Category Archives: Technology

This year’s biggest ripoff is also this year’s best gift idea

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Here’s an idea. You have an old beat up computer running, say, Windows. You want to make it faster, crisper, more secure, and generally, better.

What can you do short of buying a new computer? Well, install Linux. Linux is so much more efficient as an operating system, your computer will simply run better. Guaranteed. Continue reading This year’s biggest ripoff is also this year’s best gift idea


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A really good computer setup

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I’ve reached a very nice resting point in the ongoing effort to develop a very useful, powerful, stable, and cool computer setup.

This started a while back when I built a computer. In particular, this computer. There are several advantages to building a computer. You can save money or get more bang for your buck even if you don’t pay less. On the saving money side, maybe you have components on hand that you don’t have to buy. I did, mainly mass storage. The case I had, thinking I’d save money there, ended up not working out. You get more bang for the buck because the parts you buy will be better than the ones in the equivilant off the line but cheaper computer, and you’ll have more control over what happens in future upgrades. Continue reading A really good computer setup


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STEM Holiday Gifts for Kids

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Tis the season to give robots and slime.

The two big news items for STEM holiday shopping this year are a) Robots have leveled off in complexity and price and b) slime has come of age. Continue reading STEM Holiday Gifts for Kids


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A Beginner’s Guide to Circuits

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Some time ago I reviewed Electronics for Kids: Play with Simple Circuits and Experiment with Electricity! by √ėyvind Nydal Dahl, which is a very good introduction to electricity and how to hvae fun with it. There is now a new book that is a somewhat simplified version by the same author, A Beginner’s Guide to Circuits: Nine Simple Projects with Lights, Sounds, and More!.

This new book is smaller, has fewer projects, requires the purchase of fewer components, is an accordingly less expensive book, and perhaps most important for some people, requires no solder! Continue reading A Beginner’s Guide to Circuits


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How many satellites are there, and will there be?

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The number of satellite circling the Earth right now is approaching 5,000. The number that are not broken, and are being actually used, is just over 1,000. However, Space X, Elon Musk’s megacompany, is approved to launch well over 10,000 satellites over the next several years, to serve a single purpose: Give broadband internet to every human on Earth no matter where they are. Continue reading How many satellites are there, and will there be?


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From Atari to XBox: the inner and outer workings of every game console ever

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OK, let’s start with a quiz. How many game consoles can you name? I already gave you two, Atari and Xbox. Can you name ten more? Fifteen? How many were there ever, in total?

Continue reading From Atari to XBox: the inner and outer workings of every game console ever


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Interesting LED assisted make project kickstarter coming up.

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You know all those projects where you wire up some electronic circuitry and then hook it all to a bunch of LEDs, then you have fancy or fun lighting? Like a Halloween costume, or a Griswald house, or some nice mood lighting in your home?

It is harder than it looks, though doable if you have a soldering iron and some basic electronic knowledge. The RocketLife project, which is starting a kickstarter any day now, claims to make this much easier.

From the press release: Continue reading Interesting LED assisted make project kickstarter coming up.


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Extending The LEGO Boost Robot Kit With A Book

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The LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox is a humanoid robot that is also a guitar, a dogbot, and an industrial fabrication machine. Which of these things it is depends on which set of instructions you follow. A scratch-like programming language lets you control the boost from a phone or tablet, via blue tooth. It is not cheap, but it is an amazing and excellent toy.

It does take absolutely forever to build any of these projects, but there are stages along the way where you can stop and play with what you’ve got so far. Continue reading Extending The LEGO Boost Robot Kit With A Book


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Neil deGrasse Tyson Accessory to War

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Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang is a good and interesting book, and I recommend it.

This is not a book that fully explores the alliance and overlap between war and makers of war on one hand and science and scientists on the other. Authors Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang focus on one part of that relationship, the link between astrophysics and related disciplines (really, astronomy at large) and the military.

Even as I recommend Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military, which I do, I want to broaden the conversation a little with a couple of thoughts about the relationship, from my own experience. Then, I’ll give you my strident critique of the book (there is One Big Problem), and then, again, tell you to buy it

Back when I was working in or near the Peabody Museum, in Cambridge, the museum’s assistant director, Barbara Isaac, hired me to work with the NAGPRA database. NAGPRA was the North American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Ultimately, large swaths of the Peabody Museum’s collection would be turned over, or some other thing done to it, as per the wishes of the various Native American groups associated with that material. Most of the work had already been done. But, Barbara is a meticulous person and wanted to make sure the dotting of each i and crossing of each t was double checked. So, I was one of two people charged with going over the printouts, on that old green and less green striped paper, bound in large blue cardboard books. Each line (or two) was an item or collection of items, with notes, and an indication of what was going to happen to the material. There were just a few options, but the basic idea was this: An item listed was either going to be returned to a tribal group, or not. My job was mainly to look at stuff that was not going to be returned and, given my ongoing scan of what was going to be returned, and my knowledge of North American prehistory, ethnography, and archaeology, to earmark things that said “do not return” but where maybe we should be returning it. So, for example, after noting that a particular South Dakota Lakota tribe would have this, and that, and this other, soapstone tobacco pipe returned to them, when I saw that the ninth pipe on the list, several lines down and all by itself, is labeled to not be returned, I’d earmark that. Nearly 100% of the time, that ninth pipe was just something that nobody wanted, or it didn’t really exist (not all museum databases are exactly accurate). But, it would be earmarked.

Many items on the list had information as to how the item had originally gotten to the museum.

Many, many items, especially items taken from Native Americans living in what was the frontier between about 1840 and 1900, were taken by medical doctors who, as we all know, also stood in for naturalists, or some kind of traveling scientist, on military and quasi military expeditions (Like Darwin).

And many of those items were taken for use as medical specimens.

We initially learned that Native Americans have a particular blood type because, in part, of studies done on blood stains on shirts of slain warriors, collected after various battles with the US Army units accompanied by such scientists. There are a few famous cases of Native American bodily remains, mostly but not all skeletal remains, sitting in the anatomy teaching rooms of this or that college. But a lot more, a lot not noticed by either historians or even the all seeing all knowing Wikipedia, are or were sitting in museums around the world. Collected, by scientists wearing military uniforms, on military ventures, with a scientific twist.

So the science-military link is not exclusive to astronomy and astrophysics.

I wrote elsewhere about the person I met who was taking Pentagon funding to build an object that would help cure cancer. An example of a scientist subverting the military funding process. And so on.

OK, my complaint.

The authors have two long chapters (and references elsewhere) covering the early history of human endeavor in general (not limited to military) and the evolution of astronomy, mainly as it related, over a very long period of time, to navigation. One chapter covers land, the other the sea.

Staring somewhere along the way in each chapter, we get a very nice, well done, and pretty full description of the process of humans learning about the stars, about the earth and how to find one’s way, etc. But prior to that, the authors do what so many authors do and I so much dislike. I’ve written about this before. We get a version of human prehistory, and indeed, current human variation (or at least, ethnographically recent), that is bogus. For example, the authors speak of the first modern humans wandering around in the Rift Valley of Africa. There is no evidence that modern humans evolved there. Using just the archaeology, southern Africa is a more likely origin, and the physical anthropology record is simply incomplete. There are early fossils there, but that is because the rift valley is and was a big hole that made fossils. The entire rest of the continent is big, and the evolution probably happened there, not in the rift.

Similarly, ethnographic variation we see in the present and recent times is stripped out. For example, most rain forest dwelling foragers are not known to have a sky oriented cosmology, or to use the sky for much information about seasonal change in ecology, or navigation. And, there have always been a lot of rain forest dwelling foragers.

Putting that criticism aside, however, Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military is a very enjoyable and informative read, and makes all the important points about the sometimes uneasy, sometimes too easy, relationship between science and the military enterprise, with a careful look at politics, government, and powerful industrial interests.

Now we also need a book on the broader issue of military-technology links. And, we need a personal ray gun that zaps out of control robots:


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If I can’t have my flying car, can I please have my flying battery?

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MIT Technology review has a fascinating writeup on efforts to build electric planes. In my view, these efforts are at the same time shooting too low (the result would be the equivalent of flying short buses, at most) and possibly doable (which is good).

Have you ever noticed how much electricity weighs? Here is an experiment you can do. Get two identical alkaline batteries (small ones, like AA size), one totally discharged and the other fully charged.

Now, hold one in each hand and see if you can tell which one is heavier. Is the charged up one heavier?

No, of course not. Electricity stored as potential energy in a battery actually weighs nothing. This is an interesting idea. Airplane fuel does weigh something, but electricity itself does not. If only we could create a battery that weights almost nothing to carry all that weight-free electricity!

OK, now, while you are still holding the batteries, try something else. Do this quickly, because you don’t want anyone asking you “why are you holding these batteries” right now, because you’d have to say, “I’m trying to see how much electricity weighs,” and that is kind of a stupid question.

Hold the batteries over a hard surface that you don’t mind dropping a battery on. Maybe ten inches to a foot above the surface. Hold them upright. Now, drop them on the surface and see how they act.

The “full” battery, the one with the charge, will normally bounce better than the “empty” one.

This proves that something interesting is going on inside the battery. What? I don’t know, but I suspect it is at least tangentially related to the science behind the aforementioned MIT Technology Review write up: Top battery scientists have a plan to electrify flight and slash airline emissions. Go read it, it is very interesting.

After reading this, I had this thought: Have a relatively small battery i an aircraft that does not use the same exact technology as the long distance battery, and is good at ONLY rapid output of a lot of power, and is replaced and recycled after every flight. Ideally, the plane would actually drop the battery once it is done using it. Neighbors of airports may object.


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Delete those annoying Google Chrome autosuggestions in the URL bar

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How to erase specific autosuggested URLs from Google Chrome?

You know the problem. You are accustom to swooping into the URL entry space on your browser and typing the first three or four letters of a website you commonly visit, hitting enter, and getting where you need to be. But Google Chrome, it an undying effort to be as helpful as possible, starts suggesting subpages of that site you visited once before, and are unlikely to visit again, ever.

For example, you want to look for something on Amazon. So you type in “Amaz” and suddenly the correct URL comes up, you hit ENTER and there you are. That is how it used to be. But now, you type “Amaz” and hit enter and you are now looking at an entry for a specific light switch you searched for last week. Forever. From now on, all of your searching on Amazon will start with this one light switch.

How do you stop this madness?

Simple: Once the URL you don’t like is visible in the search bar, use the down arrow key to put the focus on that very same URL down on the list that will also appear below the search bar. Then, use Shift-DELETE to eliminate that URL forever. Or any others.

Shift-DELETE simply removes that URL from your search history. Don’t worry, it will not delete that actual web site or anything. Totally safe.


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