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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.

Self-Quantification and Supersensing Using Embeddables

Posted November 06, 2015 2:08 PM by Jonathan Fuller

If my last post on this blog didn't solidify it clearly enough, in many ways I might be labeled a neo-Luddite. Not anti-technology, per se, but concerned enough about its social and cultural ramifications that I stay away from a lot of tech, even that which makes my life a bit easier or more fun. And it's safe to say that wearables fall pretty far from my comfortable pseudotechnological center.

Imagine my horror, then, when I hear increasing buzz about embeddable tech. Embeddables one-up wearables in that they're designed to be injected or implanted directly into a human being. Futurists imagine "post-humans" stuffed with sensors that predict heart attacks, RFID tags that trigger thermostats to adjust a room's temperature based on its inhabitant, and phone infrastructure built into our bodies so we can make calls by snapping our fingers. While embeddables are being touted as the new "next big thing," they raise important questions about our relationship with technology.

The glaring question surrounding embeddable sensors is: Why? Why would anyone want to turn their bodies into a walking data acquisition system? For decades a movement-termed the Quantified Self since around 2002-has pushed self-monitoring and self-sensing technologies with the ultimate goal of...wait for it...lifelogging. While lifelogging has typically been done with wearable computers, embeddables would seem to transcend the human-machine barrier altogether, pushing us closer to becoming fabled transhumans.

On a widespread level, embeddables seem to have the most potential in the healthcare industry for monitoring insulin or other bodily parameters. The cochlear implant, while not a sensor, has been an effective (albeit expensive) treatment for tens of thousands of deaf patients, for example. But will they ever reach the average consumer? Maybe, but not yet. While FitBit and other wearable activity monitors are becoming more and more popular, slow sales and (reportedly) high return rates have hampered Apple Watch, and Google Glass suffered a false start (to put it kindly) before being pulled from production. These warning signs are leading market analysts to question whether consumers really want-let alone need-to quantify their bodies or environments 24/7, or what they expect from wearables at all. Also, I'd think twice about embedding multiple devices emitting RF radiation under my skin. While we don't know the full effects of electromagnetic / cell phone radiation on our biological systems, I'd imagine if embeddables became a thing we'd find out pretty quickly.

Most of the current work on embeddables is done at the guerrilla level, in collaborative online forums like Its members have developed implantable compasses (basically bio-GPS), implantable RFID tags, and more. Rich Lee, a hacker who suffers from deteriorating eyesight, implanted headphones near his ear and has been training himself to use them for echolocation navigation in place of his eyes. Lee is also working on erogenous zone enhancement implants for the adult industry, which not surprisingly is a front-runner for commercially marketable implants.

It's disconcerting to realize that, with a complete lack of support from professional medical staff (with a conscience), biohackers essentially perform surgery on themselves or enlist tattoo and body modification artists to do it, which has led to some pretty horrific accidents. But with the myriad ethical uses for embeddables, these hackers and amateur surgeons might just increase public acceptance in a positive way.

Image credit: Nokola / CC BY 3.0

2 comments; last comment on 11/08/2015
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Questioning Smartphones and the Philosophy of Technology

Posted October 22, 2015 2:30 PM by Jonathan Fuller
Pathfinder Tags: ethics smartphone addiction

A story from the annals of Zen Buddhism goes something like this:

A man at a crossroads sees his friend on a horse speeding by at full gallop. Assuming he's on some urgent, important business, the man on the ground shouts, "Where are you going?" The man on the horse turns around and replies: "I don't know, ask the horse!"

A growing movement has been viewing certain technologies, namely smart mobile devices and social networking, as the horse. These folks--cultural researchers, psychologists, sociologists, proponents of mindfulness--have become concerned about technology's effects on our attention span, memory, relationships, and social skills. While some decry these critics as modern-day Luddites or technophobes, the red flags they raise seem annoyingly plausible, even to younger generations of phone addicts.

That most behavioral addictions exist--including smartphone addiction--is hotly debated, at least in the DSM and other standards. Whatever we want to term it, however, experts in multiple fields have raised red flags about "mobile phone overuse," its more PC name. Psychologists warn that while smart device use gives the illusion of being connected to others, it's actually reducing our capacity for unique face-to-face emotions like true empathy. Philosopher and social critic Louis Székely (okay, actually comedian Louis C.K.) purports that smartphone use and even texting can rob us of our very humanity (Warning: possibly offensive language and content).

But we humans have developed a more general predilection for using compulsions to ease our emotional malaise. Most critics of technology accept this and point to the fact that we fill that gap with overwork, smoking, drinking, hoarding, shopping, and eating, and that these behaviors outdate social media and smartphones. And while science tells us that phones are ruining our sleep and memories, drinking, smoking, and overeating ruin us in other areas anyway.

I happen to fall on the Luddite side of the smartphone argument. I belong to the 15% of "young[ish] adults" who don't own one. I see an individual's attention, as well as my own conversations, interrupted by phone alerts ("phubbing," if you will) all the time. They're evil, I tells ya. But while it's easy to make the argument and back it up, I get into problems when considering the history and social impact of technology.

It's undeniable that technology shapes and changes human life. The pre-1850 world of carriages and horses was changed immensely by the stunning growth of the US railroad system. And there was plenty of opposition to the perceived dangers of such an innovation, as evidenced by the poster on this page. An 1858 article in Punch complains that "[telegraph wires] within 100 yards of every man's door" would place an individual "always in company with all our acquaintances" and that "solitude would become impossible." Not only is this a fascinating look at technological opposition, it also foreshadows a common argument put forth by those opposed to the spread of social media, some 157 years later. Of course, widespread use of the telegraph enabled development of the telephone and eventually the internet, both of which seamlessly connect our global community for better or worse.

To return to the Zen side: it's unfair to decry anything as objectively good or bad. Amazing new technologies that enable us to never get lost again or speak to someone halfway across the world at zero cost come with pitfalls. So what do you think? Should technologies be expected to change human nature and culture, for worse as well as better? Are these ethical questions worth considering--for manufacturers, critics, and consumers?

Image credit: US National Archives and Records Administration

11 comments; last comment on 11/09/2015
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Do these alien plants come in peace?

Posted October 08, 2015 8:00 AM by BestInShow

Fred Pearce's new book on invasive plant species, The New Wild, came out while I was blogging last summer about the use of native plant species on golf courses. Pearce is a well-respected environmental journalist; the last thing I expected him to promote is the idea that invasive species aren't the demons we've made them out to be. What about the damage invasive species wreak on pristine ecosystems, wiping out the natives and creating a monoculture of one unkillable plant? I grew up in the Land of Kudzu, so I know first-hand about unkillable invasive species. It's possible that growing up with kudzu reduced my tolerance for any plant that takes over a landscape, native or not, but I digress.

Kudzu (Pueraria lobata)

The language of invasive/exotic/introduced species

The language used to label a plant as native, exotic, invasive, or other variations on this theme is poorly defined, inconsistent and unnecessarily pejorative. The connotation of the word "native" implies that this is a "good" plant. The connotation of "exotic" is "bad" plant. But aren't some native plants "bad"? Like ragweed, which is native to the US Southwest and makes allergy sufferers' lives a misery in the fall. Isn't that a bad plant? (Ragweed has been introduced to the Old World and has naturalized there. Perhaps this makes up for garlic mustard.) Or take the various Oriental dogwoods (Cornus kousa spp.). These lovely ornamental trees are exotic, yet they don't compete with native species.

It's important to distinguish between native species - not introduced by humans --and introduced species - brought to that location, usually by humans. The next level of distinction is between introduced and invasive. Some introduced species do become invasive: they proliferate and cause environmental or economic harm. Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is a particular favorite example of mine. But introduced or exotic does not necessarily equate to "bad."

Pearce's argument

I wanted to clarify these linguistic distinctions because some of Pearce's argument rests on the importance of introduced plants in preventing further damage to a

biome, such as erosion. He serves up Ascension Island as one of many examples where non-native species, flora and fauna, colonized a barren landscape and created a biodiverse community, including a large tropical cloud forest. Pearce argues essentially that not only was no harm done, actual good came from the invasion. Did these introduced species cause an ecological holocaust? Possibly. According to Wikipedia, 25 species of plants were native, ten endemic, when humans began introducing tropical plants. Now all of these native plant species are threatened. This image shows the Marattia purpurascens fern, one of the threatened endemic species on Ascension. One presumes that the ecological jury is still out on this one.

Pearce also points out the difficulty in determining which species are truly native and which were introduced. Is a plant that grew from a seed, deposited by a migrating bird a thousand years ago, native or introduced and how would we know about the bird? Many introduced species thrive without reducing their hosts to nothing. The author also reminds the reader that we can't return to Eden - plants and animals are way too mixed-up now - and characterizes "old school" environmentalists as trying to reestablish pure native biomes.

Another brick in the edifice of Pearce's argument is a reminder to read science with a critical mind, whether the subject is invasive-species damage or the presence or absence of global warming. The author debunks a few scientific proofs of environmental damage done by exotic species, questioning data, assumptions, or methodology. I appreciated this reminder; too often people accept at face value any piece of evidence that supports their own ideas and opinions without reference to proven hypotheses or common sense.

So what's the upshot?

Fred Pearce asks the same question that I've pondered in the past few years, as I've grown increasingly interested in using native plant species for my own adventures in home landscaping. Most states have extensive lists of plants banned from the commercial nursery trade because they crowd out native species once they've escaped cultivation. Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica), and the multiflora rose (Rosa multifloria) are a few of the most common culprits. I can't buy these plants even if I wanted them. Preferable replacements are available. But should I also give up Oriental dogwoods and tulips?Dahlias and apples? As long as a plant, or an animal, can stay within boundaries acceptable to humans, and provide value one way or the other, the planet will probably be all right. Better to spend our energy on carbon emission reduction.

Cornus kousa chinensis


Pearce, Fred. The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature's Salvation. Boston: Beacon Press, 2015.

6 comments; last comment on 10/10/2015
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World's Biggest (Sort of) Sailboat

Posted September 30, 2015 10:31 AM by HUSH
Pathfinder Tags: richest sailboat SHIP yacht

I have a friend that believes in the theory of two extra paychecks each year. Hypothetically, most people budget to pay their expenses from their minimum monthly income (two checks), so when the rare third monthly paycheck arrives--and its funds aren't committed to anything--it's a bonus. Free money. Collect $200 when you pass Go.

So what do you do with that extra money? Or, to segue into the topic of this blog, what do you do with all those extra millions of rubles if you are Russian billionaire Andrey Melnichenko? He made his fortune by banking, mining coal, producing fertilizer, building a power plant and exporting pipelines. He may only be the 97th richest person in the world and ninth richest in Russia (net worth $8.8 billion USD), but Melnichenko knows opulence like few others.

In 2004 he commissioned the construction of his first supership, which would eventually be called Motor Yacht A for his first initial and so it would be listed first in vessel registers. Motor Yacht A is powered by twin MAN RK280 diesel engines--at the time were the most powerful diesel engines available--that supply 12,000 hp. The fuel reservoir is 200,000 U.S. gallons and provides a 7,500 mile range. It takes 37 crew to cruise the Motor Yacht A. The exterior features a reverse bow to reduce wake and a thinning beam that seems similar to U.S. Navy stealth warships. Features of the ship include more than 25,000 ft.² of living space, a helipad, three swimming pools, a dance club, and seven sleeping quarters. Bomb-proof glass, 40 CCTV cameras, biometric access and an escape pod ensure guest safety. The owner's quarters contain 2,500 ft.² of living space, about the size of an average American home. Estimates place the construction cost at $250-300 million dollars. Here's a more illustrative gallery of Motor Yacht A's extravagance.

Presumably bored with Motor Yacht A, Melnichenko has now commissioned Sailing Yacht A. Since it's still under construction, many of the design specs are still speculative. Yet it's hard to keep a 468-foot-long yacht under total secrecy. Technically the boat is a sail-assisted motor yacht, as even with three masts the sails won't create enough drag or lift to propel the ship. The masts are the tallest and most highly-loaded freestanding composite structures ever and can accommodate loads of more than 40 MN. When sails are deployed they will cover 48,500 ft.² and fiber-optics will deliver real-time data about sail performance. Two MTU 3,600 kW diesel engines and two 4,300 kW electric motors deliver power to two adjustable-pitch propellers. Everything on the ship will be controlled from customized touchscreens.

Believe it or not, Sailing Yacht A will also be relatively sustainable. High ratios of carbon fiber and other advanced materials help keep the weight down. Melnichenko plans to license some of the innovative technologies to help recoup research, development and building costs-and estimated $450 million. Many of the features of Motor Yacht A reappear in Sailing Yacht A, such as pools, a helipad, a dance club, and extensive security. Just like a modern sloop, Sailing Yacht A also includes a keel, but this keel has a 1.8 ton piece of glass so travelers can climb into the keel and watch the ocean. And here's a gallery of this massive motor-sailor.

To really put this in perspective, this is someone's toy. The Melnichenkos will likely spend just a few weeks aboard this ship every year. Meanwhile the common people are crowding 5,000+ people on cruise ships. At least they're keeping the sailing industry running downwind.

10 comments; last comment on 10/03/2015
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Biodynamic Wine: More than Organic

Posted September 24, 2015 8:00 AM by BestInShow
Pathfinder Tags: agriculture biodynamic organic wine

My earlier CR4 blogs discussed non-chemical-based lawn-care practices, so you won't be surprised to see another entry along the general line of organic horticultural practices. While traveling around Provence last summer I saw quite a few vineyards labeled "biologique," "biodynamique" or simply just "bio." I assumed these terms were the French equivalent of "organic," but I did wonder if I'd misunderstood "biodynamique," a term I'd never encountered.

After I returned home, I did the logical thing and searched the Internet for "biodynamic." And I discovered that not only was my guess wrong, biodynamic agriculture predates our contemporary understanding of organic agriculture. The practice of biodynamics is precise, complicated, and controversial.

Organic vs biodynamic agriculture

First, a caveat. The legal definitions for "certified organic" products vary from country to country. No national government certifies a "biodynamic" designation; Demeter International, a network of national biodynamic certifiers, does so. "Sustainable" has no legal meaning, so I'll say no more about it here.

Organic and biodynamic agriculture share a number of practices: avoidance of synthetic chemicals for fertilization and pest control, no genetically-modified (GMO) seed, and use of techniques that preserve the integrity of the soil content and structure. For biodynamic practitioners, though, this is not an agricultural system but a philosophy of agriculture first espoused by anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner - the same Steiner who developed the Waldorf approach to education. His eight lectures, Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture, are the bible of biodynamic farming. Like organic farmers, their biodynamic counterparts treat their farms as living systems.

Unlike organic farmers, though, biodynamicists maintain their living systems following the minutely specific regimen Steiner prescribes. Only manual plowing is allowed. An affinities calendar, based on lunar cycles and the Zodiac, dictates when different farming activities take place (see link at end of post). Fields and crops receive preparations that increase soil nutrients and improve soil structure, among other effects. The procedures for making these preparations sound bizarre. For example, to make horn manure, the farmer stuffs cow horns with fresh cow manure, buries the horns in the fall, unearths them in the spring, and distributes the stuff over fields in the spring. This brief paragraph doesn't begin to scratch the surface of the biodynamic soil. This avowedly non-scientific approach to agronomy attracts much criticism, even though many of the practices are similar to those used in organic farming.

Is biodynamic better than organic?

Given the similarities between these two farming methods, why opt for the more labor-intensive biodynamic approach? Is it less expensive? Is it better for the soil? Does biodynamically-grown food taste better?

The small body of peer-reviewed research focuses on soil quality and crop yields. J.P. Reganold of Washington State University's Dept. of Crop and Soil Science, conducted a handful of studies between 1993-2002 comparing the effects of organic and biodynamic methods on soil biological communities. The results consistently indicated that both biodynamic and organic methods result in higher-quality soils, with better structure and organic matter, but neither was superior to the other. Results from a 21-year-long Swiss study led by Paul Mader confirmed that both biodynamic and organic methods greatly improve soils. Crop yields were 21% lower than conventional farming, but the researchers concluded that the ecological benefits outweighed the lower yields.

These studies didn't address subjective or qualitative questions such as the flavor of crops grown organically/biodynamically. A small but growing number of winemakers have embraced biodynamic methods, and they believe that wines produced from biodynamic grapes absorb the characteristics of the terroir - the qualities imparted by the place the vines grow - much better than non-biodynamic grapes. According to the Wine Folly website: no. According to Australian research published earlier this year: yes.

In the 2010-2014 wines, ORG [organic] and in particular BD [biodynamic] wines, were consistently described as being more rich, textural, complex and vibrant than LCON [low-input conventional] and HCON [high-input conventional] wines. These findings support anecdotal evidence from winemakers who have used this language as a reason why they have chosen to make wine from organically and/or biodynamically managed fruit.

A plus for wine made from biodynamic grapes is the lack of added sulfites. This plus can be a minus if vintners want to ship wines, since sulfites are preservatives.

The future for biodynamic agriculture

Interest in biodynamic agriculture is increasing. Demeter International reports that in June of 2015 close to 5,000 farms worldwide have earned its certification, doubling the number reported in 1997. Wine grape growers and vintners were among early adopters of biodynamic practices; vineyards are particularly well-suited to the Steiner regimen. For now I'll leave as an exercise for my readers the decision about whether biodynamic wine, or indeed any certified biodynamic agricultural product, has superior qualities. I need another trip to France to make my own first-hand determination.

Image credits

Demeter USA

Livesprings Farm

Caveau de la Tour


6 comments; last comment on 10/05/2015
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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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