Friday, July 30, 2010

Does your House Need A Bra? (RE: GE Ecoimagination Challenge is a scam.)

OK, so like a dope I fell for it, and submitted an idea I had to the GE Ecoimagination Challenge.

The first thing I should have noticed was that the input form required the upload of supporting images, zip files, or documents... it wasn't optional. They wanted SOMETHING, ANYTHING uploaded that you might have to back up your idea.

The second thing I should have noticed is that you have to sign away your rights to any interest you had in the idea. That is, they didn't want just ideas, they want inventors to donate the effort they had already made. In effect, GE is promising to generously reward a select few inventors, but they get to peruse and use any of the other ideas submitted freely.

That's a great racket, especially when you are such a politically well-connected mega company as GE. So rather than donate this idea to GE, I'll post it here for everyone to consider:

A house bra shields existing homes from extremes of heat, much like the way a truck bra shields it from debris. A laminate of metalized film and insulating backing will enhance the seasonal energy efficiency of existing structures without costly retrofitting.

There are many, many homes and businesses for which increasing insulation is not an option. For these, an externally applied wrap may be a way to substantially decrease the heat gain due to solar radiation. One application is as an insulating laminate of metalized film and closed cell foam backing. Another would utilize a sandwich of wick materials, in which capillary action draws water up from rain collection tanks, providing evaporative cooling.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Things I don't like about the Pandigital Novel

OK, so I like underdogs. Plus, there seems to be something neat when a company deliberately re-purposes one of its own existing electronic devices with open source software. It is like they are hacking their own equipment, and I just have to applaud that kind of flexibility and willingness to make an effort.

Others have widely complained about the shortcomings of the Pandigital Novel, so this isn't an attempt to pile on. The system is certainly not an iPad killer. But I do think that it can be a useful appliance around the home with a few improvements.

The first thing to note is, the Pandigital device is exceptionally low cost for what it offers: a 7" Android touch pad.

The second thing to note is, the software is slow. That is a good thing, because it suggests that improvement is possible with a software reload. That brings up the third thing, which is that as an Android device it is possible to load other Android apps using straightforward instructions. The PandaHome alternative desktop and reprogrammed navigation buttons both make the device much more usable.  Without the hack, it would be difficult to use the device because the Andoid Market won't recognize it as a legit client: you have to download APK packs to your PC instead, and install them over a USB cable.

The fourth thing to note is, no amount of fooling with Android apps will make this device any faster. They either have to improve the hardware or really work on the software, because the system is far too slow to respond for practical use. It isn't just the sluggishness, but the thing frequently mistakes movements for link selections and often cannot keep up with visual feedback, making the unit appear frozen when it may not be.

The fifth thing is, that the user interface controls are unrefined. The iPod/iPad/iPhone simply blows Android freakin' away with the tactile gesture vocabulary. And that's saying something because my iPod irritates me with the electronic keyboard and navigating impossibly small links. But the iPod's snappy performance makes up for some of that, and the iPad's larger scale makes up for my fumble fingers quite a bit more.

More than about 10 minutes of futzing and I find myself ready to toss it to the side. What keeps me from doing just that? Nothing. I use it when I am eating breakfast and have one Web page to visit... but no more. Or when I want to have a Wi-Fi equipped digital photo frame playing Pandora Radio for me while I work.

Some apps just won't work. They crash, apparently assuming it is a Motorola phone. So much for the device independence of Android. Skype and Fring don't seem to work on it. Too bad.

I'm hoping that it will work out as an eBook reader too. I read a lot of O'Reilly books however, and the mobile version of Safari refuses to recognize the Android device as a mobile platform. Safari bounces me back to the PC version of the site.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Cry in the Wilderness Against Distance Education

I recently looked up a high school classmate and found out that she has worked as a graphic artist for the past couple of decades or so, in the field of distance education.  It left me with a sad feeling, and maybe a tiny bit glad that I hadn't kept in contact.

I have attended many college programs throughout my life. The content delivery methods varied widely:
  • instructor lecture
  • mentor-guided independent study
  • satellite-delivered live lectures
  • instructor reading out of a book
  • on-line self-guided study
  • instructor guided hands-on workshop/lab 
  • hybrid (on-campus lab, on-line testing)
  • field work documented and evaluated for credit
The methods in red are the ones that just didn't work for me. Mentor-guided study worked for calculus and poetry, but I withdrew from the program when it came time to study physics. I did OK with microbiology in an on-line format too, so I can't criticize distance-ed purely as a content delivery method, but I have a blanket condemnation on the educational profession for substituting it when a real education is demanded.  To my mind, the profession has abandoned its commitment to truth and learning when they seek to eliminate personal interaction by substituting technology in its place.

Another one of my classmates went on to earn a doctorate in education. Her master's thesis proposed that being in contact with nature, and being immersed in peaceful natural settings, enhanced learning and promoted retention. My own experience supports that viewpoint; I find natural park-like settings to be highly conducive to study and deep thinking, and college campuses that incorporate areas allowing for physical activities separate from distraction-free, natural study areas, are the most rewarding. Often when working, surrounded by computers, books, and the sterile accouterments of our digital society, I feel compelled to just step away into a stream of sunlight.

Distance education has become part of the on-going ephemeralization of our society, to use both Fuller's and my own working definition.  The good is that some materials can be made available freely. Unfortunately, the costs to students attending traditional institutions are about the same, yet the quality of instruction is often worse than having a teacher reading verbatim out of a dry textbook. That is cheating students out of a quality education, and cheating the rest of our society out of having broadly and deeply educated citizens.

Distance education ephemeralizes by doing less and less for the same amount of money or more. MIT's Courseware has it right in this respect, making the content available for no cost. But the true cost of distance education is the sense of social disconnection it creates between peers and teachers, and the complete elimination of physical contact: aural, visual, and tactical cues are all missing. There is no warmth, and lacking the emotional component there is less reward for learning in and of itself.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

An Extensible Method for Octetruss and Equilateral Triangle Constructions

This box cutting die was a gift from my father in-law, Lynne Gibbs. The cutout forms an octahedron and tetrahedron sharing a common face.

A close-up of the fine work Lynne did.  The interior blades were not sharp but intended to provide crimping of folds.

The only problem with that kind of cutout is that it is relatively difficult to tie new pieces into the framework. 
I wanted something that would provide integral flanges. The solution I came up with, in 1993, was to draw a regular hexagon and inscribe an equilateral triangle by scoring the edges. Alternating the flanges allowed new paper units to be added to a construction, with enhanced strength due to multiple flanges glued around each joint.

The three polyhedra to the left are the octet cell, the octahedron, and a curious space filler whose name eludes me just now.  The paper cutouts on the right are the basic building block, a regular hexagon with an inscribed equilateral triangle forming triangular flanges. These particular two specimens were cut from an edge of sheet stock and so each have one truncated flange.

The next two are a cub-octahedron and octetruss, respectively.   

Nesting regular tetrahedra end to end gives tetrahelices, left. On the right is an octetruss building unit with flanges extended outward.

An icosahedron. This model used the same paper hexagons but like the space filler above it was sprayed with rubberized truck body liner to provide increased stiffness. 

Monday, July 19, 2010


"Why" is a question I keep asking myself. I ask because I must. I ask because, apparently, few others bother to ask.

An acquaintance works in IT for a very large German bank. I ask, why is that institution worth working for? I have little doubt that partly it is the money and partly it is an interest in the technology, but the best answer in his case would probably be   "because I can". 

In my case, I can't Again, I ask, "Why not?" In part, it is because they are a foreign-run meat house, and in part because I find nothing distinctive about the technology or methods they use, but the best answer is probably because I don't think they are worth even making the effort to support.

Even in the grand scheme of things, we have the here-and-now to concern ourselves with: the mortgage payments, kid's college tuition,  medical expenses, some semblance of recreation or enjoyment, and putting bread and butter on the table. Those reasons alone would  seem to be worth a meaningless paycheck, but the hidden costs are so very great (see my previous post).

We will all become dust one day. One may say "well, I'll have my reward in heaven" (or some other view of an afterlife), or if you are of the opposite persuasion you might say "well, I'll be gone anyway". You either choose to care about what and who you leave behind, or you don't. Why?

I cannot just become a back-woods homesteader or a pastry chef. So many I've known chose to drop-down or drop-out by working in service jobs or become psuedo-entrepreneurial middlemen, but even those still in the competition seem to be struggling for no particular ideals. Why?

Perhaps I've answer my own question. I can't just drop out, nor can I give my life to a company blindly. My work must support and advance my own values, and lead to some sort of long-term societal improvement well after I'm gone. That's why.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

What do you value, and why?

Sitting in at a Web Design Meetup recently, I made a comment that one of the attendees might consider a few traditional marketing channels to seed the customer base for their internet start-up.  Write articles for one of the many local free print magazines, like Today's Triangle Women , or Wake Living magazine, that sort of thing. She felt her time was already stretched thin, and engaging multiple marketing channels was not something she wanted to do. That's the second big mistake of shoe-string internet start-ups. The first big mistake is starting up a business that doesn't provide any real value to society.

This entrepreneur then observed that she had as her focus the goal of making money. A common goal for sure, but the way in which she said it struck an odd chord -- as if it were a programmed response. In stream-of-consciousness mode, it took me to a quip by another friend, after I thanked her for lunch on her dime: "It's only money.".

As I ponder how distant those two modes of thinking are, and how they reflect the values that motivate these two people, I realize how very much we are driven by cultural imperatives to perform, and how many people follow a path of altering their personalities for the sake of earning a dollar. The rationalization is that they have a professional identity, and a private life, but cognitive dissonance between the two is unavoidable. It reverberates inwardly and telescopes outwardly, and sensing it I grow uneasy every time I interact with someone whose mind has been altered.

"Altered in what way?"  you might ask. Well, there's the corporate type who has been married to the machine for so long he is willing to do and say anything to please the company. There's the entrepreneur who is so worried about fast money that they no longer see the company as an institution of people and on-going business concern.  There's the real estate agent who carefully avoids saying anything that might cause a sale to fall through, even in the face of glaringly negative consequences for the buyers. There's the queen bee co-worker who feverishly positions, cajoles, and otherwise targets other women to push them out of the organization.

I and others I know see instances of such self-twisted personalities pop up regularly. Never mind tattoos or nipple rings -  why do people mutilate their own minds this way? And why do we accept, no, even encourage, being people seeking to become so unbalanced as individuals?  Through overspecialization an individual may seek to somehow surpass his or her peers, but to what end do we seek to become such self-serving monsters?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Innanity of Human Resource's Candidate Vetting Processes

I checked back up at a job site run by a college HR department, and noticed a status code "Does Not Meet Minimum Requirements" for a reason an application last year was not accepted. The was curious, because the requirements were:
Well, I graduated magna cum-laude with a BS in Mathematics from the same institution, hold an associates degree in computer programming, a certificate in business market development, and have worked in all aspects of businesses large and small for 20+ years. I'm not sure where I missed the boat on that one.

BTW, the screaming caps were theirs, not mine. Apparently the HR people don't know about the shift key.