Sunday, January 26, 2014

3D Printing

My father-in-law, Robert Lincoln, is a mechanical engineer. He originally trained as a gunsmith at the Rhode Island School of Design and at Trinidad State College in Colorado. That’s where he met his future wife and mother of my lovely Linda. He worked at various companies that built oil filters, ultimately ending up at Fram here in Longmont.

Later he moved to Coors where he worked in packaging. He was responsible for the various new designs of beer cans that eliminated the pull ring. The removable ring was a waste hazard to animals and bare footed people. He also developed computer programs that supported the brewing of the new “light beer” using an HP desktop computer. He was a self-taught programmer, although I did help him with some of the code. It was all in Compiled BASIC.

Besides engineer and programmer, he was an inventor. I remember one idea he had. It was a plastic plug that you would use to replace the cigarette lighter in your car. On the end of the black plastic, painted white, was a representation of a cigarette with the red “no” symbol over it. His idea was to sell it to nonsmokers to put in their cars to discourage passengers from smoking. You young folks won’t understand, but things were different back then. Cigarette lighters were for lighting cigarettes rather than charging phones, and people smoked in offices and cars.

He had to hire an outfit to make a prototype of his design, and I remember seeing the small plastic object. Now days, that would be a good job for a 3D printer.

First invented back in 1984, it wasn’t until the last few years that 3D printers have really caught on … that and drones. Up to this point, “subtractive” technology has been the mainstay. Machines would build objects by removing material with lathes and planers and other machines. Now, with 3D printing, “additive” development is done. The final object is built up slowly by numerous applications of thin layers.

3D printing has found a use in both prototyping and small count manufacturing. It is the flexibility of the methodology that is so exciting. New ideas literally “come into shape” on the printing platform. 3D printers are still rather expensive and the materials used in them cost more than ink jet ink … which is already priced like liquid gold. So it is a hobby for the rich or well funded. There are some small machines in the $5,000 price range, but cheaper models are appearing.

One thing we know about technology is its ability to reduce the price with volume production and wide acceptance. So I expect companies like HP to soon offer low cost 3D printers down at Best Buy and WalMart. A 3D printer coupled with some 3D design software will start producing objects of technology and works of art. Now sculpture can be reproduced as easily as paintings and drawings are with 2D printing. This might become a whole new paradigm of objects. That and the “Internet of Things.” (I’ll have to tell you about the IoT at some later date.)

I think one of the first things I’ll make when I get mine will be a copy of that no smoking plug that Bob invented so many years ago.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Fast Food

It’s a unique American invention. And we suffer from the consequences. High calorie, bad cholesterol, high fat, and few vegetables in the food that we consume … quickly. We now suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure, giant pants — all symptoms of a nation’s love for food that is fast.

The archetypical main dish is hamburgers — hamburgers and french fries. Throw in a shake and you have the entire recommended daily intake of calories in one meal. From there we drive to our sedentary jobs and park as close as we can. I get a big kick out of going to the health club. Everyone tries to get that parking space right by the door. Does that make sense?

Franchises are the heart and soul of the successful fast food establishments, although local and regional brands also purvey good food. But since I write for a national audience, and even an international one, I will discuss the largest franchises.

(I remember trips to Germany and Japan that, after a while, I truly craved some good old US food like a burger, KFC, or a pizza. Fortunately, these US franchises are over there too, although Burger King didn’t call their top dish a “Whopper.”)

I reviewed an article that listed the top 50 fast food purveyors based on sales. That’s probably a good measure of the number of restaurants and name recognition, so I’m going to use this survey to compare the different choices.

Start with hamburgers (and fries). Of course, number one is McDonalds. Never a question there. Lots of other burger joints in the top 50: Burger King and Wendy’s, of course. Also Sonic, Jack in the Box, and Dairy Queen. (Not sure to count DQ as a burger joint, although they’ve been busy redoing their brand to add sandwiches to their ice cream selections.)

Also in the list is Hardee’s and Carl Jr.’s, although these two seem to be cut from the same corporate cloth. Whataburger, Steak N Shake, Five Guys, Culvers, and Checker’s/Rally’s are in the mix, although some of these are more regional than national. White Castle in the East and In-N-Out in the West are well known. Finally is Krystal … a brand I’ve never heard of … concludes the list that is, obviously, skewed to burgers.

Under the category of sandwich, first is Subway. Panera and Arby’s are in that list too. Quiznos and Jimmy Johns are next, with Jason’s Deli and Einstein Brother’s Bagels bringing up the end of the sandwich list.

In many ways, the sandwich may offer the most healthy choices and many of these vendors will give you a veggie if you’re not into meat. On the other hand, most cold cuts are very high in sodium … and fat, so take care with your choices. (Also watch the mayo.)

Most, however, are not really delis in the sense of a good New York version. I’m not familiar with Jason’s, and here in my hometown, I frequent a local butcher that does deli well. We used to have a Heidi’s Deli, which is trying to become a national brand. I don’t know how well they’re doing in that quest, but they didn’t make the top 50.

Starbuck’s sells more than just coffee, and Baskin Robins and Tim Horton add to the “snack” list. Throw in Cold Stone Creamery and that’s it for doughnuts and ice cream. I don't know why Winchell's or Dunkin' Donuts didn't make the list, nor Daylight or Krispy Kreme or even Voodoo Doughnut for you Portlandians. Those delicious little loops of deep fried pleasure. And while we're at it, wouldn't Waffle House be considered fast food? Maybe I'd better save that for another note.

In the Mexican food category, you have Taco Bell, followed by Chipotle and Del Taco. Qdoba is on the list, but our local favorite, a chain out of Wyoming, Taco Johns, is not.

Now let’s talk pizza. Not all of them are sit-down restaurants, but I like the salad bar at Pizza Hut. You can also go to Domino’s or Papa John’s (Peyton Manning, part owner). Little Caesars (Pizza! Pizza!) and Papa Murphy’s are also in the list. CiCi’s with their buffet and Sbaro in the malls round off the list.

The long-time KFC comes in number 9 on the list and introduces fried chicken as an entree. Chick-Fil-A is also known for chicken. Popeye’s and Church’s have a little more southern style recipes. Bojangles, El Pollo Loco, and Boston Market round out the category.

In the Asian fast food we find Panda Express alone in the category. Looks like some opportunity in a format that can often be more healthy, although still loaded with carbs and fat.

Long John Silver’s and Captain D’s stand alone in the seafood, fast food, but again frying is not the healthiest choice even when you eschew beef. Plus, they sell a lot of fries.

One might wonder about Italian food as a possible fast food category, although the pizza places often have pasta. There’s also a few salad fast food establishments such as the Colorado “Mad Greens.” In fact, a very large number of these franchises started in Colorado.

So there you have it. I’m not sure there are any more categories for fast food. Boston Market really sells more home cooking, than fast food, and there are a lot of cafeteria brands, especially in Texas. You all know the wide range of sit-down restaurants and their categories. I’ll save that for another day.

LTE-Advanced, the Next Big Thing

LTE-Advanced is the next step in the evolution to true 4G. More network capacity, faster data speeds, and better coverage will come from LTE-Advanced mobile technologies. So now, four years after the first networks using LTE went live, operators are looking to its successor.

Already, more than a dozen carriers, including AT&T, Korea’s SK Telecom, Australia’s Telstra, Japan’s NTT DoCoMo, and Telenor Sweden are testing LTE-Advanced technologies, and analysts expect commercial rollouts to start this year. By 2018, according to ABI Research, global LTE-Advanced connections will approach 500 million — about five times as many as LTE can claim today.

Wireless specialists are calling LTE-Advanced “true 4G” because, unlike ordinary 4G LTE, it actually meets the International Telecommunication Union’s specifications for fourth-generation wireless systems.

One of these criteria is speed. LTE-Advanced can theoretically achieve data download rates as high as 3 gigabits per second and upload rates as high as 1.5 Gb/s. By comparison, current implementations of LTE top out around 300 Mb/s for downloads and 75 Mb/s for uploads.

LTE-Advanced isn’t just about faster rates. It also includes new transmission protocols and multiple-antenna schemes that enable smoother handoffs between cells, increase throughput at cell edges, and it can stuff more bits per second into each hertz of spectrum. The result will be higher network capacity, more consistent connections, and cheaper data.

As its name implies, LTE-Advanced is meant to enhance LTE (Long Term Evolution … to “4G”). The two standards are mutually compatible, which is great for consumers. New LTE-Advanced phones will still work on LTE networks, and old LTE phones will connect to LTE-Advanced networks. Operators will benefit as well. Those wishing to upgrade to LTE-Advanced won’t need to scrape together new radio spectrum or build out new infrastructure as they did to make the leap from 3G to LTE.

But there is a catch: Carriers won’t roll out all of LTE-Advanced’s capabilities at once. Like LTE before it, the new standard isn’t a single technology but rather a grab bag of many technologies, and operators will pick and choose items as they’re needed. The new technology that will likely be adopted first is “carrier aggregation.”

Carrier aggregation increases the bandwidth available to a mobile device by stitching together frequency channels, or “carriers,” that reside in different parts of the radio spectrum. Ordinary LTE can deliver data using a contiguous block of frequencies up to 20 megahertz wide. But as more and more companies and devices bid for radio spectrum, such wide swaths are increasingly scarce. Most operators, having bought bits and pieces of spectrum wherever they could, have fragmented collections.

Carrier aggregation solves that problem. It allows operators to combine their narrow, disjointed channels into “one very big pipe.” To deliver its LTE-Advanced service, for example, a company can combine two separate 10-MHz-wide channels, at 800 MHz and 1.8 gigahertz, into a single 20-MHz-wide channel, essentially doubling the data rate available to each user.

Besides carrier aggregation, four other key features distinguish LTE-Advanced from its predecessors. The first of these is called “multiple input, multiple output” (MIMO), which allows base stations and mobile units to send and receive data using multiple antennas. LTE already supports some MIMO, but only for the download stream. And it limits the number of antennas to four transmitters in the base station and four receivers in the handset. LTE-Advanced allows for up to eight antenna pairs for the download link and up to four pairs for the upload link.

MIMO serves two functions. In noisy radio environments — such as at the edge of a cell or inside a moving vehicle — the multiple transmitters and receivers work together to focus the radio signals in one particular direction. This “beamforming” boosts the strength of the received signal without upping transmission power (and reducing battery life).

If signals are strong and noise is low — such as when stationary users are close to a base station — MIMO can be used to increase data rates, or the number of users, for a given amount of spectrum. The technique, called spatial multiplexing, permits multiple data streams to travel over the same frequencies at the same time.

Another important cell phone technology is “relaying,” which extends coverage to places where reception is poor. Wireless network architects have long used relays to extend a tower’s reach, such as into a train tunnel or a remote area. But traditional relays, or repeaters, are relatively simple. They receive signals, amplify them, and then retransmit them.

LTE-Advanced supports more advanced relays, which first decode the transmissions and then forward only those destined for the mobile units that each relay is serving. This scheme reduces interference and lets more users link with the relay.

Yet another LTE-Advanced feature will help alleviate network congestion. Known as “enhanced inter-cell interference coordination,” or eICIC, it will be used for so-called heterogeneous networks, in which low-power base stations, or small cells, overlay the “macro” network of traditional towers. Many carriers have already begun using variously sized small cells (also called metro-, micro-, pico-, or femtocells) to expand data capacity in busy urban centers. These compact boxes are cheaper, less obtrusive, and easier to install, and analysts see a bright future for them. But as operators cram more and more cells into the same spaces, they will have to find ways to lessen the inevitable crosstalk, a form of interference between transmitters.

The last major item on LTE-Advanced’s broad menu helps further improve signals and increase data rates at a cell’s edge, where it can be tough to get a good connection. The technique is called “coordinated multipoint,” or CoMP. Essentially, it enables a mobile device to exchange data between multiple base stations at the same time.

While the positive improvements from implementation of all of these new features will be a big jump in cell phone quality and performance, it will take years for telecommunications companies to implement all of these features across the country. And there’s even more exciting news waiting in the wings. There is talk of a new standard promoted by The 3rd Generation Partnership Project. This international body originally worked to make mobile phone system specification based on Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) specifications. They were responsible for the EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution) standard. They plan to release the next iteration later this year.

Cell phones will get faster and the quality of service will improve. Companies are rushing to fulfill the demand for more and more speed and bandwidth to a growing customer base. Evolution takes time. We’ve already seen the shift from dinosaurs to small mammals. Next thing you know these creatures will grow wings and start to fly. It will take some time. Not geological time, but a few years. Hope I’m around to see it.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Has Colorado Gone to Pot?

So is Marijuana legal in Colorado as of the New Year?

Actually recreational use of Marijuana has been legal in Colorado since Dec. 10, 2012, after Amendment 64 was passed by the voters. What changed on Jan. 1, 2014 is that now certain retail establishments are allowed to sell up to one ounce of Marijuana and other “herbal” products for “recreational” purposes.

Where can I buy weed?

The retail sale of Marijuana is highly regulated. That’s why there was such a long delay since the passing of the amendment and the opening of the stores. That allowed the state to develop rules and regulations.

Colorado legalized the medical use of Marijuana back in 2010. Currently the retail stores selling pot are limited to those that were already certified to sell medicinal weed. New stores will open once they pass the very rigorous licensing requirements, and that probably won’t be for several months … probably not before near the end of the year. The red tape is that long.

So now I can smoke dope in Colorado?

Well, technically you can smoke Marijuana, but the places you can smoke are very limited. You can’t just smoke it outdoors … no smoking in public, no smoking in parks, no smoking at the airport, and no smoking on the ski slopes. You can smoke it at Red Rocks … but that rule (or practice) has existed for about the last fifty years. (The last sentence is a joke folks. It’s also the truth, but you have to see the humor in it. Come to Red Rocks … you’ll get high … on the music or the scenery of just the high mountain air. That I guarantee. The new law won't have changed that at all.)

Can you smoke it at the retail stores?

Definitely not. There is no smoking where the weed is sold. In fact, under Colorado's Clean Indoor Air Act, pot smoking isn't allowed anywhere that cigarette smoking is also banned and there's no cigar bar-style exemption for blunts. That means no smoking in any building, office, mall, bar, or teepee. About the only place you can smoke pot legally is in your own home or apartment (assuming your landlord doesn’t object).

They even considered making it illegal to smoke pot if your neighbor could smell it, but that rule didn’t pass. Meanwhile the great gray area of the law doesn’t say about smoking on the deck, porch, patio, or balcony. Smoking while in the backcountry is only under the jurisdiction of Smokey the Bear and he says only you can prevent wild fires. Seriously, the Feds still frown on any pot smoking in the National Parks and the fine is very, very stiff.

If I only smoke at home, will my employer object?

That’s up to your employer, and plenty of them test new applicants for MJ. So, you might want to keep it on the down-low, and don’t wear any of those funny “Joe the Camel with a bong” T-Shirts at work. However, judging on the stupid way I see people acting in corporations these days, they may already be high. So you should fit right in.

Who can buy Marijuana?

Much like a liquor store, any person over twenty-one can purchase Marijuana. If you live here, you can buy up to one ounce. If you don’t live here, you can still buy up to a quarter ounce.

Can I buy it in Colorado and take it home?

Only if you live in Colorado. You can not drive it out of state, or fly it out of state, or take a train or a bus. You can’t even transport it between two states where it is legal, although that’s pretty much limited to Colorado and Washington at this time. (That’s the state of Washington. We don’t know what they’re smoking in D.C.)

On the other hand, those that have driven north on I-25 and noticed the giant stores selling fireworks just across the border in Wyoming where, apparently, even dynamite is legal for Fourth of July celebrations, I expect you’ll soon see giant stores on the Colorado side of the border. After all, it’s illegal to bring those “Wyoming” fireworks into CO, so …. Just sayin’, not doin’.

Would you? Could you?
In a car?
Eat them! Eat them!
Here they are.

That’s a tough one. The law is very strict against driving stoned. So the driver should not be smoking. Both the law and the science on contact high is unsure, so anyone smoking in a car might end up with everyone in the hoosegow. One problem is reliable testing of Marijuana “intoxication.” If the cop pulls you over and smoke billows out your window, you may be in for a long discussion with the officer.

Can I transport Marijuana in the car?

As long as you’re not smoking it or crossing state lines, MJ in the car is OK.

Can I mail some pot to my family in Omaha?

Only if you want to spend time in a nice federal prison. The mail is intended only for certain things like letters from your aunt Martha and junk mail. Junk mail = OK. Pot mail = 10 years in Federal Prison. I hope I made that clear … oh, and postage rates also went up on the first.

What does this pot cost down at the “high” store?

Plenty. For one thing there’s a 29% state tax plus any local sales and use tax on a recreational Marijuana purchase. Like all good vices, including cigarettes and alcohol, the government takes a big share. That’s why it’s called “organized crime.” Expect to pay upwards of $300 for an ounce of reefer. Smaller amounts are also available along with Marijuana “infused” products like brownies. Weight Watchers will soon be providing the points count for these delicious, mood changing treats.

Of course, all that tax money will be put to good use. A lot of the money goes to schools where additional classes on the evils of drug use will be added. Did you know that currently 32% of Colorado school expulsions are due to Marijuana use? Don’t expect that figure to improve. On the other hand, Pot should bring millions of additional dollars to Colorado. That’s basic economics. Let the Pot Tours begin. After all, we know it is always just about the money.

Will my name go on a big government list if I buy pot?

Trust me, your name is already on a big government list. However, you won’t have to sign to buy your weed. You will get your picture taken as pot stores will have more cameras than a presidential news conference.

Can I just grow my own?

Sure you can, if you have a green thumb and an “enclosed, locked space.” You have to be over twenty-one and you’re limited to six plants. There are a lot of city ordinances including zoning laws, so check with your local government before you buy $10,000 worth of hydroponic equipment.

What about the Feds? Isn’t Marijuana still against federal law?

Yes it is. However, the federal government seems to be content just tapping all our phones and hacking into all our computers, and says it intends to leave potheads alone. That is, if they follow the rules, at least for now. The next U.S. Attorney General may have different rules and they may be adding smoke detectors to the drones.

What are the rules?

Well, they’re unwritten rules, but this seems to be what the eight federal priorities are:

  1. Preventing marijuana distribution to minors;
  2. Preventing money from sales from going to criminal groups;
  3. Preventing the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal to states where it is illegal;
  4. Preventing criminal groups from using state laws as cover for trafficking of other illegal drugs;
  5. Preventing violence and the use of illegal firearms;
  6. Preventing drugged driving and marijuana-related public health problems;
  7. Preventing the growing of marijuana on public lands;
  8. Preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property.

Will legal recreational sale of Marijuana replace medicinal Marijuana sales?

No. For one thing, medical Marijuana won’t have the very high taxes that the fun stuff has. So those with doctor’s prescriptions may choose to continue to buy MJ for what ails them. Plus, the limit for medical use of pot is two ounces and you can even have more if your doctor says so. Ain’t modern medicine wonderful? Oh, and you can get a prescription for medical Marijuana at the age of 18. So “MM” is sort of the 3.2 beer of pot.

What will be the impact of legal Marijuana sales in Colorado?

Well, I expect a big increase in sales at 7-Eleven and a drop in the school test scores. Seriously, Marijuana is a drug. There are plenty of drugs that are legal in our society, but that doesn’t make drugs a good thing. They all have their side effects. Personally, I consider weed a lot less damaging than alcohol or tobacco use, but that doesn’t mean it is safe. But then, apparently, neither is soda pop … both regular and sugar-free. People are gonna do what people do. Legal Marijuana just means that you won’t get busted for pot … unless you’re crossing state lines. It doesn’t mean pot is good for you. But then, neither are doughnuts, but they’re legal.

Now that pot is legal, will you be smoking it Mickey?

In a word, no. For one thing, I don’t do anything that makes my thinking unclear. (Well, maybe a few things.) I’m not against smoking weed, or having a beer or a glass of wine as far as that’s concerned. But those that know me know I don’t imbibe in intoxicants, and MJ is an intoxicant.

That’s just a personal choice. I regard clear thinking and a sound mind above all else … well almost all else. And, I have seen the damage that intoxicants have done to people, families, and society. However, the war on drugs has also caused much damage, and I think it is good that no one is getting busted for taking a few tokes. That’s OK with me. After what I’ve seen on television, both the news and the entertainment channels, I don’t think a little weed will push our society over the edge. When was the last time you heard of someone getting high on MJ and starting a fight?

So is legalized Marijuana the wave of the future?

Yes, I’m sure it is. Society is changing. It is always changing. We’ve tried some things such as prohibition, and it didn’t work out too well. As a society we don’t think that cigarettes are good for you, yet we tax the bejeebies out of them and sell them over the counter. Of course, it's illegal to sell cigs to kids … sure that law is working. Just drive by the local High School. Same goes for alcohol. It causes a lot of damage and death and other really bad things, but the state still gets a cut on every bottle, can, and glass sold. And in Nevada, prostitution is legal. All that just makes the government a pusher.

Same thing with legalized gambling. If I was in the mafia, I’d be suing the government for patent violations or unfair competition or something like that. After all, the government is already running “Murder Incorporated.” If I was organized crime, I’d just close up shop. The big boys are in town and they’re taking over the rackets.

All of these things cause more problems than they solve, but they increase tax revenues, and that’s really all government cares about. Maybe they'll use the money for something good. You can always hope so. That’s the direction society is going. Money is the new green. Better hang onto your hand basket, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride. Meanwhile, smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.

If you consider all that is wrong with the world, getting high on a little Colorado Cocktail isn’t the worst thing at all. John Denver wasn’t referring to just the mountains when he wrote “Rocky Mountain High.” Too bad he isn’t here to enjoy it now that it’s legal … sort of.