Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Dude, where's my car?

A US company called Robotic Parking systems Inc. has developed a multi million Dollar automated garage. It is quite brilliant. You drive your car onto a metal pallet structure. It then takes your car up to the next available space (be it 5 stories up) on steel wheels and tracks and lifts, slotting it in place like a huge filing system (see the picture). Before it “parks” your car, it also rotates it 180 degrees, to make it easier when you need your car again. It also uses AI to analyse trends, reshuffling cars according to customer usage, so as to reduce return times when you need your car again. It saves so much space that you can fit almost double the amount of cars that a normal parking garage can take. “Is it safe?” you ask. Well, a Jeep and a Cadillac once fell of it…! But it seems they ironed out the problem subsequently.
Here is the most amazing part: It’s run on an off-the-shelf PC with Windows NT as an operating system! It uses General Electric hardware with open source software called Simplicity.
Another positive spin-off is that it reduces car theft and robberies that normally take place in parking garages to zero, simply because drivers don’t even enter the garage. Apparently, they are looking at automating it even further, whereby as you approach the garage, a card (which you place in the windscreen) is detected by the garage’s systems, and automatically readies the pallet. Upon return, the system again recognises the card and as the driver approaches, fetches the car and gets it ready for the driver to just get in and drive off. I recall a scene from iRobot, where detective Spooner (Will Smith) parks his car (a futuristic Audi) at the pavement. The car is then taken into an automated garage, similar to what is described here! The future is here.
No more wandering around looking for your car!

PS. So as not to get sued for plagiarism, the credit for this post’s heading goes to this article.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Firefly – First “Gadget of the month”

This is the launch of a new section to this blog: the Gadget of the month. In the last week of every month I will do a post on cool tools, gadgets and related things.
The very first one to feature here, is the Firefly. Its made by a company called Guyot Designs and was invented by Eric Goldfarb. This gadget turns any wide-mouthed bottle into a lantern. So whether you go camping or during a power-outage or a braai, this will be of great help. And did I mention it’s cool? It’s essentially a lid with LED light that generates a warm glow throughout the bottle and the level of brightness can be varied. It can be used any side up as the electronics are sealed inside the lid, so you can hang it out on a tree branch and leave it there even when the rain starts. It might not be there the next morning because you neighbour swiped it! And because its LED, it does not use much power either.
Its got seven LED’s and runs on three AAA batteries that will last for about 25 hours. All you do is fill your bottle with water, and you’ll be amazed at the brightness. Its definitely on my shopping list for Christmas!
If you have any suggestions for “Gadget of the Month”, please feel free to comment here.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Who’s the Boss?

I can’t help it. I just love this type of motorcycle. And the name says it all. Boss Hoss. Just look at it. The BHC-9 502 really is the boss with a liquid-cooled V8 engine, outputting 374kw and 767nm torque! That’s more than most cars! A V8! Such power. I think that is the main attraction here. Of course it looks powerful as well. This bike is violent aggression incarnated! It also sports a huge 32l tank and it weighs 771kg. Initially, when they started out in 1990, they made them from second hand Harley-Davidson parts and second-hand motor parts from muscle cars. They were expensive, big and very difficult to ride. But they always used V8 engines. And that is what sets them apart. A bike with a motorcar engine! One of the most noticeable things on the bikes are the big radiators, but it doesn’t do the looks any damage, it just adds to its personality. They also used to have a bike tyre for the front wheel and a car tyre for the rear, but have since replaced it with a bike tyre. They also make very imposing trikes. The trikes were built with rear-end to look like rear-ends of cars like Corvettes and Chevys. This look was replaced in 2000 by the rear-end look of the Sierra truck. In all, I still think this is a novelty bike, this is not something you would ride to work everyday… or would you? I definitely want one!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Home-made weather station

I have always been interested in tracking our local weather and have a rain gauge at home. I keep track of the rain and record it in a database. I now have about 2 years worth of information. But now I want more. I want to be able to track daily temperatures, wind speed, etc. Now, there are commercial products (Eagle, Inteltronics, Oregon Scientific, Weathershop) available, full weather stations that you can use at home, that will give you all of the above mentioned plus much more, all connected to your pc, with software which will even allow you to do forecasts! But they are a bit expensive, so I wanted to know if it was possible to manufacture your own weather station. It obviously won’t log results in a database on your pc, but I thought it might be fun to do.
I found a couple of sites that explains how to do this. The one that explains it the best, is this one . They have a detailed explanation with several ways of creating each item. The other has a PDF download. The best part is that it can be a family task, it’s that easy to do. This is what you will want to measure:
DIY Weather Station:
1. Temperature (Thermometer)
2. Rainfall (Rain gauge)
3. Air Pressure (Barometer)
4. Humidity (Hygrometer
5. Wind Speed (Anemometer) (and wind direction)
6. Hours of sunshine in a day (Sun-shine recorder - See p9 of the PDF) (and cloud cover)
Click on the links above to get and in depth how-to on each item. In addition to that, you will want to add visual observations to your recordings. For examples of a template for weather recording, go to here and here.
I am thinking of starting a weather blog / site, but I will post an update later.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Smallest smoking volcano

That would be the Taal Volcano in the Philippines. Ron Gluckman describes it thus: “In the Philippines, there is a crater containing a lake. In the lake is an island, topped by another mountain, which also has a crater that contains yet another lake. In the midst of its warm waters is another island. And here stands Taal, one of the world's smallest, but most dangerous volcanoes.” It honestly sounds like a scenario from a fantasy book! There are over a thousand people on the island and in the past, they would all be wiped out when the volcano blows. But these days they have early warning systems, so they only have a few casualties. Click here for a Google Earth view of the volcano. Taal is a typical “caldera” volcano, caldera being the Spanish word for cauldron, so it is a basin-shaped volcanic depression. It is also a Stratovolcano: A volcano composed of both lava flows and pyroclastic material. The lake is a bout 18 kilometres in diameter and in its centre is Volcano Island, also with a lake in its centre. The capital, Manila is only about 50 kilometres away. What is interesting is that volcanoes can have more than one crater, or conduits (vents). These can issue volcanic material anywhere in the vicinity of the volcano. It does not have to be at the conical peak which we all call the “volcano”. In ancient times, people used to think that gods live inside volcanoes, and to appease them, they would sacrifice members of the society ever so often. They would literally be thrown into the crater, preferably into molten lava. Crazy. Luckily, we all know today that volcanoes are merely the “plumbing works” of the earth. Or think of it as giant zits. (Haha!) In certain places people even live on crater floors! One such example town called Rabau, Papua New Guinea is surrounded by six volcanoes. Here is the Google Earth link. Both these volcanoes have had activity in early October 2006.
You will notice the addition to the sidebar on the right called “Current Volcanic Eruptions”, which lists 5 of the most currently active volcanoes. Please click on any of them for more info about that specific volcano. From time to time, I will bring you something about them. Also, please let me know if you have any interesting info on volcanoes. (Active or not).
For more info on volcanoes, checkout my earlier post: Volcanoes.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Popular myths

I have always found this subject interesting, believing some myths, while doubting most others. The thing with myths is, that they sound so damn believable, but deep down, you do doubt their validity. That is why I like Mythbusters. There is a whole list of all the myths they have ever tested on one of the fan sites. Out of the almost 200 myths, I have chosen 12 most well known or popular ones to feature here. Stuff that you always wondered about, but were never sure. Here goes:

1. It is more fuel efficient to drive with your windows down than with the AC on. I’m sure you have heard this one before. Its busted!
2. A car will explode when shot through the gas tank.This is a favourite in Hollywood, but not true! They blasted this car’s gas tank, about four guys blazing away – no luck! Busted!
3. Using a cell phone while pumping gas causes an explosion. This is said to be caused by static sparks not cell phones, so not true. Busted!
4. A cigarette can light a pool of gas on fire. One of my favourites. Almost all action movies has one of these scenes. They tried dropping and rolling it in gasoline, but could not get it done, so its plausible but not doable. Plausible.
5. A Daddy long-leg spider has the most potent venom of any spider. I have believed this for a very long time myself, but its jaws actually can pierce your skin and its not deadly, just mildly irritant. Busted!
6. The sound of a duck's quack does not echo. I never really believed this one, but not true any way. Busted!
7. A person can survive a freefalling elevator by jumping. Your downwards momentum will simply kill you anyway, if you jump of not. Busted!
8. A person can jump from an airplane and use an inflatable life raft to land. This is also a favourite because its used in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – can’t be done in real though! Busted!
9. A lit match will remove flatulence odour. My grandparents used to have a box of matches in the loo for this – never thought twice about it! Busted!
10. Urinating on an electric fence can cause electrocution. No comment! Confirmed.
11. A person can be electrocuted while talking on the phone during a storm. I must admit, I never thought this is possible. Confirmed.
12. The suction of a sinking ship pulls a person under water. The survivors of the Titanic said getting away from the suction of the sinking ship was what saved them. Busted! This I found very interesting. They tested this on a 9 ton boat. they sank it twice and it did not create a vortex that pulled them down.

And you thought most of them were true! There are many more of those, go and check it out. Let me know of any myths that you have heard of or urban legends you found interesting.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Awards 2006

This post is a bit long, I know, but its necessary. Here's why: PopularMechanics.com has just released their Breakthrough Awards for 2006. According to Wiktionary, “breakthrough” means: “major progress; any great innovation or discovery, especially one that overcomes some obstacle”. This sums up exactly what these awards are about. I think the rate of major innovation has exponentially increased over the years, so much so, that nowadays, there are several discoveries every year, be it on technological, medical or any other grounds. Here’s some of my favourites:
Final Frontiersman: Breakthrough Leadership Award Winner: Burt Rutan http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burt_Rutan; http://www.scaled.com. For potentially making space travel cheap enough and safe enough for ordinary people to experience.
The Charger: Innovators: Martin Eberhard and team. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tesla_Roadster; http://www.teslamotors.com. For building an electric sports car that can propel the car 250 miles between charges.
The Robo-Husky: Innovators: Marc Raibert and team. http://www.military.com/; http://www.gizmag.co.uk/go/5305/. For developing the BigDog robot that can go places that wheels and tracks can't go, with lifelike motion.
Gyro Bike: http://www.thegyrobike.com/. Innovators: Deborah Sperling, Hanna Murnen, Nathan Sigworth, Augusta Niles. To help kids learn to ride a bike, the team placed a flywheel inside the front wheel of a 16-incher. Bikes stay upright partly because the fast-moving wheels act as gyroscopes, which resist tipping.. In the GyroBike, a metal disc in the center of the wheel spins quickly, even when the rim is rolling slowly over the ground.
Pruning: Black & Decker Al ligator. A 4.5-amp motor and 6-in. chain saw bar help the tool cut through 4-in. diameter branches. www.blackanddecker.com
Robotics: Lego Mindstorms NXT. The NXT uses 32-bit processing, Bluetooth antennas, servos and sensors to help robots see brightness, hear commands and perceive movement. www.mindstorms.lego.com
Safety: Sawstop Contractor's 10-IN. SAW. The Contractor's Saw has a sensor that can detect a finger contacting the moving blade. The saw then stops in 3 to 5 milliseconds — reducing a probable amputation to a forgettable cut. www.sawstop.com

Aren’t these brilliant? Burt Rutan said in his acceptance speech :” I hope to see—by having this flourish of activity, and having every kid know…. And I think we're within 10 or 15 years of this…. Every kid will know that if he wants to, he can go to orbit in his lifetime. We're not there yet, but I believe in about that amount of time that that will be the prevailing thinking, and that in itself will drive kids into science and engineering instead of into all those really bad stuff, like lawyers.”

I can’t wait to see what humankind will come up with next! (Watch this space for follow-up posts on some of these winners individually.)

Friday, October 06, 2006

Firefox Rules!

I promised to do a more in depth post on Firefox, well here it is. The first time I came in contact with Firefox, I was a bit sceptical. But I installed it and tried it out. It amazed me from the start. It was so much faster and the tabbed browsing changed my life! The greatest thing about Firefox is all the hundreds of extensions. I will name a few here that I like and use regularly. I never used any extensions besides the Stumble! add-in. This allows you to choose what sort of websites you like and when you click the Stumble! button, it will take you to a random website in the categories that you chose. It is a great way of discovering new websites. Only when I got version 1.5 I started to look at the different extensions there are. I was pleasantly surprised. Check out the “Popular” or “Top Rated” sections. There is a great one that puts weather forecasts straight onto the menu bar on any other place in the browser, called 1Click Weather. It shows current weather conditions (very accurate) and a 5 day forecast with an option to view the satellite image for your region. Then there is the Foxytunes extension, which allows you to manipulate your media player (Windows Media Player, Jetaudio, iTunes, Realplayer, etc) form the browser window, without having to minimise it.

The biggest problem I initially had with Firefox was the fact that some websites did not view properly because they were only designed for Internet Explorer. So for a long time I used both IE and Firefox in conjuction. This has now changed. There is a Firefox Extension called IE Tab, a button in the status bar at the bottom of your browser, that allows you to switch a website to view it in IE format! I have not used IE again. You can also tell it to open certain sites always in IE format. It is probably one of the best add-ins. You also get one called GSpace, which allows you to use your GMail account as online storage. It allows you to sign in to GMail and you can then simply drop any files into you mailbox as if it was a shared folder on you network!

If you like Wikipedia (as I do) then you would love the next add-in. It allows you to highlight any text on a website and when you right-click, it gives you to option to search for those word(s) in Wikipedia. I love it! I also use one called FEBE, which allows you to backup your entire Firefox profile and all its extensions. Session Manager is also a very handy one. For those times you have 12 tabs open, busy with a search and you need to return to this later. With Session Manager, you simply save the session with all the tabs as it is and when you select to open it later it open those same tabs for you as it were. It also saves your sessions should the browser crash for some reason. Lastly there is Foxlingo, which will translate any phrase or webpage in almost any language you like.

These are the ones I use frequently but actually the list of extensions is endless. Go and check it out, you’ll be surprised at what you can find. If you don’t have Firefox, click on the icon on the right of this page and get surfing!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Turtle ships

I’m sure you’ve all seen the movie Sahara , based on the book by Clive Cussler. The plot in short: (quoted from IMDB )Master explorer Dirk Pitt goes on the adventure of a lifetime of seeking out a lost Civil War battleship known as the "Ship of Death" in the deserts of West Africa”. Now, this battleship is called an ironclad. Ironclads originated in Korea in the 1413. They were then called “turtle ships”. In those days it was basically a wooden hull covered with iron plates. They fitted these “turtle ships”, with up to 5 types of cannons, as it was 30 to 37 meters long. It also normally had some sort of a ramming tool mounted in front, probably a dragonhead. It was also fitted with oars and could hold about a hundred marines and about fifty oarsmen. It had 11 cannon-ports on each side, plus one fore and one aft. Its main purpose was to ram other ships, damaging them to such an extent as to drown them, while providing the necessary protection to those inside.

It looks like they were only used in river systems until 1859, when the French launched the first ocean-going ironclad called the La Gloire ("Glory"). Twenty-one months later, the British launched their version, called the HMS Warrior. In 1861, the first steam-powered ones were built for the American Civil War.

Subsequently, the Swedish, Spanish, Italian and many other European countries made us of these “river monitors”. Only drawback, while the ironclads were powerful, it was nearly impossible for the crew to escape if they were holed in deep water by a mine. The age of the ironclad came to an end in 1890, when they were replaced with pre-dreadnoughts.

All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.
- Sun Tzu, the Art of War