Sunday, November 29, 2009

Trivia: World's first powered vehicle?

In the modern world, people and goods are transported across distances by a wide variety of power systems, from internal combustion, to electrical, to rocketry, and animal (including human) power.

The first non-human powered transport was domesticated animal power, of course, reaching back into pre-history. Potential energy machines, such as spring powered engines simply store human power (when you wind up the spring), so they don't change the timeline at all.

No, to find the first example of a non-animal powered transportation system, we have to look for the first such system that operated under its own power.

If you count systems where all of the energy is expended at the beginning of the journey, then we can include the development of firearms. But if we restrict the field to systems where motive power is applied throughout the journey, then the Chinese experimentation with rocketry in the 13th century is where we have to begin. If we further restrict the field to vehicles that aren't single-use (I don't believe the Chinese ever flew a refuel-able rocket), then we will arrive at steam powered vehicles. And the first one ever was a toy built for the Chinese emperor in 1672. Once again, China figures into the history of transport.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Power outage

Well, the electric power has been out for, oh about an hour now. I'm able to do this because I have a UPS on the wifi and a battery in my laptop.

I tried calling the electric department at the city to get more information. They had the usual byzantine DTMF phone tree, which led to two recordings that said absolutely nothing whatsoever, except that there was a power outage. Which I knew, or I wouldn't have called in the first place. To quote Bill Murray in the movie Quick Change, "you could have been helpful, but you've been... so much more."

It's almost 2010. With all of the computer technology available, you want to tell me that when there's a power outage the utility has no way to know immediately where it is, at the very least?!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Money down the drain

The Capitol Corridor folks spent nearly a million dollars retrofitting one of their locomotives to emit less particulate matter.

You want to really do something about diesel locomotive emissions? How about electrifying the lines? Not only would that eliminate locomotive emissions (yes, there would be power-plant emissions instead, to the extent that non-emitting power sources - like solar, wind and nuclear - don't get used to generate the power), but it would allow deployment of EMU consists that would be able accelerate much better, meaning a faster journey, making the trains more attractive for commuters.

But instead, that's a million dollars we now don't have to electrify the lines or, better yet, to start high speed rail service. Congrats!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

FreeBSD 8.0

I upgraded quack to FreeBSD 8.0 RC3 this evening. I also re-enabled the journaling on /home. The last time I tried the journaling for UFS, it was very unstable. Hopefully in the interim, things have gotten better. If I don't post bad news, then you'll all know it went well.

The only other minor upgrade gotcha was that the APC daemon that monitors the UPS failed. All I had to do was change the device name and rebuild the port and it worked once again.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Apple and China

So, how is it that the same company that did this is responsible for helping the Chinese government spread propaganda?.

So 1984 wasn't like 1984. How about 2009?

The Chinese people have a long, storied and glorious history. They deserve so much better than the Maoist goon squad they have running the place now.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

And now, the portfolio is complete

Over the course of a poker lifetime, I think all players who play enough can expect to experience every possible way they can get cold-decked. It doesn't take too long for the nut flush to be beat by a full house. With a little more experience, you're bound to wind up getting hit by set-over-set. But the really esoteric ones are much less likely. Specifically, winding up with the sucker straight-flush (that is, a 3 card straight-flush on board, you have the bottom two, your opponent has the top two), or with the under-quads.

I've already experienced losing with a straight-flush. And last night, I got fed the under-quads.

Now, to be fair, I was playing Chinese Poker with Evan. When you get dealt a quarter of the deck, quads are a bit more likely to happen. But this was quad Jacks under quad Queens.

I just don't know. It's a cruel universe that gives me the skill set to understand the game as well as I do, and then continually feed me shit sandwiches.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

What exactly is being safeguarded here?!

It's commonplace nowadays to buy bottles and jars of stuff from the grocery store and find a seal attached to the top of the bottle underneath a screw-on top.

Now, it's annoying to have to remove the spout from the jar, remove the seal an reattach the spout the first time you use it (as opposed to removing, say, a shrink-wrap plastic wrapper around the spout/cap). But you can sort of understand it. The seal is like the lid of a canning jar - it's a hermetic seal that preserves the contents from spoilage.

The trend sort of started with the Tylenol poisoning scares in the 1980s, and what became a seal against spoilage gained a second purpose as a protection against product tampering.

But the concept falls really, really flat when the product being protected is DISHWASHER DETERGENT!!!!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Ordinary ergonomics

I'm continually astonished by the poor ergonomics of every day items. It's as if people don't actually try the things they create and put into the marketplace.

Today's example, believe it or not, is Betty Crocker's Dark Chocolate brownie mix.

If you've been living in a cave your entire life, I'll briefly describe this product. It's a box with a pouch of powder, and a second pouch of chocolate syrup inside. You mix the powder with a measured amount of water, vegetable oil, and eggs; pour it into a pan; throw it in the oven and bake until done. The result: a pan of brownies.

So what ergonomic issues could I be talking about? Well, the box has the instructions on the back. The instructions include the amounts of the ingredients you need to add to the mix, the temperature of the oven and the baking time.

That's pretty important information. In particular, the amount of water and oil you need to add is a particularly important piece of information, I'd guess.

So why the hell is that information in the smallest font on the box?! The font showing that you need to use ½ cup of oil is positively miniscule. So small that it's actually hard to tell whether it says ½ or ⅓ cup. Hell, it may even be hard to see the difference in your browser on this page, depending on your setup.

So, what? Could they not spare the extra few micrograms of ink?!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


So I just saw a clip from the new disaster movie 2012.

There's a certain give and take that an author and his audience have. The name for it is Suspension of Disbelief. We can watch Roxanne and set aside whether it's plausible or not that someone with a disfiguring birth defect on his face could not get it repaired because of an allergy to anesthetics. Some folks can even watch Star Trek movies without theorizing about how the warp engines work.

But I'm sorry: if you're in a small twin-engine aircraft over the city of Los Angeles while it's undergoing a catastrophic apocalypse, wouldn't the first thing that comes to mind be to perhaps attempt to gain some altitude so that you don't have to navigate between the buildings that are toppling over?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Any damn time now, AT&T

Ok, AT&T, it's been more than a month since field trials have started for the AT&T microcell 3G. How long does it really take? You're running out of 2009. Now, while Verizon is hammering AT&T directly about poor 3G coverage, would be an excellent time to roll out a solution to the problem (even if it's a stopgap one).

By the way, this is how stupid AT&T is: the prime market for the microcell is likely iPhone owners. The Microcell web site? A giant flash page. Which doesn't work on the iPhone. Brilliant!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Stupid Android ad

Let's look at the new Android ad one line item at a time:

iDon't have a real keyboard.

Um... That's the whole point - it doesn't waste the real estate for a keyboard when most of the time you don't need it. Those few occasions where it's necessary to type in text, you can have a portrait or landscape one - your choice.

iDon't run simultaneous apps.

I'll admit - it would be nice to be able to stream XM in the background, but that's the only thing I can actually think of that I'd want to multi-task on my phone. The notifications take care of everything else that I might want to have in terms of background processing, without completely trashing my battery.

iDon't take 5-megapixel pictures.

iDo take 3 megapixel pictures, which is more than adequate for most folks. Besides, if you're taking video, then that's irrelevant.

iDon't customize.

What does that even mean? You can choose from a huge variety of 3rd party cases, accessories... you can rearrange the home screen.... not to mention adding the widest variety of 3rd party software you can get on any mobile device...

iDon't run widgets.

You'd rather run "widgets" (what the hell are those, anyway), than real Objective C applications?!

iDon't allow open development.

That's disingenuous.

1. The developer tools for the iPhone are free.

2. Developers can upload their own apps to their own phone. This means that there can indeed be open source iPhone apps that people could download and install themselves, if they wanted.

3. Anyone is free to give away damn near any app they want.

iDon't take pictures in the dark.

And since I'm not hunting ghosts, that doesn't really bother me any.

iDon't have interchangeable batteries

Which means it's smaller and lighter for the same abilities, since the case doesn't have to support latches and friction-fit battery terminals. Besides, in all the time I've owned cellular phones, I've never replaced the batteries in a phone. Usually, I've replaced the phone first.

Magic Mouse review

I've been saying for a while now that Apple needed to do something to bring multi-touch to its desktop lineup. Well, now they have. I bought a couple of Magic Mice - one for the mac mini in the living room and one for Scarlet's desktop machine. It works more or less exactly like it's depicted on its website. The scrolling with momentum is particularly welcome. It's a great way to scroll through big web pages and documents quickly. I actually hope that they add that feature to the multitouch laptops as well.

The two finger swipe gesture works with Safari as a "back" and "forward" nav action. I didn't think that would be useful at first, but I've actually found myself using it a few times.

The one gesture that's missing is a pinch gesture to zoom in and out (the pinch in Safari makes the text size larger or smaller). A close second best is the control-scroll gesture to magnify the screen. That works really well for the mac mini in the living room as a nice compromise - 720p is too low in resolution, but 1080p makes the fonts generally too small.

If I have one complaint, it's the packaging. They used tape to secure the mouse inside its box, but that tape doesn't come cleanly off - it leaves a nasty, sticky residue behind, and that residue was keeping the mouse from moving smoothly on a mouse pad. I had to break out the Goo Gone to get rid of it.