Archive for the ‘Misc’ Category

Don’t Worry, Yellowstone Won’t (Likely) Erupt

Friday, April 4th, 2014

Yellowstone National Park is a true national treasure of the United States and indeed is one of the world’s most unique and majestic natural settings.  The park is home to pristine wilderness and wildlife and to numerous dramatic geothermal features like geysers and hot springs.  The park is visited by more than three million per year and is one of the most popular national parks in the world.

The unique topography and geothermal activity are the result of a massive supervolcano which the park sits above.  It has been more than two million years since the volcano had a “mega eruption” amd 70,000 since it had even a minor eruption event. Still, if it were to erupt, it has the potential to cause devastation to the United States, North America, the Western Hemisphere and even the entire world.  Those outside of North America would likely be spared the most direct effects, although there could be noticeable climate effects.  However, the sheer volume of North American farmland that would be devastated would result in a global food crisis.

There a reasonable possibility that Yellowstone will erupt some time in the next hundred thousand years, but the probability of it erupting in any of our lifetimes is miniscule.

Still, many are becoming extremely concerned after a number of videos showed up online reporting to show bison or other animals fleeing the Yellowstone area.  It must mean the whole thing is about to blow… right?   According to some it does.  Because these original videos were followed by many conspiracy-oriented videos claiming that the government is keeping down the information about the impending eruption.


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Electric Taxiing May Provide Signifficant Aircraft Fuel Savings

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

While looking at some aircraft videos on Youtube I came across a new technology which will soon be available in both new aircraft and for retrofit applications on existing airliners. The technology in question is electric wheel motors for taxiing.

While it might not seem like a big fuel user, aircraft burn significant fuel while taxing around airports after landing and before takeoff. This is because jet engines happen to be especially inefficient when idled and operating at low power settings. Therefore, once the aircraft starts up its engines and uses them to slowly move down the taxiway, it is burning significant quantities of fuel. For short-run flights, with frequent landings and takeoffs, up to 5-10% of fuel can be burned on the ground.

Airbus, Honeywell and others have been developing a system which replaces this with an electric-driven system. It uses light weight electric motors connected directly to the wheels of the aircraft. Power is provided by the aircraft’s APU. The APU uses significantly less fuel than the main engines of the aircraft.


The system has some other major benefits. Control is far more nimble and precise than is achieved using jet thrust, and less time running the jet engines on the ground means less chance for FOD to be sucked into the intakes and damage the engines. The systems also allow the aircraft to reverse on their own. Normally this would require the assistance of a pushback tractor. As a result, the aircraft can leave the gate without needing to wait for a tractor could simplify and expedite the procedures for entering and departing gates.

This technology has not been deployed earlier for a number of reasons. First, aviation tends to be very conservative about adopting new and unproven systems, especially when existing ones get the job done. Secondly, weight is always an issue, so it has required manufacturers to develop a full system of electric taxiing that is light enough that its additional weight is more than offset by the savings provided.

There have also been efforts to save additional fuel by keeping the APU off for longer periods of time or using a smaller APU through the use of more on board battery capacity. Unfortunately this has been problematic both because of the weight of batteries and because of the problems experienced with high capacity and lightweight lithium ion batteries on aircraft such as the 787.

Malaysia Airlines 370 and Reporters Who Have No Idea What They Are Talking About

Friday, March 21st, 2014

The disappearance

of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 is, without doubt, one of the strangest episodes in recent aviation history.  Though it has not been found, the current evidence seems to indicate that someone on board the plane, most likely a crew member, shut down most of the on board communications systems and then flew the plane in a direction away from its flight plan.  Given that the 777 aircraft has exceptionally long range capabilities and that it appears to have been headed toward a large area of open ocean, with no radar coverage, the search has been very difficult.

The reporting on this event has ranged the gamut from pretty good to absolutely horrible.  One of the worst things seen is the numerous glaring errors in major publications about basic technical facts regarding aviation and the aircraft in question.

Reporters, of course, don’t generally know a lot about commercial aviation, aerospace technology, search and rescue or any of the other specialized topics involved.  Degrees in journalism don’t usually requite training in basic aircraft systems.   That’s a given, as it is with most highly technical topics.  However, it’s not exactly difficult to find people who are real experts in the area.  So if you are reporting on a story for a newspaper or other publication, why not track down an actual expert before writing about transponders or ACARS or ETOPS requirements or anything of that kind?   In fact, I’d advise tracking down more than one, just to make sure the one you find first is not BS’ing you.

Here are some examples:

 

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Fred Phelps Reported Ill

Sunday, March 16th, 2014

It’s really considered pretty tacky and rude to wish someone dead, even if you strongly disagree with them.  So, call me tacky, call me rude, call me anything you want, but I can’t wait for the old bastard to kick the bucket…

Via Fox News:

Spokesman: Rev. Fred Phelps, founder of anti-gay Kansas church, is ill and in care facility

TOPEKA, Kan. – The Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., who founded a Kansas church that’s widely known for its protests at military funerals and anti-gay sentiments, is in a care facility.

Westboro Baptist Church spokesman Steve Drain said Sunday that Phelps is being cared for in a Shawnee County facility. Drain wouldn’t identify the facility but says Phelps is 84 and “having some health problems.”

Members of the Westboro church, based in Topeka, frequently protest at funerals of soldiers with signs containing messages like “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “Thank God for 9/11,” claiming the deaths are God’s punishment for American immorality and tolerance of homosexuality and abortion.

Lets hope it is finally the end for Phelps. He’s 84 years old and tends to avoid the hospital unless absolutely necessary. The fact that this was announced does give some hope that his health is finally failing.

No, I don’t wish him death because I’m vengeful or vindictive. At least, that’s not the primary reason. The Westboro Baptist Church has all the hallmarks of a cult, and cults need a charismatic leader. When the leader of a cult dies, it is very common for the cult to fall apart. I believe that is what will happen with the WBC.

Phelp’s group has done everything possible to make others miserable. They protest funerals and picket tragic events around the country. It’s easy to say “just ignore them,” and most people do. Their antics don’t generally get them any followers or sympathy. But they do cause real suffering to those trying to quietly grieve their losses. That’s the whole point of their actions. They know laughing at the caskets of the dead and making the event less dignified will cut to the bone of the survivors.

If I were religious myself, I would imagine now would be the time that Satan is stoking the fires of hell and waiting to start cooking a juicy one.

The Truth About NIF

Saturday, March 8th, 2014

Much has been made about the National Ignition Facility – a US Government facility where as massive array of pulsed power lasers is used to irradiate a tiny capsule of deuterium and tritium in order to produce nuclear fusion.  NIF is a truly giant scientific installation, and there’s no disputing its one of the foremost “big science” centers in the world for things like laser optics, pulsed power, plasma physics and nuclear fusion.  The technology is impressive and it will surely produce volumes of important scientific data.

However, there is some confusion, much of it intentional, about the purpose and capabilities of the facility.

It is often portrayed as an experimental prototype for a power-generating fusion reactor.  It’s really not.  The design of the facility precludes it from ever producing useful energy and that’s not the point.  It’s also not the primary objective of NIF to research how nuclear fusion can be harnessed to produce usable energy.  Data to that end may be generated in the process, but the basic design of the facility precludes such a system from being turned into a power plant.

The stated goal of the facility is also often reported inaccurately.  Achieving “ignition” simply means that enough fusion has occurred for additional fusion to be produced without more external power.  In other words, the reaction becomes self-sustaining, if only for a tiny fraction of a second.  Ignition has not yet been achieved, though it is hoped it soon will.  However, it’s less dramatic than it is often described.  The moment when the calculations come back and reveal that the point of ignition has been achieved will not really be that revolutionary.  it won’t mean that suddenly boundless energy is being produced.  After all, nobody doubts that ignition is possible, it is only a question of how much power will need to be concentrated before it actually happens.
Via the Guardian:

Sustainable nuclear fusion breakthrough raises hopes for ultimate green energy
Scientists have moved a step closer to achieving sustainable nuclear fusion and almost limitless clean energy

US researchers have achieved a world first in an ambitious experiment that aims to recreate the conditions at the heart of the sun and pave the way for nuclear fusion reactors.

The scientists generated more energy from fusion reactions than they put into the nuclear fuel, in a small but crucial step along the road to harnessing fusion power. The ultimate goal – to produce more energy than the whole experiment consumes – remains a long way off, but the feat has nonetheless raised hopes that after decades of setbacks, firm progress is finally being made.

Fusion energy has the potential to become a radical alternative power source, with zero carbon emissions during operation and minimal waste, but the technical difficulties in demonstrating fusion in the lab have so far proved overwhelming. While existing nuclear reactors generate energy by splitting atoms into lighter particles, fusion reactors combine light atomic nuclei into heavier particles.

In their experiments, researchers at the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California use a bank of 192 powerful lasers to crush a minuscule amount of fuel so hard and fast that it becomes hotter than the sun.

The process is not straightforward. The lasers are fired into a gold capsule that holds a 2mm-wide spherical pellet. The fuel is coated on the inside of this plastic pellet in a layer as thin as a human hair.

When the laser light enters the gold capsule, it makes the walls of the gold container emit x-rays, which heat the pellet and make it implode with extraordinary ferocity. The fuel, a mixture of hydrogen isotopes called tritium and deuterium, partially fuses under the intense conditions.

No, they didn’t actually get more energy out of the system than was put in. They just got slightly more energy from the reaction than the amount of energy deposited on the fusion fuel capsule to make it happen.   It’s really not getting us any closer to using nuclear fusion as a limitless energy source.  In fact, it should be noted that this is far from the first time humanity managed to get a lot more energy out of a fusion reaction than was used to initiate it.   That happened in 1952 and was significantly larger.

A few facts to put it in context:

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The Problem With Not Having a Manned Space Program

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

The United States has the worlds most accomplished manned space program.  Not only has the US sent men to the moon, but for decades the United States was the most capable space-faring nation, launching several missions per year and leading the world in manned space capabilities.  Even the Space Shuttle, for all its expense and flaws, was a highly capable spacecraft.

Today, however, the US has no ability to send humans into space.   China has a limited manned spaceflight program and Russia is now the primary space program for crewed spacecraft.  The US, however, does own a large portion of the International Space Station and is under treaty obligation to provide crew and support to the space station.  To fulfill its need to send crew members to the Space Station, the US must pay the Russian government tens of millions of dollars for a seat in a Soyuz space capsule.

Obviously, this is a pretty embarrassing place to be.  Just 20 years ago, it was NASA coming to the rescue of a floundering Russian space program, when, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia found itself unable to support a full roster of missions to its own space station.  Now the tables are turned, and the US is starting to look more like a fallen superpower.

But there is a more practical and problematic issue that arises with the dependence on Russia for space transportation.  When international tensions flare, as they now are, things become highly uncertain for space access.


Via NBC News:

Russia Crisis Raises Space Station Questions, But NASA Has Options

OUSTON — Thanks to its reliance on Russia, NASA is once again confronted with the nightmare of a diplomatic roadblock in a project originally made possible by diplomacy: the U.S.-Russian partnership in space exploration.

And if Russia’s confrontation with Ukraine and the West turns into the worst diplomatic crisis of our generation, as feared, it could have equally profound and disturbing consequences for space exploration.

This month’s comings and goings at the International Space Station highlight the interdependence of the U.S. and Russian space efforts: Next week, NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins is due to return from the space station aboard a Russian capsule, alongside two Russian cosmonauts. A couple of weeks after that, NASA’s Steven Swanson is to ride another Russian Soyuz craft up to the station, again in the company of two Russians.

Under the current arrangement, NASA astronauts cannot get to and from the station without Russian help, due to the retirement of the space shuttle fleet. The ticket price for each astronaut is $70 million, payable to the Russians.

The United States and Russia are not just “joined at the hip” on the space station. Numerous other rocket projects rely on either Russian or Ukrainian space hardware and services. Even U.S. national security satellites are powered into orbit on an American rocket with a Russian-built rocket engine.

What if the Soyuz spacecraft suddenly became unavailable for use by American astronauts, contract or no contract? Would it be the end of U.S. human spaceflight? Would it kick off a new round of extortionary price-gouging, both fiscal and diplomatic?

Well, maybe not.

Moving away from co-dependence

It’s cold comfort that the Russians rely on NASA almost as much as NASA relies on the Russians. If Russia monopolizes up-down transport, the United States essentially controls the only space destination: Russia’s orbital hardware couldn’t function without U.S. electrical power and communications services.

However reluctant the partners may be in such an awkward “space marriage,” it has until now provided an astonishing degree of robustness and flexibility.

Recent developments have brought the space station closer to the point where it could be operated without Russian involvement if necessary. The current crisis provides good reasons to accelerate that shift and even to push for one crucial near-term capability: crew rescue.

Already, two U.S. commercial cargo delivery projects — SpaceX’s Falcon rocket and Dragon capsule, as well as Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Antares rocket and Cygnus capsule — have replaced the justifiably retired space shuttle. European and Japanese robot freighters can also resupply the space station. Even though some parts of the Antares come from Ukraine and Russia, and even though the European cargo freighter must dock at the Russian end of the station, Russia’s cargo monopoly has been broken.

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Bill Nye Debates Creationist Ken Ham

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

For those who don’t know, science advocate and educator Bill Nye recently debated young earth creationist Ken Ham in a highly publicized internet-broadcast event.

There have been many mixed feelings from the scientific community on the event.  Many of which, I would tend to agree with.  Debating a creationist really won’t do much of anything.  Believers will continue to believe in what they want, regardless of the arguments or evidence.  Those who look at things objectively will have no choice but accept evolution as a well tested and established scientific fact.

Some might say that the debate raises creationism to a level it does not deserve.  It is not a matter of debate for the scientific community; it was closed long ago.  If we were to assume the earth were thousands of years old, biology were the result of a being simply willing it to be so and the bible could guide all scientific thought, we would have to throw away most of the advancements of science.  Evolution is key to our understanding of biology.  We have seen it happen and have fossil evidence of how it has shaped life over the long term.

Some warned that Bill Nye could end up losing the debate, or just come off looking bad, if Ham backed him into a corner using contentions that were too illogical to easily and directly refute or by forcing Nye to waste his time providing a class in biology 101 in order to simply explain where he is coming from.  Given that creationism has no scientific evidence, only religious faith, it seems likely that a creationist would fall back on appealing logical fallacies.   It should be noted that one can be factually correct and still lose a debate if faced with a skilled opponent.

Thankfully, Bill Nye seems to have held his own.  Still, I tend to side with those who think it was unnecessary and generally unproductive to even bother engaging in the debate.   It didn’t change anyone’s mind.

Here’s the video for those interested (Starts at roughly 13:00)



The ELF Solar Bike-Car-Hybride Thingy: Another Vehicle That Makes Me ask “WHY?”

Friday, January 31st, 2014

The Organic Transit ELF has been getting a lot of attention recently.  It’s another vehicle that claims to be poised to revolutionize the way we get around.

Granted, in this day and age of global warming concerns, congested cities and high gas prices, it might seem natural to go looking for alternatives to automobiles.  Using human power also seems like a good idea, given the way to go, since many of us can use exercise anyway.

Via the Wall Street Journal:

Elf Electric Pedal Car: When 1 Horsepower Is Enough

Mr. Cotter is the founder and CEO of the Durham, N.C.-based Organic Transit, which makes the Elf: an ovoid, semi-enclosed, solar-chargeable, plug-in, bike-lane-legal, electric pedal car. Got that? With a 1-hp (750-watt) electric motor in the rear wheel hub and a lithium battery pack, or two, snugged into the center frame rail aft of the front wheels—and a plastic canopy to keep the weather off drivers—the Elf proposes a solution for urban commuters who want to leave the car at home but can’t quite hack the rigors of a conventional bicycle.

“We’re creating our own consumer product category,” said Mr. Cotter, whose operation in a downtown storefront in the former tobacco capital is bustling. The company has 1,500 orders in hand—more than enough to reach profitability, said Mr. Cotter, a TED talker who Kickstarted much of the original funding—and soon the company’s retinue of bike gurus and production staff (including some volunteers) will be moving to larger quarters downtown. Prices just went up: the Elf costs $4,995, more if you want the backup battery, the continuously variable transmission rear hub or the better solar panels.

The Elf’s capacity is 350 pounds; top assisted speed is 20 mph (it goes faster downhill); and the 10-amp-hour batteries offer a range of up to 30 miles, but the batteries last longer the more riders pedal. It takes one whole sunny day to charge a fully depleted battery with 60-watt roof-mounted solar panels.

Mr. Cotter and I took a couple of Elfs for a tour of Raleigh recently, and according to the vehicle’s smartphone-app instrumentation, I traveled 15.4 miles at an average speed of 15 mph; burned 586 calories (by pedaling) and displaced 15 pounds of CO2 (using solar watts). It’s a start.

elfbikecar

The vehicle has gotten a huge amount of press and attention. It even managed to raise nearly a quarter of a million dollars on Kickstart – apparently from a large group of people who are genuinely convinced this is an amazing and revolutionary concept.   It’s even touted as the “Cleanest, most efficient vehicle on the planet”

 


I do not mean to rain on this parade, but I just don’t get it.  Not only is it not revolutionary, game-changing or the next big thing, but it seems to me that this is just a vehicle which serves the same roll as the bicycle, while being inferior in most respects and considerably more expensive.

Let me know if I am missing something or just wrong…

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Just who decided to start “naming” snow storms

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

Has anyone noticed something new about winter storms?   At least in the United States?   They now have names.   That’s right.   The Eastern US now is getting ready for Winter Storm Hercules.   That sounds rather impressive, given it’s the name of a Greek half-god known for strength.   This follows last years storms that include Athena and Nemo.   The names now seem ubiquitous, and even officials use them.   So you might ask, what government agency decided to start naming winter storms and when did they start?

The answer is none.  These names are not official and have no standing in any way shape or form other than being made up by the Weather Channel.

Background:

Around the 1940′s, forecasters ran into a problem when it came to big tropical storms.  With more communications, spotting aircraft and ships, they started getting reports of multiple storms at the same time.  They were also keeping more records and it was getting confusing.  “The Hurricane of 1938″ just did not cut it when it came to keeping one storm straight from the other.   Military meteorologists came up with a pretty simple system: any storm that was considered tropical storm force (sustained winds over 65 miles per hour) was given a letter.  They thus had “tropical storm A” and “Tropical storm B” etc.   The actual names, however, used the then-current phonetic alphabet, so the storms were actually called “Storm Able,” “Storm Baker,” “Storm Charlie” and so on.   The names were repeated each season.

HurricaneCarolIn 1953, the United States Weather Bureau started to standardize the names.  In 1953, there was a major policy change.  Phonetic alphabet names were replaced by a list of female names, which were assigned to each storm as it occurred.  In part this was because a new phonetic alphabet had been developed.

Initially, the plan seems to have been to reuse the same names each year, but in 1954, Hurricane Hazel and Hurricane Carol received a large amount of press and it was realized that reusing those names in 1955 would cause much confusion.  For that reason, a new policy of coming up with a new annual list of names to use was created.  Names are sometimes reused, but storms the practice is avoided for storms that are significant or strike land.  For storms that are especially significant, the names are officially retired.  Thus, there will never be another Hurricane Hugo or Katrina.   Initially the letters Q U X and Y were omitted from the list.  Today only the letter X is routinely left off the list of hurricane names.

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Student Experiment Proves RF Kills Plants… or not…

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

A recent story that has been making the rounds is one that seems to have it all:  brilliant young aspiring scientists, underdogs shaking up the world and fear of wifi and phone RF radiation.

Via the Daily Dot:

Your wireless router could be murdering your houseplants

Are you slowly killing your houseplants? Probably! But there might be a reason (other than neglect) why they’re all yellow and wilty: your Wi-Fi router.

An experiment by a handful of high school students in Denmark has sparked some serious international interest in the scientific community.

Five ninth-grade girls at Hjallerup School in North Jutland, Denmark, noticed they had trouble concentrating after sleeping with their mobile phones at their bedsides. They tried to figure out why. The school obviously doesn’t have the equipment to test human brain waves, so the girls decided to do a more rudimentary experiment.

They placed six trays of garden cress seeds next to Wi-Fi routers that emitted roughly the same microwave radiation as a mobile phone. Then they placed six more trays of seeds in a separate room without routers. The girls controlled both environments for room temperature, sunlight and water.

After 12 days, they found the garden cress seeds in the routerless room had exploded into bushy greenery, while the seeds next to the Wi-Fi routers were brown, shriveled, and even mutated. See for yourself:

Teacher Kim Horsevad told the Daily Dot that her students did the test twice with the same results. She was quick to point out that while the students did the experiment to test only one variable to the best of their ability, it is a high school experiment and this isn’t a professional study.

“Some of the local debate has been whether the effects were due the cress seeds drying up because of heat from the computers or Access Points used in the experiment, which is a suggestion I can thoroughly refute,” Horsevad said. “The pupils were painstakingly careful in keeping the conditions for both groups similar. The cress seeds in both groups were kept sufficiently moist during the whole experiment, and the temperature were controlled thermostatically. The computers were placed so that the heat would not affect the seeds, which was verified by temperature measurements. Still, there may be confounders which neither the pupils or I have been aware of, but I cannot imagine what they would be.”

Well, the photos are certainly pretty dramatic, but that does not mean that this should be considered hard confirmed science. After all, it was not peer reviewed and was done by high school students. That said, it’s the message rather than the messenger, and it’s not impossible that non-professionals could discover something to shake up the scientific world.

H9sztP0

 

The Problems With This Experiment:

I am all for teaching students about science through hands-on demonstrations.  But in this case, there are a few things missing that are critical.   One of the most important is the basic idea that all experimental results should be viewed critically, but especially when they fly in the face of established science.  It can be summed up in the statement “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.”  If something is well established by science and your experiment seems to indicate something else, you should probably examine your experiment critically and repeat it (perhaps several times) before jumping to the conclusion that you have valid results.

Even professional scientists who try very hard to control their experiments.  For example, last year, scientists at a neutrino observatory in Italy took measurements which seemed to indicate the neutrinos were traveling faster than light.  They scratched their heads and checked their equipment repeatedly, repeated the experiment and finally concluded there were no flaws in their methodology and indeed they did record neutrinos exceeding the speed of light.  Then, however, they found there was a loose cable.  Oops.

Many studies have been done on RF radiation and biology and the results refute this.  Even if we assume that there could be an effect, it is all but unthinkable that it could be this dramatic.  If this was the case, then it would seem impossible that plants could grow near high power transmitters, which they clearly do.

Given that it flies in the face of logic and established science, anyone who gets these results should look at them with an abundance of caution and only consider them valid after repeated examination and conducting the experiment several times.

There are a few obvious things that could account for this:
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