Monday, July 23, 2012

View From the ISS by Knate Myers

Maybe you've seen already this recently released video by Knate Myers on Vimeo. He took photo footage shot by the astronauts on the International Space Station and set it to the music of John Murphy's Adagio in D Minor, the soundtrack of the movie, Sunshine.

The imagery is mind-blowing. Anything I might say about it would be a cliche. For best enjoyment, watch it in full-screen mode using the HTML5 video rather than the Flash video. At least on my machine, it played smoother. Enjoy!

View from the ISS at Night from Knate Myers on Vimeo.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Are We Losing Our Ability to Fix Things?

I read Louis Uchitelle's essay in Sunday's New York Times entitled, A Nation That's Losing Its Toolbox. Mr. Uchitelle's piece laments what he perceives to be the loss of the ability of the average American to work with his or her hands to fix things - whether things around the house, or the family car, or even on the job.  He describes legions of Home Depot shoppers who need in-store training on how to fix a faucet or install a replacement window. He equates this loss to the diminishing ability of Americans to innovate through a hands-on, we-can-fix-anything attitude.  Mr. Uchitelle believes that this loss shows up "in the wistful popularity of books like 'Shop Class as Soulcraft' by Matthew M. Crawford." [I read Mr. Crawford's book a couple of years ago and I thought it mostly a scree against white-collar workers.]

In the same issue of the Times was a second article entitled, How a Cellphone's Case Can Imitate Its Maker, by Randall Stross.  The article delves into the differences in the difficulties of repairing smart phones and ePad devices depending on the manufacturer. In his column, Mr. Stross focused on a web-based company called iFixit which sells online manuals and tools to change cellphone batteries, replace cracked touch screens, and make other repairs to our electronic paraphernalia. As a bad example Mr. Stross cites the iPhone 4 which is put together with special screws specially designed by Apple to be unremovable without a special screwdriver. Enter iFixit which sells not only said screwdriver but replacement screws that work with the ordinary variety of torquing tools. iFixit calls their product the "Liberation Kit".  Their claim is that anyone can replace an iPhone battery in less than five minutes.

I was struck by the completely different attitudes in these two articles. One laments the loss of handyman capabilities while the other celebrates that we can indeed do-it-ourselves. Which is the truer picture?  I would suggest that the lack of fix-it knowledge is a least as much a function of manufacturers designing products that can't be easily repaired as it is that we are losing our desire to fix things. Take the automobile as a prime example. Most men (I'm not being sexist, it just seemed to work this way) used to know how to change the oil in their cars and if pressed could replace the spark plugs, points, air filters, and maybe even the brakes. Today, the entire motor is hidden under a one-piece shroud that envelops virtually the whole engine compartment making access nigh-on impossible. The engine is carefully monitored and controlled by several computers which are no longer accessible or adjustable with the wrenches and screwdrivers found in most toolboxes.  We now are informed of the status of the inner workings of the engine only when we get the dreaded Check Engine Light illuminated on the instrument panel.  Even then, you need an engine analyzer to read the computer error codes to see what might be bothering your ailing vehicle.

But despite my experience, given the tools and the knowledge, a lot of people are willing to give some reasonable repairs a try. Not everyone, of course. Not everyone fixed their cars even in the days of the Model T.  But I would argue that most people with a little encouragement will try to repair things that seem within the knowledge of someone with a normal amount of mechanical aptitude. We like to fix things. The reason fix-it shops have disappeared is not because we don't like fixing things, it is because most things are not designed to be fixed. Open the average DVD player these days and you find a box with one electronics board that does everything, some injection molded plastic parts that are ultrasonically welded together and a cheap optical laser to read the DVD. None of this can be repaired if it has a problem. The only solution is to junk it.

It used to be different. When radios and tvs had vacuum tubes, even drug stores had so-called tube testers that allowed a homeowner to check a tube to see if it needed replacing and sold the tubes on the spot! There was a company called Sam's that used to sell extensive repair manuals and schematics for every radio and television set made (all in the USA, by the way). Shop manuals for cars were commonly sold to car owners.  Most home owners had at least a few books around on DIY subjects.

So I'm not buying Mr. Uchitelle's argument that people just don't seem to know how to do anything these days. Give them the tools and a little instruction and people can do some amazing things for themselves. To prove my point, I would refer Mr. Uchitelle to the growing popularity of "maker fairs" and magazines such as Make which celebrate a whole new generation of DIYers. The internet is bursting with websites that teach people how to do everything from changing an iPhone battery to repairing a furnace. I'm not worried about our hands-on, can-do attitudes going away any time soon. We are still a nation of doers.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Automatic (Rail) Road Machine

As I wrote in my last blog, machines that can lay an entire road in one operation are now a reality. I just came across a video of such a machine.

The video below shows a multi-part machine which lays high-speed railroad tracks. The video was shot in Europe but a similar machine is being used to lay tracks on the high-speed rail line between St. Louis and Chicago.  According to the source that I saw, these are the only two such machines that exist in the world. It's quite an operation. Give it a look:

[A "Hat's Off" to my sister-in-law, Peggy, for bringing this to my attention.]

Sunday, July 1, 2012

In 1958, Disney Imagines the Future of the Highway

As long as I seem to be on an automotive futures theme, I want to draw your attention to part of a Disney television production from 1958, entitled Magic Highway USA. The show was part of the Wonderful World of Disney series, Most of this program explored the history of the highway in the United States. But the last ten minutes looked to the future.  You can watch the whole thing at the link about or just the last nine minutes here:

I love these old predictions of the future. Almost all of them have people flying around in their personal helicopters or living in some undersea colony. The buildings all look like they came out of the Jetsons. But just like in the Futurama exhibit that I wrote about a couple of entries ago, some of the predictions turn out to be remarkably accurate. Others turn out to be true but are embodied in some way other than that described. And of course, there are the "dead wrong" predictions. So how did the Magic Highway USA predictions turn out?  Here's a list of what was in our futures, circa 1958:

Dead Wrong Predictions:

- Multi-colored highway lanes to give motorists a color-coded path to their destination
- Radar screens to allow drivers to see in poor visibility
- Fog-eliminating devices to clear the roadway
- Atomic reactors to melt tunnels through mountains in a single pass
- Cantilevered highways hung from the side of mountains
- Automatic servicing of the car in the homeowner's garage
- Tandem vehicles that separate into parts for different destinations
- Special highways for new forms of vehicles (e.g., tubular highways)
- Individual parking spot for your car in your office at work
- Massive parking "cylinders" at shopping malls instead of parking lots
- Highway "elevators" to lift cars up sheer cliffs
- Gas turbine-powered automobiles
- Atomic-powered automobiles
- Jet engine-powered automobiles
- Cars that convert from highway vehicles to cabin cruisers

Nothing much surprising in this first list. This is the usual science fiction view of the future. What was more interesting to me was the number of predictions that turned out to be true, even if they were accomplished in a slightly different way. Have a look:

More-or-Less Correct Predictions:

- Larger, simpler highway signs that can be easily read at high speeds
- Roads specifically designed for better visibility
- Electronic navigation controls (at least there are now onboard navigation and traffic monitoring GPS systems)
- Rear view mirrors are television cameras (back-up cameras are becoming common)
- Helicopter rescue of traffic accident victims
- Integrated road building machinery that can lay down whole roadways at one pass
- Prefabricated bridges and overpasses
- Form-in-place concrete structures, such as bridges
- Wider, faster expressways that extend the areas from which people can commute to work
- A nation crisscrossed by a network of super highways
- Communities that are built around the design of the freeways for better access and commuting
- Preprogrammed route selectors (think GPS systems)
- Electronics that drive the car to its destination (not here yet but Google is working on a driverless car)
- Business conferences on video screens (... at least for a passenger)
- Family entertainment systems in the car (think DVD and game counsels)
- Ability to know your location on a synchronized electronic map (GPS again)
- Office buildings that combine multi-level parking and office facilities
- Moving sidewalks (at least in airports and convention centers)
- Solar powered automobiles (experimental cars are here. Production cars?  Hmmm).
- Air-conditioned routes across hot deserts (in-car AC is now virtually standard).
- Roads over subfreezing mountains (high-speed roads over subfreezing terrain are common in the northern parts of the country)
- Vehicle travel under the ocean (the Chunnel between the UK and France pops to mind)

Like most technology visions, this program also had its moments where it lapsed into the rhapsodic:

"These giant arteries will link together all the nations and help to create a better understanding among the peoples of the world. As in the past the highway will continue to play a vital role in the progress of civilization. It will be our magic carpet to new hopes, new dreams, and a better way of life for the future!"

Have you ever noticed how technology (whether embodied in better highways or in the internet) is always predicted to improve the relationships between peoples? There is some truth in these euphoric predictions but there is an equally true and opposite reality: technology creates frictions between the peoples of the world. Technology has never been a panacea. And predicting the future of technology remains one of our most difficult challenges.