Tag Archives: technology

Midnight repost: Switching to Linux

The tenth anniversary retrospective of Behind the Black continues: My contempt for Microsoft and its terrible Windows operating system is quite well known. I successfully switched to Linux back in 2006 and have never regretted it.

After seeing a number of my posts noting the advantages of Linux (or anything) over Windows, one of my readers, James Stephens, offered to write a series for Behind the Black describing step-by-step the process by which one gets and installs Linux on either a desktop or laptop computer. Below are the links to this series. I have since used it myself as a guide to convert two used Windows 7 notebooks (purchased for about $35 each) to my favorite flavor of Linux, both of which I use regularly as my travel computers.

I wish more people would do the same. I am sure almost everyone has an old computer they don’t use anymore. It will work like new with Linux. Dig it out, follow James’ instructions, and free yourself from Windows. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

Lego Antikythera Mechanism

An evening pause: From the youtube webpage:

The Antikythera Mechanism is the oldest known scientific computer, built in Greece at around 100 BCE. Lost for 2000 years, it was recovered from a shipwreck in 1901. But not until a century later was its purpose understood: an astronomical clock that determines the positions of celestial bodies with extraordinary precision. In 2010, we built a fully-functional replica out of Lego.

Hat tip Shaun Karry.

A Trip Through New York City in 1911

An evening pause: I’ve posted similar early 1900 film footage for Paris and San Francisco. My one reservation about this restoration is the adding of color. They don’t over do it, but adds an element of inaccuracy to the footage.

Hat tip Mike Nelson, noted some of the same things I did with the previous examples.

What strikes me is how well dressed everyone was, how there was no trash on the streets (despite no obvious public trash cans), no graffiti, no road rage despite the complete lack of traffic control, and the air quality looked significantly worse than today. Other than cleaner air I’m not so sure we can call today a big improvement.

I personally am not sure the air quality was worse either. Watch, and get a sense of what America was once like.

What Happens When an 18 Year Old Buys a Mainframe

An evening pause: This is a bit long for an evening pause, and I myself did not understand a good portion of the terminology, but it is still fascinating and worth watching nonetheless, if only to give you hope for the future. As the last questioner at the end said, “I think you’ve raised the bar on what all of us should expect from our kids now.”

Hat tip Diane Wilson.

The coming small satellite revolution

Today I received a press release from the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), announcing a half-day symposium in Washington, D.C. on March 26, 2020 entitled ““The SmallSat Revolution: Doing More with Less.” The announcement was an invitation for the working press to register and attend, noting that the speakers will include, among others, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator science, Jeffrey Mamber, president of NanoRacks, and Patricia Cooper of SpaceX.

As interesting as this might sound at first glance, I will not attend. For one thing, it is on the other side of the continent, and I can’t afford to fly cross country for such a short meeting. For another, I don’t see the point. I attended a lot of these DC symposiums when I lived in Maryland, and though they were often very educational and the free food (paid for almost always by the taxpayer) was always enjoyable, I routinely found them somewhat lacking in newsworthy content.

Thirdly, and most important, yesterday I attended a much more newsworthy one day conference here in Tucson on exactly the same subject, dubbed the Arizona Academic CubeSat Symposium. Unlike the Washington event above — which will likely be a mostly superficial look at the burgeoning cubesat industry — yesterday’s symposium was focused on letting students and scientists describe actual and very ambitious cubesat projects presently under construction or design.

In less than seven hours I saw the following:
» Read more

Boeing flies 777X for the first time

On January 25 Boeing successfully flew its new giant 777X commercial airplane for the first time.

Originally unveiled at the 2013 Dubai Airshow, the 777X is an advance on the engineering and interior innovations of the 777 and 787 Dreamliner. The twin-engine jetliner is available in the 777-8 and 777-9 variants with ranges of up to 8,700 nm (10,012 mi/16,110 km) and seating between 350 and 425 passengers.

The key innovation of the 777X is its lightweight wing design based on a composite spar made from over 400 miles (644 km) of carbon tape cured in a specially-built autoclave. This allows the aircraft to have a wingspan of 235 ft (72 m) – a span so long that the wings have folding sections at their tips so the plane can fit in conventional boarding gates.

The test flight lasted just under four hours. The pictures at the link illustrate clearly emphasize the lightweight wings, which look tiny compared to the two engines.

Boeing desperately needs a success, considering the string of problems almost all of its major projects have been having recently.

Farmers swarming to buy used 40-year-old tractors

Buy dumb! The market for used 40-year-old tractors is booming, due to the “smart” but expensive-to-repair designs of modern computer-based tractors.

Tractors manufactured in the late 1970s and 1980s are some of the hottest items in farm auctions across the Midwest these days — and it’s not because they’re antiques. Cost-conscious farmers are looking for bargains, and tractors from that era are well-built and totally functional, and aren’t as complicated or expensive to repair as more recent models that run on sophisticated software.

“It’s a trend that’s been building. It’s been interesting in the last couple years, which have been difficult for ag, to see the trend accelerate,” said Greg Peterson, the founder of Machinery Pete, a farm equipment data company in Rochester with a website and TV show. “There’s an affinity factor if you grew up around these tractors, but it goes way beyond that,” Peterson said. “These things, they’re basically bulletproof. You can put 15,000 hours on it and if something breaks you can just replace it.”

Because of the computer software built into the new machines, a farmer can no longer fix it himself. He must call in a service truck, at high cost with long wait times. This extra cost is on top of the high cost to buy the new tractor, which cost a lot more than the used machines.

I predict that the cost for used tractors is going to continue to rise, until some smart entrepreneur realizes the market possibilities, and begins making new tractors without the bells and whistles.

Modern cars automatically invade your privacy

Buy dumb! According to a December 17, 2019 news story, modern cars automatically collect a vast amount of incredibly private information about their owners, especially if the owner uses the installed blue tooth phone and GPS.

[The reporter] discovered that the car was recording details about where the car was driven and parked, call logs, identification information for his phone and contact information from his phone, “right down to people’s address, emails and even photos.” In another example, Fowler bought a Chevy infotainment computer on eBay and was able to extract private information from it about whoever owned it before him, including pictures of the person the previous owner called “Sweetie.”

While GM was the subject of Fowler’s experiments, it’s not the only company collecting data on its drivers. In 2017, the U.S. Government Accountability Office looked at automakers and their data privacy policies and found that the 13 car companies it looked at are not exactly using best practices. For example, while the automakers say they obtain “explicit consumer consent before collecting data,” the GAO says they “offered few options besides opting out of all connected vehicle services to consumers who did not want to share their data.”

There is no justified ethical reason for any car company to collect and keep this information, especially without asking the owner permission to gather it. It simply does not belong to them, under any reasonable definition.

As I said, buy dumb. Better to get a used car without these invasive tools, or disable them if the car has them.

Boeing fires CEO

Boeing today fired its CEO Dennis Muilenburg, citing the need to “restore confidence in the company.”

The company has had a very bad year, with the grounding of its 737-Max airplane, the cost overruns and delays in its NASA Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, and the failure of its Starliner manned capsule to dock with ISS this past weekend.

Whether this change will accomplish anything is hard to say. The problems above appear very deeply embedded within the company’s culture, and might require the kind of wholesale changes that big bloated corporations like Boeing are generally loath to impose.

A home-made plane

An evening pause: Another example of someone who decides he wants to do something, and then goes out and does it. This STOL (short take-off and landing) home-built plane, dubbed Draco, was apparently a big hit in the small plane community. Sadly, in September the plane was totaled (no injuries) during a take-off with strong cross winds (video here).

Hat tip Cotour.

A house in the forest

An evening pause: They call this an off-grid house, but that really isn’t true. Though he isn’t linked to either an electric or water utility, pay close attention to the amount of technology he uses to make the house and living there functional and practical.

Nonetheless, it is fascinating and educational to see some of the tricks that people will do to live as they wish.

Hat tip Cotour.

Buy dumb!

The dumb washing machine we hunted for and got
The used “dumb” machine we
paid $285 for that actually
cleans our clothes.

The smart washing machine we threw out
The “smart” machine that we
paid $923 for and sold for $40.

Two years ago our old Kenmore Series 80 washing machine broke down. The repair guy said it would be so expensive to fix that he recommended it was time to buy something new.

So off we went to Sears, where we ended up buying one of today’s modern “smart” machines for a mere $923. As the LG website proudly exclaims,

A Smarter Way to Wash: 6Motion™ Technology uses up to 6 different wash motions to provide a smart cleaning experience that is gentle on clothes and maximizes washing performance.

The problem was the machine never got any of our clothes clean. It also refused to provide enough water. The way it worked was to sense the weight of the clothes you put inside, and determine the needed amount based on this. Routinely, it wasn’t enough, so Diane did web searches to discover numerous owners faking out the machine’s brains by pouring several buckets of water on top of the clothes before turning on the machine, making them weigh more.

The machine also did not have an agitator, the new in-thing among washing machine manufacturers two years ago, probably forced on them by new federal regulations. And though the tub itself did shake, it did it so gently that the clothes hardly moved.

There were also other issues with the machine’s smart technology that frustrated Diane. The machine was boss, and would not allow for any flexibility to its predetermined wash and rinse cycles, even when they made no sense.

Last week Diane had had enough. » Read more

The story behind the computer that made IBM, and computers

Link here. The introduction:

A short list of the most transformative products of the past century and a half would include the lightbulb, Ford’s Model T—and the IBM System/360. This mainframe series forever changed the computer industry and revolutionized how businesses and governments worked, enhancing productivity and making countless new tasks possible.

In the years leading up to its 7 April 1964 launch, however, the 360 was one of the scariest dramas in American business. It took a nearly fanatical commitment at all levels of IBM to bring forth this remarkable collection of machines and software. While the technological innovations that went into the S/360 were important, how they were created and deployed bordered on disaster. The company experienced what science policy expert Keith Pavitt called “tribal warfare”: people clashing and collaborating in a rapidly growing company with unstable, and in some instances unknown, technologies, as uncertainty and ambiguity dogged all the protagonists.

Ultimately, IBM was big and diverse enough in talent, staffing, financing, and materiel to succeed. In an almost entrepreneurial fashion, it took advantage of emerging technologies, no matter where they were located within the enterprise. In hindsight, it seemed a sloppy and ill-advised endeavor, chaotic in execution and yet brilliantly successful. We live in an age that celebrates innovation, so examining cases of how innovation is done can only illuminate our understanding of the process.

Read it all. The story is fascinating, especially in how intellectual honesty made it a success. In one case two computer managers were competing directly against each other for the lead in how the product would be developed. The man that was picked immediately asked the loser to help him build his proposal, a level of honesty that certainly made this company work in the 1960s.

The story also has one bit of real irony. The 360 was a big success because it was compatible with IBM’s previous computer line, and was designed to be compatible across the board.

In the 1980s, IBM lost its entire dominance in the personal computer field when it introduced its second generation PC, the PS/2, which was NOT compatible with their first PC line. Customers fled to independent companies making computers compatible to IBMs first PC, and this loss of business ended up killing IBM entirely.

You would have thought they would have known better.

Hat tip Thomas Biggar.

Children benefit more when parents read to them from printed books

A new study has found that parent-child interactions are more enhanced when parents read to them using printed books rather than ebooks.

The results were starkly clear, with verbal interactions between parent and child decreasing when using either form of e-book. The study revealed e-books and enhanced e-books altered both the activity of the parent and the child’s response to the experience. Parents using enhanced e-books, for example, asked fewer prompting questions to a child while reading, and what conversation there was tended to more frequently be about the device and the technology, instead of the story and characters.

“Parents strengthen their children’s ability to acquire knowledge by relating new content to their children’s lived experiences,” says lead author in the study Tiffany Munzer. “Research tells us that parent-led conversations are especially important for toddlers because they learn and retain new information better from in-person interactions than from digital media.”

The study is not an outright condemnation of ebooks. It is instead a first guidepost for reworking the electronic medium to make it function better, in all cases.

Looking at LPs, CDs, and DVDs with an electron microscope

An evening pause: This video is even more interesting than my title above, in that the guy making it used his electron microscope to make an animation showing what it looks like when a record needle is running through the tracks of a record. Most cool.

And since vinyl appears to actually be making a comeback, I think that even the younger members of my readership will know what a record is.

Hat tip Thomas Biggar.

Update your GPS before April 6 or it might not work!

Older GPS and those that have not recently updated their firmware might not work properly after April 6, 2019.

GPS signals from satellites include a timestamp, needed in part to calculate one’s location, that stores the week number using ten binary bits. That means the week number can have 210 or 1,024 integer values, counting from zero to 1,023 in this case. Every 1,024 weeks, or roughly every 20 years, the counter rolls over from 1,023 to zero.

The first Saturday in April will mark the end of the 1,024th week, after which the counter will spill over from 1,023 to zero. The last time the week number overflowed like this was in 1999, nearly two decades on from the first epoch in January 1980.

You can see where this is going. If devices in use today are not designed or patched to handle this latest rollover, they will revert to an earlier year after that 1,024th week in April, causing attempts to calculate position to potentially fail. System and navigation data could even be corrupted, we’re warned.

Devices after 2010 should be all right, but it is advised to update the firmware to the latest version. Earlier devices might not fare so well.

The issue here is not so much handheld outdoor GPS units, but the GPS in smartphones as well as elsewhere. If you think a device you own uses GPS in any aspect, it is probably wise to update its firmware. The world is not going to end if you don’t, but you will guarantee that you will avoid some annoying inconvenience by doing so.

We are one step closer to the first replicator

Scientists have developed and tested a 3D printing technique that quickly creates entire objects as a unit, rather than building them by layers.

Here’s how it works. First, the researchers use a computer-controlled digital light projector to cast a series of 2D images through a rotating vial containing a photosensitive gel. As the vial rotates, photons entering from different angles meet at selected spots in the gel. Where they meet, their combined energy solidifies the gel. Where that meetup doesn’t occur, the photons simply pass through without altering the photosensitive material.

The approach is fast, able to create complex objects, such as a centimeter-size copy of Rodin’s famous sculpture of The Thinker in just minutes, the researchers report today in Science. It can also make 3D plastic parts around existing objects, such as a plastic handle around a metallic screwdriver shaft. The approach could also be useful for encapsulating sensitive electronics, the authors write.

If you go to the supplementary material for their paper, you can watch several videos showing this process at work, creating both the Thinker as well as a ball in a cage.

I think I have reported on this process previously, but this new paper shows a significant advance. Nonetheless, this engineering here is still very preliminary.

New technique could make nickel as strong as titanium

A new technique that allows metals to mimic the internal structure of wood could make nickel, and other metals, far far strong.

Led by James Pikul, Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics at Penn Engineering, the new study looked at new ways to take metal and give it the porous structure that gives wood its strength. In the past, this has been done by finding ways to turn molten metal into foam, or using 3D printing with hundred-nanometer precision to build up wood-like metal bit by bit. The problem is that metal foam is crude by modern engineering standards, while the 3D printing process is slow and very hard to scale up from lab-bench scales.

“The reason we call it metallic wood is not just its density, which is about that of wood, but its cellular nature,” Pikul says. “Cellular materials are porous; if you look at wood grain, that’s what you’re seeing  –  parts that are thick and dense and made to hold the structure, and parts that are porous and made to support biological functions, like transport to and from cells. Our structure is similar. We have areas that are thick and dense with strong metal struts, and areas that are porous with air gaps. We’re just operating at the length scales where the strength of struts approaches the theoretical maximum.”

According to the researchers, the key was to go to much smaller scales to produce much greater increases in strength. They manage this by suspending plastic spheres a few hundred nanometers wide in water, which is allowed to evaporate. As the water disappears, the spheres drop into a neat geometrical, crystalline pattern. This is then electroplated with a thin layer of chrome and the spaces between the spheres are filled with nickel. The plastic is then dissolved, and what’s left behind is an open network of metallic struts with 70 percent empty space – making it light enough to float in water.

The process is however very expensive, and so far has only produced some very small samples.

Electric cars routinely transmit info to Chinese government

The Big Green government: Manufacturers of electric cars design the cars so that they routinely transmit information about the car’s status and position to the Chinese government.

More than 200 manufacturers, including Tesla, Volkswagen, BMW, Daimler, Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Mitsubishi and U.S.-listed electric vehicle start-up NIO, transmit position information and dozens of other data points to government-backed [Chinese] monitoring centers, The Associated Press has found. Generally, it happens without car owners’ knowledge.

The automakers say they are merely complying with local laws, which apply only to alternative energy vehicles. Chinese officials say the data is used for analytics to improve public safety, facilitate industrial development and infrastructure planning, and to prevent fraud in subsidy programs.

Outside of China the information is also gathered, but by private companies. Car owners can opt out, but that seems to me to be the unethical way to arrange this. Owners should instead be asked if they want to opt in.

In fact, the gathering of this data, privately or by governments, without the permission of the car owner, is entirely unethical and immoral. That these companies and their managers see nothing wrong with this is another illustration of the abandonment of morality in modern culture. It is also another reason why I want my hi-tech equipment to be as dumb as possible. Above all, I do not want it linked electronically beyond itself.

A Trip Through Victorian Paris, France

An evening pause: This footage was taken from 1896 to 1900 in Paris, and has been cleaned up and shown here at the correct speed with sound added to match the visuals. What you will see:

0:08 – Notre-Dame Cathedral (1896)
0:58 – Alma Bridge (1900)
1:37 – Avenue des Champs-Élysées (1899)
2:33 – Place de la Concorde (1897)
3:24 – Passing of a fire brigade (1897)
3:58 – Tuileries Garden (1896)
4:48 – Moving walkway at the Paris Exposition (1900)
5:24 – The Eiffel Tower from the Rives de la Seine à Paris (1897)

What strikes me is the dignified behavior and dress of the people. We are of course mostly looking at Paris’s high class streets, but nonetheless there is something in the culture that requires them to behave as civilized as they can.

A glider sets new altitude record

The Perlan-2 glider yesterday set a new altitude record, reaching an altitude of more than fourteen miles.

Then on September 2, Perlan pilots Jim Payne and Tim Gardner strapped themselves in and rode the glider to an altitude of 76,000 ft (23,000 m), setting a new flight record. This is higher than Lockheed Martin’s jet-powered U2 spy plane flown by the CIA, which reached 73,700 ft (22,475 m), and places it amongst a handful of manned aircraft to sustain flight at such as altitude.

Implied but unstated in the article at the link is the military value of this technology, once combined with drone technology.

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