Archive for the Science and Tech Category

Roerig Explains Hydraulic Fracturing

Speaking at last month’s Snowcon, Howard Roerig explained the process of hydraulic fracturing. The point I found most interesting was how drillers found a way to drill horizontally, slowly bending away from a vertical hole.

The sources for Roerig’s slides may be found on the YouTube page.

Why Printed Books Remain So Popular

IMGP4502Ownership of ebook reading devices exploded by five-fold within three years, as I review in a post for The Objective Standard. That’s an extraordinary development. Still, the growth of ebooks has been slower than I once would have predicted. Although 30 percent of the population read an ebook in 2012, 89 percent read a printed book. Given the relatively high costs of printing, shipping, and stocking a printed book, versus the negligible costs of distributing an ebook, why is the ebook market not growing even faster?

Clearly many publishers push to make printed books the continued standard, at least for now. Whereas the retail price of a printed book covers substantial printing, shipping, and stocking costs, such costs are all but irrelevant regarding ebooks. And yet publishers successfully pushed up the price of many ebooks well above the $10 level. Indeed, sometimes at Amazon I find I can buy a paperback for less than the cost of the ebook.

A large part of the issue here is that marginal costs drop off radically with large print runs and shipping orders. Thus, whereas many small-market books appear only in ebook, the economics of a popular book support large print runs. Plus, of course, brick-and-morter retailers can display printed books, increasing “impulse” purchases.

But I think the publishing end of it is only part of the story. I think there are a variety of reasons why many consumers often prefer a printed book.

Obviously printed books offer a distinctive tactile experience, and, as a bibliophile cousin of mine notes, a good old book also has a distinctive smell. But I think there’s something more important going on.

Although I was an early adopter of e-book technology, I have purchased several printed books of late. Why? I use my printed books for book clubs, book reviews, and research. E-books are difficult to cite, as they often don’t offer page numbers matching the printed edition (or the page numbers do not match precisely).

Often I can remember and visualize where certain content is with respect to the printed page and the page number. With an e-book, the material becomes a constant stream, with no stable relationship to the medium.

Another important feature of a printed book is that I can write notes in the text and in the margins. Although many e-book readers accommodate notations, I have found those systems to be clunky and impractical for my needs.

So, given the current technology, I’m likely to continue to buy both printed books and e-books, depending on my needs for the book.

I also predict that ebook producers and sellers will soon (within a few years) figure out how to overcome many or all of the problems mentioned here. Once that happens, printed books will eventually become about as common as music CDs and vinyl disks are now. At least that’s my guess. It will be exciting to see how it actually pans out.

Creative Commons Image: Kristian Bjornard

Films on Disk Might Survive (On Another Earth)

What is the future of movie rental?

My wife and I watched Another Earth this evening. I posted to Facebook: “Another Earth is basically a tragic drama set to a sci-fi premise. The premise of the drama is implausible; the premise of the sci-fi backdrop totally impossible. Still, we found the writing to be sharp, the acting to be fantastic, the directing to be interesting (though there’s too much zooming!), and the story to be engaging throughout.”

But my parenthetical comment about the business of movie rentals is perhaps more interesting: “Incidentally, Amazon has started running regular specials on streaming video rentals; I don’t see how disks can possibly survive more than a few more years.”

We rented Another Earth for 99 cents, and Amazon regularly puts movie rentals on sale for a buck or two. With online rentals at $3.99, I’ll make the trek to Red Box to rent a disk, even though that requires two trips (one to pick up, another to drop off). But as the price of online rentals drops, I just don’t see how movies on disk can survive, at least in the rental market. (There’s some advantage to buying disks if you want to own a copy, as a disk can be loaned or sold.)

What struck me was that I watched a science-fiction movie in a way that shows the real world rapidly progressing beyond the world envisioned in a lot of older science fiction. Who needs to contemplate another earth when we’ve got this one?

Apple Phases Out Optical and Magnetic Drives

Years ago in school we students plugged standard tape recorders into computers to load programs and save files. (That was a big advancement over the older card systems.) Then came the 5.25 inch floppy, which lasted quite a while, then the 3.5 inch floppy, then the zip disk, with a whopping 100 megabytes of storage!

During the development of the magnetic removable disk, of course, the magnetic hard disk drive also became prominent; today terabyte drives are common and cost less than a hundred bucks.

But removable magnetic disks are not commonly used today. They have been replaced by CD and (a bit more recently) DVD optical drives. It seemed reasonable to think that the trend would continue to higher-capacity optical disks (namely Blu-Ray). But now that seems not to be the case.

What is interesting about Apple’s latest design changes is that the company dropped its base-model $999 MacBook, which featured both an optical drive and a hard disk, making its entry-level laptop the MacBook Air, which features neither sort of media. Instead, the Air runs exclusively on flash memory; the entry-level model carries 64 gigs of it. Meanwhile, the entry level $599 Mac Mini dumps the optical drive but keeps a hard drive.

How, then, do you load up software and move around files? The Air is basically an internet-driven machine. Apple has facilitated online software sales with its app store, and later this year it is rolling out its own cloud service for file storage. If you want to move stuff around via physical media, you can plug in a flash drive, optical drive, or hard drive. The computer, then, is going the way of Apple’s portable devices in terms of using (primarily) the internet to transfer data, rather than optical or magnetic drives.

Of course, this model kind of sucks if the internet ever comes down or falls under political control.

I realize I’m describing pretty obvious trends; still, sometimes I think it’s worth stepping back to observe the breathtaking evolution of technology.


Rob commented July 30, 2011 at 10:38 PM
Have you noticed that an entire industry has now sprung up just to make URL’s shorter?

Technology Catches Up with Harry Potter Magic

J. K. Rowling’s first novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, came out June 30, 1997. The release of the series spans the 20th and 21st Centuries, and new technology has started to catch up to Harry Potter magic.

In the novels, newspapers show moving photographs. On June 29, 2007, a decade after the release of the first Potter novel, Apple released its iPhone, which brings constantly updated news, complete with video, to one’s fingertips. The iPhone and similar devices are much more useful and powerful than the magical papers in Harry’s world, and owl delivery seems positively primitive by comparison.

A few days ago, Technology Review published the article, “A Practical Way to Make Invisibility Cloaks” (thanks to Paul Hsieh over at Geek Pressfor the link).

The idea is that new production techniques allow for large-scale printing of “metamaterials,” largely made of metals, which could be fashioned into things like invisibility cloaks and superlenses.

Provided politicians and bureaucrats manage to restrain themselves from crashing our economies, technology will continue to gain ground on the magic of the Potter universe. Indeed, thanks to the wonders of science and technology, we are living in the most “magical” age of human history, in which doctors can scan people’s bones and hearts, people can quickly fly around the world, the average person in advanced economies owns self-propelled coaches, and we can take vast libraries of books and music around with us in pocket computers.

The Potter novels will always remain great literature — for reasons I explain in my book Values of Harry Potter – but technology will make the magic of the novels seem increasingly less magical. Thankfully, the deeper magic of the novels has nothing to do with casting spells or riding brooms.

Shermer Explains ‘The Believing Brain’

Arch-skeptic Michael Shermer spoke at Tattered Cover May 31 about his new book, The Believing Brain. With permission, I filmed the presentation, and I’ve edited three selections.

In the first video, Shermer explains the basics of how people tend to find patterns both where they are real and where they are not. We need science to tell the difference, he argues.

In the second video, Shermer argues that people tend to find agency even in complex systems and inanimate things.

Finally, Shermer explains people’s tendency to mentally construct agencies and project them into the world.

Shermer also offered some fascinating insights into political battles, specific conspiracy theories (deathers, birthers, truthers), and the importance of free-trading liberal democracies (broadly understood) for preserving the peace and keeping dangerous people from gaining power. For all that and more, you’ll have to read his book!


Tess commented June 2, 2011 at 11:55 AM
This is great!! I was there at the lecture as well. Nice job on filming and editing it. Is there any chance you’d be willing to post the entire lecture or maybe send it to me? Thanks again for posting this!

TJWelch commented June 6, 2011 at 7:44 PM
Many years ago, I read the original (1997) edition of Shermer’s book _Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition and Other Confusions of our Time_. In what was otherwise a good book, he included a chapter called “The Unlikeliest Cult: Ayn Rand, Objectivism, and the Cult of Personality”. While purporting to be a debunking of Objectivism, it was at most an indictment of the alleged behavior of some Objectivists–largely sourced from the Brandens’ memoirs. I don’t remember much in the way of arguments against the philosophy itself, other than an arbitary assertion that morality cannot be objective.
Keep in mind that the rest of the book dealt with creationists, Holocaust deniers, UFOlogists and the like. I found it intellectually dishonest to lump Objectivism in with such company on flimsy pretext.
Rand herself exposed the use of such tactics in her essay “‘Extremism,’ or the Art of Smearing.”