Supersonic Man

September 6, 2018

the last SLR holdout

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,Photo,technology,the future! — Supersonic Man @ 11:41 am

Mirrorless cameras are officially taking over; everybody wants the slim camera bodies and short lens registry distances that are made possible by electronic viewfinders.  Nikon has come out with a new Z mount and almost simultaneously, Canon has come out with a new RF mount (which looks to me like it will be a real “RF” of people who bought into their smaller and older EOS-M system, as it is not at all compatible, and it might not even be possible to make an adapter to mate them).  Meanwhile, in the medium-format world, Hasselblad also came out with a mirrorless camera sporting a new short-flange lens mount a while ago — I think they call it XCD — and Phase One put together a mirrorless bodge setup branded as Alpa, which must have something that counts as a lens mount.  This means that almost every camera company that didn’t already have a short mirrorless lens mount (Sony, Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic, Leica, and formerly Samsung) has now added one to their product line.  As far as I can see, there is only one holdout which still offers only a long-flange lens mount and traditional SLR cameras: Pentax.  As it happens, I’ve got Pentax.

Does this mean that Pentax needs to do a me-too and come up with their own short mount, to keep up?  It does not.  There are lots of reasons why it might make perfect sense to offer a mirrorless camera without changing the mount.  They’ve already updated their existing mount so it can operate in a fully electronic fashion with no legacy mechanical linkages.  Lenses made for mirrorless use can still have their back end close to the sensor; they’ll just have the mounting flange further forward, with some of the glass hiding inside the body of the camera.  This will create a pancake-like appearance for lenses that are not actually thin.  Another possibility is that filters can be placed into the gap.  Or the protruding barrel can be a place to mount a control ring.  I think it’s a perfectly viable way to do mirrorless, though for some it won’t win aesthetic points.

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June 21, 2018

hydrogen economy? how about methane instead?

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,science!,technology,the future! — Supersonic Man @ 4:52 pm

Ever since the seventies, there’s been an idea floating around that someday, in order to replace fossil fuels, we’d start using hydrogen as our main chemical fuel.  We’d have hydrogen tanks instead of gasoline tanks, and hydrogen pipelines instead of natural gas pipes.  The hydrogen would be produced from water with either renewable or nuclear energy sources, and then whenever we needed a chemical fuel, we’d use hydrogen.  And wherever we needed a portable source of electric power, we’d use hydrogen fuel cells.  Our cars might be fuel cell powered, for instance.

Since then, fuel cell cars have advanced pretty well, and building a fleet of electric cars which get their power from hydrogen fuel cells looks fairly doable.  There are even some demo filling stations which allow you to fill up a fuel cell car with hydrogen, if you have one of the test vehicles.

So that part is doable, though nobody’s sure if there’ll be any need for it.  Cars might do just as well by simply using batteries, and plugging in to charge, as many people do today.  Making a new network for delivering hydrogen to cars might be an unnecessary expense.

But what about all the other things we use fossil fuel for, besides transportation?  What about heating our houses, and fueling our stoves and ovens?  Could we, for instance, substitute hydrogen for natural gas?

I think the answer is that we could, but maybe we shouldn’t, because there’s a better idea.  An approach which lets us keep using the natural gas infrastructure that we already have.  Switching to hydrogen would entail replacing most of it, because a pipe or a valve that safely contains natural gas can easily fail at containing hydrogen.  Since it is the lightest of all gases, one of its properties is that it can find its way through leaks which, to any ordinary gas, aren’t leaks at all.  Every piece of every pipe, and every valve in every appliance, would have to be either carefully tested, or replaced.  Also, the pipes would either have to be expanded for a larger volume, or operated at higher pressure.

We can avoid all that with one simple step: taking the hydrogen we produce and converting it into methane.  Natural gas is 95% methane, and if we make it artificially, it could be used as a direct replacement for gas.  And the way we’d do that is with a process called the Sabatier reaction.  In this process, hydrogen is combined with carbon dioxide by means of a metallic catalyst.  The oxygen is stripped off of the carbon atoms and hydrogen takes its place.  The result is methane, plus leftover oxygen.

The best part is where we get the carbon dioxide: out of the atmosphere.  At first, we could take it directly from the smokestacks of industries which still burn fossil fuel.  (Steelmaking, for instance, might have a hard time using anything but coal.)  Later, as the scale increases, we could just separate it out of regular air.  This makes your home’s existing stove and furnace and water heater carbon neutral.  And even your car, because existing piston engines can be modified to run on methane, which might help ease the transition to the time when we all go electric.

With some further chemical processes we could probably convert the methane into longer chain hydrocarbons, producing oils and so on — substitutes for things like butane or kerosene or diesel or gear oil… or even gasoline for classic car enthusiasts.

Between battery cars and methane conversion, maybe there wouldn’t be all that big a market for straight pure hydrogen.  It would definitely have some uses, but I don’t think all that big a part of our energy supply would be used in hydrogen form.  We might, however, use hydrogen to store solar energy from midday for use at night.  Such hydrogen might be produced directly by vats of algae, then fed to stationary fuel cells as the sun sets.

If a big methane convertor works, we should of course encourage its use.  We’ll have tax credits for making carbon-neutral methane, and penalties for fossil fuels.  The rival approach of getting gas by fracking might even be banned outright, because of its harmful side effects.  This assumes, of course, that at some point we overcome the reactionary political forces who want to prop up the oil and coal industries, and would let all the profitable advances in renewables be done overseas.

One cool thing is that methane making machines are being developed right now, as part of the space program.  Not NASA’s space program, but SpaceX’s private program.  They’re building it for future Martian explorers and colonists, so they’ll be able to make their own rocket fuel for flights back to Earth.  Who knows, maybe at some point they’ll use the machine to fuel rockets here as well  so they can say they have carbon neutral satellite launchers.  Both of the major reusable rocket companies say methane is the fuel they want to use… and there’s no denying that a lot of older rockets are terrible polluters.

Of course, some other rockets will keep on using hydrogen, which when practical is still the cleanest option.

June 3, 2018

Trends in rocketry

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,technology — Supersonic Man @ 11:07 am

I’ve been taking an interest in the space industry and orbital rockets — a field which is evolving very rapidly nowadays.  So far this year we’ve seen the debut orbital flights of the Electron, the Falcon Heavy and Falcon 9 Block 5, and seen a new record set for the smallest rocket to put up a working satellite.  In the remaining months, we’re expecting the maiden flights of the LauncherOne, the Kuaizhou 11, the Vector R, and the Starliner and Dragon 2 crew capsules.  We just might see one of those capsules take live astronauts to the Space Station by the end of the year.  And the next couple of years will have plenty of action too, with several lunar landers being sent up by different countries, and more new vehicles making their debut: the SLS, the Vulcan, the New Glenn, the Dream Chaser, and more.

With so much short-term activity, it may be hard to spot the longer term trends, but I think I can lay out a few here: (more…)

May 10, 2017

no Apollo

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,technology,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 9:21 am

If NASA had not been hurried into building the Apollo mission by the “space race” against the USSR, how might we have arrived at the Moon? Space development might have proceeded a good deal more slowly and less expensively, building on the X-15 rocket plane experiments. I think that program would eventually have arrived at something fairly close to the Space Shuttle. If you solve all the problems of the X-15 one by one to make it orbit-worthy, it would have had to be much larger and blunter, because any adequate heat shield is going to be around four inches thick, and that doesn’t scale down for something skinny or pointy. That sounds a lot like the shuttle to me.

So let’s say we were trying to send a mission to the moon using space shuttles. The shuttle itself can’t go there even in you fill the cargo bay with fuel, and that would be wasteful anyway, as you don’t need most of its bulk. So I think the bits that actually go to the moon would be much as they historically were in Apollo: a lunar module, command module, and service module. Why not just stick those into a shuttle bay?

The shuttle’s cargo bay is 60 feet long and 15 feet across, though for a cylindrical cargo the cross section needs to be a bit smaller, as the space isn’t fully round. The mass limit for a flight to low orbit is a hair over 30 English tons, or 27.5 metric tons. (I don’t think any real flight ever exceeded 83% of that capacity.) What can we work out based on these limits?

You can’t fit all three modules into one shuttle-load, but they’ll go in two loads, if you make the lander a bit less broad and gangly. One would be the command module and lunar module, and the service module would be the other. And we might have to trim a bit of weight from the service module, like maybe take out the heavy batteries and put them in the other load. This means the service module would have to be mounted to the command module by shuttle astronauts in space suits, which would be inconvenient, but doable. Alternately, you might cram the three modules into one flight all preassembled, if their fuel were in another. This would mean at least six operations of astronauts pumping dangerous fluids into various tanks spread throughout the modules. It might also mean assembling the lander’s legs from some inconveniently compact from.

Now you need a rocket to send the set toward the moon — one rather like the S-IVB third stage of Apollo, which used the majority of its fuel to lift the three modules out of low orbit and fling them toward the moon. This rocket was a bit too large to fit into a shuttle bay, but we can reduce its size by at least 25%. Its weight is no problem, if it’s empty. But the fuel would take three additional shuttle loads. Historically this rocket weighed 10 metric tons empty, and pushed a 45 ton payload. The required delta-V is 3.1 km/s. It burned around 75 tons of hydrogen and oxygen to accomplish this. It used about 30 tons more to finish lifting Apollo into low orbit around Earth during launch, which would not be needed in this case.

So the mission would require six shuttle launches, starting with one to put up the booster with maybe the first splash of fuel in it, and three more to fill it up. Then the service module would be brought up, and attached to the booster. The command and lunar modules would come up last, along with the astronauts who will ride in them. That last shuttle could stay in orbit for a couple of weeks to await their return.

It might be better to bring the fuel up in the tanks that will be used instead of needing to pump it from one tank to another, so maybe the booster would just be a framework that fuel tanks would be bolted into. Such a framework might be folded smaller for transport. This would require additional assembly in space, possibly employing double digit numbers of shuttle astronauts over several flights.  But if everything were prepared well on the ground, the task should not be difficult or dangerous. And if the orbits were well planned, the booster stage could be recovered into Earth orbit, and either refueled for another mission, or if necessary flown back down for refurbishment. As SpaceX has demonstrated with their Falcon landings, once a booster is detached from its payload and has mostly empty tanks, a small amount of remaining fuel can accomplish quite a lot of maneuvering, so I don’t think it’s implausible that its engine could return it to low orbit with the last of its fuel, especially if it discards some dead weight such as empty tanks.

The command module might not need to splash down into the ocean. But it might still need a heat shield, just to brake in Earth’s atmosphere enough to slow down into an Earth orbit, so a shuttle can pick it up. Or, this somewhat risky air-braking might be avoidable by making the service module larger and giving it more fuel. (Perhaps it also could use bolt-in tanks. Add at least one more fuel-hauling flight to the schedule in this case.) An ocean splashdown might be the emergency backup option if the rendezvous fails.

I’m sure this sounds a lot more awkward and inconvenient than the Apollo’s comparatively simple process of just launching one big rocket, but it would have been vastly less expensive. Most of the parts would be reusable instead of disposable. The only part that absolutely could not be reused is the bottom stage of the lunar module. Apollo cost us at least $20 billion per landing, in today’s money; this would cost perhaps a quarter of that — and I’m sure if we made this a continuing operation, we would have found ways to lower the costs further. Instead of just six trips to the moon, we might have continued doing dozens. We might never have stopped.

However, I do worry that this process might have exposed astronauts to greater risks. Lots of opportunities for something to go wrong up in orbit, and lots more shuttle flights. As we have seen, those shuttles were not the safest things to fly in.

April 8, 2017

eight-bit nostalgia

Filed under: fun,Hobbyism and Nerdry,technology — Supersonic Man @ 1:03 pm

There’s a lot of nostalgia out there for the era of eight-bit computers — especially the home-oriented ones from the likes of Commodore and Sinclair and Atari.  And I get why: they were tremendously liberating and empowering to those who had never had access to computing before.  And the BASIC interpreters they all came with were likewise quite empowering to those who hadn’t previously realized that they could write their own programs.

But as someone who was already empowered, I couldn’t stand those crappy toy computers.  They’d run out of bits just when you were at the point where a program was starting to get interesting.  I never owned one.  I didn’t start wanting my own computer until the sixteen bit era.  The first personal computer that actually made me want it was the Apple Lisa, which of course was prohibitively expensive.  The first one I wanted enough to pay hard-earned money for it, at a time when I didn’t have much, was the Amiga 1000.

(Last I checked, my Amiga 1000 still runs.  But one of these days the disk drives are going to fail, and any available replacements will be just as old and worn.  Turns out that what a lot of retrocomputing hobbyists do is to use hardware adapters to connect their old disk cables to modern flash-memory drives.  It may be kind of cheating but at least you won’t have range anxiety about how much you dare use it before it breaks.)

To me, the sixteen bit era, and the 32-bit transition following, was the most fun time, when the computers were capable enough to do plenty of cool stuff, but also still innovative and diverse enough to not be all boring and businesslike.

If I were of a mind to recapture any of that fun with modern hardware, it sure doesn’t cost money like it used to: I’d look at, for instance, getting a Pi 3 with Raspbian on it.  You could have a complete Linux system just by velcroing it to the back of a monitor or TV.  But there are even cheaper alternatives: there’s a quite good hacking environment available across all modern platforms, more empowering and ubiquitous than BASIC ever was… in your browser’s javascript.

November 18, 2016

future cars

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,technology,the future!,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 8:05 pm

A lot of people who talk about the coming future of post-petroleum vehicles like to pooh-pooh the battery electric car, even though it’s the most successful type so far.  They keep insisting that the real future will belong to hydrogen fuel cells or ethanol or something else exotic.

But consider the following vision for a future car:

It’s an affordable compact or midsize, nothing fancy.  The base model comes with an electric motor for each front wheel, and 25 or 30 kilowatt-hours of batteries layered under the floor.  This arrangement keeps the powertrain out of the way, so it can have a trunk at both ends, like a Tesla.  Its range is at most a hundred miles, so it’s fine for commuting and shopping and local excursions, but very inconvenient for a road trip.

Most people accustomed to gasoline cars would find this disappointing.  But consider the upgrades you could buy for it.  If you want sure-footedness in snow, or more performance, add a pair of rear motors.  (They would be smaller than the front ones, unless you’re doing some aggressive hot-rodding.)  If you want longer range, you could have a second battery pack in place of your front trunk.  And… if you want to drive everywhere and refuel with gasoline, you could replace that front trunk or second battery with a small gasoline engine and a generator.  It would be no bigger than a motorcycle engine, because it would only need to produce twenty to thirty horsepower to keep your batteries from draining while cruising down a highway.  Ideally it would be a turbine rather than a piston engine, as it would only run at one speed.

Or if gasoline goes out of fashion, you could use that space for a fuel cell and a hydrogen tank.  Again, it would produce only a steady twenty or thirty horsepower.  Or there could eventually be other alternatives not well known today, such as liquid-fueled batteries which you refill with exotic ion solutions, or metal-air cells fueled with pellets of zinc or aluminum.

These would not have to be options you choose when buying the car, but could just as easily be aftermarket modifications.  They simply bolt in!  Anyone with a hoist could swap them in minutes, because the only connections needed are electrical, not mechanical.  Even the front trunk would just be a bolted-in tub.  With a good design, these power options might be interchangeable easily enough that people could just rent such an add-on as needed, rather than buying it.  It might be cheaper than, say, renting another car for a vacation trip.

Another option might be to install stuff from below.  There have been plans to make a network of stations where a machine just unclips your empty battery and slots in a full one, from underneath.  With forethought, this car could be made compatible with such a system.

The point is, once you have the basic platform of a battery-electric car, it can be cheaply adapted to run on any power source.  You could run it with coal, or with thorium, if you’re crazy enough.  Whatever becomes the most economical and abundant power storage medium of the future, your existing car can take it onboard.  All you need is to make sure it has some unused room under the hood.

And the best part?  Even if you don’t add anything, you still have a plug-in car that’s perfectly okay for most everyday uses.  In fact, I suspect a lot of people might come to prefer the car with no add-on, because it’s lighter and quicker and more efficient and cheaper that way, and it has two trunks.

October 3, 2016

a tribute to the HTC One M7

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,life,technology — Supersonic Man @ 11:09 pm

My current phone, on which I am typing this post, is an HTC One — the iconic model known, but not advertised, as the M7.  It’s old and I’m now only days away from replacing it.  The battery can barely hold a charge anymore, the main camera is busted, and the proximity sensor ain’t what it used to be.  Besides that, of course the CPU isn’t much by today’s standards and 32 GB of storage is rather limiting with no SD slot… but if it weren’t for the wear&tear issues, I’d feel pretty darn okay with continuing to use this phone for quite a while longer.  It’s an excellent phone, and I definitely wish there were more phones out there which embraced front stereo speakers.

The M7 was quite an important and influential model.  Its design and build set a new standard for the kinds of materials and aesthetics that a high-end phone should aspire to.  Samsung took a couple of years to catch up, and I’m not quite certain Apple ever did.  It’s because of HTC’s chamfered aluminum back that nowadays every midrange Chinese wannabe model has a “premium” metallic build, and plastic became intolerable on a high-end model.  And though the stereo speakers may not have been imitated nearly as often as they ought to have been, their presence did manage to embarrass all but the cheapo models into at least putting a speaker on the edge, like Apple, instead of on the back.

Even its camera, which was often regarded as the most disappointing piece of the phone, was influential.  The “ultrapixel” approach forced makers and buyers to realize that pixel size matters as much as pixel count, and this is why today’s camera spec comparisons include that metric, along with numbers for megapixels and lens aperture.  And yes, this was also among the first cameras to make an issue of its aperture, with f/2.0 when competitors were f/2.4 or slower.  The “zoe” feature also helped popularize sharing brief video snippets as if they were still pictures.

Another imitated feature was the IR blaster, though that is now falling out of favor again.  Don’t blame HTC for the trend to nonremovable batteries, though — that was well under way a year earlier.

Aside from innovative aspects, it was just a solidly good phone.  Its software, for instance (initially a skin on Jellybean, eventually updated to Lollipop), was dramatically smoother and more pleasant than that of the competing Galaxy S4, which tended to be jerky even when fresh out of the box.  It also had a stronger headphone amp than the Galaxy.  Its audio features even included FM radio, while other phones were giving that up.  The display was pretty good for a non-amoled, with nice color and 1080p resolution, which is actually better than 1440p for those who watch movies and TV on their phones.  Also, the size of the display was about what I still consider ideal for a compromise between ergonomic convenience and viewing area.  The whole industry has pursued the trend to phablet-sized enormity too far, in my opinion, and I’m glad to see a sign of reversal coming now, with Google’s new Pixel phones (made by HTC) each being a size smaller than their Nexus predecessors, and with no performance penalty for the smaller model relative to the larger.

What are the important and influential models in the history of Android phones?  The HTC Dream, a.k.a. the T-Mobile G1, was the first.  The Moto Droid was the first to popularize the platform with massive advertising, pointing out that there were areas where it could outdo iOS.  The Galaxy Nexus showed off the alternative of a “pure Google” unlocked phone, and a high definition screen without a high price.  The Galaxy Note put phablets on the map, and the Galaxy S III was, for many, the first phone to show that Android might actually be superior to iOS, depending on one’s personal priorities.  The M7 was the first phone to outdo Apple at physical design and construction, and to demonstrate the importance of good speakers.  And maybe we can make a spot for the S6 Edge for being the first to put curved glass to good use, eliminating the side bezel and taking another definite step beyond Apple in physical design.  Historically, the M7 stands in distinguished company.

We shall see what becomes influential next — perhaps modularity, though judging by current sales, probably not.

The M7’s physical design is definitely iconic, and it’s unsurprising that HTC kept changes to a minimum for the M8 and M9, comparing them to a Porsche 911 which still looks like it did 40 years ago.  Unfortunately they kept too much else the same, and lost popularity.  To me it’s sad that HTC has regained customers by losing its definitive feature, the stereo speakers… though the HTC 10’s mix of front sound at one end and edge sound at the other is still influential, having been copied by Apple.

So as I say goodbye to my hard-working HTC One, it’s mostly just with regret that it’s getting physically worn out, not that it’s fallen too far behind.  I will definitely keep it around — if my new phone ever has an issue and I need a backup, I know that the old phone will still be able to perform well, as long as I can keep juice in it.

June 5, 2016

solar panels on electric cars?

Filed under: fun,Hobbyism and Nerdry,technology — Supersonic Man @ 12:39 am

So if you had an electric car, would it be worthwhile to put a solar panel on the roof?

At first blush, it wouldn’t seem so.  A decent electric car ought to have something like 100 kilowatt-hours in its battery pack, and it sure would be nice if it could hold 200 or more.  (The total energy in a moderately sized tank of gasoline is about 500 kwh, but at least two thirds of that just goes into waste heat.)  The biggest solar panel area you could fit on top of a car, disregarding all competing design criteria, would be about two square meters, and a more typical car would probably make room for about one square meter.  Over a whole day in blazing sun, that’s only going to produce about one kwh, and in most circumstances you’ll get quite a bit less.  So it’ll probably only extend your daily driving range by three miles at most, and if you park it under a roof you’ll never get even one mile out of it.

But range extension isn’t the only benefit of having a bit of free power available when not driving.  You’d never have to worry about running things down with the fan or the stereo or mobile-device chargers.  On a hot day you could even use the air conditioner.  The car could even cool itself automatically while left in a parking lot, with no fear that this would affect your ability to get home.  Cars left unattended for months might still be fully ready to drive away in.  And if you run out of juice in a lonely desert, the next day you might be able to drive a couple of crucial miles to get to a spot where help is reachable.

I think this is starting to sound like a good idea even on gasoline cars.  Or on hybrids, at the very least.

June 2, 2016

a small attempt to emulate the gadget press

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,technology — Supersonic Man @ 9:08 am

Nowadays the popular media report on the latest gadgets almost as eagerly as they report on celebrity gossip.  Since my smartphone is now three models out of date, I’ve been reading more than my share of this stuff.  And this is inspiring me to try adding a little noise of my own to that topic.  So:

Five Things Premium Phones Will Need in Order to Stay Premium

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March 28, 2016

some fatuous computer industry predictions

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,technology,the future! — Supersonic Man @ 11:15 am

I think I’ll call some trends in where the computer industry is going to go in the coming years. And yes, these are pulled straight from my lower gastrointestinal tract.

  • Is Windows going to start dying off?  Yes, but it will be very slow.  Home use will disappear before office use.
  • What will replace it?  A windowed variant of Android, or something Android-compatible, which doesn’t even exist yet.
  • Will that be Google’s planned merger of Android with ChromeOS?  Maybe, but I think it may be more likely to come from an independent outfit.  And if it’s advertised as being half Android and half ChromeOS, it’ll really be 90% Android.
  • Will ARM architecture replace Intel ’86 architecture?  Yes, but only temporarily.
  • Then what will win out in the long term?  Something designed for massive parallelism, like a GPU.  I predict that in The Future, when comparing the size and power of different computers, the main stat that will be quoted is the number of kilocores.
  • Will these cores be similar to full-blown processors such as an ARM core, or will they be more basic and stripped-down like a GPU core?  I think the trend may be from the former toward the latter — quantity over quality.
  • Will we still be using Android variants when things get into kilocore country?  Nah, something fundamentally more advanced will replace the whole current idea of desktop-like interfaces.
  • Will neural networks be important?  Maybe.  They’ll remain a specialized minority of architectures, but I think as the massively parallel architecture evolves toward having more cores and less in each core, it will converge toward neural-net architecture and then replace it.
  • What about software?  I think it will be stored in portable binary format and adapted to individual architectures with JIT compilation and/or automatic local optimizers.  The actual coding of highly parallel algorithms will rarely be done by hand, and will usually depend heavily on automated assistance.
  • What about quantum computing?  It’s impossible to tell how big an impact it will have.  It’s essentially a form of analog computing, and as such may be confined to niche specialties… but you never know: it could end up beating conventional computing at its own game and become much more general-purpose.  If this happens, the need for automated assistance in coding goes double.
  • Will we eventually use computers through direct brain interfaces?  Yes, but progress toward that will be frustratingly slow and gradual.
  • Will these new architectures lead to Artificial Intelligence?  Yes, though in a quite limited sense for the shorter term.  See this article for how I think that will go.
  • Does this mean that a computer will take your job?  It sure does, and it’s going to be a very difficult social challenge to adapt to.  See this further article.
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