Red Echo

January 31, 2012

There’s a titled CB750 frame on Craigslist for $100 right now. There are other frames at similar prices, but the CB750 has a nice square engine compartment that would work well for holding batteries. I’m seriously tempted to buy it and start building an electric motorcycle around it, like, now. I imagine it’d take 3-6 months or so to get it running, but that seems well worth it if I end up with a bike I can ride to work every day.

January 30, 2012

The Brutus electric motorcycle is a stylish beast of a machine. It has a manual transmission, an odd choice for an electric bike, and they claim a 100 mile range. They’re pricing it up in Harley territory, though; it’s estimated to cost about $35,000.

The Lito Sora has a similar shape but more of a high-tech style; they use a CVT and claim 300km range. The design is a little too widgety for my taste, overall, but I really like that taillight. They have not shipped yet and are not advertising a price.

Zero comes at it from a more off-road background with their Zero S, which is clunkier in style but actually exists here and now; for $14k you get a bike with ~100 mile range and an 88 mph top speed.

Brammo seems to be stuck in development hell; their web site has been offering pre-orders for the Enertia Plus and Empulse models for over a year, but they are out of stock of everything but the older Enertia, in green. If the Empulse ever ships it will be a nice, fast, 100 mph sportbike costing about $14k.

Gallery of electric motorcycle conversions from EVAlbum – hundreds of examples, based on practically every different kind of motorcycle. Each one includes a description of the battery, motor, and controller technology used, with some stats about range and speed.

This conversion is almost built from scratch: Jeff Patterson’s “ShocKing” is a 72-volt with a clean, classic chopper style. I like the way it features the batteries and makes them look good, instead of wedging them awkwardly into a motor’s shape or hiding them behind fairings.

improved GIT user interface

GUM: a better UI for Git.

The UI can be confusing and inconsistent for newbies. In fact, even after three years of using git, there are commands I still find confusing (do I want git revert or git reset… and does it need –hard, HARD, –cached, HEAD, –, or something else?).

An interface should never be a by-product of the implementation of the system. This is where the Git UI goes wrong.

January 28, 2012

I’ve been doing a lot of work on Radian lately. Today’s project was adding support for rational numbers, which means it can deal with fractions now and not just whole numbers. I expect I will put out another binary release this weekend.

The dress for Jeanine is coming along slowly; I’ve been pecking at it in small bursts. I finished up the lining today and sewed it on to the body material along the neck line. I made a mistake I’ll have to go back and correct but it’s a simple thing. I doubt there’s more than an evening’s work left to finish the project.

Today I went over to West Seattle and picked up an industrial serger for ALTSpace. It’s made by some no-name Chinese factory, but it was priced to move – some guy who was the non-sewing half of a small fashion business ended up with all the gear, and after it took up space in his garage for a year he just wanted it gone. I tried it out and it works well; it’s very, very fast.

January 27, 2012

Ava just got an Acer Aspire One, the 522 model. We installed Ubuntu 11.10, which is very pretty and which has an install procedure about as easy as it could possibly be. The machine worked fine for about a day, then started locking up, seemingly at random. Oh no!

Ava eventually noticed that the lock-up happened when the machine connected to the network. After poking at it for several hours and going through a handful of reinstalls, I found this page which explains the problem and offers a simple fix:

In fact, every time you try to connect to a wireless network, your netbook may freeze, the only option being a hard reset !

It seems that this bug comes from a conflict between the ethernet and the wireless adapter.

But the good news is that there is a very simple tip to avoid this bug : you need to setup a specific boot order, where the network boot is used first. With this setup, the ethernet adapter will be configured in a way that there won’t be any conflict with the wifi adpater at the time of wireless network connexion.

Ah, what a relief. The fix works perfectly.

January 23, 2012

Surprising, unexpected victory for “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures”: the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the cops do, in fact, need a warrant before they can just stick a GPS logger on your car.

This is pretty far out in “well, duh” territory, but after a couple decades watching law enforcement agencies get everything they ask for in the name of various imaginary wars on various imaginary bogeymen, it’s awfully satisfying to see them take a rebuff for once.

I’ve been hearing references to the Parisian tunnel explorers for years, but this Wired profile covers them in some nice depth. They sound like a great bunch; I love their decentralized, do-it-yourself style. Too bad Seattle is too young a city to have anything like the tunnel system they get to explore, and America too phobic about imaginary terrorists hiding under the bed to take the legal risk.

January 22, 2012

Machining a PCB using a CNC mill – cleaner and faster than photoresist and chemical etching.

January 20, 2012

Strange to think that string-copying functions are still a subject of active debate in 2012, but here’s a clearly-written, well-thought-out survey of the current options and a proposed solution to their various buffer-overrun risks and performance constraints:

This is a look at the various means in C to copy strings, and their safety and performance implications. What is surprising is that all of the available implementations, even the venerable *BSD strl functions have serious issues.

To preface, I am only going to cover null-terminated strings, because that is what the libc runtime, which is the foundation that every language ultimately reaches down to in the end, is built around.

I will also cover a new proposed alternative to address the problems I’ve mentioned at the end of this article.

SOPA is dead

Lamar Smith, the chief sponsor of SOPA, said on Friday that he is pulling the bill “until there is wider agreement on a solution.” His statement is full of exactly the sort of self-serving nonsense you’d expect from a career politician who is trying to make a graceful exit without admitting that he made a mistake, but this battle is clearly over.

January 19, 2012

Looks like it worked

This infographic shows the overnight change in congressional supporters vs opponents of SOPA/PIPA. The effect of the blackout was a net shift of 85 votes to the side of the angels, which is now ahead by 36 votes.

The MPAA will keep on trying, of course, and we need to keep up the pressure. Here is the letter I sent to senator Maria Cantwell.

Senator Cantwell -

Thanks for your opposition to PIPA. As our world becomes more technology-driven, speech increasingly occurs through the Internet. The architecture of the Internet must be protected from the short-sighted meddling of big media corporations if our First Amendment rights of free speech are to remain meaningful.

I urge you to keep on resisting the MPAA’s attempts to abuse the democratic process. Rather than adapt to the new world of electronic distribution, they are trying to strongarm the US government into protecting their old-fashioned business models, and they will undoubtedly keep on trying regardless of the cost to our fundamental freedoms. Please stand firm and continue to protect our rights of free speech!

your constituent, and fellow Real Networks alum -
Mars Saxman

And here’s the similar note I sent to representative Jim McDermott, who appears to be leaning toward the anti-SOPA side but hasn’t come out strongly against it:

Congressman McDermott -

I’m glad to hear that you are not inclined to support SOPA. While violation of copyright licensing terms may well be a concern for those businesses which still depend on obsolete pre-digital content distribution models, this relatively minor regulatory issue in no way justifies the vast, chilling censorship regime SOPA would create across the public Internet.

As our world becomes more technology-driven, more of our speech occurs through the Internet. The architecture of the Internet must be protected from the short-sighted meddling of big media corporations if our First Amendment rights of free speech are to remain meaningful.

I urge you to vote against SOPA, and to resist its successors as well – it seems likely that SOPA will fail, but I’m sure that the MPAA will try again. Please keep on looking past their short-sighted profit-seeking motives and protect our fundamental freedoms of speech.

Thank you, from one of your constituents.

Mars Saxman

January 18, 2012

Internet censorship

It’s neat watching almost every site I visit regularly either shut down or at least put up some special censorship-related graphics to promote the anti-SOPA/PIPA protests. Even Google has gotten in on the act – I’d hoped they wouldn’t wuss out, and watching them put some muscle into the debate makes me feel like I chose the right place to work.

I miss the old days, when the politicians had no idea what to do with us and pretty much let us alone. I can think of nothing positive that legislature has ever accomplished for the Internet. I’m sad that we have to stoop to their level, and dirty ourselves by dealing with their corrupt process, just to maintain our ability to do what we do; but this is the world we’re stuck with, and as revolutionary as the Internet is we can’t entirely escape the fact that our wires run through their dirt.

I’m going to make the best of a bad deal, and do my part to protest the nightmare that is SOPA/PIPA. If we make enough noise, perhaps we can scare them enough that they’ll think twice before accepting those MPAA bribes next time.

Join me?

January 17, 2012

Welcome to the future: Makerbot Playsets are a set of 3D models for dolls and dollhouse accessories. Why buy your kids toys from a store when you can print them yourself at home, using free models downloaded from the Internet?

January 16, 2012

I took advantage of the holiday to go skiing with Kevin M. at Crystal Mountain. The recent snow meant the slopes were covered with seven inches of fresh powder, and the flakes kept falling all day.

This was the strongest season opener I can remember – I felt good and skied fast all day. Despite the holiday weekend, there were no significant crowds – we skied almost straight on to the lifts, waiting one or two chairs at most.

We struck a compromise between Kevin’s interest in deep powder and my preference for steep, smooth, fast runs, and both had a good day. I got to try out some of the new terrain Crystal opened up when they built the Northway chair a couple of years ago; we skipped the new gondola, though.

I wore my new ski pants and they performed well. I did find one change I need to make – I neglected the fly topstitching, and it makes the whole thing gape a bit. That’ll be easy enough to fix. Aside from that I have no complaints: the pants are comfortable and useful, and they kept me warm all day.

I was disappointed to learn that the traditional wire hangers for lift tickets are obsolete – I was careful to include a D-ring in the waistband of my new pants so that I’d have somewhere to clip the ticket! Oh, well, apparently all the ski resorts have gone RFID now, so you just brush your pocket against a sensor when you get on the base lift, and that’s that.

January 15, 2012


Beloved wife and her cat enjoying the snow. Flakes have been falling all day, and it’s sticking – there’s a good inch or two piled up out there now. This is a good day to stay inside with some hot tea.

Ava wanted some plywood pieces for an art project she is working on, so we walked over to ALTSpace and I helped her learn how to use the table saw. She was a little intimidated but got the hang of it quickly.

We took the cat over with us, where he entertained himself by patrolling the workbenches hunting for dust-bunnies. Despite persistently demanding that we open up his favorite window so he could stick his head out and watch the weather, he was not at all interested in the physical reality of snow when we put him out into it. There’s something really adorable about harmless kitty indignation.

January 11, 2012

Shorter work weeks

This Fast Company article makes a case for shorter work weeks as a sensible, even inevitable solution to economic contraction. This echoes a thought that’s been circling my mind during the political debate over the last year or two. Every candidate goes on and on about their plan for “creating jobs”, and every tax issue is debated in terms of its impact on “job creators”. Economic growth seems to be defined in terms of the number of 40-hour full-time jobs available. Everyone seems to ignore the fact that there’s no fundamental reason the amount of work available should correlate neatly to the number of people who need to support themselves. Economies do not scale in a linear fashion.

The computer industry, in particular, is all about sub-linear scaling. This is particularly important as the big story of the last 30 years has been the spread of computing into all other industries, and into practically all areas of life. This spread will continue for the forseeable future; it’s not going to be possible to talk about a “computer industry” for much longer, because it will be nothing more than the economy itself. How do we keep on “creating jobs” in a world where the dominant technological trend derives its value from automating away any trace of manual, repetitive work?

It seems clear to me that we as a society are either going to have find some way to invent meaningless work for people to do, so that we can justify giving them enough money to live on, or we are going to have to increase the number of people who can have a share of the remaining work by reducing the amount of work each person does. Redefining the standard full-time work week downward sounds like a reasonable way to accomplish the latter.

I’d be delighted to have a shorter work week, actually. I love the work I do, and intend to keep on doing it for years or decades to come, but there are quite a lot of other things I’d also like to do. I’d happily accept a reduced salary if it freed up a corresponding amount of time to pursue reading, making, adventuring, and socializing.

January 10, 2012

Why there is no pink light

Minute Physics explains why the color pink is an illusion and where the perception of the color pink comes from.

January 9, 2012

Motorcycles, commuting, electricity

I ride my motorcycle to work every day. The last few winters have included stretches of freezing temperatures with icy or snowy roads, so I’d expected that I’d have to spend a month or so driving or taking the bus instead, but so far the weather has remained mild.

There are no assigned spaces in the Google parking garage, but as a motorcyclist I can fit into otherwise-inaccessible spaces, so I always slide my bike in to a certain half-width slot next to the door. It happens to be right next to the bank of EV charging stations. Seeing that line of Leafs and Volts every morning has gotten me thinking….

I’ve looked at commercial electric bikes, of course, and either the Brammo Enertia or the Zero S would make a great commuter. There’s just no way I’m spending $10k-plus on a motorcycle no matter how cool it is, and electric motorcycles haven’t been around long enough for a used market to develop. I might be able to talk myself into considering a used Zero S if it were even half the price, but it’ll be five or ten years before that’s an option.

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about building an electric trike for Burning Man, using bits of mountain bike frames, a pair of deep-cycle batteries, and a 24-volt motor. But what if I took it further? I could mount six batteries, a beefier controller, and a 72-volt motor onto the frame of some cheap bike from Craigslist, preferably one with a blown engine, for a total parts cost around $2500. This is not a novel concept; there are dozens of tutorials on the web showing off various conversions, and you can buy all the difficult bits of electrical engineering as commercial modules. Most of the work would be in the fabrication, and I’ve got a workshop with a MIG welder handy…

Once I’ve got this electric bike, then, it’s easy to see how to charge it at work, but what to do at home? I could roll it up into the alley behind my apartment and throw a cord out the window, perhaps. Or I could rig up a charging station out in front of ALTSpace.

That suggests an interesting problem. How do I secure this charging station? Electricity costs money, and if I stick an EV charging station on the sidewalk, people other than me are going to plug their cars into it, and I’ll end up paying. It clearly needs some kind of lock. But what if people could just pay to use the charger, using something like those fancy parking meters the City of Seattle installed a few years ago?

Perhaps this is a way to help drive the build-out of EV charging infrastructure. There’s currently a weak incentive for people to install EV charging stations for their customers, but the incentive could be much stronger if the chargers would pay for themselves. I imagine the installation cost might be on the order of $1000 per unit. Car owners would park, pay for some number of kilowatt-hours, plug in, and go about their business. The station owner would pick some markup over the base per-kWH rate. It would obviously take a long time to pay for the charger given current levels of EV penetration, but it might be enough of a boost to get a few ecologically-minded property owners to sign on. There’s also a potential marketing boost; EV owners are likely to be well-off compared to the population at large, and sticking an EV charging station in front of your business is a good way to get them to come to your shop instead of someone else’s.

Postscript: well, what do you know, I’m not the first one to think of this.

January 5, 2012

My Hometown Is Better Than Yours

A series of photos with captions explaining why Seattle is objectively superior to the place you grew up. With comments such as

In the ’60s, the federal government tried to confiscate this mountain range under the principle that it’s not fair for one city to have so much view.

and

Seattle invented bricks and mortar in the 5th century BC. Then in the 20th century AD, it invented Amazon.com and made them obsolete.

January 4, 2012

I’ve been reading Two Sides of the Moon, a dual autobiography of the space race. Dave Scott tells his story from the American side of things, and Alexei Leonov shares a Russian perspective.

I was a gung-ho space nut in the ’80s, so Scott’s half of the book covers familiar ground. It’s competent and friendly, but pedestrian; I don’t think I would recommend it as a stand-alone read. Paired up with Leonov’s account, though, it’s a lot of fun. Nobody in America really knew what the Russians were doing during the space race, and we never heard much about the cosmonauts or the progress of their space program – just the propaganda highlights. Scott and Leonov trade chapters back and forth, in roughly chronological order, and getting to watch each other’s space program through foreign eyes is what really makes the book work.

As a child of the Cold War I grew up thinking of the USSR as an oppressive wasteland run by power-mad hypocrites; their space accomplishments were scary and threatening. Through Leonov’s eyes, you see the pride and straightforward human enthusiasm that went into it all. The political posturing is miles away; what matters in this tale is the ingenuity, courage, and resourcefulness that made the milestone flights happen.

January 2, 2012

at the local