Archive for March 2010

Implementing Augmented Reality

Ok, it’s the 21st Century, we’ve got location-aware supercomputers in our pockets (they’re called phones), we’re rapidly developing the technology to take whatever information we care about and overlay it onto our views of reality.

We can do unbelivably cool stuff. Hell, we can do AR tattoos:

So why the hell are we still squinting at tiny screens on tiny phones? Phones do bloody everything, but they as physical interfaces, they’re dire.

Here’s what I want (and it’s bloody obvious):

And that’s it. My phone can live in my pocket, and only get taken when I need to poke it*. The display is all of the phone that I actually need.

Here’s how much I want this:

Yup, that guy is duct-taping a phone to his head to get this effect.

What’s going to make this work? Separation of functions. Yup, I know, everyone seems to think that chucking every function into one device is a great idea, but consider the Oakley Thumps. They’re ok sun glasses, and ok music players, but ok isn’t good enough these days. It’s got to be awesome, whatever it is. For glasses to work as displays, they’ve got to be glasses, so comfortable, light, utterly minimal. Otherwise you get this: Cut for length, also for hideousnesses

How about this for the first paragraph of an obituary:
“Count Gottfried von Bismarck, who died on July 2, 2007, aged 44, was a louche German aristocrat with a multi-faceted history as a pleasure-seeking heroin addict, hell-raising alcoholic, flamboyant waster and a reckless and extravagant host of homosexual orgies.”

It’s the final line of the obit that cracks me up.

And visualising the area proposed for mining, from fogonwater, who makes information gorgeous.

Garden lime

Anyone want some garden lime? About 30 kgs of, in a slurry. We can deliver, though we’ll want the container back.

In other news, if you’re making lime wash, you don’t want garden lime. You don’t want hydraulic lime either, you want builders’ lime (which is also called hydrated lime – it needs to have water added to it before using, so I think it should be called non-hydrated lime, but whatevs). Stirring builders lime in a dustbin with a power stirrer is fun and gloopy.

Scarf found at Fidels

White and purple scarf, flowery pattern, with green highlights. Anyones?

Sir Ian Axford

Sir Ian Axford has died. He achieved a vast amount in his life, one of the minor successes was as a contributor to the Royal Society’s energy report, which I spent most of 2006 putting together. He wrote most of chapter five for me, and throughout the entire process, he was always wise and kind.

I only knew him professionally, but I’ll miss him.

Mitochondrion blathering – v3.6 or v4.0?

Listing my projects on tatjna’s blog reminded me that I have a Project 0 – keeping the Mitochondrion working. Currently, the reset port needs replacing. It’s a two quid part, but an hour job to tear down the end and replace the old one.

This is forcing me into choosing between fixing the latest problem with the v3.5.4 and making a newer, shinier one. The current one has been banged around enough that I’ve fixed most of the fixable flaws, and it’s reliable enough to work through Kiwiburn and then Foocamp without surgery, and that’s not bad, considering what it does.

Still, there’s some fundamental limits and problems with the current one:

  • Unreliable hardware.
  • Unreliable software. Naked pointers in BASIC and only 26 bytes of variables?
  • Last generation driver chips. Slow PWM means no smooth colour fades, limited colour choice per LED, and no good way of resetting driver crashes.
  • Slow microcontroller, to the point where generating patterns based off sound isn’t going to happen. Hell, displaying any patterns that aren’t preo-processed isn’t going to happen. It’s running interpreted BASIC, ffs.

Thus there’s going to be a new one (after I’ve finished the house, Fannies, My Dick, and possibly a few other things). The question is, should I go for the v3.6 or the v4.0. V3.6 would just be an incremental improvement on the existing model. The new LED driver chips (PCA9635‘s) are much the same, just with faster PWM, better colour control on each LED, and an external reset line. Light board designs won’t have to change much. I could use the new model of Picaxe (Picaxe 40X2, the microcontroller than runs it all), twice the speed and more memory, same development environment and will drop in to the existing board designs. New ends and circuit boards can be made by others (Ponoko & Olimex), using stronger materials and better precision than I can manage in my kitchen, which will help the reliability. And that would be nice.

But there’s a nagging in my brain. The LED spacing is set by the need to fit the driver chips in between them, and the new chips are only 10 mm long, so the LED spacing can come down and I could squeeze a over hundred LEDs in there, not forty. Enough of the new drivers can fit on the internal network (I2C) that the microcontroller could control all those LEDs. But then, the Picaxe would need to feed out fifty times as much info when it’s only twice the speed of the old one. So I really should put an Arduino in there, which means new development environment, new language, all new code. And if I’m going to do that, then I might as well implement the better status display and better battery management too.

So it all leads naturally to the version 4.0, which will be a major step up, and not the minimal evolution that I wanted to build. Ah well, I can only console myself that it’s not the version 5, which may require metal-cored circuit boards for heat-sinking, active cooling, and possibly a welding visor for the user.

In the meantime, can anyone tell me why no-one sells a red-green-blue-amber LED that’s not phuge*? I just want a 20 milliAmp LED. RGB is nice, but RGBA just looks so much better.

* – Yes, there’s this monster 40 Watt RGBA in a 9×9 mm package. That one LED kicks out more light than the whole of the current Mitochondrion. It also requires major heatsinking to stop it melting and four constant current drivers per LED to feed it exactly the right kind of electricity. Thus lots of hassle. I’ll save that for version 5.

Ekranoplan picutre frenzy

Is it a boat? Is it a plane? Is it a bad prop from Thunderbirds? No, it’s an ekranoplan:

Ekranoplans are both a technology that doesn’t quite fit, and a symbol of a mis-placed hope in the future. They are a weird combination of Cold War fetishism and the 1950s belief that if you bolt on enough jet engines, a pig will fly.

Charlie Stross thought up a whole universe just so he could write a story featuring an ekranoplan. Read it – Missile Gap*

The Soviets built some, some bloody huge ones. The Lun is as long as the biggest Airbus, the Caspian Sea Monster had ten engines and is possibly the longest aircraft ever. At some point when the Cold War turned hot(ter), they would come screaming over the horizon, lob some missiles our way and turn tail before we could respond. Ten times faster than a ship, with more payload than any bomber. For a very long time, all we had were photos like the one above.

And now, the Cold War is just a bad dream, and these huge machines are slowly rusting. You can see the only Lun ever built on Google Earth.

got up close with the Lun. These are the first public pictures I’ve seen with such detail.

More huge pics, inside and out


I don’t think I’ve posted a pic from this angle:

We’ve got roofs. Four of them. Two will be green roofs, for which we need to order over two thousand plants. The soil is only 100 mm deep, so it’s mostly tussock and succulents.

It’s surprising how quickly the house has gone a bunch of bits of wood, sticking up in the air, to a house. Putting the roofs on was a major transition, even if one of them is still made from tarps.

This is above the bedrooms:

In other project news, testing the third and final circuit board for the Fannies reveals that it works. Woohoo! Here’s a tiny, two batteries to five volts converter that kicks out 600 mA. Three Watts is pretty grunty for something this small:

I did discover a new potential failure mode. The heatsink, the shiny bit of aluminium in the pic above, is a little bit small, to fit into ludicrously tiny space. This is fine, coz the power supply is so efficient that not much heat needs to be sunk. Well, that is to say, the MAX1703 chip is very efficient (90%+) at the designed maximum load. However, when turned down, the efficiency drops as low as 50%, and the heat to be sunk goes up. Up lots. The Fannies have a ridiculous peak power, but most of the time, they’ll be turned down, so major heat production. Hmm… I don’t have the kit to test the variable load properly, and there’s no room for a bigger heatsink without changing a whole bunch of other stuff. Ah, hell, we’ll just try it and see if it explodes.

Scuffing PVC
And now, a question. I’ve some clear, flexible PVC tubing that I’m using as light guides. I want to scuff up the inside of the tube. I’ve yet to find a good way to do this.
Cue head-scratching

Where should be a word for this, there may be

Problems new to the Twenty-First Century, part 423:

You’re watching a video that would be awesome if they did it in real life, but you assume that it must have been faked with CGI. Then you discover that they really did it in real life, and you are disappointed by your own cynicism.

What’s the word for that feeling?

Hedonic footprints

I’ve probably convinced several of you that our greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut substantially, that emissions depend directly upon wealth, and having to decrease our wealth would suck. So let’s focus on that second point there and ask – how do we break the link between wealth and emissions? Obviously, we need new definitions of wealth. Hedonic footprints are a new way of thinking about wealth, about the reasons why we want to be wealthy, and how we balance what we want with the impact upon the planet.*

For most of us, we’re living in a post-scarcity economy. We have all we need. Let’s ignore needs for now, and start thinking about wants, coz wants are discretionary and far easier to change than needs. Rather than thinking about emissions per dollar of economic wealth, we can start thinking about emissions per unit of pleasure (however that might be defined). For example, if we’re after a given amount of fun, we could choose to gain that by several different methods. Let’s think about two different options, and I’ve deliberately chosen two extreme examples.

You could hoon around a track in a Lotus 2-Eleven. There is precisely one of these in NZ, it looks like fun just sitting there. I reckon for one hour, 10 kilos of petrol so carbon emissions in the tens of kilos per hour.**

Alternatively, you could take some LSD.


In an hour you will metabolise about 0.01 milligrams. What’s the carbon footprint? Strangely enough, there seems to be limited data. Instead, I found some data on P labs suggesting that production of X grams of P tends to leave a residue of 100X grams of waste chemicals, so we’ll chuck those figures at this very half-arsed analysis. Carbon emissions of around 1 milligram per hour.

End result, you are looking at a hedonic footprint of about 10 million times less. Not that I’m recommending either option.**** But this makes the point, that considering your hedonic footprint is one way to reducing your emissions without having less of whatever it is you are after, and to do so by the necessary orders of magnitude.

Where else can we apply this idea? If you’re after a particular sensation, you can get it by various routes. If you’re after the pure sensation of speed, then you can push yourself to your limit of ability whether hooning down the road on a motorbike, or hurtling down a mountain on a snowboard, or trying not to wrap yourself around a tree whilst mountainbiking. The motorbike has direct emissions from the fuel you’re burning, the snowboard has emissions from getting to, then up the mountain, the bicycle? Ah look, just go and get on a bike ok, it’s pretty much the cure for everything.

* – I’m not the first to come up with this idea, but I don’t know who was. Here’s an earlier blog post looking at the hedonic footprint of pleasure boats. Sail boats may well come out ahead of many other leisure activities, although I think you’d need to take construction and maintenance into account.
** – Yes, I’m ignoring the emissions cost to make it, and to repair it when you bounce it off the track barriers.
*** – Incidentally, Marco Braun has some awesomely trippy images.
**** – I mentioned this as part of my talk at Foocamp. Yes, I showed up at a high-level networking event and said something that could be interpreted as “hey everybody, drugs are great”. Luckily, the rest of my talk was on climate change, so by that point I’d depressed everyone enough that only five people where left in the room. In fact, we were so depressed we decided to stop talking and go and get pissed.

More GM forages comments

I could paraphrase this one as “OMG we’re doomed”:
No Seed Is Safe With GE Pasture – Organics NZ

Whereas this one calls the paper “dispassionate”, which I think is a polite way of saying “boringly neutral”. Meh, neutral is what we’re going for here. A few more interesting points get raised in the comments:
GM ryegrass – at least 7 years away from release – SciBlogs

And a para in a broader article on food security:
NZ feels push to feed global population – Otago Daily Times

A long term perspective from the UK

Recent reading on the bus has been “A Century of Change: Trends in UK Statistics since 1900”. What can I say, I’m a wonk and I get off on this kind of thing.

Anyway, standing out most is just the pure and simple growth in wealth through the Twentieth Century. Each Briton is four times as wealthy at the end of the century as at the start. The knock-on effects of this are clear:

  • In 1900, one house in ten was owned, most were rented. Now seven houses out of every ten are owned by the people living in them.
  • There are 27 million cars in the UK, up from zero in 1900.
  • One in three jobs are professional or managerial, up from one in seven.

Other notes:
Modern medicine has kicked the arse of infectious, parasitic and other diseases, down from three-quarters of deaths to one quarter.

The UK used to run on coal. Over a million people were employed as coal miners from 1910 to 1930. Their numbers have now dropped by 98%.

From 1900 to 1999, the population went up by only 50%, 38 million to 60 million. Overall, 15 million people left the UK.

And jumping back a thousand years or so to the Domesday Book, one in ten Britons were slaves, taken making in the borderlands of Wales and the West Country. Seven out of ten were peasant labourers tied to manors, not much better off than slaves and treated similarly to oxen. So overall, it’s not been a bad thousand years.

Further GM forages coverage

GE pasture trial concerns – Stuff, including comments from Simon Terry:
“It was a political document dressed up as independent science.”

Farmers, exporters warn GM animals could damage ‘brand New Zealand’ – Herald again, but we’re not talking about GM animals, just GM grasses

So far, the criticism has been pretty muted. I only care if the paper is wrong. Several people aren’t happy that we’re saying what we’re saying, but no-one’s saying it’s wrong.

Climate change – how we justify inaction to ourselves

There is fundamental question that baffles anyone who is paying attention: Global greenhouse gas emissions continue upwards at a faster rate than the worst of predictions. Climate change is a clear existential threat to civilisation, and yet our responses have been trivial and ineffective. At a society level, there is insufficient political mass to drive realistic, effective responses. At a personal level, we continue to live our lives as if in ignorance of all this. Why? Why can’t we connect the mass of scientific evidence about the problem with any kind of realistic solution?

Answering this is the most important paper I’ve read this year. Cognitive and Behavioural Challenges in Responding to Climate Change” by Kari Marie Norgaard. It has a classically dry title, I’d have called it something like “Climate Change: How we justify inaction to ourselves”.

There’s four existing explanations of why we fail to act. All are wrong:

  • “If only people knew” – yet we know more about climate change science than ever before
  • “If only people cared” – yet concern about climate change continues to increase
  • “People care about more immediate needs” – yet for most people in affluent societies, needs are social constructs
  • “Everything will be fine” – yet people place less trust in the governments or technologies that might solve climate change

Instead, inaction is a consequence of denial at both a personal and social level. It’s not denial of the science (except for some nutters) or of the threat. People are deeply concerned and care about the future. However, they also “work to avoid acknowledging disturbing information in order to 1) avoid emotions of fear, guilt and helplessness, 2) follow cultural norms, and 3) maintain positive conceptions of individual and national identity”.

People do not like to feel threatened by problems that are out of their control. They do not want to face large-scale problems that have no easy solutions. They do not want to feel guilty that their actions are contributing to the problems. They do not want to see themselves as bad people. All of which adds up to inaction.

Her recommendation for enabling action is to provide a “sense that something can be done” and accurate information about effective action. The approach to personal action should focus on media information campaigns and opportunities for effective actions “that build on a favourable view of the self”.

An example of this approach could be the UK’s 10:10 project:
“10:10 is an ambitious project to unite every sector of British society behind one simple idea: that by working together we can achieve a 10% cut in the UK’s carbon emissions in 2010… Cutting 10% in one year is a bold target, but for most of us it’s an achievable one… It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of a huge problem like climate change, but by uniting everyone behind immediate, effective and achievable action, 10:10 enables all of us to make a meaningful difference… Let’s get started.”

Their approach is positive, personal, uniting, and enabling. Go them.

If you’re not keen on reading 68 pages of wonkery, then here’s a clear comment on the paper What retards action on climate change? and a Wired interview with her: The Psychology of Climate Change Denial. (Just don’t even glance at the comments, it’s a disheartening parade of the kind of denial that she’s talking about).

(So I could go back to the first paragraph of this article and completely re-write it to avoid the doomyness. Then again, I’m a scientist who grew up in the cold War – I’m entirely happy with doubt and doom. But I recognise that few people have that kind of approach to reality.)

GM Forages – out today from the Royal Society of New Zealand

This is the beast that’s stolen a fair chunk of the last five months of my life. It turns out that I’m pretty proud of it, after all.

News release – Royal Society of New Zealand paper highlights the potential benefits and possible risks of genetically modified forages
The paper itself – Emerging Issues – Genetically Modified Forages

So the paper in summary:

  • There is bugger all evidence that feeding cattle on GM forage is harmful to humans that eat those cattle.
  • The ecological effects of switching from non-GM grass to GM grass are trivial, compared with the ecological switching from grass to trees or other plants.
  • GM crops may reduce greenhouse gas emissions per cow, per pint of milk, or per burger, but that doesn’t mean our overall emissions will go down, coz our total production of milk and/or burgers may rise.
  • Growing some GM crops in NZ doesn’t stop NZ from growing non-GM food in NZ, at least in the eyes of some of the people we export to.
  • Yes, there’s lots of questions about IP, but that’s not RSNZ’s business to dig into.

Despite all that evidence, I’m personally still not convinced that it’s a good idea. The key question is who benefits? If GM crops deliver health benefits and environmental benfits, then go to it. However, most of the research is about increasing productivity. Better productivity doesn’t increase farm profits, as it drives the market price down. Better productivity doesn’t necessarily reduce environmental impacts, as it pushes production upwards. So there’s no guarantee of any wins here.

Anyway. Press coverage so far:
GE plants promoted as ‘cisgenic’ – NZ Herald
GE pastures on the cards for NZ farmers – TV3 News
Greener pastures? GM forage crops in New Zealand – Science Media Centre
And we got a item on Midday Report, but no audio up yet.

Shock horror – building a house is really bad for you

I’m the least fit I’ve been for a decade. My core strength is crap, my cardio is just embarrassing, my arms feel like noodles, and my posture is turning to custard.

Why? Coz I haven’t trained this year, and did bugger all for the last half of last year? Why? Coz building a house sucks up all of your physical energy and spits it out in a chewed soggy lump. It’s physical activity, but it doesn’t get you fit, it just tires you out.

Six months ago, I’d have just sucked it up. It’s hard work, but yeah, I’m getting a house out of it. Now? It’s getting to me, beyond just the physical impacts. It’s starting to worry me, coz physical fitness was always my route out of mental illness. I’ve fuck all focus at work, my brain is not in the state I’d like it to be, and frankly, I think I might be even less likeable than usual.

This is not going to change until the house is finished, coz it’s been five years and I want this fucking thing done. However, I am going to take this thursday off and sit on my arse tidy up the house, coz it’s a tip.

Is everyone particularly miserable today? I blame the weather.

Monthly progress

There’s been no house pics for nearly a month, but serious progress, so, pics for Africa!

We now have roofs:

Now the roofs and framing is up, we can almost claim to have rooms. The main living space runs from the two-storey trapeze space to the kitchen. Upstairs will have some internal walls, but till then you can look through all the bedrooms to the bathroom.

And there’s been further oiling of wood. This is weatherboards and uprights for the balustrade.

We have lots of wood.

Overall, it’s starting to look decidedly houseish.

There’s been minimal progress on anything else in my life, but:

Oh, and have a tuatara. This one was safely caged at Mt Bruce/Pukaha. For those of you not in NZ, these are vicious, grumpy, little bastards that move like lightning. They’re the curse of North Island trampers and many fingers have been lost to them. It’s too cold for them in the South Island, so trampers are only menaced by kea, the carnivourous, alpine parrots.