Fun with Tubes

Fun with Tubes (reprinted from the Metro Spirit, 8-29-13)

“Ah, what a life!”

I’m pretty sure that’s what he’s saying to me right now.  After all, just look at him, sitting there nibbling on one kernel of corn after another.

“Don’t look at me like you’re not in trouble,” I say in response to his innocent stare.  “How many times do I have to tell you the wheel is off limits between 11pm and 4am?”

Of course, I’m talking to the newest member of our family, a yet-to-be-named, brown fluff ball of a hamster.  I have to admit he’s a cute little fluff ball, but the past week he’s taken to midnight runs on the wheel.  The first night he woke the girls up, last night it was my wife, and tonight it’s my turn.

“So little guy, now that I’m up, why don’t you tell me what cute little rodentia like yourself do in the middle of the night?”

I reach over and that did it.  He’s gone straight for the tube.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the tube is this little guy’s happy place.  He’s spent most of his time with us curled up and hidden away.  At first we thought he was shy, but I’m beginning to believe he just likes the tube.  And it only takes a moderately contrived thought process to see why.  The tube limits the scope of your universe and gives you a sense of protection.  Yet the tube provides an opportunity for exploration – who doesn’t get excited thinking about what’s around the next corner?  The tubes at McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A are some of our kids’ favorite places.  And you’ll never admit it, but we all know you secretly got excited when they couldn’t find a way out, and you had to go on a tube rescue.

Hence it’s with no great surprise that the Hyperloop is receiving positive reviews.  The Hyperloop is a theoretical form of high-speed transportation proposed by Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX.  The proposal involves placing a capsule inside a reduced-pressure tube, suspending the capsule on air bearings and propelling the capsule with linear electric magnets.  Musk theorizes that the capsule could travel over 600 miles per hour, transforming the trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles into a 30-minute commute.  In addition, Musk believes you can build a Hyperloop for a small fraction of the cost of a conventional high-speed rail project.

So as I sit here watching a hamster wedge himself into his tube and contemplating near-supersonic travel through a 350-mile long cylinder, it occurs to me that I haven’t mentioned anything about carbon nanotubes or their potential use in constructing a space elevator.  Unfortunately, this faux rat has kept me up far to long to get started on a new topic.  I’ll just reference the Georgia Tech Epic Welcome Speech and include a link.  Enjoy!

Until next time, I’m off the grid.  @gregory_a_baker

Smartphones: The Good, the Sad, and the Crazy

Smartphones: The Good, the Sad, and the Crazy (reprinted from the Metro Spirit, 8 -22 -13)

Just as folks in my generation remember the Friday evening trips to Blockbuster, this decade’s crop of teenagers will likely think back on their first iPhone or Android.  In just a few short years, mobile devices have evolved from voice to email to music to video.  And according to a study released earlier this summer, over 50 percent of Americans now own smartphones.

You can’t go anywhere without seeing someone tapping and swiping at their phone:  the mom in Walmart scouting the online pricing, the dad in the grocery store checking his list, the teeanage guy making plans with his friends or the teenage girl sending pictures of clothes to her BFF while trying to find that perfect outfit.  Of course, our home life has been transformed as well.  Just last weekend my family got together for lunch with the grandparents.  After lunch, we all stretched out around the TV just like we’ve always done.  However, this time no one turned on the TV.  There was no need since we each had our own “device” to keep us happy.

On September 10, Apple is expected to release their latest incarnation of the iPhone.  It’s pretty certain that it will be called the iPhone 5S.  No killer features are rumored to be part of the update, although it’s recently been reported that it will be available in a gold casing (ahh…).  The big rumor is the existence of a budget-conscious iPhone 5C.  The iPhone 5C (if it exists) would be released at a lower price and would likely come with a plastic case and limited features (bye-bye Siri?).

The mood leading up to this iPhone release seems to be mostly of disappointment.  Samsung, HTC, Nexus and others are generally recognized as having the more advanced feature sets.  However, the Apple experience is more than just the device.  Apple still has the best App store and media library, and the best interoperability between different Apple devices.  Google is definitely catching up, but this fight is long from over.

For another icon of mobile computing, however, their fate has been sealed.  At one point Research In Motion’s Blackberry products held over a 50 percent share of the mobile computing market.  Blackberry’s were the first true smartphone and gave rise to legions of “Crack”-berry addicts.  When Apple released the iPhone and transformed mobile from text into a full media experience, Blackberry choose to remain tied to the corporate enterprise and its proprietary management network.  By the time Blackberry figured out that people prefer photos, video and music over text, it was too late.  This past week, Blackberry put itself up for sale.

Now the good news…there has never been a better time to buy a Blackberry!  I’m not kidding.  For all you Blackberry die-hards, the Q10 was released earlier this summer to good reviews.  The Q10 sports a full QWERTY keyboard with keys that are 30 percent larger than prior Blackberry’s.  Now the screen is small by smartphone standards, and the app library is almost non-existent.  But that doesn’t matter.  This phone is about email, text and the keyboard.  If that is you (don’t be bashful, we know you are out there), this is your phone!

Until next time, I’m off the grid.  @gregory_a_baker

Favorite Colors

Favorite Colors (reprinted from the Metro Spirit 8-15-13)

The discussion of favorite colors is a popular topic of childhood.  My two daughters talk about colors for hours, describing why one color is better than another.  For example, orange is great for pumpkins and leaves, but “I don’t think it makes a very good dress.  At least not for me, Daddy.”    Fortunately, my girls mostly agree on colors (at least for now), and each espouses their own signature tint.  The one daughter loves the color blue, but not in a fanatical way.  She doesn’t seem to be partial to any particular shade, and she will wear clothes of different colors.  But when the crayons get put to use, the sky, a lake and big blue eyes always stand out.

My other daughter is obsessive.  Her pallet consists of a single hue.  Weeks can go by before we see her dressed in a different shade.  This color features prominently in her drawings.  Quite literally, we have multiple books where this color is the central theme.  So I can’t understate how much fun it was watching my daughter’s reaction when I showed her a news article on my iPad.

“Hey, sweetie, guess what?  They found a pink planet!”

The planet’s name is GJ504b, and astronomers estimate it’s about four times the size of Jupiter.  The star system is about 57 light years away, and the star can be seen with the naked eye in the constellation Virgo.  The determination that the planet is pink (technically, a “dark cherry blossom”) is actually a fairly big deal.  GJ504b is only the second planet outside the solar system to be successfully imaged.  Typically, planets around other stars are detected by observing gravitational “wobbles” caused by the planet’s orbit.

GJ504b also calls into question some of the assumptions we have regarding planetary formation.  In short, the planet is too big given how far away it is from its sun.  According to the scientific models, the planet shouldn’t be there.

That would be fine as far as Mattel is concerned.  After all, the Mars Explorer Barbie that was released last week just became obsolete.

Green Apples – September 10th is the date.  On that day, Apple is expected to release its new iPhone.  Most analysts expect that the new model will be called iPhone 5s.   Other than using the new iOS 7 operating system, only minor performance improvements in the base model are expected.  The most anticipated announcement is in regards to an expected iPhone 5c.  This iPhone model is expected to be released at a lower price point.  Instead of aluminum, the casing is made of plastic and is available in several colors: red, blue, yellow, green and white.  Historically, Apple has used older models to address lower prices points, so this would be a big change in Apple strategy.

Until next time, I’m off the grid. @gregory_a_baker


It’s New to Me

It’s New to Me (reprinted from the Metro Spirit, 8-8-13)

Hey, y’all.  Sorry I’m so late.  My wife and I are about halfway through the first season of Veronica Mars, and we wanted to finish the episode we were watching.  I’m not sure how we missed the series when it originally aired.  Thank goodness for iTunes!

BTW – When I first looked it up, I thought $30 for a full season was high.  But when you factor in the $150/month for cable and Internet, there’s a case to be made to go Download Only.  For example, you can get five seasons of your favorite Disney show – personally, I would have to select “Good Luck, Charlie” – for the same price as one month of cable.  Now you might argue that you still have to have Internet, but do you really?  There are dozens of places in this city where you can get free Internet, both ethically and otherwise.  An opportunistic moment to download the newest releases, and your weekend entertainment is complete.

Of course, no system is perfect.  A quick check of iTunes and Netflix show that Sharknado is still not available.  (Well, Poop.)                  

I’m Nothing Without You – This past weekend, we took our girls camping in the North Carolina mountains.  It was absolutely wonderful.  We went hiking and had picnic lunches up in the hills.  We made a campfire and attempted to cook over it (emphasis on “attempted”).  By any standard, it was a great family weekend.  Except for one thing…

You always hear people talk about wanting to get away from everything, to go somewhere with no cell phone reception.  Well, the truth is that these people lie.  I know this because my wife and I spent three days with no cell phone reception, and we were totally useless.  With no map apps, we rarely knew where we were or if we were going in the right direction.  With no Internet, we couldn’t Google nearby activities or interesting landmarks to explore.  With no phone service, there was no way to call for help when we got lost.  And with no email, we were cut off from the rest of our world – just a poor group of lonely travelers searching for a better place!

Long story short…the folks at the campsite lodge had an Internet connection they let us use.  (Global anarchy averted.  Whew!)  We still got lost every time we attempted to go somewhere, but at least when we got back to the campsite, we could tweet about it! 

Privacy, Please – Of course, privacy concerns are still all over the news, or at least those news organizations not managed by the state-run media.  One article in particular caught my attention.  The article describes a security vulnerability that could lead to surveillance and treachery in one of our culture’s most private of activities.

The Japanese-manufactured Satis is a high-tech human waste handling system, i.e. an advanced toilet.  This toilet includes some very impressive features: automated seat lifting, integrated MP3 player, heated seat, integrated air purifier, under-seat lighting and automated dual bidet management to name a few.  All of the toilet’s features are controlled via Bluetooth connectivity between the toilet and a downloaded smartphone app.

Here’s the rub.  The Bluetooth pin needed to pair the phone and toilet is hardcoded into the toilet’s software.  As a result, anyone within pairing distance can hijack the toilet.  It’s plain to see that the results would be disastrous.  A disabled air purifier or an opportunistic spray of the bidet would wipe away any belief that this private moment was being respected.

And can you imagine what would happen if the NSA got there hands on one of these babies?  The crap would surely hit the fan.

Until next time, I’m off the grid.  @gregory_a_baker


How About a Trade?

How About a Trade? (reprinted from the Metro Spirit 8-1-13)

How About a Trade? – A historic vote occurred last week in regards to the massive NSA domestic surveillance effort.  In a truly non-partisan vote, 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats joined together in an effort to stop funding the program.  The coalition was not successful, and the continuous government monitoring of its citizens will continue. put together an interesting follow-up to this story using data from and assembled by  It turns out that the receipt of defense industry campaign contributions effectively predicted the vote.  The average Big Brother supporter received over $40,000 in campaign contributions from the military industrial complex over the past two years, while those that opposed the all-seeing Eye of Sauron averaged under $20,000.

Those trends held true for our local representatives.  Paul Broun and Jeff Duncan voted to end the spying program.  Combined, they received only $31,000 in contributions from the defense lobby. 

John Barrow and Joe Wilson voted to continue keeping records of your every cell phone call.  Apparently, both Rep. Barrow and Rep. Wilson have many supporters within the defense community.  John Barrow received over $41,0000 over the past two years, and Joe Wilson received over $100,000 over the same time period.

I guess when you have that kind of support, it’s easy to trade away freedom and put the voters under constant watch.  Of course, Ben Franklin had a different point of view.

“Those that sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.”

Spotting Sputnik – One of my most memorable and favorite professors from graduate school passed away recently.  Dr. Raynor Duncombe worked as an astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory and later as faculty at the University of Texas at Austin.  He was part of early days of America’s space program, working on the Vanguard, Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs.  I vividly remember his lecture relating his experience as a member of the three-man team that first calculated the orbit of Sputnik.  The calculations were literally done by hand using a slide rule.  I know this because he showed us the notes.

Dr. Duncombe taught a somewhat unassuming course called “The Determination of Time.”  Strictly speaking, it was a survey course covering the methods and instruments of measuring time intervals.  Dr. Duncombe turned it into a study of the history and science of time keeping.

Time originates from the slow, constant turning of the Earth beneath the stars.  Moreover, those same stars tell us where we are on the Earth, and if we are skilled enough to read them, where we are going.  Generations of explorers used the stars to navigate the oceans and the deserts, to determine the seasons and the passing of time.  Of course, the old techniques have given way to radio beacons, laser ranging, and GPS.  Today, all it takes is a quick check of Google Maps, and we are on our way.  Thank you, Dr. Duncombe, for sharing the history of timekeeping and helping me to appreciate how reading the stars shaped our history.  

Until next time, I’m off the grid.  @gregory_a_baker