Category Archive: society

Apr 12 2016

WaitButWhy and Iron Man

Really first class article about Elon Musk, Tesla, SpaceX, energy use, and the future of the world.

So on my visit to California, I had two goals in mind: to understand as best I could what Musk and his teams were working on so feverishly and why it mattered so much, and to try to gain insight into what it is that makes him so capable of changing the world.

Elon Musk: The World’s Raddest Man

May 05 2015

Avenue Q does Lion King

What can I say? A charming and witty parody of the Lion King by the cast Avenue Q for the 2015 Broadway Cares’ Easter Bonnet Competition. They won best presentation. Hilarious: “…pink pajamas, penguins on the bottom…”

Aug 08 2014

Why I quit Amazon

I submitted this as feedback on my Amazon account today.

I’ve been a long-time Amazon customer, since 1997 in fact, and have purchased thousands of dollars and dozens of items from you in the last 17 years. I’ve always been pleased with the utility of your website and the ease of purchasing books, music, and other products.

Over the years, I have unhappily noted that small bookshops have disappeared throughout the country, with rare exceptions. This saddened me, since book browsing has always been one of my favorite pastimes; however, I also whole-heartedly embraced the digital revolution, and I recognized this loss as a disheartening consequence.

So I am not just disheartened, but dismayed, that Amazon has elected recently to impede the sales of books from Hachette. Amazon’s appeal to me was not simply that it could send hard-to-find books quickly; it was that it was open-handed and its reach enabled it to find almost any book I needed. Now, however, by limiting or blocking Hachette’s catalogue, I see that this is not true. Worse, Amazon has chosen to do this even as it has driven most of its competition out of business; it is almost impossible for me to now go to a bookstore to find unusual books, since they simply can’t afford to compete with you and maintain such an inventory. So Amazon, by blocking Hachette, has not simply interjected its self-interest into its own marketplace, but has in effect has blocked me from finding Hachette titles anywhere.

This is an unfriendly act to the Hachette authors and overall publishing industry. But it is also an unfriendly act to me, as a customer of Amazon. However easy and effortless purchasing on the Amazon website might be, it is useless if the book or other product I want isn’t there.

So, whoever in the vast organization of Amazon is reading this, I am hereby informing you as one of your millions of customers that I will no longer turn to Amazon first for book or other purchases. Instead, I will be looking for small bookstores or local vendors. And if that should fail, I will seek other website vendors who may offer those products. Amazon will be my last, rather than first, choice going forward. Competition is a wonderful thing, and your actions regarding Hachette have reminded me to patronize your competitors as a way of ensuring that my freedom to find and purchase what I want in the future is protected.

Update: this issue was resolved, although Amazon’s policies toward booksellers and others remains troubling. That said, I have set up an Amazon Smile charity, to which Amazon will donate a small portion of every purchase I make, as a small way to offset Amazon’s negative impact on small businesses and independent contractors.

Oct 25 2013

Interactive clothing

Imagine clothes that change their look depending upon your mood – or the mood of your friend. Then read about Cute Circuit.

In 2002, Cute Circuit released a shirt allowing two people to send each other hugs in different places. After getting a notification on their phone, the hug-receiver, who is ideally always near his hug shirt, puts on the garment. When they put on the shirt, the hug is awaiting them. The shirt then begins vibrating warmly, tightening around them. Each hug is personalized by the hug sender’s grip and the amount of time they held on to their own hug shirt. [Cute Circuit article]

Oct 14 2013

Iconic: a photographic tribute to Apple innovation

OK, say you’re an Apple devotée. No, say you’re an Apple fanatic. No, actually, say that Apple has changed everything you do, that Steve Jobs is one of the most influential people in your life, and that it is inconceivable that you could imagine functioning day to day without at least one Apple product in your hand, your pocket, or your purse.

Then you need this book.


Jun 21 2013

Tesla phones home

This weekend, my Signature Model S P85 sent out a cry for help.

Not to me, mind you. I never heard it. Instead, Essie went all ET-like and phoned home: she powered up her cellular 3G antenna and transmitted an alert to her Mom and Dad at the Tesla engineering labs in Fremont, California. “Help me,” she whined. “Isolation fault!”

Now, I don’t keep my Model S isolated at all. I love this car, and pay her all kinds of attention. If she feels isolated, it’s obviously something deep inside her, someplace I can’t reach. But she wasn’t talking to me, and I had no clue how she felt.

But Mom and Dad did. On Saturday, they called me. “Mr. Allan?” they said. “We need to see your car. She’s sending out a fault alarm. Can you either bring her to us, or can we pick her up?”

Getting Amped in Dania Beach

Getting Amped in Dania Beach

I was damned if I was going to drive my uncommunicative vehicle all the way to Dania Beach just because she was feeling, well, faulty; so instead the Tesla geniuses arranged for a specially-trained tow service to send a flatbed to my home to pick her up. Specially trained, indeed: the driver is one of the only operators in S. Florida who understands Teslas, and how they need to be lifted into jack mode and driven at a 30-degree angle onto a flatbed tray, secured not with hook tie-downs but with web loops around the wheels, and conveyed like fairy princesses down the Interstate to the shop. Shades of John Broder, I thought: now everyone is going to see how my Tesla is leaving me, running away with a tow truck and looking broken down.

But the next day, the Tesla geniuses called me. “No worries,” they said. “Yes, she was having issues with isolation. But we gave her a brand-new battery pack, and she feels young and healthy again.”

“What happened?” I asked. “What did I do?”

“Oh, nothing!” they replied. “Hard to why or who’s at fault. But rather than try to analyze it too deeply, we just decided a new pack would fix it quickly.”

And a day or so later, back came Essie, clean and bright and shiny on a Tesla trailer, home to my front door. I was admittedly a little concerned when Tesla Genius handed me a five-page document to sign. But as I read it I became positively cheerful. Not only was Essie recharged and rejuvenated; they had cleaned her, and filled her tires, checked and changed the lift gate seals, inspected the A/C and re-routed the system harnesses, replaced the rear axle nuts, checked the PSRCM calibration and J1772 adaptor, and – most delightful of all – replaced the front floor mats and installed a new rear mat as well. It was like coming home from the hospital with a new set of clothes and a haircut thrown in. I’m lucky at Mercedes if they wash the car; forget new floor mats.

Now, just last night, even as Essie was sitting happy and content again in my garage, Elon Musk announced a new battery-swap program. It takes all of 90 seconds. Phew. That’s almost faster than I can find my credit card at Sunoco to start with. It certainly is faster than the 2 days that my Model S was in the shop. But, then again, they don’t give you new floor mats, and I’ll bet that PSRCM calibration takes a little longer. So I’m happy. Essie is happy. And all is right with the world.

Mar 21 2013

Flagler Bridge to remain open

March 21, 2013. Palm Beach Duh News.

The Florida Department of Transportation assured residents of Palm Beach County that the Flagler Bridge will remain open indefinitely, officials said today.

“We have no plans to close the north bridge,” said Jojo deLojo, chief dreamer of the Department. “There is nothing wrong with the bridge that chewing gum and duct tape can’t fix.”

Officials have been scrambling in recent weeks to understand the problems that have caused the supports of the bridge to settle during construction of its replacement. However, despite repeated attempts to drill tiny little holes into the muck below the bridge using straws, they have been unable to fully reveal the damage believed to have occurred to its foundation. All that has been seen to date are millions of wood-borer worms and a handful of flattened styrofoam coffee cups tied together with string, which they believe were used by the original engineers to fill gaps in the wood of the pilings.

Mayor Gail Coniglio of the Town of Palm Beach announced her support for the proposed repairs, after they were unveiled in a public meeting in the back of E. J. Bradley’s late Saturday night after a three-hour open bar cocktail party. “We have every hope that the Department of Transportation will hire someone who knows what they are doing and that the next set of engineering drawings will use the latest and most sophisticated CAD/CAM tools available, rather than the scribbled sketches on the inside of a Mars bar wrapper that were previously relied upon,” she said Monday.

DOT’s deLojo circulated plans of the proposed bridge repairs to attendees at Saturday’s event, though most ended up being used as cocktail coasters and dartboards. The repairs are clearly seen as long strands of heavily reinforced unidentifiable organic material, secured at either end of the bridge by gold-plated golf tees from the Palm Beach Country Club. “The State of Florida will not skimp to find the most expensive and exotic technology to use to keep traffic open between the mainland and the island of Palm Beach, notwithstanding our belief that island’s citizenry are undeserving of any assistance,” deLojo assured the crowd. “The State may be broke and may refuse any monies from the Federal government, but we have confidence that we can produce all the required funds, if necessary by printing fake Florida dollars with the likeness of Rick Scott and Donald Trump.”

State officials estimate the cost of the repairs to be no more than $500 million, give or take $50 million depending on the fees necessary to pay the Palm Beach Water Taxi and other ferry services while the repairs take place. They believe it will take no more than 15 years to complete, working mainly at night from 1:00 am to 1:10 am to minimize noise and inconvenience to the bridge keeper, who normally sleeps during the period while cars are waiting for the gates to go up. Officials also revealed that emergency escape procedures from cars left hanging precariously over the edge of any collapsed portions of the new bridge will use zip lines and plastic tie wraps attached to large commercial fishing hooks, capable of holding people weighing up to 350 pounds.

“This is Florida,” said one representative from the Governor’s office. “From our voting equipment to our infrastructure, everything here works like we intend it to.”

Mar 07 2013

Urbane sprawl

Hipness knows no borders.

You no longer have to take the L train to experience this slice of cosmopolitan bohemia. Instead, you’ll find it along the Metro-North Railroad, roughly 25 miles north of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the suburb of Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Creating Hipsturbia in the Suburbs of New York –

Mar 07 2013

Royal Bodies

A rather amazing overview of the monarchy as a biological organism. Beautifully written.

Heavenly Bodies

Hilary Mantel · Royal Bodies

Feb 16 2013

Steve + Steve + blue box = …

This is beyond funny. The phone phreak subculture of the 1970s ended up changing the entire world, much like the model railroad club at MIT did.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak’s “eureka!” moment @

Feb 14 2013

Tesla, the Times, and everything in between

Well, there’s certainly has been an uproar this week concerning an article about Tesla in the New York Times by John Broder. In response, Elon Musk, Tesla’s charismatic founder and CEO, wrote a critical blog about the article on the company’s website. Musk was a little hasty to call the article a “fake” in TV interviews last week; it seems unlikely that the NY Times would ever fake an article intentionally. But he does have an important point despite his hyperbole.

First point: I’m a former science reporter. I also own a Tesla Model S.

The Tesla Model S is a great car that requires the driver to think differently about travel, for the simple reason that charging stations are not as ubiquitous as gas stations, and won’t be for many years. IOW, you need to give a little thought to planning a long-distance trip, including charging at each opportunity and understanding how the car’s batteries take a charge.

It was immediately clear from Broder’s article that he did not do either of these things. He undercharged the car (pleading ignorance after the fact) and failed to recharge when he could. Tesla understood his purpose was to test Read the rest of this entry »

Feb 07 2013

Questions people should ask about the Model S, but don’t

Everyone asks questions about the Model S. No one asks these. They should.

  1. How much does it cost to wire a high power wall charger?
    Depends on how far your car is from the main electrical feed. If both are near each other, a few hundred dollars. If your car is >200ft from the electrical feed, well…try $2,000–$5,000. Copper is expensive.
  2. Can you lock the frunk?
    Yes. But only when the entire car is locked. You can’t “valet lock” the frunk. IOW, all storage areas in the car are accessible if you have the key. You can’t even lock the glove compartment.
  3. Is it safe to valet park?
    Maybe, if you have a smart valet. Otherwise, they might leave the key in the car, and when the door handles retract, you have to hope the car doesn’t lock itself. You probably want to turn OFF “walkaway locking” if you use a valet.
  4. Do the displays ever crash?
    Yes. Once in a while the touchscreen hangs, or doesn’t correctly work. After the last software update the car wouldn’t stop beeping for me to put on my seatbelt, even though it was on. Fix: reboot the appropriate screen, by holding down both scroll wheels on the steering wheel for about 10 secs for the touchscreen, or holding down the two top buttons on the steering wheel to reboot the dashboard display.
  5. With the regenerative brakes, how does braking work?
    You almost never touch the brake pedal; the regen brakes do all the work of slowing down the car. You learn to change your driving style to use that feature optimally. The brake lights will automatically light when the regen brakes engage, to warn drivers behind.
  6. Is there an alarm system?
    Not really. The new software update 4.2 enables the car horn to sound if someone tries to open the car without a key.
  7. Is there a voice command system?
    With software update 4.2, yes. It’s limited to dialing, playing music, and navigation. But that’s enough.
  8. Can you play music from an iPhone or iPod?
    Yes, but it’s still dumb: IOW, for reasons best explained by Apple I suppose, you must control the music selection from the iPhone or iPod, not from the touchscreen. Also, the iPhone volume needs to be full up.
  9. Can you close the hatch from inside the car?
    Yes. Thank goodness. But not from the key.
  10. Can you raise/lower the windows from the key?
    Lower, but not raise. This seems backward to me. IOW, you can open the windows as you approach the car, perhaps to ventilate it. But you can’t close the windows from the key as you are walking away.
  11. Do the windows work when the car is off?
    Trick question. If you are sitting inside, the car is never off unless you specifically turn it off. So normally, yes, the windows work while sitting in park.
  12. Do the mirrors dim at night?
    Yes, but you have no control over it. It’s fully automatic.
  13. Can I use my old keychain? Can I use the Tesla keychain I got from the showroom?
    No. No! The key is shaped such that no chain, keyring, or other normal attachment will fit it. Duh! You need to use something with a flexible string. Good luck with that one.
  14. Who pays for the cellular 3G link?
    Tesla, at least for the first year. Or at least for Signature owners for the first year. After that, who knows?
  15. How do you change the windshield wipers?
    Good question. I have no idea.

Feb 06 2013

Just the FAQs

Tesla Motors has a FAQ page. It’s for potential buyers. Real people on the street have their own FAQs. Here are some of them.

  1. How much gas does it use?
    Uh, zippo.
  2. How far can you go?
    EPA claimed maximum is 268m. At 80% “standard” charge, 240m. You use about 20m for air conditioning and driving faster than 55mph, so call it 225m.
  3. How long does it take to recharge?
    On a 110V outlet, days. On a 240V outlet, overnight. With a high speed wall charger, a few hours. With the highway superchargers (when available), less than an hour.
  4. What happens if you’re on the highway and you run out of electricity?
    What happens when you run out of gas? You don’t because you plan ahead. Same thing.
  5. How often do you recharge?
    Trickle-charge every night. More prolonged charge after a road trip greater than, say, 50m, but still overnight. Read the rest of this entry »

Feb 06 2013

Rollin’ with the Model S

A little more than 2 months with the Tesla Model S, and I am loving this car more and more every day.

It’s not as plush as a Mercedes. Hasn’t got quite the raw sex appeal of a 911 or the stunning looks of an Aston Martin. Not as, well, garish as the Fisker Karma. Instead, it is the best balanced, smoothest, most responsive car I have ever driven. It is whip-ass fast, and in ways you don’t realize from the numbers: it moves so quickly when asked that passing and cutting through traffic is effortless and instinctive; the power curve is so linear, with no fade as engine revs peak, that you simply move like a rocket while others are hesitating at their shift points. It has a flat, predictable, straight-line acceleration unlike any other vehicle I know.

The battery floorbed keeps the car dead flat on curves, with no sway when swerving to avoid road debris or other inattentive drivers. No oversteer or sense that the car might roll or skid away from you. The specs say it is heavy, but there is absolutely no perception of it, since none of the weight of the car is up where it would affect handling.

The seats are spare yet comfortable, more so than the Panamera, whose seats my wife detested. Visibility is generally quite good, with the sole exception being the rear window, and even then only in reverse gear. The panoramic sunroof is dark enough that here in Florida I don’t even notice it (though summer is coming….) Lack of a transmission tunnel through the interior means far more legroom and storage capacity in the back.

Of course there are some minor flaws. The phone history’s call times are three hours off, while the clock is in local time (I’ve made calls in the future, apparently); occasionally the display switches to night mode late in the afternoon (related to the time zone issue, perhaps?). The brakes squeak. But these are such trivial issues that I am almost embarrassed to mention them, and in most cases, they can be rectified with a software update.

So, all in all, I love this car. The pre-purchase apprehension and uncertainty has melted away, and the press hype has been revealed to be no hype at all. As the ever-increasing number of high-speed chargers approaches a certain critical mass, recharging concerns will also vanish. The Model S stands as the most impressive new sedan available, and there isn’t another car I would rather own.

Feb 01 2013

Tesla and the long-distance drive

I have just completed a 400m round trip from Palm Beach to Orlando and back in my two-month-old Tesla Model S sedan. Let me say right off that, with each passing day of driving, I enjoy this car more and more. It is a balanced, smooth, powerful joy to drive, and the new software update (which arrived as I was en route; more about this later) has only improved the car’s functionality and pleasant temperament even more.

I called the hotel (Disney’s Grand Floridian) in advance to learn about charging the car while I sat for several days in a financial conference. The staff were thoroughly ignorant of any EV chargers on-site, and only after several calls (and disconnections) did I find one bright reservation clerk who in turn reached the engineering staff to find out. In effect, nothing: but I could park in the cast parking lot and plug into an outlet used to recharge one of the hotel’s ubiquitous golf shuttles. No doubt it would be 110V, and given the low current available it would take most of my two-day visit to refill the car’s batteries.

Naturally, before I left I set the charge mode to maximum and filled the batteries to full. The car read 268m available when I set off, and during the next 3 hours of 75mph cruising with the a/c on, I burned through 210m of range for the ~190m trip. Lesson 1: you burn about 10% more when driving at speeds over 55mph and using accessories like a/c.

Of course, when I arrived with 40m remaining no one knew anything about where I should go to recharge, beyond Read the rest of this entry »

Oct 13 2012

Veterans and brain disease

We are creating a slow-motion disaster for military families and their communities. This appears to be an incurable, untreatable pathology that gets worse over long periods of time.

His brain had been physically changed by a disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E. That’s a degenerative condition best-known for affecting boxers, football players and other athletes who endure repeated blows to the head.

In people with C.T.E., an abnormal form of a protein accumulates and eventually destroys cells throughout the brain, including the frontal and temporal lobes. Those are areas that regulate impulse control, judgment, multitasking, memory and emotions.

Veterans and Brain Disease (Nicholas Kristof)

Oct 13 2012

Education on a massive scale: free online Ivy League courses

MITx + HARVARDx = edX…Harvard has partnered with its Cambridge neighbor on edX, an open source online learning platform featuring courses designed specifically for the Internet. According to the edX website, features of the platform will include “self-paced learning, online discussion groups, wiki-based collaborative learning, online assessments and laboratories.”

The New Equation For Free Education

Oct 13 2012

When you can’t find your way home…

Try a pair of GPS shoes.

Dominic Wilcox GPS Shoes

Oct 02 2012

The patent mess: why and how

Everyone who even occasionally reads about the endless rounds of high-dollar patent litigation (think Apple vs. Samsung) or the abuse of purchased patents by shell companies with no business other than to carpet-bomb an industry with patent claims (“trolling”) knows that the patent system has seriously broken over the last 30 years. Processes and methods that were never considered patentable before suddenly were, and have spawned an enormous legal industry generating billions of dollars in claims and counterclaims. Small entrepreneurs face the impossible task of determining, before they even begin shipping a product, whether they might violate some obscure patent somewhere, even one that may not yet have been granted, but which could put the company out of business overnight.

Last year a little-known software company, which had licensed to Apple a patented software component for use in Apple’s developer tools, then sued a number of small independent developers for using those tools from Apple, claiming that each and every one of them needed its own license. But the tools came from Apple which of course already had a license. This would be like licensing a car company to use a new kind of windshield wiper — and then requiring every buyer of those cars to get a license, too.

How did we get to this absurd state, where lawyers effectively beat down innovation and claim patents for shapes and clicks? Because one court with enormous power decided to turn a hundred years of patent precedent on its head. Here’s the story.

How a rogue appeals court wrecked the patent system

Oct 01 2012

Swastika-bearing Buddhist statue was chiseled from a meteorite

In 1938 a team of Nazis traveling in Tibet came across the statue and—possibly intrigued by the familiar bent-armed cross—brought it back to Germany. There, the “Iron Man” remained in a private collection in Munich until 2007, when the statue became available for study.

Since then, Elmar Buchner of the Planetology Institute at Stuttgart University has been analyzing the Buddhist statue, which is thought to hail from 11th-century Tibet. Buchner says the statue was carved from a meteorite that landed somewhere between Mongolia and Siberia roughly 15,000 years ago.

Swastika-Bearing Buddhist Statue Was Chiseled From a Meteorite.

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