Category: Technology

US spy plane lands after 22 months in space


Click to enlargeCC/U.S. Air Force

The US military has landed its robotic space plane, ending a classified 22-month mission that marked the third in Earth orbit for the experimental programme widely believed to be related to spying.

The X-37B touched down at Vandenberg air force base in California on Friday, bringing to a close the third and longest mission the vehicle has undertaken since its maiden voyage in 2010.

The spacecraft conducted unspecified experiments for 674 days while in orbit. The US air force said the orbiter, built by Boeing, performed “risk reduction, experimentation and concept-of-operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies”, although details of the missions are secret.

In a written release announcing the craft’s return, the air force only said it had been conducting “on-orbit experiments”…

US officials have previously denied the project had anything to do with creating a “space weapon” that could knock down other satellites.

But, our government, our military ain’t about to tell ordinary citizens a damned thing. We just get to pick up the tab.

Thanks, Mike

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Lessons Jony Ive learned from Steve Jobs


Early days at Apple

“Steve [Jobs] was the most remarkably focused person I ever met in my life,” Apple’s senior vice president of design Jonathan Ive told Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter during the closing event of Vanity Fair’s New Establishment Summit in San Francisco.

“The thing with focus is that it’s not this thing you aspire to, like: ‘Oh, on Monday I’m going to be focused,’” said Ive, who rarely gives interviews. “It’s every single minute: ‘Why are we talking about this when we’re supposed to be talking about this?’”…

In addition to learning from Jobs about the importance of focus and of prioritizing the product over emotions, Ive said he “learned the whereabouts of a lot of rubbish hotels when we traveled…”

The wide-ranging conversation also touched on the size of Apple’s core design team (just 16 people, and they still begin their process with drawings), the new iPhone (Ive said its rounded edges make the bigger screen feel “less wide”) and the new Apple watch, which Ive described as the culmination of hundreds of years of function-first thinking.

“Why a watch and why not a pendant?” asked Carter.

Over the years, Ive replied, people learned that time pieces work best when they’re worn on the wrist. “It’s a really great place to glance quickly, for information,” Ive continued. “When we started working on it, it seemed like a natural, obvious place for the technology to end up…”

Ive said his team was focused on the here and now. “I don’t think we think about designing for a point in time. We hope that if it is truly simple, and we do a good job, then it will endure…”

I guess I’ve cared about design going back to early years as a motorhead. I followed Formula One racing, gran premio, since the early 1950’s – through the transition from pre-war concepts of engineering and aeronatutics into the grace and function of the Mercedes Silver Arrows. The same happened with sports cars in the period starting with Cisitalia and the bodywork of Bertone.

I still own an early aluminum-framed Olivetti portable typewriter. There are other examples. It starts as simply as looking at something made by human design, respecting functionability, understanding the blending of the two as design.

There’s lots of crap masquerading as industrial design. It falls by the wayside over time. Most of what’s discussed in the article stems from the interaction of Ive and Jobs. Some, of course, goes back to school days and beyond. It’s all of interest.

Audi sedan ready for fast laps at German Gran Prix circuit — without a driver

Two years ago, the idea of driverless cars on our roads seemed crazy to many people. Today, the technology is being built into our cars, and a driverless Audi RS7 is set to lap Hockenheim at the same pace as a professional racing driver. The event on October 19 will show just how far driverless cars have come.

Audi has been working on autonomous vehicles for a number of years. In 2009, it tested a driverless Audi TTS on the Bonneville Salt Flats. In 2010 that TTS drove the Pikes Peak mountain race circuit in Colorado, followed by some impressive laps on California’s Thunderhill Raceway in 2012. Back then, the TTS couldn’t quite keep up with the pro drivers, but the RS7 is able to do just that.

Although Audi has received licenses for testing its driverless cars on public roads in Florida and California, the company says that the race track is the most demanding place for testing driverless cars. This, it says, is due to the high levels of precision and entire lack of errors that are required. The RS7 will use “specially corrected GPS signals for orientation on the track” that are accurate to within 1 cm and will receive data via WLAN or high-frequency radio should the need for fallback arise…

The automaker claims that the technologies it is developing for driverless cars will be featuring in vehicles by the end of this decade. These technologies will include cars’ ability to take over steering and acceleration when they’re in a traffic jam and automatic parking maneuvering.

The lap of Audi’s driverless RS7 around Hockenheim will be broadcast on the company’s website on October 19.

Old-timey motorheads like me will be waiting and watching.

Banking security stronger — and scarier!

masked fraud

The caller said her home had burned down and her husband had been badly hurt in the blaze. On the telephone with her bank, she pleaded for a replacement credit card at her new address.

“We lost everything,” she said. “Can you send me a card to where we’re staying now?”

The card nearly was sent. But as the woman poured out her story, a computer compared the biometric features of her voice against a database of suspected fraudsters. Not only was the caller not the person she claimed to be, “she” wasn’t even a woman. The program identified the caller as a male impostor trying to steal the woman’s identity.

The conversation, a partial transcript of which was provided to The Associated Press by the anti-fraud company Verint Systems Inc., reflects the growing use of voice biometric technology to screen calls for signs of fraud.

Two major U.S. banks, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Wells Fargo & Co., use voice screening, also known as voice biometric blacklists, according to three people familiar with the arrangements, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because the system was meant to remain secret…

A recent AP survey of 10 leading voice biometric vendors found that more than 65 million people worldwide have had their voiceprints taken, and that several banks, including Barclays PLC in Britain and Minneapolis-based U.S. Bancorp, are in the process of introducing their customers to the technology.

Like that phrase? “Introducing their customers to the technology?” Asking the banks for more info gets answers like…”sharing any information about our fraud prevention measures would jeopardize their effectiveness”.

Neither Wells Fargo nor Chase responded to questions specifically addressing the legality of their voice harvesting.

Meanwhile, our state and federal elected officials have done nothing about implementing oversight or regulation of the uses of this technology.

The technology, of course, isn’t the villain in the piece. Products like this or any other aren’t inherently good or evil. The people using them determine the conditions for that value judgement.

IBM “sunflowers” designed to supply off-grid energy, water, and cooling

Looking rather like a 10-meter tall sunflower, IBM’s High Concentration PhotoVoltaic Thermal (HCPVT) system concentrates the sun’s radiation over 2,000 times on a single point and then transforms 80 percent of that into usable energy. Using a number of liquid-cooled microchannel receivers, each equipped with an array of multi-junction photovoltaic chips, each HCPVT can produce enough power, water, and cooling to supply several homes.

Swiss-based supplier of solar power technology, Airlight Energy, has partnered with IBM Research to utilize IBM’s direct warm-water cooling design (adapted from use in IBM’s SuperMUC supercomputer), water adsorption technologies, and leverage IBM’s past work with multi-chip solar receivers developed in a collaboration between IBM and the Egypt Nanotechnology Research Center, to develop and produce the system…

“The direct cooling technology with very small pumping power used to cool the photovoltaic chips with water is inspired by the hierarchical branched blood supply system of the human body,” said Dr. Bruno Michel, manager, advanced thermal packaging at IBM Research.

The HCPVT system can also be adapted to use the cooling system to provide drinkable water and air conditioning from the hot water output produced. Salt water is passed through the heating conduits before being run through a permeable membrane distillation system, where it is then evaporated and desalinated. To produce cool air for the home, the waste heat can be run through an adsorption chiller, which is an evaporator/condenser heat exchanger that uses water, rather than other chemicals, as the refrigerant medium.

The creators claim that this system adaptation could provide up to 40 liters (10 gallons) of drinkable water per square meter of receiver area per day, with a large, multi-dish installation theoretically able to provide enough water for an entire small town.

All of these factors, – waste energy used for distillation and air-conditioning combined with a 25 percent yield on solar power – along with the setup’s sun tracking system that continuously positions the dish at the best angle throughout the day, combine to produce the claimed 80 percent energy efficiency

Estimations on the operating lifetime for the HCPVT system are around 60 years with adequate maintenance, including replacing the shielding foil and the elliptic mirrors every 10 to 15 years (contingent on environmental conditions) and the PV cells, which will require replacement at the end of their operational life of approximately 25 years…

Everyone is so cautious about operational life of photovoltaic systems. It cracks me up. There are homes here in New Mexico with 20 to 30-year-old PV solar panels still running at 90-95% efficiency.

OTOH, the photo-tracker design is one long-accepted by those who can afford the original cost. The National Guard Armory just outside Santa Fe is a site with such an installation.

I look forward to checking out costs and payback when the critters are in production.

A couple of new architectural delights


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Dutch law now dictates that meat and fish markets must be covered for hygiene purposes. Rotterdam’s Markthal (literally, Market Hall) has undergone a redesign to accommodate the requirements. The new market is housed under a huge arch from which apartments look down upon it.


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Waking up with the rising sun is one thing, but waking up inside the rising sun is quite another. Visitors to the recently completed Yanqi Lake Kempinski Hotel in China can do just that, though. The hotel has been designed to look like the sun rising over the Yanqi Lake.

Surely a couple of spots worth visiting, staying in, shopping – and just taking the time to marvel at what architectural design cen do with modern materials.

Solar energy could be the largest source of electricity by 2050

The sun could be the world’s largest source of electricity by 2050, ahead of fossil fuels, wind, hydro and nuclear, according to a pair of reports issued…by the International Energy Agency (IEA). The two IEA technology roadmaps show how solar photovoltaic (PV) systems could generate up to 16% of the world’s electricity by 2050 while solar thermal electricity (STE) from concentrating solar power (CSP) plants could provide an additional 11%. Combined, these solar technologies could prevent the emission of more than 6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year by 2050 – that is more than all current energy-related CO2 emissions from the United States or almost all of the direct emissions from the transport sector worldwide today…

The Executive Director…stressed that the two reports do not represent a forecast. As with other IEA technology roadmaps, they detail the expected technology improvement targets and the policy actions required to achieve that vision by 2050, highlighting priority actions and milestones for governments, research and industry stakeholders.

A central message in both publications deals with the need for clear, credible and consistent signals from policy makers, which can lower deployment risks to investors and inspire confidence. “By contrast,” Ms. Van der Hoeven said, “where there is a record of policy incoherence, confusing signals or stop-and-go policy cycles, investors end up paying more for their investment, consumers pays more for their energy, and some projects that are needed simply will not go ahead.”

Phew! I thought she forgot about the United States.

The two documents underline the complementary role of the two technologies. With 137 GW of capacity installed worldwide at the end of 2013 and adding up to 100 MW each day, PV deployment so far has been much faster than that of STE, mainly thanks to massive cost reductions. Under the scenario described in the roadmaps, most of the growth of solar electricity comes from PV until 2030. However, the picture changes afterwards. When reaching shares between 5% and 15% of annual electricity generation, PV starts to lose value in wholesale markets. Massive-scale STE deployment takes off at this stage thanks to CSP plants’ built-in thermal storage, which allows for generation of electricity when demand peaks in late afternoon and in the evening, thus complementing PV generation.

PV expands globally, with China being by far the leading country, followed by the United States. Over half of total capacity is situated at the final consumers’ place – whether households, shopping malls or industries. STE expands in very sunny areas with clear skies, becoming a major opportunity for Africa, India, the Middle East and the United States.

We expect to modify our semi-rural compound with the addition of a solar panel array within the next two years. Making our home a point source in one of the several nationally-expanding solar power networks in the process of growing – with or without aid from politicians and public utilities. Oh, they are involved; but, only begrudgingly, dragging their bakelite brains and patent leather-shod feet all the way.

Why is this 1939 Dodge pickup so quiet?

One thing you can say about Al Gajda without much fear of contradiction: he has the quietest truck in Lexington, Kentucky.

Some trucks rattle your windows when they pass. Others are so loud that children cower in fear and brave dogs run for cover.

But even newborns sleep in perfect peace when Gajda drives past in his 1939 Dodge pickup. It makes hardly a whisper.

To a casual observer, the Dodge looks like nothing more than just an old truck that runs particularly smoothly. The secret lies underneath.

It’s an electric truck.

Electrical vehicles are catching on in dealer showrooms today as gasoline becomes ever more expensive and environmental concerns grow.

But Gajda, 74, didn’t buy his. He built it.

A mainly self-taught electronics wizard, he spent more than three years replacing the truck’s old six-cylinder flathead engine with a modern all-electric system built around a series wound direct current motor.

He’s driven the truck more than 5,000 miles since completing the work about a year ago.

“It’s my daily driver,” he said. “I take advantage of any excuse to drive it; just banging around town, errands, short runs on the interstate, delivering my granddaughter to school in the morning.”

Lots more about the truck in the article. Even more about Al Gajda. He’s led a heckuva interesting life, engineering and design in the world of technology – without ever getting round to latching onto a degree.

World’s 1st bullet train celebrates 50th Anniversary


Click to enlargeThe original Series 0

Zipping cross-country in a super-high-speed train has become commonplace in many countries these days, but it was unheard of when Japan launched its bullet train between Tokyo and Osaka 50 years ago Wednesday.

The Shinkansen, as it’s called in Japan, gave a boost to train travel in Europe and Asia at a time when the rise of the automobile and the airplane threated to eclipse it. It also was a symbol of pride for Japan, less than two decades after the end of World War II, and a precursor of the economic “miracle” to come.

The Oct. 1, 1964, inauguration ceremony was re-enacted at Tokyo Station on Wednesday at 6 a.m., complete with ribbon cutting. The first bullet train, with its almost cute bulbous round nose, traveled from Tokyo to Osaka in four hours, shaving two and a half hours off the 513-kilometer (319-mile) journey. The latest model, with a space-age-like elongated nose, takes just two hours and 25 minutes…

The Shinkansen renewed interest in high-speed rail elsewhere, notably in Europe. France and Spain are among the leaders in Europe, and Turkey last year became the ninth country to operate a train at an average speed of 200 kph, according to Railway Gazette. South Korea and Taiwan also operate high-speed systems in Asia…The fastest train in the U.S., Amtrak’s Acela Express, averages 169 kph (105 mph) on a short stretch between Baltimore and Wilmington, Delaware…

Cripes.

Here’s a look at the rest of the modern world. Which really doesn’t include the United States.