Wolfram Alpha

Wolfram is releasing a new and interesting product tomorrow, Wolfram|Alpha. I think this could be an interesting and perhaps even important step forward for the availability of information on the internet.

Frequently, when I visit Google or Wikipedia, I have come to find an answer to a very specific question. I am then forced to look through the relevant articles looking for the one piece of information I really want. Alpha intends to fill this gap in the search industry by using a “computational knowledge engine” to answer queries directly rather than providing links to informational sites.

I am also hopeful that will help me answer my annoying and all to common question, “I am looking for a single word that means xxxx yyyy,” which I know exists but can’t quite think of right now.

This new technology is being touted as a rival for google, however I think the two technologies will complement each other quite well. Google is a search tool, it helps you find sites you are looking for on the internet, it is a great place to start when you don’t know, or know very little about what you are looking for. Alpha is an information tool, it helps you find a very specific piece of information on the internet, it is useful when you know what you are looking for. If they each focus on their own core competency they should both flourish.

While I suspect it may not start strong, I do suspect that such a technology will eventually find a place in my integrated search bar right next to google, wikipedia, and citizendium (which if you haven’t heard of is essentially a citable version of wikipedia).

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Swine Flu beats Bird Flu to the punch

I really hate to make two posts on potential pandemics so close together. In fact, generally I try to avoid stories that can become transient scare tactics to drum up readers. However, the Swine Flu that has emerged in Mexico is actually scaring me.

So while we were all caught worrying about Bird Flu jumping the species barrier, Swine Flu has gone and done it! So far I am quite worried. The most recent story I could find says that just over 1,000 people in Mexico have been infected; of them 60 are dead. That’s a roughly 6% fatality rate which is certainly not comforting. What I find more disturbing is the fact that the CDC has already declared that the outbreak is too big to contain. Which essentially means for me, living in California, if this thing spreads the only line of defense will be my immune system.

Still I was not planning on actually blogging about it until it was reported that it may have already spread to New York. If that’s the case we probably have a pandemic on our hands because it would have already spread in carriers from New York to the rest of the world. Now, you shouldn’t go running for the hills yet; or maybe you should because the rest of us are foolish enough to hope it wont get that bad. But, reportedly the severity has been much worse in the case of infections in the Mexico than the US indicating that vulnerability to the disease may be a result of the heightened tensions do to the large drug war (which is known to weaken the immune system), and of malnourishment which is not uncommon among Mexico’s poorest would likely also be living closest to animals.

Either way, until we know more this is certainly a story that everyone should follow closely. We should learn a lot more over the next few days. Consider this your early warning.

Smaller, Faster-charging, non-overheating batteries!

MIT recently announced the invention of a new lithium-iron-phosphate battery. This particular discovery is remarkable for a number of reasons perhaps most significantly because it is so similar to existing technology that retooling manufacturing infrastructure from lithium-cobalt is possible and should only take about 5 years.

In the past researches have focused on lithium cobalt batteries because they have a marginally higher energy density. But, both technologies have suffered from slow charge rates. Scientists assumed these slow charge rates were the result of the low speed of electrons traveling through the material. However, scientists at MIT put this assumption to the test and found that the electrons traveled much faster through the material than had been previously thought. On further inspection they found that the problem was being caused by the slow travel times on the surface of the material to the holes on the surface through which they could enter the material. By engineering new routes on the lithium-iron-phosphate they were able to increase charge times by a factor of 6!

Of equal importance the Lithium-iron-phosphate batteries have two additional advantages over lithium-cobalt. First, they don’t lose their maximum charge over time the way that lithium-cobalt batteries do. Because current batteries are engineered to work for at least a year the new batteries will actually have a higher energy density for the end consumer over the life of the battery. Finally, the new batteries will not overheat, posing less of a danger both in catastrophic cases and in normal usage of mobile devices.

For end consumers this means two big pieces of news! First, starting in about 5 years new laptop batteries will be available that do not have to be replaced frequently because they don’t lose their charge capacity! These laptop batteries will be lighter because current batteries are designed with larger capacity with the understand that the top 10% or so will be lost quite rapidly. In addition these batteries will not overheat! This will also be the case for cellphones ipods and just about any other mobile device you can think of.

However, its largest impact will be on electric cars. This new technology solves many of the biggest problems for electric cars. One of the biggest problems that electric cars have been facing is battery life. When you have a 20,000 dollar battery that has to be replaced because its charge capacity falls dramatically over 3 years, the producer cannot even offer more than a 3 year warranty. “According to presenters at the Toyota Sustainable Mobility Seminar here, is that batteries will cost about $500 per electric mile delivered.” Another big problem that electric cars have been facing in getting from paper to a major consumer item is charge times. Current technology requires you plug your car in to a hard line for hours to fully charge. This new technology cuts charge time by a factor of 6! Making a gas-station-like set up far more feasible. A technology like this one was in, my opinion, a necessary innovation for making electric cars viable. In the long run this makes it far more likely that electric cars will be able to compete with the combustion engine.

-This is a post I wrote mostly on my last hiatus-

Cincinnatus or Sulla?

One of the truest tests of any person is whether he can give up power when he has too much. For this reason among many, we celebrate our first president George Washington, who reportedly was offered the position of king and turned it down. This story of true greatness is not unique to the United States, the ancient Romans had an office, “Dictator,” that gave one individual nearly complete control of the nation for 6 months. An often celebrated hero of Rome, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, was elected to this position twice, both times he gave up the position early and returned to his farm. In fact, our modern city of Cincinnati is named in HIS honor. Of course this position was eventually abused; no, Caesar was not the first to claim the position of “Dictator for Life.” It was Sulla who first claimed that shame. He used the power to rebuild the state in a way that he thought was more efficient, sadly while his reforms were effective in the short run, in the long run his changes to the power structure pushed the Roman state further from democracy and towards totalitarianism.

Why do I bring this up? Because, I fear in the United States our government may soon be facing a similar critical crossroad. As a result of Congress’s bail-out of the banking industry the Federal Government is now able to exert significant power over the financial sector. This power was originally acquired even over solvent banks under the argument that all banks should receive funding so people couldn’t identify and thus couldn’t make runs on the insolvent banks. But, for weeks now these solvent banks have been trying to pay the money back. Congress has passed a large number of new restrictions on the behavior of corporations that received these bailouts, unfairly punishing the banks which accepted the money to protect their weaker competitors. The fed has now announced tough and subjective conditions to any repayment of the debt which leave the government with great leeway, to refuse repayment, even from completely solvent institutions.

Last night the New York times reported that the Obama administration is considering converting these loans into shares in these companies. Making the Federal Government the largest share holder in these corporations and essentially nationalizing the entire financial industry. This would also put the US tax payer dollars at greater risk as they would now be converted into shares of a company which could never be as profitable in a federally run system as they were in the free market. In short the money that was “lent” would be mostly lost. And the free market banking system in the United States would be crushed.

This is wrong. This would be a blatant power grab by the Executive Branch so that it could implement a completely new economic system, without going through congressional approval or through the necessary constitutional amendment process. Obama, and his Democrat allies ran against the abuses of Republicans in office. But, power is a corrupting thing, and even the best of men are hard pressed to let go once they have it. We cannot afford to allow this much power to be in the control of just one Branch of government, if anything power is to concentrated already. The banks shouldn’t just be given the opportunity to pay these loans back. They should be forced to pay them back. As a nation we cannot afford to have industries which owe their existence or survival to the government.

Bird Flu Evolves

It’s been a busy couple of days for me. Between getting sick, being forced to update my post by North Korea, my I-pod committing suicide, and another attack on a US ship by pirates, there are a number of things I could talk about.

But, the story which I believe most deserves my attention today is the new form of Bird Flu which has developed in Egypt. This is an extremely big story because it shows two large changes which make the disease more likely to decimate the world population:

1) This new disease is less fatal and slower acting. While this might seem like a good thing, I assure you it is not.

The slower acting disease will take longer to become apparent, thus giving the disease more time to spread before detection. Since these things grow exponentially, a less fatal disease could easily infect many more people in a single outbreak. Even if contained, the total number of dead would be higher because more people would be infected. In addition, the larger scope of the outbreak makes containment much harder and more expensive. We’re talking about the difference between exterminating every bird within 5 miles of a farm and 10 miles of a farm. That’s 4 times as many animals that need to be put down, 4 times the economic loss, and four times the incentive for someone to try and save some money by smuggling an animal out.

2) It also seems to be at a minimum infecting children at a higher rate than in the past. This raises the specter of adults playing the long term role of symptom-less carriers, or that the disease is now having an easier time jumping the species barrier in weaker immune systems. Either, way this cannot be good news.

Oh and before I forget its Tax Time! /booo

Captain Richard Phillips Freed!

Just a quickie pirate post before I go back to not-so regularly scheduled programming on Monday.

The US Navy has reported that Captain Richard Phillips was freed in a rescue operation. According to the BBC, three of the pirates were killed and one was taken captive.

Yes!

I am happily surprised to see that we were willing to use force to free a hostage. I had no doubt that the US Navy could pull this off, but I feared that political concerns would trump logic.

I’m also going to give this one as a point for Obama. I am sure he had the final call on this operation and the fact that he was willing to resort to force, when it was the best option, makes me feel better about having him as our commander and chief.

Now we get to wait and see if a larger solution will emerge from this standoff.

Now this is just getting ridiculous

Now the pirates have launched two additional ships from Eyl full of hostages to go “reinforce” the pirates holed up with the US captain. If we let them get away with this… I don’t think I can express with words how upset I would be with our government. We are going to let four pirates in a lifeboat next to a 155m Modern US destroyer escape with a hostage. This is complete insanity. It is time to start killing pirates. Oh, you think they’ll just give them up once they have “a safe route to escape” and just leave him? They’ve already blown that bridge. The pirates originally offered the captain for the hostage pirate. They got their comrade back but I don’t see the captain safe.

Not only that, but the hostage, Captain Richard Phillips managed to escape and got into the water once already. And we were not there to assist him. There should be snipers trained on that ship and any pirate who sticks his neck out should be dead. The fact that he is back under their control is a complete failure by the US military.

Clearly, international law is failing us in these matters. The pirates are getting more brazen and aggressive and the world’s militaries have found themselves unable to fight back, not because they lack the firepower, but because their hands are tied. After months at sea, the worlds navies have not been able to stop these pirates.

Well the fact is, every major power, every permanent member of the UN security council, has vessels deployed in this international fleet. Together, we make international law, and our current laws are clearly not working.

These fleets need to be able to sink ships without stopping them and “asking them for their papers”.

We need to be able to give our commanders the discretion to hunt down and destroy these ships at sea before they take hostages.

The world community needs to wake up and realize that every time we pay a 20 million dollars to free a ship we finance more pirates, more sophisticated equipment, and are only days away from the same pirates taking another ship to hold for ransom.

I believe it is now time that the United States deployed a full carrier group along with a full combat air patrol to control the region. Commanders have complained that it is hard to control over a million square miles of sea. That’s what carriers do; they control large areas of land and sea. A plane could respond to a radio for help 345 miles away in an hour, much faster than the response time of the nearest ship.

Our navy is supposed to be keeping the sea lanes open for trade, especially for our own ships. If necessary we should be putting a squad of marines on every US flagged ship that sails through the region. Its no different than putting an air marshal on every plane.

P.S. sorry for all the pirate talk today I was planning to talk about the trade deficit but this issue is really getting under my skin.