Monday, April 27, 2009

Who Watches The Watchmen?

Dunno, but it's obvious that someone does.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Video Del Fuego, Part XX

Today on Video Del Fuego, the launch and recovery of STS-119, the most recent Space Shuttle mission.

It's rather interesting for me to listen to the radio chatter during the Shuttle's ascent. The commander and pilot are busy managing the vehicle as they ride a controlled explosion into orbit, so the only thing Mission Control bothers them with are updates to their abort modes. They start out with basically no abort mode at all. If something comes unglued while the SRBs are still burning, they're screwed. But after the SRBs burn out, there's the theoretical possibility of a Return To Launch Site abort, or RTLS. Nobody really likes that option. You're basically doing a bootlegger's reverse with a 100-ton glider. They're pretty sure the vehicle would hold together during the maneuver, but not 100% certain. They like the Trans-Atlantic Abort (TAL) option better. Once they have enough energy to clear the Atlantic, they can make an emergency landing downrange at one of several designated sites. This doesn't require any risky mid-air turns, so they're confident they can pull this off if they have to. Their favorite abort option of all, and the only one that's actually been done so far, is Abort To Orbit (ATO). Getting into space is their safest option. Space is mostly harmless. It's going and coming that can kill you.

The landings also fascinate me, from an aviator's point of view. This is probably the riskiest thing they do. Dead-sticking any glider can be challenging. Dead-sticking a 100-ton glider that isn't even all that great a glider to begin with is one of the hardest jobs in aviation. The Shuttle's glide slope angle is insane. No other vehicle approaches the runway so steeply. Then, right before landing, the commander has to "flare" -- pull the nose up to arrest the sink rate -- at just the right moment. Too high and you overshoot the runway, too low and you hit too hard. And with no engines, you have one chance to get it right. These guys are champs. They float it in and kiss the runway, as gentle as you please.

They say any landing you can walk away from is a good one. They also say a great landing is one after which they get to use the airplane again. This was a great landing.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Taxing Experience

As a general principle, I have nothing against paying my taxes. I don't get the hard-core libertarians who scream that taxes are tantamount to theft. Although I tend towards libertarian views most of the time, I accept the need for a government, and accept the need for said government to be funded. I see taxes as club dues. I accept the benefits of American society, and so the honorable thing to do is pay my dues. Welshing is for losers.

I'd be a lot happier if I had some way of knowing a priori what those dues are.

I know, I know, the Devil's in the details. Flat taxes, while simple, are regressive. But still: you know that your tax code is hideously broken when it's far simpler to explain how to plot a course to Mars by way of Venus than it is to explain how the hell you figure out how much you owe the taxman. I can do the former in about a page of mathematics. The latter ... well, I haven't done my taxes in the better part of a decade. It's a fringe benefit of having married a financial professional. But the computation is about five times more involved, easily.

I know it won't happen. There are too many people with their fingers in the pie. But please, for the love of God, can we have a simplified tax system? Something that's actually manageable by someone with a 12th-grade education? A system where you can plan ahead? I mean, I'm not asking for a tax cut. I'd gladly take a modest increase if it meant that I'd know on January 1st what I'd owe on December 31st. Most years, we're guessing.

We're guessing. I'm a few hundred pages short of a doctorate in Aerospace Engineering, my wife's a Controller at a major firm, and we're guessing. We guessed right this year, and didn't owe any extra money. But dammit, it ought to be possible, at least in principle, to figure out how much you need to withhold such that you cover your bill. But two educated professionals with more numerical acumen than any ten common citizens can't plan ahead with certainty. Honest, I'm not trying to brag, but if we're guessing, most people are hopelessly screwed.

If some kind soul would do a complete strip-down re-write of the tax code, it would be a public service. But like I said earlier, that won't happen. Not only are there too many vested interests, it's damn hard work. At the end of the day, you need a tax code that funds the Government's operations. The current one does, more or less, after a fashion. It's a damn nuisance for us for about a week out of the year, though.

It's not that I mind paying my share. I just want to know what that share is, ahead of time, that's all.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

There's Nothing New Under The Sun

I just saw this item on, about a new solar-powered oven.

Except that it's not all that new. My Dad had one he took on campouts 35 years ago. He called it a Dutch oven. No, wait, the Dutch oven had to have been the big iron pot. Funny ... all these years, I thought the solar heat-box thing was called a Dutch oven. Still, he did have this insulated, silvered box with a clear plastic lid. It got damn hot on the inside if you left it in direct sunlight. I distinctly remember that he used to make cherry cobbler with it. I have no idea where he got the notion. He was an air conditioning technician back in the day, and few mortals understand solar heating as intimately as men who work in attics during a Texas summer.

Still, this new design is remarkably cheap to build. He's earned a hearty thumbs-up for that, if for nothing else.

Video Del Fuego, Part XIX

Important mechanical tip: just because your engine can provide the torque, and just because your tires are rated for it, does not mean that the mounting bolts won't shear off under the strain.

Respect the manual! It will save you time, money, and public humiliation all at once.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Actually, It IS Rocket Science

Editor's Note: This news item would be hilarious, were it not for the fact that so many in North Korea are starving while their leaders pull these shenanigans. But while I have a great deal of sympathy for the people of North Korea, I have none at all for their leaders, who deserve all the scorn we can muster. It is our right -- no, it is our duty -- to serve those clowns with as much vicious mockery as we can bring to bear.

On Sunday, April 5, the same protean genius that brought the world nuclear explosives that don't unveiled his latest innovation: a communication satellite based somewhere on the bottom of the Pacific. So, while the unfortunate aquatic wildlife endure North Korean revolutionary ditties in the fond hope that a fishing trawler might come to put them out of their misery, the rest of the world scratches its collective head and wonders.

What are those morons trying to prove?

You have to admit, as international menaces go, North Korea is distinctly third-rate. They threaten their neighbors with atomic weapons (that don't work) mounted on missiles (that don't work either). They menace their neighbors with tanks (that might or might not have gas), fighter-bombers (that have to share gas, if any, with the tanks), and fiercely-attired troops (who might have pawned their ammo for a burger). They have all the destructive potential of a group of slightly cranky Cub Scouts. And we're worried about Li'l Kim's latest spasm ... why? The record shows that the safest place to stand during a North Korean missile attack is the rocket's intended aim-point. Firing off an interceptor is simply a waste of ammunition, as the North Korean engineers have apparently seen fit to design their missiles to be self-intercepting.

Granted, the damn thing actually made it off the pad this time. So the first stage might actually work as advertised. But the second stage either didn't work, or just as likely, it performed an ocean-insertion burn instead of an orbit-insertion burn. It's easy to mix those two up, especially since they're both five-letter words that begin with an "O". And now that we've elected a President whose name is also a five-letter word that begins with an "O", well, they're hopelessly confused.

And let's not forget the payload of this aerospace marvel: a communications satellite whose sole function appears to be playing two songs on endless loop. Now, that's just sad. For comparison, let's look at Russia's first satellite. True, Sputnik I was basically just a transmitter, but they were in a hurry. The missile was ready before the payload, and that almost never happens. And America's first satellite, Explorer I, carried a load of scientific instruments into space. Li'l Kim decided that for his first outing, he'd regale the world with songs bragging about how great he is. It's embarrassing to see a grown man's neuroses on parade like that. That re-defines sad. That's world-championship, Olympic-caliber sad. If there was a Sadness Trophy, we'd have to retire it.

And what's it all in aid of? Developing an ICBM? "Yes! I will threaten those Yankee pigs with a nuclear missile that I have to prepare for a week in broad daylight before firing! Muahahahahaha!" Dear God, can he really believe that might actually work?

There's more, but I can't go on. On top of it all, the failed missile test is a monument to human misery. The resources wasted on this folly could have gone to feeding God knows how many of his people. He will have to give an account one day, to a far sterner judge than any human court could provide. I wonder what he'll say?

In closing, in the microscopically small chance that he's reading this, I'll repeat something I said a few years ago in similar circumstances:

Before your ego starts writing checks your army can't cash, take note of a few key facts. Before you start threatening your neighbors with atomic weapons, you must have:

1) A working atomic weapon,

2) A working atomic weapon that's small enough to put on a missile,

3) A working atomic weapon that's small enough to put on a missile capable of reaching its intended target.

You're still 0-fer on all the important points. But do try again. It enrages your friends, and amuses your enemies.

Oh, and you'd better make your first shot a damn good one. You won't get a second.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Going Cold Turkey Ain't Easy

It's one thing to say we should get off of fossil fuels. It's another thing entirely to do it. Mind you, I think we should for any of three or four perfectly good reasons. The brown haze that hangs over Dallas in the morning is one. Impoverishing chumps like Chavez and the al-Saud gang is another. Saving the oil that's left for industrial feed-stock is still another. But we cannot delude ourselves. This is a simply gargantuan undertaking, and it won't happen overnight.

Throughout this post, I'll be referring back to this diagram, which is a detailed breakdown of energy consumption in the United States from 2002:

It's an eyeful, all right. But if you're patient, you can tease some really useful information out of this picture.

First: There's a fairly neat split between the usage of coal, and the usage of oil. When you're talking about coal, you're talking electrical power generation for the most part. And when you're talking about oil, you're talking about transportation for the most part. There's some crossover, but not much. Natural gas is more complicated, being split not quite evenly over electrical, residential, and industrial uses.

Second: Most of the wasted power comes from power losses in electrical distribution, followed closely by energy lost in the transportation sector. Energy wastage in the residential and industrial sectors are small potatoes by comparison.

Now here's the main thing. Let's say that our plan is to eliminate fossil fuels entirely from our energy picture. We'll still use some of them in a nonfuel capacity, as feed stock for making plastics, medicines, and other useful things. But we won't set a match to them and burn them for energy. What this means is that for the residential/commercial sector, the industrial sector, and the transportation sector, we have to supplant the inflow of fossil fuel energy with an equivalent amount of electrical energy.

By the numbers, we delivered 11.9 quads of usable energy to consumers in 2002. The residential/commercial sector consumed 10.7 quads from non-renewable sources. The industrial sector consumed 13.86 quads from non-renewable sources. And the transportation sector consumed 26.5 quads from non-renewable sources. Adding all that up, we will need to deliver 62.96 quads of usable electricity to take up the slack. Note that this is after transmission losses. This means that we have to generate 202.1(!) quads of energy ... all without using fossil fuels. That's 5.29 times more energy than we actually did generate that year. Or more to the point, that's 17.42 times more energy than we realized from non-fossil sources.

That, friends, is a staggering shortfall.

The good news is that this isn't a political problem, or a social problem, but a technical problem. And technical problems almost always have answers. Difficult sometimes, and expensive, but still doable if we want to undertake it. The question is: how?

The obvious first place to look is to see about ways to reduce the amount of "lost" energy. And from the diagram, while there are certainly economies to be found in the residential and industrial sectors, there's not enough to be found to make a huge dent. That's not to say we shouldn't try. But the far larger losses in the electrical and transportation sectors cry out for first attention. Effort spent here will pay far greater dividends.

First, transportation. This, we can actually do something about. Firstly, internal combustion engines are inherently inefficient. This is immediately obvious from the thermal efficiency equation. In your ideal heat engine, you suck energy out of a high-temperature source (Th) and reject it to a low-temperature sink (Tc). You extract work from the flow of energy from source to sink. The maximum efficiency N(th) can be found from:

N(th) = 1 - Tc/Th

where the temperatures are measured in absolute units, either Kelvin or degrees Rankine will do. Internal combustion engines rarely score higher than 0.2 or so. That means only 20% of the energy extracted from the source actually does useful work. The rest is wasted. Electric motors are typically much more efficient, and what's more, we will be using more thermally efficient processes to generate the power in the first place. (Hint: nuclear reactors and fusion reactors have astoundingly high values for Th...) So, at a stroke, by going electric we reduce the energy wasted in the transportation sector. By how much, I don't know for sure. I suspect it's by a fairly substantial amount, though. The other thing to keep in mind about cars is that they spend a lot of their energy simply shoving the air aside. Consider the Aptera for a moment. New, streamlined electric cars designed to slide cleanly through the air instead of batting it aside by brute force don't need to expend as much energy going from place to place. That is quite likely the look of the future.

Second, electrical distribution. This is a more intractable problem. We're pretty much guaranteed to eat a certain amount of loss to Joule heating, which scales as the square of the current I times the resistance R of the power line. This is why power line voltage is so high: that reduces the current, and therefore the power loss. We still lose a lot in transmission. The way around this is a lot more speculative. If we can ever fabricate a superconductor in quantity that will work at ambient temperatures approaching 200 degrees Fahrenheit, this problem goes away. That's a long way off, if indeed we ever get there. My mind keeps coming back to this one, though, because if we pull that off we triple our deliverable energy at a stroke. High cost, but a very high payoff if it works. [Addendum: There's also been some new work on conductive carbon nanotubes, which have a very low resistance compared to conventional wiring, even at ambient temperatures. There's a fair bit of work to be done to make it practical, but that's probably going to happen long before 200-deg-F superconductors come along. An 80% reduction in resistance is certainly nothing to sneeze at.]

For the time being, though, we need to get to work on generating power input. I will take these concepts more or less in order of when I expect them to become major players.

(1) Nuclear power. For all its problems, this is the one we can get started on right now. It already supplies more of our electrical power than natural gas does. It can generate large quantities of base-load power as soon as the plants come on-line. While it entails a degree of risk, those risks can be mitigated. For example, we can task the Navy with producing a common reactor design to use going forward. This design will be sufficiently robust that it can handle any set of reasonable conditions without containment failure. And before you start worrying about terrorists flying planes into them, check this out. Those walls are pretty sturdy. The real bottleneck, though, will be finding enough qualified personnel to run the plants. A massive training program will have to go hand-in-hand with construction. But this option does not require us to do anything we don't already know how to do.

(2) Distributed solar power. I keep reading from several sources about how there's a coming breakthrough in tough, flexible solar panels. Furthermore, they'll be much cheaper. The real breakthrough will be when they're tough enough, flexible enough, and cheap enough to be used routinely as a roofing material. Such things are available now, but they're expensive. As the price comes down, this option will become more popular. There comes a price point when it becomes stupid not to generate your own power. I don't know where that point is, or when it will come, but I'm reasonably confident it's no more than ten years down the road.

(3) Wind farms. Wind power is highly regional, and won't make sense for everyone. But if you get a lot of wind, why not use it? The real question here is reliability: is the source steady enough to rely upon hour-by-hour, day in, day out? In the long run I expect this to be like hydro-power: the regions that have it will use it, and others won't.

(4) Space-Based Solar Power. Much has been written about this elsewhere, and I won't repeat that here. The long pole in this tent is cheap and reliable access to space, which we don't have yet. This is doable if we really want it. For less than we've poured into Iraq, or into the banks, we could probably have built Unit #1, put it in operation, and be well into building Unit #2.

(5) Mr. Fusion! This is the transformational game-changer. Solar power, after all, is fusion power by proxy, given that the Sun is a naturally-occurring gravitational confinement fusion reactor. It's also damn tricky. The joke has been that fusion is the power of the future, and always will be. But there are advances underway on all fronts. The National Ignition Facility just came online. And there's Robert Bussard's outfit, working on the Polywell experiment. Not to mention ITER over in Europe, or the Z-Machine. Magnetic confinement, inertial confinement, inertial electrostatic confinement ... one of them's bound to work, probably more than one. I wouldn't be surprised that it depends on scale. Some methods will lend themselves more naturally to different power scales. This is the holy grail of energy, though, because hydrogen is the most abundant element in the entire Universe, and therefore something we're very unlikely to be short of anytime real soon. There's also less radioactivity to mess with. If fusion tech was available, no one in their right mind would build a fission power plant. (Which is why the Navy is funding the Polywell effort, I expect...)

In summary, getting off of fossil fuels is going to take us a long time, and is going to cost an appreciable amount in R&D. It won't happen quickly. But, hard as it may be, there is no fundamental reason why we can't do it.

We simply have to make the deliberate decision to start moving in that direction.