Thoughts

Winter 2007

Waste Energy

Technology / March 21st

There have been some developments recently in the area of extracting useable energy from waste products. The first I read about a few months ago is a process called alternately Thermal Conversion Process or Catalytic Depolymerization. This process uses water, heat and pressure to transform organic and inorganic wastes into oils, gases, carbons, metals and ash. It is being utilized in a prototype plant in Missouri by a company called Changing World Technologies with agriculture waste as the initial fuel. The oils can be used as biodiesel, the gases can be burned for electricity generation, the carbons can be used as fertilizer, and the metals and ash can be recycled. When I first read about this I was thrilled that a company was making progress on more than just the methane-based solutions to garbage conversion.

Today I read about an even more interesting (and cooler-sounding) technology called Plasma-Arc Gasification, that is being trialed at a plant in Florida by GeoPlasma. This technology was covered in a Wired article back in September. Basically garbage is brought in on a conveyor through a electric arc that creates plasma at thousands of degrees that instantly vaporizes the trash into gases, carbon, and metals. The gas is supposedly cleaner burning than natural gas, the carbon can be used for things like paving stones, and the metals can be captured and sold for scrap. According to the company the energy needed to vaporize the trash is only 25% of the energy that can be generated by burning the gas.

Technologies like these, when fully developed, have an incredible potential to eliminate not only the landfills that plague our landscape, but also reduce our dependence on non-renewable energy sources. I'm excited to see if these methods can be perfected and implemented at much larger scales.

Ongoing Frustrations

Personal / March 14th

For reasons that are not clear to me, most tasks I undertake seem to be far more complicated than anticipated, or really ought to be. I'm still trying to work out where the problem is, if it is my perception that it happens more often than it does, or if I oversimplify things, or I don't plan well, or I just expect things to work when that isn't reasonable. In any case, much as my previously described adventure with the new router took three trips to Best Buy, my recent brake light replacing ordeal took three trips to Auto Zone.

This started when my car beeped at me that my left brake light was out. My car has had a lot of light bulb problems in the three years I've owned it. On the one hand, light bulbs are a fairly cheap problem to have. On the other, new cars shouldn't habitually lose head lights, turn lights, and tail lights, or have any problems at all for that matter. So after a couple days of it beeping at me every time I turned on the car I went to Auto Zone. I asked the guy for the bulb, he looked it up, picked it off the rack and handed it to me. Since I was not involved in any part of this process, I feel fairly secure in saying this part was not my fault, since ultimately this proved to be the wrong bulb, and the start of my problems.

Perhaps in the future I won't trust the guy at Auto Zone to competently read information from the computer, match it to text on the label, and hand me the correct item. However, once you stop trusting people to have even this level of job mastery, you have to do a lot of double checking, and frankly I'm not sure I'm up to it. In any case, this leads to problem two: upon disassembly of the light, I break the plastic clip on the wire harness. This seems to happen every time I touch the car, so I guess I should be more careful or used to it, but there wasn't any real harm done, so I'll move on.

Problem three was when I made the mistake of thinking the bulb on the bottom in the middle was the brake light. First, it had nothing in common with the bulb from Auto Zone. However, the bulb from Auto Zone also didn't fit into any of the sockets, so that wasn't much of a statement. I opened up the other tail light assembly and found a bulb missing from that socket. Now I start to wonder if the missing bulb was triggering the alarm, even though it is on the right side and the message said left. Before resolution is reached I lock myself out of the house and the garage, and go see a movie.

On the way back we go to Auto Zone a second time, and while I haven't remembered to bring the light bulb I removed, this too proves irrelevant, since the bulb I removed later turned out to be the wrong one. I pick a bulb that looks right (and indeed was nearly identical in shape and visual attributes) and head home. This morning I go out to install it, only to find that no combination of any of the bulbs at my disposal, including the ones I removed can now make either side brake light come on.

I finally drive to Auto Zone a third time after checking Sylvania's web site to determine the bulb I should be getting, with only the center brake light functioning. I purchase two packages that both match the wattage and form factor of the two different bulb types I believe to be involved and replace them in the parking lot. Finally, the warning goes away, and while I can't see the back of the car while pressing the brake pedal, I'm fairly confident the lights are working. I later determine that the bulb I replaced at the outset that was "missing" from the right side, was in fact the rear fog light, of which there is only one.

Maybe I'm exaggerating, but it seems like I run into this type of thing every time I undertake any seemingly simple task. The map in the office, more than one computer upgrade, several car projects, pretty much any software configuration or scripting, and a laundry list of things I've mostly forgotten are all unabashedly difficult, and contain seemingly unforeseeable complications. I'll keep trying, of course. I'm not going to give up trying to do things, but I really wish there was something I could do to prevent it from happening, or at least mitigate the worst of it.

Routing Router Routes

Computing / March 7th

I figured out at some point that the Netgear 802.11g wireless access point /router/switch I bought a couple years ago was the reason I couldn't VPN into work any more. Apparently it took me two years to figure that out, which may show how often I use VPN. However, having made that determination and exhausted all Internet remedies of port forward, nonexistent IPSEC options, and already having the latest firmware, I decided I needed a new one.

So after some Internet research we went to Best Buy, where I was presented with an array of options, though I quickly narrowed it down to two routers. Both had a four port gigabit switch, both supported the draft 'N' standard, both had MIMO (multiple radios), and both would meet my needs for the next couple years or so. However, the Linksys was $50 more and looked like it had fallen off the set of Lost in Space. The Netgear, despite my misgivings of the current model and its VPN woes, had no external antennas and was very attractive (and as I said, was $50 less). So I bought the Netgear.

After getting it home and discovering that one of its new features was taking roughly 20 seconds to save just about any change you made, it began to periodically (every ten minutes or so) briefly disconnect the computer. You know there's something wrong when the wireless is more reliable than the wired. After an evening of this and a couple of dropped Internet connections, I decided that even though VPN worked now and that was really amazing, the new router needed to be returned.

Thinking the odyssey nearly over, I stopped back at Best Buy to exchange it, only to find that they didn't have any left. Still not wanting to spend the $50 extra on the Linksys I opted to get a refund, leaving me right back where I started. The next day we went to Circuit City, which didn't even sell the Netgear, followed by CompUSA which was closing and had a 30% off sale. That sounded great, though none of the many visible price tags revealed until we were at the register that even after the 30% discount it was still actually more than Best Buy's regular price. So we went to a different Best Buy, found it, bought it, got it home, spent another age waiting for 20 second setting saves, and I type this to you now via a much more stable, VPN-ready, very attractive router.

The Endless Upgrade Cycle

Computing / March 2nd

I need to figure out what to do about my server. Every day when I go into the office at home, I hear the most awful noises coming from the closet. The noises are the sounds of a dying fan, and while that in-and-of itself is a simple thing to fix, the server in general is a problem that I've been meaning to resolve.

I was using a Pentium III desktop mid-tower for my server, running Windows XP, since that was all I really needed. The issue was that it didn't fit in the closet very well. So I used another computer I had that was in a SFF case, swapped some parts, and called it a day. This actually made the server slower, since the 1GHz PIII processor could only run at 750MHz on the motherboard I was using, and it only took two sticks of ram. However, I liked that it now fit under the shelf in the corner, so I let it be.

Now, using the system for BitTorrent downloading means it needs a bigger hard drive, the dying fan means I need to get some parts for it, and while I'm at it it'd be nice if it was a bit faster. At the same time, I don't want to spend a lot of money on it, and I don't want to lose the small size. Sarah's P4 1.7GHz computer is going to need an upgrade at some point, since newer games are dogging on it (the reason I upgraded from it last year). Her old computer was a PII, so she's doing better than she was, but a lot of games are on the edge of unplayable.

Now, it'd be nice if I could use her current computer as the new server, but the case is too big, and putting it in a new SFF case means a new motherboard, at which point I start wondering if I should just build a new box. At that point, I get back to my dreams of a 8-drive RAID array, and the price tag starts getting mighty steep. The last variable in all of this is the full rack server sitting dormant under the filing cabinet. I'd like to use it, but it is much too big for the closet and louder than the trains going by.

Neither Sarah nor I has the spare cash at the moment to do a major upgrade, so I'll probably just buy the stupid fan, ghost the hard drive over to a bigger one, and call it a day.

Back in Action

Site News / February 24th

After a lot of work and re-engineering, this update comes to you courtesy of an entirely re-made site backend. If I've done my job, then everything looks identical. However, every part of the site is now being generated entirely from templates that are stored in the database. This has been my dream for five years, and the XeoMage upgrade that I started mid-last year has reached a new milestone because of this. The use of templates has been evolutionary. At first I only used templates to create the posts, then I was using templates to build the content of a page, but much of it was calling extra functions that returned pre-made html. Now everything, from the menus to the posts to the queries are made from templates. Everything is running through clean, consistent functions.

Additionally, I re-vamped the Ajax frontend and backend to work better and support more functionality moving forward. The automatic form generator now works for any form, not just post editing, the Ajax form parser no longer requires a list of form fields to accompany it, and the backend processing code is much cleaner and less confusing.

As always, there remain things to do. I am now going to tackle a web-based administration system for all of this. Right now I have to use a database editor to make any change to the site design. The last piece of the puzzle will be a web-based stylesheet editor. I'm excited about that, since it's an area that I can do some cool things with. Of course there's also the requisite code optimization and performance improvements, but those can wait.

I haven't forgotten about new areas of content, either, but I need to finish up some back end pieces to enable them, plus the actual work of preparing the content and entering it into the database. All in all, I'm more excited than ever about XeoMage.

(Incidentally, I also corrected a problem with the RSS feed not being updated to account for the database changes)

Updates for the Sake of Updates

Site News / February 15th

Sorry I haven't posted much recently. I've been doing a lot of development work and I'm making good progress on it, but I split development onto its own database, which means any posts I make to the site I have to migrate over when it comes time to merge back the changes I make. In the interest of not creating a lot of work for myself, I'm going to keep updates to a minimum for the next week or so while I get this stuff done. In the mean time, I give you a list of search terms that brought people to this site:

stereo cabinet plans
zanya
Eavesdropper Antenna
clarese from hannibal
different ways of being pressured to think or behave in certain
his restraints her mouth
how good is the managefusion conference
illinois dmv sucks
lee's luxury lounge
my home buying
novel-based movies
rug over speaker wire
sauder bookcase hard to put together
taxidermy film gore
through a child eyes movie spain
timewarner roadside assistance
unable to go to mail box on curb
unreasonable expectations
xeomage
zanya naked

I don't know about you, but I find people to be seriously funny.

Stylin'

Site News / January 30th

I made some tweaks to the sizing and positioning code. Hopefully this will allow movies to fit in the page element without sticking off the right side while simultaneously still allowing IE 6 users to view the page at 800 pixel-width without horizontal scroll bars. In any case, it is definitely working better for non-IE 6 browsers, but I'd guess all of those people are at higher than 800x600 resolution anyway. I'm making progress on my backend enhancements, and I'm chronicling it all in proto for those that care. As soon as I finish the backend work I'll move on to some more visible changes in the realm of new types of content. It's time consuming work, so be patient with me.

Star Wars Deleted Scenes

Cool Stuff / January 29th

Found this on Digg and thought it was really cool. It's some stitched together footage from Star Wars with music added. I especially like the last scene because it gives some more gravity to the situation and makes it seem more real. Apparently George Lucas pulled it after a showing where someone said it was like American Graffiti in space.



Original Post on YouTube

Venezuelan Socialism

Politics / January 21st

Hugo Chavez, the anti-American, pro-Marxist president of Venezuela, has been trying to convince the world that George W. Bush is the devil, that American Imperialism is a force for evil in the world, and that nationalization of natural resources like oil and natural gas will improve the lives of the common man. As someone that doesn't like Bush, doesn't agree with U.S. foreign policy, and thinks government-run corporations can be used to offset taxation while providing regulation over key industries, this all sounds fine. I've been listening to what Hugo Chavez has been saying and for the most part I've been saying 'Eh, he's probably right'.

Then he goes to the National Assembly (their legislature) and asks for the power to rule by decree for 18 months. Ostensibly this is so that he can move forward with his social agenda and plans for nationalization of utilities. However, by asking for it (let alone receiving it), he loses all of my respect. I also lose respect for the National Assembly of Venezeula, which honestly I didn't have an opinion on previously. Who willingly gives up power to a single person? Who, that claims not be a dictator, asks for such power? What is his first act by decree? Why, cancelling the license of a television station critical of him, of course!

As with so many dictatorships before, the people willfully give up their freedoms and the checks and balances on their government and cheer. Now we begin to wonder if the wolf is showing his true colors. Will he ask for an extension when his 18 months is up? Is this the beginning of a Cuban-style government for Venezuela? If this were merely the goings on of some banana republic, we might not even care, but remember that we get a large fraction of our oil from Venezuela in the form of Citgo. Chavez is intent of spreading his ideals and policies beyond his borders. As he scorns American Imperialism he works for his own brand. Is this the beginning of a resurgence of Soviet-style communism, just as China embraces capitalism and the economic wonders it brings (and environmental calamities, but I digress).

Will Chavez become the new Castro? Is he already? After all, Castro, in a twist of irony, is dying from his own shoddy nationalized health care. In all of this, the worst part about Chavez turning out to be a Stalin-in-waiting is that George Bush was right about him. Hopefully that won't go to his head, since he's been a smidge more humble recently.

Minor RSS Update Redux

Site News / January 20th

Today brings two more minor adjustments to the RSS code. First, you should now get the RSS icon in the address bar of Firefox, Opera, and Safari, and in IE7 the RSS icon in the toolbar should now be available. Second, I corrected an apparent incompatibility with using ampersand, though IE still seems to think there's something wrong with the xml, it isn't telling me what it is.

Death by 380mph Ford Taurus

Technology / January 18th

For the last few years the U.S. Navy has been working on railguns as a better weapon for warships providing ground support. Today, the big guns on destroyers have a range of 15 miles, requiring impressive amounts of firepower and gunpowder. Alternatively, they can fire a Tomahawk cruise missile at a cost of about a million dollars apiece. With an 8 megajoule working prototype successfully tested at King George County base, plans are moving forward to the eventual equipping of ships with 64 megajoule versions.

These railguns will require only electricty to launch projectiles that have no need for explosive warheads because of the phenomenal speed they'll be moving at when they hit the target. The title of this post comes from a comment by the project director, saying it will take out a building from 250 miles away -in six minutes- and cost less than $1000 for the projectile.

The article is pretty interesting, mentioning the arc of the shot will reach 500,000 feet, or 95 miles. They also talk about eventually equipping the projectiles with GPS and fins to allow control in-flight. I may not agree with a lot of the use of the military, nor the costs of developing a lot of the weapons, but this seems like a great direction to be moving and a much cheaper alternative than current platforms.

The Free Lance-Star: Dahlgren demonstrates electromagnetic rail gun

Wireless Power Update

Technology / January 17th

Back in November, I talked about MIT research on a means to provide short range wireless power. At CES last week, PowerCast announced plans to release wireless power products in 2007. They already have Philips lined up, and supposedly other companies as well given their website, though that remains to be seen. The products consist of the trasmitter, dubbed "PowerCaster", and the receiver chips for the devices, called "PowerHarvesters". They work through RF transmission, but I don't think they incorporate the sort of tunnelling described in the MIT research. Primarily they would recharge the batteries of small, low-power devices, but they also show examples like LED lighting, smoke detectors, and hearing aids that don't require a battery at all.

If the price of these chips is low enough, and requires few modifications to device design to add them, we may see other companies jumping on the bandwagon over the next couple years. That's a big if, and obviously isn't clear from their site what the challenges and costs are. If the support looks like it's going to take off and the transmitter isn't too spendy, I know I'd get one.

Photo of Everyone You've Ever Met

Cool Stuff / January 16th

Earth from 4 billiom miles
Earth, as seen from four billion miles away by Voyager 1.

Minor RSS update

Site News / January 2nd

If your RSS reader uses caching, then you may get duplicates of recent entries due to a slight tweak to the code. The URLs in the RSS now jump directly to the relevant post, instead of just the page. This helps in getting directly to the post you're looking for as well as making most RSS urls unique, which is usually how the reader distinguishes them.

I'm working on some enhancements to the backend code, so perhaps there will be some more to report later, but probably nothing that will change the way XeoMage looks. As soon as I finish these updates I will start working on the new section, so there is that to look forward to.