Years and Years of Dilbert

Just stumbled on a page from which you can read any Dilbert strip without ads or complicated navigation buttons. You just click forward and back through dates, or edit the URL to get to a target date. For those who want a trip down memory lane or have a LOT of time to kill in cube land.

Why Gyro Cars? An end of year reflection

If you are reading this blog or have visited my gyro-car pages at you probably have some interest in gyro stabilized ground transportation technology, typically vehicles that stay upright through the use of gyroscopes. A classic example is the Gyro-X, seen above as it appeared in a 1967 article in Science and Mechanics, a collaboration between famed automotive designer Alex Tremuls (the Cord, the '33 Duesenberg, and the Tucker) and pioneering gyrodynamist Thomas O. Summers, Jr (holder of more than four dozen gyro-related patents). Yet more classic, and proving that there are very few 'new' ideas, is Schilovski's 1914 Wolsely seen here.
There have also been railway trains designed to run on one rail. But why go this route? The article on the Gyro-X covers many of the reasons, broadly stated as more efficient. You can go faster with less power, further with less fuel. Both wind resistance and rolling resistance of the rubber on the road can be significantly reduced with the inline, two-wheel design.

Another factor cited by Science and Mechanics is the potential to use a gyro as a sort of flywheel, a source of energy. It sounds as though the designers of the Gyro-X were considering using the kinetic energy stored in the 250 pound flywheel to temporarily boost the power available to the vehicle's drive train. Remember, that article was published in America in 1967, here cars were all about performance. But it is only a short step from the power boost idea to an energy-saving idea my father had forty years ago: reclaim energy from braking by transferring it to a flywheel. In fact. buses that used flywheels as their energy source were ince used in Europe.

In WWII my father worked with gyros used on battleships to stabilized the big guns. He knew that they were an efficient way to store energy as well as keep things upright. Once the rotating mass was up to speed it could be kept there with small amounts of incremental energy.

This opens several fruitful avenues of thought relative to the main automotive challenge today: fuel economy. Given the high cost of batteries used in electric vehicles, why not use a flywheel instead, one that could be topped up by braking? For longer distance driving a small diesel motor could top up power in the flywheel. And since you have a flywheel, why not drop two of the wheels and use the flywheel to hold the thing up? Come on car designers and engineers. It is now 40 years since the Gyro-X appeared. Time to update the design, think outside the box and save the world from fossil fuels!

Edwards Enters: An electable choice for struggling families?

John Edwards has entered the race for the Democratic nomination for President in 2008. According to the candidate, the top priorities of his presidency would be "guaranteeing health care for every single American" and "ending the shame of poverty." I have to say, those are priorities that appeal to me.

The lack of universal health care is the leading cause of bankruptcies, homelessness, and lawsuits. And poverty, quite frankly--and I don't mean to be glib--is a downer for those of us who are blessed with both a comfortable lifestyle and a conscience. More importantly, poverty is demeaning and disheartening to those who are poor, not to mention an enormous drag on our economy. America's most valuable resource is Americans, and many Americans who live in poverty are denied the opportunity to contribute to society. By our failure to insist that the constantly rising tide of our national prosperity lift all boats, we squander lives that could be a blessing to us all.

So, I am "on message" with the Edwards message. But can he win? I'm not sure he can win the Democratic nomination. But if he does, then I think he can win the presidency. In other words, Edwards is what Hilary and Barack are not: electable. Now it pains me deeply to say this, particularly in the case of Barack Obama because I would happily campaign and vote "Obama for President." He is so much more qualified to be president than, for example, someone like George W. Bush, it is just not funny. But apart from being a liberal, I am also a realist, and realistically America is not ready for a black president. Don't get me wrong, I AM READY for a black president. But there is a whole chunk of America that is not. If you don't believe me then all I can say is that have you not spent enough time in The South.

It's not just that The South would fail to vote for Barack, The South would vote against Barack, vehemently, two or three times in some counties. You'd see good ole boys at the polls who've never even seen a touchscreen before. And there is a parallel with Hilary. I'd be happy to see her in the White House again, but there are enough people vehemently opposed to that happening, it just ain't going to happen.

The problem for the Democrats, and the reason that Edwards might not be their candidate in 2008, is that they tend to run candidates who should be elected, not candidates who can be elected. I can sympathize with this. After all, it should not matter that a candidate is black, but are you going to give Republicans the White House just to prove that point?

Don't get me wrong, I'm looking forward to Barack's campaign, and Hilary's too. But of the three, Edwards is the most electable. And he sure seems to have his heart in the right place.

War Averted? If only Ford had broken rank

Oh great. now we find out what Gerald Ford thought about Dubya's neocon foreign policy and going to war in Iraq:
“I just don’t think we should go hellfire damnation around the globe freeing people, unless it is directly related to our own national security.”
Maybe if he had said that publicly back in early 2003 we wouldn't have gone to war in Iraq. Ford oversaw the end of the last failed US foreign war, he could have prevented the next. There is an interesting perspective on this from a Ford biographer, but I have yet to see a good reason cited for former presidents not criticizing current presidents. As I recall, Reagan criticized Clinton's policies, in speeches and editorials, while Clinton was in office, lobbying against some of them, like cutting funding for star wars.

Government Messing With Science: A to Z Guide to Political Interference

And I quote:
In recent years, scientists who work for and advise the federal government have seen their work manipulated, suppressed, distorted, while agencies have systematically limited public and policy maker access to critical scientific information. To document this abuse, the Union of Concerned Scientists has created the A to Z Guide to Political Interference in Science.
As a taxpayer and a father whose daughter's biology teacher intentionally skipped the chapters on evolution in her high school science textbook, I urge you to check out this illuminating guide.

Technology and Risk Displacement: Not just a theory

Okay, so this entry is going to be 'big picture' and I don't mean plasma TVs. Basically, it's just some thoughts about technology in a broad sense, beyond just chips and bits, but starting with something specific, a story in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about toxic chemicals in our homes and in our, well, in us. And if you want a direct connection to the digital world, our computers are one source of these chemicals.

Like a lot of people, I feel strongly about technology. It would be true to say I 'love' technology, at least for a certain definition of 'love.' I'm not talking about the wide-eyed way I sometimes look at my Treo 650 while contemplating the awesome fact that this small and almost perfectly formed object can take dictation, place and receive phone calls, fetch and send email, and, even as it plays one of my 521 most favorite songs, zoom in on satellite imagery of just about anyone's house, anywhere on the planet [courtesy of Google Earth, some restrictions may apply]. That's not love, that's infatuation.

The love relates to the hugely positive changes technology has enabled during my lifetime (early 1950s to circa Now). That includes everything from indoor plumbing to air bags, polio vaccine to organ transplants, jet planes to this here Internet, that sometimes takes the bits and bytes I write out into space and back to earth, in seconds. You get the picture (and my picture, in the upper right-hand corner, viewable from web browsers in just about every country on the planet).

However, I would never advocate unconditional love for technology. My father was an engineer and so I got an up-close education in applied technology from an early age. I remember him pondering the challenge of stopping a jumbo jet after it had landed (he worked for Dunlop, which built the brakes and tires for the 747, which do most of the stopping--he had designed thrust reversers not long after jet engines were deployed in civilian aviation, but they don't do as much to stop planes as you might think). We often pored over blueprints on the kitchen table and I would spend time in his workshop where he 'tinkered' with all manner of tools and materials.

I particularly remember him working with asbestos, which has highly prized engineering properties. Apart from simple insulation, it was used in brake pads and in the handling of molten metals for castings. It was used extensively in ships and my father served as an engineer in the Royal Navy during WWII. He died of respiratory cancer not long after his fiftieth birthday.

Long before I became involved with computers I had formed several thoughts about technology. I decided technology itself was neutral, the classic case in point being nuclear technology, which enables hugely destructive bombs and power generation without fossil fuels. Growing up during the Cold War, the threat of nuclear annihilation was a daily worry, to me at least, particularly after my mother took me on a 'Ban the Bomb' march when I was eight. But England in the 1950s was a very smoggy place, with terrible air quality in most big cities. A lot of air pollution has been avoided by the generation of 'clean' fuel through nuclear reaction. Yet each benefit has an offset. Disposing of spent nuclear fuel is no small problem. And each downside has an upside. For example, since the nuclear bomb has been widely deployed the stand-off inherent in mutually assured destruction means there have been no world-wide armed conflicts.

So first I decided that technology itself is neutral (applied technology not so much). And then I entertained the thought that no single technology produces a net gain. Clean fuel, dirty residue. Increased mobility through automotive transportation, increased pollution. Greater travel, wider spread of disease. Heat resistance, lung disease. Greater access to useful data, greater exposure of private data. You can go on and on. As you do so, you'll probably think of mitigating factors. After all, new technologies are frequently developed that counter or avoid the downside of earlier technologies. No more lead in paint, no more asbestos in brake shoes, and so on. But remember my premise: 'no single technology produces a net gain.'

Take flame retardants. They reduce the risk of fire, the extent of fire damage, and probably save lives. You will find them in clothes, car seat cushions, computer wires, and the dust on your desk. And now we find that traces of potentially toxic flame retardant chemicals are showing up in people, and building up in their blood and tissue. What is more, chemicals long banned are still showing up.

This is risk displacement. It occurs in many areas of life. Consider seat belts. They save lives, right? But some studies have shown that people wearing them drive worse than people who are not. I'm particularly upset with those car commercials where people who are busy chatting away while driving get hit by another car and walk away. Are we doing enough testing of the phenomenon that, the more someone feels that technology makes crashing survivable, the more likely they are to crash?

Risk displacement also occurs in computer security. Closing down an avenue of attack does not in itself reduce the total sum of effort and resources that will going into attacks. The attacks will find a different path. Which brings us back to the big picture. Attacks on computers will only diminish when the general standard of human behavior improves. That is not an impossible goal. The amount of drunk driving going on today is less than it was. That is not a result of changes in technology but of changes in people. The lesson is not to look to technology for answers it cannot provide, and not expect a new technology to be all upside and no downside.

Black White Gap Widens in Some Areas: Black infant mortality higher now than in 1946

One of my favorite columnists is Tonyaa Weathersbee in the Jacksonville Times Union. She is determined not to let anyone forget the facts. Like these:
In 1943, black babies died at a rate that was 87 percent higher than white babies. Last year [2005], black babies died at a rate that was 122 percent higher than white babies.
Until Katrina, it was hard for most Americans to picture what life was like for black folk in the Southern states. From what I've seen, it's not healthy, that's for sure.

Your Tax Dollars at Work: Feds pay Google for dud drug hits?

This is something I may post in several places. It's about politics. It's about America's screwed-up health care. It's about technology. Our beloved federal government is apparently bidding on Google with your tax dollars. The goal? Top the results from searches for certain drugs, like Valium, in order to warn taxpayers that buying such drugs without a prescription could land them in jail.

Check out this screen shot from earlier today. The DEA is sponsoring one result, the US Customs has paid for the other (unless Google is donating these spots, which I doubt very much).

These agencies seem to be bidding for the top spots in several searches, including Xanax, Oxycontin, "pain killers." Does anyone else besides me think this is a just a bit weird. There are many reasons why people search for information about certain drugs. Is it a good use of taxpayer money to pay to deliver this message as a result?

One thing is for sure, the US Customs office is flat out wasting money with all its ads. Why? Because all the ones I clicked led to a 'page not found' message like this:
In other words, every time someone clicks one of those listings paid for by Customs, they get an error. And speaking of you think those agencies realize anyone with a grudge against them can sit and click those things all day to run up their Google bill?

I'd sure love to hear from anyone who has inside information on these programs.

Pickup of the Year! Awesome electric pickup points way forward

Now this is what I'm talking about, an electric vehicle that really makes sense: a pickup truck.

Not only is this one capable of highways speeds and several hundred miles on a charge, but it looks so darned good. The body styling is excellent. This design would sell like hot cakes as a gas model. Kudos to Phoenix MotorCars for not neglecting the look factor (which is crucial, IMHO, for the mainstream acceptance of electric vehicles).

Of course, electric power is ideal for utility vehicles due to the high torque of electric motors and the fact that many utility vehicles don't actually travel very far each day. This thing sounds like it would be as fast off the line with a loaded bed as my V8 F150. All it needs to be completely awesome is a lightweight camper shell clad in solar panels. These would help top up the batteries while the truck was parked AND increase mileage due to decreased wind resistance.

My first electric vehicle was a milk delivery 'pickup' (okay, it wasn't mine, but I was responsible for getting it back to the depot in one piece every day, which I managed to do most of the time). It hauled a very heavy load of milk in glass bottles and metal crates at urban speeds for eight hours a day. I know from my contractor buddies that their work pickups put on a lot of miles around town each day, but rarely more than 100. And most of those trucks spend a lot of time in traffic or parked at the job site. I think this is an excellent market for electrics. FYI, people tend to grossly under-estimate the buying habits and outlook of construction workers. In my experience they care just as much about the environment as any other group of people, and they sure as heck care about the exact number of dollars per day that it costs to run their trucks.

p.s. Kudos to tech-meister David Brussin for spotting this one and sending me the link

Who's in the Holiday Spirit? New Year and Boxing Day should be honored

I'm not a Christian. But I give to the poor at Christmas. And I say Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Have a Great Boxing Day!

I was again amazed this year at how many people whined about the whole "Put the Christ back in Christmas" thing. I mean, it's not like those six letters, c-h-r-i-s-t were being removed.

Okay, I guess some people take exception to the use of Xmas instead of Christmas. But that's just dumb since the choice of the letter X is not random. Clearly X = cross = Christ. It's just an abbreviation (think fish on the back of the car). If you can use a fish for Jesus, surely you can use Xmas for his birthday.

If folks feel our society has truly lost sight of the real meaning of the winter holidays, they should be chanting "Put the Christmas back in Winter Holidays." That's right, Winter HolidayS, plural. There is more than one.

Apart from Hanukkah. there's New Year's Day and Boxing Day and Hogmanay. There's a whole season of winter holidays, hence the term "Happy Holidays." Duh! That almost like shorthand for "Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, and have a good Boxing Day while you're at it."

Boxing Day is a formal holiday in England and several other countries (a coalition of those willing to relax on the day after Christmas and count their blessings instead of assault the mall in a quest of more).

New Year's Day and the day after that are formal holidays in Scotland (by formal I mean the banks are closed, etc.). I vote that America adopt all of these. And accept that there's not much Christ in them. If you have ever celebrated the New Year in Scotland you will know that it is NOT a religious holiday (and yes, I am aware of the etymology of 'holiday'). There is a definite and frankly undisguised pre-Christian, i.e. pagan, aspect to the celebration. An example? Check out the Biggar Bonfire, now on the web!

As for Boxing Day, my personal favorite, there is some Christ in it (it is also St. Stephen's Day and St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr). And a leading contender for the origin of the name of the holiday is the idea that people box up their leftovers and give them to the poor, which is a fine Christian notion. But Christians don't have a lock on charity. A lot of non-Christian belief systems compel people to give to the poor. Heck, if you had to sign a form saying you were Christian before you could donate to the thousands of causes that receive massive charitable donations at this time of year, I bet the numbers would drop dramatically.

I'm not a Christian. But I give to the poor at Christmas. And I say Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Have a Great Boxing Day!