Archive for the Tech Category

Mercedes pips Toyota Prius

Posted in Noteworthy, Tech, Transport with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 7, 2008 by Apollo

priusI’ve always considered the Toyota Prius little more than a marketing con. Not that that’s Toyota’s fault, more the idiot greenies that do little more than whine endlessly and generate hot air. In the the face of their griping, it’s little wonder that the car industry will promote any development that might shut them up. That said, the Prius is so bad as a ‘green solution’ that a quick hunt around the web shows a number of analyses of its real world performance that show it to be less than green in reality, when driven ‘normally’.

Note however, that I’m not knocking the Prius, I’m kicking the hype that has been attached to it, the technology it pioneered will get better as the supporting hardware develops, but I don’t think the poor car will ever recover from having been adopted by every overpaid American film star that wants to be photographed in one, to prove that they have ‘green credentials’, and will forget that they spew tonnes of CO2 as they jet around the world needlessly in their private planes.

As luxury car manufacturers, and therefore deadly enemy of the greenies, Mercedes may be spared the film star credibility treatment, however they have advanced the hybrid car concept by upgrading the technology to provide measurable improvement over the same car in their range when powered by a conventional engine.

The S 400 BlueHYBRID is powered by a 299 horsepower engine that enables it to sprint from 0 to 100 km per hour in 7.3 seconds.

It would consume on average 7.9 litres of gasoline per 100 km and emit 190 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre, compared with 10.3 litre of gasoline and 247 grams of CO2 in a comparable conventional S-Class.

The car will be the world’s most economical luxury sedan, the company said, and the technology used is the result of 25 patents held by Daimler. Daimler said the main advantages of the newly developed lithium-ion battery were its very compact dimensions and far superior performance relative to conventional nickel-metal hybrid batteries such as those powering the Toyota Prius.

Expect to see the greenies rubbishing the technology, and playing the same old record of “WALK”.

Backup your backup

Posted in Noteworthy, Tech, Venting with tags , , , , , , , , on March 4, 2008 by Apollo

hard driveHaving managed a network, backup of data is not something I have to think about very much. You just do it, end of story.

On a corporate network it’s easy, and automated software will do the job. All you have to do is remember to change the tapes in the right order, and it will even tell you which tape to use. If you’re big enough, you can even have that automated as well.

Personal backup needs a bit more discipline, and the dangers are more likely to arise from an actual attack on your PC/disc by something deliberately malicious, or more likely, finger trouble on YOUR part leading to deletion or overwriting of an important file or directory. Failure of a hard drive is fairly unlikely, I’ve only seen one genuine case while handling dozens of PCs in a corporate system. I also recall one chap visit me for something else causing his laptop a problem. When he went to show me his problem, I was amused to see him thump the laptop whenever he opened a file – apparently he was so used to doing this he didn’t notice. The drive wouldn’t spin up when accessed (I dismantled and refitted the casing which was twisted, and jamming the drive spindle). The only other case of drive failure was a server, which we were obliged to run 24/7. This held a database that everyone used all during the working day, and we couldn’t run any routines to move its position on the hard drive. After about two years, the network software reported data errors – just a few a day, but every day – when we investigated, sure enough, it was the main database. Our guess was that the disk surface was beginning to break up and fragment, with pieces of the coating becoming detached. Even though this carried on, the server software was able to cope, moving copies of suspect data to ‘safe’ areas of the drive, and this carried on for over a year (when we could afford a new server) without any actual corruption of the data being detected by the users.

I use an ancient PDA, tiny and weak by modern standards, BUT, it does what I need, and stores critical data remote from my main PCs (or is encrypted where it is copied to them). One reason I like it the fact that it has a clip in module that allows memory cards to be used with it, and the module has automated backup firmware built in, so the card backs up the PDA content with no intervention needed once scheduled. This has run fine for years, until last week.

The backup uses the most battery power (it uses cheap NiMh AAA batteries, not LiIon that cost more than the PDA to replace), and if I’m not about to watch the power level, can kill the PDA if it flattens them. Not normally a problem, the PDA operating system is stored in ROM, and contents are backed up to the memory card. Fit freshly charged AAAs, reboot the PDA, restore the backup, and off we go.

Well…not this time.

When the batteries died, the took the memory card with them, and it was as dead as the proverbial dodo, and unreadable too, being unrecognised by any car reader I own. A quick flit around the web showed that all the ‘Card Data Recovery’ programmes only worked for image files, and any decent ones want money – no shareware (unless to prove they could recover the data, but won’t unless unlocked after you pay for them). I did recover some pics I’d transferred to the card, but the data just didn’t appear in any of these so-called data recovery programmes.

Then I remembered one of my card readers had been supplied with a CD-ROM claiming to have loads of useful software on board for free. With nothing to ‘lose’ I thought it was worth a try. The downside was that everything was in German, with no other language options, so I was flying blind. I took a ‘best guess’ at the options, and let it go to work on the card – unlike the other recovery programmes, it appeared to work on the card itself, rather than recover data and copy it to another location, leaving the card unaltered. When it was done, the card appeared to have a number of files restored, so it was out of the reader and into the PDA. Remarkably, even though I hadn’t been able to follow what it had done, the free software had indeed restores SOME of the data. Oddly, it had not restored any of the image files that the others had found (and there were around 1,000 images on the card), but had caught the data that they couldn’t see.

Once I’d had a chance to look closer, I saw that the recovered data was from last October – not really a problem, as the info changes very slowly on the PDA, and most of the important stuff is archive material anyway – so very little went adrift.

Ironically, I had started to use it more frequently in recent weeks, and had planned to install its manager software on my laptop as a result, but hadn’t got round to it. If I had, then it would have been mirrored on the laptop, and even the loss of the backup would have been a non-event. Well,it’s done now. I also knocked the automated backup schedule from daily to weekly, and alternate cards (I’ve got plenty) each week, so even if does blitz one if the batteries die, I’ll only be one backup behind.

Live and learn – even when things are being done ‘right’, you can probably still do them ‘better’.

American Inventor

Posted in Noteworthy, Tech, TV with tags , , , on February 26, 2008 by Apollo

LampThanks to those nice people at Virgin1, we’re getting the second series  of American Inventor, and it’s not going to disappoint.

First, there is the Panel of Judges:

George Foreman. Duh? A boxer who made his money from bashing people’s brains out and getting a cut of the purse the sight attracted, then making another fortune by getting a cut of the profits made when he allowed his already famous name to be plastered on a less than notable grill that would sell for a lot less if it didn’t need to pay for the label with his name stuck on it. He’s the ‘Nice Guy’.

Some sort of millionaire life coach. A breed I hold in high contempt, as they just massage the egos of the super-rich, and get a wad of cash for doing it. On the back of their famous clients’ names and success, they then sell books, courses, DVDs and other tat, so raking in piles of cash from wannabes.

Things get better when we get to the female section of the panel, and the founder of a range of innovative underwear. She at least earned her wedge by creating and marketing something successfully, even the eventual success probably had more to do with ‘who she knew’ than ‘what it did’.

Then there’s British member (who has already been subject to a racist attack from an unsuccessful candidate), who provides the sensible side of things, and keeps the rest of the panel in check, since although only three Yes votes are needed for success, he can register dissent. He’s not the ‘Nice Guy’. This turns out to be more useful than expected, as Mr Foreman say Yes to just about anything. The other two members of the panel tend to be more realistic.

Coincidentally, BBC7 just finished a short series about the relatively poor deal inventors get in the UK, and it was interesting to compare and contrast the approach taken in the two countries. It’s easy to see that the figures quoted in the BBC programme were sadly accurate, where they reflected on the sad scenario where only 2% of British inventions get anywhere in their own country, and are lost to the country as a potential source of revenue when their inventors take them to America, when they chances of getting financial backing are much, much higher.

The first programme was enlightening, with the American inventions largely being as crazy as this Brit expected (Peter Jones’ face is a picture at times), with the presentation of two psychos in the first offering, with one being escorted from the stage/building when he proved unable to accept the No vote awarded to his ‘wonderful’ idea.

It’s going to be a great series, and there may even be some genuinely innovative ideas emerging.

They may have kept it until last, but the Guardian Angel, invented by real life fireman Greg Chavez, and intended to automatically quench Christmas tree fires, was the clear winner – and put all the other trivial stuff to shame.

It’s almost a pity that the programmes are repeatsin, and we know he will be the eventual winner, but we’ll forget that for now, and just enjoy the show.

Modern rubbish?

Posted in Tech, Venting with tags , , , , , on February 26, 2008 by Apollo

Clothes ironThe term Modern Rubbish is bandied about quite freely sometimes, and in this context refers to modern engineering design.

In truth, modern designs are usually very good, and avoid the excessive over-engineering that took place in the past, meaning items were heavy, wasteful, inefficient, and not necessarily the better for it. Modern designers usually have to minimise all waste in an item, and engineer in both strength AND weakness in appropriate places – take survival cells and crash zones on modern cars for example. However, I think many of them are losing out, and are over dependent on computer analysis and simulation, without the hands-on experience of materials that the old engineers had. Witness the ‘surprising’ rapid failure of a number of bridges due to the loss of a single stressed component in recent years. This shouldn’t have happened if the designs were truly simulated with the required accuracy, and had sufficient safety factors built in. It’s been more luck than anything else that no-one seems to have yet been killed by these modern, supposedly optimised designs.

This struck me the other day as I went to finish a task that I’ve been working on for the past couple of weeks. This involved using a clothes iron to both dry and iron flat a number of large plans and maps which had suffered from being rolled up for years in a damp/wet store. An hour or two a day has both dried and restored them to reasonable flatness, and the last few were to be completed yesterday. The exercise has already worn the non-stick coating on the sole plate down to bare metal, and after say 20 hours, the iron stopped heating yesterday, with only three sheets to finish off.

Not much good for a supposedly quality item from market leader Tefal, I decided that a £5 Tesco item would be replacing it – couldn’t be any less short lived, could it?

While waiting for the next trip to the shops to come around, I decided to have a look at the dead Tefal – why had it stopped mid-session?

Getting into it was the first problem – modern security fixings instead of honest nuts, bolts and screws – good job we have a full set o f security bits. Next, having removed the ‘screws’, nothing would move. After breaking one knife blade, I found the seams, and brute force eventually convinced the moulded-in clips to release the first cover. This revealed some more ‘screws’ (and one hidden down a hole) which allowed the previously immovable parts to separate.

Now I was puzzled, the fuse was ok, and a quick test showed the element was ok as well. The wiring checked out, yet the thing didn’t heat. There were only two possibilities – the thermostat (temperature control), and the overheat protection device. The thermostat clicked away quite happily, and the overheat hadn’t been tripped. Time to follow each connection until something electrically dead was found.

Well, after a mere 20 or so hours of use, I found that the contacts on the thermostat were burnt out – not much of an advert for the quality of supposed quality market leader Tefal.

Resurfaced contacts saw the iron re-assembled and working a few minutes later, but I wonder how long it will last, and when it will have to come apart for the contacts to be seen to again?

It all depends. I may just have been unlucky, and a bit of dirt got between the contacts and carbonised as they arced, so it won’t recur for some time. Alternatively, some whizz-kid in Tefal’s design department buried his or herself into the datasheets, worked out how often the contacts would switch over the life of the product, determined it was not something anyone would keep for very long, and selected a cheap set of contacts that would last the life they predicted, and to hell with anyone that might not consider the thing to be ‘disposable’ after the warranty has expired.

Modern Rubbish?

I think more a case of Modern Rubbish Inexperienced Designers (building down to a price).

SatNav stunner

Posted in Noteworthy, Tech with tags on February 10, 2008 by Apollo

Compass rose2008 marks my tenth anniversary for actually purchasing my own GPS receiver. The reason I waited so long was simply that I didn’t think the receivers available until around 1998 represented anything like value for money since there was no mapping. All you got was various co-ordinate readings of your location, plus basic speed and distance information, together with fairly limited breadcrumb or tracklog options. That would cost you around £100 at best, and a lot more more if you went for anything more than the most basic offering.

1998 saw the first practical models offered with base maps. Base mapping meant that you got major and minor road, together with towns and villages, water features, railways, and similar significant subjects. What you didn’t get was street level mapping, or calculation of routes (since there was no street data), although like all GPS receivers, you got GoTo programming, which basically plotted the path from where you were to where you wanted to be ‘As the Crow Flies’, and it didn’t recalculate once you were on the move. The price for what was then a premium model was easily in the £300 to £400 range. Thanks to the internet, I didn’t pay anything near those, fortunately. As for colour (these are all mono), throw another £100 on to the price.

Shortly after this, digital mapping started to take off, and models that would accept maps supplied on CD followed quickly. The only problem was the cost of the maps them, easily £100 over the price of the GPS receiver, which had now (as the top of the range then) jumped in price to £440. Again, waiting a while and using the internet meant I added one of these (with maps on CD) for less than half the price of the receiver. At the same tim, I was also lucky enough to pick up Route 66’s mapping on CD for use on the PC, which allowed me to feed live position data from the GPSr to the PC – that was a gem as a 14″ screen beats a 4″ screen anyday. I mention this because the Route 66 mapping cost a whole £10, while a similar mapping from Ordnance Survey, if purchased with the option to allow real time plotting of your position, was then almost £90.

The above came to mind as I spotted one of the shopping channels offering a Magellan SatNav for £90. In the box is a colour display, with street level mapping, postcode searches, Points of Interest, petrol station etc etc, locations of speed cameras and alerts, routing, warning and fancy split displays as junctions are approached, and this one even has a light sensor which adjusts the screen colours to suit the ambient lighting. I don’t know if this one has the option, but another one on offer a few days ago even featured predictive navigation. This means that if the GPS signal is lost, say in a tunnel or in the shadow of buildings, then the software predicts where you are likely to be while the signal is lost, based on your recent past movements. Normally, they just stop navigating until the signal returns.

SatNav is coming in for some stick in the media, or by those who are possibly looking for somewhere (presumably the SatNav manufacturers and map makers who are worth a few bob) to make liability claims, as SatNav is being blamed for drivers/cars/lorries taking inappropriate routes, and causing damage to building and roads, and this week, to British Rail bridges.

Quite why or how SatNav is to blame for the stupidity of drivers who do not take the time to plan their route, or confirm that the roads suggested by the SatNav is suitable for the purpose they intend to use them for, I don’t know. Unless, as I noted, the idea is to pave the way for liablity, since the individuals concerned will be worth pennies and not worth suing, in comparison to the SatNav makers, who are now worth a fortune.

Reading some of the tales about lorries going down tracks and getting stuck, drivers who end up in fields, or on closed or non-existent roads (moved or altered since the mapping was digitised), and those who have claimed to have been taken to places miles away from their desired destination, you have to wonder of some of them even bother to look out the window to see where they are, and are driving along with their eyes riveted to the pretty little colourful SatNav display.

Maybe the should be getting done for ‘Driving without due care and attention’ or similar.

The Aptera – Sensible car design

Posted in Noteworthy, Tech, Transport with tags , , , on February 6, 2008 by Apollo

One of the things that makes me refer to the majority of anti-car types that make it into the media as Green Loonies or Tree Huggers is their inability to think laterally. While those who do not have some sort of undeclared agenda to ram down your throat are prepared to listen and discuss, the Looney Hugger has no time for reasoned debate, and sees only their view as correct, and anything less than 100% agreement will see you in Hell for daring to disagree and now “See the light”.

You can see a prime example of this in their ‘eyes-wide-shut’ vilification of SUVs. While I have no particular liking for these, the campaigners who target them for attacks are simply demonstrating their cowardice by vandalising them when they think no-one is looking, and their lack of thinking ability as they choose not to take into account the overall contribution made by them in terms of environmental impact when compared to other vehicles. In their eyes, ‘Any vehicle bad’, and easily targeted vehicle groups the baddest of the lot.

While they’d like us all to wind the perception of our ‘Needs, Wants, and Desires’ back to the pre-industrial ages, and either walkor ride everywhere, that’s simply not practical or realistic as we’ve taken decades to reach the position we are in now, and for better or worse, have to live within the infrastructure we have in place now, as it would take decades to change. They also conveniently forget we are becoming an increasingly ageing population, and have more people who have disabilities or medical conditions that mean they cannot use bicycles or walk everywhere, and even Public Transport, if anything more that a handful of places actually had an effective form, would be useless to them.

I was particularly interested to see a video presentation of the Aptera Electric Typ-1e. 300 miles to the gallon, and with a sticker price starting at $27,000 this actually looks like a car of the future. Set for release in 2008.

Unlike the more usual electric or hybrid solutions, Aptera have thrown away the conventional rule book and put together a transport solution that uses some of the best thinking and technology to provide a vehicle that provides a sensible duration, top speed, acceleration, and passenger carrying capacity. It’s not n SUV, van, people-carrier, towing vehicle, but will provide comfortable and efficient personal transport without producing the level of pollution or fuel consumption that a ‘conventional’ vehicle would in the same role.

Doubtless, the Green Loonies and Tree Huggers will still decry it for the teaspoonful of petrol, or spark of electricity it charges its battery with, however it provides a refreshingly different approach to the personal transport problem corner we have painted ourselves into, and avoids the ‘conventional wisdom’ that hampers the big car manufacturers minds (think Prius to see how they are limited in their thinking), and should also satisfy the requirements of the more reasonably minded green and/or environmentally amongst us.

While I’ll never be deranged enough to buy a new car with my own money (I’m not burning my hard-earned with those early depreciation years, let someone else pay that), if these were on the market I think I’d definitely be touring around the second-hand car dealers looking for a bargain.

Now the only question is: Will they ever make it to the UK? Will UK vehicle legislation kill their chances here before they even start?

Takeshi’s Chopper

Posted in Noteworthy, Tech, TV on February 4, 2008 by Apollo

Having given up all, or least most, pretence of following any sort of ‘normal’ sleep cycle recently, TV can sometimes work as a fairly effective mind-numbing tool to despatch one to the Land of Nod for a short break. This means catching shows you might not otherwise have given a second look, and one the surprising finds has been a run of the UK version of Takeshi’s Castle. Absolutely daft, it can raise a smile and laugh without the dross that most of today’s dribbling comedian offer in fear of PC (Political Correctness), or if trying to be ‘Alternative’.

The UK screening’s are dated 2003, but I knew the look of things suggested this was not the actual date of the original productions, and a check showed that the series aired from 1986 to 1989. This made the reason for including the menttion all the more interesting.

The shows all ended with a final assault on the castle, which took on various formats, however the usual battle was between guards and contestants, both driving modified buggies around the courtyard in a Final Showdown. This was filmed using assorted ground-based cameras, together with others that were clearly located on aerial platforms, providing an overview of the Final Showdown.

However, my attention was caught on one occasion when the view appeared to have been shot from a helicopter. The show clearly had a significant budget, so could afford it, but even so it seemed excessive given the size of the courtyard. Sure enough, I was right, and the ground shot showed that they actually had a Radio-Controlled Helicopter taking the shots. Given the time the programmes were made, this was quite an achievement with the equipment available at the time, although it has to be said that Japan is always a few years ahead of he UK for any sort of electronic fun like this. Even so, this was an area I was active in at the time (both RC helis and Amateur TV), and although we looked at the possibility of a chopper mounted camera, the size of the camera, transmitter (from the heli to ground base) and batteries were just too much of an overhead for what we had at the time, as a large enough heli to carry the gear was itself rather heavy.

That said, the Takeshi-Cam was no tiny lightweight, and I would say it came from the same school as the few RC heli-cams we had here around the same time. Due to the size and weight, these were generally put together by specialist modellers, with deep pocket, or business sponsors who would use them in situations where the ability to get a camera airborne without the costs associated with full size aircraft made the cost of the custom built model acceptable.

How things have changed. Although they lack the true control of a proper RC heli, one can now buy small, electric helis for £40, capable of having a small webcam and miniature transmitter attached for less than £100. You can’t really control them and have them fly to a point and hover, but for the money, and some careful trimming, it can be made to work. Compare to the cost of proper RC Heli, a proper Radio (both in the hundreds of £s) and you’d want to spend more than a few £ on cheap webcam to do the whole thing justice.

The wallet starts to feel ill just thinking about it.

Maybe just go for one of the little RC cars they brought out a few years back. Fitted with a camera, it sent pics back to the RC handset, which had a built-on LCD screen so the operator could see where the car was going, with the whole kit selling for around the £100 mark.