Supersonic Man

May 29, 2021

the end of Windows hegemony — update

Filed under: computing,Hobbyism and Nerdry,the future! — Supersonic Man @ 1:06 pm

More than eight years ago, I wrote a post here called “the end of Windows hegemony?”.  It was quite premature at the time, and for year after year nothing seemed to happen to make any of the predictions or possibilities mentioned in that post move any closer to reality.

But in the year of the pandemic, it’s finally starting to look like people are reconsidering their automatic default allegiance to Microsoft Windows.  At the time of that post, according to statcounter.com, the desktop market share of Windows was 84% in North America and 91% worldwide.  Now it’s down to 63% in North America and 75% worldwide.  The biggest gainer has been MacOS, though it looks like they may have started trending back down again in the middle of 2020, perhaps due to caution over the change of CPU architecture.  Back then they were at 15% and 8%, and at the peak they hit 28% and 18%.  The other main beneficiary has been ChromeOS, which has gone from essentially nothing to 6% in North America and 2% worldwide.

Perhaps as a response to this downward trend, Microsoft is now planning a fancy new update to the Windows look and feel… and unlike previous major updates, this one is pretty much mandatory.  They’d probably call it Windows 11 if they hadn’t committed to using the name Windows 10 until the end of time… and maybe they will anyway.  Time will tell whether there are good options available for those who decide they hate whatever new style they come up with.

In this, Windows is  becoming like Android, though with less ability to choose different aesthetic styles of UI by picking a different hardware maker.  As with Android, those who make the effort to dig into alternatives will probably have pretty good options to change some things they don’t like, but most non-techy users will not benefit from this, and will take what they’re given.

Mostly what they want, from what I’ve seen, is lack of change.  They want the time and attention they’ve invested in learning software systems to not be lost.  Automatic and mandatory changes are likely to be met with resentment, if they require any relearning.  The time when they feel open to change is when they buy new hardware, which is why Android suffers less of this resentment.  It used to be that paying money for a new OS version would also open this window, but that’s not something that happens anymore.

Marketing-wise, Microsoft was never well served by trying to switch to an evergreen software model in which they pump out updates when they see fit rather than when the user wants them.  Their users, outside of corporate IT departments and technical professionals, are willing to take what they’re given, but want it to be stable and predictable once they’ve gotten used to it.

And I think that what Microsoft has failed to appreciate about its own position is how much their entire Windows business has depended on people’s willingness to take what they’re given.  Aside from gamers, almost nobody chooses windows for themselves because they actively want it.  They take it because it’s what’s been given to them.  Because it’s the default — because it’s what you get automatically if you don’t make an active choice.  Because it’s what everybody has always gotten, and they don’t need to think about it.  I suspect that, like many others before them, Microsoft has mistaken a historical privilege for an earned reward.  They’re probably having thoughts like “They love what we’re doing, so let’s give them more of it.”  Decisions based on such thoughts will not mesh well with reality.

Soon, with Apple gaining by leaps and bounds, now having superior hardware thanks to in-house silicon chips with no x86 baggage, and ChromeOS rapidly becoming more visible and viable, customers are going to have to start thinking about it again.  The time is near when the average computer shopper might no longer get Windows automatically, but will actually make a mindful decision about what OS they prefer.  And I don’t think very many are going to actively avow that they really like and prefer Windows.  After all, the first bar that any competing OS has to clear, in order to be commercially viable at all, is to do better than Windows.

April 28, 2021

Is Russia too broke to be a space power anymore?

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,spaaaace!,the future! — Supersonic Man @ 7:26 am

Long ago, Russia was the unquestioned leader in spaceflight. Even after we beat them to the moon at enormous expense, they still notched up lots of firsts in other areas. And even after we took clear leadership with shuttles and Mars landers and space telescopes, they were still the clear second best. But now the big space rivalry is USA vs China, and though Russia has many announced projects and plans, they’re having a harder and harder time following through on the execution. If it weren’t for their great heritage, and the national prestige that they’ve got tied up in spaceflight, they might by now be a minor space power, less active than the European Union, and surpassed by the rapid advances now being made in India.

But because of that prestige issue, they have to do their best to act the part of a space superpower, though it’s getting more and more difficult to keep up. The gap between what is planned and what’s possible in practice seems to be getting steadily wider. The Indians might surpass them yet, if they don’t pull off some of these projects.

Let’s run through their announced projects, and see where they’re at:

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April 22, 2021

SpaceX’s enormous Starship as lunar lander for Artemis — does that make sense?

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,Rantation and Politicizing,spaaaace!,the future! — Supersonic Man @ 10:48 pm

Surprisingly, it makes more sense than it appears to at first glance, both as an alternative to a small lander and — for the near term — as an alternative to just using Starships for the entire trip. But it’s not clear that it leaves us with any need to use the boondoggle SLS rocket. So NASA’s recent decision to use SpaceX’s next generation rocket to land on the moon with, but not for the rest of the Artemis mission, may not be perfect but is also not wrong.

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September 6, 2018

the last SLR holdout

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,Photo,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: energy & transportation,Hobbyism and Nerdry,science!,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 candle wax… 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, plus several small up-and-comers, say methane is the fuel they want to use.  There’s no denying that a lot of older rockets are terrible polluters… compared to some of the chemicals that get used in the rocket business, even kerosene looks very green.

Of course, some other rockets will keep on using hydrogen, which when practical is still the cleanest option.  But liquid methane is the second cleanest, and it has nine times the density of liquid hydrogen and therefore requires a far smaller tank to hold it, and less insulation as well, which may save more weight than is lost by using a heavier fuel.

Perhaps the most ideal would be some kind of blend of the two… but then again, one of the big advantages of hydrogen is its very high specific impulse, which is achieved in part by burning a very fuel-rich mixture so that a substantial portion of the exhaust is unburned hydrogen gas.  Densifying the fuel by dissolving some methane into it might save weight by making it require a far smaller tank, but it would lose some of that very high exhaust velocity.

November 18, 2016

future cars

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.

November 6, 2016

the obsolescence of labor

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,the future!,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 5:29 am

This article has been promoted to my website, here.

October 13, 2016

a pre-post-mortem of the 2016 Republican debacle

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,the future!,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 3:07 pm

It is now 24 days before the 2016 election, and the Democrats seem very likely to have a solid victory, retaining the Presidency and gaining a number of House and Senate seats.  Their popular vote advantage is expected to be around six percentage points, according to current polling aggregates… but there are now hints and rumors and suspicions which suggest a broader and more lopsided victory than that could be coming.  Trump’s support is continuing to erode, and in early voting, Republican enthusiasm seems low.

[Post-election update: yeah, I look like an idiot now.  But I think most of what I wrote below remains valid.]

If that does happen, it’s traditional for the punditry, and the parties themselves, to do a post-mortem to try to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it.  I figure I’ll just do it ahead of time.

So, what is to blame for the crushing defeat that the Republican Party just experienced (hypothetically) in the 2016 election?

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August 17, 2016

will there ever be a material to replace steel?

Filed under: science!,the future!,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 12:14 pm

This post has been promoted to my website, here.

 

March 28, 2016

some fatuous computer industry predictions

Filed under: computing,Hobbyism and Nerdry,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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