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Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Since a few days I’m using the latest version of Firefox as my main browser on Mac OS X, Windows 10 and Xubuntu. Why? Because it’s a new version of a tool I used many years ago, and which I left behind when it got slow, compared to Chrome.

But since a few weeks, there’s a new version, and I want to try it out. So far, my conclusions are that it is fast and sleek, just as Ars technica reports:

The version of the browser coming out today has a sleek new interface and, under the hood, major performance enhancements, with Mozilla claiming that it’s as much as twice as fast as it was a year ago. Not only should it be faster to load and render pages, but its user interface should remain quick and responsive even under heavy load with hundreds of tabs.

Well done, Mozilla!

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“Winter is Coming”? No, yesterday, on the last day of November, Winter arrived in Belgium. We had a few minutes of sun in the morning, and then after 12 o’clock snow started falling. Wet snow at first, and then as the afternoon progressed, temperatures dropped almost to freezing and the landscape actually turned white – at least in the “Pajottenland”. Which is where I happened to be, some 60km from our house. It took me two hours to get back home, over slippery and congested roads.

Waiting to inch forward, around 18:00 somewhere in Lennik (Belgium)

Unfortunately, all that snow also meant that our solar panels fell just shy of producing 55 KWh in November. At least 99% of the November mean is quite good, compared to the previous months.

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Since I have been writing a bit about vehicle fuels, I figure you may be interested as well in the subject of this article on Ars Technica: “One way to curb freight emissions: Put trucks on an electric catenary system“.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) office in Los Angeles is using a very old principle to electrify a stretch of road near the seaport, for trucks equipped with both an electric engine and an autonomous engine (actually, they’re trying three different motorisations, including a natural-gas hybrid-electric truck).

The eHighway uses electrified catenary lines along a stretch of road that trucks can connect to for electric power—exactly like trolley or light rail lines that offer electric public transportation in a multitude of cities today. The difference, however, is that the trucks don’t run on a rail, and they can disconnect from the catenary and run on independent engines when they get to the end of the line.

I can’t see this system being used for all vehicles, but it might be a good solution to electrify industrial domains that require a lot of more or less local traffic, like ports…

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A lava lamp is something from the late 1960’s – they were quite a rage when when I was a teenager. Today, lava lamps are a tool for cryptographers – at least at Cloudflare, a provider of a significant piece of Internet infrastructure.

In their blog post “Randomness 101: LavaRand in Production“, Cloudflare explains how they use a collection of lava lamps to generate random numbers.

LavaRand is a system that uses lava lamps as a secondary source of randomness for our production servers. A wall of lava lamps in the lobby of our San Francisco office provides an unpredictable input to a camera aimed at the wall. A video feed from the camera is fed into a CSPRNG, and that CSPRNG provides a stream of random values that can be used as an extra source of randomness by our production servers. Since the flow of the “lava” in a lava lamp is very unpredictable, “measuring” the lamps by taking footage of them is a good way to obtain unpredictable randomness. Computers store images as very large numbers, so we can use them as the input to a CSPRNG just like any other number.

If you don’t want to read the whole blog post, just have a look at this video on Youtube:

Click the image to go to Youtube

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Since many years I have been interested in vehicles powered by electricity. I’ll admit to being prejudiced: e-bikes have a lot more chance to capture my attention than cars… but in the real world, where fossil fuels are increasingly menacing the health of nature and climate, cars and trucks are much more important than motorcycles. So when the time came to start talking about replacing one of our cars (both more than a decade old), my wife and I investigated the possibility to purchase or lease an electric vehicle.

I’ll spare you all the pros and cons, as well as the debate over the practicability of an e-car during our vacation and the complications to load its batteries. It turned out that we could not afford such a car.

Going hybrid then? Well, what’s the use of a car that can do perhaps 30 or 50 km on electricity and then has to guzzle petrol, if it still has to spend hours to recharge? How is that friendly to the (and our!) environment?

In the end, and after a lot of reading up on the subject, we settled on a car than has a reasonable range on a fuel that is a lot less polluting than petrol and diesel: a (second-hand) Audi A3 Sportback g-tron. Like a few dozen other cars from multiple brands, it runs on methane in one of its forms: compressed natural gas (CNG), biogas (made from “agricultural waste”) or “e-gas”. E-gas is the name Audi gives to the methane it produces using electricity from windmills or solar panels, plus CO2 from the atmosphere.

Methane may not be the ultimate solution to our pollution problems, but in my view it’s a great step away from coal and petrol. Not just because it is a lot cleaner to burn, but also because it can use mostly existing infrastructure to be distributed and used, at least in countries like Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.

I’m still looking for a more scientific comparison of methane vs. petrol as a fuel for cars, in terms of pollution, but everything seems to point in the right direction: a car powered by CNG will produce a bit less CO2, less NOx and much less fine particles than its petrol and diesel siblings. For us, it’s a big step in the right direction – and the next one step will come when we have to part with our second car in a few years time. Will we just do away with it? Will we replace it with a small e-car? Or will there be even more clean and efficient CNG-powered cars by then?

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Today is a very nice day in Belgium, at least when we speak of the weather: the sun lights up our autumn garden.

(Click to see a larger version on Flickr)

But the sun did not do so well in October, according to our solar panels. Perhaps today is the first day of a sunnier period?

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A Pessimistic Solar Update

I have updated our solar electricity production numbers with the lowest yield for any September for our installation. 2017 will probably turn out to be a “bad” year for our panels.

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