Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Bamboo Bicycles and natural meta-resources

In my previous posting about metar-esources, I focused exclusively on manufactured goods. But taken another way, humans have been meta-resource users longer than we've been human - as long as we've been tool-using primates. Wood could, for example, be considered a meta-resource, since the tree has gone to the trouble of manufacturing a rigid, easily worked cellulose structure.

Okay, it's a stretch.

It's still interesting to see natural products taking their places beside the most modern. In the case of Bamboosero they're making bike frames out of bamboo, hemp, and (if I understand correctly) polyester resin. Apparently they compare favorably to carbon fiber. Consider that a moment. Bamboo, a fast growing grass (three years from seedling to harvest for bike frames), when heat treated and wrapped in hemp, a crop plant grown for its long, strong fibers for thousands of years (the discovery of and breeding for THC content is comparatively recent), and soaked in polyester resin stacks up to polyester resin soaked /carbon fiber/. Apparently the bike frames are a little more flexible than their carbon fiber counterparts, but this helps them absorb shock better. It boggles the mind, and makes one wonder how many other good materials for space-age material-science have been ignored because humans didn't invent them.

And yes, I understand the role the resin is playing here. Let us not underestimate it or its man-made nature. But I start to wonder if hybrid materials (to coin a phrase) - man-made with natural might not be a strong force as we look into the future.

The constraints are, probably, a lack of engineering data and engineering consistency with natural products. Consider that in the last 20 years or so, as the housing industry has moved to building with lumber exclusively from farmed, fast-growing trees, that the engineering specs on a 2x4 are rather different from 2x4s sawn from old growth pine forests. That kind of thing has to drive engineers (and architects) insane. I wonder if that, as much as techno-snobbery, is behind the lack of utilization of these natural materials, including the gradual replacement of wood with manufactured timbers in homes.

(As an aside: my current house has natural-timber floors. They /give/ a lot more than the old house's manufactured timbers did, and especially under the front loading washer, this is not a positive thing.)

Changing venues to a craftsman-driven, boutique technology realm, whether at the high end in industrialized nations, or the lower end in emerging nations, changes the need for material consistency. Instead of an engineer trying to model what the material will do mathematically, a craftsman knows the material and how it will react in what he/she is making, and presumably how to evaluate the stock. Watch Norm Abram pick out wood for his projects some time, if you want to see that practice at work. (Okay, Norm has degrees in mechanical engineering and business admin, so he might be doing the engineering in his head. But still.)

Meta-materials, naturally occurring or otherwise, because of their variations, might not lend themselves to mass production, but for cottage and craft industries, it's a whole different ballgame.


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Amazon/1984, Endgame - Besos Apologizes

Okay.. I've never been a Jeff Bezos fan. Until now. This, sports fans, is a CEO owning up to his company's mistakes. Shrewd move? You bet. The blunt, unambiguous apology and admission of wrongdoing is the kind of thing that sets bloggers' hearts a-twitter. So to speak. I am astonished. Well done, Mr. Bezos.


Meta-resources and the future

(As promised some time ago, here's my big post from my personal blog on meta-resources and why they matter. I've updated it a bit from that original post, and as always, corrected egregious typos. This was originally written in 2006, and IMHO the situation has only accelerated.)

For some time now, I've been subscribing to quite a number of mailing lists and blogs that I refer to as ingenuity sites, such as Make: and Craft:, evilmadscientists, AfriGadget, and, of course, reading sites about home made machine tools, machine tools made from old car parts, home made scanning tunneling microscopes, micro CNC equipment and so on. A body'd think I don't have enough to do. :)

But seriously, I've been noticing some interesting commonalities among all these sites.

First, there seems to be a gradual democratization of the ability to manufacture advanced technology. People do surface mount technology in their basement, using a toaster oven for the solder flow machine. I've seen a dozen different ways to make circuit boards, but most of them start from laserprints. One recipe etches the boards in salt water. You can get pretty reasonable circuit design and layout software for free online. A friend of mine tells me that certain types of off-the-shelf Epson inkjet printers with certain off the shelf ink packs, special software, and lots of tinkering, can print crude (and not especially reliable) semiconductor integrated circuits on plain paper. Also interesting (to me, at least) is the book "Instruments of Amplification" wherein the author spells out how to make your own vacuum tubes.

On the mechanical side of things, there are Gingery's books on how to make a full (manual) machine shop from scrap aluminum, as mentioned in the link above. Backyard metal foundries seem to be far more common than one might expect, and the technology level is rising sharply for these hobbyists. Some of them are building computer controlled mills out of what amounts to the guts of a couple old printers and a dremel tool, and using them for some fairly precise, reproducible work. You can now buy such systems as kits, or turn-key for slightly less than a Laserjet 4 laser printer cost in 1996. (And you'd pay for it in dollars that aren't worth as much, too.) Hell, even American Chopper shows, without really meaning to - they make it to be a soap opera, basically - that a small(er) business can buy these sophisticated tools, guys with junior college educations can learn to use them, and produce amazing, professional things. (Okay, I'm leaving that paragraph in, because that's what I wrote in 2006. Since then, however, I've become a lot less of a four-year-college snob. President Obama's focus on junior colleges really put it in perspective for me. I think he's right.)

If I were a large manufacturing corporation, I'd be worried by this. This democratization of sophisticated technology seems like it's going to encourage cottage industry (again, like Orange County Choppers, from American Chopper). Economies of scale will still be in the favor of the big corporations, but where the quality of the product really matters, boutique industry has an advantage. Cottage industry is also not saddled with an ossified bureaucracy, so they can react to markets faster. (Since I originally wrote this in 2006, the best example of ossified bureaucracy stifling product engineering - the United States auto industry - has essentially collapsed. So who knows, this particular problem may be reaching the end of its road.)

Cottage industry also has the advantage of working where there isn't the capital to establish large corporations, in this case the poorest countries in the world.

As a side note, those poorest countries of the world, as cottage industry takes off, have the option of picking and choosing what technologies from the developed world they really want, and there are some interesting choices they can make, since they're starting from closer to scratch than we in the developed world can.

Anyway. The second point that has risen to me out of all this reading is the rise of meta-resources. AfriGadget, MultiMachine, and quite a few others from time to time, frequently use car parts as resources. For the Multimachine folks, engine blocks are a readily available (even in the underdeveloped parts of the world) source of precisely machined, flat, rigid structures, which are absolutely fundamental to building precision tools. Car alternators find themselves repurposed as wind generators fairly regularly. Tires, wheels, shafts, and wheel bearings get remade into carts, engines turn generators and pumps, and there are whole cottage industries built around taking the parts of a bunch of old cars and making a running car out of them.

It's not limited to cars, either. Another site had information on street vendors in India who will fix your cell phone, usually by cannibalizing parts from other phones of the same model. These electronics we in the developed world consider a menace in landfills (all that lead, etc), are repairable as your cost of labor goes down, despite being manufactured with no thought to repairability (or no thought *for* repairability, at least) being made.

Heck, even in the United States, the superabundance of shipping containers that pile up at our port cities are starting to be sold and repurposed as modules to build homes out of. Apparently they work quite well for this.

This rise of meta-resources is fascinating to me. We're always taught to think of resources as *natural* resources, that is, the raw materials we scrape out of the planet. But the things we make out of those raw materials are, themselves, resources, and not just in the sense of recycling them back into the raw materials (IE melting them down) but in their finished states, they can be reused and remade, and, in fact, that meta-resource may be more useful due to some factor of its original manufacture than the raw material. The original use of the resource added value to it which can, itself, be reused.

Why does all this matter? Well, it matters to me, because I write science fiction, and looking into the future and guessing what it might be like is part of my job. It's also interesting in that you can see how the world is changing. People in underdeveloped countries are aware of what they don't have, and they are learning the skills to make what they want, and they are leaping past whole decades of technology to pick and choose from the long chain of technology we in the developed world had to go through step by step, and they're making use of the products they've /already/ bought from the developed world to do it. In some cases, they're deliberately buying the West's garbage /as/ a resource. The ship-breaking yards in Bangladesh are a fine example. (Yes, I'm aware of the appalling environmental and human cost of that operation, but at the same time I respect their ingenuity and meta-resource use. The ship-breaking yards produce 80% of Bangladesh's steel. If Bangladesh had iron ore to mine, does anyone really believe the mining and smelting operations would be any better? And were they in 19th century England and America?)

Finally, it's reassuring to know that, not only is human ingenuity not dead, it is not limited to corporate environments, to engineers and specialists, and so forth. It's reassuring to know that, despite how complex modern technologies have become, individual contribution can, and I think will, make a difference. Perhaps make THE difference.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

More on Amazon and 1984

Amazon sent an email to the New York Times about the whole mess with 1984 and Animal Farm that explained things a bit. Apparently I'm right, that someone published versions of the books who didn't have rights to them, and when the rights holder informed them, they felt they could legitimately go take them back from the customers and give a refund.

Apparently the negative press has been enough to get their attention, as the same email says, as quoted by Brad Stone of the New York Times, "We are changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers’ devices in these circumstances[...]".

In the long run, that might be enough. I rather hope not. I'd love to see the whole DRM and 'business controlling what you own' thing go up in flames, but I think the Kindle is too small a market to generate the kind of political will to change it.

In any case, while I'm still a little uneasy about them having /any/ control of what I've purchased and downloaded already, and while I detest their DRM for a variety of reasons, hopefully they've learned something important here, and really won't do it again. That'll have to be enough for now.


Friday, July 17, 2009

Amazon goes 1984 on 1984


An interesting thing happened with some Kindle store versions of Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm. They disappeared. There's a lot of speculation whether the books were illegally pirated, or exactly what the situation is, and it's muddied by the fact that other editions of the books are still for sale in the Kindle store. They may, in fact, have had perfectly legitimate reasons for pulling that edition from the store. Amazon, of course, said nothing. They emailed owners that there were 'problems with the book(s).' That's all they said.

Then Amazon reached out and deleted the books from everyone's Kindle, with a full refund.

So to anyone who's listening, DON'T BUY A KINDLE OR KINDLE BOOKS UNTIL AMAZON RECOGNIZES THAT WHEN WE BUY A BOOK IT'S OURS. They don't have to archive it forever if it's not legit. They don't have to keep selling it. The terms of service on the Kindle publishing system already clearly state that those of us who put material up for the Kindle indemnify Amazon for any license infringements. That's all fine. But taking books back like this is NOT fine. As long as this mechanism exists, the potential for its misuse exists, and if e-books are ever to take their place beside real books as a source of literature and ideas, then we must be able to trust that when a book is bought, it stays bought. Revised editions can be sent, provided the original is not deleted. But touching the library in my kindle is the same as touching the library in my house, and I will object strenuously. And if they want to kick my blog off their site for objecting strenuously into their RSS feed, so be it.


Thursday, July 16, 2009

Refurbed Kindles for $199

Looking for a Kindle? Want it cheap? If you don't mind getting the original Kindle (the same one I have and like), Amazon is selling refurbished ones.

These have some features the newer kindles lack. Most notable is the SD card slot. I've yet to fill my Kindle's relatively small wired memory, but the knowledge that I can use the SD card, and when it's full switch to another (theoretically - haven't tried this) seems like a positive thing. The downsides to the original Kindle are that the battery door comes off easily, and the leather folder it comes with /does not fit/.

(Me, in February of 2008) The best way to fix the otherwise worthless cover that comes with your Kindle seems to be to cut out the straps that it comes with to hold the Kindle in place, and to put self-stick velcro inside and on the Kindle itself. Once that's done, it's a pretty reasonable cover. It's just that the mounting straps inside don't actually *fit* the Kindle.

I would add to this that the velcro does not need to be the super-strong industrial stuff I use in combat robots. That tends to rip the battery door off the back of the Kindle. Oops. :)


Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Forget Health Insurance. Get a support contract

One thing I've posited right along in the LookingGlass world is the end of healthcare as it's done today in the United States. (Today being July 7, 2009 - Congress is in session so there's some chance we might see meaningful healthcare reform here. Maybe. If the special interests don't wreck it.) I assert that it will be done more like support contracts for computers, in the fine old, late lamented tradition of DecSupport - Digital Equipment Corporation's support organization for their computer systems. This really never came out in either of the books that are published that much, although it's brushed past in Irreconcilable Differences when Kari mentions not having a support contract.

So I'm not sure if I'm pleased or appalled to discover that, in fact, support contracts for humans are starting to happen. Apparently for an /extremely/ reasonable fee, these doctors can provide unlimited primary care and forgo the massive expense, slow payment, and other high-bullshit-factor activities involved with insurance altogether. Or at least they can get venture capital on the idea. I suppose we'll see if it catches on.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

/Virtuality /TV show - recommended

On the strength of regular commenter John Foberg's recommendation, I spent the two hours watching Virtuality, the pilot for an (apparently) failed TV show that Fox tv was going to do.

Virtuality is the story of twelve men and women on the world's first interstellar flight. They've signed on for ten years, and as the pilot begins, they're approaching their go/no-go decision - do they slingshot around Neptune and fire main drive - a system derived from Project Orion, and go on their ten year mission, or do they abort and go back to Earth? They are also the stars of /the/ most popular reality tv series on tv, with two billion viewers, so mission control may not always be on their side so much as on the side of what makes good tv.

I'm still digesting it, but I have to say there are some things that stand out in my mind. First, kudos to Fox for having the stones to, yanno, take the chance on something other than reality tv. Second, razzies to Fox for not having the stones to actually make the series.

First thing. /Virtuality/ was supposed to be a tv show pilot. So let's look at it the way it was meant to be seen, instead of as a tv movie.

I've read other reviews of the tv series calling it formulaic. There's some truth to that. As the title might suggest, the virtual reality system on board - used for maintaining skills, recreation, and occasionally as a user interface for complex ship systems - is a fundamental plot device to the story, and probably would have been throughout the series. The problem with this is that it's all been done before, albeit badly, by the holodeck-centric episodes of /Star Trek the Next Generation/ and its descendants.

Virtuality also leans heavily on the formula of the ship's AI who may not have your best interests at heart. This, too, has been done before. /2001: A Space Odyssey/ is the canonical AI-goes-bad story; /Star Trek/ covered it repeatedly; /Alien/ had a dose, /Terminator 1 - n+1/ thrived on it, and of course it was the very bedrock of /The Matrix./ (One might also point out certain elements of this trope in my work, I suppose. ;)

There's also a healthy dose of claustrophobia reminiscent of pretty much any submarine movie you can think of, and a slight dose of /A Nightmare on Elm Street III/ and you pretty much have the plotlines we're dealing with. Except of course, the reality show angle that distorts all of them and makes you wonder which part of the truth you're being told.

At what point do these formulas become tropes, and at what point do tropes become archetypes? I think all of these elements are actually good elements of the story. They're tropes because they /work/ and they can be rethought and re-imagined and repurposed again and again.

It would have taken some discipline for the writers - something it's doubtful Fox TV could have maintained - to keep the virtuality plot device from getting stupid, overused, and campy (did I mention Next Generation's holodeck problems?) and still keep it a vital part of the story.


The final question is, would I have watched the TV show, had it been made (and had Mr. Forberg brought it to my attention, instead of an orphaned pilot?) I think I would have.

I would, at least, have bought the series on iTunes and thrown it on my iPod as I did with /Farscape/, for watching next time I'm sick in bed. It's an interesting story, and the characters are interesting human beings. Flawed (arguably a bit too flawed - although the lack of professional unity of the crew can be explained away by the reality show sponsorship of the mission), believable, weird around the edges. People who it's interesting to see what goes on in their heads, but at the same time a little uncomfortable. I'd have liked to see the mystery presented unwound and exposed, although if it took more than a season I'd probably have given up. But I would like to know what was going on. So. A mixed review from me. Easily a mini-series worth of plotlines to unravel in /Virtuality/, maybe not a whole series worth. In any case it's free to watch, and it's well done, so check it out and enjoy what might have been.


Odd Lots

A friend of mine, fellow author Jeff Duntemann keeps a well regarded blog (though it's presently having provider problems). One recurring feature of it are little amusing things found on the net or emailed to him by friends. He calls them Odd Lots entries. It's too good an idea not to steal. :)

So, Odd Lots for today:

An ant, as you've never seen it before, composited out of 400 images from a scanning electron microscope. Via Daring Fireball

The first ethernet cable A lot is made about the broadband revolution - cable modem, dsl, fiber to the home, etc, and all of them talk about the 'last mile' - between the phone company/cable company and your place. Ethernet, for most of us, is the last /foot/ technology, as it's become the de-facto network standard for desktop computers to talk to the world. Yeah yeah, I know, wifi. But 802.11b/g/m/etc encapsulates 802.3 ethernet packets. They're extremely closely related. So yeah. Unless you're using a phone modem, you're almost certainly using some form of ethernet to read this message. And this is the very first ethernet cable. Via BoingBoing Gadgets, via Make: Online".


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