Archive for the 'Technology' Category

May 22 2017

The Smart Meter Hubbub

smart-meter-exampleSame story, different day.

While the details of specific topics change, people are the same. They commit the same fallacies and errors in thinking, and so the patterns of arguments tend to be the same.

Many power companies are replacing the old analogue meters with digital smart meters – devices that measure how much electricity you use and therefore need to be billed for. The newer meters are able to gather more information about electricity usage, not just overall usage. They can measure when you are using electricity throughout the day, for example. They can also communicate this information to the power company wirelessly, eliminating the need to have someone come to your home to read the meter.

There is an obvious efficiency to this increased data and communication. Further, one of the most challenging aspects of power production is balancing production and demand. Demand also tends to peak at certain times, which means that power companies need to have a lot of extra capacity that kicks in just for peak usage. Peak power production tends to be the least efficient and most expensive.

One hope is that smart meters will allow for peak shaving – giving customers information they can use to shift their energy usage off peak.

So what’s the controversy? The same litany of mostly made up complaints and conspiracy theories that seem to crop up for any new technology. Just about every complaint about smart meters has an analogy with vaccines and GMOs, for example, and generally the same crowd are complaining.  Continue Reading »

27 responses so far

Mar 28 2017

Is AI Going to Save or Destroy Us?

Published by under Technology

cylon1Futurists have a love-hate relationship with artificial intelligence (AI). Elon Musk represents the fear side of this. In two recent articles we see two sides of this fear of AI. In a Vanity Fair piece we learn:

He told Bloomberg’s Ashlee Vance, the author of the biography Elon Musk, that he was afraid that his friend Larry Page, a co-founder of Google and now the C.E.O. of its parent company, Alphabet, could have perfectly good intentions but still “produce something evil by accident”—including, possibly, “a fleet of artificial intelligence-enhanced robots capable of destroying mankind.”

We also learn from The Verge:

SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk is backing a brain-computer interface venture called Neuralink, according to The Wall Street Journal. The company, which is still in the earliest stages of existence and has no public presence whatsoever, is centered on creating devices that can be implanted in the human brain, with the eventual purpose of helping human beings merge with software and keep pace with advancements in artificial intelligence. These enhancements could improve memory or allow for more direct interfacing with computing devices.

So Musk thinks we need to enhance our own intelligence digitally in order to compete with the AI that we are also creating, so they don’t destroy us. Musk is joined by Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking raising the alarm bells about the dangers of AI.

On the other end of the spectrum are Ray Kurzweil, Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page. They think AI will bring about the next revolution for humanity, and we have nothing to worry about.

So who is right?

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304 responses so far

Mar 24 2017

3D Printed Houses

Published by under Technology

ApisCorHouseHere is a light and fun item for a Friday – we are making progress in the technology for 3D printing houses. Business Insider did a review of a San Francisco startup, Apis Cor, that says it built a 400 sq ft. house in 24 hours with $10,134 worth of materials. That is pretty impressive.

They estimate the cost of a square house built with their methods at around $223 per sq meter. A conventionally built home would be in the $1,200 per sq meter range (obviously this is highly variable, depending on quality, complexity, and finishing).

3D printed homes are not new. The idea is that you use a large 3D printer that makes the walls of the home using additive technology. They print with some version of concrete. There are limits on the size and the height of such constructions, and it has been costly and time-consuming to set up the printer on sight. One option is to 3D print sections of a house in a factory then deliver them and assemble on site. This adds time and expense.

Apis Cor’s advance is their 3D printer, which they claim is more portable and can easily and quickly be set up on site, to 3D print the home entirely as one piece. The video at the link above shows the process (but is almost comical in that it is a self-parody of a corporate promotional video).

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10 responses so far

Mar 21 2017

Y2K and the Year 2038 Problem

Published by under Technology

unix2038I was recently asked about the year 2038 problem as it relates to the Y2K bug. Specifically, it seemed like the Y2K bug was a non-event, so should we similarly not worry about the year 2038 problem.

Lessons from Y2K

At this point some of you may not know what I am talking about, so first some history. When the modern computing age was being developed back in the 1950s memory was at a premium. For this reason dates were represented by six digits – MM/DD/YY.  Just two digits were used for the year, assuming that all years had the prefix 19. So 01/01/80 was January 1st, 1980.

The first person to recognize this was a potential problem was Robert Bemer in 1958. Apparently he spend the next couple of decades trying to convince his fellow programmers this was a problem, but no one listened. Talk of the year 2000, or millennial bug (often shortened to Y2K bug) didn’t really spread until the 1980s, and no one took it seriously until the 1990s.

The potential problem is that once the date turned over to January 1st, 2000, computers would only record that as 01/01/00, and treat it as 1900. This might cause systems to crash, and by 2000 much of our society was controlled by computers, from banking to air traffic control. In the 1990s the Y2K bug went from a non-problem to a mild panic, with the most dire warnings talking of civilization collapse.

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28 responses so far

Mar 07 2017

Phasing Out Coal

Published by under Technology

coal_waterIt seems clear that if we are going to make significant progress in reducing global CO2 emissions, we are going to need to phase out the burning of coal to generate electricity. The UK may serve as a demonstration of this fact.

In recent years UK coal burning has plummeted – in 2016 the UK burned 18 million Metric Tonnes (Mt) of coal, which is less than it has burned since before 1860. At its peak in 1956 the UK burned 221 Mt of coal.

As a result, overall carbon emissions from the UK have also dropped, from its peak of 685 Mt of carbon in 1970 to 281 in 2016. That is the lowest annual carbon emission from the UK since 1894 (not counting two years in the 1920’s during massive strikes).

Power from coal is being replaced by power from gas, oil, and renewables. Last year the UK generated more power from wind than from coal. Some are crediting the precipitous drop in coal burning to a doubling of the carbon tax in the UK in 2015.

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88 responses so far

Jan 31 2017

Are We Close to a Flying Car?

Published by under Technology

flying carThere is a good rule of thumb that whenever a headline is phrased as a question the answer is, “No.” This headline is no exception. You might not think this from reading a recent AP article titled: “A commuter’s dream: Entrepreneurs race to develop flying car.”

I am old enough now where I can say that I have been reading such headlines for literally decades. Since I was a nerdy teenage technophile I have been reading about, and dreaming about, flying cars. They are undeniably cool – one of the holy grails of future technology.  I still sometimes imagine myself rising above the congested roads during particularly bad traffic and flying to my destination unhindered.

The AP article, however, is an excellent example of the overhyped future technology trope. Often a dramatic new technology, like flying cars, requires that several different component technologies all work sufficiently so that the application is feasible. Skyscrapers could not be built until the elevator was invented. It didn’t matter if engineers had perfected ways of supporting really tall buildings if no one could get to the upper floors.

I have discussed this idea with batteries many times. A useful battery has to simultaneously have multiple properties: good energy density and capacity, stability, sufficiently rapid charge and discharge rates, many charge-discharge cycles, and be made of material that is not too expensive, heavy, rare, or toxic. There also has to be a way to economically mass produce them. Missing even one property can be a deal-killer.

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28 responses so far

Jan 20 2017

Questions on GMOs

Published by under Technology

gmo-cartoons-good-fat-100Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) remain the one issue on which there is the greatest disparity of opinions between scientists and the general public. Even among self-identified skeptics, people who make a genuine effort to align their opinions with the scientific evidence, there remains great distrust of GMOs and the companies who produce them (such as Monsanto).

This disparity is partly due to the decades-long campaign by Greenpeace and the organic lobby to demonize GMOs. It is much easier to fearmonger than to reassure. I think we have started to crawl back toward reality on this issue, but we have a long way to go. We started with the low-hanging fruit, correcting the outright lies.

It is much more difficult to dispel the vague sense that there is something menacing about GMOs. We have a deep emotional connection to food that we perhaps don’t even recognize. It is easy to trigger our emotion of disgust, and we have apparently evolved to err on the side of avoiding anything that may be tainted. The image of unnatural “frankenfood” still clings to our culture and is hard to dispel.

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229 responses so far

Jan 19 2017

2016 Warmest Year on Record

Published by under Skepticism,Technology

giss-1880-2016It’s official – 2016 is the warmest year on record, since we have been tracking global temperatures since 1880. This is the third year in a row that the current year has been the warmest, 2014 and 2015 were also the warmest years on record. In fact, 15 of the warmest years on record have all been since 1998 inclusive. The last time we had a coldest year on record was 1911.

That the Earth is warming is now undeniable, but that does not stop people engaged in motivated reasoning from denying it. The graph to the right shows temperature variance from average since 1880. It is visually very compelling.

Here is how motivated reasoning works, however. Someone without ideological skin in the game would fairly assess all the data, acknowledge uncertainty and complexity, but arrive at the fairest conclusion. Motivated reasoning exploits uncertainty and complexity to deny the reality which is causing cognitive dissonance brought about by a conflict between reality and ideology.

As you might imagine, there is a lot of complexity in determining average global temperatures. It’s not as if the Earth has a magical thermostat. There are various places to measure temperature, from surface temperature, high altitude temperature, and ocean temperature. You can also use various methods, including ground stations and satellites. Further, you have to correct for any potential source of artifact. For example, there is the heat-island effect. As cities grow they generate more heat, and if you have a temperature measuring station near a city it will measure this heat.

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168 responses so far

Jan 17 2017

Gene Cernan, Last Man to Walk on the Moon, Dies

Published by under Technology

Cernan-Apollo17“We leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return with peace and hope for all mankind.”

Those were the last words that Eugene Cernan spoke while on the moon, the last person to step foot there. Twelve people total walked on the moon during the Apollo missions: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Pete Conrad, Alan Bean, Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, David Scott, James Irwin, John Young, Charles Duke, Eugene Cernan, and Harrison Schmitt. Cernan was one of only three who went to the moon twice. Of the twelve, six are now still alive.

Cernan and Schmitt were the two astronauts of the Apollo 17 mission, the last mission of the Apollo program, to walk on the moon. They lifted off from the lunar surface on December 14, 1972. That means this year it will be 45 years since a person last walked on the moon. We are fast approaching half a century since the end of the Apollo missions.

I was only 8 years old in 1972, but I avidly followed the Apollo program. From my perspective at that age the Apollo program had existed my entire conscious life. To me it was just something that we did. I remained a fan of NASA, the space program, and all things having to do with space travel since then. I would have considered it unthinkable that we would not return to the moon in the next 50 years. Surely by 2001, which seemed far in the future, Kubrick and Clarke’s vision of a permanent moon base was likely a reasonable extrapolation.

So why haven’t we been back to the moon? Should we return to the moon?

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17 responses so far

Dec 20 2016

New Radiation Resistant Metals

Published by under Technology

radiation-alloysThis is a bit of a wonky technical post, but that is actually a point I want to make. Often I find that the scientific advances that have the most potential get the least coverage, while interesting but incremental advances, or one-off findings, are given broad coverage with sensational headlines. This is an unfortunate artifact of how scientific news is communicated. First, a company’s or institution’s press office will determine if the new study or finding is press-worthy, and if so they will compose a press release. Then journalists and news outlets will decide if it is worth publishing, which usually means – can they spin it as a major breakthrough, creating or solving some “mystery”, a potential cure for some disease, or tie it to some science-fiction technology.

Meanwhile, real advances that are not “sexy” get overlooked. So when I saw this item I thought, this is likely to be one of those advances with huge potential but very little press coverage.

Researchers have figured out how to make metal alloys that are far more resistant to radiation damage than existing alloys. The key is mixing three or more different metals in equal proportions. They compared nickel to nickel-iron, nickel-cobalt-iron, and nickel-cobalt-iron-manganese-chromium. The alloys with three or more metals were 100 times more resistant to radiation damage than the pure nickel.

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11 responses so far

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