Today I was driving past a 1 Megawatt solar power installation and got thinking about power distribution. One of the troubles with solar is that solar panels put out DC, while our homes use AC. The whole AC/DC fight goes back to Edison/Westinghouse/Tesla/Steinmetz, etc and is a longer story than I can go into here. Edison wanted to run homes on DC, everybody else knew the only way to conduct electricity over long distances was AC, so our homes run on AC. All well and good until rooftop solar power shows up, generating DC. The traditional solar setup then stores the energy in batteries, runs an DC-to-AC converter, synchronize it to the grid, and use it.

But let's look at how we use it once it comes out of the receptacle. My computer changes that AC wall power to DC for the machine. So does my cell phone charger, battery charger, TV, amp, PS3. In short, everything in my house except lights and things with motors changes the AC to DC before it can use it. When LED lighting comes about in the next few years, move the lights to the DC column as well. So here's my radical notion: start transitioning house current to DC. Initially this would be a separate 12 volt distribution system in the house. Once standards are set, then electronics manufacturers could start making alternative DC adapters in addition to the AC adapters (power bricks) we now use. There's already lots of manufacturing capacity and engineering knowledge built around 12 volt DC systems, since that's what cars run on.

The advantages of this system are numerous: solar power would be much more efficient and economical since you don't have to convert their output to AC, power supplies (and power bricks) would be smaller, cheaper and more efficient. And best of all, we start to truly get the benefits of the long-touted 'smart-grid' systems because storing DC in batteries without having to convert it back to AC reduces complexity and loss. Did I mention that 12 volts DC is much safer than 120 volts AC? All in all, when we convert to LED lighting a few years hence, I think it's time to take a serious look at wiring homes with DC.

I'm sure hundreds of people have thought of this before, but I don't have a link into their fountain of knowledge. If anybody knows of a reference, drop me a note or post a comment to this blog entry.

Hurricane Season

Yesterday started the Atlantic Hurricane Season. So everybody load up your 10-gauges, get that license and head for the Gulf. Hope everybody bags their limit this year. Be safe and have fun!

What Waffle House Should Offer

I was walking along Peachtree a while back and saw it was standing room only at Gladys Knight's Chicken and Waffles. I did some investigation and found the wikipedia article on chicken and waffles. It occurred to me that this would be a prime dish for Waffle House to serve up. True, it's generally fried chicken, which WH doesn't do, but it can be done with grilled chicken and gravy. How about it, WH team? You're famous for experimentation and shifting the menu around. Give it a shot!

The Death of the Bingo Card

The other day at Home Depot I bought my annual copy of Fine Woodworking (Hey, I can dream, can't I?) and found inside a blow-in postcard that proclaimed that this was "The Last In-Book Request Card" sometimes called a "Reader Response Card." You remember those? In the industry they were called "Bingo Cards." For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, an advertiser in a magazine would pay a few dollars extra to be assigned a number on that card for that issue. The ad would be amended to say "Circle number 47 on the reader response card for more information" or shoehorned into the smaller ads as just "Card #82." The cards were called Bingo Cards because they had a large matrix of numbers on one side, one per advertiser. We, the readers, could circle up to about 20 of the numbers that corresponded to the ads we were interested in and mail the card back to the magazine's fulfillment house. We'd then receive further product information or a catalog from the advertiser by return post. I remember as a kid filling these things out from magazines like Popular Electronics. Now it appears that those days are rapidly fading. Now we're directed to each advertiser's website, or to the url. Another form of print advertising thus yields to the immediacy of the web. What will I do with this last card? I'm tempted to circle my maximum allotment of numbers and mail it in as a last hurrah. But instead I'm going try to keep this issue with the card as a memento of days gone by, when we eagerly awaited the postman's rounds bringing us word from the outside world.

The Engine's at Which End?

The other day the 'check engine' light came on in my car, so I took it in to the Trusted Mechanic who plugged it into his diagnostic computer to 'pull the codes' and decipher what the machine was complaining about. We reminisced about the simpler times when the most complicated instruments in a mechanic's toolbox were the timing light and dwell meter. He got the results from the computer, which was that the gas cap wasn't on tight. I tightened it up, he cleared the errors and the car's been humming happily since. But wait a minute: if the gas cap's not on firmly, the 'check engine' light comes on!?!? On my car the gas cap's at the opposite end of the car from the engine. There was nothing wrong with the engine! How hard would it be to replace the 'check engine' idiot light with a simple 80 character display that would say something helpful like 'tighten up your gas-cap, genius'? A current story says that car buyers are favoring high technology over horsepower in car-buying. If by 'high technology' one means communication in clear English rather than arcane computer codes and idiot lights, count me in.

Get with the plan, Professor!

Merry Christmas Eve, all! I just submitted an idea to the Mythbusters forum, starting with:

There have been several suggestions for Gilligan's Island Myths: mostly about recreating the idiotic contraptions the Professor cooked up. How about the One Big One that he didn't do, namely: Given the contents of a boat similar to the Minnow in the 1960s, and native island materials, is it possible to construct a radio transmitter? Assume the transmitter the ship was provisioned with was totally destroyed.

We'll see if it gets any traction.

God Bless us, every one....

The Secret of Great Party Mix

One of our holiday traditions is making Chex Party Mix. As a Christmas present, here's our variation. Start with the original recipe, but tweek as follows:

  • Leave out the bagel chips. I know it says 'original recipe' but come on! Any of you remember such a thing as 'bagel chips' back in the '60s?
  • Cut back on the wheat Chex to about half what they say. Make up for it with more rice and corn
  • Only use about half the mixed nuts, make up for it with pecans. Yum!


Why I Didn't Ask for an iPhone for Christmas

I admit it, I'd like an iPhone. But I didn't ask for one for Christmas this year. Why? The speculation is that Apple's exclusive contract with AT&T ends about the end of the year and that Verizon will start offering iPhones maybe as early as January. Cringely points out that Apple will have to come out with a new model of iPhone, to do that since the current iPhone only works on GSM networks and Verizon used CDMA. So the iPhone that will appear at the first of the year will be dual-mode to work with either carrier. iPhone users are notoriously unenthusiastic about AT&T's network. Cringe says that about 10 million of these users will have their AT&T contracts expiring in the first part of next year. How many of these will want to jump to Verizon? 10%? 25%? If only 10% do, that's one million users. But wait! They can't just jump to Verizon. They'll have to buy the new dual-band iPhone to jump. What will they do with their old GSM iPhones? Junk them? Give them away? Sell them? The current 16Gb iPhone4 goes for $600 new. There's 2,215 of them on sale on eBay, going for between $400 and $500 each. What happens when the better part of a million people want to unload their iPhones? My guess is the price on eBay will drop to between $200 and $300. At that point I'll ask Santa to bring me a belated Christmas gift of a nice used iPhone4. Stay tuned. We'll see if it pans out.

User Interface On Bank Statements

I realize I'm in the small minority of people who still get paper bank statements every month. In fact, I'm one of the last six people who still actually balances his checkbook every month with that statement with paper and pencil. So this rant won't have any impact to the vast majority of Quickbooks, Mint or whatever else online money management users. But... The first blank I have to fill out on the balancing form on the back of the statement is "Enter the ending balance on this statement". There's a blank to the right where I'm supposed to write in the closing balance from the other side of the page. Question: why don't they do that for me? I mean the whole thing's done on a laser printer, my account number, the date and page number are on the top of the balance page already. So why don't they just carry the closing balance forward and fill it in for me? I realize I'm looking at the world through web-usability rose-colored glasses, but such issues carry over to physical artifacts as well. What other examples of real-world user interfaces would be different if we applied the same usability standards we do on the web?

Politically Correct Fruit?

I was at Costco the other day and saw raisins advertised as "Now Plumper and Jucier." I thought we used to call them 'grapes'. I also saw "Dried Plums." So what the difference between these and 'prunes?'

The First Item on Humanity's To-Do List

The fist job God gave to man in the garden of Eden in Genesis 1:28 was "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it;..." (NASB). Ok, so when do we get to cross this item off our collective to-do list? At what point do we consider the earth 'subdued'? With close to six billion humans, at what point can we say we've officially been fruitful and filled the earth? Shouldn't we be getting close? I say it's time to consider putting a checkmark by this one. What say you?

Have We Forgotten How to Vacation?

This week a couple wanted to rent our cabin for a few days this fall. They backed out when they learned that our cabin didn't have broadcast TV. They said they're used to starting and ending their day watching the news. I wanted to write them back and say "I'm sorry you've forgotten what a vacation's all about." A vacation is to take a break from our regular routine and to get away. If one's going to continue their regular routine, why go someplace different? You can continue your routine at home! A vacation is to renew our perspective, to rest, to learn again that the world continues to spin on its axis without our aid. If any of you would like to truly get away, then see our cabin's website and book now. It's But no, you won't have Fox News or CNN.

Avenue of Approachability

Yesterday I taught a class at Emory's Center for Lifelong Learning, their name for their Continuing Education program these days. A couple of years back, all us instructors had to get 'certified'. Those that taught Adobe or Microsoft products with their certifications, or for us generalists, we had to pass the CTT+ exam. One of the things emphasized was that the instructor should always dress better than the student, creating an air of authority. Thereafter, all male instructors had to wear ties. One thing they don't teach you at the CTT+ exam is that some people are still intimidated by instructors. Chalk it up to authoritarian grade-school teachers, the nuns at parochial school, whatever. I noticed that the more successful instructors created what I'll call an 'Avenue of Approachability" to help this. What do I mean? I mean some bit of informality in the instructor's dress or demeanor that helps put the students at ease.  Greg Creech wears color-coordinated Keds sneakers. Richard Roberts encourages students to call him "Doc", as one would one of the seven dwarfs. What did I decide to do? I've adopted wearing a tie, but leaving it slightly loose around the neck, with the collar button unbuttoned, as if I've just loosened up a bit after a more formal engagement. Any other examples or discussion are welcome.