An Idea Whose Time has Been and Gone

September 4th, 2009

Filament light bulbs — at least the 100W flavour — have been banned. The only question that needs to be asked is, what took the government so long?

Anyone who has ever tried generating their own electricity will know that these bulbs are stupidly wasteful. A 100W bulb kicks out some 95W of heat. It’s surprising really, what with the distinction that has to be drawn between (for example) strawberry flavour, strawberry flavoured and strawberry lest the consumer be unaware how little fruit the product contains, that they’re even allowed to call them “light” bulbs at all! Heat bulb would be a much more accurate description!

Every person who has bought a 100 watt filament bulb to use for general illumination instead of a 20 watt compact fluorescent bulb is needlessly pissing 80 joules of energy up the wall every second the thing is on, using up fossil fuels that won’t ever be available again. Add up all those 80s and you could probably take a whole coal- or gas-fired power station out of service.

Of course, the 20 watt fluorescent is still putting out 15 watts of heat, so there’s room for improvement, and there does need to be a recycling scheme set up — but since compact fluorescent lamps contain enough valuable materials to be well worth recycling if you can get enough of them together, this is pretty much inevitable.

I’m looking forward to seeing the next generation of LED-based lamps.

Thing done

August 28th, 2009

I have had a home improvement carried out.

Unfortunately, it’s meant to be a surprise for someone, so I can’t mention what it is until that person returns from where they are. I can’t even mention who that person is, or where they might be coming back from, in case they are reading this and work out who I mean and what I’ve had done. In fact, I think I’d better stop now.

How to Subvert an Election

August 25th, 2009

While we Britons use universally-comprehensible pencil and paper for our elections, Americans have sacrificed the democratic process to corporate interests. They use machines to record and count their votes; and in deference to the power of the Almighty Corporation, any kind of reverse-engineering against the machines they use is an offence.

Some jaw-droppingly bad blunders have been made with voting machines. One often-proposed idea is to issue voters with a receipt. This is an exceedingly bad idea. There is nothing to stop the machine from accepting your vote for candidate A, issuing you with a receipt for candidate A, and then recording a vote for candidate B. You might be able to work out from examining the hardware and the software that that was what it was doing; but of course, they embody confidential trade secrets of the manufacturers.

Even if the USA were to make it law that voting machine manufacturers must publish their blueprints, schematics and software listings to allow independent scrutiny (by the tiny minority of the population who can make sense of such information), how can you be sure that the machine that accepted your vote on polling day was actually built in accordance with those plans and running that software?

Now Imagine this on a notice board in a workplace:

All workers taking time off to vote will be expected to show their receipt proving that they voted for the factory owner’s brother-in-law under penalty of dismissal.

Voter receipts do nothing to prevent the following scenario:
Suppose Candidate A receives 500 votes, B receives 390 and C receives 110. These are the actual votes, remember. The announced result, however, is A 380, B 500, C 120. (Note that those figures are not so far out as to be utterly implausible. If they wanted to get a candidate elected in the face of very strong opposition, they might have to field a few extra candidates of their own just in order to split the vote.) You voted for A. You go with your receipt to the Town Hall to check how your vote was recorded, and are correctly told you voted for A. And that’s as far as you can take the matter.

Even if all 499 of the other people who voted for A go and check, they’ll be told — rightly — that their vote was for A. And because (1) they all go in one at a time to check their vote, and (2) there are also many B- and C-voters in there, not one single one of the A-voters will be the slightest bit the wiser that there are really 500 of them, as opposed to the 380 that was announced!

You could only determine that something was amiss if all those A-voters produced their receipts for Candidate A at the same time. And in reality, the proportion of voters who will actually bother even to check their vote will be minuscule.
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Zero Standby Current Timer

July 26th, 2009

This is a timer for controlling LED lights powered from a solar-charged battery. It was built to illuminate a passageway between two terraced houses, which is used to move the rubbish and recycling bins from the gardens of both houses to the street on collection days. Power is supplied from a battery charged by a solar panel. To guard against battery wastage due to leaving the lights on, it was desired to have a time switching arrangement where a single push of the switch gives a fixed duration of light before switching off automatically.

The first intention was to use a mechanical time delay switch, but this was found to be a rather costly solution.

The lights themselves were modified from 3-LED, battery powered push lights obtained in packs of two from a pound store (I frequent such places, searching for anything with white LEDs to use in my experiments!) The modification was simple but fiddly; entailing some track cuts to rewire the LEDs from a parallel to a series circuit and bypass the switch, and a resistor change. The timer itself was built inside an MB2 plastic enclosure with a pushbutton switch.

zsbtimer1

Circuit operation is as follows:
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Cygnets

July 7th, 2009

If you’re an ugly duckling
Who grew into a swan
Be grateful it was you who got the breaks.
There are many ugly ducklings
And for every single one
There are fifty handsome cygnets
Who grow up into drakes.

Tbe BNP “victory”: It Could Have Been Worse

June 10th, 2009

I think we’re all aware that the BNP have managed to score a couple of seats in the recent European Parliament election.

Now, while I’m not defending the BNP in any way, I have to say that I think the alternative would be much, much worse. Any law that managed to ban the BNP would effectively grant a governing party a veto over the election of any opposition party. Which part of that would not be wide open to misuse? If the BNP can be banned because of something objectionable in their manifesto, then why not the LCA? Why not the Greens, or the Lib Dems, or the Tories? Any legislation that had the power to kill the BNP would kill democracy, and such collateral damage is clearly unacceptable.

Better, I think, to sit this one out. One of two things has to happen. Either the BNP will (contrary to their manifesto) behave like human beings, and there will be nothing to worry about; or they will expose their true colours, and the popular support they successfully courted this time around will turn rapidly to resentment.

Most importantly, come the next election, people will be getting out and voting just to make sure that the BNP don’t get a seat anywhere really important.

A Campaign I Can Get Behind

May 29th, 2009

I’ve been saying this for a long time now. Those “child safety” covers for power sockets — invariably peddled by charlatans who claim to know more than the professional engineers who designed the British ring main system more than 60 years ago — do not work.

For one thing, they are totally unnecessary. BS1363, the standard for the 13 amp plug and socket,mandates internal safety shutters in every socket outlet. If you look at any nearby power socket — whether on the wall or on an extension lead, they all have to conform to BS1363 — you will see that the Live and Neutral holes are covered up. The only place you can insert anything is the Narth hole, which is safe to touch anyway. The insertion of a plug pin into the Earth hole retracts the shutters from over the Live and Neutral holes. And the lengths of the pins on the plug and the depths of the shutters are specified such that this only begins to happen when the body of the plug is safely covering the socket.

But “safety” covers can actually make things worse. If a cover is removed (and don’t underestimate what kids are capable of), it can be inserted the wrong way around, thus opening the safety shutters and allowing an object to be inserted into the live socket receptacle. This can’t be done with a BS1363 plug, because the dimensions are such that the Live and Neutral pins would collide with the faceplate before the Earth pin entered far enough to retract the shutters. But these covers are made of thin, flexible plastic and can bend out of the way just enough to fit in upside down.

Some “safety” covers even allowed room for objects to be inserted into the “Live” hole even while the cover was in place.

And what happens when direct sunlight shines on plastic? Answer, it becomes brittle. “Safety” covers used on sockets in a conservatory or any South-facing room may well perish and, in the worst case, break off — leaving the Earth pin firmly retained in the socket by the sprung brass contacts, and the Live and Neutral holes wide open.

See the campaign web site at http://www.fatallyflawed.org.uk/.

What Theodore Kaczynski Got Wrong

May 20th, 2009

I have read Industrial Society and Its Future, and had to agree with parts of it. One thing I think the author got wrong, though, was Paragraph 208 et seq.

Kaczynski distinguishes between “small-scale technology”, which he considers benign; and “organization-dependent technology”, which he considers toxic. I would argue that the distinction is better drawn between open technology (where users are permitted to inspect, modify and improve it) and proprietary technology (where this is absolutely not the case; inspection, modifications and improvements are reserved privileges, and the full force of the law will be brought upon anyone who dares even to try to usurp them).

Proprietary technology is necessarily organisation-dependent, since for there to be a privilege requires for there to be a privilege-holder. However, mere dependency on the presence of some organisational structure does not necessarily render any technology proprietary. I am taking as a premise that organisation-dependency is not, in and of itself, a bad thing; and if you consider this assertion to be a bold one, consider that humans possess a strong pack instinct, which leads naturally to the formation of organisational structures.

It’s true that open technology tends to be primitive, and proprietary technology tends to be advanced. This is probably because primitive technology is harder to keep proprietary than advanced technology, and also because we tend to regard less-universally-comprehensible technology as more advanced. Furthermore, even the breakdown of the rule of law would not be a sufficient condition to enable “unauthorised” actions in respect of the most egregious examples of proprietary technology: if the inner workings of something are a jealously-guarded secret and not obvious by inspection, adapting it requires access to privileged information — which might conceivably be unavailable altogether.

Anyway, I disagree with Kaczynski’s assertion that “it would be virtually impossible for a handful of local craftsmen to build a refrigerator”. Anyone who knows that P * V = n * R * T and can think laterally could build a refrigerator. It might not look like what we think of today as a refrigerator (Kaczynski correctly identifies some serious difficulties with generating electricity, which might be overcome by using some other energy source to compress the gas), but it would certainly perform the abstract function of a refrigerator: the creation of a localised region of space whose temperature is lower than that of its surroundings.

The biggest obstacle to anyone seeking to build a refrigerator from scratch, armed with naught but the Ideal Gas Equation and a healthy dose of creative problem solving, would not be lack of imagination; but Robert Boyle, standing over them with a big stick, and demanding that nobody else make use of “his” discovery.

Subtle Irony

May 13th, 2009

Does anybody else think this was a badly-chosen name for the product?
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Benefitting Nobody

May 7th, 2009

Once upon a time, there was such a thing as full employment. And before nearly all the council houses were sold off at stupidly low prices, getting pregnant was not the only way to get one.

Nowadays, people can be better off on benefits than in employment. You see, when you are working, you have to start paying for things which would have been free if you were on the Dole — prescriptions, dental work, and so forth. And the minimum wage is a complete joke. 5.77 an hour would be an insult, even if that was after tax. There is a complicated and confusing system of tax credits for working families, which puts people off applying for them.

There is another, hidden cost to the benefit culture. I work bloody hard for what I’ve got, and I take bloody good care of it. If I break something, or lose it, nobody’s going to just buy me another one. A kid who gets a 70 pair of Nike trainers out of their mum’s benefit simply isn’t going to be so careful. It’s easy come, easy go. If it took them a full day to earn the price of those trainers, they might appreciate the value of them — and realise that other people also value their possessions. People are not born knowing right from wrong; they have to learn the difference. Not having to work for things means people never learn respect for property.

Unemployment should not be punished, but neither should it be seen as an attractive option.
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