2008-07-20

Absence of presence.

Yesterday I saw Kent live in Molde. I went there with an open mind. Ready to be convinced that Kent had something more to offer. Something that would come out more clearly when exposed to them in concert.

Earlier this summer I saw Foo Fighters live -- another band I hadn't really spent any time listening to. I enjoyed the concert and it made me curious about the band. Now I have a couple of their albums on my iPod. Concerts are a great way to get introduced to a band.

That didn't happen with Kent.

Granted, the sound sucked really bad for most of the concert. Either the person in charge of the sound was asleep at the mixing desk or I was in a really bad spot, but the low end was completely out of control most of the time. It sounded like the music was being played through a car with oversized subwoofers and all windows closed -- and then vocals and guitar being tucked onto that. Idiot.

Anyway, the band. What can I say. You might sum it up as "absence of presence". Not a single one of the people on stage had any sort of charisma. The whole thing was impersonal, sterile and a bit desperate. They looked like a bunch of ill clad hairdressers at a karaoke bar. I certainly hope their record sales can support them, because as a live act they are, at best, unexciting.

A journalist friend of mine gave them 2 out of 6. I think he was being kind to them. As far as concerts go, you have to be a pretty dedicated fan to ignore how bad Kent were live yesterday.

2008-07-11

Another tip for Steve Jobs

Hey Steve,

Next time you give a keynote speech I think it would be appropriate for you to acknowledge the colossal fuckup that was the iPhone 3G launch-day. Don't apologize; convince me you learnt something from it.

Next iPod update

Ah, the rumor mill cranketh.

If I were Apple, I'd make sure the next generation iPod Touch has bluetooth activated. There are rumors that the iPod Touch actually has a BT chip onboard, but that it just hasn't been activated yet. People who keep an eye on FCC filings say that Apple has only cleared the wireless networking, but not bluetooth.

Not only would I be able to throw all those earbuds with their tangly wires in the trash, but it would make the iPod Touch an excellent platform for VOIP applications. That would be great when I am in the US since most places I visit have decent WiFi and my cell phone provider charges me an arm and a leg to call back home to Norway. I've been thinking about ditching Netcom as my cell provider for a while. My plan expired quite a while ago and they've not done anything to encourage me to stay on. Perhaps it is time to do something about those phone bills and shop around a bit.

I wonder if Apple is going to do anything with VOIP. It could go either way; Steve Jobs could make life difficult for those who want to run VOIP apps on the iPhone / iPod Touch or he could decide that they want to encourage it and even release an Apple VOIP product.

2008-07-08

Protobuffers finally open source.

Finally, protobuffers are now open source! After the announcement I had a look at the reactions in forums and blogs and I see a lot of skepticism. "Not Invented Here" and "why not {ASN1, IDL, whatever}".

I can't really say any of that worries me. I think that when people do give it a whirl, they'll find it to be fairly easy to use, it performs well and it has a very pragmatic approach. When I first used it I was a bit skeptical too (which is healthy in a programmer), but within the first hour of using protobuffers I was sold.

What I am really looking forward to is to see what direction the open source community might take this in. I would assume that there will be support for more languages. It would also be nice if we could get rid of XML in a lot of contexts where I feel that it simply doesn't belong.

Happy hacking!

2008-07-07

Way to go

When people who know little about cars and even less about basic mechanics (the sort that describes motion and energy, not fiddly bits in engines) try to think of an environmentally friendly car, the usually only focus on the propulsion system rather than addressing the more obvious areas for improvement. This invariably leads to environmentally pointless cars, like the Toyota Prius. While I am not saying that Toyota are clueless (I think at this point it is probably thoroughly proven that they know more about making cars than any other company on the planet), the markets are.

Of course, the Prius isn't entirely pointless. It represents a step in the right direction with regards to inspiring people to think about energy efficiency and it goes to show that you can actually put forward-thinking cars into production. The car industry has a habit of building all these neat prototypes, but never putting them into production. Toyota demonstrated willingness to do this. The Prius raises awareness and signals willingness to stray from the beaten path.

This is why the Prius is important although it isn't going to save the planet.

But it is ugly, it is slow and equivalent energy efficiency can easily be achieved by actually learning how to drive and sticking to cars that are light, reasonably aerodynamic and most importantly: suitable for the sort of driving scenarios it will mainly be used for.

Still, the Prius doesn't address the fundamental issue of fuel efficiency: weight. And this is my main beef with the car industry: to save fuel you must reduce the amount of energy needed, and to save the amount of energy needed you must save weight and reduce friction. Saving weight is the shortest path to reducing emissions. And there are several reasons for this.

First off, if you bump the weight of a car down from, say, 1.5 tons (which is a typical C-class car) to 500kg (which is doable) you have one ton less dead weight to accelerate. This means that you need significantly less energy to power the car so even with traditional engines, this has a big impact on emissions. It even reduces the amount of frictional force you need to accelerate the car -- including lateral acceleration (ie. turning), which translates to less tyre and road wear and heat dissipation (guess what tyres are made from). It might not be obvious why reducing road wear is important, but if you live in a city like Trondheim, where road-dust is a major problem, you'd quickly get the idea.

Another reason this is important has to to with energy efficiency. Petroleum is pretty much the best mobile energy source we have. It is fairly easy to deal with and it has extremely high energy density. Alternative fuels have lower energy density so you will actually have to expend a lot of energy for dragging your source of energy around with you. In the short term, cars with alternative energy sources will not deliver performance, convenience and cost comparable to gas powered engines.
People are going to want roughly the same driving characteristics as they enjoy now, so you have to make up for the energy deficit somewhere else. For "normal" speeds, this means lower weight.

For higher speeds this means a combination of low weight and improved aerodynamics (possibly even non-static aero devices). The sad truth is that at high speeds, good aero becomes all important since the equations are dominated by the square of speed and unfortunately, lowering the scaling factor (drag coefficient) significantly is Very Hard.

Now don't expect aerodynamics to improve all that much. Most well-designed cars today have fairly decent drag coefficients and we will see further improvements in this area as simulation software improves, I wouldn't expect overly dramatic results. (If you want to know what I mean, pick up a book on automotive aerodynamics, read it and then ponder the problem of getting the marketing department on board :-) ).

The most dramatic improvements in the short term (next 5 years) will be when we shed weight. This is low-hanging fruit from an engineering point of view.

We actually do have the materials and the engineering knowledge to make light cars. We've had them for quite a while. However, it is expensive to build cars from what is today considered exotic materials. The production process is too expensive and labor intensive. But as for most high-tech things: productions costs are coming down and they are coming down more rapidly than the industry had anticipated. In addition, the materials are steadily improving.

This is why I think the Volkswagen One Litre concept car is important. Volkswagen are going to put it into limited production in 2010 and I really do hope they manage to get the cost down so they can start volume production of it. The car's dry weight is 290kg and the drag coefficient is a mere 0.159. If you compare this to a Prius, the Prius is almost a whole ton heavier and it has a drag coefficient of 0.26 -- which isn't bad, but not really anything to get too excited about. (Image from Wikimedia Commons).

Of course, the Prius is a much roomier car and can take 5 people, whereas the One Litre can only take two people. The Prius has 5 times the luggage capacity of the One Litre.

Also, some of the metals used in the One Litre prototype aren't going to get any cheaper, so I would expect the production version to make compromises and end up significantly heavier.

It has all the safety features you'd expect in a modern car (crumple zones, airbags, ABS, stability control etc) and it also features an electronically controlled manual gearbox.

If you used this as a commuter you'd probably use about 1/10 of the fuel that an ordinary car in the US consumes (that's an order of a magnitude, for you engineering types) with moderate driving.

Since a lot of people drive alone to work, or with only one passenger, I think this car would make a lot more sense as a commuter than a Prius.

Okay, so it seems the car industry is slowly catching on and starting to make a bit of sense. I hope that the companies that produce mass-transit systems are going to take a step out of the 17'th century and start thinking about lightweight solutions as well. Those who do mass-transit systems seem to have some problems thinking outside the box, so perhaps the next revolution will come from the sort of people who build modern rollercoasters. Who knows. :-)

2008-07-05

Oh pony up the cash already

There is a chance that Top Gear is going to disintegrate after the 12'th series over contract negotioations.

I think that would be rather sad. Top Gear is probably the only TV show about cars that people who have absolutely no interest in cars watch because it is entertaining. It isn't really a show about cars as such -- it is a show about three guys being obnoxious and doing all sorts of things that aren't politically correct. It is comedy with an aroma of petrol.

Only, one of the three, Clarkson, gets paid significantly more han the two others. Now the other two (May and Hammond) are pissed off and want equal pay.

Of course, I suspect Clarkson is probably contributing more than the two others to the writing process. If you've read any of his books, you'll recognize the style -- and sometimes whole paragraphs of rants delivered on the show. Anyway, they probably have a whole horde of writers on the show, but it is a bit beside the point. The point is that the show probably only works as well with the exact cast it has now and the BBC makes a ton of money off of the show.

It would only make good business sense to start writing them fatter checks. Depending on their actual input to the show I am not sure they should get paid what Clarkson gets paid, but it would make sense to pay them significantly more than they get now -- if nothing else so they can ditch some of their side-gigs and focus on making more episodes per season.

I am sure Top Gear will go out of fashion soon enough.

2008-07-04

Driving in Trondheim

I drive to work on a motorcycle. Not so much because I have to (I could ride a bicycle), but because it is fun. It is an inspirational way to start my day and a nice reward after work. I drive a rather retro bike. It isn't fast and it isn't all that comfortable, but it is easy to drive and it makes a glorious sound.

A few days ago our neo-pseudo-environmentalist politicians decided it was time to experiment with traffic through Trondheim again, so they turned one lane into a bus-lane on most of the important pieces of road through the city. Thus forcing cars into fewer lanes. All to get more of those godawful, ultra dirty buses rammed through the city.

When you drive a motorcycle, you interact with traffic in a very direct way. If you get hit, you pay the price. So you have to be more alert than when you drive a car. These last days I have sensed a significant change in traffic. There is more aggression. Norwegians normally drive in a very impolite way -- if two lanes merge a significant number of drivers seem to struggle with the idea of every other car moving into the single lane. And if you try to force the issue, they'll honk their horns and pretend that you are the idiot.

There has been a lot more of that these past few days. More erratic driving, more people trying to squeeze in between cars when it isn't their turn and more people who think that riding my rear tyre is perfectly okay.

I wonder what is going to happen after the summer -- when traffic picks up again. I fear things might get even more stressful and more chaotic. And the halfwit politicians have already declared this to be a success. Before any hard data is in. Great, that gives me a lot of confidence in what they do.

(If the politicians really did care about the environment they would make data-driven decisions. The data suggests that the only real way to improve Trondheim is to remove all car traffic from the downtown area, in particular the buses, put down tram-lines everywhere, make cheap transportation of bulky items available and provide cheap and secure indoor parking facilities available for those who live within the city limits (so they can park their cars outside the city). Not an easy or cheap thing to pull off, but then again, the politicians don't really care about the environment -- they're just trying to make it appear that way so the naive idiots who are impressed by pointless changes vote for them).

Further automotive observations.

For some reason Hertz haven't had any coupe versions of the 350Z the last few times I've rented, so I've had to make do with the roadster version.

Convertibles are not exactly my favorite. Most of the time it means that the car is compromised -- that it is heavier and/or has less rigidity. It has been a while since I drove the coupe so direct comparison is a bit hard, but I did have to execute at least one sharp manouver (to avoid a car that slammed on the brakes in front of me) the last time I drove a 350z roadster and although the car complied, it did feel a bit soft. I'm not sure if that was due to lack of torsional rigidity or just crap anti-roll bars. Something that is billed as a "sports car" should not squirm like that. But the car did respond and that's why I didn't have an accident.

In the 350Z roadster you have a slightly bigger blind-spot. In fact the blind spot is somewhat larger than a full car length, which makes driving in busy, multi-lane traffic a bit ... interesting.
I could have taken the top down to get a better view, but I'd just feel like an idiot. Especially with that lady trapped inside the little box (GPS) constantly yelling at me for my inability to navigate in purely two-dimensional landscapes. There's nothing quite as uncool as coming to a halt at a traffic light while the lady yammers on about "making a legal U-turn". Everywhere looks exactly the same to me in the bay area. I am used to european roads -- we didn't have rulers, so we don't have straight roads here. We'd just pave whatever trails our livestock would make, so roads snake lazily around elevations in the landscape providing ample visual cues as to where you are. Things are three-dimensional.

Oh, and of course, it didn't help that the car was painted in a color generally referred to as "morning urine yellow". It was rather ghastly, but at least it wasn't too hard to find in the parking lot at night.

I still like the sound and feel of the engine though. It has a very responsive 3.5 litre V6 and the exhaust note has that wonderfully crisp note you usually get from Italian V8s or german inline six engines. The angry snarls gives me goosebumps. Too bad it had an automatic gearbox. It definitively takes away some of the joy of driving when you place a moist piece of cheese between that lovely engine and the wheels.

When some time in the future we all drive electrical cars, I am going to miss the wonderful sound of frivolous engines. Ah, guilty pleasures.

2008-07-01

Hee hee

;-)

Things that make you go hmm.

Last night the topic of which charitable organization are preferable came up in conversation. I said that I thought that Doctors Without Borders might be the one I prefer. I am embarassed to say that I know very little about them, but they come across as a cost-efficient and direct. Money gets translated into measurable action with a minimum of overhead, it seems.
As opposed to the types of organizations that have a larger bureaucracy and seem to be fighting the ills of the world from behind the safety of their desks. Indeed, such a comparison is unfair since one approach is tactical while the other is strategic Apples and oranges. But I suspect that most strategic initiatives mostly end up offsetting certain costs in the budgets of bandit nations and thus are indirectly subsidizing wars, corruption and mismanagement of state funds. We may mean well, but what I read seems to suggest that traditional foreign aid does more bad than good in that it helps perpetuate the status quo rather than bring about sustainable change.

In any case, I pointed out that I thought Doctors Without Borders came across as a good candidate if I should find myself having some spare cash floating around the place. Then someone pointed out that Doctors Without Borders are probably fairly well funded these days. So while they are no doubt a worthy organization, they are probably more in need of qualified personel than money. (Note, I don't know this. It was suggested to me and I thought it sounded plausible). Fair enough I thought; I'll pick someone else then.

Finding an organization you'd want to endorse isn't easy. First you have to think about what you think is important. Then you have to try to figure out if your money will be put to good use.

I spent most of last night thinking about what I care about. What is important. And which organization tries to do something about it. Then I stumbled across Reporters Without Borders and had a look at their website.

Before I can endorse them I still have to read up a bit more on what they do and whether there are any apparent problems that would make me think twice about supporting them, but in principle, promoting freedom of press seems like a very important cause. In fact, after a bit of pondering it struck me that their cause is probably more important than tactical medical support since it attacks problems around the world in a more fundamental manner.

You can't have a working democracy unless you have transparency and freedom of press. Secrecy and censorship breed totalitarian and corrupt states in which the rights of the individual erode quickly. And as history has demonstrated, once transparency and the free flow of news goes out the window, things can quickly descend into the sort of regression that ends up staining the history books forever.

We are tending in that direction in the west right now and it is scary.

Even in Norway, which thrones at number 2 on the list of countries that enjoy the most freedom of press has an embarrasing stain in its criminal code that demonstrates how horribly naive our politicians can be. §390c would actually prohibit photographic documentation of, for instance, arrests -- the act of photographing an arrest would be an offense punishable by imprisonment (Note that the act of photographing an arrest and the act of publishing the resulting imagery are two very separate issues. The latter being covered by both other laws as well as the strict code of conduct in such cases that newspaper editors have to follow).

How on earth can legislation that is so corrosive to the fundamental underpinnings of a democratic society make it into law in a country like Norway? It makes you realize just how fragile everything we have come to expect from a civilized society is.

If it wasn't for the fact that the attorney general in Norway strongly suggested the law not be enacted, and if it wasn't for the journalists speaking up, we could have gotten stuck with this legal blemish.

In Norway such things happen simply because we have uneducated politicians who appear to be unfit for qualified work (Don't take my word for it; have a look at the CVs of our members of government and the parliament. It is an embarrassment). Big on grandstanding, not so big on actual long term thinking. You can only imagine what happens if you substitute that sheer feeblemindedness with ill will. When a government or government agencies make a conscious effort to eradicate the free flow of information, ideas and criticism.

In most parts of the world this seems to be the norm. Even in "civilized" and "democratic" societies. That's fairly scary.