Mish-Mash and Random Stuff
Wake up folks, it’s 2013 already. Here we are nearly 1/6th of the way through the 21st Century. Wow! Kinda brings things into perspective when you think of it that way, huh? So in keeping with the concept that things are relative, there’s a thought that’s been bouncing off my brain for a while, and just now while watching one of the many 1000′s of hours of educational TV that is my primary pastime lately, I figured it was time to finally put it into words.
Nuclear Fusion – Which End is the Horse?
It’s no big secret that our world is running out of oil. Probably the saddest part of the deal is that so much of our world is made from it … from the plastics that surround our digital friends to the Aspirin we all take to relieve the headache from staring at those toys. It simply isn’t possible to put a foot out of bed without stepping on or at least bumping into something that once served as the meat of an ancient animal. Even though most people tend to focus on the fact that oil is where we get the fuel to run our cars, trucks, trains, planes and any other sort of transportation device you can think of, oil and petrochemicals are omnipresent.
Ever since about 1953 we’ve known how to create a mini-Sun … a tiny ball of nuclear fusion that slams together two Hydrogen atoms and creates (after a few magical chemical steps in-between) a Helium atom and a tiny bundle of energy. Thanks to that magical formula of , that tiny bundle contains a massive punch. When you’re dealing with even minuscule amounts of Hydrogen, the total energy derived is simply astronomical. According to the experts, one second’s worth of the energy put out by our Sun would be enough to power the United States for a million years. Granted, we’re not going to create something as big as the Sun here on Earth, but it’s pretty obvious even a tiny fraction would go a long way toward shifting our energy needs off of oil.
But today’s best minds are still having some pretty serious problems figuring out how to create a fusion reaction without totally decimating the apparatus it uses. They get one shot then spend the next day or so rebuilding it for the next shot. It’s pretty obvious that trying to run any sort of power generator with a burst that’s only a few microseconds long just isn’t feasible. So they keep thinking, keep redesigning … and keep blowing things up in hopes that they’ll stumble on machinery sturdy enough to survive and fire again, over and over.
But there’s a problem with all that research and effort. Maybe I’m just naive (okay, I readily admit I’m naive) but it seems to me they’re kinda forgetting the rest of the process. To me it’s so glaringly obvious that I’m sure one of those smart dudes that gets to blow things up in fusion reactions must have caught on to it, but all the same I’ve not yet heard anybody say anything about it either.
How do you turn that energy flying out of a fusion reaction into electricity?
First You Harness the Horse
In the heart of today’s modern Nuclear Reactors, the types that run on Fission, is a very archaic machine that is used to convert the nuclear energy into electricity. Believe it or not, the basic mechanism is a Steam Engine. Yup, that’s right … a Steam Engine. The energy radiated by the reactor is used to heat a carrier medium (usually a brine solution of some sort). The hot brine is then used to heat water, turning it into steam. The resulting steam is then used to turn turbines which turn generators that convert the mechanical energy into electricity. Now the process has its benefits, for example the multi-stage conversion process allows a complete isolation between the radioactive materials and the final stages. But it also has some major disadvantages too.
For starters, any time you convert energy from one form to another there is a measure of “Loss” inherent in the conversion. While the amount of loss isn’t that appreciable, it’s still loss. Various advances in nuclear power generation have focused on reducing the losses and making the end-to-end efficiency higher. Another of the disadvantages of the multi-stage conversion process is the number of “moving parts” present. As any engineer will tell you, the more things that gotta move, the more chances there are for things to break down. Any time you’re messing with nuclear radiation, breakdowns are an extra level of complication that isn’t exactly pleasant. While there have been some improvements in ensuring the reliability of the first stages, it still remains that should there be a failure near the beginning, the repair process is even more complicated just because of all the safety precautions that have to be taken before you can even get a look at the problem. Needless to say, before we can hope to make Fusion a viable form of energy generation, we need to come up with better methods to convert the bundles of energy flung out into electricity.
Scientists and engineers have thus far stayed pretty much mum on how they will eventually convert fusion energy into electricity. It seems to me the primary reason is that there’s very little glamour … and thus very few dollars … in inventing a more efficient means of generating electricity. But even if we magically cracked the Nuclear Fusion nut tomorrow, it would still be many decades before we’d have a useful power generator just because we do not know how to make electricity from it.
Hooking Up the Wagon
So I hear you asking “How would you propose they invent a method if they haven’t got a fusion reactor to hook it to?” In actuality, we already do have a very handy Fusion Reactor, and it also happens to be one that is available today, runs for free and doesn’t require any maintenance whatsoever. The Sun!
Over the last few months, a lot of the “Educational” TV that I’ve been watching has been pretty much obsessing over the end of the world and all the horrific and disastrous manners in which that might happen. One of the favorites has been our Sun’s propensity for spitting out giant gobs of highly charged solar material in things they call “Coronal Mass Ejections” or CMEs. A CME happens when the Sun burps out a giant blob of solar material in some random direction. Depending on which way it’s aimed (whether at us or away from us) and which way it is oriented (Up-Down or Down-Up, also sometimes called North or South), the CME can either just make pretty lights in the sky or cook us all like hot dogs in a microwave. (Don’t panic though. The “exploding hot dog” scenario is far less likely than politicians actually doing their job the first time.)
However one thing every CME has that may be beneficial for us is the energy contained in each one. Even just a grazing by an average sized CME contains enough energy to fry all our communication satellites and overload our electrical systems all around the globe.
Another thing we have to our advantage is our ability to send up and park satellites in various places around the solar system. In fact, we already have a few satellites parked between us and the Sun. Those satellites are responsible for detecting and reporting on inbound CMEs so we have a bit of advance warning that Solar Armageddon is on its way. So why couldn’t we put some of that expertise to use and put up some satellites that are responsible for testing out various methods of converting the energy in CMEs into usable electricity?
So here’s my challenge to the Super-Wonks that get all those fancy and expensive toys to mess around with blowing stuff up: Invent and put into place a few satellites as test platforms that live in orbits somewhere inside the Earth’s orbit then catch and convert CMEs into real useful electricity. I’m sure they can be initially powered with low-tech solar panels just so they can at least stay alive while they’re working out the details. But it just seems logical to me that if we hope to apply Nuclear Fusion as a source of electrical energy, it’s the right time to get started inventing, building and testing some techniques that will do the job without having a James Watt invention in the mix. After all, the way we’re burning up our oil now, we only have a little over 50 years before it’s all gone for good, so we best get hustling if we hope to have a solution before we go back to candles and horses. (Although my wife still maintains the world would be better off with a horse in every garage anyway.)
I Must Have Been a Good Boy
Anyone that has had the rare delight of engaging me in chat over the past year has also had the absolutely delicious treat of hearing me whine about my computer “situation”. Back in February of 2012, my trusty old Dell XPS desktop computer powered off for its last time. I have a habit of rebooting my machine usually at least once a day, sometimes many times a day depending on what I’m doing. Well that fateful day, I clicked the “Shutdown” option on Window’s restart window. Once everything was off, I reached for the power button and gave it a push. Nothing. Push it again, more nothing. Again .. again .. AGAIN! Oh crap, still nothing! (What came out of my mouth next goes beyond my personal limits for what I will allow to be posted on this blog.)
Being the computer geek I am, I set about doing various things to try and bring my dear old beast back to life, all to no avail. I even had my oldest son, the Geek Squad (at Best Buy) employee come upstairs and try his magic on it. Together we reached the same conclusion: The poor old baby was dead and gone. (Later examination of the motherboard revealed that some of the larger electrolytic capacitors had erupted and were shorting out the +5VDC power lines.)
Fortunately I had on hand an older Dell D610 laptop computer which I affectionately dubbed “The Craptop”. I also had the good fortune of having backed up my entire computer earlier that day. I had set up timed tasks to perform full backups twice a week, and differential backups on the intervening days. It just so happened that the day my desktop died was one of the full backup days. Since I couldn’t hook the disk drive from my desktop into the Craptop, all I had to do was connect the outboard 1TB USB drive and restore the files I needed. WHEW!!
So within a few days I had all my files back, had all the programs I needed re-installed, and was able to resume logging into Second Life and supporting the various tools and products I’ve released. Of course the Craptop had a lot of shortcomings. It was a 1.3GHz single-core CPU with 1GB of RAM and Windows XP, but at least it had the SSE2 instruction set needed to run the latest viewers. It would only run at the lowest possible graphics setting, so my ability to see things like shadows, clouds, sky and detail was gone … but I could at least log in and run. Well, I couldn’t really “run” either, but I could walk reasonably well. It also had so much lag that teleporting was always an exercise that left me giggling. You see, my hair would sometimes arrive after my main avatar body. During times of really BAD lag, my hair would take as long as 30 extra seconds to show up. If you know anything about me, you know that my hair is the most important piece of my wardrobe. So arriving “naked” (and sometimes I would really arrive naked) was very annoying.
Smiled At By The Digital Gods
My oldest son’s girlfriend works for a company that handles the customer support functions for some of the larger MMORPG games. They tend to go through computers pretty routinely and are always disposing of the old ones for utterly ridiculous prices. This year, just a few days before Christmas, they were selling off some of the computers from their 2011 inventory refresh. The son’s girlfriend managed to grab four of them. Of the four, one was “known broken” so it sold for a whopping $50USD. The three “known good” computers she purchased for $75USD each. After a quick glance, my son realized the problem with the “known broken” PC was a simple matter of having the wrong drivers installed. So with a USB thumb drive and a few minutes of Google-time, he brought the dead PC back to life. So for a grand total of $275USD, they had four pretty powerful computers.
They gave me one for Christmas.
My son called me at about 1AM just a few days before Christmas. He was waiting for his girlfriend to come home from work, and he’d just finished tidying up the computers and installing all the various service packs and drivers they needed … and he just couldn’t wait to tell me what they planned. (He got that bad habit from me btw. I never could wait for Christmas to arrive before giving my wife her Christmas presents either. *sigh*)
So I’m laying in bed on Christmas day when my son knocks on the door. When I invited him in, he walked over to the table next to my bed (which is where I had the Craptop set up) and set the new chassis on the floor. It’s a Dell T3400 series computer with a quad-core Intel CPU running at 2.4GHz. It also had 2GB of RAM, a 500GB SATA hard drive and an nVidia 8800 GTS display adapter. It was loaded with Windows XP (the OS installed when it was initially purchased) and since I’m a lover of XP, I was quite happy.
Over the course of the last week, I’ve scavenged and added to the computer a few of the parts from my old desktop. I grabbed its 250GB hard drive, its nVidia 9800 GTX+ display adapter and 2GB of RAM. As it turned out, I couldn’t use the extra RAM, partly because XP won’t recognize anything past 2GB anyway, but also because the RAM in the T3400 is ECC (Error Checking and Correcting) and the 2GB from my old computer was non-ECC. At boot up, the motherboard bitched about not being allowed to mix the two types, so I pulled it back out and set it aside … for “later”.
I then did a full backup of the Craptop onto the same 1TB external USB drive and began the arduous process of moving all my files to the new computer. I tell ya, the new PC was completely naked. It had the original Internet Explorer version 6 installed, so I spent quite a bit of time just trying to understand what the Microsoft website was telling me as to why it wouldn’t run Microsoft Update. But once I figured out what it was complaining about, it only took me a few hours to download and install the 275,098,338 separate updates it needed. (Okay, that may be a slight exaggeration, but not much of one.)
I Can See Clouds!
The end result is a machine that really is worth my time to use again. With the dual nVidia display adapters (a 9800 GTX+ and an 8800 GTS 512), both with 512MB of display RAM, the two internal SATA drives (totaling 750GB) and a power supply capable of running everything, I can not only see clouds and sky again, I can walk, run … and teleport with my hair intact! I just cannot put into words how wonderful it is to see clouds again!
I dinked around with various graphics settings in Firestorm (the only viewer I use .. sorry LL) but finally settled on just setting it at “High”. I’ve turned on a few extra options and bumped some of the quality sliders to the top, but I’m managing a frame rate that routinely exceeds 120FPS. (For comparison, the Craptop was lucky to get 4FPS while staring at a totally blank wall from 2cm away!) Now when I teleport somewhere new, I can see things rez in less time than it ever took before … even on my old desktop. (The quad-core CPU is a real benefit there!) I’m also pleased to report that everything actually finishes rezzing too. On the Craptop, I had to hover my mouse over everything just to force a complete rezzing. Now when I arrive, everything is rezzed and fully detailed within a few seconds. It’s freaking GORGEOUS!
As a final benefit, I have my full set of development tools back again too. Some time ago I managed to purchase a copy of Poser 7 and downloaded Blender. I used both of those in developing several of my products. For example, the rotating satellite dish used on the DG Grid Flyer is the result of Blender and some handy tools for making Sculpties for Second Life. I also used Poser 7 to create some simple animations for the teleporters as well as did a couple of contract jobs for special animations. It’s been so long since I was able to launch and use those that I am very rusty. In the interim, LL has released Mesh so I’ll be re-teaching myself how to use Blender … only this time I’ll be making Meshes instead of Sculpties.
Final Thoughts – The Coming Year
Over the last year, even running hobbled by the Craptop, I turned out a few new products and polished up some old ones. The release of Virtual Landmarks was, to me at least, one of the products for which I have very high hopes. It’s taking a bit of time to catch on, but I’m hopeful that now that the holidays are over and people start getting back to living in Second Life, the concepts and benefits of VLMs will take hold. (And really, if you own an In-World store and would like a web site presence but can’t justify all the expense, using the VLMVW List Page as an online store directory is an excellent solution.) You can see what I mean by looking at my VLM List for the DGP4SL In-World Stores. As the year moves along, I’ll be adding new devices and features to the product, all of which I expect to include in the basic package too. If you want to try them out, the FREEBIE Trial Version is still available on the SL Marketplace.
The Rental Beam plugin for the hippoRENT system has also undergone an improvement in reliability. One of the factors about programming for “Real World” situations is dealing with the ever-present LAG issue. When it comes to devices like the hippoRENT Rental Box, writing a plugin that accurately and reliably monitors its state can be very tricky … especially on Sims with a lot of LAG. The Rental Beam system is also available from the SL Marketplace. Included in the system is not only the ability to use the Available Property Listings on your own web site, but you can also create “Hosted Pages” that can be completely customized with your own Banner Image and introductory text. With the Listing Groups feature, you can create custom Hosted Pages for each group. If you are using the hippoRENT system and would like a way to put your listings on line, the Rental Beam system is absolutely the best way to go.
I’ve also been approached with ideas for a few other devices that would complement the Rental Beam system and operate with or replace some of the hippoRENT devices. I’ll post more info on those as they near completion, but for right now suffice to say that it’s an ongoing project that I expect will have some exciting additions soon.
The DGP4SL line of Teleporters will also see some new additions over the coming year. For starters I expect to revamp and finally release a version that has been in use by me for over two years now … called the “Grid Flyer”. Unlike most other teleporter systems, the Grid Flyer is capable of teleporting riders to any Sim anywhere in the SL Grid. I also have some ideas for new versions of the basic Flyer teleporters. The amazing popularity of the DG Sign Flyer with its single-touch teleport technique will be the seed that launches a few similar type devices. I also plan on capitalizing on the new teleport functions provided in the LSL scripting language. So stay tuned; as new products are released I’ll be letting you know via the pages of this blog.
This year promises to be pretty eventful. Over the last couple of months we’ve seen Linden Lab keeping their spotless track record of doing totally dumb things for absolutely inscrutable reasons, but they’ve also been making some bonafide improvements too. With any luck, their focus on their new products will satisfy their need to “improve” things to the point of death and dysfunction … and serve to keep them from obliterating what is still good in Second Life. Reading the blogs of various folks that actually stay informed on what LL is doing (such as Inara Pey and Ciaran Laval), I’m seeing growth and improvements in some of the basic functionality but (so far) without their typical bass-ackward perversion of the way things ought to work.
I still have my doubts about the SL Marketplace though. There are a number of really serious fixes that are needed … and I do mean NEEDED. But contrary to the generally company-wide improvements we’ve been seeing from the other groups within Linden Lab, the Marketplace Devs still seem intent on ignoring what is needed and focusing on frills and time wasters that no one can actually use. Perhaps they’ll turn out some good reporting tools, or fix the cross-linked listings … or maybe even redo their Listing Enhancements so they actually work again. Of course it would also be nice if Merchants were allowed to advertise their new products in a Linden-sponsored Forum/Blog format, but considering how simple it would be to add .. and considering how long they’re totally ignored that need, I have very little hope they’ll get a clue and do something that benefits the Merchants AND their own bottom line.
Happy New Year All!
Thanks again for taking the time to read this far. Last year was challenging, frustrating and at times totally infuriating. As always I remain hopeful that 2013 will see improvements in how well the Lab listens to and HEARS the requests (demands?) of its customers. Maybe this year we’ll be lucky and see them trusting that the people paying them money every day actually do want things to improve … and for once believe that what we ask for time and time again are things that can and really should be done.