Friday, December 26, 2008

Whole Earth

Science writer and filmmaker Christopher Riley marks the 40th anniversary of EarthRise, the first photos of the Earth rising from behind the surface of the moon, taken by Apollo 8 astronauts as they orbited the moon.

It is interesting to consider that these photos almost never happened. They were not on the mission plan, and it was only because of the alertness and humanity of astronaut Frank Borman that we have these images at all.

Satellites and space probes have taken great photos of the Earth from space, but do not carry quite the same emotional impact of the realization that the images represents an event witnessed by human beings. But until humans leave low Earth orbit again they are all we are going to have.

The article also mentions the shelved Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite that Al Gore supported in the 1990s, which would have transmitted continuous video of the sunlit side of the Earth from deep space, and also investigated climate change.

A continuous video feed of the Earth from space would be a kind of spiritual nourishment for many people. For others it would be boring, the most expensive screen saver in history. But it would be a new stream of information we don't currently have, and over a long period of time, those who tune in would be changed by it.

The information streams our civilization feeds to us says a lot about our collective priorities, and the bits we pay attention to as individuals also say a lot about our individual priorities. For example, I have little interest in sports scores, less in the stock market, no interest at all in fashion or entertainment news. Amid all that noise and chatter, a continuous reminder of the wholeness of the Earth would be welcome. Maybe it would be the "killer app" that would finally get me to buy an HD television. Nothing else has up to this point.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Keeping in touch

With the holidays approaching I have been looking for a better way to keep in touch with family, friends, and business contacts online.

I have had a profile on LinkedIn for several years, and it has served me well, but it isn't designed for personal contacts.

I found an old friend from high school on ClassMates. He is also on Facebook, but I have been reluctant to set up a profile on Facebook because of their proprietary attitude towards user data.

After looking at several options, I settled on Plaxo. I like their support for Open ID and OpenSocial, and the ability to connect to what people are doing on different sites like Blogger, MySpace, and Flickr. It was very easy to set up and get started.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Fixit site

Recently I needed to reset the clock on my Clarion car CD player. I couldn't find the manual at home, and I couldn't find the manual online at first either.

I eventually found the manual and solution at Fixya, a web site with technical support and instructions for many common consumer products, especially electronics. Very useful.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Honda reveals Insight production photos

Honda today released photos of the production version of the new 2010 Honda Insight as it will appear in showrooms this Spring.

The new photos look a bit flatter and rounder than the concept that has been shown in the auto shows thus far. Somewhat like a sportier version of the Prius. I like it. I hope that the mileage and price end up close to what Honda was originally promising.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The air car concept

The continuing meltdown of the economy, along with the recent election, have increased my interest in the "green economy" and new technology companies that might be overlooked.

The car industry is a perfect example. While Congress and the next administration consider a bailout of Detroit auto makers, most of the real innovation is happening in smaller companies. The Tesla Roadster and Miles XS500 electric vehicles have gotten some attention. But both these companies are privately funded by venture capitalists. Neither offer opportunities for small individual investors.

One zero emission vehicle concept that does offer such an opportunity is the Air Car, a vehicle that runs on compressed air. This concept is the brainchild of a MDI, a company based in Luxembourg with a factory in France.

The concept of a car that runs on air may sound like science fiction, but the concept is simple and there is nothing in it that violates the laws of physics. Air is compressed to very high pressure and discharged gradually to run an air piston in an engine. The rest of the technology refines and improves that simple concept.

The French inventor, Guy Negre, seems to have serious engineering credentials. He has invested over 15 years in developing the technology, and has earned 13 US patents alone in his name.

The MDI web site claims that their CityFlowAir urban family car can be recharged in a few minutes at a specialized high-pressure air-recharging station (not the air pump at your local gas station today) or in a few hours using plug-in electricity to run an air compressor. It also has a small gas burner for heating the air to extend range and speed for highway driving. The air tanks are carbon fiber. MDI claims the technology to be cost competitive with hybrid and electric vehicles.

MDI also has an interesting industrial concept for regional factories that are also dealerships. A US company called Zero Pollution Motors has purchased the rights to build one of these plants and to sell the Air Car in the United States, and claims it will deliver its first vehicles in 2010.

ZPM is actively seeking investors. ZPM has also entered the Automotive X Prize competition and is seeking sponsors.

Questions remain to be answered for me about this concept. Air compressors are inefficient, so I wonder how the wells-to-wheels efficiency compared to a plug-in hybrid, electric, or fuel cell vehicle concepts. I also wonder about the safety and failure modes of the compressed air tanks. The car is also extremely light-weight so crash protection is a concern. Similar safety questions have been raised about hydrogen storage tanks though and that has not stopped many people, myself included, from investing in fuel cell technology.

The air car concept has some advantages. Many gas stations already have air compressors, so installing high-pressure air compressors at gas stations is not hard to imagine. Even where such stations are not yet available, the ability to recharge the car using electricity and the onboard plug-in seems no more onerous than for plug-in hybrids or electric cars.

Overall, the air car technology seems promising enough to watch closely over the next few years. It seems too early to predict which technology will eventually replace the gasoline car. This may be one of the contenders. Whatever the future of the air car, I commend the inventor for taking his idea as far as he has.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Planet dreams

Two teams of astronomers have released photos of four planets outside our solar system, including one which is apparently the first such image in visible light, and another which is the first image showing multiple planets in the same system.

Recently I posted about an exoplanet photo taken in near-infrared light.

I find myself captivated by the ongoing developments in the hunt for exoplanets. A field that had nothing to study only a decade ago suddenly has hundreds of data points. Most of the planets found so far seem to be gas giants unlikely to harbor life. But as instruments and techniques improve, it surely is only a matter of time before a blue Earth-type planet is photographed. That will be a great moment for all of humanity, and one I hope to live to see.

When I was a boy in the 1970s I dreamed of the day when I would see humans walk on Mars. That dream seems just as distant now as it did then. But this is one space dream that just might come true in my lifetime. In a month where a mixed-race African American from Hawaii can be elected President of the United States, and where India can land a probe on the moon, I am allowing myself to believe a little bit that anything is possible.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Mysteries of Egypt

Last Sunday we made our first visit to the Burke Museum at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The museum had a special Ancient Egypt day with kid activities, and a rare public display of "Nellie", Seattle's only Egyptian mummy. Our eight-year-old is really into Ancient Egypt, so we couldn't pass up this opportunity.

The mummy, about 2000 years old, is a woman who lived during the Ptolemaic period of Ancient Egypt. The wooden coffin is about 1000 years older than the mummy itself. The mummy had been roughly treated during the 1900s, but the museum has been working to stabilize and restore it for quite a while. The bright colors on paintings on the coffin were clearly visible.

We had a great time. We were also blown away by the other exhibits in the museum, including the exhibits on Native American and Asian peoples in Washington state history. We will definitely visit again.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Revenge of the belt clip

One of the most frustrating things about owning an iPod has been trying to find a way to carry it around and use it.

I like to keep my iPod Video on my belt, but after going through three belt clips in the past year, I have reached the conclusion that iPod-specific accessories just plain suck. There are no well-made, durable see-through cases that keep an iPod safe and secure on your hip and also allow you to access it and select music.

The latest disappointment is the Incase leather sleeve. The metal clip itself is strong and well-made, but the leather that the clip attaches to is weak and poorly made. After three months, the leather backing ripped open, making the case useless.

Meanwhile the Nite Ize belt case I use for my cell phone has lasted for years. Unfortunately it uses a magnet to close the case which could damage the iPod hard drive.

Update: I found this Nite Ize sport case at the REI in Issaquah and am hopeful that it will last. It is by the same company that makes my cell phone case, is a little larger, and has velcro instead of a magnet. If it lasts a year it will have been well worth it.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Sounds from space

Scientists using France's COROT space telescope have used a technique called "stellar seismology" to convert oscillations in starlight into "sound". The technique has produced sound for three stars similar to our own sun. Details including sound clips here.

Some of the sounds remind me of sound tracks from 1950s science fiction films. Our own sun sounds a bit like a wine glass harmonica.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Music Notes

Last Sunday my wife LeAnne and I performed the music in a small equinox service at our church. We performed several songs for guitar, Native American Flute, and ocarina.

Yesterday I set up an account on CD Baby which is rapidly becoming one of my favorite music sites. Music downloads come down as Zip files which include DRM-free MP3s, album art, etc. I downloaded three CDs including one from an artist I hadn't heard of before, Alan Miceli, an acoustic guitarist and composer from Canada. I love the way he plays guitar: relaxing, pure, inspirational. The next day I got a thank you email from Alan directly. Very cool.

It occurs to me that as MP3 players make listening to music an increasingly private experience, many of the social pressures to listen to popular music are becoming less important. If the popularity of an artist becomes less relevant, tools that help you find artists you might like to listen are becoming more important. The future is moving towards all the music in the world being available to all the listeners in the world. Listeners also want to be able to connect to the artists they listen to. Let businesses compete to provide the best music search tools, but the days of big corporate music collections being available only through narrow channels are numbered.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Flute quest

Last Sunday was an exciting musical day for our family.

We spent the day at Flute Quest, a gathering of musicians, students, and vendors of the Native American flute.

My wife LeAnne has been learning to play this wonderful instrument for several months, and was very excited about getting more advanced instruction. She attended a workshop by Bill Hoshal, a talented musician and composer.

During the workshop, LeAnne mentioned that she was having difficulty getting her flute to sound right with my guitar. Bill knew just what she was talking about, and walked us over to the vendor area and introduced us to Brent Haines of Woodsounds. Brent specializes in high quality flutes from rare woods, and his flutes are preferred by many professional flute players.

Later that afternoon I attended a workshop on home recording basics with Bill Hoshal and Vince Chafin. They covered the basics of audio interfaces and digital audio workstations using an M-Audio 410 and Cakewalk Sonar as examples. Even though I am a guitar player not a flute player, I still found the information very useful. I'm fairly confident that I could set up a home recording system for under $1000.

While I was in the recording workshop, LeAnne was literally trying every flute at the dozen or so vendors. She ended up buying one of the first flutes she looked at, an F# flute from WoodSounds. She has been playing it every day since and is extremely happy after playing it. Giddy is more like it.

Overall Flute Quest was a great experience. The flute player community are a helpful and welcoming group of people.

One of the challenges I am trying to work through is how to compose sheet music that I work up on guitar into notation for the NAF, an instrument I do not play myself.

One resource that has been very helpful is Flute Tree. They have an online tool for converting a simple text notation into Nakai tablature, along with fingering charts. The sheets generate and print just fine in Internet Explorer, but I have yet to find a way to save the sheets to PDF cleanly.

Our goal is to continue composing, and in a few years have enough songs worked up to record a CD of guitar and flute music. If we ever get there, CDBaby appears to be a great way to publish it. The terms for musicians seem quite reasonable.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Born in peace

Thom Hartmann is doing his radio talk show in Peru this week, where he visited the Caral archaeological site over the weekend.

Caral would definitely be on my list of places to visit in Peru. Nearly 5000 years old, Caral is a candidate for a "mother city" where people in the Americas first moved into urban settlement. While there is evidence of trade and religion, there is no evidence of warfare or fortifications at the Caral site.

Caral speaks to the question of how cities and civilization itself evolved. Did people first move into cities to protect themselves and to organize for warfare, or for trade and community? Caral suggests that trade and community came first.

If civilizations are born in peace, and only become warlike later either because of greedy elites or threat of invasion, it opens the door for the possibility of a more peaceful future for global civilization.

First photo of planet around "normal" star

One of the most exciting stories in science is the growing list of planets discovered in other star systems. Most of these "exoplanets" have been discovered by indirect methods rather than direct imaging.

Today a new photo was released of a planet orbiting a star called 1RXS J160929.1-210524, about 500 light-years away. The star is similar to our own sun but younger. The photograph was taken from Mauna Kea in Hawaii in near-infrared using adaptive optics. The planet, about eight times the mass of Jupiter, is circled in red at upper left.

The discovery still has to be followed up with several years of observations to prove that the planet is actually orbiting the star and not aligned by chance. If it holds up it will be an important scientific first.

I am beginning to hold out hope that in my lifetime, an orbiting telescope will take an image or video of a distant planet with an atmosphere, oceans and continents not unlike this grainy NASA video of the Earth-moon system from 30 million miles out in space. Even a single blue pixel in an image would fire the imagination to life with the possibilities.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Honda announces new hybrid

My wife and I have been on the lookout for a more fuel efficient small car. A few months ago I changed to a new job where taking the bus is no longer practical. I am currently driving a 1999 Isuzu Rodeo to work. We originally got it as a family car. My wife now has a mini-van of her own, and with gas prices rising, commuting in an SUV no longer makes sense if it ever did.

I have thought about getting a hybrid for a long time. I like the old Prius, but the newer Prius seems larger than I need and something about the look has never appealed to us.

A friend at work told me about the newly announced 2010 Honda Insight Hybrid which will be available in the U.S. starting April 2009. The original two-passenger Insight was discontinued in 2006.

The new Insight is a four-door sedan that promises 60 mpg for under $20,000. A comparison to the Prius and other small cars can be found here. We both like the styling.

I put together a spreadsheet comparing the new Insight to other small cars such as the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, and Chevy Aveo based on my actual driving patterns. I haven't heard yet if there will be a tax incentive for buyers of this hybrid but I would assume so. But even without an incentive, the new Insight would save so much more on fuel costs, it pay for itself faster than a conventional small car.

The other option I considered was the electric-gas Chevy Volt, whose production look was leaked earlier this week. The Volt will not be out before 2011 and will cost upwards of $35,000. That puts it beyond what I am willing to pay in this economy.

Honda's president said in 2007 that plug-in hybrids are unnecessary and do no better than regular hybrids to reduce carbon emissions. I'll leave that technical argument for those with more time on their hands. But it seems unlikely that Honda will, in the near term at least, be making a plug-in version of the Insight.

I'm good with that. In ten years from now, when I am ready to trade in my new Insight, plug-in hybrids and electrics will have worked out more of the details and we will know if such vehicles are practical and make sense. Such as, if you don't have a garage, how do you charge up your car? Do you have to run an electrical cord out in the open at night to recharge your vehicle? How do you prevent someone from stealing your juice at two in the morning? Just a thought.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Seeking for the keepers in life

Celebrating the milestone of my 46th birthday this past week has led me to reflect on what is truly important in life.

I have a lot to be thankful for: a successful career, a beautiful wife and two wonderful daughters who amaze me every day. I am fortunate to be living in Seattle, one of the great cities of America and indeed the world.

For most of my life I have defined myself in terms of my professional accomplishments and goals, and in terms of my beliefs, what I am for and against at any given time. All of those have changed somewhat over the years, so I have been thinking about what has been constant and enduring about my life so far and going forward.

One constant has been that I am a voracious scanner of news and information. I am always wanting to know what is going on in the world and what is the next thing I need to be aware of. I also enjoy reading "idea" books that raise important issues and propose big new ways of thinking about the world.

At the same time, I "keep" very little of what I read in the sense that only a fraction of it do I feel compelled to act on. While I have been blogging for five years, I am not a journalist and do not have the time or energy to write about everything I read or have an opinion about. I try to write only when I have personal insight that can add something new.

It's like walking on a beach. So many pretty shells and rocks, but only one out a thousand really speaks to you and says "pick me up". Those are the "keepers". The others you leave alone and walk on.

There are keepers and leave-behinds in everything. In ideas, books, movies, music, games, travel, and even people. The leave-behinds you let go. The keepers you hold onto as tight as you can.

This new blog will be about separating the keepers from the leave-behinds. I hope you will find some keepers here as I put my energy into it in the years to come.

Chris Struble