Wednesday, 31 October, 2001

Vampires for Halloween

I don't know why I like Halloween so much.  I ignore most silly holidays or traditions, but except for a short time when I actually took life seriously, I've always enjoyed Halloween.  Catapult Systems had the annual Costume Contest and I, as always, dressed the part.  Debra and I did the traditional vampire this year, as you can see in the picture (click for a larger image).  After work a bunch of us met down at a local Irish pub (there aren't any Transylvanian pubs in the area), and then took a stroll down Sixth Street later when people started coming out.  The Sixth Street party was smaller than expected--only about 25,000 people this year.  There were a lot of costumes, lots of spectators, and Debra and I posed for pictures with a number of children.  I don't know why, but kids just loved those vampire costumes.

After we walked the parade, we went to an outside bar called Cedar Street, where a live band was playing Latin music.  We had a drink, danced a bit, and enjoyed the cool air and good music.  We don't "do" Sixth Street very often, having had enough of the "drink 'till you puke" life back before we knew each other.  This evening was very calm, though, and quite entertaining with all the different costumes.  I think next year we'll rent a hotel room downtown and do it right.

Tuesday, 30 October, 2001

If you're looking for something Palm related, the first place to try is  Spend a half hour scanning their software offerings, and download and install some of it.  I've downloaded and tried out a couple of games, which I'll try out on my next long flight.  Although, truth to be told, I'm perfectly happy reading on the airplane rather than playing with my computer.  I wonder, too, whether people will believe that the phone is off, even though I'm playing with the PDA.  That'll be real interesting to find out, but I digress.

PalmGear also has an extensive Tips & Tricks section that has saved me hours of frustration.  I only wish it was indexed a little better.  Searching through 250 or more entries, some duplicated, in the General section is tedious.

Monday, 29 October, 2001

Freedom Ship

Somebody at lunch today mentioned Freedom Ship, a mile-long floating city being developed by some guys in Florida.  From all reports, this is real and not some scam to rip off those with more money than brains.  The idea of living permanently at sea has its attractions, if nothing else then just for the novelty.  Of course, the novelty will wear off after a while.  But I bet I could spend two years there.  A 1,200 square foot unit with 15 feet of water view is only about $725,000.  The monthly fees are about $1,400.  Call it $760,000 for the initial buy-in and two years' fees.  Given a million bucks, that'd leave you almost a quarter million for eating and walking around money.  That ought to be enough, even if I did visit every port.  Maybe I will buy a lottery ticket tonight.

Seriously, though, the idea isn't that far fetched.  Well, okay, me with three quarters of a million dollars to blow on a 1,200 square foot floating apartment is a bit of a stretch, but given that and a little work, it wouldn't be all that hard to live there.  If you could make $40,000 per year doing "work at home" kind of stuff (writing, programming, stuffing envelopes), then you could afford the monthly fees, food, and a shore excursion from time to time.  And there are less expensive quarters.  You can get a 450 square foot unit for $175,000 and about $530 per month in fees.  For the kitchen-phobic, you can get a 300 square foot economy unit for $120,000 and $442 per month.  Check out thePurchase Information page for layout and pricing.

Sunday, 28 October, 2001

Kyocera Smartphone

With all that was going on yesterday, I didn't take the opportunity to open the gift from Debra.  She actually went out and bought me that Kyocera smartphone that I mentioned back on August 21.  So now I'm the proud owner of a combination telephone and Palm OS PDA.  Having just opened it today, I haven't yet done much with it.  I did log on to Sprint's web site to deactivate my old phone and activate the new one.  What horrible instructions!  You would expect that they would show screen shots of the display for each step, but they don't.  Rather, they give some cryptic and incomplete instructions.  At one point there's a big note describing a warning that will appear.  They don't say, however, how to dismiss the warning box or whether you even should dismiss it.  The next instruction says "close the flap and the phone will reset itself."  So I closed the flap and the phone displayed "Error:  contact your Sprint PCS office for service."  I can't be the only person who has had trouble with these web pages.

Somebody went to a lot of trouble to build those web pages so that people who buy telephones won't have to call an operator in order to activate their new phones.  I suspect, though, that because they're so horribly written, the web pages result in more, not fewer, calls.  Worse, the calls are probably more difficult and take longer, because the operator has to determine where the problem is and fix it (often, most likely, ending in "I'm sorry sir, but you'll have to visit your local Sprint PCS office to activate your phone") rather than walk the customer through the process from the beginning.  I wonder if Sprint tracks this kind of thing. 

Saturday, 27 October, 2001

Jim Turns 40

I celebrated my 40th birthday today with a big party out in the backyard.  I brewed way too much beer for the event, and drank too much as well.  No deep thoughts--just family and friends here enjoying the beautiful weather and each other's company.  My mom was visiting from Utah, and my brother drove down from Arkansas.

Debra did an outstanding job organizing the party--sending invitations, arranging for the food, decorating, and doing the zillions of things that a hostess does.  And she remained cheerful throughout.  I married an angel, even if she did get me black balloons.

Thursday, 25 October, 2001

Fortune Cookie

From my fortune cookie today:

Remember that elegance and good taste are usually a matter of less, not more.

Wednesday, 24 October, 2001

Fat Kids Around The World

Science Daily reports today on a new study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  According to the study, 25% of children in the United States are either overweight (14.3%) or obese (11.1%).  Furthermore, "children from other major nations are beginning to weigh too much as well".  The study looked at Russia (10% and 6%), and China (3.4% and 3.6%) as well.

The writeup in Science Daily is thin on detail, but it does point out some interesting tidbits.  For example, Chinese children of affluent parents were more likely to be obese whereas in the United States it was children of lower-income families who were more at risk.  In Russia, children from higher- and lower-income families were more likely to be obese than those from medium-income families.  Weird.  Obesity was more prevalent in urban areas of China and rural areas of Russia.  I wonder why the demographics are so completely different among the three countries.

At 25%, I'd say we have a serious problem here here in the U.S.  But what is the root cause?  How can we change it?  The effect that all these fat kids will have on our health care system when they become fat middle-aged adults will dwarf the effects of tobacco-related illnesses.  Who are the States going to sue then?

Tuesday, 23 October, 2001

Something to Ponder

Somebody a while back pointed out to me that (2 + 5) + 52 = 25.  Are there other whole numbers x and y such that (x + y) + yx = xy?  I'll have to work on that one.

Monday, 22 October, 2001

No Civilization III For Me

GameSpot has published an interview with Sid Meyer and Jeff Briggs of Firaxis games discussing Civilization III, which will be shipped to stores on October 30.  I've been something of a Civilization fan since I was working at Microprose on the second Civilization III team.  (The first team was horribly mismanaged and the project was canceled.  I quit the second team [also horribly mismanaged] just a few months before Microprose ceased to exist.)  I previously posted some of my thoughts on Civilization II (albeit in the context of the game Alpha Centuari--see June 26), and had given up on ever finding a resource management game that wasn't tedious, so when I saw that Civ III was upcoming, I was hopeful that they'd fixed those problems.  Sadly, there's nothing in the interview to indicate that.  They've added flash--more and varied units, nicer graphics, and more gameplay features--but they don't say anything about having fixed the automation problems.  The game looks compelling, and if they fixed the A.I., I'd be all over it.  But I don't think I'll be able to bring myself to shell out the $40 or whatever it'll cost just to get ticked off having to micro-manage 200 cities.  I guess I'll have to find some other form of entertainment. 

Sunday, 21 October, 2001

Internet Tax Moratorium Expires

The moratorium on Internet taxes expires today.  A measure extending the moratorium has passed the House, but the Senate shot down a similar bill.  So governments (State and Federal, at least) can now start advancing legislation to tax Internet services and sales.  There's an online petition drive that you can sign at  Look for the "Permanent Ban on Internet Taxes" petition.  I don't know why, but I just can't get lathered up over this one.

Don't get me wrong--I'm no fan of more or higher taxes, but I haven't yet heard a convincing argument as to why the Internet should be immune from taxes when everything else is taxed to death.  If the Internet needs special tax breaks in order to survive, then it probably doesn't deserve to survive in its current form.  It'll be interesting to see what happens.  My guess?  State governments will start taxing Internet services in much the same way that they tax telephone service.  Local governments will try to get into the act, and large cities like New York will probably succeed.  People will scream loudly on both sides, but in the end nothing much will have changed.  Ho hum.  SOSBNB. 

Have you seen memory prices lately?  The local Fry's was advertising RAM at $50 for 512 Megabytes.  I drove down there today to take advantage of that deal.  I figured that for about $75 I could replace the two 128 MB sticks in my system with with three 256 MB sticks to give me my system's maximum of 768 MB.  It almost worked, but the 512 MB for $50 is for OEM RAM, which is of slightly (to be kind) lower quality.  I opted for doubling my memory capacity by purchasing a single 256 MB stick for $42.

That's just amazing to me.  I remember being ecstatic in the early 90's when RAM prices dropped to $30 per megabyte.  And just four years ago I paid several hundred dollars for a 32 MB upgrade.  Today I paid about 16 cents per megabyte for RAM.  Figure $170 per gigabyte.  I paid more than that (maybe twice that?) for 16 KB 20 years ago.

Available RAM, drive space, and processing power have now far outstripped the average computer user's ability to actually use them.  Even power users will have a hard time stressing a 2 GHz machine loaded down with 1 GB of RAM and a 100 GB hard drive.  With cable modems and DSL giving close to 10 mbps download speed, our ability to obtain, store, and process information is well beyond our ability to actually make use of it.  What we need is some innovative applications that will search the Internet for information that we want, cull through all the crap and then actually do something useful with what remains.

I feel a major rant coming on.  I'll get back after I've pondered this one a bit.

Russ Mitchell's piece Open War over atWired presents an interesting perspective on the Linux vs. Microsoft battle.  The gist of it is this:  Linux developers should give up on the desktop and channel their energies into completely taking over the server market.  He backs that up with some very good arguments that a vendor would be hard pressed to ignore if Linux was owned by a company.  But what we call a Linux distribution is made up of an operating system kernel, utilities, and applications that are created by thousands of individual developers who work on things for fun and give them away.  Sure, some projects are controlled by companies that make money selling commercial versions or other services, but there's no single controlling interest.  There's nobody to say "Stop working on the X Window system."  People work on what they want to work on, and if they build something cool, other people use it.

Linux has become a good server operating system because thousands of people have spent 10 years duplicating the functionality of Unix and Unix-like utilities.  What we have now is a free Unix-based server operating system that is more stable and more secure than any current version of Windows.  Whether Linux can maintain that edge is yet to be seen.  Assuming Microsoft fixes the Windows security problems soon, it'll be interesting to see if a loose confederation of open source developers can match Microsoft's ability to add new features and functionality.

Linux still has a very long way to go before it's as usable as Windows in a desktop environment.  I personally don't think that open source, as it's currently practiced, can ever catch up.  I've been wrong before, though, and I'd love to be proven wrong this time.  

Thursday, 18 October, 2001

9/11 Hijackers Were Virginia Residents?

On All Things Considered this evening, NPR's Robert Siegel reported on the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles' very liberal policy for obtaining driver's licenses or state identification cards.  Prior to September 11, all you needed in order to obtain a state identification card was a notarized statement from a Virginia resident saying that you are a resident.  Two of the September 11 hijackers took advantage of this by getting an illegal immigrant who had a state ID to sign for them.  The very next day, those two members used their new state IDs to vouch for some of their cohorts.  Seven of the hijackers obtained Virginia state identification cards in this way.

The kicker is that this fraudulent abuse of the Virginia DMV's policy was well known since at least 1998.  There were advertisements in immigrant newspapers up and down the East Coast from unscrupulous lawyers and others who would charge immigrants for notary fees, transportation to and from Virginia, and other services associated with obtaining identification in this way.  This story, from the August 31 Washington Post describes how one Notary was convicted of immigration fraud and money laundering for abusing the system.  State law enforcement agencies had been trying for years to have the policy changed, but were unsuccessful.  A report written in May of this year said, in part "We don't know who we're giving identification to.  We may be giving identification to international terrorists."

The policy was changed after September 11, when the FBI backtracked the terrorists to Virginia.  It looks like airport security wasn't the only thing lacking.

Wednesday, 17 October, 2001


I kind of like the new Enterprise series.  We'll see how it progresses.  Oddly enough, I'm wondering how big the Captain's dog is going to get.  That Vulcan babe sure is improbably constructed, isn't she?

I'm kind of disappointed, though, at how often the Captain or somebody else has to say "...and that's an order."  You would think that the "cream of the crop" crew assigned to Earth's flashiest new spaceship would understand that everything the Captain says is an order.  But then, that's always bothered me, even when I was in the military.  Whenever a superior said "...and that's an order," I knew that he was somehow insecure in his ability to command.

Several years ago I read a book called Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, by Edward Tenner.  In it, the author talks about the unintended consequences of many technological revolutions or well-meaning programs.  Football pads, for example, make the game more dangerous because players can hit harder without injuring themselves, but often do serious damage to other players.  The book is worth reading.  I know it got me to thinking more about potential consequences.

Especially relevant today is his discussion early in the book about antibiotic resistant bacteria.  Overuse of antibiotics results in bacteria strains that are resistant.  Researchers knew about this very early on in the use of antibiotics.  People were warning about it as early as 1945, but it didn't become a problem until the mid-1960's.  The potential for serious trouble is even higher today.  With all this recent anthrax business, people are stockpiling Cipro--an antibiotic that is especially effective against anthrax.  Worse, some people are taking it daily thinking that it'll prevent them from getting anthrax.  With the easy availability of Cipro and other antibiotics over the Web, we stand a very real chance of creating and spreading a strain of anthrax that is resistant to virtually all antibiotics.

Most things don't bother me much, but I can see this coming.  Scare enough people and their fears become reality.  It's enough to keep me up at night...

Sunday, 14 October, 2001

Installing a Door in a Crooked Wall

This weekend's task in the never-ending back room remodel was yet another exercise in frustration.  Last week I installed the bathroom door all nice and neat, only to find that the wall isn't plumb.  At first I thought that, despite my best efforts, I had installed the door crooked.  So I removed the door and started to re-install--with help this time--and finally had the insight to check the wall.  Too many years as a programmer, I guess, where I always assume that it's my error rather than the compiler or the operating system.  The rough door opening is off plumb by about 1/2" from top to bottom, verified using that most technical device:  a plumb bob.  I'll have to come back to the door next week after I figure out how I'm going to finesse the trim to make it look right.

The weekend wasn't without its minor triumphs, though.  I've never before tried to do finish work--tearing things out and rough carpentry have always been more my line.  But this weekend I did successfully hang the pantry door (in a straight wall that I built, by the way), and also got the trim on the door.  I'll need some painter's putty in few places, but if it's good enough for Debra (and she has pretty high standards), then it's good enough for me.  I also installed those hugely expensive Elfa Shelves in the pantry.  They're cool, but yikes--hold on to your wallet if you ever walk into The Container Store.

Saturday, 13 October, 2001

The Thing Factory

A group of us at work get together at least once a week for what we call "Future Tuesday."  We go to lunch and discuss the future, or the past if we think it has relevance to a "future" topic.  It's not always on Tuesday, but we're not too picky.  Yesterday one of the group mentioned an idea that I call The Thing Factory.  It's a fascinating idea to play with.

Think of all the things we currently have that consist of simple shapes made of plastic, wood, fiberglass and other composites, or cheap metals.  Things like book shelves, CD racks, picture frames, plates, cutlery, knick-knacks, chairs, doors, tables, etc.  I have identified dozens of such things taking up space throughout the house.  Heck, Saturn makes reasonably indestructible body panels out of composite material.

Now, imagine that all of these Things could be made out of a single material--call it "Stuff"--that can be cut, lathed, sculpted, or molded.  Imagine further that you could go to a Thing Factory, enter the drawings for one of these Things into a computer, and computer-controlled machinery cuts, sculpts, or molds that Thing out of a big block of Stuff.  Your credit card is charged for the price of the Stuff (so much per pound), and also a fee based on the amount of time and resources it took to make the Thing.  You want your bookshelf to have a faux maple finish?  No problem.  The shelves are made from Stuff, and so is the laminate that gets glued to the surfaces, although the laminate is dyed to look like maple.

No longer would Target need to stock three copies each of dozens of different picture frames.  All they'd need is copies of drawings for every type of picture frame known, and their Thing Factory could make one up in an instant.

The other cool thing about Stuff is that it is 100% recyclable.  One major problem with recycling today is that it's hard to get people to do it because they can't see a direct benefit.  But if Stuff was directly recyclable by the Thing Factory, then you could take your used or broken Things down to the Factory, present them for recycling, and get credit for the Stuff.  Take your broken shelf down to the Factory, present it for recycling, get full credit for the Stuff that it takes to make a replacement.  You have a direct, tangible benefit of recycling.

Imagine if all the fast food places made those silly plastic and paper cups out of Stuff.  A trash sorter could easily separate the cups from the rest of the garbage, and a specialized on-site Thing Factory could make new cups every night from the recycled Stuff.  That alone would make a noticeable dent in the amount of garbage that goes into our nation's landfills.

Is any of this even remotely possible today?

Friday, 12 October, 2001

Sometimes Force is Necessary

 This one came across my email today.  Just the thought of trying it out kept me amused for quite some time.

Subject:  Force is Necessary

How to teach a naive, hemp-shirt-wearing college idiot that force is sometimes needed.

  1. Approach student talking about peace and advocating negotiation.
  2. Engage in brief conversation, and ask if military force is appropriate.  When he says No, ask, Why not?
  3. Wait to hear:  Because that would just cause more innocent deaths, and it would be awful and invite more violence.  When he is in mid-sentence, punch him hard in the face.
  4. When he gets back up to punch you, point out that it would be a mistake and contrary to his values to strike you, as that would be awful and invite more violence.
  5. When he agrees and pledges not to commit additional violence, punch him in the face again.  Harder if possible.
  6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 until he understands that there's just no negotiating with some people.

Somebody I forwarded that to responded that all is fine until I attract the attention of a police officer.  True enough.  But if I resisted arrest, the police officer would give me a lesson in violence, thereby proving my point.

Wednesday, 10 October, 2001

First Anniversary

Wow.  Today I realized that this past Sunday marked the one year anniversary of Jim's Random Notes.  I guess it doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of the Universe, but it's certainly an accomplishment for me.  The first few months it was pretty easy to come up with topics to write about, but after I'd exhausted the stuff on the surface I found that I had to actively search out and study things in order to write anything intelligent here.  Keeping up with this web site on a regular basis has been very good for me.  Just making myself write almost every day has been good discipline, and I think I've become a better writer in the process.  Certainly I've had to learn how to look at things more critically and also how to succinctly present information that is sometimes overwhelming.  It's a hugely rewarding exercise that I'd encourage anybody who's interested to try.

Tuesday, 09 October, 2001


Listening to the news on the way home from work this evening, I heard one of our Senators use the non-word "permanentize," as in "We need to permanentize that arrangement."  She was talking about the Federal government taking over airport security.  Rather than "We need to make that arrangement permanent."  I guess then to make something temporary we'll temporatize it.  Come on.  "Permanentize?"  That's worse than the recent use of "office" as a verb, as in "I office in the west wing."  I'm hardly a language purist, and I understand that the English language should evolve, but let's use a little restraint, huh, lest we permanentize some serious ugliness.

Monday, 08 October, 2001

Farewell to Tiffany

When we got home from our trip yesterday, we found that our poodle Tiffany hadn't been eating and was very lethargic.  We rushed her to the vet, who checked her out, diagnosed dehydration and some organ dysfunction, and put her on an IV.  We had to leave her at the emergency clinic overnight and take her back to the vet this morning, where Debra stayed with her all day as her condition deteriorated.  We had to put her on a ventilator late in the afternoon, and it was soon clear that she wasn't going to get any better.  

We adopted Tiffany and her daughter Tasha about four years ago when Tiffany was 7 years old.  We took them from a home where they spent most of their time alone outside in the Arizona heat.  In return for a little attention and a comfortable place to live, Tiffany gave us her undying devotion.  She would meet us at the door every day when we got home--ecstatic to see us again.  If Debra came in when I was already home, Tiffany would run to me, as if to say "Mom's home!  We're a family again!"  She loved to play chase around the couch, or walk down to the mailbox with me.  She was terrified of thunderstorms.  She liked chasing the deer out of the yard.  (Watching a 10 pound poodle chase a full grown deer will make you laugh every time.)  When I was sad or not feeling well, she'd cuddle up and just be there, offering to help in whatever way she could.  Was the little bit of time, effort, and money on our part really fair payment for the joy she brought to us?  I'm not so sure, but she certainly seemed to think so.  No matter what happened there she was, looking up at us with those adoring eyes.

We only had Tiffany for a little over four years, but she meant the world to us.  She lay there on the table in the vet's office, fully alert, pleading with her eyes for us to make it better.  We cried for a while, telling her that we wanted to, but were powerless to help.  Asking the vet to administer that shot was one of the hardest things I've ever done, but watching as whatever it was killed her slowly and painfully would have been infinitely worse, and unimaginably cruel.

I'm sad today, and I'm going to be sad for a good long while.

Sunday, 07 October, 2001

Soldiers Are Not Policemen

When we were going through security at Chicago's O'Hare airport this afternoon, Debra noticed a National Guardsman standing just inside the secured area.  This was somewhat surprising because we hadn't yet heard about the U.S. attacks in Afghanistan, and there were no National Guard at the airport when we flew in on Friday.  There were more troops at the Austin airport when we arrived this evening.  Although I had heard that troops were going to be deployed to airports, and I understand that they're there for a reason, I can't help but feel a little uneasy.  The soldiers we saw were young, which is something of a concern, but my primary reason for being uneasy is that they're soldiers, not policemen.  Some of those we saw in Chicago were MPs, so they have some police training, but they are still soldiers first.  None of the Austin contingent were MPs.

A soldier is not a police officer.  They have different missions, and different methods of dealing with potentially hostile situations.  A police officer is trained to diffuse situations in a generally peaceful manner, resorting to force only as a last resort or when his safety or the safety of others is in danger.  A soldier is trained to command peace, and to enforce that command with a rifle.  It's true that soldiers (and National Guardsmen in particular) are trained to consider the effects of their actions on civilians, in general they are trained to act as though everybody is a potential combatant, and the "good guys" are well identified.  Using soldiers as police officers in a crowded place such as an airport is a disservice to the soldiers and to those they're supposed to be protecting.  The potential for a fatal error is very great.

I hope that the deployment of National Guard troops in airports is a temporary solution that will be phased out as soon as we can employ more security officers who are trained as police.

Saturday, 06 October, 2001

A Woman Catholic Priest?

Every once in a while I'm reminded that there is a huge difference between accepting something intellectually and actually seeing it in practice.  Our good friends Jeff and Carol Duntemann celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary today with a Catholic Mass and a reception in Chicago, and Debra and I were honored to attend.  The Mass was the same Catholic Mass that I attended almost every Sunday for the first 18 years of my life (actually, since 1970 when the Roman Catholic Church instutited the New Order Mass).  Except the celebrant (the priest) was the Reverend Mary T. Ramsden.  Yes, a woman.  The Old Catholic tradition, in which this Mass was celebrated, admits women to the priesthood.  I understood this intellectually, but it was decidedly odd to see a woman celebrating Mass.

Jeff explains the differences between Roman Catholicism and Old Catholicism much better than I can, and I refer you to hisweb diary for more details.  (You'll have to dig, though.  Jeff hasn't yet pulled all of his Old Catholic information together into a single place--something I'm hoping he does soon.)  Here I'll just mention that the differences are not matters of faith, but rather matters of church discipline and governance.  Old Catholicism is Catholicism, just not controlled by Rome.  What I have read and seen leads me to believe that this is what Catholicism should be--a celebration of faith without the fear of offending the Church hierarchy.  If, like me, you have been turned away by the Roman Catholic Church, you may want to look into the Old Catholic movement.

Technology is supposed to make our lives easier, right?  I made all of the arrangements for today's trip to Chicago online.  I had no trouble on American Airlines' web site, and the flight reservations were fine.  The hotel, though, was another story.  I first reserved a room at the Marriott Courtyard web site, but when they confirmed my reservation they informed me that there were no non-smoking rooms available.  It would have been nice if the web site had informed me of that before confirming the reservation.  I had to call them to cancel, as I couldn't find a cancellation link on the web site, and then go to Hampton Inn's site to reserve a room.  That worked out for the best, though.  I got the non-smoking room and the rate was $10 less.

Alamo Rent A Car has the lowest rates of any car rental firm at the Chicago airport:  $27 per day for a compact car with unlimited mileage.  And they have this Quick Rent program whereby you enter all of your information online (driver's license, address, credit card number, etc.) so all you have to do to get your car is swipe your credit card in the Quicksilver kiosk at the airport rental place.  Cool.  No more waiting in lines.  Except that all three kiosks were down:  one crashed, one unresponsive, and the last with a printer jam.

These and other companies all seem to have figured out how to offer and sell their products online, but many of them lack in actually delivering the product.  E-commerce still has a ways to go before it's clearly superior to the old way of doing things.

I don't normally do this, three days in a row discussing the same topic, but I keep running across more information.  According to this article on ZDNet News, Motorola yesterday announced "that they have successfully demonstrated a methane gas-powered fuel cell, which can provide enough juice between chargings for a month of cell phone calls."  The thing is the size of a laptop battery (4" x 6" x 1/2 ").  Yes, methane.  No, we don't need any more fart jokes.  NEC and Sony are working on similar devices.  NEC expects to have a salable product sometime in the next two to four years.  Motorola and Sony have not announced their plans.

Apparently, somebody is working on the "power shoes" idea.  According to this article on Discovery News, a company called SRI International is working on lacing a boot with electroactive polymers to convert the mechanical energy of walking into electric power.  The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is one of the project's primary sponsors.

Finally, on a somewhat related note, the 2001 World Human Powered Speed Challenge is being held this week in Battle Mountain, Nevada.  The vehicles used in this race resemble bicycles only in that they have two wheels and are human powered.  The world record for a single rider over the 200 meter course is 72.75 MPH, set last year by Sam Whittingham.  You get a "flying start," which means you're already up to speed when you cross the starting line.  You can see information on last year's event (including some cool pictures of the vehicles)here. Some people are projecting a record of 100 MPH in the not-too-distant future.  That's faster than I'm willing to drive my car!

Tuesday, 02 October, 2001

More Body Power

After I posted yesterday's entry, I ran across the Slashdot posting on the topic.  Most of the comments are typical uninformed reactionary B.S. or poor attempts at humor, but there are a few good posts.  One such pointed me at this article on Human Powered Wearable Computing that appeared in IBM Systems Journal some years ago.  (You can also view the article on the IBM SJ site at  The article does a reasonably good job of identifying the possible ways that the human body could be used to generate power, and discusses some potential ways to harness the power.  Of particular interest to me were the discussions of piezoelectric materials and the use of piezoelectric shoe inserts to generate power--not continuous, but potentially enough to charge a small storage battery that could in turn be used directly in small electronic devices or perhaps to trickle-charge other batteries.  Granted, this isn't the "human battery" that I've been pondering over the years, but it has the same effect.

I like the idea of using shoe inserts to harness the energy because it's like free power.  Replacing the cushioning in a pair of shoes with piezoelectric materials allows you to harness energy that is normally just dissipated.  It's the same concept that shoe manufacturers use to power the LEDs in those shoes that blink when you walk.  The article Parasitic Power Harvesting in Shoes, again from the MIT Media Laboratory, explores this concept in more detail.  MIT's Media Laboratory lists a Parasitic Power project, but I've been unable to find anything more recent than the 1998 "power shoes" article.  Except for anews brief from January 2000 about a British inventor's patenting the idea. 

Monday, 01 October, 2001

Body Power

In my May 7 entry I mentioned the idea of using the human body to power the myriad electronic devices that we carry on our persons.  At that time, I'd never heard of anybody actually doing it.  A friend today sent methis link to a press release from Applied Digital Solutions.  They have developed a miniaturized thermoelectric generator that converts low gradient body heat flow into electrical power.  Supplying 1.5 volts at 10 micro amps, the thing won't power a cell phone, but it's plenty to power implanted medical devices and maybe even a wristwatch.  So I'm not a total nutball.