Thursday, June 29, 2006

Predicting the unpredictable

TechCrunch is covering the launch today of Farecast, an airfare prediction engine. Theoretically by doing long term data mining and searching for patterns in the data, the site should allow you to predict when to buy, and for how much, so that you can minimise the cost of your flight. Basically they want to answer the question " the price going up or down in the future?"

The public beta only covers flights from Boston (BOS) and Seattle (SEA), but if you flight in or out of those airports a lot you should probably take a look. Considering the number of miles I do in a year I'm going to be looking at this one with interest, and if anecdotal evidence seems to confirm the site's predictions, I'll be back when they have more airports...

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Process of discovery...

Mark Kelly, the pilot of the upcoming flight (STS-121) of the Space Shuttle Discovery, has been quoted as saying,
To really quantify a risk in a vehicle, you actually don't need a lot of flights. You need a lot of failures. Hopefully we won't have any more failures, but we've only had two, so it's hard to get your hands around what the real risk of flying the space shuttle is... - Mark Kelly, talking to Florida Today
His argument that the Shuttle should be regarded as an experimental aircraft, still early in it's flight testing phase is telling. At last, near the bitter end, some realism about what the Shuttle is, and always has been, is coming out of NASA. The Shuttle was sold to the public as a solution to a very real problem, the high cost of getting into space, that it was never going to be able to solve after the draconian budget cuts, and design by committee management, imposed by the politicians during its birth.

The initially predicted fifty flights a year for each of the orbiters now seems, in hindsight, almost laughable. Even before the first flight of the Columbia in 1981 there was considerable doubt that that this could be achievable. However the revised, more realistic goal, of 10 or 12 flights also a year proved to be overly optimistic. While launch rates reached 9 per year in 1985 they have averaged far less ever since.

QuickTime | Windows Media | Real Video
NASA video taken from the International Space Station of Discovery's full pitch manoeuvre during the previous return to flight mission (STS-114).

With the demise of Concorde, we lost a piece of engineering elegance, and replaced it with a lumbering giant in the name of cost cutting. Depressingly the cost cutting in Shuttle programme was up-front, and as a result we ended up with an engineering kludge. Although I must admit to a certain fondness for kludges, and the ability of the Shuttle and her crews to inspire me even today, I am bitter as to what could have been if NASA had been given a free rein in the wake of the Apollo programme.

The Space Shuttle programme has never lived up to its initial advertising. Despite this, and my biting criticism, both now and in the past for what the programme and NASA itself has become after being twisted by the politicians, I believe in the manned space programme. The manned programme is something we should be pouring money into, it's one of the few things the human race is doing that's worthwhile. While there are few direct benefits, at least not yet, we must support it as a duty to those people doing unique things. Because they're the people who, by pushing themselves forward, take the rest of us with them...

Sunday, June 25, 2006

In-flight phones cut off?

The news that Verizon Airfone will end its in-flight phone service has been floating around for a couple of days now, and considering the new competing technologies it's not exactly unexpected. However more suprisingly the technology you might think would replace the seat-back phone isn't doing so well either, the rumour is that Boeing may be about to close down it's in-flight broadband service service.

I've used Boeing's in-flight wireless service a couple of times, but I've never used a Verizon Airfone, just reading the list of per minute charges made my skin crawl. Both services are rumoured to suffer from low customer uptake, and I think both services can lay that low uptake directly at the feet of their price plans.

When are people in the industry going to understand that these days data, and even voice, are considered commodities? Do a deal with the airline, provide wireless for "free" on long haul flights and roll the cost into the tickets where we won't notice it, because people aren't going to be prepared to pay for it directly.

Update: Slashdot have picked up the story, and in related news it seems that GNER is currently offering free on-board WiFi through till the end of July.

Reduce, reuse, recycle...

I'm continually talking about distributed power generation so I was really interested to see that Sietch is carrying a great article on how to build your own solar thermal panels (via MAKE: Blog) from the back of an old fridge and other things you can find in your local landfill. Very cool, and at around $5 it's not exactly going to break the bank.

CREDIT: The Sietch
The finished solar thermal panel

Of course if you rig up a photovolatic panel you could drive the water around a couple of these self-build thermal panels with a small pump and heat the water in your house for free.

CREDIT: The Sietch
Most parts from Radio Shack...

While the photovoltaic panel won't be as cheap as the thermal one, as you can't exactly self-built photovoltaic cells, even a small panel should provide enough power to run your new hot water system. Add a thermally lagged tank for storage and you're good to go...

Saturday, June 24, 2006

A pause for thought...

Well I've pretty much taken the last month off from blogging, and as a result I've actually recieved a handful of mail from readers of my blog to ask if I was okay, which is sort of nice. The vacation from blogging wasn't wasn't really planned, I just seemed to have too much to do with my time...

I usually track around a hundred and fifty RSS feeds, although this month I've let it slide, always meaning to catch up tomorrow. But today I gave up on the idea, and marked over five thousand posts as "read" in my feed reader. In the process discarding a month's worth of technical gossip, science articles and Apple rumours, along with news stories and political commentary. I literally haven't a clue what's happened over the last month, but I guess there wasn't that much important stuff going on or someone would have mentioned it...

CREDIT: Josh Pergande; Posted via Flickr by aallan
Sitting on the cliffs above Jemez Falls.

What have I been doing with my time? Well I've got a lot of work done, read a couple of books and finally got my head round AJAX and PHP which is something I've been meaning to do for a while. I've also gone hiking a couple of times, and sat around in the sun more than I probably should have done.

A better question is, what brought my "always connected" lifestyle to a screeching halt? Well my phone died, or rather two out of the three phones I was carrying out here died. Although it isn't actually the handsets that are the problem, after working intermittently on the drive up from Albuquerque, two out of my three SIM cards, both from Orange, stopped working. While they've worked perfectly happily everywhere else in the States I've ever been, they don't seem to like it out here in New Mexico. One will no longer register itself with the handset, and I suspect the SIM itself has fried. The other has a more subtle problem, and registers fine with the handset, but it gets an access denied error when trying to roam onto any of the available GSM networks. Orange customer service was of course totally useless, so I've shelved the entire thing as something I'll deal with when I get back home.

But that means I'm was down to one ageing handset with a PAYG Virgin SIM. This of course almost immediately ran out of credit, as I'd only really intended it as a back-up, and it turns out I can't top it up while I'm out of the UK. I still have wireless access of course, but I'm not carrying my laptop around with me all the time, like I usually do, as I'm not allowed to take it on property at LANL.

So at least in part my blogging vacation has in part been enforced, as I write a lot of blog posts from my phone these days as I've finally picked up a handset with a decent QWERTY keyboard, and the rest I write from my laptop in spare moments here and there.

So have I learned anything from my enforced vacation? I'm going to try and pare down the number of feeds I'm reading, probably to around fifty or so, I guess I don't really need to know the latest Apple rumour half an hour before the major sites carry it. However I do miss the convenience of having a mobile phone, and perhaps unsurprisingly I miss text messages a lot more than I miss voice calls. It's amazing how much I've come to rely on the ability to send and receive 160 bytes any time I want or need it.

Anyway, blogging might be sporadic for the next couple of weeks, but I'm back...

Update: I guess I'm not the only one thinking that getting "off the grid" for a while might be a good thing...

Friday, June 02, 2006

Wirelessly Los Alamos

I've just arrived in Los Alamos after flying in from Orlando and the SPIE meeting. The town, and the labs, are about an hour and a half's drive from Albuquerque, but there isn't a closer airport with scheduled flights. That said, the drive wasn't bad, I put the Ford Explorer I hired on cruise control most of the way, and the Hertz Neverlost I got with the four by four meant I steered clear of the worst of the spaghetti junctions around Santa Fe. So no harm down...

But when I got to the hotel and I thought I'd go online, erm, which wireless network do you think I should use? One of these belongs to the hotel, but I really don't have any idea which one. I asked, and it doesn't look like any of the staff know either...

How many?

Pick one I guess, or as there is also an ethernet jack in the room, dig my Airport Express out of my luggage and run my own so I have a bit more end-to-end security?