Monday/ Amazon Go, is a go

The Amazon Go store here in downtown Seattle opened today to the public (required for entry: an Amazon account and a phone with the Amazon Go app). I still have to go and check it out.

The main store concept is that there are no check-out lines. There are hundreds of cameras in the ceiling, sensors on the shelves, and bluetooth beacons in the store, to track and update what is taken as the shopper goes through the store.  As far as I can tell there are no physical carts that one pushes through the store (I don’t see any in pictures from inside the store). The shopper brings a carry bag/ shoulder bag to put items directly into. So this is smaller volume and higher-end grocery shopping than at say, one’s traditional grocery store.

Here’s the little tutorial from the Amazon Go app.
And these are pictures I grabbed from Twitter, from local TV stations KOMO4 (top) and King5 (bottom). Ironically, the store with no check-out line, had a line to get in at the door this morning. Later on the line disappeared, though.

 

Wednesday/ a freebie for my phone

I decided I’m still not ready to spring for a new iPhone 8 or iPhone X. So I went to the Apple store here in Seattle, to inquire about a replacement battery for my old iPhone 6s. (Apple has a special offer of $29 for battery replacements for certain older phones. Normally they charge $79).

Well – it turned out that I’m going to get the battery for free.  The analysis they ran at the store showed that the battery in my phone has gone through 533 charging cycles, and its capacity is now down to 80%.  It is also from a batch of batteries that had since been marked as slightly flawed – hence its free replacement.

Here’s how a typical modern mobile phone Li-ion battery works, highly simplified. The positive electrodes (cathodes) are typically lithium-doped cobalt oxide; the negative electrodes (anodes) are graphite, with a separator in between. There is also an electrolyte, lithium salts in an organic solvent. A large number of these electrode layers are ‘jelly-rolled’ into the pouch to increase the current that the battery can discharge during its use. Lithium ions migrate back and forth depending if the phone is used, or charged. The electrolyte and electrodes degrade over time, though.  Some researchers are working hard to find a solid-state solution (a battery with no electrolyte).  They believe these solid-state batteries would last tens of thousands of cycles instead of a few hundred.  [Picture: Infographic for Galaxy 7 Note phone, by Samsung]

Saturday/ the disaster alert is itself a disaster

The emergency alert that was sent out to cell phones, radio broadcasts, and TV transmissions.

At 8.10 am on Saturday, more than a million Hawaiians were jolted with an ominous text message: ‘Ballistic missile threat inbound, seek immediate shelter’.

The message was generated by accident by someone during the shift change-over at the Hawaii Emergency Response Management Agency.   It took 38 minutes to send a correction text.   Governor David Ige announced later that the early warning system was suspended ‘until further notice’, and that the procedure will be changed to require two people to activate the alert*.  The White House shrugged.  ‘Merely a state exercise’ said deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters, and that President Trump had been informed.

*It’s just mind-boggling that this was not done to start with – and quite incredulous that the designers of the system’s messaging had created no follow-up options of ‘Cancel Alert’ or ‘Threat Over’ or ‘Safe Now’.

Sunday morning: Front Page of the Honolulu Star Advertiser.

 

Wednesday/ cooler Christmas lights

I replaced just about all the light bulbs inside my house with light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs this year.  It’s amazing: a tungsten-filament bulb that used to run at 60 Watt, can now be replaced with one that run only at 9 W!  This is much better still, than the 13 W for compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs.  General Electric is now stopping production of domestic CFL lamps in favor of LEDs.

So for Christmas lights, many home-owners can now install strings of LED lights as well. Yes, these cost more to purchase, but a lot less to operate. (Every year we see reports of home-owners that set up displays with 100,000 bulbs or more, and that ‘borrow’ electricity from their neighbors to power it all up). LEDs also last longer than traditional incandescent glass lights, and are a safer light source since the bulbs do not get as hot, and are made of epoxy, not glass.

The Christmas lights on my neighbors’ homes across the street brightens up the winter darkness.  Alas, I do not  offer them the same view in return.  I did put up ‘icicle lights’ on my front gutter one year, and maybe I should do that again – next year.
This Seahawk-themed Christmas-light display of a Kirkland resident (east of Seattle) drew complaints by some neighbors last year about traffic, noise and flashing lights — 175,000 of them — from Thanksgiving through Christmas. So the house went dark last year. This year, the home-owner worked with the city to diminish the impact of visitors to his neighborhood, and the ‘Hawk’ house is back!  [Picture from Seattle Times]

Wednesday/ a rough start!

Here is a self-driving shuttle bus from German railway operator Deutsche Bahn. They plan to deploy a number of these in 2018 to shuttle passengers to and from train stations.

A self-driving shuttle got into an accident on its first day of service in Las Vegas.  Aw – but it was a human driver’s fault, actually (or – of course? Can I take the side of the machine even though I am a human?).  A large delivery truck operated by its human driver, pulled out into the street from a loading bay.  The shuttle came to an abrupt stop, but the truck grazed the front of the shuttle bus.  Fortunately,  none of the eight passengers, nor the truck driver, were injured.

The self-driving shuttle bus, is made by French startup Navya. It is owned and operated by French private transportation company Keolis, on a 0.6-mile loop around downtown Las Vegas. The rides are free.

Wednesday/ Grand Coulee Dam

The Grand Coulee Dam was constructed shortly after the Great Depression, and provided jobs to thousands. At first feared to be a white elephant of sorts (it produced lots of electric power with not quite enough demand for it), it was put to good use during World War II. It provided power to Boeing Company in Seattle, to shipbuilders in Portland, Oregon, and to an aluminum smelter in Spokane on the border with Montana.

A coulee is a kind of valley or drainage zone. The Grand Coulee is an ancient river bed in north-central Washington State. And the Grand Coulee Dam is a massive concrete gravity dam on the Columbia River, built to produce hydroelectric power and to provide irrigation water. Only the Three Gorges dam in the Yangtze River in Hubei province, China, is a bigger dam in terms of concrete used for the dam wall and construction.

The original dam was constructed from 1933 to 1940 at a cost of $300 million. The Third Power Plant, constructed from 1967 to 1980, cost $700 million.  If the dam were constructed today, it would cost $8.26 billion.  The dam today generates some 20 billion kW-hrs of electricity every year, distributed to 11 states.

Clockwise from the top: Inside the visitors center; the dam wall with the eleven spillways and several 230 kV transmission lines strung out in front of the wall; looking vertically down from the dam wall (a little water is spilling from spill tubes in the dam wall); on top of the dam wall during a tour of the dam.
On top is a picture from inside the Pump-Generating Plant, during our tour. The green silos are huge: 5 stories tall and housing enormous pumps that pump water uphill to a man-made irrigation lake called Banks Lake. At the far end are units that look very similar, but that can act as generators as well (when water from Banks Lake flow back through it), as shown in the diagram in the bottom.

Tuesday/ the iPhone X has landed

The three new iPhones that were announced today: the 8, 8 Plus and the X.

I watched Apple’s webcast today, of its annual product announcement, beamed from the new Apple ‘spaceship’ headquarters in Cupertino. It’s been ten years since the iPhone took the world by storm in 2007, and today the ‘one more thing’ (as Steve Jobs used to say) was the iPhone X (say ‘ten’, not ‘X’).

Apple ‘haters’ (they hate the ‘fanboys’) were quick to point out that many of the ‘new’ features have been available in Android phones for some time. (Yes .. but it’s new in an iPhone).

I don’t think of myself as an Apple ‘fanboy’! – but I will probably upgrade my iPhone 6 to the iPhone X early next year.  It’s all about the camera for me, and the new 12 MP cameras come with nifty software settings and photo options. The new phone can take beautiful portrait pictures with the background filtered out to black, for example.  I’d better start putting my money aside: $999 for the 64 GB model and $1,150 for the 256 GB model. That’s the price of a full-blown new notebook computer, since that’s what these phones are: super-mini-tablet computer-cameras-in-our-pockets.

Graphic from Bloomberg: The iPhone catapulted Apple into the No 1 valuation position over the last 10 years .. with the other technology companies not too far behind. It used to be that oil companies dominated the top 10.

Friday/ the X1 Carbon has landed

My new notebook computer landed on my doorstep on Friday, and my first impressions are very favorable.  It’s light, and very similar to my Lenovo notebooks from work that I had used for 8, 10 hours a day for a very long time.  I did consider a MacBook and others, but my fingers are so, so used to the Lenovo keyboard.  A new notebook with a different keyboard layout and feel can bring a lot of frustration, and be hard to get used to again (sort of like a rental car with the levers for the wipers and turn signal switched from one’s own car).

It did take a little patience to get the machine set up.  There was a massive 4 Gigabyte Windows 10 update needed to what was already loaded on the machine.

Then, when I downloaded and attempted to install Google Chrome (as browser instead of Microsoft’s Edge), the infamous blue screen of death came up. Aargh.  Microsoft calls it a ‘stop screen’ – and these days the blue screen is not a dead stop requiring a hard reboot.  Electing to re-install the very large OS update did the trick.

Such a clean ma-chine! (as Queen would sing in ‘I’m in love with my car’), on my somewhat cluttered desk. The Lenovo X1 Carbon* (5th Gen), 16 Gb memory, 512 Gb SSD, Intel Core i7 7th gen., full HD res, 2.5lbs.   *Carbon fiber in the outer shell, and a magnesium frame.

Wednesday/ boot and nuke it

I have a number of old PCs, notebook computers and external hard drives that I have mothballed, but that I had not yet taken to the recycle shop here in Seattle.  Although I had deleted all the files from them*, the drives still need to be scrubbed.  (Yes, I could physically destroy the drives with a hammer, but that is messy and I wanted to avoid it).

*Deleting files just change some of the pointer information on it. It does not remove the file from the drive.

It took about 3 1/2 hours to erase the old 60 Gb drive on my notebook computer. (Modern drives are easily ten times bigger, so it might take a long time to erase those).

I finally found a solution: a military grade drive erase program called Darin’s Boot and Nuke program (DBAN).   It’s open source software and free for personal use, but it does take a little work to set up and use. (Here’s a review).

First, download a program and use it to burn a boot file onto a DVD.  Then set up the computer with drives to be erased, to boot from this DVD (not from its hard drive). The program then lets the user select the hard drive or external drive that should be obliterated (overwritten).  OK, time to pay attention. Verify twice, erase once (along the lines of the tailor’s motto ‘Measure twice, cut once’). The warning says ‘This program irrecoverably destroys data’ .  Yes. That is what I want.

Wednesday/ the Hydrogen Council

The Hydrogen Council* was announced in Davos this January – a global initiative to provide a united vision and long-term solution for using hydrogen instead of fossil fuels for transportation and as a renewable energy source generally.  (Their proposition is here). Hydrogen fuel cell cars have a formidable future competitor in electric battery cars.

*The member companies are : Air Liquide, Alstom, Anglo American, BMW group, Daimler, Engie, Honda, Hyundai, Kawasaki, Royal Dutch Shell, Linde Group, Total and Toyota.

Hydrogen as a fuel can be generated in a true zero emission fashion, though.
> Plenty of free sunlight + abundant water + electrolysis = hydrogen.
> Use hydrogen as a fuel; water is the by-product.
> NO carbon involved or CO2 produced anywhere. Yay!
.. is the proposition.

Here is the Nikola company’s proposed Nikola One, a hydrogen fuel cell truck prepared for commercial use starting in 2020.

So what else is going on? Well – Toyota’s $57,500 hydrogen fuel cell car, the Mirai, is off to a slow start (about 400 sold in California so far), but there are other companies jumping into the fray as well.  A start-up company called Nikola (not to be confused with Elon Musk’s Tesla) announced the Nikola One in December, a hydrogen fuel cell truck that will be available in 2020.  Nikola is going for 100% vertical integration, which means they will build solar-cell power stations to generate electricity for the electrolysis of water to generate hydrogen for its trucks.   You lease the truck and Nikola provides the hydrogen and the hydrogen refueling stations needed for it.

From the Hydrogen Energy Council’s report – how hydrogen can take carbon out of major sectors of the economy.
From the Hydrogen Energy Council’s report – countries building hydrogen infrastructures.
From the Hydrogen Energy Council’s report – improvements along the hydrogen value chain.
Hydrogen fuel cell stations are starting to pop up in the Los Angeles and San Francisco metro areas, but only about 400 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have been sold in California so far.

 

Saturday/ the levels of self-driving cars

There was a great documentary by Japanese national broadcaster NHK on TV on Saturday, about the advances made to create self-driving cars.  NHK mentioned four levels of sophistication, but I see Wired magazine uses five levels (credit to Wired magazine for the Level 0 to Level 5 pictures).  Google is going for the making the software, and will sell it to car makers, much like it is selling Android software to mobile phone makers.  Car makers are partnering with technology companies for the hardware and software that is needed for these cars.  Other vendor companies to car makers are retooling and scrambling not to be left out, for the day when items such as rear-view mirrors for the driver, will be obsolete.  NHK had a rear-view mirror manufacturer on that is rapidly transitioning to mirrors that show an image generated by a camera, instead of just being a mirror (presumably the rear-view mirror’s image is just part of the bigger all-around image that the car ‘sees’).  Anyway, check out those levels of self-driving cars.   Everyone wants a Level 5 car, of course!

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This is the camera picture fed to the computer, from a detection system called MobileEye, an Israeli company that works with Japanese car maker Nissan. The G’s mean the traffic light up ahead is green.

level-0level-1level-2level-3level-4level-5

Monday/ new smoke alarms on order

11-21-2016-10-11-50-pm
The new smoke-and-carbon-monoxide alarms from Nest are internet enabled, so one gets a notification one one’s phone if the alarm went off, or if the battery has a low voltage. No chirping. Yay!

It’s time to jump on Amazon and order new smoke alarm devices for my house, I decided.   The ones I have are 14 years old, and each has the very annoying habit of starting to chirp when the battery inside starts to lose its voltage.

A good rule of thumb here in the United States is to just change out the smoke alarm batteries when the Daylight Savings Time ends in November – which I did not do. ‘My bad’, as the (North American slang) saying goes.  And sure enough, this Friday, just as I was talking on a conference call for work, the alarm right by me started chirping noisily. (It gives out a chirp once every minute).   Sometimes I would come home from a trip, and one of the three alarms in the house would chirp – making me wonder if I annoyed the neighbors.

Tuesday/ Google Maps to the rescue

I turned on img_8621-smGoogle Maps and its voice navigation assistant again tonight – for the trip back to Pleasanton. There is a complicated freeway interchange at Pleasanton that I am not yet familiar with.   As I started out, the female voice said confidently ‘You are on the shortest route, and will arrive at 7.28 pm, despite some traffic on the way’.

Weird, I thought, first time I heard the ‘despite some traffic’ part. Well, it turned out there was a big accident on I-680, and Google Maps steered me onto a feeder road (San Ramon Valley Boulevard) that runs along I-680, instead.   And sure enough : it was 7.28 pm when I pulled up at the hotel parking lot.

Monday/ the BAPI is unhappy

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The remains of the day .. the Marriott hotel’s conference room where our testing was done, after everyone had left.

We survived our first day of user acceptance testing.   One of the defects found was a problem with a Business Application Programming Interface.  ‘BAPI’ is SAP’s proprietary name for the more general software term Application Programming Interface.  APIs are blocks of code that enable different software applications to use these standardized building blocks of code (programs) to exchange data in a standardized format (interface).

Our SAP installation interacts with an external project scheduling application (one of arch-nemesis Larry Ellison’s Oracle products called Primavera P6).  The BAPI that connects the two systems need to be fixed.

 

Friday/ attack of the botnets

botnet

There was a massive cyber attack last Friday on the internet here in the United States (affecting web users in other parts of the world as well : Brazil, Germany, India, Spain and the U.K). Authorities are still trying to determine who was behind it. (A group calling themselves ‘New World Hackers’ claimed responsibility on Twitter – without proof).   The diagram from TIME magazine shows what happened.  A botnet of internet-connected gadgets (surveillance cameras, printers, digital video recorders were deployed).  These devices have weak or non-existent security, and we may soon see legislation that will force manufacturers to build in more security.  They had better hurry : there are an estimated 6.4 billion things connected to the internet already, a number that will balloon to 20.8 billion just four years from now in 2020.

ddos

 

Wednesday/ the Marea cable

Construction on the Marea cable has started : the highest-capacity sub-sea cable ever placed across the Atlantic, and the first to connect the U.S. to southern Europe. Construction started in August, with completion scheduled for October 2017.   Bloomberg news reports that cables have been laid on the ocean floor for a long, long time : the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable in 1866.    The Marea cable will be paid for by Microsoft and Facebook, and be able to carry up to 160 Terabits per second of data.

img_5524-sm
Is that a depiction of Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook CEO) in the picture? I’m sure it is.

Monday/ postcard from France

A postcard from France landed in my mailbox on Monday (not for me : it’s just for an address close to mine, so I will put it back in the mail).  But hey – let me check out this postage stamp first, I thought.  It celebrates the bicentennial of  ‘steam navigation’ (vapeur is French for steam).  The first successful steamboat was invented by the nobleman Marquis de Jouffroy.

Here’s a blurb from WIRED magazine about the cutting edge steam boat technology of that time : ‘The Pyroscaphe (Greek for ‘fire boat’) steamed upstream at 6 mph without a sail, and the crowds cheered this technological marvel. But after 15 minutes, the boat began to break up under the pounding of the engine. De Jouffroy quickly and cannily steered the boat ashore, and then bowed to the cheering multitudes’.

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Friday/ internet woes

I’m making this post from my cell phone. The Internet has been down here the last two days.  aargh. It’s a DSL connection. The ISP says it’s the phone company, and we have already established that the addition of two iPads, two iPhones and two notebook computers to the wifi router is actually NOT the problem!