

The two parts of the diesel generator (the diesel engine and the electric generator) are not permanently connected, but are connect by a clutch. This means the electric generator can be disengaged from the diesel engine, and used as an extra motor. (If you turn the shaft of an electric motor, it generates power, if you put in power, it turns the shaft – this is part of why electric cars own gasoline cars on efficiency, instead of dumping your power through the brakes, an electric engine can put it back into the fuel tank instead, and re-use it later).

When the car gets above 70mph, the electric engine is operating at high RPM. The engine is more efficient at a lower RPM, so (here’s part of the patented cleverness) the volt diverts some of the power from the electric engine into the electric generator, using it as a second engine, and those two engines are geared together such that their speeds combine (instead of their torque), and the result is high RPM, but at high efficiency.


Now the bit that has people up in arms: What happens if the diesel motor is using the generator to recharge the battery and you drive above 70mph? Isn’t the car trying to use the generator as a second motor at that speed? Yes. So what happens is that the diesel motor, which is turning the generator, continues to turn the generator when the generator gets coupled to the car’s electric engine, and then the same thing happens as when doing over 70mph on batteries – the generator’s speed gets added to the engine’s speed.
Except now, the generator’s speed is coming from a diesel motor. It’s an elegant drivetrain solution that achieves high efficiency under all modes of operation yet uses few parts to do it.
That’s the controversial bit – there is a drive mode in which the diesel motor has a mechanical connection the drivetrain. People feel that this means it is really just a hybrid when it has been billed as an electric vehicle with an onboard diesel generator for range-extension in case you want to do a road trip.
People feel that it’s not as ideologically pure any more.

I’d agree with them if the car required the diesel to go over 70mph, but it doesn’t (as far as we know). It drives at all speeds on pure electric, but if you’ve flattened your battery and the range-extender kicks in, the drivetrain is designed to use all available components in alternative configuration to give you the most bang for your buck.

If the Volt is as described, then it might not be ideologically pure, but something better - great engineering.

(I currently drive a 2007 Corvette. My plan was that the Volt would be my next car. It’s going to be HARD to drop down from a lightweight 400 horsepower car to a heavier car with 230 horsepower, you wonder how you ever drove anything else, but there is a lot about the Volt which is exciting in other ways.)

Fri, Sep. 12th, 2008, 11:37 am
ALICE looks at collisions of lead ions

So for some years I've been dimly aware that Science [TM] has been building a particle accelerator the size of a city.

Whatever. Those wacky scientists!

Excitement has been building around the world over the last few months, because they've spent more than twenty years building the thing, and they finally get to switch it on this week. Ok, that's understandable. But when people I know are calling it things like this generation's man-on-the-moon, some part of me wonders if perhaps I should be paying more attention.

So little by little, I start paying attention. And every time I do so - every time - I learn something that floors me.

As you probably know, it's called the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, and for a start, the project is of a scale normally reserved for science-fiction. It reminds me of that gigantic structure from the movie Contact:

but really, the LHC is even more massive and more impressive, and seemingly abounds with vistas and structures like this:

Now, that's a pretty big thing to be focusing on something as small as sub-atomic particles. So what does it do?

Check out the Large Hadron Rap on Youtube - it's fun and catchy, and explains a lot. (And I'm secretly wondering if I could convince a DJ to play it at one of the nightclubs here)

So take twenty-seven tonnes of electro-magnet. Now multiply that by over a thousand - there are ~1600 such magnets in the LHC.
But that's not enough. To get field strengths of the magnitude needed, all of those magnets need to be turned into superconductors. As you probably know, superconductors need to be so cold that liquid nitrogen is often used to cool them, because its temperature is lower than negative 351 degrees F.
But that's still not enough. Liquid Nitrogen would still be over a hundred degrees too hot. They need to cool these things to less than two degrees above absolute zero!
If there is a fault in any sector of the LHC, then it has to be shut down for maintenance. But it takes over a month to warm up the section to the point where maintenance can be performed. And another month after that to get it cold again afterwards. So when things go wrong, the facility is down for at least two months.

This facility draws enough energy to power up to 180,000 US homes.
Of that, enough energy to power twenty two thousand homes goes into the experiment (and that's not counting the cryogenic refrigeration keeping everything cold, the power consumption of that A-C unit could run another 27,000 homes).

So what happens when you focus that much energy into an atomically-tiny area?

No doubt you've heard the fears and lawsuits that this is enough energy to create miniature black-holes that could destroy the earth. (Studies were conducted to evaluate this risk, concluding that the project will not destroy the world, but that it even needed to be studied has resulted in a lot of attention - and fun - check out the on-site web-cams)

The amount of energy a particle has is measure in electron-volts, ie "eV". (So, 1eV is how much energy an electron would gain if you accelerated it with an electrostatic potential difference of one volt. It can be used various ways, but think of it like kinetic energy - more eV in means a particle moves faster, and a particle with a large mass moving fast will have more eV than a lighter particle moving the same speed)

And if you are reading this on a CRT monitor, you are staring at a particle accelerator - the image on a television or monitor is created by phosphor on the inside of the glass being struck by high-speed electrons. The electrons impart some of their energy, which the phosphor turns into light.
Your television might impart 25,000eV to particles, and that is enough that your television will light up your room at night. But LHC is bigger than your TV, so we have to go higher.

Radioactive materials can emit Gamma radiation, which can have a wide range of energy. Certainly enough to mess with your DNA. At 50,000eV, cancer can be a concern, or in higher doses, burns, all the way through.

Radioactive materials can also emit alpha particles. These are big and energetic enough to make a puree of your DNA that is visible under a microscope. These guys often have about 10,000,000eV.

The linear particle accelerator of the LHC gets protons up to 50,000,000eV.

Cataclysmic astronomical events can create particles above 100,000,000eV, where you start to get Muons forming when they hit something (such as our atmosphere). I have built a muon-telescope. A muon telescope is not optical, but I guess it's called a telescope because you use it to look at space - cosmic radiation. Cosmic radiation is pretty much all you can see with it because earth-sources like radioactive materials here on earth just can't impart that much energy to particles. Nuclear reactors can't do it. Not even nuclear bombs can impart that much energy. Thermo-nuclear (fusion) bombs can't produce muons either, though they're getting up there.

The LHC takes those 50,000,000eV protons, and feeds them into its Proton Synchrotron Booster, which gets them up to 1,400,000,000eV. Orders of magnitude greater than nuclear fusion.

Then they are boosted to 26,000,000,000eV
Then they are boosted to 405,000,000,000eV
Then they are boosted to 7,000,000,000,000eV

(This is as much kinetic energy as small things in motion that we can touch and see - and feel if they hit us - but it's all concentrated into a sub-atomic particle, with millions upon millions of times less mass. And all particles in the beam have that kind of energy.

And peak collision energy for some of the ion experiments is...


That number just doesn't mean anything to me. That's the kind of number that you can't hold in your head - the kind of number that if it ever actually existed, you'd expect it to unravel the very fabric of the universe.
And that, of course, is the point.

As you can tell from how I have written this, to me, the results and progress that this facility will bring to my life are only half the story. That a project so ambitious is being undertaken at all, that is something in itself. In a world of wars by choice, corruption, cruelty and indifference, it's so refreshing to see humanity united, and reaching boldly for tomorrow.

--- ---

I can (more or less) explain how a computer works at the software level, and I can explain how the software works at the hardware level, and I can explain how the hardware works at the circuitry level, and I can explain how the circuitry works at the semiconductor/component level, and I can explain how components and semiconductors work at the atomic level, and I can explain how the atoms work at the sub-atomic level, but beyond this I get fuzzy, and if you drill down too much at any stage, things quickly get very complicated. However I think in this particlar post, if I've made any mistakes or over-generalisations, probably only pfcblogshere will notice. I don't think Cafe reads my LJ :-)

"OMG!" gasped a proton, "I've lost an electron!"

"Are you sure?!" asked the neutron.

"I'm positive!"


Thu, May. 22nd, 2008, 10:31 am
oil and futurism

One of the useful things for me that some people do, is bring together disparate threads from somewhat unrelated and sometimes quite esoteric things and weave them into a picture that makes sense to others. Sometimes I try to do that too:

It looks like the penny is dropping regarding oil. I read the newspaper over lunch each day, and this is (among other things) my source of behind-the-times it's-finally-reached-mainstream-consciousness sensible conservative reliable viewpoint, to counterbalance my other sources that are expert-but-as-yet-widely-unknown views, or under-the-radar stuff, or bleeding-edge-of-tomorrow's-technology, and of course the wild-eyed fringe views, etc etc. If it's in the newspaper, it's not news so much as confirmation that the things those other voices said a long time ago were correct (or not). If it's in the newspaper, it's dead and buried and the smart money has already moved on.
But it's the mainstream money that makes and breaks things. Joe Average's money. So it matters when Joe Average becomes part of the trend.

Yesterday, the front page of the business section was reporting that the futures market has solidified around the price of oil not dropping (from the current $120/barrel or more) for at least eight years.
And that the dudes that predicted the rise in price to over $100/b, are now being taken very seriously when predicting $150/b within just a few months, and that $200/b is possible if there are unforeseen disruptions to supply. (For perspective - the price of oil when supply is quite adequate for demand, has been about $11/b.)

Global oil production peaked 3 years ago. Since then the decline has so far been gentle enough that it forms a plateau that makes it easy to be optimistic that production could rise again, if you don't look at the numbers too closely. The newspaper pretty much sunk this too:
- There are no producers able1 to offset Russia's ongoing post-peak decline.
- Global demand continues to rise, and the gap between supply and demand is continuing to widen.
- The rising price is failing to slack demand, because China, India (and others) are subsidising their domestic consumption, so people continue to buy oil without feeling any sting directly.
- If unrest in the Niger Delta and Iraq were solved, their production could be increased and go some way towards narrowing the gap. Good luck with that.
- Oil companies are pouring shockingly unprecedented billions into finding and pumping oil, and are getting shockingly unprecedented little oil for their trouble. (Ok, this one should go without saying, but apparently there are still people who don't know this).

1. "Or willing" you might try to add, if you're unduly optimistic :-)

For a long time, people have had ways to not assume that oil has not fundamentally changed, explaining away price rises by pointing to speculation and regional instability. But I'm guessing that these factors add about $10 a barrel each. [Edit: speculation is claimed by many to account for a lot more than this, which makes the following point less pointy, but still a point] A few months ago, when oil was $80/b, those factors accounted for, say $20/b, meaning that a theoretical price of oil was only $60, which is high, but not out of the ordinary. Not anything to worry about. Now that oil is pushing towards $130/b, that $20 is nothing - mentally ascribing $20 of the price to fluctuating conditions no-longer gets you anywhere - you're still left will oil more expensive than any time in history. It becomes much much harder to avoid the implication that the rising price of oil is real and is not coming from these other things that can be brushed off as temporary or incidental. Judging by media these last weeks, a gestalt change in thinking is in progress. Watching this happening through media and internet, it looks pretty similar to the way US public thinking started to change on climate change. Slow but inevitable.

Now, cutting away from the dead and buried of the newspaper and the simialr lagging of public perception and Joe Average, to the voices of the future. Here's something interesting: I was reading an article about some dude doing the business tour schtick touting a way to double the mileage of cars. Riiight. But listen up - his wild-eyed claims are that you can build cars that weigh much less than current cars, but are stronger and safer than current cars, and that it would cost less to build these superlight cars. Sounds like a dream right? What is standing in the way? Nothing less than the total re-tooling, from the ground up, of car manufacturing. Because this can only be achieved by abandoning steel and building cars from carbon fibre and modern composites. All those welding robots... useless. An entirely new production and molding infrastructure needed. New factories, new infrastructure. New workforce with new skills in new materials.
That's... a pretty big obstacle.
Five years ago, I would have filed this under "pie in the sky" - insurmountable. But today... what is a production line of such scale and sophistication that it can compare to auto-making?

Boeing, making 747 commercial aircraft.

And what has Boeing just done? The total re-tooling, from the ground up, of their manufacturing, abandoning aluminium and building the new generation of Dreamliner planes from carbon fibre and composites. All those riveters... useless.
Boeing has had a lot of difficulty doing this, but the point is, they had to do it, and they did it. And auto makers will have to do it too. But going by US automaking history, they probably won't do it even though they have to, and fail in the market as a direct result. Whoever makes and survives the transition will take more and more marketshare. Watch the progress of the Dreamliner, because it will make composites the future, not steel. Boeing is proving it, in the real world, today.

I know - talk of carbon fibre cars is hardly new, what is new is that I think we're at the point in time where the trap is sprung but public perception isn't there yet. It's in that sweet spot where there is sufficient certainty to put down money and win, but the newspapers and Joe Average haven't clued on yet, so you can get in first. :-)

Speaking of carbon fibre, new research suggests that carbon nanotubes are carcinogenic for the same reason that asbestos is, and may pose the same hazards. This is mostly just a problem during manufacture, disposal, and for damaged items, but still - something to think about for a future where everything is going to be built from it. Money and tech may be able to bypass the problem - the immune system can handle finer nanotubes without trouble. The finer ones are currently more expensive than the carcinogenic ones generally used today, but it's something.

Fri, Jul. 13th, 2007, 03:23 pm
The path of the future re: motorvehicles

Roughing out a civ-style breakdown of the future technology tree of the car :-)

The Internal Combustion car

Status today: For sale, everywhere

You know what this is. But fears of unstoppably rising gas prices, environmental concerns, and ever cheaper electrical technology lead to:

The Hybrid-Electric car

Status today: For sale, fairly common.

The hybrid runs entirely off gasoline, but gets better mileage than a normal combustion engine because energy that the car would otherwise waste can now be captured in a battery pack and used later by the electric engine to augment the gasoline engine.

Requires the addition of:
- Electric engine (interfaced to the combustion engine)
- Battery pack.

When these additional parts are mass manufactured, their price drops, allowing the market entrance of:

The Plug-In Hybrid

Status today: exists as after-market modification, uncommon.

This is a hybrid-electric car that has been given greater battery capacity, thus giving it a useful driving range in all-electric mode, using no gasoline at all until the battery pack is drained. The large battery capacity makes it attractive (financially and environmentally) to plug into a wall outlet to recharge the batteries instead of buying gasoline, so the necessary plug and charger are built in, but the gasoline half of the hybrid motor ensures that the car can still be fueled instantly when necessary.

Requires the addition of:
- Large battery capacity (expected to be lithium ion)
- Plug

When these additional parts are mass manufactured, their price drops, allowing the market entrance of:

The battery all-electric

Status today: between "concept" and "rare"

This car does not have a gasoline engine, and it runs on batteries. That means it either needs to be recharged (meaning periodic downtime), or have infrastructure in place akin to how you instantly "refill" your BBQ LPG tank by leaving it in the EMPTY rack, and taking one from the FULL rack. (This type of car seems likely to be a peripheral, not mainstream technology, but if/when the Li-Ion oxidation problem is nailed, it might become attractive)

The Solar Hybrid

Status today: exists as unsupported after-market modification, rare.

This is more of an offshoot than a part of the chain. It is a plug-in hybrid with the roof and/or hood lined with solar cells, constantly charging the battery pack from the sun. Provided you park outdoors, and it is sunny, you might expect 8-20 miles of solar-powered commute per day. For some commuters, this would largely eliminate the need for gasoline altogether.

Requires the addition of:
- Solar roof/hood panel (this stuff is already getting cheap though)

The fuel-cell hybrid

Status today: concept

This is a hybrid with the addition of a hydrogen tank and fuel cell. The car can run indefinitely without gasoline by refilling the hydrogen tank. The gasoline side of the hybrid engine remains because hydrogen pumping stations will initially be few and far between. The electric engine runs primarily off the hydrogen fuel cell, but still retains either a small battery pack for recouped waste energy (or an exhaust-water electrolysis system to do same).

Requires the addition of:
- Hydrogen tank
- Fuel cell
- National hydrogen infrastructure

When these additional parts are mass manufactured, their price drops, allowing the market entrance of:

The hydrogen/gasoline car

Status today: hypothetical

This is more of an offshoot than a part of the chain. It is a standard car with a hydrogen tank, and the (not hybrid) combustion engine converted so it can switch between burning gasoline or hydrogen. From an engineering or cost perspective, I'm not sure why you would do this, but I'm thinking it will happen anyway in response to various hydrogen-encouragement subsidies, lowered emissions tax rebates and requirements, that sort of stuff.

The hydrogen all-electric car

Status today: hypothetical

The combustion engine is gone, the car is all-electric, yet can be instantly refuelled because it runs on hydrogen, which has become sufficiently available for the car to go mainstream. Potential to be extremely economical, extremely low emission, extremely high performance, and cheap to make, when compared with today's combustion engine cars.

But there might also be some wildcards:

Private car? How inconsiderate! Use a bike or public transit!

Status today: Possibly picking up steam. Probably not.

We can't rule out a fundamental cultural shift. Seems pretty unlikely to me though - everyone loves the freedom of personal transport. Something big, like a Great Depression, could perhaps do it though?

And me:

Since I expect to see this unfold during my lifetime, I plan to buy a gasoline car, while they're still hip, have it for a few years, then trade it for a hybrid, to which I will add solar.

Or, like buying a new computer, I could just plan on doing all that but never actually get around to it. (I haven't bought myself a new desktop system since... um, 1996. 11 years ago. For about six of those years, I've been meaning to buy another, but some things are both so tedious and time consuming to shop for that I run out of enthusiasm before finding what I'm after. Cars are very much in this category)