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:

Is BitCoin Arbitrage Feasible?

BitCoin has been in the news lately with its rapid rise in exchange value, its huge fluctuations in intra-day value, and the susceptibility of services using it to hacking attacks.

It should be obvious to any observer that a position (in the investment term, not opinion) in BTC is speculative in nature, and carries any number of risks that are hard to evaluate.

There may be a way for investors to make money on BTC through arbitrage though – with relatively well-defined and calculable risks. Continue reading

Wheel plans, lock-in and VW

The basic layout of vehicles on the road (in North America, anyhow) is amazingly homogenous. Think about it: there are cars with four wheels, motorcycles with two, and trucks with anywhere from four to twenty-plus wheels (in two varieties – attached and detached cabs).

The last time I saw a three-wheeled T-Rex, it looked so outlandishly exotic, that a crowd gathered around it (the owner had parked it on the sidewalk outside a store). You don’t usually see that even with exotic Italian supercars.

There’s actually a lot of experimentation with wheel plans (i.e. the vehicle equivalent of room plans in a home), but we don’t see it much on a day-to-day basis. Continue reading

Faster 3D Printing

One of the drawbacks with current 3D printing technology is the slow rate at which objects are built up in layers from hot plastic thread. The process of printing objects of any significant size can take hours.

Using a technique similar to airbrushes may speed things up. If the source material is in a fine powdered form instead of a solid thread, and is pushed through the print head (or nozzle in this case) under pressure, then it is simply a matter of determining a way to accrete the plastic into a solid object. Continue reading

Computational Area Networks

There’s an asymmetry in the data center, and it might be an opportunity for somebody to build a new product line (hint, hint: HP, Dell).

There are plenty of products that consist of a box filled with storage devices – we call them SANs (storage area networks). They’re essentially what allows big data to exist, by packing large amounts of storage into a relatively small space.

So why not do something with CPUs (central processing units) that replicates the idea behind the SAN? Continue reading

Moving past passwords

Under lock and key - Flickr Creative Commons - JanetR3
Under lock and key – Flickr Creative Commons – JanetR3

The problem isn’t anything new, really – most people have hundreds of accounts on different websites.

The username is usually their email address, and the password…well the password tends to be the same on all of the sites, and it is usually eight characters or less.

It is simply too hard for most people to memorize passwords much longer than that.

So they use something simple like “12345678”, and the next thing they know, they’ve been well and truly pwnz0red.

Continue reading