On Fuel Cell Criticism

July 25th, 2010

I recently saw a few articles which discussed fuel cell technology. I didn’t realize how advanced our current fuel cell technology is. Apparently, we already have cars and buses (among other things) that run on Hydrogen Fuel Cells. What this basically means is we have cars that you add liquid Hydrogen (I believe it is in the H2 form) as you would gasoline to a conventional car. Energy is extracted from the H2 resulting in engines that run without combustion. The only emission from this process is H2O, water.

So as my mind is whirring on the possibilities (and awesomeness!) of this revelation, the criticism sets in. I don’t think I’ve seen an article yet that didn’t criticize the technology, which I find somewhat suspect, especially since we’d like to use clean renewable energy rather than fossil fuels.

The first criticism is cost. Fine. Any new technology will be substantially more expensive than established technology, due in part to the economy of scale not having taken over yet. Fewer units sold means the units must be more expensive to pay the workers, designers, et. al. to live, eat, pay rent, etc. Of course, were this technology to hit mainstream, the costs would necessarily plummet, though probably not as fast or as low as most of us would like.

The second criticism is related to the first. Cars fueld by H2 must be in reasonable proximity to stations that provide H2, something which conventional gas stations aren’t equipped to provide. That means early adopters are forced to limit their lifestyles/travels to suit the availability of fuel stations. Again, once it hits the mainstream, fuel stations will become more abundant, rendering this objection moot.

The third criticism is somewhat valid… Today, tomorrow and probably all this year. H2 has to come from somewhere. Fuel stations can’t just set out a bucket and collect it as you would rain. Rather H2 is produced. And unlike the cars that run on fuel cells, producing H2 currently carries a cost in fossil fuels, with associated emissions. This is where many people take pause and think “Fuel cells are no better than conventional combustion engines.” Here is where they’re wrong!

Suppose there 140 million cars in the US today (that’s pretty close to the actual number). Many of these cars are from the 1990’s, 80’s, or even earlier. If a new engine came out today that cut emissions in half, doubled performance and even was easy to produce, how fast do you think we’d replace an adequate percentage of cars with these cleaner models? 10 years maybe? 20?

Suppose further that every five years we made similar leaps toward more efficient and cleaner use of fossil fuels, how much lag in the effect on air quality and other consequences would there be? Several years seems likely per each innovation.

Now suppose instead we move to fuel cells. There is a push for fuel stations to be provided with enough saturation to make switching to fuel cell cars viable to the masses and fuel cell cars are mass produced. This transition may even take 10 years or so if we push it.

Even if all that time we are producing H2 by burning fossil fuels, once the switch is complete, we have a real opportunity. If we come up with a cleaner way to produce H2, say with a clean energy source, the public doesn’t have to buy a new car or buy different fuel. The public can do exactly the same things and immediately benefit from the cleaner sources of energy.

The reason is indirection. With combustion engines, we are directly using the fuel to power our cars. But with fuel cells, we are indirectly using the fuel to power our cars. That means the ultimate source of that fuel can change at any time without altering how our cars work or what they run on.

So, today, tomorrow and all this year fuel cells are infeasible for the mass market. But if we can help fuel cells hit the mainstream, then our cars won’t just be indirectly burning fossil fuels (rather than directly), they could be burning wind, water, or solar power. They could be burning nuclear power. They could be burning any sort of power we can figure how to use to produce the fuel cell energy supply. And that would truly help wean us off of fossil fuels.


I hit a road block a couple weeks back on writing my book. Seems I have a few important things about the world to figure out before I continue plotting and writing my book. Some of the things would even effect how my characters react to situations, so I really need to figure them out before pressing forward.

Due to the road block, I spent some time programming my writing software instead, but started feeling guilty for not writing. So, rather than getting discouraged at not figuring out all the important things yet, I’m writing some short stories to fill my writing time until I figure it all out.

One type of short story is called Flash Fiction. Flash Fiction is a bit ambiguously defined, but I like the definition of: Complete stories at no more than 1,000 words. Short stories have looser length requirements and could even range up to 10,000 words, though they tend more toward 3,000 – 5,000 words in length.

One nice thing about Flash Fiction, is you can write an entire story in a single evening. You can also have several stories in the works at a time, so you write one, revise another, write a third, revise the first, etc. Also, the short length make for excellent blog posts.

One final note. I’m not giving up on my book, just working on other things while I figure out those important details, so I keep in the writing habit and develop my skills for when I finally am ready again.

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New Stories Section

June 25th, 2010

As stated in an earlier post, I have 2 major projects right now, aside from family, work, and home responsibilities. The first is a program that will help me with my writing projects. Hopefully, as this software matures, it will also help others with their writing projects. My plan is to make the project open source when I have something reasonable ready for release. I’m a long way from that point, but I hope to have something usable within a month or so.

The second project is a book (which may actually be a trilogy). I’ve been trying to work out the details of the fantasy world, characters, and plot. It’s not easy by any stretch of the imagination. Some days I can’t write at all, or develop my programming project. Those days are pretty tough. Even on days when I can write I can’t always work on the book. On those days I’m trying to write some short stories.

I’m not worried about getting the short stories published, so I’ll be posting them when I feel they’re about as done as I’m going to make them (then only the ones that are any good). To that end, I opened a “Stories” tab on my header, into which all my short stories will be dumped when I post them. And so the category won’t be empty, I posted some of my older stories written while I was yet in school.

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When I was a child it was always a big deal for my family to see a movie. Unless one was showing on television, we didn’t often rent movies and even less frequently go see one in the theater. When we did then, it was a special experience.

I don’t know if it was this, the novelty of movies, or their big budgets resulting in stronger performances, better visual effects and music, or perhaps my limited attention span (being only a child), but I found myself gravitating towards movies quite preferentially when given the choice between them and regular television, more especially when given the choice between them and books.

Perhaps it was well then that my parents rationed movies. I may never have read anything or come to appreciate books the way I do now. You see, as I get older I find my attention span is much longer than it was years ago. The result is an increased appreciation for long running television shows with continuous narratives (not like The Simpsons where each episode is essentially stand alone), and even more so for long book series.

Even as recent as three years ago (before the kids were born) I appreciated a good movie. Sometime between when they were born the last six months or so, I find I can’t even enjoy a book that’s under 350 pages, unless there’s at least one sequel. I suppose the reason for this is that I enjoy a long narrative. A good movie may introduce an interesting universe, problem, cast of characters, and more, but it has to resolve everything in under two hours, or four to six if there’s a sequel or two. An average novel gives you around ten hours (unless you read really fast) and that still feels short for me.

In contrast, a single season of a television series gives you around twenty episodes. Giving about forty minutes per episode it comes out to a little over thirteen hours. Almost adequate for me. Some series give twenty-two to twenty-four episodes per season, which comes to maybe sixteen hours. Assuming the format is not just episodic, but also gives sufficient time to a continuous narrative, I like single season series.

But what I really like (in television) is the long series (5+ seasons) which gives a continuous narrative and especially ones where there’s loads of character development throughout. Absent a good series to watch, I prefer the epic fantasy novel series where each book tends to average near 1000 pages and there’s at least three, sometimes twelve or more books. That can take quite a number of hours to read, and can really involve you in a narrative.

I suppose what drew me to movies in the past was the flashy effects, music and other big budget bells and whistles, where what draws me to entertainment media now is the story, rich with character, change, and plot. Those things are just harder to attain to in a movie where you only have an hour or two to do everything.

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I am continually astounded by what seems to be a very common practice among content providers, be they broadcast television, cable, radio, or internet video and music services. The practice is to play the main content (show, news clip, video, or song) at one volume, and advertisements at another. Usually the volume of commercials are louder than the show, sometimes uncomfortably so.

To put this in context, I listen to a lot of content while at work, in the car, doing homework, exercising, or just spending an evening with my wife. I often find that I have to turn the sound up on the computer, radio or television to hear the show, particularly during any quiet parts, on phone interviews, etc. Then the commercials come and I’m forced to quickly reduce the volume or risk hearing loss.

So, why do they do this? Do they think through the consequences of this practice? Now, I suppose the various channels, stations, and web sites don’t actually control the volume of the advertisements, and possibly of the shows either, but it seems to me they should. I for one am 100x more likely to change the channel, mute the volume or otherwise make that advertisement go away if the volume needed to hear the show makes the commercial uncomfortably loud, or even if it’s just much louder but still in my comfort zone. This compared to commercials that use reasonable volume where I am likely to listen at least passively while waiting for my show to come back or my video to start.

Add to this the fact that some internet music and video services now disable volume and playback control while commercials are playing, and you get one (or possibly millions) of disgruntled viewers/listeners. I don’t quite see the purpose behind blocking pause or mute for an advertisement. If they can’t get to the desired content without viewing the ad, let them pause. If they think the ad is too loud, let them change the volume.

In fact web sites have the unique position of being able to take feedback on this sort of thing. Hulu provides the option to give an ad “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”. I routinely give a thumbs down for the exact reason of being too loud. More feedback however could be gathered. For example sites could monitor when users mute or change volume on specific commercials. Aggregating results from hundreds or thousands of users they could automatically adjust the volume of the commercial to be less offensive to ears that are straining just to hear the show.

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Goals are a funny thing. There are many kinds of goals. Goals are most frequently referred to as “long term” and “short term” which effectively implies that goals are a) time oriented, and b) categorized in only two ways (ie. long or short term). I see it differently, as I’m sure many people do if they think about it longer than the time it takes to spout the above quoted words.

In my mind goals split into many categories, priorities, and classes. For example, there are the life long goals: get an education, have a family, have a career, etc. These are nice to have and you can never really check them off because they are sort of on going. There are also the goals you set for things you want to do at least once in your life. One of mine is write a novel (that I can be happy with). I don’t feel like I have to get published or earn a living at it, I just want to develop my writing enough that I can write a novel that I can polish enough through revision and editing that I myself can be happy with it.

Another goal I have is to develop and keep talents. This is a sort of short term goal that is perpetual. Each day or week I have to set aside time to practice instruments, sing, create art, program games, or work at whatever else it is I want to have an ability to do. This is where priorities and classes of goals start to muddy my resolve to accomplish these goals.

You see, when I work hard at a series of my perpetual goals, (say, playing piano) I don’t have time to work on some other goals (writing a book). So it’s that time equation again.

I bring this up because last October-November, I was getting back into writing after having done little with it since college. I started writing a story I’d had developing in my head for many months in October and decided to do NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in November. NaNoWriMo is a challenge to writers to write 50,000 words toward a novel during the month of November. I succeeded at the challenge but feel I failed at the spirit of it.

As I neared my 50,000 words, I discovered my story was “all wrong,” which is to say in order to deal with everything I want to deal with in the story and with these characters I’ll have to split the book into three. That basically means I have to start over eventually to get it “right.” However I’ve heard the dangers of doing this, particularly if I don’t at least see the writing to the end before going back and fixing it, so I’m trying to figure out where the story should be going for this first book before I continue writing. So far, so good.

Except that NaNoWriMo is November. Which means right after it, there’s the Christmas holiday, our kids’ birthday, New Year’s and a host of other stressful and time consuming things. I’d hoped to start up my story again in January, but so far no dice.

Instead I felt a resurgence of another goal, creating games. During the week before Christmas I started to feel the urge to remake a game I’d done long ago (and others have done many times), the classic board game “Battle Ship” (called Naval Battle in my version). It took a bit longer to get the game written this time, but I am much happier with this version than I ever was with the one I did years ago. I also remade another popular game that I’ll release some time soon.

But I find I’m at a crossroads of priorities again. I’ve satisfied my game making itch that comes up ever so often, but I have momentum now that I could use to pump out another two or three games without them taking so much time or effort. Or, I could get back to my writing and complete my story (something that had momentum but has since lost it).

It’s not an easy choice, and I may not even have to make it; I go back to school again next week. If this term is fairly easy (as the last 2-3 terms have been) I’ll still have plenty of time for either writing or game making, but if it’s hard I may not have time for either…


Of Time, Talents, and Priorities

December 20th, 2009

I find as I grow older, having made the transition from teenager, to young adult, to adult with all the things that go with – finishing college, serving a mission, getting married, working, and having kids – that I don’t have as much time as I used to. More to the point, I can’t even use the time I have the way I used to.

In high school and early college, I had lots of time I regularly used to ride my bike (usually 10-20 miles per day), write random games and programs, and practice/play the violin. When I was a senior in college I spent inordinate amounts of time on the latter because I participated in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”

When I started college I transitioned my music time to learning the piano. Again I spent countless hours in front of pianos going from simplified hymns to Polonaises and show tunes.

But this is where life took a turn, and priorities had to change. I served a mission for my church. For those who may not know, serving a mission is like a full-time job, plus a full-time job, plus a lifestyle. Three hours per day are spent in study and preparation for the day, twelve doing missionary work and service projects, and you need every second of the eight hours for sleep to keep this routine going. That leaves about one hour per day for yourself. Normally that time is spent – well eating. One day each week nine hours of the usual twelve for missionary work are used for relaxation and preparation for the week. This usually entails washing laundry, buying groceries, and whatever activity or relaxation the rules permit and the missionaries are up for.

As you can see, that doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for developing or even maintaining talents, unless you consider doing so study (by which is meant scriptures) or service (which some talents may count as).

Upon returning home I promptly got engaged. In six months I was married and supporting myself and wife while going to school. Once again, priorities got in the way of developing talents, and time was spent on those priorities first. Naturally it was important that I get good grades in school and keep my job so I could keep paying for school and so on. Here music fell to the wayside again and I poked back into game programming.

Needless to say, I had forgotten a lot. It took me months to remind myself of all the techniques I knew before (which were mostly outdated) and learn enough new things that I could feel good about what I was creating. Occasionally I thought about music or writing or the dozen other interests I have and felt sad about not maintaining them.

Summer came and priorities changed again. Getting outside and biking with my wife was important. Programming fell to the wayside where music was collecting dust.

Years passed, each season or semester bringing a new schedule or priority set. What was left over in terms of free time seemed to have different uses. One fall I spent endless hours sculpting. I got pretty good at creating eight inch tall figures. We played role-play games with friends and I created 3D art and animation. After I graduated and got a job, I made a series of web-page games.

Last year, I started playing the piano again and managed to interleave enough time to bunch of Christmas themed games. Meanwhile, my sculpting and 3D art skills fell in the gutter.

Recently, I did NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) where I wrote over 50,000 words in a month toward a novel. For the first time in my life I felt like I was developing some decent writing skills. (I’d previously written some short stories that were pretty nice but nothing significant.) But even now I feel those skill waining as I try to maintain my piano skills (fell to the side during NaNoWriMo) and seek to revive my game programming skills.

So here is my issue: I have many talents and interests that I want to pursue, but time is so limited and priorities change often enough that I never seem to be able to develop any one of them enough to make me happy. Even as I make progress on one talent I feel sad as I watch my other talents decay.

I suppose it’s not really a complaint. At least I have all these options, right? Still, instead of feeling happy about the talent I’m making progress on at any one time, I seem to feel bad about the talents that are regressing at the same time.

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