Monday, January 8, 2007

Pepé Le Pew

That Smell? Freedom.News organizations are abuzz with reports of a strange smell wafting through large chunks of Manhattan. I'm wondering if someone accidentally or intentionally spread some mercaptan around the city. Something similar happened at the University of Minnesota in late 2002, apparently because a professor had been dumping the stuff directly down the drain and it eventually started seeping out of the sewer.

Well, who knows… I'm just glad I don't have to smell it ;-)

Posted by mike at 02:30 PM | News | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Iliad and Odyssey

GM Chairman Bob Lutz with the Chevy VoltThe Chevrolet Volt concept seems to be causing the biggest stir among news coming out of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. It's a series hybrid, which is a car design that some people have been wanting for decades now. Think diesel-electric train, but with batteries between the diesel part and the electric part to allow the engine to be smaller and yet still have the reserves to provide fast acceleration. The Volt also adds in a plug-in capability, so it can run off of electrical grid power.

Of course, there are people who have done this before. GM has just managed to make a big splash because it's a hot-rod design that they insist on calling an electric vehicle with an "EV range extender" rather than a hybrid. Of course, they're trying to make the obvious even more clear: The electric part doesn't care how the energy is generated. The show car has a 1-liter 3-cylinder engine that can run on gasoline or E85, but you could have a pure ethanol engine, a diesel engine, a turbine, or go ahead and scrap both the engine and generator and put in fuel cells instead. Well, if fuel cells ever cost less than megabucks, anyway...

I think I might start referring to this event as "The Big Duh" since it's a good way to bridge from current cars running only internal combustion engines toward cars that are either purely electric (that's where I'd put my bets) or running some sort of fuel cell (hydrogen or otherwise—I prefer otherwise). Given the troubles facing hydrogen transport and storage, using a car that uses batteries as the primary storage and hydrogen for secondary energy might be the best way to go. Of course, from watching a video of the "reveal," I could tell that GM still thinks that hydrogen will be the primary energy "source" eventually.

As I was saying, this type of vehicle has been envisioned before. However, for me personally, I've mostly been thinking of series hybrids by themselves, and haven't given the plug-in hybrid enthusiasts enough credit. GM did a good thing, whether they ultimately benefit from it or not, of promoting the concept of a vehicle that can run purely on electricity most of the time, and only switch over to being a hybrid when the grid-supplied power runs low.

That being said, there isn't much preventing GM from producing the car right away, albeit with a smaller battery pack. Doing some rough calculations, the Volt needs a 16 kilowatt-hour pack, about 30% of the size of the one in the Tesla Roadster. The Tesla Roadster costs about $90,000 for the base model, with a fully-loaded vehicle costing $100,000. Not all of that cost goes to the vehicle itself, as they openly state that they overprice it to gain funding for future projects. Subtract that and the cost of the Lotus Elise-based chassis and components, and you're still looking at tens of thousands of dollars for the batteries and other drivetrain bits.

Based on that, I presume the 16 kWh pack for the Volt would run in the $10,000+ range, which is quite a lot. But, if you cut that down to a tenth of its size, you've still got a good hybrid vehicle that runs mostly gasoline—Okay, you've pretty much got a sportier Prius, but you'd still get a 50mpg 4-seater with sportscar performance. With the way the battery pack is laid out on the thing (a column running along the centerline, right where a driveshaft would be in a RWD car), you could easily make it an option to get bigger pure electric range—$1,250 for every extra five miles, for instance. "I want my car with three electric bricks please!"

Well, anyway, I think the Volt looks very nice, even though a lot of the bits seem very impractical. The windshield is tiny, though I suppose that's not a big deal if it's fairly close to the driver. The whole side window arrangement with arched plastic bits to have a high "beltline" yet still allowing light in is interesting, but weird. And, well, even if the Volt never sees the light of day, the "E-Flex Propulsion System" will apparently live on in some form—GM says that a new vehicle platform due in 2009 will be designed to accept it, though who knows if anything will ever use it.

Posted by mike at 10:44 AM | Car | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Hub and Spoke

Blech, Comcast seems slow as molasses half the time. I don't like it. I'm not sure where the bottleneck is, but even loading sites that you'd presume to be local (the Star Tribune and MNspeak.com, for instance) take a long time, just as bad as far-flung ones. At least my connection to the University of Minnesota seems fast.

Posted by mike at 07:55 AM | Internet | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Aspherical

Well, it's been eight months since I got my Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT, so I've ordered a new lens for it. It's the Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM. Uh, okay, that's not very intelligible to most folks, so I'll break it down.

First of all, it's a Canon lens. I could have gone for another brand, but I decided against it for now.

It has an EF-S lens mount, the actual mechanical interface it uses to attach to the camera body. This is specifically for Canon's newish lower-end digital SLRs, and it's designed for the smaller sensor that they have. The camera will still accept other EOS lenses (the EF ones), but EF-S lenses won't work on most other EOS camera bodies.

Okay, next is 17-85mm. Yeah, that's focal length. It's a 5x zoom lens (85/17 = 5) which covers a fairly wide angle. Of course, the numbers aren't converted for this specific sensor size. Since the sensor is smaller on my camera than a normal 35mm frame size, you multiply that number by 1.6 to get the equivalent 35mm focal length (even though this lens only works on cameras with small sensors, they don't use a different numbering scheme). 27-136mm equivalent, I guess.

Then we get to the f number. I guess this is the widest that the aperture gets, though it varies depending on the zoom level. I would have liked to get a "faster" lens with a wider aperture, mostly since it lets you focus on a single small point and then get a pleasing background/foreground blur, but I know I'd be annoyed if there were moments when I wanted a small aperture, allowing everything to be (nearly) in focus.

Another benefit of a "fast" lens is that the wide aperture lets you take pictures in low-light conditions. However, the "IS" on this lens means it has image stabilization and lets you keep the image in focus despite jittery hands. You can still take low-light photos—the only drawback is that there can be more motion blur with an IS lens as opposed to one with a wide aperture simply because the shutter has to be open longer. Since I like to zoom in on things, I figured this would help in those situations.

USM stands for "ultrasonic motor". I'm not really sure what the benefit of this is though. One thing is that it's virtually silent, not that I think regular lenses make a whole lot of noise to begin with. Besides, if you're using an SLR, you've still got the big "click-clack!" from the mirror anyway. The other benefit is a bit intriguing, though—apparently you don't have to flip the little switch to go from autofocus to manual focus.

Since this is a general purpose lens, it will replace the 18-55mm "kit" lens that came with my camera. The main thing is that it improves my zoom from 3x to 5x, and image quality on the whole should be better. It's a chunk of change, but I felt it was the most rewarding thing for me to put some money into right now.

Posted by mike at 03:10 PM | Photography | Comments (0)

Monday, January 29, 2007

2 Live Krewe

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Since I had new lenses for my camera, I went into downtown St. Paul intending to get to Harriet Island somehow to see Winter Carnival stuff. Of course, my bus took a different route than usual, and it turned out that I'd arrived just as the parade was getting set up. So, I decided to stick around there and take photos of that instead. It was long! It was cold! But I got some good shots.
Posted by mike at 02:39 PM | Photography | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

South of the Poles

What? When did that happen?

*search* *search*

Oh, January 1, 1993. Huh.

I didn't know that Czechoslovakia had split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia until reading about domain names today. I mean, I'd heard the name "Czech Republic" used in the news for a long time, but I always figured that was just a synonym used for variety...

Posted by mike at 01:35 PM | News | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Are You Reddy?

So there's news that California might ban incandescent bulbs by 2012. The name of the bill is the "How Many Legislators Does It Take to Change a Lightbulb Act." That's the best name I think I've ever heard! ;-)

I think the bill is generally a good idea, but there are problems. Compact fluorescents are almost as small as regular bulbs, but they aren't small enough. I have a "tree" lamp where a 60-watt-equivalent CFL bulb would poke out the end a bit. The ceiling light fixture in my entryway is just millimeters too tight for me to comfortably put a fluorescent in it. The ban would also have to be restricted to regular room lighting, since most cars still need incandescents for headlamps and various other little bits. Ovens, Microwaves, refrigerators, and other appliances probably wouldn't work well with fluorescents either.

I haven't seen what the proposed legislation looks like, only news coverage about it, so I can't say whether it'll really work or not.

Posted by mike at 10:24 AM | Politics | Comments (0)