technology

man shoots server -- computer, not waiter

Anyone who works with computers can understand this guy: after a night of drinking, Joshua Lee Campbell allegedly returned to his workplace (RANLife Home Loans) and opened fire on their computer server with his .45-caliber handgun.

According to prosecutors, Campbell called police and claimed that he had been "mugged, assaulted with his own firearm and drugged" by an assailant who then shot up the server; but Campbell's acquaintances told the cops that they had seen him drunk, armed, and threatening to shoot the computer -- and maybe himself.

I've been programming computers for (counts on fingers) 29 years. (Great ghu, is that right? Yes...my first programming class was in the summer of 1981, at the Maryland Summer Centers for Gifted Students' "Center for Advanced Studies" program.) Trust me, I know the urge to employ a high-velocity lead debugger all too well!

mixed up medical tubes and Murphy's Law

The New York Times reports on how mixing up medical tubes (IV tubes, gastric tubes, oxygen tubes, and so on) is injuring and killing patients:

Hospitalized patients often have an array of clear plastic tubing sticking out of their bodies to deliver or extract medicine, nutrition, fluids, gases or blood to veins, arteries, stomachs, skin, lungs or bladders.

Much of the tubing is interchangeable, and with nurses connecting and disconnecting dozens each day, mix-ups happen — sometimes with deadly consequences.

“Nurses should not have to work in an environment where it is even possible to make that kind of mistake,” said Nancy Pratt, a senior vice president at Sharp HealthCare in San Diego who is a vocal advocate for changing the system. “The nuclear power and airline industries would never tolerate a situation where a simple misconnection could lead to a death.”

Some manufacturers have started using color codes to distinguish tubes for different functions -- but they've each used their own scheme, thus adding to the confusion! In 2008 California passed legislation mandating that different sorts of medical tubes not be compatible with each other, but the manufacturers’ trade association managed to push back implementation to 2013 and 2014.

solar power now cheaper than nuclear

So here's an interesting pair of trends: the price of solar photovoltaic power continues to drop, due to economies of scale and improvements in technology and manufacturing, while the price of building nuclear fission power is rising. According to this study from the North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network (NC-WARN), the trend lines have now crossed, and in North Carolina solar power is now cheaper than nuclear. (The report was prepared for the state government; the exact results will be different in other states in depending on insolation, but the trend is going to be the same everywhere.)

The prices compared by the study are the prices to consumers and include government subsides for both solar and nuclear; but even if the solar subsides were removed, the crossover point would be delayed no more than ten years. And the solar includes only PV, with no accounting of the potential of concentrating solar power.

According to the New York Times, the construction of the first round of nuclear plants in the U.S. resulted in electricity users getting stuck with nearly $100 billion of costs from bankruptcies and "stranded costs", and a report by Citigroup Global Markets last November termed the financial risks for a new generation of nuclear plant "so large and variable that individually they could each bring even the largest utility to its knees."

Meanwhile, the proposed American Power Act is set to give away about $56 billion to the unsustainable nuclear power industry, including tax credits, access to bonds, an increase in government insurance against regulatory delays, and loan guarantees -- guarantees which leave the American taxpayer on the hook in case of default.

The risk of default for these nuclear industry loan guarantees is about 50 percent.

So, we can get stuck with the bill from the nuclear fission industry as they give us a power source with huge security, waste disposal, weapons proliferation, and safety concerns; or we can make clean, efficient, and effective use of that large nuclear fusion reactor that Providence has provided just 93 million miles away.

mama they took my Kodachrome away

Don't tell Paul Simon, but the last roll of Kodachrome ever produced by Eastman Kodak has now been developed at Dwayne's Photo Service in Parsons, Kansas. Dwayne's is the last place still processing Kodachrome, or at least the last place certified by Kodak to do so.

Kodachrome, a color slide film favored by professional photographers, was produced from 1935 to 2009. This last roll was shot by Steve McCurry, a freelance photojournalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic magazine; National Geographic Television was on hand to document that last roll.

Dwayne's will be ending its Kodachrome processing service in December, so if any of you shutterbugs have an old roll in a drawer somewhere, get it in soon.

the march of technology

Here's some numbers I worked up for a recent thread over on Slashdot, that illustrate the pace of technological change since the late 1980s:

The costs of actually moving bits around have gone way down since the 80s -- I now have a ~4,700,000 bps (according to speedtest.net) WiMax link for less (counting for inflation) than I paid in the late 1980s for a phone line I could only use to move data at 2,400 bps. (9,600 and 56k modems didn't come into common usage for ordinary folks until the 1990s.) Improvement: a factor of over 1,900.

The costs of storage are tremendously lower. Back in 1988 or so my first hard disk cost on the order of $200. It held 30 MB -- 30,000,000 bytes. One can get terrabyte disks -- 1,000,000,000,000 bytes -- now, for less money. Improvement: over 33,000 times.

And the costs of twiddling bits are far, far lower than they were in the late 80s. My first PC operated at 8 MHz -- "Turbo" mode. My current box, old and pokey as it is, runs at 2210 Mhz. Let's say the overall cost was roughly the same, though I remember my dad paying something on the order of $5,000 for our first PC. (A Victor 9000 that could run both CP/M and MS-DOS, wow!) Improvement, over 270 times -- and that's not counting the improvement in what gets done per tick. My current box rates 4420.08 BogoMIPS; using the conversions at that article, my 8 MHz "Turbo" PC would have rated about .032 BogoMIPS. Improvement: over 138,000 times.

"All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace"

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace
by Richard Brautigan

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
       (right now please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
       (it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

BPA in cash register receipts

Following up on the topic of the endocrine disruptor bisphenol A (BPA), it seems that exposure from water bottles and other plastic food and beverage containers may be dwarfed by that caused by a surprising source: cash register receipts and other papers from thermal printers, and also carbonless copy papers. (Thanks Sean McCutcheon for the tip.)

These printing technologies rely on paper impregnated with zillions of microcapsules containing ink or dye; pressure or heat breaks the capsules and lets the ink out. (Fun fact: up until 1970, the dye was often made with polychlorinated biphenyls -- PCBs, delightfully toxic chemicals). In some methods, the paper has to be coated with a developer that reacts with the dye; that's where "phenolic resins" like BPA come in.

100 proof beer on the horizon?

Gizmag reports on the explosion of "extreme beers" containing more than 20% alcohol.

Typical beer has around 4 to 6% ABV (alcohol by volume); particularly strong beers using special strains of yeast and careful brewing can get up around 12%, giving quite a surprise to the unwary drinker.

In the 1990s, Samuel Adams upped the ante with their 17.5% ABV Triple Bock (1994), 21% Millennium (1999), and 24-27% Utopia series (2002-2007): beers said to be more like brandy or port than traditional beers, but still made without distillation. (No, I haven't tried any of these yet. You buying?)

Then, just over a year ago, interest in the century-old technique of "ice distillation" heated up. Ice distillation takes advantage of the fact that water freezes more easily than alcohol: freeze beer just right, and you can remove much of the water (as ice) and get a stronger beer left behind. (Note that according to the wik, freeze distillation can also concentrate poisonous compounds like fusel alcohols; so don't try this at home.)

Breweries using this technique have been in an arms race recently, rapidly taking the record from 31% ABV to an astounding 43% -- 86 proof, the same alcohol content Jack Daniels whiskey used to have (before JD's wimp-out of a few years ago).

"I am confident we can get to 50% with all the right qualities,", says Georg Tscheuschner of Schorschbräu, the maker of the 43% "Schorschbräu Schorschbock".

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