Digital waves are not stair steps

April 16th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

I’ve always understood that a digital representation of an analog wave form looks like this:

Stair step wave formBecause you know, ones and zeros and all that. Well it turns out that the stair step wave form is simply an incorrect representation of a sample. We should actually be using a lollipop graph because there are no values between the points.
Most importantly if you convert that sample back to analog you get the original smooth wave form. I learned this and so much more in a nerdtastic video all about analog to digital conversion the noise it generates and how to use dithering to reduce it. I probably only understood half of what he said and did not expect to finish the full video but I got enough to keep me engaged through the end. You should at least watch the first 8 minutes.

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New Sensor Paves the Way for Night Vision Contact Lenses

April 11th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

While we are years away from a shippable product this graphene based night vision sensor is a huge advancement.

Night vision, presently, is a rather clunky technology … To see in the dark, a person dons a set of binocular-shaped goggles strapped to the head. The devices also produce a lot of heat, so they need to be cooled, adding to the overall volume of mechanics required.

Now, researchers from the University of Michigan are close to packing night vision’s clumsiness into technology that fits on your fingertip. They built a super-thin infrared light sensor using graphene — a material that’s a single carbon atom in thickness — that could be stacked on contact lenses or integrated into smart phone cameras for handy night vision.

Should this technology make it all the way to market I suspect night vision will come standard on all devices that have a camera. It may even be included in everything from sunglasses to the peephole on your front door.

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Space Station Instrument Will Be the Coldest Thing in the Universe

February 25th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

It’s impossible to know what kind of impact this will have on physics and ultimately technology, but the potential is huge. What we do know, however, is that this Cold Atom Laboratory is pretty freaking amazing.

In 2016, a new instrument due to be added to the ISS — NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory — will become the coldest location in the known universe. The instrument is capable of achieving a temperature of 100 Pico-kelvin, or one ten-billionth of a degree above absolute zero. For perspective, the average temperature of space is a balmy 2.7 Kelvin, or -454.81 degrees Fahrenheit.

Back in 1995 researchers discovered that if you combine a few million rubidium-87 atoms and cool them to near zero kelvin they will form into a single wave of matter. Known as a Bose–Einstein condensate this is essential quantum phenomena happening at the macroscopic scale. The wave patterns generated by the CAL will be about as thick as a human hair; with that a creature of quantum physics will have entered the observable realm.

More from NASA in this video:

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Why you could soon be buying your electricity from Elon Musk

February 25th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Having a fleet of electric cars plugged into the power grid is tremendously valuable. Power plants make up for their inability to store energy by ramping up their output at peak usage hours. Since wind and solar plants don’t have that luxury they are left at a disadvantage to coal and gas power plants. If, however, we stick a large battery in every driveway and hook it up to the gird we can level the playing field by drawing power from the idle cars during peak hours and charging them back up during off peak.

John McDuling over at Quartz points out that Tesla is poised to do just that.

Tesla doesn’t just make high-performance automobiles, Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas argues, it’s also producing a mobile fleet of electrical grid storage.  The 40,000 Tesla vehicles already on the US roads contain about 3.3 gigawatts of storage capacity, roughly 0.3% of US electrical production capacity and 14% of US grid storage, he estimates. 

I’m not sure if it’s impressive for Tesla or pitiful for our electrical grid that the nascent car maker already makes up 14% of the electrical grid. Either way the potential upside for renewable energy is huge.

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When movies are made for VR instead of a silver screen, everything changes

February 19th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Interesting article over at Fast Company talking about what happens when Virtual Reality moves beyond a video game pipe dream and becomes so common place that movies are made specifically for VR.

Everything you learned in Film 101 — the frame, the cut — is essentially useless.

Not only will this change the way movies are made on a technical level but on an emotional level as well. We will no longer be watching events unfold from afar and instead experience them as a bystander; if shot in the first person you will be the character. And that is, of course, just the tip of the iceberg. Before we had the Internet or the iPhone it was difficult to imagine how things would change and I expect it will be the same for VR movies. Once the future has arrived it always seems obvious, inevitable even, but trying to read the tea leaves and predict what the future holds and when it will happen is fraught with error.

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World’s largest solar plant in pictures

February 13th, 2014 § 2 comments § permalink

The Verge has a nice collection of photos of the Ivanpah solar plant that officially started operations today in the Mojave Desert. Ironic that the latest high-tech power plant is really just a steam engine; technology that has been around for over 2000 years.

The mirrors on the ground reflect sunlight onto the tower to heat water which turns to steam and powers a turbine.

High tech steam engine: the mirrors on the ground reflect sunlight onto the tower to heat water which turns to steam and powers a turbine.

The rest of the photos can be found here.

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Tesla: “Model S is the safest car ever tested”

August 21st, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

A pretty bold claim by what I consider to be the preeminent car manufacturer but they have some impressive numbers to back it up. Only 1% of all cars tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) achieve 5 stars and the Model S actually broke one of the machines used to test the car.

Of note, during validation of Model S roof crush protection at an independent commercial facility, the testing machine failed at just above 4 g’s. While the exact number is uncertain due to Model S breaking the testing machine, what this means is that at least four additional fully loaded Model S vehicles could be placed on top of an owner’s car without the roof caving in. This is achieved primarily through a center (B) pillar reinforcement attached via aerospace grade bolts.

Model S - White
Since the Model S uses a rather innovative battery pack they are able to mount it below the floor pan giving it a very low center of gravity. As a result the independent testing facility had to use non-standard means to even get it to roll over.

The Model S was also substantially better in rollover risk, with the other top vehicles being approximately 50 percent worse.

Tesla is quick to point out that it’s quite possible to game the testing score by strengthening the car in the locations used by the machines.

After verifying through internal testing that the Model S would achieve a NHTSA 5-star rating, Tesla then analyzed the Model S to determine the weakest points in the car and retested at those locations until the car achieved 5 stars no matter how the test equipment was configured.

The press release also contains some pretty interesting details about crumple zones and the side pole intrusion test which, according to Tesla, is considered one of the most difficult to pass. Here is footage of a 2012 Jeep Liberty failing it.

[T]he Model S was the only car in the “good” category among the other top one percent of vehicles tested. Compared to the Volvo S60, which is also 5-star rated in all categories, the Model S preserved 63.5 percent of driver residual space vs. 7.8 percent for the Volvo. Tesla achieved this outcome by nesting multiple deep aluminum extrusions in the side rail of the car that absorb the impact energy (a similar approach was used by the Apollo Lunar Lander) and transfer load to the rest of the vehicle. This causes the pole to be either sheared off or to stop the car before the pole hits an occupant.

Much like the recent Hyperloop Alpha proposal it’s clear that Mr. Musk, who found SpaceX and is currently head of product design at Tesla, is willing to ignore accepted standards to create what he believes is a better product. Writing for MIT Technology Review Kevin Bullis shines a light on what sets the Model S battery apart from the rest of it’s competition.

Tesla’s choice of these small lithium-ion batteries is, arguably, one of its most important strategic gambles. Established automakers have chosen larger battery cells—they make engineering a battery pack simpler, since you need fewer of them. But the larger cells, because they contain more energy, are also more dangerous. So automakers use less energy-dense battery materials that are more resistant to catching fire. Trying to offset the lower energy density, automakers chose flat cells because they pack together more densely, but such cells cost more to manufacture.

a Model S with everything removed but the frames, wheels, battery and engine.

Tesla Model S with everything removed but the frames, wheels, battery and engine.

Not only are the smaller cells cheaper, thanks in no small part to the mobile computing industry, but they have better energy density. It’s not as good as gasoline yet but they are ahead of the pack. Lastly these cells have a safety benefit as well.

Choosing the smaller, cylindrical cells also gave Tesla more flexibility in packaging the cells. Large, flat cells will deform in a collision and possibly catch fire, so other automakers have had to find places within the car where the battery would be out of the way in a crash. That meant using up some passenger or cargo space.

Which takes us back to the Tesla Press Release.

The Model S lithium-ion battery did not catch fire at any time before, during or after the NHTSA testing. It is worth mentioning that no production Tesla lithium-ion battery has ever caught fire in the Model S or Roadster, despite several high speed impacts. While this is statistically unlikely to remain the case long term, Tesla is unaware of any Model S or Roadster occupant fatalities in any car ever.

I’m sure Tesla has cherry picked some of numbers to make the car look as good as possible, it’s a press release after all, but it’s hard to argue with the overall results.

Of all vehicles tested, including every major make and model approved for sale in the United States, the Model S set a new record for the lowest likelihood of injury to occupants. While the Model S is a sedan, it also exceeded the safety score of all SUVs and minivans.

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Will a fingerprint sensor be Apple’s next hit?

August 20th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Geppy Parziale, who pioneered an innovated touchless fingerprint recognition technology, has a great post explaining the various types of fingerprint sensors and lays out why we haven’t seen them implemented in widespread use. It’s detailed yet engaging and I recommend checking it out. For the tldr; crowd here is the conclusion.

Unfortunately there is no existing solution to this. Manufacturers can only try to make the fingerprint sensor last longer, but sooner or later that device will stop working properly. This is also why Apple cannot provide a fingerprint sensor for payments. And if they do, they are making a huge mistake, because the surface destruction process explained above introduces the most dangerous problem in fingerprint recognition: false acceptance, when after a while somebody else can be granted access to your device.

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August 13th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Lets say you have a piece of (most likely Windows) software that:

  • Slows your computer
  • Pops up annoying windows at seemingly random intervals
  • Asks you to provide a credit card to stop aforementioned popups and promises to clean your computer in the process
  • Disables and prevents you from installing legitimate software
  • Generally gets in your way when you are trying to get shit done

Does this describe software created by a Russian hacker or McAfee? Dammed if I can tell the difference.

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Customer vs. Commodity and your grandmother’s underwear

June 27th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Most of the major internet companies have been releasing statements playing down their involvement in the NSA Prism scandal that broke couple weeks ago. For their part I think these companies would like nothing more than to not be involved with the NSA but since warrants are involved they don’t really have much choice. This has lead to some non-denial denials saying that they have not given the NSA unfettered access to their servers. If the scale of access ranges from zero to complete we are left hoping it was closer to zero but we will probably never know.

The problem, in my opinion, is not how much access these companies gave to the NSA. The problem is the fact that they store the data in the first place. Companies that make their money from advertisers (Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, basically any company that provides “free” web services) have no choice because the more personal data they have about their users the more they can charge advertisers. Their users are the commodity and advertisers are the customer. Contrast this with a company who’s users are also their customers and you have a very refreshing statement about the NSA’s spying program.

An excerpt Apple’s commitment to customer privacy:

For example, conversations which take place over iMessage and FaceTime are protected by end-to-end encryption so no one but the sender and receiver can see or read them. Apple cannot decrypt that data. Similarly, we do not store data related to customers’ location, Map searches or Siri requests in any identifiable form.

Apple is not doing this because they are morally superior to the Googles of the world. They are not doing it because of some mealymouthed corporate tagline about not doing “evil”. They are doing it because it’s in the best interest of their customers just as Google is storing massive amounts of personal data in the interest of their customers.

Marco Arment had a great analogy for how he treats a customer’s personal data. He was talking about accessing a user’s contact book from Instapaper and he compared it to his grandmother’s underwear drawer. To paraphrase Marco

Imagine your grandmother is in the hospital and she needs you to get an important document from her house. The only problem is that it’s stored in her underwear drawer. You are, of course, going to do what your grandmother asks but you are going to do it as quickly as possible. Open the drawer remove the document and, if possible, leave the rest of the contents untouched.

He made this comment in the wake of the Path address book controversy but I think it should be an attitude shared by all developers. Apple doesn’t store your iMessages because they don’t want the liability. Google reads your jabber messages so they can get a better sense of who you are and what ads you are more likely to click on. To abuse the analogy they would be happy to catalog your grandmother’s underwear drawer for you. BTW, she might like this special offer from JC Penney’s.

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