The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

Archive for March, 2009

A New Era for 3d Movies

Posted by Deliverator on 28th March 2009

I’ve had the chance to watch two movies in 3d recently using different projection technologies. The most recent was a showing of Monsters vs Aliens at the Imax at the Pacific Science Center using the older dual projector / linear polarization technique. The other was a showing of Coraline at a theater in Renton using the new single projector / circular polarization technique known as RealD.

The old linear polarization technique has a lot of problems associated with it. It relies on dual projectors that have to be kept in sync and carefully aligned on the screen. If you tilt your head at all during the movie the image blurs. It is quite difficult to keep one’s head perfectly still for the duration of a feature film and one develops a bit of a stiff neck in the attempt. Also, on occasion I would pick up a slight bit of a ghost double image. I am not sure if this was a result of sitting extremely off-axis at the Imax or what, but I found it distracting.

RealD, on the other hand, suffers from none of these problems. RealD uses a single, normal digital projector with a special LCD plate placed in front of the projector optics which circularly polarizes a frame with either a clockwise or counterclockwise twist depending on the eye a given image is meant to reach. Because this system relies on only a single projector, which most theaters are deploying for advertising purposes anyways, it is far more practical than two projector systems and as a result is being widely implemented. I did an informal survey and it appears that there are 6-7 theaters in the Seattle area which are 3d capable at this time.

I enjoyed watching both movies, but definitely found RealD to be the superior experience. I never found myself distracted by aspects of the projection technology with RealD and could just focus on enjoying the film. There are a ton of movies coming out in 3d this year. I am especially looking forward to James Cameron’s film Avatar. James Cameron has been behind some of the more notable special effects films of the last couple decades including Terminator 1 and 2, The Abyss and Titanic. The release of Avatar has been delayed till December at least in part to allow more time for theaters to get their RealD systems in place.

3D technologies for film have been around for literally generations at this point, but RealD is the first system that seems truly compelling and practical to implement. I hope we have finally seen the end of the old Red/Blue glasses!

Posted in Media, Movies, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

Core i7 Upgrade

Posted by Deliverator on 27th March 2009

I finally decided to bite the bullet and do a significant upgrade on my main computer. It has been over two years since the system’s last processing power upgrade. At that time, I did a drop in upgrade of the processor from a AMD X2 3800+ to a dual core Opteron clocked at 2.6 ghz and upgraded the video card to a Nvidia 8800GTX with 768 MB. The Opteron wasn’t performance competitive with the Intel Core 2 processors available even then, but I was looking to avoid a motherboard swap and OS reinstall at all costs. These days, Intel’s Core i7 processors have the performance market neatly wrapped up and AMD is only nominally competitive on a price/performance bases with Intel’s lower end quad offerings. I usually buy a few offerings back from the bleeding edge to spare my wallet, but felt the need for a little more future proofing this time around.

The last time around I purchased a motherboard, AMD’s socket 939 was a mature platform and socket AM2 boards were just coming onto the market. If I had went with an AM2 board, it is possible I could have upgraded with yet another drop in processor upgrade without having to swap boards. To me, both AM2 and Intel’s LGA 775 sockets are on their last legs and I just wasn’t interested in upgrading to something with no future this time around.

Currently, the cost of putting together a Core i7 isn’t really in the processor. The lower end 920 processor is only around $300. The cost really comes from the lack of availability of cheap motherboard and ram options. DDR 3 ram currently commands a price premium over DDR 2 ram and motherboards tend to be of the “Deluxe” variety.

Anyways, I picked up a Core i7 920 retail boxed processor, an MSI X58 motherboard and 6 GB of Kingston DDR 3 ram and went to work nuking my system. This time around I went with Vista 64 to support the additional ram. 32 bit operating systems unfortunately limit one to a little over 3 GB of addressable memory, so that wasn’t really an option in this case. I may actually upgrade to 12 GB when the price on DDR 3 drops a bit. The motherboard has 6 available slots and I’ve only used 3 of them.

Performance increases from the upgrade have been quite remarkable, especially in 64 bit enabled applications. Working with large images in Lightroom is now a fluid joy and I am able to sprint through work flows that previously took me 2-3 times as long. Since the upgrade, I’ve noticed that a lot of tasks which were previously processor or ram limited are now hardly straining the proc, but are instead constrained by disk IO. My guess is an upgrade to a SSD is next on my list.

I’ve seen mind blowing performance increases in video encoding, file compression / archiving and not least of all in my priorities, games. Upgrading to a Core i7 over cheaper available options in today’s economy is a tough decision, but I am very happy with the results and hope to remain so over a longer time horizon.

Posted in General, Operating Systems, Tech Stuff, Windows | No Comments »

Titan Robotics @ Seattle FIRST Robotics Regional 2009

Posted by Deliverator on 27th March 2009

Thursday – The core of the TRC showed up at Key Arena and got the base unpacked from the crate and got the pit area set up. This year, the rules allowed for a lot of work to be done after the official ship date, so we just shipped our base/drive train and retained our upper-works to tweak in the intervening weeks between the ship date and the regional competition.

The team built a spare base and mounted the upper-works on it, allowing the drive and programming teams to gain experience with the robot while practicing at this year’s Seattle area Joint Practice Field, a full scale regulation play field set up for the benefit of Seattle area teams. The downside to this has been that the team had a lot of work to do yesterday getting the upper-works remounted on the original shipped base and getting things tested and ready for battle. The team managed to pass the formal inspection process about five minutes before the pit closed at 8pm yesterday.

Friday – The majority of TRC members got the day off from school today in order to attend the competition. We have a pretty good & loud presence in the stands.

Qualifying Matches

QM 1 – The TRC narrowly lost its first match of the day 54-57, largely on human player penalties. The rules for penalties are extremely simple this year, with almost no possibility for penalties assessed on the actual robot. It is really painful to lose a match because an alliance partner’s human player hasn’t bothered to read the rules.

QM 2 – The TRC lost its second match in much the same way as the first, but by a much larger margin of 54 – 12 with 40 points of penalties assessed against our team’s alliance, again for breaking clearly stated rules regarding ball handling.

QM 3 & 4 – Didn’t see these ones as I was at lunch. We lost. Multiple partner penalties both matches. I don’t think it would have made a difference in either match, but the penalties are discouraging, as it makes the final score more heavily tilted than the actual game performance would suggest.

QM 5 – Our first win. No penalties. I should note that Jacob, our human player hasn’t elicited a single penalty yet. The open hopper design isn’tworking well for us, so the team switched to collecting just a few empty cells to be swapped for super cells. The roller mechanism appears to be working well and Paul’s autonomous code worked well, with the bot only getting scored on once during autonomous despite starting in the difficult middle position.

QM 6 – Lost 50-70ish in a penalty free match.

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Bootup Freezing on Intel D945GCLF2 Motherboard

Posted by Deliverator on 19th March 2009

I’ve had a small form factor PC on my desk since October, which I have used mainly for running long duration hard disk recovery utilities, various diagnostics and media encoding tasks, in order to keep my primary system free. This secondary box is based around an ultra cheap $80 dual core atom motherboard from Intel, the D945GCLF2. Outside of rather strict power supply requirements requiring me to run out and get a bigger case and power supply, this board has done just fine for its basic tasks – with one exception.

Virtually every time I’ve powered the machine on, it has frozen midway through the boot process of both Ubuntu Linux and Windows XP. Once I reset the machine after the initial freeze, it usually boots all the way just fine without incident. Once booted, I have no problems. I’d updated the bios several times over the last few months in hopes that one of the updates would cure this issue, to no avail. I updated to the most recent bios, version 150, today and my problems appear to be solved. I’ve cold booted the box a half dozen times into each OS without a single freeze. The bios revision notes for version 150 reveal a long list of fixes for freezing and various corruption issues. I’m honestly surprised that a board with this many software QC issues was put into retail channels, but at least Intel appears committed to rectifying the problems.

If you’ve been having any trouble with this board, I strongly recommend applying the most recent bios update.

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Doing the Math on an Ultracapacitor Flashlight

Posted by Deliverator on 12th March 2009

Well, I canceled my Ultracapacitor powered screwdriver order. The company from which I ordered, colemanflashcellscrewdriver.com, clearly promised shipment within 24 business hours, but several weeks after placing my order I had received nothing and hadn’t received any sort of shipment notification or update on order status. I went back to their web page and found that they were now sold out and wouldn’t be receiving more from the factory for at least 4 weeks. Again, they didn’t notify me of this, I had to pro-actively visit their site to find out. I emailed them and inquired whether my order had shipped before they sold out and it had not, so I asked them to cancel my order for now and refund my money, which they did. Paypal only gives you 45 days to file a dispute, so it is not in the interest of the consumer to sit around and wait while a e-tailer claims delay after delay. I don’t think this site is any sort of scam, I just don’t think they were prepared for the level of interest which the first Ultracapacitor powered consumer product would bring. Update: The company refunded my money promptly and even offered me a discount should I reorder once the screwdrivers are back in stock.

Another consumer Ultracapacitor product which interests me greatly is the Light for Life Flashlight. I like LED flashlights in about the same way as Imelda Marcos likes shoes. The Light for Life Flashlight is a large foot long club style flashlight, similar in a lot of ways to the ubiquitous 3 D cell Mag-lite, popular with security personnel the world over for its use as a multi-purpose device, to not put it too finely. The Light for Life is a bit wider in the barrel than the Mag-lites and also is made of plastic. This combined with the lighter weight of Ultracapacitors may make this flashlight a little less popular with the club em over the head crowd. On the other hand, the light for life promises around an hour of use at ~100 lumens with a ~300 lumen high brightness mode is also available although using it in that mode seriously curtails runtime. The real selling point of the Light for Life is that it takes a mere 90 seconds to recharge in the included cradle, which could be a real boon for a security guard walking patrols or just someone who wants a flashlight always ready to go at a moment’s notice without needing to search for a set of charged or fresh batteries.

I was quite curious about the Lite for Life, as I tend to haul my insomniac self out for an hour long walk usually between 1 and 3 AM. I am a hefty guy and it is rare that I encounter anyone on my walks, but I have noticed a definite uptick in shady vagrant types in nearby Factoria during the day and I have encountered some of them on the hill at night. The economy has gone to absolute hell and poverty makes people do stupid things. I’ve considered purchasing a stun-gun or a flashlight with built in stun-electrodes for personal defense, but I think a flashlight with a bit more heft to it might be almost as good in my case. I would never consider carrying a pistol. I usually walk with a LED blinker dangling from the backside of my jacket to make me visible to drunks approaching me from behind and I carry a smallish 3W LED flashlight in one hand to make myself visible to any cars I encounter ahead of me.

The release of the Light for Life has been delayed several times and is now delayed till June. The high price and delays of the Lite for Life made me a little skeptical of the product. Dan Rutter of Dan’s Data did an excellent technical analysis and running of the numbers on his blog and ultimately convinced me that I should just build my own. I started looking into the practicalities of what parts to use and found several faults with Dan’s analysis.

Dan’s energy calculations assumed a very high capacitance Ultracapacitor of 1200F and 2.7v. He notes that these are somewhat bigger than a D cell battery. The MC line of Ultracapacitors from Maxwell fall into this capacitance range, but they are almost twice the diameter of a D cell, which hardly makes for easy hand holding, assuming the capacitor is in the barrel of a flashlight. Maxwell makes another line of Ultracapacitors, the BC or “Boost Cap” line, which closely match the length and diameter of D cell batteries. These have a mere 350F capacity by comparison and a recommended voltage of 2.5 volt. You can likely over-volt these by a little bit without frying them, but you would be risking explosion (not to mention your expensive ultracaps). Energy storage goes as the square of the voltage, so higher voltage is desirable. Lets say you put 4 of these D cell sized Ultracaps in parallel, yielding 1400 F and push the voltage margin a little to 2.7 volts.

E = 1/2 * C * V^2 = 5103 Joules of stored energy. A high efficiency, high power LED such as a some of the new Cree emitters deliver a nice 100 lumens per watt. A watt is a joule/second, so you would get about 85 minutes out of such an arrangement, right? WRONG! WRONG! WRONG!

While the ultracapacitor bank can definitely hold that much raw energy and one can in theory drain a capacitor dry, in practice it is much more complex. If one connected up a capacitor directly to a LED, the LED would happily fry itself. There is next to no internal resistance in the capacitor and the LED will gladly try to draw a huge amount of current through itself and overheat and fry in a scant second or two. A cheap LED flashlight will typically use a resistor to limit the current flowing through the LED. Even in battery powered flashlights this is sub-optimal, as battery voltage tends to drop somewhat as it is depleted and different battery formulations tend to have different fully charged voltages. Cheap resistor limited flashlight tend to dim noticeably as the battery discharges and is a poor solution when trying to drain every last drop out of a battery. Better quality flashlights use some type of switching mode power supply and constant current regulator circuit to keep the LED shining at as constant a brightness as possible over the life of a BATTERY, without frying the LED. The key word there is BATTERY, as virtually all the commercially available circuitry for doing this is geared towards BATTERY use.

The voltage of a capacitor drops linearly as it is discharged. That 5103 Joules number we got assumes that we can drain every last bit of charge from out capacitor bank. The problem is that transistors need a certain amount of voltage difference to operate. An LED happens to be one form of transistor. A high power Luxeon LED emitter needs ~2.8 volts of potential difference just to start producing light and most seem happiest at around 3.6 volts.

Thus, we need a way to boost the voltage from our capacitor bank to drive the LED. A type of regulator circuit which boosts a range of lower voltages to a target higher voltage is known as a boost regulator. Another type of regulator is a buck regulator, which takes a range of higher voltages and puts out a lower voltage. Combine the two and you get a regulator that can operate over a wide range above and below a target voltage. Unfortunately, when combined you loose a lot of efficiency, and so you usually want to try and use just one type. In our case, we are only working with voltage below our output voltage, so a boost regulator is what we need. We also want to limit the current to prevent the LED from overheating and frying itself. One popular commercially available LED driver that accomplishes both of these goals is the MicroPuck from LuxDrive. It can be configured as a number of different regulator types to suit various needs. Driver circuits are made up of transistors (and other assorted flotsam) and thus have a minimum voltage to operate. I searched around quite a bit and one of the nice things about the MicroPuck is that it stops working at the extremely low voltage of .8 volts. This still means that all that energy left under .8 volts in our capacitor bank is unavailable for use for purposes of driving the LED.

E = 1/2 * C * V^2 = .5 * 1400 * .8 * .8 = 448 Joules left behind.

So, our initial theoretical energy of 5103 Joules has been reduced by 448 to 4655. In addition to not being able to squeeze the capacitor bank dry, the driver circuit is somewhere between 70 and 80% efficient, depending on input voltage. This means we loose another chunk of our total available energy to the driver circuit. So, lets say we only have something like 3200 Joules that actually make it to the emitter. That is 3200 watt seconds. Divide by 60 and you get about 53 minutes of light.

To some, a flashlight which only lasts about an hour doesn’t make much sense, but to me, a flashlight which lasts the length of my walk and can be recharged and ready to go in a matter of minutes without needing to swap batteries and which will likely NEVER need replacement makes perfect sense.

Posted in General | 2 Comments »

Daft Keyboard

Posted by Deliverator on 11th March 2009

Because Scott is bored and needs to practice his hand eye coordination:

Daft Keyboard

Go Scott, Go!

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The Coming Age of the Super Capacitor

Posted by Deliverator on 6th March 2009

Whether you are talking Lead-Acid, Lithium ION, Lithium Polymer, NIMH or NiCd you are constantly confronted with a simply expressed truth. Batteries suck. Different formulations suck in different ways. How do I loathe thee, let me count the ways:

-Self Discharge (the tendency for batteries to drain themselves over time)
-Diminished capacity over time
-Operational lifetimes on the order of several hundred to a few thousand charge cycles. Even less in batteries that exhibit “Memory” when not charged/discharged in the correct way.
-Risk of fire and explosion
-Toxic, caustic or environmentally damaging components.
-Long charge times and poor ability to dump stored energy quickly
-Performance variation at low or high temperatures

New improved formulations and manufacturing techniques have offered incremental improvements in recent years, but not on a grand scale. Batteries still suck, they just suck slightly less.

There is one energy storage device which does not suffer from the various ills which afflict batteries, namely capacitors. Capacitors can be charged and discharged quickly, can be charged a near infinite number of times and offer relatively temperature invariant performance. The problem, historically, has been that capacitors of all types have only been able to store a near infinitesimal amount of energy compared to a battery. In recent years, there has been an increasing amount of interest in what are usually called Ultra or Super-Capacitors. Although underlying technologies vary, in the last few years capacitors with energy densities within an order of magnitude of the best batteries have hit the market and have found some niche uses due to their unique properties. There are super capacitors commercially available now with energy densities similar to lead acid batteries (~30 Watt Hours per Kilogram) and capacitors have been publicly demonstrated with energy densities of 3 times that amount. That is within spitting distance of the best batteries available today with almost none of the drawbacks! Companies like EEStor are promising even higher energy densities, but their claims have not undergone scientifically independent verification and duplication. If their claims prove true, it will spark a technological revolution on the same order as the advent of the microprocessor.

In the meantime, real honest to god super capacitors are starting to trickle onto the market in actual, purchasable consumer products. I recently purchased my first, a Coleman branded electric screwdriver. While Coleman doesn’t claim their product is able to sink as many screws in a row as a lithium ion powered counterpart, one can recharge their screwdriver in a mere 90 seconds and get right back to work. They claim they can sink far more screws / hour than a lithium on the premise that the lithium battery and a presumed spare in rotation will both be sitting idle needing a long recharge while you can just keep going till the cows come home with their super capacitor (they call it Flashcell for marketing purposes) powered unit. Ridiculously high replacement battery prices for cordless power tools make the near infinite cycle capacity of the super capacitor a very attractive proposition. It is quite possible that capacitor powered electronics could be passed down as geek heirlooms which far outlast their owner’s lifetime! I hope to have my unit soon and promise to put it to a thorough testing and report back with any personal observances.

Posted in General, Portable Computing/Gadgets, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | 3 Comments »

Why Old Media Deserves to Die

Posted by Deliverator on 5th March 2009

It looks like The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a newspaper which has been in existence for some 137 years is likely to close up shop within a few weeks time, or be cut back to the extent that they are no longer recognizable. It is likely that some web-only presence will remain, but print runs will cease and employment will be decimated. It is not entirely unlikely that the Seattle Times will fold in the not too distant future as well. Old media, for a large variety of reasons is facing tough times and I have a tough time finding pity for them. They have been all too slow to adapt to changing times and quite simply don’t get the power and opportunities of The Internet. Most of the traditional newspaper’s online presences merely ape the appearance of the dead tree edition and do little to leverage the power of the web. To them, it is just another delivery mechanism (a series of tubes, perhaps?) to deliver the same content in the same top down, one way, non-interactive fashion. Fundamentally, not only are content providers having a difficult time figuring out how to make money on the web, they are having as much of a problem figuring out how the web can save them money.

I recently read a back of the napkin analysis that suggested that amortized over the period of a few years, it would be cheaper for The New York Times to buy all their readers a Kindle than to print and deliver them a daily dead tree edition. I would be very interested in media producers subsidizing the high cost of a Kindle II or similar device in order to get their content in front of consumer eyeballs. Somehow, I suspect that the NYT will keep on moving dead trees around till their dying day and their online presence will remain shrouded behind a pay wall or login prompt, increasingly making them irrelevant to broad public discourse on the day’s events.

Today, I was listening to a podcast of an episode of This American Life. Ira Glass, the show’s host, came on at the beginning of the Podcast to talk about how the Podcast is costing the station something like $150,000 a year in bandwidth bills. This American Life’s solution to their budget problem was to beg the public for money. I feel profoundly disinclined to cough up my hard earned when something as simple as providing an optional torrent feed of their show in parallel to their existing feed would greatly diminish those costs. Other nationally syndicated radio shows have already demonstrated that this can work and it basically costs them nothing to provide. This American Life has a large and rabid fan base and I would gladly pitch in a few bucks to make my commute more interesting if the Ira Glass was asking his listeners to please click on a this link rather than that link in order to help save them money.

There is a lot of Old Media I like and I am more than a little nostalgic about a lot of it, but I am also very excited about the new forms and directions that media is taking and in the end, there are only so many minutes in the day and bucks in my pocket. I will chose the options that are broadly accessible, usable and convenient to me and avoid ones which require me to jump through hoops, utilize special software or proprietary devices and try to substitute some pseudo-form of rental instead of real ownership upon me. Culture has become broad enough that when faced with even the slightest inconvenience the modern media consumer can simply swerve towards some other shiny thing.

Posted in Books, General, Media, Movies, Music, Rants and Raves | No Comments »