New batteries put lithium-ion to shame, make electric cars far more practical

Nanomaterial Introduces Zinc-Air Batteries to the EV Party:

It seems both the commercial markets and the research community are coming to terms with the idea that the energy density (the amount of energy stored per unit volume) of lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries will keep them from ever becoming a completely satisfactory solution to powering all-electric vehicles (EVs).

[…]

The hybrid nanomaterial was so good at this that in demonstrations the Stanford researchers were able to achieve an energy density of >700 Wh/kg with a prototype battery. To give you a sense of what that means, some have concluded that the Li-ion batteries—even with all the latest nanotech improvements—will be maxed out at around 400Wh/kg.

Zinc is also more plentiful than lithium in the earth’s crust (meaning zinc-air batteries should be cheaper) and unlike Li-ion, zinc-air cells doesn’t sometimes catch fire or explode.

Another win for electric vehicles.

Penny Arcade’s Gabe on wearing Google Glass

His coverage of using Glass is nice, but his two paragraphs on what it’s like to wear Glass out in public really stood out to me:

Other than that, the biggest problem I have with Glass is wearing it around. I’ve tried to wear it out in public a few times and it’s incredibly strange. At first I thought I was just embarrassed to be wearing this goofy computer on my head but this morning I realised it’s more than that. Our current office is on the second floor of a larger building with multiple tenants. Downstairs is a daycare and when I arrive in the morning for work I see a lot of parents dropping their kids off. As I was walking in today I heard the front door open and I quickly slid my Glass down off my head and slung it around my neck. A woman passed me by and I gave her a polite smile. As I got inside the building I moved the Glass back up to my head but I realised the reason I took it off was because I didn’t want to be rude.

I was not embarrassed or worried she would think I was a dork. I AM a dork! What I was worried about was being rude. I feel like walking around with a camera pointed at people even if it’s not recording is just not polite. It’s a very strange feeling that I’m only just now trying to get my head around. I think the technology is incredibly cool but I wonder if socially we are ready for Glass. I’m starting to think the Google Glass Explorer program might be less about testing hardware, and more about testing people.

Are Silicon Valley companies only making products for people in Silicon Valley?

I have some issues with this piece by Nick Bilton for The New York Times:

Belshe and Bill Lee were continually running late for meetings and texting each other: “I’ll be there in 5 mins!” So they created Twist, a 10-person start-up in the city’s South of Market neighborhood. The company’s first product is a smartphone app that helps you tell someone you’re late by showing your location on a map. Investors liked the idea enough to give Twist $6 million in venture financing last year.

“We thought there had to be something better than sending a text message,” Mr. Belshe said in a phone interview. “We were trying to tackle that problem of meeting up and making it easier.”

Is Twist a great idea, or are Mr. Belshe and Mr. Lee falling into a local propensity for creating a product for technophile friends rather than the public?

Bilton’s point is that this seems like it would only benefit techie types. But who wouldn’t benefit from an app that can tell that you’re running late and messages those you have an appointment with? Seems like the kind of thing that could curb texting and driving.

That’s not to say there aren’t still people thinking about big markets. Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, which sells electric cars that can cost more than $100,000, said last week at the D: All Things Digital conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., that he hoped to offer a $30,000 version of the car in the next five years.

No, that’s not what Musk is proposing. He’s not going to bring the Model S to market for 33-50% of the current price. Tesla’s going to introduce a new model in 2015 that will compete with the likes of BMW’s 3-Series, which is a totally different market and price category.

But besides these minor gripes, my main issue with the article is that as a society, the general trend is everyone becoming more technologically savvy over time. Someone has to lead that push, and it might as well be the people making the technology.

Imagine if Nick’s argument had been applied to smartphones: “People don’t need apps and mobile Internet and video cameras in their phones. They just want to make phone calls.” Where would we be if Silicon Valley thought like that?

Nathan Schneider thinks that this NSA scandal will make people move to Linux

Nathan Schneider: Macs No More: After Edward Snowden, Time to Come to the Penguin:

The personal computer is political. The time for liberation has kind of come.

So what happens when you load up that new, quasi-user-friendly Linux flavor — maybe Mint or Ubuntu — onto some old machine you have lying around? At first, maybe, keep the Internet handy on your shiny Mac, because there might be glitches to look up. But chances are it’ll mostly work out of the box, and the rest can be figured out over time. Everything’s harder, but in a good way — like a digital fixie. It’s more fun if you do it with a friend.

What’s interesting is how different the glitches feel from how they felt on a corporate OS. When the thing crashes, as it might somewhat frequently, it’s less aggravating. One actually starts to get more philosophical about the glitches; we’re not quite there yet as a society, as a species. They’re the people’s glitches — the temporary byproduct of democratic and collaborative processes among autonomous geeks, pursuing their own obsessions and curiosities. You don’t have to yell at the screen because, in a lot of cases, you can just write to the people making the program, and someone with an amazing amount of time on their hands will write back long, detailed replies. Someday, with hard work and better self-organizing chops, the glitches will go away. Like veganism, the more people join in the easier it will be.

Look everyone! It’s finally the year of Linux on the desktop!

Right.

People don’t want to fiddle with their computers. They want to use them. We’re never, ever going to reach a point where people will want to switch to glitchy programs that will be better “someday.”

Don’t become a Sony fanboy just yet

Please Don’t Bring Back The Console Wars:

I mean, come on. Let’s stop pretending Sony is valiant. If they were so committed to the idea of used games, why didn’t they announce this policy in February? Microsoft made a move and Sony reacted; fine, it was the smart thing to do in context.

But did you notice how every time Sony referred to “used games” they made sure to include the modifier “disc-based”? Did you also notice how Sony, much more than Microsoft, has emphasized the game-streaming capabilities of its new console? If you think that Sony is going to let you freely trade digitally-downloaded and streaming games, which are going to be all games in the near future, I have a piece of swampland in You’re a Fucking Moron to sell you. Sony is not some noble underdog. They are the company that won the last console generation by selling SIX TIMES as many PlayStation 2s as Microsoft sold Xboxs, and the one before that by selling three times as many PlayStations as Nintendo sold N64s. (And, less than 24 hours after receiving an internet handjob for his company’s supposedly benevolent used game policy, Tretton is already walking it back.)

I don’t plan on buying a PlayStation 4 or an Xbox One. They’re both basically PCs – most games will be available on the PC at or around the same time and with Steam I’ll be able to get them at significant discounts.

Americans really don’t care about privacy

Majority Views NSA Phone Tracking as Acceptable Anti-terror Tactic:

A majority of Americans – 56% – say the National Security Agency’s (NSA) program tracking the telephone records of millions of Americans is an acceptable way for the government to investigate terrorism, though a substantial minority – 41% – say it is unacceptable. And while the public is more evenly divided over the government’s monitoring of email and other online activities to prevent possible terrorism, these views are largely unchanged since 2002, shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

[…]

Currently 62% say it is more important for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy. Just 34% say it is more important for the government not to intrude on personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats.

Think of all the people you know who have said “I’m alright with it, I have nothing to hide,” or “Are you really surprised that the NSA was doing this?”

That’s how most people think about their privacy nowadays.

3D printing is revolutionizing how we build and repair cars

3D Printing Helps Ford Cut Production Time on Some Parts by 25%:

Ford uses the technology to print cylinder heads, brake rotors and rear axels for test vehicles. Thanks to 3D printing, production time for one type of cylinder head, used in its fuel-efficient EcoBoost engines, is cut down from four to five months to three, shaving 25% to 40% off production time. Earlier casting methods required that the mold be cut from sand; 3D printing allows Ford to skip the cutting process and pour the metal directly into the molds.

[…]

In the future, Ford believes its customers will be able to print replacement parts for their vehicles at a local 3D printer in a matter of hours or even minutes. 

Jay Leno has been using this technology in his legendary garage for years. Here’s a Popular Mechanics article from 2009 detailing how and why he uses it:

So, rather than have a machinist try to copy the heater and then build it, we decided to redesign the original using our NextEngine 3D scanner and Dimension 3D printer. These incredible devices allow you to make the form you need to create almost any part. The scanner can measure about 50,000 points per second at a density of 160,000 dots per inch (dpi) to create a highly detailed digital model. The 3D printer makes an exact copy of a part in plastic, which we then send out to create a mold. Some machines can even make a replacement part in cobalt-chrome with the direct laser sintering process. Just feed a plastic wire–for a steel part you use metal wire–into the appropriate laser cutter.

[…]

People say, “Why not just give the part to your machinist to make?” Well, if the machinist makes it wrong, you still have to pay for it. The scanner allows you to make an exact copy in plastic, fit it and see that it’s correct. Even when you take plans to a machinist, it can be tricky. Say the part must be 3 mm thick here and 5 mm there. You get it back and then, “Oh no, it doesn’t fit; it’s too thick,” or “It’s too thin.” My setup lets you create the perfect part. And you could press the button again and again–and keep making the part–twice the size, half-size, whatever you need. If you have a part that’s worn away, or has lost a big chunk of metal, you can fill in that missing link on the computer. Then you make the part in plastic and have a machinist make a copy based on that example. Or you can do what we do–input that program into a Fadal CNC machine; it reads the dimensions and replicates an exact metal copy.

Rather than increasing focus on technology, states are removing computer requirements altogether

Tech industry gender gap: Closing it starts in the classroom:

Take Kansas, where the education establishment thought it already had computing covered through vocational courses in typing and Microsoft Office. When the state’s Board of Regents realized that most kids learn basic computer skills through other courses, it cut the “computer technology” requirement altogether, instead of updating it to include actual code. (What the board didn’t realize is that many high schools, realizing its students were literate with computers, used the requirement to develop courses involving computer science.) 

“Most people think that our kids are coming out of childhood with computer skills that are relevant and useful,” says Tabitha Hogan, who teaches in a district an hour south of Wichita, Kansas and leads the state’s Computer Science Teachers Association chapter. “That’s what’s hurting us. They might be savvy enough to do something quickly with their friends in social media, but not to really develop their own ideas.”

Introductory computer science courses should be mandatory in every high school in this country. Having a surface-level grasp on programming – even just knowing what can be realistically be done with code – is going to be just as important to workers in the future as knowing proper grammar and basic math is today. 

The fact that Kansas removed the technology requirement altogether is despicable and an embarrassment for everyone in the state.

We don’t have any evidence that data mining has saved lives

Where’s the evidence that data mining saves lives?:

To date, there have been practically no examples of a terrorist plot being pre-emptively thwarted by data mining these huge electronic caches. (Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has said that the metadatabase has helped thwart a terrorist attack “in the last few years,” but the details have not been disclosed.)

When I was writing my book, “The Watchers,” about the rise of these big surveillance systems, I met analyst after analyst who said that data mining tends to produce big, unwieldy masses of potential bad actors and threats, but rarely does it produce a solid lead on a terrorist plot.

Those leads tend to come from more pedestrian investigative techniques, such as interviews and interrogations of detainees, or follow-ups on lists of phone numbers or e-mail addresses found in terrorists’ laptops. That shoe-leather detective work is how the United States has tracked down so many terrorists. In fact, it’s exactly how we found Osama bin Laden.

While I’m certainly against the government having such extensive access to private communications, I do believe that this is one of those cases where there probably are examples of this technology stopping terrorism – but they won’t tell us because that might tell the terrorists what not to do.

But if anyone would know that a terrorist plot was foiled, wouldn’t it be the people that were organizing it to begin with? This seems like a case where the government might as well be open. The terrorists are already going to adapt their tactics to avoid repeating the actions that have gotten them caught. The American people might as well be told why their privacy being taken away is worth it.

Your communications aren’t private, and you shouldn’t be shocked

The Washington Post: The NSA and FBI know everything you do online, except for Twitter:

PRISM was launched from the ashes of President George W. Bush’s secret program of warrantless domestic surveillance in 2007, after news media disclosures, lawsuits and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court forced the president to look for new authority.

Congress obliged with the Protect America Act in 2007 and the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which immunized private companies that cooperated voluntarily with U.S. intelligence collection. PRISM recruited its first partner, Microsoft, and began six years of rapidly growing collection beneath the surface of a roiling national debate on surveillance and privacy. Late last year, when critics in Congress sought changes in the FISA Amendments Act, the only lawmakers who knew about PRISM were bound by oaths of office to hold their tongues.

Nine of the largest U.S. internet companies, comprising Silicon Valley’s murderer’s row and the hubs of the vast majority of online communication for the U.S. and the world, are cooperating or have been compelled to work with the NSA and the FBI on widespread surveillance of Americans and ‘foreigners’ in the War on Terror. And that comes on the heels of a report from The Guardian that the NSA has been collecting metadata for every call made through Verizon, and then more revelations that the data collection extends to essentially all telecommunications providers.

So the NSA knows that you call your Mom every other Tuesday. And they probably have a log of that ill-advised Facebook chat you had with your ex-girlfriend three years ago at 2:30 in the morning, even though you hoped that everyone forgot. Apparently this helps catch terrorists.

Hopefully these programs being somewhat out in the open will spark real debate, but the immediate response of top Senate and House officials to the Verizon controversy – full support – does not bode well. And since the Administration’s first response was to announce a hunt for The Guardian‘s source, right in line with the actions that have gotten them in hot water in the past few weeks, it’s doubtful that we’ll see any change to the White House whistleblower policy any time soon.

That President Obama once publicly criticized the executive branch’s monitoring of innocent Americans and then changed his position after gaining access to that power demonstrates an age-old warning of civil libertarians and privacy advocates: once such “temporary” powers are granted or rights taken away, it’s much harder said than done to turn back the clock. In fact, it only makes it easier to erode rights and liberties a little more.