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Olson’s Observations

Technology. Innovation. Science. VC. Media. :: by Eric Olson

Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Crazy Green Energy Idea: Update

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Bike PowerIt turns out that it’s not too hard to build your own bike powered generator. There is a shareware guide available and a man by the name of B. Whaley even created a shopping list on amazon that includes everything you need down to the bike so you don’t even need to shop. This particular bike powered generator will output a max of 150 watts and it is 12V DC.

Ed Begley, Jr. has made toast with this very contraption on his HGTV series Living with Ed so it definitely works. Bottom Line: If you’re handy, have 2 - 3 hours and about $1,200 (according to the amazon list - of course you may already have the bike and some of the other parts and you may even be able to find used parts so it could cost much less) you could be making human power after one Saturday afternoon of work.  Maybe hooking up gyms with these kind of contraptions could work afterall.

Written by Eric Olson

March 19th, 2007 at 9:30 pm

Crazy Green Energy Idea: Part 1

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Compact FluorescentThe other day I was talking about energy and “green” stuff with some of my FeedBurner colleagues when an idea bubbled up. What if we could harness all of the energy put out by people exercising? Just think about how many gyms there are in the country and how much energy is being put out by people cycling, running, using the elliptical, etc. They could yield a lot of power. Of course we’d have to store it and then have the energy company buy it back from us for it to be worthwhile.

I see the business model, assuming this is even a viable idea and the energy produced would even add up to a decent amount (any scientists out there?), coming together in one of two ways.

Model 1: Hooking up to Existing Gyms

This model, as the title states, would involve hooking up to existing gyms and then selling the power back to the energy companies. You could set the gyms up for power storage at no cost to the gym owner and provide them with a cut of the power sales. The gym owners may even be sold on attaining a “green” label for their gym which would allow all of the profits to stay within the company although something tells me they would want a cut of the profits.

I also thought of selling and installing the equipment and then allowing the gym owner to keep all of the power profits but I don’t see this as likely. The gym owners don’t want more hassle and their competency is not storing and selling power. However, this idea could work also.

Model 2: Start the Gyms

Again, as the title states, you could start the gyms and build in the power storing architecture from day one. Of course this wouldn’t take advantage of the “install base” of existing gyms but you could expand into that arena. If the power sales were great enough you could allow free or next to free gym access so more people would use your gym. As a side benefit, this would also lower the barrier to entry of working out allowing more people to get fit. Now you’d be helping to solve both the global warming problem and the obesity problem. How’s that for a social venture?

Of course I have no idea if this is even feasible at this point but it seemed interesting. I will keep researching the science side of this and I’d love feedback from all of you guys out there on whether or not you think this is feasible and whether or not you think we’d get squeezed by the power companies. This could just be crazy enough to work (or maybe I’ll need to start laying off the Cadbury Creme Eggs).

Photo Credit: Michael Hicks on Flickr

Written by Eric Olson

March 7th, 2007 at 4:20 pm

Reduce Global Warming with your PC

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LocalCoolingI was made aware of a unique new project today called LocalCooling. LocalCooling is the brainchild of Uniblue Systems, Ltd., a software company based in Malta. The guys at Uniblue have created a small piece of software, dubbed LocalCooling, that anyone (well, its PC only so Mac users are in the dark right now) can download for free. This software is a more advanced energy management interface for your computer which will allow everyone who uses it to save energy.

According to LocalCooling, it is estimated that 30 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) are wasted each year because people forget to (or choose not to) turn their computers off when they leave their office or home. The CO2 emissions the 30 billion kilowatt hours represent are staggering considering that 15 computers cause the same amount of CO2 emissions as one car over a given time frame.

Along with the energy management software, LocalCooling has also set up a community where LocalCooling users can see the energy that the community has saved in terms of trees saved, barrels of oil saved, and so on. You can even set up teams or enroll your company to see how much you can save as a group. LocalCooling has set up a Top 100 board for companies, teams and individuals on their site to add to the interactive experience. Nothing like some healthy competition to get people going, right?

I like the idea of LocalCooling and I am planning on giving it a shot. Let’s all help LocalCooling to get to its goal of 100mm users which could amount to about 30 billion kWh of gas emissions saved each year and about $3 billion in energy cost savings.

Side note: Don’t forget terrapass. For those who don’t know, they started off allowing all of us to offset our automobile CO2 emissions. They have since expanded their service to include terrapasses that allow you to offset your home energy and plane flight CO2 emissions. If you already have a terrapass or two remember that a terrapass can make a great gift this holiday season especially for the person on your list who has everything.

Written by Eric Olson

November 29th, 2006 at 2:24 pm

Posted in Science, Technology

The Military’s Effect on Technology

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This memorial day I found my thoughts drifting to war and how it has shaped the world in which we live. America, the land of opportunity, was born out of a war. Americans then went forward and fought wars to end tyranny across the globe and to liberate other people from oppression. My grandfather was one of those Americans. He served in the Air Force during WWII and I am forever grateful for his sacrifice. It, along with the sacrifices of others, has allowed us to live our lives as free people and pursue what we love. War also yields advances in technology. These advances in technology have affected our daily lives in ways we may not even know. Let’s explore some of the ways military technology affects our daily lives and what military technology may shape our future.

Most of us don’t think about jet engines much today. However, they power a lot of what we do. They make the world smaller and that has certainly helped move the global economy further along. It is not uncommon now for businesses to start working internationally right from the get go and jet aircraft certainly make the essential face to face meetings possible. Jet engines took off, so to speak, in the 11th century. The technology was pioneered by the Chinese who initially used rockets to propel fireworks but quickly moved to using the technology to propel weapons. Moving forward in time to WWII, the Germans and Japanese began using jet engines on airplanes to overcome propeller efficiency issues – propeller efficiency began to level off as the blades moved closer to the speed of sound – and the planes they developed, while crude, were seen as the future of aviation. After the war, engineers began to devote more time to the jet engine concept and, while producing some fantastic aircraft for the military, began to produce more and more civilian jet aircraft which have definitely changed our lives (this was a brief history of jet engine development – please see wikipedia for more detailed information).

Another piece of military technology that has significantly altered the way we live is, you guessed it, the internet. The internet started out as a project put together by the newly formed Defense Advanced Research Products Agency, or DARPA. DARPA was formed as a way for the Unites States to regain the technical lead over the USSR who had recently launched Sputnik. The fruits of DARPA’s hard work, ARPANET, launched on October 29, 1969 and we have never looked back since. In the early 1990s the growing (mostly academic) network gained a public face called the World Wide Web which was ushered along through Tim Berners-Lee’s developments of HTML and HTTP. Shortly after the emergence of the World Wide Web researchers at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign created the first mosaic web browser, what would eventually be called Netscape, which gave the public an easy way to navigate the WWW and ushered in the information age.

Those are just two of the many technologies spawned by the military the ended up affecting our daily lives in significant ways. The military is still developing new technologies to help our troops and defend our freedom. Some of these technologies are also likely to change the way in which our daily lives unfold. The two technologies that I will explore are mesh networks and nanotechnology enabled photovoltaic cells.

Mesh networking is a fascinating concept. Essentially, mesh networks will allow you to group sensors together in an efficient way to gather data about the physical world in ways never thought possible. Mesh networks also have the ability to configure themselves and heal broken connections. The main company in this space right now is Dust Networks, a venture backed company that counts the governments VC fund, In-Q-Tel, as one of its investors.

The military is behind the idea of mesh networks because it will allow for easy to set-up distributed systems that can reliably inform soldiers of perimeter breaches by the enemy and give them essential battlefield data on widespread areas without putting soldiers in harms way. The data they can retrieve will allow the soldiers to make crucial decisions that will save lives. Mesh networking also has many uses in our everyday lives.

The main application today allows mesh networks to be set up at various points in an assembly line and in complex machinery. The network is then able to inform workers quickly and efficiently of anything that is going wrong or not performing. Mesh networks can also be helpful in building automation. Temperature controls, lighting controls, environmental modeling, and security systems can all be controlled more efficiently through mesh networks. The mesh networks that Dust Networks is creating will allow both soldiers and civilians more control over their environments which will lead to lives saved and energy costs reduced.

Energy reduction through mesh networks is important as our energy consumption is far too high. Scientists are constantly looking for ways to reduce energy cosumption and to create “green” ways to generate energy. One green energy generator is the sun. We can harness the energy of the sun through photovoltaic cells, more commonly referred to as solar panels. Solar panels have been around for a long time but they are hard to implement. You need a very large area of cells to generate a meaningful amount of energy and the solar cells are not easy to transport. Enter Konarka.

Konarka is a Lowell, Massachusetts based company that is using nanotechnology to create what they call “power plastics.” Essentially they have figured out how to make efficient solar cells that are also flexible and easy to transport. Their cells can also be colored or patterned to suit customer needs and the colors and patterns do not affect the efficiency or flexibility of the cells.

Konarka’s solar technology is of great interest to the military who has already started working with Konarka to develop portable solar cells for their soldiers as well as portable camouflage electricity producing buildings ($1.6mm contract). The solar cells will help soldiers power battlefield laptops and communications systems while the portable solar barracks will allow the military to have more range as they will no longer need to be near a power source. These portable solar cells will also help civilians manage their essential electronic devices. Forgot to charge your cell phone, blackberry, iPod, and laptop? Not to worry! You can just pull out your ultra thin Konarka solar panel, unfold it, plug it in to your device and, assuming you are in the sun, it will begin charging up. I know I would love to get one of these cells as I tend to forget to charge my cell phone at times. Konarka’s overall goal is to eventually be able to take anything that exists today and allow it to create energy. Who knows, someday the walls of your house may be generating your energy.

Well, I hope you have enjoyed this (very brief) look into military technology and how it has and will change our lives going forward. It has been fun to look back on and into the future of technology as well as to reflect on the great sacrifice our soldiers make everyday to keep us free and able to create fun technology and new companies. If you know a soldier or see one on the street go ahead and thank them for everything they do and, while you’re at it, why not ask them about any cool technologies they have been using. You never know, it may end up in your hands in the not to distant future.

Written by Eric Olson

May 29th, 2006 at 11:27 pm

Posted in Science, Technology

No Music = No Internet

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Provocative title isn’t it? However, new research could actually prove this to be true. Music permeates all human cultures and there is strong evidence that the brain comes prewired with music circuits making it a product of human evolution. The question is: If music is a product of human evolution than what is music for?

Many scientists, including Darwin, wrote music off as a method early man used to try to attract mates. This was a solution that made sense at the time because no scientist was ever able to link music to survival. The thought was that if music couldn’t be linked to survival than it had to be linked to the propagation of the species since a trait will persist generation after generation only if it is linked to one of those two needs. However, Steven Mithen’s new research may indicate that music was, in fact, a survival mechanism for early man (source: Science Journal article).

Here is how Mithen imagines things:

…the small band of Neanderthals gathered 50,000 years ago around the caves of Le Moustier, in what is now the Dordogne region of France, were butchering carcasses, scraping skins, shaping ax heads — and singing.

One of the fur-clad men started it, a rhythmic sound with rising and falling pitch, and others picked it up, indicating their willingness to cooperate both in the moment and in the future, when the group would have to hunt or fend off predators. The music promoted “a sense of we-ness, of being together in the same situation facing the same problems,” suggests Prof. Mithen, an archaeologist at England’s Reading University. Music, he says, creates “a social rather than a merely individual identity.”

Mithen believes that “language may have been built on the neural underpinnings of music” and that, before language, music actually helped man communicate and survive. Recent discoveries that suggest music has a particular place in our brain may back up Mithen’s hypothesis. In fact, Mithen even points out that, because language impairment does not lead to musical impairment, music must have been around longer.

Music, as we all know, is strongly tied to emotions and that is why Mithen believes it helped early man survive. For example, one man could start to “sing” and the others would know how he was feeling from his tone and could then join in to “sympathize” with him. Music can also be used to manipulate peoples emotions so early man could have, for example, used “happy” tunes in order to keep people cooperating and forging ahead on a long day of hunting or gathering.

As a musician (haven’t updated the site in a while), and as a human being, this theory fascinates me. I have been known to say that music is the only universal language but I never really thought about it more than just thinking that notes are written the same way regardless of where one is. I had never really thought of the emotional ties we all have to music because they are so natural and tied to our subconscious. This may be why a song can sometimes express things in a way that words just can’t or why, when a certain tune pops up on the iPod, one immediatley enters into a specific emotional state. Professor Mithen’s research is very interesting and I, for one, will be watching and reading as he moves forward knowing that, if he is correct, there would be no internet without music.

Source Info: I found this article within a weekly e-newsletter I receive from the great folks over at If you are interested in archaeology and ancient cultures you should absolutely subscribe or at least visit their site frequently. You won’t regret it!

Also: In the spirit of this post I thought I would share some of my Pandora stations so all of you could see some of the new music I am discovering at the moment. Enjoy!

Rock Radio
Depeche Mode Radio
Jazz Radio
Singer/Songwriter Radio

Written by Eric Olson

April 5th, 2006 at 10:48 pm

Archaeology and Tech

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Those who know me well (and those who have read the “about” page on this blog) know that I love archaeology and ancient civilizations. I especially enjoy advanced ancient civilizations. It amazes me to see the technology that was developed far before we would have expected it to emerge. I also get very excited about current technology and how it can help archaeologists in their search. I read an article yesterday on one of my favorite blogs about such a technology. No, its not brand new or super advanced, it’s actually satellite imagery.

As many of you may or may not know, a lot of the worlds untapped archaeological resources lie around what one was known as Mesopotamia and is now known as the Middle East (roughly speaking). In fact, a lot of potential dig sites are in the war torn regions of Iraq making it virtually impossible for archaeologists to dig there. This fact lead a Harvard anthropologist to think outside the box when trying to explore the canals at Nineveh, a 3,000 year old Mesopotamian village lying near the turbulent modern city of Mosul, Iraq. He used satellite imagery to virtually explore the ruins. Through this virtual exploration he was able to gain insight into how the ancient people of Nineveh used irrigation to support agriculture.

The interesting thing about the use of satellite technology in archaeology is that we can all be armchair archaeologists simply by utilizing Google Earth. In fact, an Egyptian crater recently found by a scientist using satellite imagery was also spotted by a handful of people using Google Earth. I know I am going to be using Google Earth a lot more to search ancient Mesopotamia and my favorite of all ancient civilizations, Egypt. Who knows, maybe I will discover an anomaly that may just be the next big find and all from the comfort of my apartment. I love technology!

Written by Eric Olson

March 22nd, 2006 at 10:29 pm

Posted in Science, Technology

The Elegant Universe

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I just finished a book last night that was incredible. If you are a physics geek like I am or even if you just want to know more about a theory that could possibly explain everything than The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene is for you! Greene writes in such a way that anyone can understand the gist of what he is talking about so it is great book for anyone. With that said, it is a pretty intense book and not a book I would recommend for light reading. I took quite a bit of time with the book myself since I really wanted to try and wrap my head around the concepts.

In the book Greene takes readers on a journey through the history of physics from Newton to Einstein and on to String Theory (M-theory). The background you get in the beginning of the book is a perfect primer to the more advanced string theory. Basically, string theory says that, rather than point particles, the universe is in fact made up of microscopic strings that vibrate in different manners and that the vibrations actually correspond to what we see as electrons, protons and so on. Not only that, string theory also provides for 11 dimentions and possibly parallel universes! Fascinating stuff…

Even more fascinating is the fact that string theory explains all, or most of, the physical properties (relativity, quantum mechanics, etc.) that we already observe. String theory implies that they should be there! Basically, if string theory was the first thing that was found, everything else we (and by we I mean physicists) have discovered would have been a given. String theory also gives rise to some interesting black hole explanations but I don’t want to give too much away. Well, OK, I’ll give a little bit away but you’re going to want to read the book to get the full picture.

The center of black holes actually have the same characteristics that physicists think were in place before the “big bang.” They have been able to figure this out, more or less, through string theory. The interesting conclusion that can be drawn is that the centers of black holes are actually universes or universes before the big bang. Why don’t we see them you may ask… well, the black holes event horizon shields us from seeing anything inside. The event horizon is the point of no return. No light can escape past it and out of the black hole and all matter that passes the line will be sucked in forever.

The book seriously blows the mind. It is an incredible piece by one of the people on the forefront of string theory but it is still written in a way that “regular people” (who are willing to put in the time) can understand the big concepts. I recommend giving it a read if you want to take a look at the BIG picture through a very small lens.

For more on the Elegant Universe and string theory please visit the Elegant Universe webpage. Also, you can watch the entire NOVA special hosted by Brian Geene himself and entitled the Elegant Universe online. Enjoy!

– I am going to put a piece up in my “normal” style very soon as I was inspired to write on google and yahoo through a piece written by Jason at 37 signals today. Look out for that or, better yet, if you are not already subscribed please subscribe and you’ll get my posts automagically!

Written by Eric Olson

December 15th, 2005 at 2:19 pm

Posted in Books, Science