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The Engineer's Notebook

The Engineer's Notebook is a shared blog for entries that don't fit into a specific CR4 blog. Topics may range from grammar to physics and could be research or or an individual's thoughts - like you'd jot down in a well-used notebook.

2038: Y2K 2.0?

Posted July 06, 2015 9:03 AM by Jonathan Fuller
Pathfinder Tags: 2038 problem date bug Y2K

Who could forget Y2K? I have fond memories of counting down to midnight on January 1, 2000 prepared to witness planes fall from the sky and neighbors rushing to their cars to initiate bank runs as computer systems reverted back to William McKinley's presidency. Little chaos actually occurred, of course, even in non-remediated computer systems. In the present day, though, worrywarts have set their sights on 2038, the latest date bug for which we're all currently unprepared.

Since the dawn of widespread computer systems date bugs have occurred for various reasons. Systems crashed on January 4, 1975 because that date overflowed the 12-bit time field in certain operating systems. The less-publicized Y2K+10 problem was due to a variance in the way hexadecimal and binary-coded decimal (BCD) represent numbers. In short, BCD systems mistakenly read hexadecimal encoding as "2016" rather than 2010, deactivating 20 million German bank cards but not much else. And the original Y2K was an issue because early time systems represented years as two digits rather than four, so unmodified computers would represent 2000 as 1900.

Y2038 is pretty similar to the 1975 incident in that it's essentially an overflow problem for Unix or Unix-like systems. These systems encode dates as a 32-bit integer, time_t, representing the number of seconds since the Unix epoch, 00:00:00 Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) on January 1, 1970. In the constantly incrementing binary integer, the first digit has always been 0, representing a future date post-1970. But the integer will wrap at 3:14:07 UTC on January 19, 2038. At this point, it will be a 1 (indicating a "past", or pre-1970, date) followed by a string of 31 zeroes, leading systems to encode a date of December 13, 1901.

Early programmers used 32-bit Unix coding because they didn't have the luxury of using fast, cheap memory and processors like the ones we run into today. A number of modern data structures still use 32-bit embedded time representations, however. File systems, databases, older COBOL systems, manufacturing equipment, and certain medical devices are all at risk of failure if not corrected.

Because this problem has been recognized and defined a good 23 years before its critical failure point, some researchers believe that some future technology might be able to bypass the situation altogether without any scrambling to modify today's systems. It's also reasonable to assume that at least some existing systems will be updated, and that fixes could become sticky. Remapping time_t to a 64-bit integer is simple enough, but persistent data migration could be time-consuming and costly. And if file system data is incorporated into remote networks, techs must update time values across all points of the system at once.

We don't know exactly what'll happen in January 2038. Long-lived embedded systems with future planning and forecasting cycles might cause minor infrastructure difficulties if not upgraded. Twenty years from now might therefore be a great time to get into IT consulting, yet as the old IT adage goes: if the job gets done and done well, no one will notice anyway.

Image credit: John Swindells / CC BY-SA 2.0

2 comments; last comment on 07/08/2015
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Speaking of Social Robots...

Posted June 18, 2015 12:00 AM by Jonathan Fuller

The fact that we humans have a predilection for sociable robots is pretty well mirrored in our science fiction creations. Rosie's smart-aleck comments on The Jetsons, Asimov's positronic robot brains, A.I.'s robotic version of Pinocchio--all of these point to our fantasies about humanistic robots that can think, feel, and act like us.

Social robots are far from ubiquitous in the US and Europe, where the extent of our everyday interactions with robotics ends with the occasional Roomba. But in Japan, where culture dictates that inanimate objects have spirit and personality, they're rapidly becoming commonplace. If the spread of social robots is indeed inevitable, what effect will they have on our own social expectations?

Robots that imitate speech and other human behaviors have been around for decades. My generation and those before it may recall Tamogatchis, the pocket-sized digital pets that "grow" when nurtured by their owners; and Furbies, fuzzy domestic robots programmed to "learn" English over time. While these toys provided a bit of youthful amazement through clever programming and simulation, they ultimately didn't carry much practical value.

Today's robots are considerably more useful. One of the Japanese robots, Paro, is fashioned after a baby harp seal and has been sold commercially since 2004. Paro is a therapeutic robot for use in nursing homes, mental health facilities, and hospitals to calm patients--essentially a robotic version of an animal-assisted therapy pet. As such, it's designed to be as cute as possible and responds to gentle stroking using tactile sensors. Paro can also simulate emotions, respond to specific sounds, and learn a patient's name.

A second robot, Pepper, is a little creepier and more advanced. About the size of a six-year-old, he's equipped with a 3D camera that can sense activity within a 10 ft range. Pepper's camera and other sensors allow him to read nonverbal social cues in order to detect emotions, granting him something like artificial empathy. While he's not as glamorous as controlled humanistic robots like Geminoid F, Pepper is the closest we've come to developing a robot that serves as a reliable companion by both semi-intelligently conversing and simulating understanding.

Pepper's been a fixture in many SoftBank Mobile stores in Japan as a greeter and passive salesperson. (It's no coincidence that Tokyo-based SoftBank owns Pepper's manufacturer, French company Aldebaran Robotics.) And he's been on sale commercially since February of this year for the astonishingly low price of 198,000 yen, or around $1,600.

Social robots have their detractors, such as Sherry Turkle, a psychology professor and head of MIT's Initiative on Technology and Self. Turkle has voiced concerns over the shallowness of robotic interaction, citing social robots as the latest in a string of technologies--including texting and social networking--that clean up messy and unpredictable human relationships to the degree that Her becomes reality sooner than we'd anticipated. (She also has a pretty interesting TED talk about how technology shapes our psychology and emotions.) Turkle's underlying thesis is that as we increasingly lean on technology for social stimulation, the less we expect from (or even want to be with) each other.

While Paro's doing well in therapeutic applications and Pepper's influence is growing, they give off the unsettling vibe of being not-quite-alive. And, as the video above shows, Pepper's conversation skills still lead to dodged questions and dead ends that would render it DOA in a Turing test. Now that I think of it, these traits might catapult him into a new career as a robot politician...

Image credit: Jennifer / CC BY-SA 2.0

4 comments; last comment on 06/27/2015
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The Hyperloop Lives

Posted June 09, 2015 2:34 PM by HUSH

If you ever compose a blog for CR4, prepare to be told you're wrong. It has happened to me dozens of times and it's somewhat of an 'earned stripe.' Well by now, I've been writing on CR4 long enough to witness myself become wrong.

In July 2013, when Elon Musk publically debuted his idea for the Hyperloop, I believed that the Hyperloop was innovative and exciting, but that red tape and the wild price would prevent it from usurping high-speed rail, or ever being realized. Musk had retasked some engineers at SpaceX and Tesla to work on his Hyperloop concept. He then debuted the open-source project with a lengthy white paper and invited other entrepreneurs to improve the Hyperloop design, since Musk was too busy to pursue the project himself.

Even today it is easy to see why I was so pessimistic at the time. A full-scale Los Angeles to San Francisco Hyperloop would cost $7.5 billion, according to Musk. A UC Berkeley professor estimated the real expense to be more like $100 billion. It would be built completely from conjectural technology, and though several independent engineering firms said that the concept was feasible, it needed work. Also, the rider experience could be distressing, as people are subjected to 800 mph in sealed, claustrophobia-inducing metal capsules.

But the invitation from Musk was all it took for several startups to jump onto the Hyperloop bandwagon, and the most successful is Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, which is building a five-mile-long test track in California for $100 million. HTT enlisted the help of over 100 engineers around the U.S. who participated remotely for stock rather than salary. HTT won't go so far as to say its five-mile-long track is a prototype, as it won't have the speed or distance of a true Hyperloop (though those specs have yet to be released). Rather, it will be used to test Hyperloop concepts. HTT expects this sub-Hyperloop to be opened by 2017 with public ridership by 2018.

A few of the areas under scrutiny? Capsule design is one of them. Engineers discovered that the capsules featured in Musk's original design weren't feasible. HTT sees a future where each capsule is unique-some are first class, some can transport a car or cargo, some are slower for anxious or ill riders. HTT has also put four-foot-diameter wheels on the trains to help cornering. It is also important to see how the Hyperloop responds to seismic activity, as the loop needs to remain smooth and sealed for its entire length. Eventually HTT wants to bring sub-Hyperloops to most metro areas, at first linking cities and then establishing intra-city networks.

Of course because one is never enough, Musk is still planning on building his own prototype Hyperloop in Texas. I'm surprised the Hyperloop is making such ambitious progress, but it still seems far off from being a practical solution. I'd love to see it built, but it's more likely to end up like other atmosphere railways-an abandoned tunnel 100 years from now--than as a disruptive technology.

7 comments; last comment on 08/23/2015
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Golf Courses: Less Green is Greener

Posted June 08, 2015 11:39 AM by BestInShow

Do golf courses eat up more than their share of scarce resources, especially water? Of the approximately 35,000 golf courses worldwide, fewer than 250 are true links courses, which require less water. The remainder consists of an estimated (2003) 1.2 million acres of irrigated turfgrass.

The United States Golf Association (USGA) and many of its member courses are working to make sustainability a reality. Charlotte News-Observer columnist Luke DeCock quoted USGA executive Mike Davis on factors affecting the game of golf's sustainability: "All of us who care about the game, we talk about the time it takes, the dwindling participation levels from junior golfers, we talk about the cost of the game. At the USGA we would say the biggest threat, the biggest threat to the game long term, is water." Pinehurst Course #2, host of both the 2014 U.S. Open and the U.S. Women's Open, is a standout example of the move towards smarter water usage for golf courses.

A bit of Pinehurst history

Founded in 1895 by Boston soda-fountain magnate James Walker Tufts, the village of Pinehurst , N.C., opened its first golf course in 1901. The legendary golf course designer Donald Ross laid out Pinehurst's second and most famous course, the eponymous No. 2, which opened for 18-hole play in 1907. Ross said of Pinehurst No. 2 that it was "the fairest test of championship golf that I have ever designed," quite a statement considering Ross's legacy of more than 400 courses. For 2013-2014, Golf magazine experts voted No. 2 the 16th-best in the world. And Pinehurst No. 2 has hosted more single golf tournaments than any other course in the U.S. Clearly, this is a legendary golf course.

So why tamper with success?

Restoration of No. 2 to the spirit of Ross's original design kicked off in 2010 and was completed in time for the 2014 championships. Over time, the course had evolved away from Ross's original design, with more turf and more groomed "rough." So one compelling reason to renovate No. 2 was simply to return the course to the design Ross intended.

According to DeCock, one reason Ross's rough consisted of sand and local plants - some might call them weeds -- was due to the lack of modern irrigation technology. The designer also and perhaps more importantly wanted the course to reflect the local topology, more along the lines of courses in his native Scotland. The very rough "rough" was essential to his vision for the course, part of giving golfers strategic choices on each hole.

Today, golf course managers, supported and encouraged by the USGA, are implementing management methods that reduce water use. For No. 2, the renovations included ripping out 40 acres of grass, including existing rough, and replacing it with the scrub brush and wire grass that grow naturally in Pinehurst's sandy Piedmont soil. A smaller, more centralized irrigation system is used sparingly. The result? Water use in 2014 is down 73% from 2009.

Do golfers like the changes?

Let's let golfers speak for themselves. First a couple of skilled amateurs:

I give everyone involved with the renovation of Pinehurst No. 2 a lot of credit: They took a top 10 public course in the country--one of the most unique golf experiences in the world--and by going back to the way it used to be, they made it better. Matt Ginella writing in Golf Digest, April 2, 2011.

… Pinehurst's sandy soil is its ultimate trump card over virtually every inland course in America. Reinstating the course's natural sandy qualities, rather than burying them beneath acres of Bermuda rough, was a key objective to Coore & Crenshaw's successful restoration project. Given that about 85% of the world's top twenty-five courses are built on sand, overstating its virtues is impossible. Posted by Graylin Loomis in his golf blog, 2014

And now, the pros weigh in, from a USA Today article prior to the 2014 US Open.

The redesign at Pinehurst was sensational, I think incorporating the native areas was just so well done … With no rough around the greens, the repellent greens, touch and chipping and the ability to salvage par is going to be critical. Phil Mickelson

It is everything that you have seen in the worst kept lawn you've ever seen in your life. It is dandelions growing up 12 to 15 inches, it is low‑growing weeds, and in some cases it's actually difficult to find the golf ball …It's a different type of rough and a different type of penalty. …I think it's going to be a hell of a test. Curtis Strange

Sounds like Pinehurst No.2 is once again the "fairest test" Donald Ross intended. This successful restoration/redesign should assure other golf course designers and managers that moving away from Augusta National-type manicured courses won't negatively impact golfers' enjoyment of the game.

Image credits

Pinehurst sign: Wikipedia

Hole 9, Pinehurst No. 2, before (top) and after (bottom). Copyrighted Illustration used courtesy Pinehurst Media


3 comments; last comment on 06/10/2015
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The Cult of the Lawn: Greener Alternatives

Posted May 29, 2015 11:54 AM by BestInShow

Disclaimer: This post is U.S.-centric. If you're a non-U.S. reader, please tell us about lawns in your area.

Last week's blog highlighted some of the many reasons to consider leaving The Cult of the Lawn behind. This week I'll describe the benefits of trying new ideas about lawns and some ways to implement these ideas.


Succinctly put, you save money, time, native wildlife, and the planet. Check the links below for detailed discussions.

  • Save money over the long haul: Replacing turfgrass with different groundcovers and taking other lawn-free steps requires an initial investment. Weigh the cost of a few years of lawn maintenance against the one-time cost of replacement, and you'll see the savings.
  • Reduce reliance on artificial fertilizer/pesticides/watering: The details here are too numerous to mention. Artificial fertilizers damage soil structure and produce runoff that harms ponds, lakes, and rivers. Pesticides kill good and bad bugs indiscriminately and can cause serious human and animal health problems. And can we afford to soak eight billion gallons of water a day onto lawns?
  • Provide habitat for native wildlife: Turfgrasses are chiefly European and Asian imports. This means that our traditional lawns don't support native insects or the critters that eat them, and so on up the food chain.

How to do it?

You can start out easily by swapping organic for traditional lawn care practices. And switch to lawn grasses that are suitable for your area. If you're in the U.S., find the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture's Cooperative Extension Service office for your county and visit their website to find appropriate grass species and cultivars for your location.

Regionally native grasses are another great choice. Natives are adapted to your biome so you don't have to recreate the plant's original biome. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center recently compared non-native Bermudagrass with lawns of Buffalograss and Buffalograss combined with other native short-growing species. Test results demonstrated that the lawns of mixed species was 30 percent thicker in spring and stayed 20 percent thicker than Bermudagrass through the hot summer.

If you want to go further, replace some turf areas with other low-growing groundcover plants. The variety of suitable groundcovers boggles the mind, from humble creeping thyme - which sends up a wonderful scent when you walk on it -- to exotic-sounding wild ginger, and many other options. Permeable paving is another good option for walkways and outdoor living areas. Check out these before-and-after pictures of a lawn conversion for more ideas.

If, as is likely, you have lawn that needs mowing, reduce your carbon footprint by using different lawn-care tools. Reel mowers cut the grass and provide exercise, but they're not suited to all yards. Electric lawn mowers and weed whackers eliminate mower emissions. Even if the electricity that powers electric tools comes from an inefficient power plant, you won't pump carbon monoxide and lead into the ambient air.

Or you could rent a herd of goats to do your mowing for you:

Image credits:


4 comments; last comment on 06/01/2015
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The Cult of the Lawn: Background and Issues

Posted May 22, 2015 9:55 AM by BestInShow
Pathfinder Tags: lawn care lawn history turfgrass

Disclaimer: This post is U.S.-centric. If you're a non-US reader, please tell us about lawns in your area.

Do you wonder, as you push your lawnmower around in the summer heat, who decided that big sweeps of green lawn are the ne plus ultra of groundcovers? Have you threatened just to pave over the lawn, paint the asphalt green, and be done with it? Would you buck the lawn cult and make a statement for our environment? Read on.

First, a little bit of lawn history. Close-cropped grassy lawns evolved in 18th-century Europe, as a symbol of wealth. Then, as now, lawn maintenance required hours of labor. Only the rich could afford to pay staff to keep the manor's grass pristine. And only the rich could set aside a piece of land strictly as an ornament, rather than use it for growing food or grazing animals. American colonists transplanted this mindset with them to the New World. The next time you groan at the thought of tending your lawn, thank the European landed gentry for landing you with this problem.

Chatsworth House, Darbyshire, UK, south elevation, lawn, and fountain

Photo © Copyright Mick Lobb and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License.

The suburbanization of the United States after World War II caused the Cult of the Lawn to grow exponentially. Builders typically threw down some grass seed and straw to create instant ground cover. Homeowners assaulted this persnickety plant community with artificial fertilizers, pesticides, water, and more water. The lawn cult pushed many homeowners to strive to grow the elusive best lawn in the neighborhood. Turfgrass-covered acreage isn't limited to private homes; in 2008, total lawn area was a whopping 40.5 million acres.

Today, we're more sensitive how we allocate scarce resources - including our own time and labor - and to the environmental impacts of our choices. Lawns have good uses for recreation and as "green" patios for outdoor living … but at a cost. Check this blog entry for more hair-raising statistics.

  • Pollution: Water pollution from fertilizer and pesticide runoff; air and noise pollution from lawn care tools
  • Water use: A 2008 estimate tallied 7 billion gallons of potable water used daily for lawns. Think of California next time you water the grass.
  • Pesticides: These synthetic poisons harm us, our pets, and beneficial critters. They also damage soil and make lawns thirstier.
  • Monoculture: Lawn grass provides no habitat for native fauna, and diseases can quickly devastate a lawn.High maintenance: Turfgrass requires regular mowing, aeration, feeding, and watering. Planting the wrong variety for your conditions, such as bluegrass in a shady spot, guarantees failure.

Unhealthy lawn. Photo from Gardening & Landscaping Stack Exchange

Next week's blog will describe sustainable turfgrass-replacement options and provide links to some excellent websites.


Ted Steinberg, American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn. W.W. Norton, 2007

Paul Robbins, Lawn People: How Grasses, Weeds, and Chemicals Make Us Who We are. Temple University Press, 2007.

23 comments; last comment on 05/28/2015
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