Direct magnetic drive

I’ve been thinking about alternative power-trains lately. I believe I’ve come up with something that is at least partially novel, and that might have applications for nanotechnology (I don’t think it scales up, unfortunately).

The basic idea is a modification of a standard electric motor (linear or rotary – I’ll show examples with use-cases below). The thought I had was whether it was possible to make the “fuel” for the motor directly power it, rather than using electromagnets powered by electricity. Continue reading

Partial automation of self-driving vehicles

Take a look at the scene below, and imagine it from the perspective of a self-driving car.

Street scene 1
Linked to original image on Flickr.

There’s a lot going on.

  • There’s the outlines of the road (i.e. potential paths, some of them legal routes for the vehicle to take);
  • there are traffic lights and other signs, all of which need to be identified (and then also checked for context – i.e. “does this sign apply to me?”);
  • there are other cars on the road and pedestrians (each of which may suddenly change direction);
  • as well as innumerable other non-traffic-related distractions (trees, shops);
  • and (perhaps most importantly) the desired destination of the passengers, which may also change rapidly (“hey, there’s a sale on in that store”, “you just missed a parking spot!” etc).

Continue reading

Inflection Points, Driverless Cars and “Soft” AI

Earlier this week, Nissan announced that it would have several models of driver-less cars on the market by 2020. Now GM and Honda have made several similar announcements. This could be an inflection point, where the driver-less car becomes somewhat inevitable (barring legislative ramifications, or a particularly gruesome accident). Continue reading

Microsoft after Ballmer

The New York Times, commenting on Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s retirement, stated their belief that his replacement should be a catch-up artist, in order to allow Microsoft to somehow “get back in the game”.

I disagree. Playing catch-up is a fool’s game, a form of fighting the last battle. Continue reading

Indoor vertical food walls

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about a few topics in the past few years – distributed systems, lowering humanity’s environmental footprint, and also food. None of what I’m about to write is particularly original, nor is it going to change the world – the potential product I’m describing is more oriented towards first-world apartment dwellers. I’m hoping that the idea will start other people thinking about the problem though.

The underlying issue is that our food supply is extremely fragile, and (while affordable in first-world terms) costly. There has been much research into reducing bottlenecks in the food supply chain, as well as well-known programs to encourage people to consume locally produced food.

One solution that has evolved is the idea of a food wall. They’re a form of vertical high density gardening. You can see examples here and here. Some examples are really impressive, and can generate vast amounts of food in a relatively small area. Most of the ones I’ve seen are intended for outdoor use though, and are still labor intensive. Continue reading

What is the Hyperloop?

As usual, Elon Musk is keeping everyone guessing. At some point in August, he has said that he is going to reveal exactly what he has in mind for this high speed transit system. There have been a number of guesses about the precise nature of the hyperloop, at least one of them supposedly coming close.

The basic idea has been around since the 60’s – build something like a train, but running inside of a tube, allowing for tight control over the environment that it moves in (and therefore permitting higher velocity). Some of the variations involve a vacuum tube, or pressure differentials to move the vehicles, or magnetic propulsion of different kinds. All of them were ultimately discarded as being unfeasible.

Instead of speculating about the technology (since so many others are doing so already), I just want to share a few thoughts that came to mind about how he might be planning on implementing the hyperloop from a business standpoint.

  • Railroad companies tend to trade at a relatively low P/E these days. A railroad already owns significant rights-of-way. In theory, buying such a company could be an excellent starting point. The new hyperloop tubes could be built on elevating columns, above the existing railway lines.
  • Safety is going to be a huge factor. How quickly can the vehicles inside the tube be decelerated in case of emergency? How will the system prevent vehicles from piling into each other at huge velocity, if something goes wrong? How will it deal with things like earthquakes?
  • My best guess is as follows: this system is wasted on human passengers. Personally, I’d rather take a plane if I’m in a hurry to get somewhere.
  • However: this would be an amazing way to deliver cargo quickly – think same-day delivery. Combined with other light-weight distribution systems (i.e. a network of small local delivery vehicles), a trans-continental hyperloop network would allow a small number of warehouses to provide same-day coverage for the whole of North America. Think of Amazon’s grocery experiment in San Francisco, scaled up big-time. Using a large volume of tiny vehicles, with automatic routing, the hyperloop would allow for exceptionally agile logistics, and would enable business models that are currently unfeasible.

I guess we’ll just have to stay tuned for now…

Yahoo! buys Tumblr

A few people have asked for my opinion about the Yahoo! purchase of Tumblr.

Short version: this is a “bet the farm” deal. Y! has (at last report) $1.2 billion in cash on hand, and this is an all-cash $1.1 billion deal. If anything goes wrong elsewhere, they’ll need to raise cash in a hurry, which would be costly. Continue reading

How to compete with Glass

Google Glass is coming, and with it (I’ll bet) any number of similar me-too products from other manufacturers.

Glass is a sophisticated piece of technology, packing many features into a tiny package. It is an expensive gizmo though, even assuming that the actual price point will be significantly lower than the $1500 demo units. And users still need to connect it to a cellphone for best use (i.e. data package), although it can also connect to WiFi directly, where available.

The question I have is that if the user is still going to need a cellphone anyway, why not remove a big chunk of the functionality from the glasses, and rely on the phone instead? In doing so, a competing product could have identical (or at least very similar) functionality at a far lower price point.

All that’s required is a camera, a small microphone, a tiny LCD display, and some method of connecting to the phone (could even be a lightweight fiber-optic cable for high bandwidth and improved privacy). These are relatively cheap components, compared to having a separate device with its own WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS capabilities (not to mention a CPU of its own and fairly substantial amount of RAM – there’s a nice list of Glass’ features on Wikipedia, here).

Where things will really get interesting, of course, are the next generation of devices after…

Better tires?

Every motorist knows the pain of a flat tire. The modern low-profile tire is an amazing piece of technology, but it is still susceptible to sharp pieces of metal, carelessly left on a service station floor. Continue reading

State of the World Index

There are a great many indices that attempt to measure aspects of the world, and quite a few consolidated indices (like the HDI) that create measures out of a number of other indices.

Graph

I thought that it might be a fun project to put together a single index that produces a single number for the “state of the world”.

It won’t necessarily mean anything, but it would be amusing to track over time.

I can do the programming work, but I could really use help figuring out which indices to include, and how to weight them. Opinions please!

A few possibilities can be found here: