Jeff Hawkins On Early Laptops

Jeff Hawkins, founder of Palm and Handspring on why the first Laptop had trouble in the market:

This is an amazing fact. We had this product. It was designed for business executives. And the biggest obstacle, one of the biggest obstacles, we had for selling the product was the fact — believe it or not — that it had a keyboard. I was in sales and marketing. I saw this first-hand. At that time, 1982, business people, who were in their 40s and 50s, did not have any computer or keyboard in their offices. And it was associated with being part of the secretarial pool or the word processing (remember that industry?) department. And so you’d put this thing in their office and they’d say, “Get that out of here.” It was like getting a demotion. They really were uncomfortable with it.

Meanwhile today it’s pretty much unimaginable to me that an office wouldn’t have a keyboard. Out with the old, in with the new.

Getting Heart Rate From Video

From the creatives folks at Fitbit:

The basic idea is that the color of your face fluctuates slightly as blood perfusion under the skin changes from your heart’s pumping. If you measure the color change, you can measure heart rate. It sounds simple, but it’s not. One thing that makes this difficult is user motion: if the person being measured moves, it becomes difficult to disentangle cardiac-induced color changes from changes in lighting conditions on the face, rotations of the face, etc. But in some cases, we’re actually able to filter out some of this motion. Pretty cool, right?

This is hardly polished technology, but the idea is that you can get heart rate by looking at skin color changes. This is really pretty impressive. It’s a pretty clever approach. I’d be curious how well it transfers from using older film to using some modern 1080p broadcast quality video. Does the accuracy improve?

Project 1794

Project 1794 Flying Saucer

Pretty cool records recently declassified. From ExtremeTech:

The aircraft, which had the code name Project 1794, was developed by the USAF and Avro Canada in the 1950s. One declassified memo, which seems to be the conclusion of initial research and prototyping, says that Project 1794 is a flying saucer capable of “between Mach 3 and Mach 4,” (2,300-3,000 mph) a service ceiling of over 100,000 feet (30,500m), and a range of around 1,000 nautical miles (1,150mi, 1850km).

Looks a lot like the Avrocar in many respects. I wonder how many UFO reports in that era were perhaps manned or unmanned tests of this aircraft. I’d imagine it’s possible that while this is now declassified, the US Government still isn’t going to admit to what degree it was tested.

The Genius of Airline Baggage Tag Design

Slate has a great read on the design of airline baggage tags. My favorite part is the description of what the design needs to be able to deal with:

Let’s look first at how an ABT is made. In the interconnected, automated, all-weather world of modern aviation, tags must be resistant to cold, heat, sunlight, ice, oil, and especially moisture. Tags also can’t tear—and crucially, if they’re nicked, they must not tear further—as the bag lurches through mechanized airport baggage systems. And the tag must be flexible, inexpensive, and disposable. Plain old paper can’t begin to meet all these requirements. The winning combination is what IATA’s spokesperson described as a “complex composite” of silicon and plastic; the only paper in it is in the adhesive backing.

Bag tags must meet another set of contradictory requirements. They must be easy to attach, but impossible to detach—until, that is, the bag arrives safely at its destination and the traveler wants to detach it. Old tags were fastened with a string through a hole, but mechanized baggage systems eat these for breakfast. The current loop tag, a standardized strip of pressure-sensitive adhesive, looped through a handle and pressed to form an adhesive-to-adhesive bond, debuted with the ABT in the early ’90s. And the ABT, unlike string tags and earlier loop-y tag ideas, is easily attached to items that lack handles—boxes, say. Simply remove the entire adhesive backing and the loop tag becomes a very sticky sticker.

If you really think about it, it’s a pretty daunting set of requirements. The design they went with is not only quite simplistic and easy to print out it’s also quite effective.

While you can reduce it to a mundane sticker it’s a pretty impressive feat of engineering from the selection of a glue that can meet these requirements to a composite “paper”.

The CD Is Now 30 Years Old

The CD is now 30 years old:

The digital music revolution officially hit 30 years ago, on Oct. 1, 1982. While you may be surprised to learn that the heralds of the coming age were, in fact, the Bee Gees, it probably comes as less of a shock to learn that Sony was at the very heart of it. After years of research and an intense period of collaboration with Philips, Sony shipped the world’s first CD player, the CDP-101. Music — and how we listen to it — would never be the same.

The CD is actually kind of strange. Most people would date CD’s to the late 80’s not the early 80’s. Presumably because of the adoption rate.

In related note, a curious little tidbit about the Sony CDP-101 from Wikipedia:

Due to the cost of producing Digital to Analogue converters at the time of its production, the CDP-101 features only one DAC, which is used for both the left and right audio channels. No sample-and-hold circuitry is present to delay the first channel until the other is ready, so the left and right channels are out of sync by approximately 11 µs.

Weird to think that’s what they had to do. Clever how they dealt with it.

Boosted Boards

The Boosted Board is essentially a motorized skateboard with the purpose of being your vehicle of choice for the “last mile”. For example getting you from that train/bus to your destination. It’s a really clever idea with some pretty awesome engineering behind it.

I’m skeptical it will catch on however. While it looks great in purpose, most of the places where this would be ideal, urban places with good public transportation are quite a bit more crowded than the video. I see this as being quite similar to the problem that gets in the way of the Segway. The big perk the Boosted Board has is it’s small and easy to carry on public transportation and would be lower cost. However, good luck operating one in NYC.

Invisible Airbag Bicycle Helmet

Hövding Bike Helmet Closed

This helmet looks pretty discrete when you put it on. Like an odd turtleneck or scarf. However it’s using accelerometers so that when triggered it inflates like an airbag in a fraction of a second. The result is this:

Hövding Bike Helmet Open

It potentially will solve the problem of people not liking helmets when bike riding. However it cost’s 3998 SEK which is about $568.54 US dollars. That’s a pretty expensive helmet. It won’t last forever either and must be cared for. This type of technology could save lives if it’s truly effective.

[Via John Gruber]

Air France Flight 447

Air France Flight 447 is the most puzzling crash since TWA Flight 800 because it just doesn’t make sense for the pilot to pull back and increase the angle of attack if they believed they were in a stall situation.

The NY Times reports:

The report offered an answer to a central puzzle: the consistent and aggressive “nose up” inputs by the pilot at the controls, which added to the loss of lift. Pilots are normally trained to point the nose of the aircraft down in a stall to regain speed.

The report said that the readings being gathered by the automated flight director — which uses cross hairs superimposed over an artificial horizon to indicate the required positioning of the plane — would have resulted in repeated calls for the plane’s nose to be lifted.

Popular Mechanic had a breakdown of the cockpit transcript a few months ago with this little tidbit:

02:11:03 (Bonin) Je suis en TOGA, hein?
I’m in TOGA, huh?

Bonin’s statement here offers a crucial window onto his reasoning. TOGA is an acronym for Take Off, Go Around. When a plane is taking off or aborting a landing—”going around”—it must gain both speed and altitude as efficiently as possible. At this critical phase of flight, pilots are trained to increase engine speed to the TOGA level and raise the nose to a certain pitch angle.

Clearly, here Bonin is trying to achieve the same effect: He wants to increase speed and to climb away from danger. But he is not at sea level; he is in the far thinner air of 37,500 feet. The engines generate less thrust here, and the wings generate less lift. Raising the nose to a certain angle of pitch does not result in the same angle of climb, but far less. Indeed, it can—and will—result in a descent.

Another seemingly valid explanation, though still puzzling that a pilot would try that at that altitude. Ultimately the end result was tragic:

By now the plane has returned to its initial altitude but is falling fast. With its nose pitched 15 degrees up, and a forward speed of 100 knots, it is descending at a rate of 10,000 feet per minute, at an angle of 41.5 degrees. It will maintain this attitude with little variation all the way to the sea. Though the pitot tubes are now fully functional, the forward airspeed is so low—below 60 knots—that the angle-of-attack inputs are no longer accepted as valid, and the stall-warning horn temporarily stops. This may give the pilots the impression that their situation is improving, when in fact it signals just the reverse.

So the final lesson is that they didn’t know how to fly the aircraft without the fancy computers, or at least forgot how to do so under pressure. Scary. Technology is great at assisting humans or replacing humans. However when ill equipped and prepared humans think they know better bad things can happen. This is why training is important.

This goes well beyond aviation. Knowing how/why things work, even when it’s computerized is important. Even more so when many lives are at stake.

More On Cell Phones vs. Toilets

India has 919 million [pdf] mobile phone users as of March 2012. That’s out of a 1.2 billion (per Wikipedia) population. That’s about 75% of the population. Less than 50% of homes have toilets in India. It’s even worse for women in India to the point of a Right to Pee campaign.

I’ve touched on this now multiple times. Humanity has put mobile phones as a higher priority than hygiene, sanitation, safety and human dignity.

It’s a depressing statistic.