Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Outlook Express Identity problems

I have seen this problem several times. Outlook Express allows you to set up unique identities so that more than one person can use the same program to check their email. Unfortunately, if one of the identity files becomes corrupt, you can lose all of your email.
Microsoft makes it extremely difficult for a novice to backup their email. Where is my email? Where indeed. It is buried away in the hidden application support folder and named using a long, incoherent, alphanumeric code. It is very infuriating, even for a power user. There are many sites that offer methods of backing up your Outlook Express mail, but if an identity becomes corrupt, you will never make it past the second step of the process. The best you will be able to do is open another mail program and import the primary identity. That's it. One identity.
So this advice is purely to prevent the problem. Stop using Outlook Express immediately. It is great when it works, but when it breaks, your mail is most likely gone. An expert can get it back, but it will cost you. Upgrade to Outlook. Too bad they couldn't come up with a better name, but the "non-express" version is the best way to go. The biggest advantage is that it is better at exporting your mail to a .pst file. Store this on a CD or removable drive. As for identities. Stop using them. Instead, learn how to set-up a new user on your computer. Then, when you want to switch identities, simply switch users instead. This gives each user their own computer, documents folder, music folder, etc. The Outlook Express identity system is a shortcut, and a bad one.
If you insist on using Outlook Express for multiple users, do it by creating new users in the control panel. Not identities. This way, each user can use their own copy of Outlook Express. One identity file. Fewer problems.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Fuel Farming and ethanol

Harvesting fuel
Ethanol fuel has been getting quite a bit of attention lately due to the recent price jumps in gasoline. It is actually a technology basically abandoned almost 100 years ago due to a cheap and plentiful resource called oil. Henry Fords Model T was built to burn ethanol so that farmers could make their own fuel from corn. Ethanol is grain alcohol, and almost all gasoline sold today is comprised of 10 percent ethanol (E15).
The United States imports a little over 60 percent of its oil which translates into one-third of the U.S. trade deficit. Canada is the largest supplier at 20 percent, the Middle East provides slightly less than that, Nigeria, Venezuela and Mexico round out the rest of suppliers producing over 10 percent each. There are several other countries contributing less than 5 percent each of the total demand.
Converting to a home grown fuel alternative has a positive economic effect. A trade deficit reduction will strengthen the dollar and the economy, farmers have a crop in high demand, ethanol production is a domestic industry producing jobs, and fuel prices become less dependent on the price of crude.
Ethanol is produced by fermenting sugars, Enzymes convert starch into sugar, and then yeast converts these sugars into ethanol. I am more than curious about how governments will deal with people who decide to build a still to make "fuel".
Ethanol producers have also found ways to convert other cellulose materials into ethanol. Wood chips and grass clippings for example. E85 is 85 percent ethanol and 15% gasoline. This is being produced now, but there are a few roadblocks to overcome. For one, our fuel distribution system is all about gasoline, and we all know what that means. However, I am hopeful that governments have a better understanding of what the people want, and that legislation will prevent unwanted interference. Although it may seem surprising, there are quite a few states that have E85 gas stations. Minnesota is by far the leader with over 200 stations, whereas Texas has 4 and Washington D.C. has none.
E85 can't be used in just any automobile. You either need a Model T, or something built quite recently. Almost all vehicles built after 1990 can use 20 percent ethanol without ill-effects.
E85 has corrosive properties that damage rubber fuel lines, and untreated metal engine parts. New FFV or Flexi Fuel Vehicles incorporate special nitrate coatings on the engine parts to prevent engine failures. E85 is about 40 percent cheaper to buy, but nothing comes free. If you get 30 mpg on gas right now, that equates to 20 mpg on ethanol. It's high octane rating of about 110 doesn't have the same kick as regular gasoline.
Is ethanol the future fuel? I don't think so, but I think it will become a competitive alternative for the next 20 years or so. It is quite an exciting time for inventors. There appears to be a stream of energy innovation going on. Hydrogen, solar/battery, ethanol, what's next? Energy technology is no longer under the control of large corporations. The world is open to new energy sources, and each of these solutions require new ideas to make them work. Now that's something to think about.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Convergence of new technologies

Every once in awhile there is a significant leap in technology. The dawn of the twentieth century dealt with the convergence of many new technologies at once. Electricity became common in homes, the first automobiles appear, and radio is changing the way we communicate. I imagine that sales of oil lamps and horse carriages are also seeing a decline. Will we see this kind of change again? Is it far away? When I was in University, I rented a typewriter from a busy leasing and repair business in town. That business is long gone and I don't think I have seen a typewriter in quite awhile.

I think the next big leap will occur in the energy sector. Not oil, but electricity. The politics of filling your gas tank will make the oil industry a wild card for a few more years, but electricity, now there's an industry that can flourish much more easily.
Recent developments in solar cell technology have seen two important breakthroughs. A lower cost per panel, and a higher electricity output per panel. It seems to be following the model of computers. Every iteration produces a faster and more efficient system while lowering cost.

Solar panels use highly purified silicon in a process called photovoltaics. Silicon is classified as a semiconductor. By itself, silicon is actually a good insulator and resistant to electrical flow, but by "doping" and changing it's properties, it can be forced to accept either a positive or negative charge. When you place a negatively charged plate of silicon over a positively charged plate, an electrical field is produced allowing the flow of electrons. This is electricity. The focus of most research has been to improve the efficiency of translating light into electricity, and doing it using smaller and smaller panels.
There are solar panels under development today that use low cost, low grade silicon as a source for the panels. The interesting part of this research is that the solar energy itself converts the low grade silicon into ultra pure silicon and as the panel ages, it's efficiency goes up. Given the leaps in solar conversion efficiency over the last five years, it is not unreasonable to expect that solar panels may become the "shingle" of choice in 10 to 15 years. The roof area of a typical home will be able to convert enough solar energy to run everything in your house----for free.

This technology leap is inevitable. What will happen to us as a society, as an economy? Will going wireless now mean that the power lines strung all over the planet will slowly disappear? Are we getting too emotional over issues such as nuclear and coal power plants? Maybe they will just go away like the horse and carriage. If every building has the capacity to generate its' own electricity, it is only reasonable to assume that technology for storing energy will also advance. Necessity is the mother of invention. How will the economics of energy independence affect society? How do you tax consumption? Recharging your hybrid at home will really mean something when it doesn't cost you anything.
Will the political landscape of the world change when energy is taken off the table? There are so many unknowns. I have a feeling that a convergence of technologies is just around the corner. When the President of the United States starts promoting alternative energy a few days before a drop in gas prices, something is in the air. Solar energy is on a collision course with fossil fuels. Cheaper energy sources always win. In the early days of the 20th century, there were people in their 30's and 40's with vivid memories of a world lit by gaslight and streets full of horse buggies. 30 and 40 year olds today remember typewriters and a world without Internet.
I wonder what it will be like to look out on the horizon and not see power lines? Hang on, I think we're going to leap again.