Category Archives: Technology

Quoting Steve Jobs

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”

“Design is not just what it looks like. Design is how it works.”

“Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me. Going to be bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful, that’s what matters to me.”

“You can’t just ask customer what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.”

“My model for business is The Beatles. They were four guys that kept each other’s negative tendencies in check. They balanced each other. And the total was greater than the sum of the parts.”

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Steve Jobs, 1955 – 2011

Thank you, sir.

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Pit Stops

Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500 auto race. I followed it on TV and was astounded by the many mishaps in the pits. They were all caused by the driver taking off before the crewmen had completed their tasks. This is how races are lost. Sometimes, lives are put in jeopardy as wheels and other parts turn into projectiles, or racing fuel catches fire.

One question bugs me: why is there no “lollipop man” — like in Formula 1? This is a crew member whose sole job consists of monitoring the pit crew to make sure everyone is done. While they work, he holds a “stop” (or “brake”) sign on a long stick (the “lollipop”) in front of the driver’s eyes. Once all crew members signal “clear”, the lollipop man turns the “stop” sign to “go” and jumps out of the way as the driver guns the engine.

This would be a simple solution to an old problem. I can’t figure out why Indy 500 teams are not employing it. Overall, it seems to me that pit stops in Indy racing are by far not as sophisticated compared to what happens in Formula 1.

Watch this clip from a BBC documentary:

http://youtu.be/TUBvt98uTTQ

 

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Ethanol Fuel: How America Should Proceed

I have been interested in ethanol as a motor fuel for years. I came to the conclusion that much of the myth about the so-called inefficiency of ethanol as a motor fuel has been planted by the oil industry.

Technically, ethanol makes an excellent fuel — one that is superior to gasoline in many ways. Is it far less toxic, less explosive and less volatile than gasoline. It does not form sticky goo when stored for a long time. When spilled, it can simply be flushed away with water. If spilled into waterways or ground water, it will easily disperse. It is biodegradable. Ethanol does not require toxic additives to prevent “gunking”, or to increase the fuel’s octane rating (a measure for the fuel’s resistance to premature detonation).

Engines specifically designed to burn ethanol can achieve much higher compression ratios than gasoline engines. This can minimize one disadvantage of ethanol: its energetic density is less than that of gasoline, which means that an engine will burn more ethanol to achieve the same power output of a gasoline engine. However, an engine designed to burn ethanol runs a lot cleaner and cooler than a gasoline engine with the same power output.

Unfortunately, the inefficient way by which ethanol is handled in the U.S. is just plain stupid. It is the result of foul politics and lobbyism. Today, almost all ethanol is made from corn. It is true: this is not efficient. But it does not have to be that way.

Instead, three things should happen:

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Drones Over Fukushima

I recently wrote a feature story about the many uses of unmanned aerial vehicles (“drones”). It was published in February 2011 issue of the German Gruner+Jahr publication, Wunderwelt Wissen.

I truly believe that drones will revolutionize law enforcement, border patrol, search and rescue, security, agriculture, environmental monitoring, fire fighting, traffic control and many other areas.

Here is a good example for what drones can do. Flying over the Fukushima reactors is very dangerous at this time. Not only because of the direct radiation, but also because radioactive particles can get sucked into aircraft. Unmanned drones, on the other hand, can fly very close and and provide images and measurements around the clock. Some can even hover in the air and get within a few meters of parts to be inspected.

Here are a few aerial shots.

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Neutron Beam Indicates Coverup at Fukushima

Although I have been covering the nuclear industry, nuclear weapons and proliferation issues for about 20 years, I have not commented on Fukushima on this blog. I didn’t feel I had anything to add to what was being reported in the popular media.

But now, the information being released is beginning to appear inconsistent and contradictory. These are signs of a coverup in progress.

The nuclear event at Fukushima looked bad from its very beginning with the Tohoku 2011 earthquake. My initial concern was that it could get much worse from there. And it did.

I think my Australian colleague Mark Colvin summed it up best in his Twitter message: “Most worrying thing about Fukushima: every day something happens that was categorically ruled out the day before.”

A ghostly image from inside the control room at Fukushima, where emergency workers are trying to assess the situation with flashlights. Click to enlarge. Foto: TEPCO

It is rather typical for such incidents that the public is not told the entire truth at all times.

I  remember Chernobyl well. I was in Vienna at the time, when suddenly the Scandinavians began to wonder why they were suddenly measuring radioactivity in remote lakes, and soon thereafter, in the rain. The Soviet Union was still not admitting that their Chernobyl reactor No. 4 was literally on fire and out of control.

The Chernobyl event turned out to be the most massive nuclear debacle in history, forcing the evacuation and resettlement of hundreds of thousands of people, spewing radioactive pollution over areas thousands of miles away, and resulting in countless deaths. And yet, the seriousness was only gradually admitted — too late for many who ultimately paid with their lives.

Let’s jump back to Fukushima: there was a little noticed tidbit released by Japan’s Kyodo news agency. It reported that a neutron beam had been detected on 13 different occasions, over a period of several days, at a location 1.5 km  (about a mile) southwest of the plant. (Source: http://english.kyodonews.jp/news/2011/03/80539.html)

The beam was reportedly weak — but this distracts from the real issues: Why was it there in the first place? And why was it not made public until 10 days later?

When heavy atoms split in an event called “nuclear fission”, highly energetic particles called “neutrons” shoot out with high velocity. They are so fast that they will simply fly through most matter.

Although these free neutrons can damage living tissues through which they pass, they are too fast to split heavy atoms. Therefore, in a nuclear reactor, a “moderator” substance is employed to slow them down. At just the right speed (and therefore: the right energy level), these neutrons will split additional heavy atoms in the nuclear fuel. This results in the release of more neutrons, which split more fuel atoms, and so forth — the so-called self-sustaining “chain reaction”.

Normally, these free neutrons are contained within the reactor vessel. They certainly should not be measurable from a mile away. For the neutron beam to exist, some kind of nuclear fission reaction must have taken place without shielding. But how and why?

So the report of a neutron beam is very alarming for several reasons:

First, it could be an indication that a reactor containment vessel has split open. Or, at least that pipes have vented or spilled gas or liquid containing fissile materials from the inside of the reactor core.

Unfortunately, it is most likely that the point of origin would have been Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3. This is the only of the three destroyed units running on mixed-oxide fuel. This type of fuel contains a high percentage of plutonium, which could be the explanation for the observed neutron beam.

Depending on how bad the leak is or was, this might mean that the surrounding ecosystem could be poisoned for generations.

But what alarms me even more is that the neutron emissions were reportedly detected on March 13, but not admitted to the public until March 23. What exactly happened on March 13?

In hindsight, it now seems interesting that days ago, some sources at the IAEA were already speaking of suspicions that the primary reactor containment vessel had failed. But they did not clarify what evidence they had.

Has the IAEA been told of the neutron emissions much earlier, and has everyone conspired to keep this tell-tale sign from the public? Perhaps in order to allow an ordered evacuation?

During the subsequent days and until today, the official line of TEPCO has been that a primary vessel breach was “unlikely”, then “not certain”. Today, Japan’s prime minister reportedly voiced concerns that indeed, it may have occurred.

Short of a reactor containment vessel breach — could the neutrons have originated from spent fuel? Not unless there is something very seriously wrong. After fuel elements are used in the reactor, they are hot and highly radioactive. So they are stored outside of the primary reactor vessel, in a “spent fuel pool” of water. The water does two things: it cools the fuel, and it also absorbs some of the radiation it emits.

The fuel for the types of reactors used at Fukushima Daiichi comes in form of pellets, which are contained in long metal rods. We know that at Fukushima some (most? all?) of the water in the pool was lost. The fuel elements were partially or fully exposed to air. Without proper cooling, the casings holding the fuel may split, and gases containing fissile materials may escape.

Meanwhile, workers have been dousing the reactors inside the destroyed buildings, and the exposed spent fuel elements with salty sea water, which of course is corrosive and generally a material of last resort among firefighters.

Minerals from the water will undergo chemical reactions with the radioactive isotopes emitted from the reactors or leaking spent fuel elements. This results in thousands of different radioactive chemicals with different soluability, some of which will seep into the soil, ground water and the coastal waters. But right now, this is seen as the lesser evil.

Still, the flow of information is spotty and consists of pieces of a puzzle that does not seem to fit together. Something is very fishy here.

UPDATE, March 26, 2011:
TEPCO admitted today that water pools in the basement of at least one reactor building was “10 million times more radioactive” than what was to be expected of water from inside the reactor cores. This is another indication that (a) casings of fuel elements have broken and (b) a primary reactor vessel has been breached.

UPDATE, March 27, 2011:
In a stunning reversal comes now TEPCO’s announcement that it made a “mistake in the assessment of the measurement of iodine-134” and that the “the number is not credible”.

As Julie Makinen and Kenji Hall write in the Los Angeles Times today, “But now, more than two weeks into the disaster, the updates — via news conferences, press releases, website data charts and Twitter feeds, all laden with technical terms such as “bequerels,” “microsieverts,” “millisieverts” and “iodine-131″ — have become so frequent and so granular as to become essentially indecipherable and meaningless to the average person.”

Actually, I’d expand this to say the releases (both the radioactive and the information) are full of gaps, contradictory and inexplicable even to experts.

UPDATE, March 28, 2011:
According to TEPCO announcements today, traces of plutonium have been found in several soil samples taken from the site. This is almost irrefutable proof for a breach for a primary reactor containment vessel, fuel element casings, and a partial fuel meltdown.

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Sharing Audio Files

I have long been wondering why there isn’t something like YouTube – but for high quality sound files instead of video. Now there is. The German firm SoundCloud has just opened offices in San Francisco.

SoundCloud allows users to upload just about any audio format, host it in the cloud, and share it over social networks, private sharing, or HTTP embedding. Listeners can be allowed to post comments, re-share a file, download or purchase files.

The service was originally created for musicians who wish to share their files, but I think it will also be extremely useful for radio reporters and those who want to embed sound files in their blogs or social media sites. In addition, direct web sharing can turn a small portable device into a sound recorder with virtually unlimited recording capacity.

SoundCloud is a lot simpler and more flexible than other audio file hosting services, for instance the one offered by AvidAudio, the makers of ProTools.

Unique is also that SoundCloud offers simple apps for portable devices. For instance, the iPhone app places a ‘record button’ on the iPhone, which allows direct recording to the cloud.

There are also plenty of related apps for the iPad, one of which turns the iPad into a portable recording and sound editing studio, which allows direct recording to the cloud.

Basic SoundCloud accounts are free.

http://www.SoundCloud.com

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Sunrise in Egypt?

Like most journalists, I have been glued to the news, following the amazing events as they were unfolding in the Middle East (while secretly wishing I was in Cairo myself).

As a technocrat, I believe that this movement, sweeping over an entire region, was only made possible by the new information technologies. There were many factors, but the biggest of all were Internet-enabled, camera-equipped mobile phones in the hands of masses of young and tech-savvy people. The power and consequences of this technology is only now beginning to dawn on the older generation.

It took 18 days to derail a regime of 29 years.

I think the wave’s origins can be traced back to the Iranian elections of 2009. Although the massive protests afterwards were ultimately not successful, this event was a watershed moment and served as a “proof of concept”.

After Mubarak’s ouster today, people were not only celebrating in Egypt. According to BBC reports, there were people dancing in the streets of Tunisia (where Zine Ben Ali’s regime had been forced out weeks earlier). In Lebanon’s capital Beirut, people are setting off fireworks and flying the Egyptian flag. And in the Palestine, people are on the streets, singing the Egyptian anthem, and crowds are flocking to the streets in Jordan. As I am writing this, an avalanche of celebratory text messages is lighting up mobile phones all over the Middle East.

This information-driven movement is clearly not limited to one particular country, nor can it be contained by national borders. It would be a mistake to assume this is the end of it.

What will be next? Who will be next?

For now of course, the military has taken power in Egypt. The question is now whether this will lead to free elections and an independent government chosen by the people, free from foreign influence, based on the rule of law and subject to well regulated checks and balances.

Only then will we know if today’s events were a new sunrise or a sunset in Egypt.

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Why We Must Hire Robots, Not Minimum Wage Workers

I encourage you to watch the following video entirely before allowing me to present my point of view:

As you can see, almost the entire manufacturing process in this film is handled by sophisticated machinery: robots.

I have long argued that instead of exploiting cheap Third World labor and lenient environmental regulations abroad, and instead of importing low wage workers en masse, the European Union and North America should focus on developing robotic manufacturing techniques for all consumer goods. Japan, unwilling to open its borders to foreign workers, is making great strides in this direction and will probably dominate the robotics industry, which it expects to see huge growth over the next few decades.

Robots could free mankind from the burden of most cumbersome, dangerous and boring toils. This would permit a restructuring of society to grant each individual more time for intellectual pursuits and pleasure. This in turn will fuel the education, media, travel and entertainment sectors of our economy, all of which are extremely difficult to outsource to cheap-labor countries.

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Facebook Friendships Around The Globe

Image Showing Facebook Relationships Around The World

Click to enlarge! This shows the volume of Facebook relationships around the world, as of December 2010. The image was produced by Paul Butler, an intern on Facebook’s data infrastructure engineering team.

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