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FlexPlay: The Worst of All Worlds

Elizabeth Technology August 18, 2022

Once upon a time, there was a growing trend towards making media easy to access. Netflix launched, and allowed subscribers to receive and send back discs through the mail. Blockbuster was still around, and they were big enough to try and buy out Netflix! Gamefly did something similar. Video games, on-demand TV, or special packages of channels were now available for sale. Still, some saw room for improvement. Even though they didn’t see it over the internet like everybody else.

Welcome: Flexplay.

Flexplay creates movie discs that degrade on contact with air to become unreadable after so many hours. This was done to simulate renting a movie, without the inconvenience of getting back to the BlockBusters – they’d give movie watchers the ability to ‘rent’ a movie from the grocery store! On paper, without other services getting in the way, it sounds pretty great – you get the disc, you watch the disc until it’s unreadable, and then you trash the disc, no fuss. But think about it a moment longer, and you can start to see where they went wrong.

Flexplay was a very brief detour in the realm of rental movies and was ditched because not only was it more expensive for users (Redbox was growing at this time – a rental from Redbox for the same amount of time as Flexplay, bought from the same store, cost two or three dollars less) but also because it was a plastic nightmare. Picture this: every movie you ever rented wasn’t returned, it was trashed. Every. Single. Disc. You ever rented from a Redbox, piled in the trash.

Remember, there is no internet streaming yet, if you want to watch a movie during that time after it’s done in theaters, you’re going to rent a disc. Downloads are for purchasing a movie and priced as such. Picture all the movies you’d watch on Netflix, in a pile, burnt on discs – apply that to every movie-loving family. It’s a lot. It’s more than it sounds like.

The Theory

Let’s look at the thought process that went into launching this product – They’ll sell in airports so people can watch movies without having to worry about returning them. Sure! They’ll also do this better than RedBox, which has already launched, and was in front of most Walmarts even back then. But that means the traveler has to take a detour, so it would still probably work! But what about the rest of the market?

Well, they’ll sell discs that the user doesn’t have to return, period! Maybe?

They’ll do this for so cheaply and conveniently that users won’t go to Netflix, the mailing service. Nope, not that either.

They’ll… they’ll be widely available? Not more than Redbox or Netflix.

They’ll be cheap? Not cheaper than Netflix or Redbox, per movie, per day.

The market was captured – and Flexplay just wasn’t innovative enough to make space for itself.

Plus, the plastic waste this would have created might have set off the ‘plastic straws’ debate years earlier. This produces an absurd amount of waste, and the company’s answer boiled down to ‘We’ll make it easy for users to recycle the discs’. How, you might ask? Drop off bins in the stores they were available in as well as letting you mail them back. It made sense – but yet again, they’re making users go through the same processes Netflix and Redbox were using for three dollars more. You still have to drive to the store or ship out the disc to avoid producing non-degradable plastic waste, for three dollars more than other services that don’t make self-destruct discs.

Ultimately, they went out and took down any others with the same idea with them. The patent they’d launched with was so incredibly broad that any kind of self-destruct disc might have been included within it. It was essentially the equivalent of Edison copyrighting all kinds of film, so only he could make content! The patent didn’t even matter – nobody wanted to follow in their footsteps with a project that was outdated before it even came out.

FlexDisc. The worst aspects of all the services available at the time.

Sources: http://content.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1817828,00.html

Is it Better to Completely Drain a Battery Before You Recharge it?

Elizabeth Technology June 9, 2022

A piece of old-fashioned advice for old-fashioned rechargeable hardware was to completely drain the battery before recharging it, to ‘stretch’ it, the way you’d stretch socks to fit on bigger feet.

Where Did the Myth Come From?

While you’re not necessarily stretching the battery by waiting till it’s drained to recharge it, you are saving its capacity. If you charged your Nickel-Cadmium battery rechargeable phone before it was completely drained, it would lose capacity. Manufacturers were doing the best they could with what they had, and the next generation of battery, the Nickel-Metal-Hydride battery, didn’t have the effect as strongly (although it still had it) but the shelf life of the phone while not in use wasn’t great, so users continued to fully drain their devices before each recharge. To make matters worse, it’s possible to overcharge these batteries too, which also reduces capacity. When overcharged, the battery begins to heat up, and water inside the battery that’s normally carrying electrolytes begins to degrade, meaning it can’t do that job as efficiently. So yes – in these early phones, you had to completely drain it, monitor it while it was charging, and then completely drain it again if you wanted it to last as long as it did when it was new.

This overcharging is part of the reason small electronics batteries (like AA, AAA, 9-volt, etc.) have warnings on them telling you that they’re not rechargeable. While in a purely chemical sense, they could be recharged, the danger of overcharging the battery, having that battery behave unpredictably, and then exploding or leaking battery acid when you’re not expecting it to is simply not worth the risk. And the chemicals inside a battery are nasty – sulfuric acid is one of the critical ingredients. (Seriously. Don’t recharge non-rechargeable batteries!)

And then we got to Lithium Ion batteries. Lithium Ion batteries dominate the market because they hold a lot of charge, they don’t have the memory problem (meaning they won’t lose capacity if you charge them at the wrong time), and they’re lighter and flatter than the other kinds of batteries are at the same capacity. That being said, older devices may still lose their charge faster, not only because the battery is older, but also because it was designed in a time before manufacturers knew how long-lived Lithium Ion was going to be. We’d gone from the infamous brick phone to handheld, lightweight Nokias within a generation. Of course they were designed like they’d only last 5 years, because that’s historically been true!

Be Careful Charging!

Speaking of charging, faulty chargers can do more harm than good. A man discovered that Amazon was not vetting USB-C sellers effectively when he plugged one into his Apple computer and watched it short out the USB port. The phone itself was fine because it’s designed with this problem in mind (and the computer itself wasn’t damaged outside of the now-defunct port) but the USB port was simply designed to put out all the power it could. Normally cords restrict this flow, because little desk trinkets like fans don’t have those same guards. USB ports, however, are programmed to put out as much power as the cord will allow, which is how you get some cords that can quick charge and others that can’t. Old brick- and flip-phone cables also lacked anything telling them to stop when full.

Electric flow needs some sort of resistance. If it doesn’t have any, the flow of electrons across metal or wiring can generate heat and eventually catch fire. This is why you don’t plug two 9-volts into each other even though the bits at the top fit. It will create a lot of heat, and in a worst-case situation, could even catch fire!   

Why Didn’t Projection Keyboards Take Off?

Elizabeth Technology May 12, 2022

They’re Not Actually That Convenient

While they look cool, and the premise sounds like it’d be more convenient, the reality is that they weren’t. Anything made of light can be interfered with using other light, firstly – all of the coolest demo pics showed the keyboard being used in a low-light situation, primarily so you could see it better in these super cool pics but secondarily so it would work better. Speaking of seeing it better, that’s a problem too. Looking at bright things in the dark can cause eye strain, and while you probably don’t need the lights completely off to see your keyboard, your monitor itself is going to produce light, so working in suitable conditions for the keyboard may not be suitable given your monitor. You can lower how much light the monitor produces, but you also don’t have to do that for other keyboards, so.

Secondly, you now have to have a flat surface to type on. You may think “regular keyboards need that too!”, but they don’t need it as badly as the projection keyboards need it. You can type on a laptop on your lap. The keyboard (unless you’re typing on a flimsy, ultra-thin device) can support its own weight, and you can sit while doing it. If you don’t have a place to set the projection – like a table, or even a smooth chair – you’d end up setting it on the floor so it can project evenly. This then means that you’re touching the floor, or the wall, or whatever surface you have instead of your desk.

While this is, again, not a consistent problem, it’s the kind of thing you don’t want to discover in an airport or out on a hike looking for endangered frogs.

Nobody Likes Slapping Plastic

Turns out, a lot of people like haptic feedback. At the very least, they’re used to it. Typing on tablets can be frustrating for some because it’s unclear if they actually activated the button, requiring them to glance between the keyboard and the screen where the letters are appearing. Everything from long nails to caffeine shakes to physical disabilities can make it harder to type on tablets. The same applies to the projection keyboard. You’re left typing on whatever surface you have – most tables are hard, one way or the other, and so you’re slapping your fingertips down on something that doesn’t have any ‘give’ like normal keyboards do. It’s cool-looking, but not cool-feeling.

Mac ran into a similar issue when it was making the slimmest laptop yet – not only did the size compromise the strength and power of the laptop, it also achieved that size by eating up key height, which was the computer equivalent of breeding the snout off of an American Bulldog “because it’s what the breed standardizers want”. That keyboard felt like typing directly onto a hard surface, too, and a significant portion of the people who bought it didn’t like that.

Does it Actually Work?

It looks cool, and given the conditions are right, it works, right?

The high end models do for sure. The problem is that, like with any electronic, not every product on the market is legitimate or well-made for the price. The high end models can handle uncertainty in projection-to-desk distance, they can handle differences in light and a bright room, they can even handle small warps in the typing surface. The cheaper knockoffs of the original idea simply cannot, and in the same way Roseart pastels can convince children that pastels just aren’t for them, these cheaper projection keyboards did nothing to ingratiate the general public to the much more expensive version. After all, before you drop 300$ on something, you want to be sure you like it with a 50$ version first, right? That’s good advice for everything from fishing rods to model kits, because if you don’t enjoy it, you haven’t set yourself back $$$ to learn that.

At the end of the day, projection keyboards look cool, but they’re not actually that convenient to use, and not every model can even do the things keyboard needs to. Until they can do better than the flexible keyboards already on the market, projection keyboards are going to remain a niche item.

Will there Ever be Another Billy Mays?

Elizabeth Technology February 23, 2022

Or are they all doomed to MilkShake Duck, Crash, and Burn?

Billy Mays Here

I’m sure you’ve seen his ads at least once. Billy Mays was one of the most famous salesmen for everyday household products like the Shamwow and bathtub-ring remover, an amazing salesman famous for both his delivery of his lines and the variety of stuff he’d promoted during his career.

He sold everything. He did it while yelling. His consistently cheery demeanor and intro became a trademark unto himself, a trustworthy salesman in an era where companies weren’t sure they needed a face. He was a staple of phone-order TV products in the period right before everyone had a website they could pitch instead, filling a transient niche. He sadly passed away due to a heart attack in 2009, and nobody has ever been able to take his place.

The Milkshake Duck

A Milkshake Duck refers to a tweet where the poster is presenting a fictional duck that drinks milkshakes, a duck that everybody on the internet loves. The second part of the tweet implies that the tweeter found out the duck is racist only after that duck became famous. Milkshake Ducks are people who become famous for something cute or funny, only for the spotlight to show things from their past they may not have wanted the entire public to see. An unfortunately large number of SNL performers have done blackface, for example, but nobody ever knows until they’re in front of the camera and people want to find out every little detail about them.

Billy Mays appeared during an incredibly unique time in TV history, a time when Twitter was new and celebrities had to really screw up before they’d get called on it. Obviously, this has now changed – while it’s still possible for celebrities to suppress bad news about themselves, it’s much harder to do that when the reporting is crowdsourced by people at varying levels of anonymity.

The question of could we get another Billy Mays is complicated tremendously by this problem.

You have to be a little insane to keep up the constant pep and showmanship Billy Mays had for his commercial. You have to be willing you put your name behind things wholeheartedly, like he did – he claimed he used every product he showed, and many of those products are genuinely good. If they’re not, they’re not poorly made – they’re just not made for everybody. You have to be a ‘Type A’ personality. All of this combines into a person that, simply put, is likely to have gotten into some trouble at some point in their life.

For close comparison, look at the people we saw get big in similar ways after his untimely passing: the Shamwow guy had complaints of domestic violence against him. The MyPillow guy is a notorious conspiracy theorist, but in the racist way, not the fun way. Commercials for products like the Scrub Daddy sponge and other assorted ‘As Seen On TV’ stuff have, instead, gone back to using actors who don’t speak to demonstrate their product with a narrator over the top.

Milkshake Ducks are more common than ever, and the kind of product still using infomercials can’t make it work if they pick the wrong person. It may actually tank all of their marketing to be associated with the wrong person.

Flex Tape

The only man who’s come sort of close to him in recent memory is the Flex Seal guy, Phil Swift. Flex Seal is essentially spray rubber, which has existed, but wasn’t well known outside of construction and underwater sports markets.

All that stuff earlier still applies – he’s a little unhinged. Billy Mays was always shouting, but he always maintained a professional demeanor underneath it. The Flex Seal guy will sometimes pull out a chainsaw and look a little too eager to use it, which is to say – exactly eager enough for people to remember. Nobody could replace Billy Mays because his delivery was unique for the time and imitators have cropped up in his absence, but Phil Swift takes his presentation and tweaks it just enough.

However, while Phil Swift is a close match in this one regard, he doesn’t do the same cross-product stuff that Billy Mays did. Mays had a marketing company that other companies would reach out to, but Phil is employed by Flex Seal specifically. He only does Flex Seal. Finding someone who hits all of the critical points has been difficult at best and impossible at worst. Even when they do find someone, a la Phil Swift, they’re often not willing to go beyond one company like Mays had been. Mays was truly rare – I don’t expect we’ll see another one as technology continues to isolate advertising, both online and on traditional TV.

Sources:

https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/613382/billy-mays-conquered-infomercial-world

Mechanical Keyboards

Elizabeth Technology February 4, 2022

If you like to watch streamers, or you’ve ever considered investing in a larger keyboard for gaming, you might have seen mechanical keyboards out in the wild before. They’re big. The keys are heavy. They make a lot of noise. They’re clunky. They can cost quite a bit as a hobby. And yet, they’re growing in popularity. What’s the deal?

Ever Slimmer

Perhaps it was rebellion against the difficult-to-clean and unsatisfactorily quiet keyboards of the laptops we started to see in the late 2010s. Especially Apple, which kept getting slimmer and slimmer until dropping it between the edge of your desk and the wall was a real concern.

Many of the portable, detachable keyboards designed to help solve this problem are not much better, designed to fit alongside a touchscreen device or laptop in the laptop’s bag. Slim, aluminum keyboards are designed for travel first and durability second, and this problem has become more apparent than ever when everybody has stopped travelling. Why sacrifice the convenience of a larger, easier-to-clean keyboard when you’re not going to get the benefits of that sacrifice?

Sensory Delight

In an article about Apple’s butterfly keyboards (cited below), the author discussed the sensation of trying to type on them. They were nearly flat, they were unfortunately delicate, and the key itself barely moved when pressed. It felt like typing on a touchscreen device, tapping your fingers onto solid aluminum and plastic over and over and over again with 100% resistance and no audible tell that you’d hit the key right. That’s fine for some – it was not fine for the people who’d grown up on clunky, solid, inch-thick Best Buy discount keyboards, those who were used to haptic input when typing.

Mechanical keyboards, on the other hand, offer a wide array of sensory input. You can get them nearly silent, or you can simulate the sound of typing on a typewriter; you can get thin or thick keys; you can change how much resistance your keyboard gives you; you can even get keys that light up when you type, so if you type like me and your eyes drift between the screen and the keyboard, you’ll still be getting input even if you go for a quiet option.

They come in a number of colors and with a number of accessories, too, so you can get weird with your accent and functional keys. Notable examples include a tiny three dimensional cow for the tilde key, a Japanese-style pagoda, and many more – often hand-sculpted and easily searchable on Etsy.

It’s a Good Time

Someone on TikTok has been steadily sculpting smaller and smaller magnetic Kirbys for their keyboard’s ‘K’ key. Another has sculpted every key on the board into food using a combination of polymer clay and acrylic paint. As mentioned before, you can get a keyboard that lights up with your inputs, and you can get keys in a number of colors – any color you want, if you’re good at mixing and applying plastics paint. Really, the sky’s the limit. If you want it to feel like you’re sinking your fingers into butter every time you hit the keys on the left side of your keyboard, but you need to work the right side out because you need to build up picking strength for guitar or whatever, you can do that! Many mechanical keyboard bases are set up to accept the standard scissor switch keys that everybody but Apple from the years of 2014 to 2020 uses, so you could in theory even strip the keys from the Best Buy discount keyboard and slap them into a new frame, given it’s big enough to prevent crowding. Even that’s not really a concern – size standardization benefits everyone, so most sold-separately keys fit most bases.

Shapes and Sizes

Mechanical keyboards are also available in a wide range of shapes and sizes. If you need a small keyboard that only has certain characters? You can buy it, and customize the keys with separate parts (not included usually) when it comes in the mail. If you need a split keyboard, that’s on the market. If your needs are hyperspecific, a mechanical keyboard might just be the keyboard for you.

They also tend to be much easier to clean, as many of them are designed to be easy to take apart for customization – being able to strip the board down to the contacts means you can remove every crumb of anything that could get in, and the tools to do so are generally cheap now that the hobby’s hit the big time. Apple’s weird butterfly switches were incredibly easy to break and very difficult to replace, meaning a damaged switch could kill a laptop, but many other name-brand laptops have keys too small to get tools under. If you eat at your desk, a mechanical keyboard may be a welcome break from flipping the laptop over and still not getting the ‘G’ key free from whatever’s gotten under it.

Sources:

https://theoutline.com/post/2402/the-new-macbook-keyboard-is-ruining-my-life

The Three-headed Jack Hydra

Elizabeth Uncategorized October 22, 2021

If you had a CRT monitor and had other systems to hook up to it, you might remember the three-headed plug-ins that they used to take. The backs of those giant monitors looked like a Star Trek dashboard, with all sorts of ports for all sorts of cords. Parallel ports, TV direct-line ports, dial up, serial ports, all kinds of ports. Truly, information could come from anywhere, as long as there was a plug to connect two things to each other. Nowadays, the HDMI has become the first choice of data-transmitting plug, but the three-headed plug hasn’t completely disappeared.

What Was It?

The jack I’m remembering is also known as an RCA connector. There were two popular types: composite, and component. There were usually three heads, all part of the same cable, and the output side was color coded to match an input side on the television.

To get input from your device to the TV, you’d have to match up the plugs, which each carried a different signal to the plugs on the other side. This tech uses analog signals to send the information to the TV, instead of digital, like HDMI’s use.

The three plugs on a composite type RCA consisted of ‘composite’ video, left-side audio, and right-side audio. Component video had plug-ins for just the red/blue/green components of the image, instead of including audio in the jack hydra. ‘So what?’ you might say. Nowadays, that’s just more steps to get to the same result, a clear video with stereo audio. Back then, separating the signals was the only way the tiny computer in the television could handle it. It wasn’t about the cable’s capacity, it was about the TV – and computers were weak when composite RCAs were introduced. If all three output cables were instead fused into one, the final quality of the broadcast would be noticeably worse on screen.

Composite video, in this way, was a breakthrough! Splitting it up meant that the TV processor didn’t have to make some huge leap to clear the gap between black-and-white and color. The downside was the split: the video had a maximum possible quality, and it wasn’t very far away from where they were already. Composite was the quick solution, but the video had to be compressed to traverse the cable, and the analog signal could come out fuzzy if the screen was too big, or if something producing radio waves (like a faulty microwave, or a radio) was too close by. Component signals TV was a similar breakthrough, and suddenly TVs were high-definition – separating out the colors instead of putting them all in one meant that more information was reaching the screen, resulting in a better picture. People were already used to that three-port system, so a straightforward upgrade was welcomed pretty quickly. Audio was separate, but whatever, the picture was crystal clear!

RCAs were also great even later because of the freedom they gave the host TV – you could have multiple rows of RCA inputs on the backs of the particularly large TVs, so houses with a VCR and a game console wouldn’t have to unplug one to put in the other. Nowadays, TVs that do still have RCA connections have maybe one or two sets for component video, and HDMI is expected to fill in the rest.  

Why Did Manufacturers Switch?

RCA connectors sound great on paper, and they can give a lot of freedom. However, composite video RCAs buzz if they’re not connected right, they’re easily tangled, they look messy, and they’re all around slightly worse quality-wise than HDMI, depending on screen size. Particularly the video: HDMI can deliver a much better-quality image than composite RCAs could because it was digital, not analog. Not much could compete, although the UK had an equivalent called a SCART connector that behaved a lot like component RCA did. And then HDMI came along and blew RCA and SCART out of the water! An RCA cable could never handle 4K TV. Component video, which only focused on video, hung in where composite RCA failed because the quality was better. Component can produce images up to 1080p because instead of one compressed visual signal, it has three! Component RCA is still on the backs of TVs even to this day.

Besides quality, they looked messy. HDMIs might still be cords, but they’re all more or less uniform in size, so they look nicer behind a TV. RCA cables could be any number of sizes because they needed shielding, so the cable could be thicker or thinner depending on the manufacturer. HDMIs can carry both audio and video, and TVs are smarter, so there’s no need to divvy up the information before the computer receives it. Even if all else was equal, manufacturers might have still switched to HDMI, to lighten the load for the customer.

Still, a lot of old consoles and DVD players with component options only are still kicking around, so component RCA ports are going to hang around a little longer.

Sources:

https://www.pcmag.com/encyclopedia/term/composite-video

Hyperlink for Readability: MultiCom Inc.

Stop Hyping Autopilot

Elizabeth Uncategorized September 8, 2021

It’s not done yet!!

Tesla’s autopilot is really impressive. It’s just not done yet. Between failure to detect real objects and detecting ghost objects, the new Auto-pilot has a lot of really terrifying anecdotal cases.

A Word of Disclaimer

Tesla does tell users not to get in the back seat or otherwise take their eyes off of the road while autopilot is driving. They’re constantly updating their programs to include edge cases discovered on the road, and it’s really hard to do that if the car never gets to use the feature that’s causing bugs. However, I’m not sure it’s impossible to catch some of these user-reported issues in a testing environment. Elon Musk’s consistent belief that people will die for science is not comforting in this situation.

However, many of the issues in the following article are rare, fringe-case scenarios. It doesn’t represent the cars as a whole, it’s more of a warning – you really can’t trust the autopilot 100% yet, because users report multiple different issues stemming from the programming. Nothing most Tesla owners don’t already know.Drive without autopilot or drive while paying careful attention to the autopilot, and Tesla’s as good as any other car.

The irony of using cars out in the wild to ‘test’ is that a regular car’s cruise control is actually less stressful – the driver doesn’t have to pay active attention to the car’s surroundings on regular cruise control! The old-style cruise control couldn’t make the car suddenly brake or swerve into another car.

The Brakes, the Reads

Speaking of which, the brakes! A car capable of braking can brake itself into an accident in a split second on busy roads if it sees something it thinks is dangerous.

This is a cool feature, but it’s not done yet. Reddit’s Tesla subreddit has numerous accounts of the brakes engaging for little to no reason: phantom animals, suddenly ‘seeing’ a stop sign on the highway, misinterpreting special vehicles’ rear lights, and more. The biggest one is phantom overpasses, where it misunderstands the shadow as a reason to stop (users say that this was an older version of the software, and that newer ones don’t do it as much unless there are other, compounding factors, like tow trucks or construction lights. Still not ideal).

Nature released an article detailing how someone could hypothetically trick the car into seeing a speed limit sign instead of a stop sign, and get it to accelerate into an intersection. Specially painting trucks and cars so that the AI misinterprets what it’s seeing might turn into a great way to cause accidents. The AI seeing things is trying it’s best to look for issues, but as Nature describes it, AI is often ‘brittle’. The computer’s not totally sure what it’s looking at, so it makes its best guess. Unfortunately, it’s best guess is often pretty bad. A computer’s best guess as to what a food truck with a hot dog on top is might be that the truck’s actually an overpass, or maybe a deer, while even a baby human can tell it’s some sort of vehicle. Fringe cases like the hot-dog truck have to be manually added to the computer’s repertoire so it doesn’t freak out next time it sees it. However, it has to do this for each instance of a ‘hot dog truck’ it doesn’t recognize. Dale Gribble’s famous ant-van would confuse it too, for example, and it’s not hot dog-like enough for the AI to snap to that memory. It would be starting from scratch, every time.

It also occasionally fails to brake or move when there is something there. Commentors theorize that the computer is deliberately programmed to ignore things along its sides, so it doesn’t freak out about the railings and concrete barriers that run alongside highways.

The Lights and Cameras

Tesla’s auto-pilot is easily confused by wet road surfaces. One user reported that their Tesla couldn’t understand reflections from signs, or wet ground. It would see it’s own high-beams in the reflected light, and lower them automatically. And then it realizes it’s dark once it’s past the sign, so it flips them back on. It keeps doing this until it has a continuous level of darkness or brightness in-line with what it’s expecting from a dry road with few signs. Unfortunately, that means the car has to make it to an area with streetlights or other cars for it to figure out the low beams should be on, not the high beams. Or the user can flip it manually, which means turning off the autopilot, on some models. Speaking of light, it can’t always tell that lights are lights and not more white lines.

It also struggles with overpasses – it doesn’t understand bridges, and there are so many bridges, overpasses, and assorted vertical shadow-casters that distinguishing it from a regular stoplight pole is a Herculean challenge. As such, it often erred on the side of caution before reprogramming fixed its confusions.  

The built-in monitor can also display what the camera thinks it’s seeing, which gives the user some valuable insight into how it works. When it pings something as a thing, that thing is there now. See this gif of someone driving behind a truck with stoplights on it:

 This is a hilarious edge case, and I don’t blame the car for not understanding what’s happening, but the lights stick to the place in the road where the Tesla identified them. Once it’s there, it’s there – a box or bag in the road that’s incorrectly identified might not get re-identified correctly. Of course not! Because if the Tesla was told to constantly re-ping it, it might misidentify things it got right the first time, and the more opportunities the programmers give it to do that, the more likely it is to happen. Right now, what Tesla has going on is good for ideal conditions. The struggle is getting all of that to work in the real world.

The Hardware

The cameras are great. This issues with the autopilot are purely AI-driven. The flash memory used in older models was prone to failure and had to be treated like a warranty item to avoid a total recall, which sucked for users, but otherwise – the hardware directly tied to software functions is more or less working as advertised. It’s the other parts of being a car where Tesla falls down.

It’s unfortunate, but Tesla’s ‘Model S’ front axels are prone to deforming. It doesn’t happen quite often enough to warrant a recall, but enough for some disgruntled users to post about it online. Something as simple as driving onto the curb bends the front axle, and the user then starts to hear strange noises from around the wheel area when they turn. Many Tesla superfans attribute these complaints to one guy in Australia harping on it, but scattered posts (from various devices, locations, and dates) across the Tesla subreddit as well as Tesla forums suggest this is a bigger issue than those superfans (and Tesla) want to believe. Tesla revolutionized electric cars, but it also re-did a lot of design work itself, from scratch. Is it really that unbelievable that cars across nearly a decade could be suffering from a premature parts failure? It happens to non-electrics all the time!

Design

Also, from a design standpoint, I just… don’t think the cyber-truck looks that good. The previous four-door Teslas look great! They’re very slick, but they look a lot like some of the hottest cars in the market. A family car, or a commuter car. It blends in with the pack, and only stands out in traffic in good ways, like it’s lack of noise. The cyber truck looks nothing like the trucks it’s meant to compete with. The sides of the bed are raised so it meets the rest of the body on a nice, straight line. That sure looks cool, but for anything of actual weight, the driver can’t toss items in over the side. That’s one of those minor-but-annoying things that peeves owners off over time.

The glass is also armored, which is cool, but… what for? Who is driving this? Who’s afraid of getting hailed on or shot at, and doesn’t want a less conspicuous vehicle?  Or, the inverse – bougie celebrities with a lot of money and a lot of enemies might want a really conspicuous car but with stronger glass. Does the cyber truck do that? Kinda… but so do many sports cars.

It’s a cool idea, but it’s just that – an idea. The truck of the future, not the truck of right now. An electric truck is a great idea! But it doesn’t look anything like other company’s versions of the same concept does, so people may be reluctant to jump to Tesla, instead of Ford. Differentiation in cars can either give you the VW Beetle, or the Pontiac Aztec. Only time will tell how the cyber truck fares.

Sources:

https://www.tesla.com/cybertruck

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03013-5

https://forums.tesla.com/discussion/60330/model-s-axle-problems

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03013-5

https://www.forbes.com/sites/bradtempleton/2020/10/23/teslas-full-self-driving-is-999-there-just-1000-times-further-to-go/?sh=7c7734c32ba6

A History of UFO-Spotting

Eyewitness Accounts and The News – 1940’s on

 

I’ll start when the modern day ‘flying saucer’ story started, although recordings of UFOs go back to BC times.

The first UFO to start the ‘flying saucer’ trope in America actually wasn’t a saucer – it was a squad of ships shaped like boomerangs that rotated like saucers. Newspaper telephone turned the banana-shaped ships into simple circles.

The person who saw them was a trusted, reliable pilot, so the story ended up in the news – the year was 1947, and although he was a private pilot, the job was difficult and garnered a lot of respect. He saw it with his own two eyes! There were very few instruments on board to help him define what he saw. The logical conclusion, therefore, is that the other crafts had something to block the extremely basic radar available at the time, leaving his eyes the only tools he had left. Who wouldn’t trust a hardworking, honest pilot? Especially after so much went into juicing up their public reputation during the second World War.

As time goes on, more pilots report strange phenomena upon landing, stuff they couldn’t have possibly recorded, otherworldly stuff. They had nothing but the equipment in their crafts to help them describe what they saw. Phantom ships that only the radar saw, visible ships that the radar didn’t, ships somewhere in the middle that were visible, but only briefly, strange glows, odd behavior in the clouds, the list goes on. They could record height and approximate location via a map and their travelling speed, but otherwise, they were completely and totally alone. Cameras could go up in planes, yes – but that wasn’t as simple as it is today, and seeing this stuff was rare. Nobody blamed cameramen for not catching anything when they went, and they couldn’t go up all the time on every plane.

Part of this is that print media itself was old and well-respected. It was one of very few ways to get news at the time. TVs weren’t quite everywhere, and radio wasn’t 24-7, but print news was cheap and accessible. Images were ‘trustworthy’, as many people didn’t grasp how easy photos were to manipulate, especially back then when rural folks could go their entire lives without touching a camera, or getting their own picture taken – a photo of a blur in the clouds when someone did happen to catch something strange was taken as fact. Rebukes were slow, and not as sensational. Aliens, as far as newspapers were concerned, were visiting Earth. Not everyone cared, and not everyone believed it, but this seeded an unshakeable belief in aliens in America.

 

The Blurry Photo Era – 1960’s to 1980’s

 

Once handheld devices were more available to people out in the sticks, bizarre, blurred images of things floating in the sky alongside blurred images of cryptids in forests began appearing. They were published to magazines, shared among groups, pictured on tabloid TV, and discussed publicly. Unlike before, though, these people worked all sorts of jobs, often less glamorous than pilots. The participants soon earned a reputation for being crackpots, crazy, or liars – after all, the best evidence they had was often barely better than an eyewitness statement. A blur.

It didn’t help that mental illness wasn’t really a ‘thing’ during this time period. Paranoia, schizophrenia, PTSD, etc. were all under the same umbrella of ‘insane’. People suffering from untreated illnesses were deliberately picked on alongside believers who were of sound mind to discredit all believers as ‘insane’. Even if someone did see something unexplainable, they’d be fighting uphill against the stigma set up by news sources. Eyewitness accounts become meaningless except to other people already looking for a reason to believe.

At the same time, professionals were also more connected to the public than ever, and so common phenomena that would have been UFOs (ball lightning, sun dogs, the green flash over the ocean during sunset, etc.) were now much more easily described and identified as natural, terrestrial stuff. Someone could come forward with a strange picture and get themselves shot down publicly.

However, many were also able to identify and picture real non-natural objects that they just didn’t understand. Weather balloons are much bigger than most people think they are, and the US is always trying to improve its arsenal with tech the other guys don’t have yet, so stories of mysterious super-sonic vehicles that appeared and disappeared in the blink of an eye aren’t necessarily lies. They just came at an inconvenient time for the militaries of the world, and aliens were easier to dismiss than manmade crafts were.

Clarifying that this was a real craft, therefore, was not going to happen. It was in everybody’s best interest to say that the witness said it was aliens. You wouldn’t want a cold war to turn hot over some amateur’s photos of your spy balloons, right? While TV watchers found them entertaining, it was more comfortable to assume witnesses saw whatever they saw wrong, even when they didn’t.

UFOs had more stories, but less credibility.

Mobile Phones (And Smartphones) 1990’s to 2006

 

Mobile phones capable of taking pictures started popping up in the late 90s and early 2000s, and with them, even more blurry, bad photos of cryptids and UFOs started appearing online – but they were less blurry than the previous generation, and the appearance of the internet meant that people who had experienced something otherworldly could share it alongside the photo without having to get onto TV or Radio. The sheer number of these stories lent them some credibility. Plus, their stories couldn’t be chopped up into something incomprehensible by someone else, like it sometimes was earlier. The story came straight from the horse’s mouth!

Smartphones made most of them disappear, however, during the transition from an offline world to an online one. I haven’t seen a ‘new’ photo of a UFO since 2006, not counting DoD videos and the like. Average, ordinary people can’t seem to snap pics of alien craft anymore. The quality of the camera is a big part of that! Suddenly, it didn’t make sense that images were blurry.

In the 90’s, cameras had a natural sort of fuzz to them unless it was professional equipment, and that fuzz made it easier to disguise altered photos. Edges could be blurry back then. They can’t be blurry now. It also no longer made sense that multiple eyewitnesses “Saw something in the sky” and none of them thought to take a picture while it was hovering. And now we don’t get any more half-blurry, half-filtered images of UFOs. Instead we get more eyewitness accounts and really well-photoshopped fakes.

Tech improves, and suddenly sightings are rare, but the ones we do get are much more believable, or come from trustworthy sources… like the military.

Modern era – 2007 – Now

 

And military tech is always improving. All this new tech to see things is actually often blinding. Hear hoofbeats? Think horse, right? Well… when the tech allows you such incredibly fine-tuned detail of the animal, it’s possible to confuse yourself with things you’d never have to worry about if you were just using your eyes to see that the animal is brown. Imagine being able to see the exact temperature and speed of a four legged animal, but not it’s color, because it’s too far away. You may even be able to see size… but horses come in all kinds of sizes, so if it’s the same size as the zebra, you still haven’t solved the mystery. You record it and avoid it like a smart person would, and when you get back, they’re trying to identify it with you.

The three videos released recently by the DoD, for example, could be a number of things, but they are UFOs until someone identifies them. But not all UFOs are equally unidentifiable, and many have simple, easy explanations. A duck can be a UFO. Another plane can be a UFO. A weather balloon can be a UFO. If you can’t identify the flying object with certainty, it’s an unidentified flying object. That’s it. The tech of today just allows pilots to see things from several kilometers away while moving at mach speed, so they’re able to pick up moving things they wouldn’t have been able to see before. Unfortunately, this often means that they’re seeing specks with heat signatures. The public then conflates an unidentified speck with a full-blown zebra, even though at the distance it was filmed at, it could have been a friendly dog.

 

Tic Tac

 

If the pilot is especially crafty, they may help the perception of the zebra along even if they don’t know either. The Tic Tac video and its story are some of the most contentious UFO ‘evidence’ available on the web today, and for good reason. The Tic Tac video and the two Tic Tac eyewitness accounts are all different from each other. One pilot only caught a glimpse of it, one says that the Tic Tac behaved aggressively for five or so minutes (and that keeps changing), and the video just shows a small white dot at a great distance moving in front of the ocean.

We can’t see color, we can’t see shape, we can’t see anything about it other than its relative speed and temp. It could just be a seabird. It could be a tiny personal craft, like a glider. We have no video of the thing actually darting around in the way the pilot describes later – ways that defy physics. Jerks in the video are due to the camera not being able to turn anymore, or the auto-lock simply losing the object, not the object itself ‘jerking’.

I’d like to trust the pilot, I really would – but which makes more sense? An otherwise ordinary man in a high-profile job lied to get some time in the spotlight, or an interstellar traveler came from space without being detected until it got onto the Navy’s turf, behaved in ways that broke the laws of physics as we know them in front of observers, and then disappeared, again, without being spotted?

 

We can only hear hoofbeats, and the pilot swears it’s a zebra with no evidence other than “trust me”.

 

Debunking

 

All of this tech is great, but it also enables lying by being specifically vague. People who really, really want to believe in aliens cherrypick relevant details out of these videos to get the conclusion they want. They then share this narrative that it must have been an alien because the information in the video that could argue against that is so critically important but so easy to ignore. Speed. Temp. How far the camera can rotate. Laymen don’t often have to look at readouts like this, so easy-to-miss details like the speed being relative instead of absolute sometimes drifts right by. Proving them wrong as a layman is nearly impossible because they’ve told the truth – just not all of it.

The most infuriating part of this is that the DoD would never release these videos if they didn’t know A) what they weren’t and B) whether or not they were a threat. They specify that the videos don’t reveal any sensitive data. The context of these videos is just as important as the content – you never see videos of UFOs threatening US pilots, because it would cause unrest if such videos ever made it to the public.

You never see videos of something clearly manmade and powerful but unidentified either, because releasing those videos would be as good as admitting that some other nation has a craft on par or superior to the US’s, and the US can’t have that. Maybe interstellar UFOs do exist – but if the Navy has seen them, that footage isn’t just out in the open. Regular boring old UFOs that are just unidentified flying stuff aren’t as exciting.

A Side Note

 

Tech reduces the reliance on interviewers. This is a good thing, because a poor interviewer can completely wreck a case or story before it’s even gotten off the ground. It’s well-documented that people, especially children, can misremember things if the interviewer isn’t careful. “What color of shirt was he wearing?” Vs. “And he was wearing a dark blue shirt, right?” Produce different responses. If the person doesn’t know for certain what shirt the suspect was wearing, they may misremember it as dark blue instead of simply saying they don’t remember or didn’t see.

Humans are social creatures – children especially will react to what they perceive as positive attention from a caring adult (the interviewer) by fibbing or subconsciously altering their story to get more of that positive attention. They may not even be aware that they’re doing it, and they’ll definitely remember it wrong after the fact. For this reason, you also shouldn’t conduct interviews in groups to avoid memory cross-contamination.

Conducting interviews like this, therefore, is undeniably bad for justice and truth. Look for it when watching documentaries on UFOs – do they interview in a group? Do they ask strangely-worded follow-up questions designed to get a certain, soundbiteable response? Does the interviewer lead the interviewee?

 

Sources: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/06/the-man-who-introduced-the-world-to-flying-saucers/372732/

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/28/us/pentagon-ufo-videos.html

https://www.history.com/videos/uss-nimitz-tic-tac-ufo-declassified-video

Bitcoin’s dip is Affecting GPU Prices

Cryptocurrency affects the price of hardware IRL now. There’s an entire legion of computers that spend their whole lives solving hashes and producing rewards for their owners. So when the reward crashes a little, the market reacts strangely. Some people buy, because BitCoins always bounce back, and some people sell, because BitCoins might not this time. On top of that, China has re-banned parts of trading!

 

BitCoin Crash

 

BitCoin has nearly halved in value over the past few months. The ‘why’ is everything from a general decline in the stock market to celebrities tweeting about BitCoin’s fall, to other cryptocurrencies establishing themselves on the market. It’s truly wild how many different things come into play for an untethered resource’s price, but Bitcoin enthusiasts remain as optimistic as ever that BitCoin will return, and better than ever. It did in the 2010s. It did after the first crash. Surely it will this time, too!

Like I said, many things, some material, some not, affect Bitcoin’s price. As such, many businesses and countries are becoming increasingly skeptical of it. Receiving a few % of a Bitcoin for 700$ of repairs, only to have it drop to 300$? Too bad! The business is forced to ride waves of inflation and deflation until they can use those coins at their desired value or trade them for real money. This will eventually stabilize the price, but until then, the leaps and drops are bad for businesses. Imagine getting a cash payment, only to have to hold onto it until it’s worth recovers enough for you to deposit it in savings, or use it elsewhere – your business operations could come to a halt while you wait for your liquid cash to replenish itself. Bartering would be safer at that point.

The government sees many issues with this system, and understandably a country like China can’t afford to have business owners upset in a time of serious unrest. Plus, taxes! Bitcoin was created primarily to avoid third parties, and no third parties = difficult-to-collect taxes.

 

Confounding Factors

 

The epicenter of the cheapening GPUs is China, although Europe is also seeing some major dips in the reseller’s market. But why? China’s partial ban on trading or accepting BitCoin has put a serious damper on consumers’ desire to mine for it. It’s not illegal to own Bitcoin, but when transactions to convert that Bitcoin to ‘real money’ are stifled, what’s the point? They have no promise of when or if the Chinese government will lift their restrictions.

Aside from what officials call ‘speculation risk’, which is what I’ve described in the section above this one, certain regions of China are trying to limit energy consumption, and BitCoin’s heavy consumption makes it an easy target. Mining BitCoins has a lot of complicated math involved, and it’s math that has to be done fast. Only the first person to solve the transaction gets any reward, so it’s a constant race to make the computer better and faster. Better computers eat more energy. GPUs, the common bottleneck part, got siphoned up by BitCoin miners everywhere.

Now, China has fewer BitCoin miners looking to upgrade immediately, but BitCoin’s low price is also convincing some of the folks in other countries that upgrades can wait a bit. Europe’s slowly improving prices are a good sign – maybe the US will finally get some GPUs in! Right?

 

The Market

 

Turns out, demand doesn’t always behave as expected! Official reports say that the prices of Graphics Cards are falling, when many people have also noticed the prices going up even on ‘ancient’ and less powerful cards on eBay. Is it just a failure of the buyer/seller market to catch on to the news? Is it a sign of an incoming rebound? Or could it be because the shortage in the US hasn’t actually been resolved in spite of less demand from overseas? With international shipping in such disarray, a dip in China and Europe doesn’t have to mean a dip in the US!

As for the future, who knows? Cards might go down. They might also go up. GPUs are expensive to make and buy ordinarily, and given perfect conditions, a new one could still be worth a thousand-plus dollars. It’s difficult to say what exactly waits for the gamers and workers waiting for the GPUs to come down in price, although market watchers like Tom’s Guide can establish patterns based on the past.

Will BitCoin go back up? It’s very hard to tell given the nature of a cryptocurrency and what we’ve seen from it so far. Sometimes a coin drops and crashes so hard it may as well have died – BitCoin once had a dip so severe people doubted it would ever come back up, down to the high four digits. Is this downwards trend permanent? Will China’s ban influence the end results? I have no idea! Experts in similar fields can’t tell either, crypto is a wild, wild West compared to stocks. What they do say is generally along the lines of ‘we can’t tell, but it could dip very badly’.  It’s akin to gambling.

If it does recover, European cards will almost certainly follow, although the depressed prices in China likely won’t until restrictions are lifted. American cards, having shown no sign of going down in price despite a clear dip in Bitcoin values, may not be as tied to crypto-mining as they formerly were, so BitCoin’s movement may have no impact. America is a big country with a lot of people in it, so ordinary demand for the currently out-of-stock GPUs may be holding prices high all by itself.

 

 

Sources:

https://www.scmp.com/tech/tech-trends/article/3137128/chinas-bitcoin-crackdown-fourth-largest-bitcoin-producing-province

https://www.scmp.com/tech/policy/article/3138130/bitcoin-crackdown-sends-graphics-cards-prices-plummeting-china-after

https://www.tomshardware.com/news/gpu-pricing-index

https://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/best-gpus,4380.html

https://www.reuters.com/technology/chinese-financial-payment-bodies-barred-cryptocurrency-business-2021-05-18/

 

Apple Wheels – It’s Wheely About Advertising

Ah, Complaining.

 

Apple Wheels

 

The Apple Mac Pro cost several thousand dollars, and it looked like a cheese grater. The little Apple-branded wheels to make it move cost about 700$, or approximately the price of the iPhone 8 at launch. Oh, but don’t worry – you can buy the feet for a mere 300$, if you just have to have Apple Brand. How did we get here? How did we, as a society, get to 700$ computer wheels?

 

Brand = Trustworthy

 

Branding by itself is an interesting mark of human psychology. It’s a shortcut to trusting something! The brand of an item itself purely imaginary – the brand, by itself, does not produce value for the final product except for the value the consumer gives it in their mind. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. Look at IKEA: all those items come from different factories, so customers shouldn’t just blindly trust whatever they buy, right? But because IKEA has put their name behind it, consumers still buy the cheap shelves with the understanding that IKEA has endorsed them. If these shelves were somewhere else, and un-branded, consumers wouldn’t trust them as much. They’d sell less. Branding, in this way, is extremely valuable even though it’s intangible.

And it’s good for the customer, too! It allows them to make a more informed decision. Emotionally, people become loyal to brands that have served them well. Fortunately for the brand, they’ll stay loyal unless something seriously impacts their mental image of that brand.

All of this sounds totally logical and reasonable, right? It’s the way people have done business since cash was invented. It made sense for people to trust the smithy, who branded their creations, over someone who wouldn’t put their name to what they made.

Strange things start happening when people like the brand more than the products, and we’ll get there.

Even though consumers may know the store-brand comes from the same plant that the name-brand does, they may still pick name-brand. This is part of that trust – it is scary to try new things, and keeping one constant, the brand, the same, makes buying big electronics or new foods less scary. When consumers stop showing a brand loyalty, or they start complaining, the brand could do things like throw in warranties or spare parts for free and retain that good will. Store brand doesn’t stand a chance even if it’s literally identical.

 

Brand = Money

 

Branding can save a company even if they’re like modern day Pyrex, which has a different heat tolerance depending which factory you get it from. People post infographics online so consumers can identify the ‘good’ pieces, because they love Pyrex so much. A change to the glass manufacturing process means that the brand is no longer a reliable indicator of quality, but people still want to like Pyrex. Otherwise they wouldn’t go through all this effort to find the right Pyrex factory, they’d buy somewhere else. This is where brand starts to become more important than what it’s selling.

People will pay a premium for a brand they trust, and companies know this. We see this everywhere, from cars to computers. If something was good, some people will believe it’s still good. That’s the business principle of goodwill. Sears might have survived a couple years off of goodwill and nostalgia alone.

Branding, therefore, can become a phylactery in the hands of a new controlling board. As soon as a company starts to rely on goodwill to sell items that they know other companies would have ditched, they become like Apple. Unlike Apple, many of them don’t sell high-ticket items as a luxury.

For Apple, the brand is demand. Where Steve Jobs might have demanded innovation out of every item they released, the controlling board doesn’t. They know that the brand reputation he built will sell items because people love Apple, and they know people want to look like they have money, and by smearing Android products as ‘cheap’, Apple became a shortcut for ‘expensive’. Apple wheels are a natural result of a market that’s so hyperfocused on branding that it doesn’t care about functionality. A combination of goodwill and a little psychology gives us these overpriced items that are only overpriced for the sake of it.

The irony of all of this is that people will eventually buy the item as a ‘flex’, unironically, and then the product exists in a quantum state of sincerity. How does Apple live where others die?

 

Wheely Worth It

 

Apple sells sincere items alongside their ‘meme’ items. While Apple sells things like wheels and pens for hundreds of dollars, the past generations of phones are still about the right price for what the user gets. Factoring in things like R + D, factory overhead, and the materials to go into it, a comparable phone made by a third party would be cheaper, but not by much. They’re only at a small premium to other comparable brands for the same computing power, which makes sense with Apple’s well-known tech support. They haven’t gone full ‘Sears’ yet, and there’s still some value in the idea of their brand, and they still release ‘worthy’ items alongside the garbage ones. Why risk it with wheels that cost as much as an iPhone, a genuinely expensive item?

Simple: it’s for advertising, and it’s fairly cheap as far as campaigns go. Either ‘hype beasts’ (people known for buying branded clothing just because it’s expensive) buy it to flex on others, or regular people discuss how out-of-line Apple is. Either way, Apple’s name is out there. Apple might not actually expect to make money with these wheels, but the items are so cheap to make that a single purchase could finance the production of 50 more sets. Not to forget hype beasts!

This new trend of “flexing” expensive-but-nearly-worthless items has led to the creation of the Supreme Brick, the Apple wheels, and all sorts of other tomfoolery that relies on branding. Now, some brands use branding as a shortcut to ‘luxury’ instead of ‘trust’. Luxury clothing items have already been doing this for years, so while the material is thin, the manufacturing process cost cents on the dime, and shipping it en masse cost maybe a couple dollars, the final item is an 800$ shirt. Not because it’s made of especially good materials, or hardy – because it has a logo on it.

The only reason knockoffs are not worth as much is because the original brand has convinced people that their product is ‘better’ because it cost more, not that it cost more because it was better. And people believe it! Anyone self-conscious enough to get fake Airpods or a third-party Gucci shirt are still pursuing that image of luxury, which is fantastic for the brand. The same goes for Apple Wheels, and Airpods, and Supreme clothing… if the consumer values it, then they’re worth it. The Apple Wheels are worth 699$ to the people who want it, and that’s good enough to keep making them.  They’re buying Apple Brand, after all.

Apple Wheel. It’s wheely about the advertising.

 

Sources:

https://www.apple.com/shop/product/MX572ZM/A/apple-mac-pro-wheels-kit

https://www.apple.com/shop/product/MXNM2ZM/A/apple-mac-pro-feet-kit

https://www.thedrum.com/opinion/2020/02/26/shout-or-whisper-dissecting-quiet-and-loud-luxury