Variance Due to Deliberate Practice

10,000 Hours of Deliberate Practice: A Necessary but not Sufficient Condition for Mastery.

It’s been almost 6 years since I first began writing this blog. If you dare to troll through the early archives there’s no doubt that the writing in there is of lower quality, much of it to do with me still trying to find my voice in this medium. Now, some 1300+ posts later, the hours I’ve invested in developing this blog my writing has improved dramatically and every day I feel far more confident in my abilities to churn out a blog post that meets a certain quality threshold. I attribute much of that to my dedication to writing at least once a day, an activity which has seen me invest thousands of hours into improving my craft. Indeed I felt that this was something of an embodiment of the 10,000 hour rule at work, something that newly released research says isn’t the main factor at play.

Variance Due to Deliberate PracticeThe  study conducted by researchers at Princeton University (full text available here) attempted to discern just how much of an impact deliberate practice had on performance. They conducted a meta analysis of 150 studies that investigated the relationship between these two variables and classified them along major domains as well as the methodology used to gather performance data. The results show that whilst deliberate practice can improve your performance within a certain domain (and which domain its in has a huge effect on how great the improvement is) it’s not the major contributor in any case. Indeed the vast majority of improvements are due to factors that reside outside of deliberate practice which seemingly throws the idea of 10,000 hours worth of practice being the key component to mastering something.

To be clear though the research doesn’t mean that practice is worthless, indeed in pretty much every study conducted there’s a strong correlation between increased performance and deliberate practice. What this study does show though is that there are factors outside of deliberate practice which have a greater influence on whether or not your performance improves. Unfortunately determining what those factors are was out of the scope of the study (it’s only addressed in passing in the final closing statements of the report) but there are still some interesting conclusions to be made about how one can go about improving themselves.

Where deliberate practice does seem to help with performance is with activities that have a predictable outcome. Indeed performances for routine activities show a drastic improvement when deliberate practice is undertaken whilst unpredictable things, like aviation emergencies, show less improvement. We also seem to overestimate our own improvement due to practice alone as studies that relied on people remembering past performances showed a much larger improvement than studies that logged performances over time. Additionally for the areas which showed the least amount of improvement due to deliberate practice it’s likely that there’s no good definition for “practice” within these domains, meaning it’s much harder to quantify what needs to be practiced.

So where does this leave us? Are we all doomed to be good at only the things which our nature defines for us, never to be able to improve on anything? As far as the research shows no, deliberate practice might not be the magic cure all for improving but it is a great place to start. What we need to know now is what other factors play into improving performances within their specific domains. For some areas this is already well defined (I can think of many examples in games) but for other domains that are slightly more nebulous in nature it’s entirely possible that we’ll never figure out the magic formula. Still at least now you don’t worry so much about the hours you put in, as long as you still, in fact, put them in.

 

Space Launch System Configurations

NASA Approves SLS, Probably Shouldn’t Have.

Ever since the retirement of the Space Shuttle the USA has been in what’s aptly describes as a “launch gap”. As of right now NASA is unable to launch its own astronauts into space and instead relies completely on the Russian Soyuz missions to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. This isn’t a particularly cheap exercise, coming in at some $70 million per seat, making even the bloated shuttle program look competitive by comparison. NASA had always planned to develop another launch system, originally slated to be dubbed Ares and developed completely from scratch, however that was later scrapped in favour of the Space Launch System which would use many of the Shuttle’s components. This was in hope that the launch gap could be closed considerably, shortening the time NASA would be reliant on external partners.

Space Launch System Configurations

News comes today that NASA has approved the funding for the project which is set to total some $6.8 billion over the next 4 years. The current schedule has the first launch of the SLS pegged for some time in 2017 with the first crewed mission to follow on around 4 years later. Developing a whole new human rated launch capability in 7 years is pretty good by any standards however it also begs the question as to whether or not NASA should be in the business of designing and manufacturing launch capabilities like this. When Ares and SLS  were first designed the idea of a private company being able to provide this capability was still something of a fantasy however that’s no longer the case today.

Indeed SpaceX isn’t too far off deploying their own human rated craft that will be capable of delivering astronauts to the ISS, Moon and beyond. Their current schedule has the first crewed Dragon flight occurring no sooner than 2015 which, even with some delays here and there, would still have it happening several years before the SLS makes its manned debut. Looking at the recent Dragon V2 announcement it would seem like they’re well on their way to meeting those deadlines which will give the Dragon several years of in-flight usage before the SLS is even available. With NASA being far more open to commercial services than they used to be it does make you wonder what their real desire for the SLS is.

There’s an argument to be made that NASA has requirements that commercial providers aren’t willing to meet which, when it comes to human rated vessels, is mostly true. Man rating a launch system is expensive due to the numerous requirements you have to meet so most opt to just not do it. SpaceX is the notable exception to this as they’ve committed to developing the man rated Dragon even if NASA doesn’t commit to buying launches on it. Still the cash they’re dropping on the SLS could easily fund numerous Dragon launches, enough to cover NASA off for the better part of a decade if my finger in the air maths is anything to go by.

The only argument which I feel is somewhat valid is that NASA’s requirement for heavy lift outstrips pretty much any commercially available launch system available today. There’s really not much call for large single payloads unless you’re shipping humans into space (we’ve got an awfully long list of requirements compared to our robotic cousins) and so most of the big space contractors haven’t built one. SpaceX has plans to build rockets capable of doing this (the Falcon XX) although their timeframes are somewhat nebulos at this point in time. Still you could use a small portion of the cash set aside for the SLS in order to incentivise the private market to develop that capability as NASA has done quite successfully with its other commercial programs.

I’ve long been of the mind that NASA needs to get out of the launch system business so they can focus their time and resources on pushing the envelope of our capabilities in space. The SLS might fill a small niche that’s currently unserviced but it’s going to take its sweet time in getting there and will likely not be worth it when it finally arrives.

Lyne Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Lyne: Connect All The Things.

I was never really a big fan of doing books of puzzles, like crosswords or sudoku. I understand the attraction to some degree, once you’ve got a modicum of skill in doing them such puzzles can be relaxing as you don’t really think about much else while you’re doing them. Since I’m primarily an escapist when it comes games the idea of doing puzzle only games like Lyne didn’t really appeal to me at first but after playing for a couple hours it became more of an optimization problem, one which had a very simple set of rules that could create rather complicated problems.

Lyne Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

The basic premise of Lyne is simple, there’s a bunch of different coloured shapes and all you need to do is connect them all together. All of the shapes of one colour must be connected together so you can’t be tricky and skip certain blocks to make your life easier. Additionally every path can only be crossed once which means that the path you take for one colour will determine what paths are left available for the remaining ones. The number of puzzles available in Lyne is rather staggering, on the order of 600 or more by my guess, which should be enough to keep even the most intrepid puzzle solver busy for a while.

Lyne is incredibly simplistic in its aesthetic, using solid colours and distinct shapes for everything. At first I thought the unlocking of additional colour palettes was a bit of a gimmicky way of getting you to play for longer but they actually function really well as a visual break. Since the style is so basic everything starts to blend into each other after a while so changing up the colours helps to stop that from happening. The pallette unlocks seem to be spaced out evenly enough so that you’ll get a new one before you get bored of your current one which, I admit, did make me play for longer than I’d first anticipated.

Lyne Review Screenshot Wallpaper Too Many Options

The puzzle sets are well thought out, starting out easy in order to introduce the concept for that set and then ramping up the difficulty as you make your way through each of the puzzles. For me personally the most challenging ones always seemed to be somewhere in the middle of the set, usually because I was missing some trick that would enable me to progress through it. Indeed the more puzzles you do the more patterns you’ll recognise , something which can both simplify and complicate a puzzle for you. For me some basic rules like finding out which paths must go somewhere and dividing the board up by colour helped to get me past some of the trickier puzzles although even those could some times leave me in a tizzy.

The daily puzzles were an interesting aside from the regular sets as, from what I could tell, they are generated on the day using some kind of algorithm. In fact I think this is how most of the puzzles were likely generated however the sets have been guided somewhat by the developer whilst these sets seem to be far more random, with some of them being incredibly easy whilst the others horrendously complex. Still if you’re the kind of person that likes doing a puzzle daily then this will be a brilliant little feature for you as it’s almost guaranteed that these puzzles will be unique every day.

Lyne Review Screenshot Wallpaper Daily Challenge

Lyne is an interesting minimalistic puzzle game that looks deceptively simple on first look. The mechanics are simple enough that you can figure it out without instruction but, like many things with simple origins, mastering those rules will prove to be far more challenging. Like all games of this nature though it does tend to become somewhat repetitive after a while however if you’re the kind of person who thrives on technical challenges like this then Lyne will provide endless hours of enjoyment.

Rating: 7.5/10

Lyne is available PC, Windows Phone, Android and iOS right now for $2.99, $2.49, $2.99 and $2.99 respectively. Game was played on the PC with4 hours of total play time and 27% of the achievements unlocked.

Windows Threshold

Windows Threshold: Burying Windows 8 for the Sake of 9.

It’s hard to deny that Windows 8 hasn’t been a great product for Microsoft. In the 2 years that it’s been on the market it’s managed to secure some 12% of total market share which sounds great on the surface however its predecessor managed to nab some 40% in a similar time frame. The reasons behind this are wide and varied however there’s no mistaking that a large part of it was the Metro interface which just didn’t sit well with primarily desktop users. Microsoft, to their credit, has responded to this criticism by giving consumer what they want but like Vista the product that Windows 8 today is overshadowed by it’s rocky start. It seems clear now that Microsoft is done with Windows 8 as a platform and is now looking towards its successor, codenamed Windows Threshold.

Windows ThresholdNot a whole lot is known about what Threshold will entail but what is known points to a future where Microsoft is distancing itself from Windows 8 in the hopes of getting a fresh start. It’s still not known whether or not Threshold will become known as Windows 9 (or whatever name they might give to it) however the current release date is slated for sometime next year, on time with Microsoft’s new dynamic release schedule. This would also put it at 3 years after the initial release of Windows 8 which also ties into the larger Microsoft product cycle. Indeed most speculators are pegging Threshold to be much like the Blue release of last year with all Microsoft products receiving an update upon release. What interests me about this release isn’t so much of what it contains, more what it’s going to take away from Windows 8.

Whilst Microsoft has made inroads to making Windows 8 feel more like its predecessors the experience is still deeply tied to the Metro interface. Pressing the windows key doesn’t bring up the start menu and Metro apps are still have that rather obnoxious behaviour of taking over your entire screen. Threshold however is rumoured to do away with this, bringing back the start menu with a Metro twist that will allow you to access those kinds of applications without having to open up the full interface. Indeed for desktop systems, those that are bound to a mouse and keyboard, Metro will be completely disabled by default. Tablets and other hybrid devices will still retain the UI with the latter switching between modes depending on what actions occur (switch to desktop when docked, Metro when in tablet form).

From memory such features were actually going to make up parts of the next Windows 8 update, not the next version of Windows itself. Microsoft did add some similar features to Windows 8 in the last update (desktop users now default to desktop on login, not Metro) but the return of the start menu and the other improvements are seemingly not for Windows 8 anymore. Considering just how poor the adoption rates of Windows 8 has been this isn’t entirely surprising and Microsoft might be looking for a clean break away from Windows 8 in order to drive better adoption of Threshold.

It’s a strategy that has worked well for them in the past so it shouldn’t be surprising to see Microsoft doing this. For those of us who actually used Vista (after it was patched to remedy all the issues) we knew that Windows 7 was Vista under the hood, it was just visually different enough to break past people’s preconceptions about it. Windows Threshold will likely be the same, different enough from its direct ancestor that people won’t recognise it but sharing the same core that powered it. Hopefully this will be enough to ensure that Windows 7 doesn’t end up being the next XP as I don’t feel that’s a mistake Microsoft can afford to keep repeating.

 

Samsung 850 Pro V-NAND SSD

Samsung’s V-NAND Has Arrived, and It’s Awesome.

When people ask me what one component on their PC they should upgrade my answer is always the same: get yourself a SSD. It’s not so much the raw performance characteristics that make the upgrade worth it, more all those things that many people hate about computers seem to melt away when you have a SSD behind it. All your applications load near instantly, your operating system feels more responsive and those random long lock ups where your hard drive seems to churn over for ages simply disappears. However the one drawback is their size and cost, being an order of magnitude above the good old spinning rust. Last year Samsung announced their plans to change that with V-NAND and today they deliver on that promise.

Samsung 850 Pro V-NAND SSD

The Samsung 850 Pro is the first consumer drive to be released with V-NAND technology and is available in sizes up to 1TB. The initial promise of 128Gbit per chip has unfortunately fallen a little short of its mark with this current production version only delivering around 86Gbit per chip. This is probably due to economical reasons as the new chips under the hood of this SSD are smaller than the first prototypes which helps to increase the yield per wafer. Interestingly enough these chips are being produced on an older lithography process, 30nm instead of the current standard 20nm for most NAND chips. That might sound like a step back, and indeed it would be for most hardware, however the performance of the drive is pretty phenomenal, meaning that V-NAND is going to get even better with time.

Looking at the performance reviews the Samsung 850 Pro seems to be a top contender, if not the best, in pretty much all of the categories. In the world of SSDs having consistently high performance like this across a lot of categories is very unusual as typically a drive manufacturer will tune performance to a certain profile. Some favour random reads, others sustained write performance, but the Samsung 850 Pro seems to do pretty much all of them without breaking a sweat. However what really impressed me about the drive wasn’t so much the raw numbers, it was how the drive performed over time, even without the use of TRIM.

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SSDs naturally degrade in performance over time, not due to the components wearing out but due to the nature of how they read and write data. Essentially it comes down to blocks needing to be checked to see if they’re free or not before they can be written to, a rather costly process. A new drive has all blank space which means these checks don’t need to be done but over time they’ll get into unknown states due to all the writing and rewriting. The TRIM command tells SSDs that certain blocks have been freed up, allowing the drive to flag them as unused, recovering some of the performance. The graph above shows what happens when the new Samsung 850 Pro reaches that performance degradation point even without the use of TRIM. If you compare that to other SSDs this kind of consistent performance almost looks like witchcraft but it’s just the V-NAND technology showing one of its many benefits.

Indeed Samsung is so confident in these new drives it’s giving all of them a 10 year warranty, something you can’t find even on good old spinning rust drives anymore. I’ll be honest when I first read about V-NAND I had a feeling that the first drives would likely be failure ridden write offs, like most new technologies are. However this new drive from Samsung appears to be the evolutionary step that all SSDs need to take as this first iteration device is just walking all over the competition. I was already sold on a Samsung SSD for my next PC build but I think an 850 Pro just made the top of my list.

Now if only those G-SYNC monitors could come out already, then I’d be set to build my next gen gaming PC.

Google Cardboard

Google’s Cardboard: VR For The Masses.

I can remember my first encounter with virtual reality way back in the 90s. It was a curiosity more than anything else, something that was available at this one arcade/pizza place in the middle of town. You’d go in and there it would be, two giant platforms containing people with their heads strapped into oversized head gear. On the screens behind them you could see what they were seeing, a crude polygonal world inhabited by the other player and a pterodactyl. I didn’t really think much of it at the time, mostly since I couldn’t play it anywhere but there (and that was an hour drive away) but as I grew older I always wondered what had become of that technology. Today VR is on the cusp of becoming mainstream and it looks like Google wants to thrust it into the limelight.

Google Cardboard

Meet Google Cardboard, the ultra low cost virtual reality headset that Google gave out to every attendee at I/O this year. It’s an incredibly simple idea, using your smartphone’s screen and to send different images to your eyes. Indeed if you were so inclined a similar system could be used to turn any screen into a VR headset, although the lenses would need to be crafted for the right dimensions. With that in mind the range of handsets that Google Cardboard supports is a little limited, mostly to Google Nexus handsets and some of their closely related cousins, but I’m sure that future incarnations that support a wide range of devices won’t be too far off. Indeed if the idea has piqued your interest enough you can get an unofficial version of it for the low cost of $25, a bargain if you’re looking to dabble with VR.

Compared to the original OculusVR specs most smartphones are more than capable of driving Google Cardboard with an acceptable level of performance. My current phone, the Sony Xperia Z, has a full 1080p resolution and enough grunt to run some pretty decent 3D applications. That combined with the bevy of sensors that are in most modern smartphones make Google Cardboard a pretty brilliant little platform for testing out what you can do with VR. Of course that also means the experience you can get with this will vary wildly depending on what handset you have but for those looking for a cheap platform to validate ideas on it’s hard to argue against it.

Of course this begs the question as to what Google’s larger plan is for introducing this concept to the world. Ever since the breakaway success that was the OculusVR it’s been obvious that there’s consumer demand for VR and it only seems to be increasing as time goes on. However most applications are contained solely within the games industry with only a few interesting experiments (like Living with Lag) breaking outside that mould. There’s a ton of augmented reality applications on Android which could potentially benefit from widespread adoption of something like Cardboard, however beyond that I’m not so sure.

I think it’s probably a gamble on Google’s part as history has proven that throwing out a concept to the masses is a great way to root out innovative ideas. Google might not have any solid plans for developing VR of this nature themselves but the community that arises around the idea could prove a fruitful place for applications that no one has thought of before. I had already committed myself to a retail version of an Oculus when it came out however so whilst Cardboard might be a curiosity my heart is unfortunately promised to another.

Facebook Headquarters

Facebook is Being Creepy Again, But They Didn’t Have to be.

In the now decade long history of Facebook we’ve had numerous scandals around the ideas of privacy and what Facebook should and should not be doing with the data they have on us. For the most part I’ve tended to side with Facebook as whilst I share everyone’s concerns use of the platform is voluntary in nature and should you highly object to what they’re doing you’re free to not use them. The fact is that any service provided to you free of charge needs to make revenue somewhere and for Facebook that comes from your data. However this doesn’t seem to stop people from being outraged at something Facebook does with almost clockwork regularity, the most recent of which was tinkering with people’s feeds to see if emotions could spread like the plague.

Facebook HeadquartersThe results are interesting as they show that emotions can spread through social networks without the need for direct interaction, it can happen by just reading status updates. The experimenters sought to verify this by manipulating the news feeds of some 689,000 Facebook users to skew the emotional content in one direction and then saw how the user’s emotional state fared further down the line. The results confirmed their initial hypothesis showing that emotions expressed on Facebook can spread to others. Whilst it’s not going to cause a pandemic of ecstasy or sudden whirlwind of depression cases worldwide the evidence is there to suggest that your friend’s sentiment on Facebook does influence your own emotional state.

Whilst it’s always nice to get data that you can draw causal links from (like with this experiment) I do wonder why they bothered to do this when they could’ve done much more in depth analysis on a much larger subset of the data. They could have just as easily taken a much larger data set, classified it in the same way and then done the required analysis. This somewhat sneaks around the rather contentious issue of informed consent when it comes to experiments like this as there’s no indication that Facebook approached these individuals before including them in the experiment.

Indeed that’s probably the only issue I have with Facebook doing this as whilst the data they have is theirs to do with as they see fit (within the guidelines of privacy regulations) attempting to alter people’s emotional state is a little too far. The people behind the study have came out and said that the real impact wasn’t that great and it was all done in aid of making their product better something which I’m sure is of little comfort to those who object to the experiment in the first place. Whilst the argument can be made that Facebook already manipulates users feeds (since you don’t see everything that your friends post anymore) doing so for site usability/user engagement is one thing, performing experiments on them without consent is another.

If Facebook wants to continue these kinds of experiments then they should really start taking steps to make sure that its user base is aware of what might be happening to them. Whilst I’m sure people would still take issue to Facebook doing widespread analysis on user’s emotional state it would be a far cry from what they did with this experiment, one that would likely not run afoul of established experimental standards. The researchers have said they’ll take the reaction to these results under advisement which hopefully means that they might be more respectful of their user’s data in the future. However since we’re going on 10 years of Facebook doing things like this I wouldn’t hold my breath for immediate change.

 

Always Sometimes Monsters Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Always Sometimes Monsters: Life’s a Bitch.

It used to be that telling a story through the video game medium was an impossible task for those who weren’t versed in the multitudes of skills required to pull it off. However the development of game making tools like, funnily enough, Game Maker have enabled many brilliant stories to be told. Such games are often very simplistic in nature however complex game mechanics aren’t a requirement for a good story and the indie game industry has flourished by embodying this principle. Always Sometimes Monsters is one such game, putting the player in numerous morally ambiguous situations and letting the player decided their ultimate fate.

Always Sometimes Monsters Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

This is it, your big break. Ever since college you’ve known that you want to be a writer and finally you’ve landed a deal with a big name publisher. With the love of your life by your side it seems that nothing can go wrong and the future you always dreamed of is within your grasp. Fast forward a couple years though and everything has fallen apart, you still haven’t finished your novel and your soul mate is marrying someone else. What do you do? Do you wallow in self pity, pining for the future you could have had? Or do you risk everything to be with them, abandoning what remains of your life to pursue that dream you once held in your arms? Your decisions will shape your destiny and, ultimately, what kind of person the world thinks you are.

Always Sometimes Monsters was created in RPG Maker which has brought us other amazing based story games like To The Moon. Due to the limitations of the RPG Maker engine Always Sometimes Monsters has a similar visual feel to that other games based on it although it does have its own distinct style. The animations are extremely rudimentary with a lot of the actions just being the walk cycle repeated. It’s hard for me to judge Always Sometimes Monsters harshly on its simplistic nature as that’s not the reason you’ll be playing it but after playing so many similar titles it was one aspect that stood out to me.

Always Sometimes Monsters Review Screenshot Wallpaper Shooting Star

At its heart Always Sometimes Monsters is an adventure game, one where you’re forever on the quest to get enough cash to move you along to the next location. There’s numerous ways for you to scrounge up the dough you need from taking odd jobs at the employment office, doing favours for people or even more nefarious means. Along the way you’ll meet many of your long time friends who fill in the backstory of your life and how you interact with them will determine how everything pans out. For the most part there doesn’t appear to be an outright good and bad choice, leaving it up to you to determine where your moral boundaries lie.

Indeed Always Sometimes Monsters prides itself on the ambiguity of the decisions you’ll be making and how they affect the final outcome of the story. You do have a lot of power to alert the story how you see fit however the mechanics of how it works is somewhat cumbersome. There are numerous points where you’ll be asked a question you would have no idea what the actual answer was (like how you and the love of your life broke up) and the answer you give actually determines what happened. I’d feel better about it if there was a “true” reason and the difference between that and your response determined how some characters reacted to you but actually determining what happened with a single response just didn’t feel right.

Always Sometimes Monsters Review Screenshot Wallpaper DISPENSE PORK

There were several moments in Always Sometimes Monsters where I felt myself being drawn in, where the characters started to feel real and their problems echoed with those I’d encountered in my own life. However those moments are few and far between as Always Sometimes Monsters seems intent on beating you over the head with repetitive, menial tasks in order to further the story. The long quest for getting money at each section often leads you to taking on jobs that are incredibly boring and take up an inordinate amount of time. Then, by the time you actually get to another one of these nuggets of brilliant writing, you’re either angry or bored and the impact is lost on you. It got so bad that I tried to find a way to crack open the save files to give myself unlimited funds, just so I could actually enjoy the game.

However the numerous choices in the game unfortunately don’t add up to a cohesive story and the ending feels like a grab bag of the results of the various events you were involved in over the course of the story. Indeed probably one of the worst things is when you go through your journal and are asked, explicitly, how you feel about every single event in the game. The heavy reliance on choice is obviously done to make the game experience more personal to you, as everyone’s experience will be different depending on so many factors, however it just makes Always Sometimes Monsters story feel confused, disjointed and ultimately unsatisfying. For a game that has not much else to rely on messing up the story means the core experience unfortunately falls flat on its face.

Always Sometimes Monsters Review Screenshot Wallpaper Sunrise

Always Sometimes Monsters strived to provide an experience where the player was in control of their own destiny but unfortunately delivered an experience that fell short of its ambition. I wanted to like it, I really did, as those moments where the story shone through were truly great but they were so few and far between that the larger flaws of the gameplay and storyline are what leave a lasting impression. Your mileage may vary however, as many fellow reviewers have noted, but unfortunately for this writer Always Sometimes Monsters isn’t a game I can recommend.

Rating: 6.5/10

Always Sometimes Monsters is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 7 hours with 100% of the achievements unlocked. 

Nitrogen’s Crystalline Formation is Astonishingly Cool.

Liquid nitrogen is a scientific staple that I’m sure we’re pretty much all familiar with. It’s a great demonstration of how the melting and boiling points can vary wildly and, of course, everyone loves shattering a frozen banana or two. However seeing the other stages of elemental gases is typically impossible as getting the required temperature is beyond the reach of most high school science labs. However there is a trick that we can use to, in essence, trick nitrogen into forming a solid: reducing the pressure to a near vacuum. The results of doing so are just incredible with the nitrogen behaving in some really peculiar ways:

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The initial stages of the nitrogen transitioning into a solid is pretty standard with the reduced pressure resulting in the superheated boiling, plunging the temperature of the remaining liquid. The initial freezing is also something many will be familiar with as it closely mimics what happens when water freezes (although lacking water’s peculiar property of expanding when freezing). The sudden, and rather explosive, crystalline formation after that however took me by surprise as I’ve never really seen anything of that nature before. The closest thing I could think of was the fracturing of a Prince Rupert’s Drop although the propagation of the nitrogen crystalline structure seems to be an order of magnitude or two slower than that.

What really got me about this video is that it wasn’t done by a science channel or vlogger, it’s done by a bunch of chefs. Liquid nitrogen has been used in various culinary activities for over a century, mostly due to its extreme low temperatures which form much smaller ice crystals in the food that it chills. It should come as no surprise really as there’s been a huge surge in the science behind cooking with the field of molecular gastronomy taking off in recent decades. It just goes to show that interesting science can be done almost anywhere you care to look and its applications are likely far more wide reaching than you’d first think.

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Recycling Electromagnetic Energy? iFind, Surely You Jest.

If you’re reading this article, which is only available through the Internet, then you’re basking in a tsunami of electromagnetic radiation. Don’t worry though, the vast majority of these waves are so low power that they don’t make it through the first layer of your skin before dissipating harmlessly. Still they do carry power, enough so that this article can worm its way from the server all the way to the device that you’re reading it on. Considering just how pervasive wireless signals are in our modern lives it then follows that there’s a potential source of energy there, one that’s essentially free and nigh on omnipresent. Whilst this is true, to some extent, actually harvesting a useful amount of it is a best impractical but that hasn’t stopped people from trying.

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If you’re a longtime fan of Mythbusters like myself you’ll likely remember the episode they did on Free Energy back in 2004. In that episode they tested a myriad of devices to generate electricity, one of them being a radio wave extractor that managed to power half of a wristwatch. In an unaired segment they even rigged up a large coil of wire and placed it next to a high voltage power line and were able to generate a whopping 8mV. The result of all this testing was to show that, whilst there is some power available for harvesting, it’s not a usable quantity by any stretch of the imagination.

So you can imagine my surprise when a product like iFind makes claims like “battery free” and “never needs recharging” based around the concept of harvesting energy from the air.

The fundamental functionality of the iFind isn’t anything new, it’s just yet another Bluetooth tag system so you don’t lose whatever you attach the tag to. It’s claim to fame, and one that’s earned it a rather ridiculous half a million dollars, is that it doesn’t have a battery (which it does, unless you want to get into a semantic argument about what “battery” actually means) and that it charges off the electromagnetic waves around you. They’ve even gone as far to provide some technical documentation that shows the power generated from various signals. Suffice to say I think their idea is unworkable at best and, at worst, outright fraud.

The graphs they show in this comment would seem to indicate that it’s capable of charging even under very weak signal conditions, all the way down to -6dBm. That sounds great in principle until you take in account what a typical charging scenario for a device like this would be, like the “ideal” one that they talk about in some of their literature: a strong wifi signal. The graph shown above is the signal strength of my home wifi connection (an ASUS RT-N66U for reference) with the peak readings being from when I had my phone right next to the antennas. That gives a peak power output of some -22dBM, which sounds fine right? Well since those power ratings are logarithmic in nature the amount of power output is about 200 times weaker which puts the actual charge time at about 1000 days. If you had a focused RF source you could probably provide it with enough power to charge quickly but I doubt anyone has them in their house.

There’s also the issue of what kind of power source they have as the size precludes it from being anything hefty and they’re just referring to it as a “power bank”. Non-rechargeable batteries that fit within that form factor are usually on the order of a couple hundred milliamps with rechargeable variants having a much smaller capacity. Similar devices like Tile, which includes a non-rechargeable non-replaceable battery, lasts about a year before it dies which suggests a minimum power drain of at least a couple mAh per day. Considering iFind is smaller and rechargeable I wouldn’t expect it to last more than a couple weeks before giving it up, Of course since there’s no specifications on either of them it’s hard to judge but the laws of physics don’t differ between products.

However I will stop short of calling iFind a scam, more I think it’s a completely misguided exercise that will never deliver on its promises. They’ve probably designed something that does work under their lab circumstances but the performance will just not hold up in the real world. There’s a lot of questions that have been asked of them that are still unanswered which would go a long way to assuring people that what they’re making isn’t vaporware. Until they’re forthcoming with more information however I’d steer clear of giving them your money as it’s highly unlikely that the final product will perform as advertised.