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Thursday, September 29, 2005

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China: Getting the Facts

Category: Commentary

To my faithful readers, I apologize that this week is not about technology. However, I feel that it is important to finally document the abuses of human rights that are applied to the Chinese people every day. There's a lot of misunderstanding on the issues (something I was a part of) and I'd like to set the record straight.

China has been in the news a great deal as of late as they continue to improve their "Great Firewall of China" and work with U.S. companies to restrict free speech. This action has led to a powerful argument about whether China should be allowed to dictate to American companies or not. Should the words "democracy" and "freedom" be removed from the Chinese lexicon?

When I first began paying close attention to the issue, my opinion was "Yes, the Chinese government has a right to control its own borders. They have no law against restriction of speech." That isn't to say that I agreed with the idea of censorship, but it is what the current government dictates, and what the people accepted.

Except for one problem, that is. The people of China never accepted a lack of free speech.

In arguing the point, a very informative fellow pointed me to a copy of the Constitution of the People's Republic of China. Now to be clear, I had never known that the Chinese had a Constitution. I think that it's generally assumed that Communist States simply impose their rule without any true guarantee to the people of their rights. But in 1982 the People's Republic of China (hereafter referred to as "PRC") drafted and ratified a Constitution granting the people very broad rights and privileges.

Free Speech

Probably the most critical right any government can guarantee its people is the right to free speech. It was so important to the United States, that it was made the first amendment to the Constitution. The Founding Fathers knew from early case law and criticism that the only way to keep a nation free was to make sure that the people could know what the government was doing and speak out against it.

Take careful note, however, that I said "guarantee", not "grant". The ability to speak your mind is a basic right that humans have. It can only be taken away, not granted. Besides taking the right away, a government can attempt to protect that right and guarantee that it can always be exercised.

There will always be limits, of course, but it's important to respond to excess "free speech" with an even hand. For example, if I stand up in a restaurant and begin to loudly shout about government injustices, that is out of line. Thankfully, it is likely to only get me thrown out or brought up on a minor charge of disturbing the peace.

Now consider the PRC Constitution for a moment. Article 35 clearly states:

Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.

It also states in Article 41 that the people of China may freely criticize their government in an open forum:

Citizens of the People's Republic of China have the right to criticize and make suggestions to any state organ or functionary.

Yet in the news we constantly hear that the words "democracy" and "freedom" are being filtered and removed from the speech of the Chinese people. Blogs that formerly were a good way of telling other countries about the Chinese injustices are now shut down and silenced. As a Chinese citizen you may be subject to arrest and significant jail time if you're caught violating the PRC government's new rules on speech.

Consider the protesters in Tiananmen Square. They were peaceful protesters who wanted an audience with the government. Instead, hundreds (if not thousands) of protesters were killed.

Is this the free speech the Chinese government "guarantees" its people? Is this the right to criticize the government that the Chinese government "guarantees"? It doesn't seem like much of a guarantee at all, does it?


Another right that the PRC "guarantees" its people in its constitution is the right to practice religion free from fear of government reprisal. Now I understand that many readers may have strong feelings for or against religion. But part of freedom is allowing people to believe and practice whatever they want, regardless of what you think about it. For example, I may not believe in the Muslim religion, nor may I even approve of it. In fact, after the September 11th attacks on my country, it can be very difficult to separate the people who committed the heinous acts from the religion that they purported to believe in.

Yet as a US Citizen it is my duty to protect the beliefs of others, as long as they are exercising personal freedoms and not freedoms over others. (This is an important distinction. If exercising your freedom takes away freedom from others, it cannot be granted.) What that means is that I treat the people who I know are Muslim with the respect they deserve regardless of their religion. And should anyone else attempt to bridge their freedom, I am bound to defend them so that we all can be free.

Now consider Article 36 of the PRC Constitution:

Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.

Does it not say that people are free to practice any religion free from government reprisal? Of course, the PRC interpretation is "any religion except Falun Gong". Or Catholic Christianity. Or Tibetan Buddhism. Or any other religion for that matter.

You see, as soon as a follower of a religion does something that the PRC state disagrees with, the entire religion is made illegal. Yes, you heard that right, the entire religion. Personal responsibility for one's own actions is not taken into account. Rather, the religion is immediately blamed and outlawed. In this way, the PRC doesn't have to support any religion they don't want to. Oh, and its for the protection of the people against themselves.

Words Without Meaning

It is easy for the PRC government to justify their position thanks to Article 51 of the PRC Constitution:

The exercise by citizens of the People's Republic of China of their freedoms and rights may not infringe upon the interests of the state

In a single paragraph, the PRC declares that the entire document is meaningless, and that rights are granted or revoked at their whim.

But is it really that easy?

You see, the PRC government never guaranteed the people of China any rights, because they never guaranteed that they themselves can be held accountable. And without accountability, their Constitution is just words on paper.

In the US, there are sets of checks and balances that ensure that the governments power can be overturned if abused. The first line of that defense is the court system. If Congress attempts to pass an unconstitutional law, concerned citizens can bring a suit to the Supreme Court to strike down that law. If the President attempts to overstep his authority, the Supreme Court can again rule the actions out of line and command the resources of the US against him.

The second line of defense is the organization of the government and military. Power is distributed throughout the government to ensure that no one person or group of people can wield complete and tyrannical control. In fact the various parts of the government are actually set against each other to prevent consolidation of power. Similarly, the military is intentionally divided, again to prevent power from consolidating and the military taking over.

The third line of defense is the much maligned second amendment. During the revolutionary war, the well armed Minutemen were highly successful in driving back the British forces. The Founding Fathers believed that without easy access to weapons, the US could have never managed to free itself from the British government. So they wrote the second amendment of the Constitution to ensure that the people could overthrow the government should it ever become corrupt beyond repair.

The fourth and final line of defense ends up being the true first line of defense: The freedom-loving people. While everyone likes to disagree on what exactly freedom means and how far it extends, nearly every citizen of the US wants to preserve freedom. On the small scale this means that the people of the US try to balance the system by electing representatives, voting on issues, running for office, and using the courts. On a larger scale, if an all out war started between the military and the people, you can be certain that a large portion of the military would take the side of people.

So be glad for the freedoms you have in the U.S., and in other free countries around the world. And the next time someone tries to tell you that, "there's no law against limiting speech in China," point them to this page and help them learn the facts for themselves.

The author can be contacted at


Full Text of the PRC Constitution
China sets new rules on Internet news
Business at the Price of Freedom
Tiananmen Square protests of 1989
Yahoo! Helps Jail Chinese Man
UN Commission on Human Rights Violations in China

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Thursday, September 15, 2005

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Come Dream With Me: Stirling Engines (Part 1)

Category: Come Dream With Me

The "Come Dream With Me" series is intended to make light of new and promising technologies through works of fiction or direct dictations about where the future might lead. Whenever possible, links are given to support the technology behind the concepts presented in this series.

Mr. Jameson shook my hand with vigor as he greeted me to the Stirling Future Inc. test grounds. "So I understand that you're building the powerplant of the future?" I said.

"Indeed we are," he replied excitedly.

"We feel that we are on the cusp of making the internal combustion engine a thing of the past!"

A rather bold claim. The same one used by every crackpot and "free energy" nut in existence. I better be careful. "Well, I hope you have something to back that up with," I said with a friendly smile.

"Don't you worry," he replied with an equally friendly smile, "I think we can knock your socks off before we're through today. Let's start with our modified Cessna."

He then gestured to a plane sitting on the runway behind me, and motioned for us to start walking toward it. "Have you ever flown?" he queried.

"I've been up in a private plane a few times. I did a few articles on private aviation at one point."

"Then you know that the single most troublesome component in most prop planes is the powerplant. The difficulties in keeping the plane light enough to fly, yet powerful enough to maneuver means that the engines must be loud and run on extremely high octane fuels. It wasn't until recently that the airplane industry managed to cut back on lead usage in the fuels, and the change has had adverse effects on the economy of the fuel. Not to mention the price! Car buyers think they have it bad trying to purchase unleaded gasoline at over three dollars a gallon, but just imagine the prices we must pay for high octane fuels to keep our planes in the air! The petroleum prices have almost made it too expensive for the average aviation enthusiast to fly."

As we reached the small plane, Mr. Jameson reached out to pat the side of the cowl before turning back to look at me. "This baby, on the other hand, can burn anything. Regular gasoline, diesel, ethanol, propane, kerosine, anything. And it can do it more efficiently than the airplane fuels we use today. Not only that, but it can climb higher than any existing airplane thanks to the fact that its powerplant doesn't lose its efficiency at high altitudes as fast as its I.C.E. counterparts. Oh, and did I mention that it's quiet?"

"Quiet?", I asked. "You mean like less than 80 decibels? Quieter than most engines today?"

"No, I mean quiet as in less than a dozen decibels. The powerplant itself is so smooth that it's almost noiseless. Most of the sound produced by this craft is from the mechanical movement of air.

"Tell you what. How about we take her up for a quick flight, and I'll show you what I mean?"

If even half of what Mr. Jameson was telling me is true, then I would be foolhardy to pass up such an opportunity. This could be the chance to run a story on world changing technology! Still, I felt quite skeptical and wanted proof before I accepted his claims. So I nodded my head in an affirmative.

"Great! I'll get the plane pre-flighted, and we'll be ready to go in a few minutes!"

I stood back and watched as Mr. Jameson checked the fuel levels, the control surfaces, the landing gear, and other standard prep work done before any flight. I noticed that the plane was a standard two seater Cessna 150 or 152, with overhead wings for stability. The plane was probably 20 years old or so, but was difficult to tell thanks to excellent maintenance. Most likely Mr. Jameson simply dropped a new engine into a used plane for his tests.

Despite the fact that I was standing well clear of the prop, Mr. Jameson yelled "CLEAR!" before starting the plane. At first I thought that something was wrong, because the propeller did not immediately kick into action. Instead I noticed that it started moving slowly, then picking up speed. Within about a minute, the prop was spinning madly. Surprisingly, with almost no sound other than a mild hum!

"Didn't I tell you she was quiet?" he called out from the pilots seat.

"Hop in and put on your safety belt! There's a headset located next you there. We don't actually need them for muffling the sound, but it's always good to keep an ear on the air traffic.

"Now you see these pull levers down here? One of these is the throttle, which I currently have wide open. We'll need all the power we can muster for takeoff. Not to mention that the Stirling powerplant running this craft is very slow to respond to throttle changes. That's not good because we need all the power we can get for takeoffs and landings. Thus this second lever here.

"The second lever is a power bypass. It shunts power away from the propellor, and simply throws it away. Normally this would kill our fuel efficiency, but it turns out that it doesn't matter much since we only use it for takeoff and landing."

With that explanation, Mr. Jameson taxied the plane onto the runway and radioed the local airspace of his intent to takeoff. He let the engine idle for a few moments before adjusting the bypass lever. The prop leaped to full speed and sent us barreling down the runway. With plenty of runway left, Jameson pulled back on the wheel and took us off the ground. As we climbed, I was struck by the fact that the engine still made very little noise. In most airplanes the engine sounds like it's straining during a steep climb, but this "Stirling" engine of Jameson's seemed to be able to provide smooth power throughout the various maneuvers he performed. If anything, the engine seemed to be built for the air.

If the was one downside to the flight, it was the poor response of the throttle. Jameson left the engine at full throttle during the initial maneuvers when he was showing off. But once he cut back to a cruising throttle, it took a few seconds for the engine to ramp back up to the power levels he needed.

The landing was mostly uneventful, but quite smooth. Before Jameson took us in for a landing, he again throttled the engine to full power and used the bypass lever to adjust the prop speed. He then adjusted for the light wind with the control surfaces, and brought us in for a perfect landing.

"So what did you think?" he asked me.

"A very interesting ride! The engine was so quiet, I felt like we were in a glider! None of the teeth rattling vibrations that you normally feel, either. The one thing I did notice was that the engine response to throttle changes was a bit on the slow side. Is that a bug you're still trying to work out of the system?"

"No, I'm afraid not," replied Mr. Jameson. "The slow response is a side effect of the way that Stirling engines work. It takes time for the heat to transmit through the materials and produce a constant flow of power. As a result, a pilot in one of these planes must plan his maneuvers accordingly. However, we have fixed this problem in another one of our experiments. If you'll follow me, I think you'll find this very interesting."

With a smile he started off toward the garage attached to the Stirling Future building. Continued...

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Come Dream With Me: Stirling Engines (Part 2)

Category: Come Dream With Me

The "Come Dream With Me" series is intended to make light of new and promising technologies through works of fiction or direct dictations about where the future might lead. Whenever possible, links are given to support the technology behind the concepts presented in this series.

When we arrived at the garage, Jameson opened the garage door and pointed me to a car inside. It was surrounded by a variety of workbenches loaded with tools. I didn't recognize the make and model, but it was obviously a fairly modern car.

"Here we are," said Jameson. "We got it all put back together for your tour. I'm afraid we like to tinker with it to see if we can improve the mileage."

"This is some sort of custom, high-mileage car?" I asked.

"Sort of. It's actually a modified GM EV-1. The EV-1 was GM's attempt at producing a 100% electric car. To the customers who leased the car, it was a complete success. GM, on the other hand, decided that they would never make any money off the idea and began scrapping the cars. We managed to acquire a few by appealing to GM as a research organization.

"This particular vehicle you see in front of you has been modified from its stock configuration. We've added a Stirling engine to charge the batteries and directly power the vehicle, along with an advanced fuel system that allows it to run on Gasoline, Diesel, Ethanol, Bio-Diesel, Kerosine, and just about anything else we can get to burn with sufficient energy. We can even run the engine on hydrogen or propane, but that would require a very different form of fuel system."

"Wow. So what kind of mileage does this vehicle get?"

"On regular gasoline, we can get 40 miles to the gallon and up. We haven't gotten a proper certification on it yet because we're still working, but it's definitely more fuel efficient than a regular car," he answered.

"That doesn't sound too much better than today's hybrids," I commented.

"True," Jameson responded. "We're working to improve the engine efficiency, and hope to significantly increase the mileage. However, the real key to this vehicle is that it can accept so many forms of fuel. Petroleum products are becoming far too expensive to maintain the economy. The problem is that hydrogen fuel cells are still a long way off, and existing vehicles need special conversion kits to use a fuel other than gasoline. Since it's unlikely that we can expect all the gas stations to start supplying new fuels tomorrow, we need a plan that can phase out gasoline and phase in the alternatives.

"At the moment, ethanol looks like our best bet. It's a little less energy dense than gasoline, but not significantly so. And its per-gallon cost is competitive with gasoline's current prices. If we can encourage car owners to move to ethanol while still supporting gasoline for when it's unavailable, then we may be able to significantly reduce the price of gas as well as the price of ethanol. And for the long term, ethanol is fully renewable. All we need to do is farm more land."

"But doesn't ethanol cost more energy to farm than it produces?" I inquired.

"No, that's old data. Ethanol became energy positive sometime in the 70's when diesel tractors and better farming methods replaced the old gasoline driven tractors. There are a few researchers who cling to the old figures, but the consensus is that ethanol produces a significant energy surplus." he replied.

"Interesting. So what is the performance on a car like this? You said before that this car doesn't have the same response problems as the engine in the plane. How does it compare?"

"Tell you what," he offered, "why don't you climb into the passenger seat and I'll show you?"

"Alright," I agreed.

Inside, the car looked much like any late model sedan. It had all the standard features one would expect, such as a CD Player, radio, air conditioning, heater, front bucket seats, etc. Other than a small computer readout above the radio, I couldn't tell that it was anything other than a normal car.

"What's that?" I asked, pointing to the digital readout.

"That's a debugging tool we use for development. It shows the charge of the whole battery pack, monitors individual battery cells, reports the power output of the engine, informs me of power distribution, and keeps logs of the mileage attained. I know, it looks like something out of Knight Rider," he said with a smile.

Jameson had no key in his hand to start the engine. Instead he merely depressed the "start" button located near the stearing wheel. I didn't hear anything, but several status lights came on and began reporting information. Jameson eased the car out of the garage and onto a test track that surrounded the runway we took off from.

"Ready?" he asked.

Before I could ask for what, Jameson slammed his foot on the pedal, and we took off like a shot! I looked over at the speedometer and watched it climb smoothly toward 60 with no apparent pauses from shifting. Within barely a few seconds, Jameson leveled the car out at 65 miles an hour as we raced around the test track.

"Wow," I mouthed as I let a breath out. "This thing can certainly take off!"

"Yes it can," he replied proudly. "All the power is shunted through electric motors. Unlike internal combustion engines which are tuned to key areas of torque and horsepower, electric motors can produce nearly the same amount of torque across their entire range of operation. Which means not only a fast zero to sixty acceleration, but also a fast sixty to one hundred acceleration. Now the two don't quite compare as greater wind resistance requires more horsepower to overcome at higher speeds, but electric motors certainly have a lot more kick than direct motive power transmission.

"The same technology is used in most Diesel engine trains. The diesel engine is capable of producing power output well above 400 kilowatts (ed note: that's 536 horsepower we're talking!), but gearboxes are unable to transmit that much power to the wheels without self-destructing. The solution was to convert the rotational energy into electricity, then feed the electricity directly to the wheels. This allows modern diesel engines to smoothly apply power to prevent wheel slippage, like you see in the old movies with steam locomotives, and allow fast acceleration. I don't know if you remember from the last train you took, but I think you'll find that they are quite zippy for massing hundreds of metric tons when pulling cars."

"So the torque is more important than the horsepower?" I asked.

"Sort of," he replied. "Torque is a measure of how much horsepower is applied to the rotational axis. In cars, the ability to accelerate quickly tends to be more important than the maximum horsepower that the engine can put out. For most drivers, 50 horsepower is plenty. The problem is that we put 250 to 300 horsepower engines in cars to make up for the slow torque build-up curve of internal combustion engines. A more powerful engine can apply more torque on demand. Still, that's pretty hard on an engine and seriously reduces its life-span. That's why most engines only run for 100,000 to 200,000 miles of the car's lifetime.

"Now for towing, the maximum horsepower can often be more important than how fast the torque can be ramped up. Or in other words, I purchase a pickup truck to haul a 20 ton vehicle, not win drag races. In those cases, the slower acceleration produced by the slower ramp up of torque is less bothersome.

"So in the end, the horsepower is important. What's more important, though, is whether it can be used when it's needed. For road cars the answer has been 'no'. Yet the automotive engineers have done a bang up job of making the public think the answer was 'yes'!"

"You mentioned that the average driver only needs about 50 kilowatts of power. How much power does the Stirling engine in this car put out?" I asked inquisitively.

"Well, up until a few moments ago it wasn't putting out any power! We were driving entirely from battery power. As the car sensed the battery levels dropping, it ignited the Stirling engine and brought it up to speed. Right now," he said as he glanced at the debugging display, "it's producing its optimal 55 kilowatts of power. About 22 kilowatts are being directed to maintain our speed, while the remaining power is being used to charge the batteries. I'm afraid that I put something of a strain on the battery packs with that acceleration stunt. It topped out at about 90 kilowatts of power. Had the Stirling engine been running, it could have provided further power. Unfortunately, the motors can't accept much more than about 100 kilowatts of power, so the acceleration wouldn't have been too much more impressive."

"That's really fascinating," I commented. "What does GM think of this concept?"

"GM is interested, but they're keeping to themselves on this one. They did a few hybrid conversions themselves and decided that it wasn't worth the effort," he replied.

"Could you expand on that?"

"Sure. In the early to mid 90's, GM attempted to build a Stirling hybrid car. Apparently the program met the cleaner exhaust goals they had laid out, but apparently it failed to reach the thermal efficiencies they were looking for. I'm still unclear on what efficiencies they were looking for, so it may be that their failure was simply that the Stirling engines they tested weren't significantly more efficient than the gasoline engines they produced.

"In my case, I'm unconcerned about far greater efficiencies. The primary goal I'm trying to reach is a car that can phase through the alternative fuels coming to the marketplace. As long as the car performs on par or slightly better than existing vehicles, I'm happy.

"To get back on topic, though, GM tried for another type of hybrid in the late 90's. They took one of the EV-1 cars they had, the same type that we're sitting in right now, and added a gas turbine to provide hybrid power. That's where I got the idea of using an EV-1 for my research.

"As far as I know, the program was a complete success. Not only did it produce significantly lower emissions, but it got 60 miles to the gallon. As a result, GM was able to fit the car with a mere 6.5 gallon tank, giving it a range of 350 miles.

"GM never produced a commercial model of the gas turbine hybrid despite its seeming advantages. I don't know for certain why GM abandoned the technology, but my guess is that the turbines were simply too expensive. Chrysler messed with the idea for 30 years, convinced they could find a materials technology that would bring down the price. As you can guess, they never found a solution and abandoned the tech in the 80's. I have my doubts about anyone ever reviving the idea except for special cases such as military HumVees. Perhaps even some busses could afford to fit the engines."

"Interesting," I said. "And you believe that you won't have the same materials problem with Stirling engines?"

"No, not really," he replied as he steered the car off the track and toward where I was parked. "Stirling engines don't really push the limits of materials in any significant way. In fact, it's quite possible that they would have replaced steam locomotives had useful steel been invented earlier. Sadly, the iron technologies of the late nineteenth century were unsuitable for a proper Striling engine, so the idea was shelved. The real pain with Stirling engines is designing a properly tuned engine. Internal Combustion Engines have seen billions of dollars poured into their development. As such, they've become incredibly efficient and responsive for such an otherwise poor technology. Stirling engines have seen very little development in comparison, so we're trying to jump the gap to produce an engine comparable with what the auto manufacturers produce today.

"Well, here's your stop. I hope you enjoyed your visit."

"I enjoyed it very much, thank you. You've given me quite a bit to write about."

As I got out of the EV-1, I couldn't help but think that Jameson's work may forever change the world as we know it. If his technology succeeds, the world will finally be free from the bondage of ever-disappearing oil and high gas prices. Even better, the adoption of the Stirling engine could result in research and development that could produce more efficient engines than ever before. A new, untapped road for automotive vehicles. I hope he does succeed.

The author can be reached for questions, comments, and suggestions at


Wikipedia: Stirling Engine
Why Aviation Needs the Stirling Engine (Homepage)
STM Stirling Engine used in the GM HEV
Report on GM Stirling Vehicle
Ethanol Energy Balance (Homepage)
More Information on the Ethanol Energy Balance Debate
GM Turbine Car
Wikipedia: General Motors EV1

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Thursday, September 01, 2005

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The Synergistic PC

Category: Concepts

If there's one thing I've learned about Bill Gates, it's that he's a horrible predictor of the future. He may not have actually said that "640K is enough for everyone," but he did make a few other whopper predictions. Among them was his "vision" for the future of the Personal Computer as laid out in his book, The Road Ahead.

According to Mr. Gates, your computer was destined to merge with your television, and the TV would become a super-entertainment system of the future. Of course, this prediction conveniently ignored the technological problems and consequences, not the least of which was that the TV was a blurry, low resolution device. Even if he assumed that the future would produce high resolution televisions, there were simply too many problems with the idea of the television as the home computer. (As Gateway can attest from their failed experiments with the idea back in the 90's.)

Yet there is a certain allure to the idea of merging the television and the computer into one device. Especially when you consider the number of computers now equipped with DVD drives, and the sheer amount of illegal file sharing of movies and television programs. Perhaps the TV isn't going to become your computer, but there certainly is a demand for the internet to merge with your television.

Gates Got it Backwards

Five years ago I argued with my wife about the getting a television. She was against the concept because she was worried that the television would always be on, thus distracting the family from spending time together. Yet I had managed to pique her interest in Star Trek, and she wanted to be able to record and watch the old Star Trek episodes as much as I did. (Believe it or not, there wasn't really anything else on that we wanted to watch.)

So I managed to cut a deal with my wife. We'd get a television card for the computer, and use that in conjunction with super-basic cable (~$14.95 in California) to record and watch our shows. She agreed, so I purchased and installed the TV card. With the help of the free version of SlipStream PVR, we were soon recording all the Star Trek we wanted.

Which brings me to my point. Mr. Gates got it backwards. Televisions weren't going to become the computer, the computer was going to become the television! Even in '96 (when Mr. Gates published his book) this was apparent. TV Cards were affordable, and computers were capable of higher quality pictures than the "normal" TV screens of the day. Why would anyone bother merging the computer into a massive vacuum tube when they could just wait for better computer monitors?

So What is the Future?

Consider the following configuration for a moment:
  • Modern computer with a 250 GBs or more of SATA-300 Disk
  • 30 inch LCD TV with DVI inputs
  • TV Card with Remote Control
  • 5.1 Sound Card and Speakers (probably built into the MotherBoard)
Save for the 30 inch LCD TV, that should sound like a fairly normal PC today. The TV Card with the Remote might not be "standard", but it would add less than $50 to the price of the PC. But what about that 30 inch TV? What is that for? If you're thinking, "TV/OUT", then you're thinking wrong. An LCD TV with a DVI connector can actually act as the computer monitor, because it is a computer monitor. Just mount it on your wall, and be free from eye strain forever!

As cool as that is, though, it's still not my final point. The final point I'm getting to is in connecting the power of these few components. Consider for a moment, this little configuration could replace your television, your TIVO, your CD Player, your DVD Player, and even your stereo system! (Especially if you opt for the FM tuner in the TV Card.) All of these devices combined into one unit! You can record your favorite shows, pause live TV, watch your rented movies, listen to your tunes, everything!

Of course, if that was it then such a machine would be simply "nice to have". Certainly not a requirement for any household. Especially houses that have already invested in a TIVO, Stereo, DVD Player, and CD Player.

Consider this for a moment:

With this setup, you can not only do the things I've already listed, but you can also watch movies and listen to music directly from the internet. Through iTunes, you can instantly download new music and listen to a huge selection of radio stations. Through your web browser, you can pull the latest PodCasts and listen to news from around the world. Through MovieLink you can pull the latest movie releases. And if this catches on, you might even be able to watch your favorite television shows! Plus you can still use your computer for all the office and gaming work it performed before!

In other words, computers have finally reached the state of Digital Convergence. All the functions that we used to have to build separate devices for are now nothing more than simple inputs or outputs from our computers. Thus we are able to strip electronic devices down to their simplest level and combine all the functions together to produce something that is more than the sum of its parts.

When Can I Get This Cool Stuff?

Now, of course! The stage of convergence I just talked about is here today! All the technology can be had for a reasonable price!

To help you build your very own convergence machine, I've compiled a list of parts and software that could help you build it from scratch. These parts attempt to combine good functionality with a good price. You can use the parts I suggest, or find equivalents that suit your preference.

Hardware Links
  • Leadtek TV Card - Contains a TV Tuner, FM Tuner, remote control, plus fully featured PVR software with live TV pausing.

  • A8N-E - A motherboard with AMD64 support, onboard 8 Channel Audio, PCI-Express support, 10 USB ports, plus support for up to 4 SATA-300 drives. (I recommend that you also get this board with a CPU and Memory. AMD64 3500 and 1GB is my choice.)

  • NVidia GeForce 6600 - All the Modern 3D Features, High Performance, DVI Out, Supports Linux, Dual Head Support, Good Price.

  • Western Digital 160 GB SATA Drives - Good Price, High Performance, Reliable Company. (I recommend at least 2 drives for PVR work. The motherboard I recommended supports up to four, so go hog wild!)

  • Case - Well, you need something to put this equipment in, don't you?

  • DVD Drive - Burns DVDs (+/-/RW), CDs, and can even label disks!

  • Speakers - All in favor of sound, say 'Aye' in Dolby 5.1 Surround.

  • LCD TV - Probably the most expensive part of the purchase (up until now, you shouldn't have racked up more than about a thousand dollars), but it's the centerpiece that makes the entertainment center complete. If you don't actually need a big TV, a 19" LCD Monitor will always work too.

Software Links
  • MovieLink - Rent Movies Online. Seriously. (The down side is that most new releases are only available for a short time.)

  • iTunes - Music, Radio Stations, etc. You know the drill.

  • Windows XP or Linux/BSD - Windows has better support for the bundled PVR and Remote Control software out of the box. Linux and BSD require a bit of tweaking before they will operate at full capacity, but there are plenty of options.

Looking Forward

Believe it or not, there is still more convergence on the way. For example, shouldn't it be possible to combine the game console with the computer? How about the problem of computing while watching the television? Well, technology isn't there yet. Keep an eye out for a future series where I present a vision that would further meld our homes into our computers, thus reducing components and increasing features.

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