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.