Friday, August 29, 2008

Feed the Sea

Science Daily has an article about using the ocean to reduce global warming, as I previously wrote about, only inorganically by adding lime to seawater. Producing lime releases CO2, but the reduced pH it provides makes the ocean absorb much much more CO2.

Another thing that I would like to encourage in oceanic farming is the direct feeding of human-farmed sealife, including whales. A few nations do eat whale still, particularly Norway. More and more types of fish are becoming rarer, but most people love seafood and don't want to give it up. In addition, the ocean is quite vulnerable to the famous "Tragedy of the Commons" situation, since fishers have every interest in grabbing as many fish as they can, but the ocean produces a limited number of fish, which goes further down because the human caught fish are now dead (and eaten) and do not reproduce.

However, death is not the only possible change to animal demographics. Well fed animals should have more offspring. Further, the diet of commonly harvested animals is already well known, and at some level, we should be able to modify the food chain so that more food is available to these animals.

As an example, let us take Krill, a common crustation eaten by whales, carnivorous tuna, and occasionally humans. Krill feeds entirely on plankton, which is the also the food of many other commercial fish, such as Herring. Plankton is also the only food source of fish larvae. Clearly, Plankton is the thing to influence.

Plankton are simple plants, and the animals that feed on them. The "plankton" designation covers a large number of species of plants and animals, that have the following traits in common:

* Small size (the largest plankton are about 20 mm long.)
* Not mobile enough to resist ocean currents. (Some species can move several hundred meters per day, but not fast enough before the ocean moves them more.)

Since plankton either are plants ("Photoplankton,") or eat plants, the lime-treatment is a good first start. More carbon in the water means it is easier for the plants to produce the complex sugars that power their metabolism.

We should also fertilize some areas very carefully. If we add too much, an Algal bloom occurs, which leads to a dead zone if the algae decay without being eaten. The dead zone occurs because the dead algae sink to the bottom, and bacteria consume the dead algae, using up all of the oxygen in the water. Plant produced oxygen is consumed by the bacteria before animals use it, so all of the animals die, and plant growth is ended by surface-floating plants that block the light. Therefore, fertilization should mostly occur in areas with strong and changing currents, and not more often than, say, one tanker per month.

For best results, the "fertilizer" should actually be merely water from a dead-zone area, which occurs from water-leached fertilizer from farmland anyway. This will have the effect of a lesser bloom out in the open ocean, where it can actually feed the ocean's animals, and reducing the bloom near the coast, where it quickly grows to pathological dead-zone levels.

Secondly, if we pay every fisher in the world to not fish for a month, this will be significantly more effective. They will notice greatly enlarged catches after the month. That would probably be impractically expensive.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Artificial Intelligence

A long time dream in the field of computer science is the development of an artificial intelligence, a program that would think and imagine and grow and learn like a human being. It always seems so close and yet so far.

Were such a program invented, my entire field would be out of a job, as the installation of an AI would allow people to talk to their computer directly. Programming? The AI can do anything you ask. System administration? The AI knows how to run the machine, prevent it from crashing, and can debug in real-time. Potentially without even stopping the running program. Data entry? A robot with a scanner would enter an encyclopedia's worth of data in the time it takes a human worker to drink a cup of coffee.

Still, AI research continues due to the obvious benefits. While it has yet to actually produce such a program, it has not produced nothing. AI research that failed to develop emergent behavior still had useful applications in expert systems (which require human will and minds, but do provide useful information in coming to a decision about something). Obstacle avoiding has improved, and robots are for sale now that many people are willing to treat as organic animals. (Unofficial reports claim that owners of a popular robotic vacuum actually clean for the vacuum so the vacuum won't "feel bad.")

Visual recognition is getting closer to useful. Machines still can't exactly "see," but they can associate identities with faces, which would have been outright impossible 30 years ago.

Work with trying to get machines to comprehend language has lead to both mechanical translation (which, while odd sounding, still gets the gist across most of the time) and word steming programs that lead to more natural feeling search engines.

Many experts claim that AI will be achieved incrementally, and no one breakthrough will actually achieve it, if it happens at all. So in a way, AI is both closer than ever (computers are smarter and can more easily help you), and farther away than ever (my job is secure for the forseeable future).

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Melting North Pole

Global warming isn't so bad, they said. It's not like any permanent effect is happening, they said. And then it happened.

The North Pole is melting. By the end of September, it will be gone. The northernmost part of the world will be an ocean.

Don't worry, kids. Santa moved his operations to a series of redundant bases in Canada, Greenland, Norway, Finland, Russia, and Alaska. He's a bit annoyed at the move, but thankful he caught it before the whole workshop sank underwater.

But as for global warming, not only is this bad news, but it will exacerbate the problem. Ice is white and reflects sunlight. Seawater is blue, and mostly absorbs it. So this water will absorb heat from sunlight, and get the urge to flow. Flow southward, since when you're at the north pole, every direction is by definition south.

At the worst, the fresh water from the melting ice will flow southward into the Atlantic, clog up the jet stream, which will cease the flow of warm water into the east coast of the US and the western coast of Europe. Spain, England, and France will no longer enjoy the mild winters they used to have and will get significantly colder. Virginian beachgoers will need wetsuits, much to the manufacturer's delight.

This could even lead to war, as the newly opened northern ocean gets numerous boats from Canada, the US, Russia, and Denmark (which owns Greenland) all jockeying for position. Nations can be very sore losers.

Never fear, though, for I have a plan to reverse this. We sail boats with mirrors around the oceanic part, and place mirrors on the remaining ice. Mirrors should, theoretically, work even more effectively than ice, and if other anti-global-warming measures are also put into effect, would reverse the melt, freezing the pole back over. It would once again be possible to walk from Alert to Novosibirsk, though this would not be a good idea.

EDIT: The north pole's melting was much slower than expected. There should still be ice for 20 years, albeit on a decreasing nature. Post is marked "wrong," even though the pole is still melting, albeit much much slower than previously described.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Worldwide Land Travel

Did you know that we're only a few bridges and/or tunnels away from being able to drive or take a train anywhere in the world except for a few minor islands? (Which people typically take planes or boats to or from anyway and have no reason to do otherwise?)


Sure, some places seem so distant and impractical to travel to, and this worldwide road and/or train track would be rather...indirect...for some pairs of starting points and destinations. (Florida to London in this would involve going to long way around the world.)

Much of this is also marred by political constraints. The most logical connection from mainland Asia to Japan would be from southeastern Korea, Busan, to Tsushima, which has a ferry to the big Japanese island, and which a bridge could easily be built to. This connection would be sabotaged by the bad relation between the two countries, with Korea furious at Japan for various historical slights and modern indignities, and Japan rolling its collective eyes so often back at Korea that said eyes will fall from their collective heads if they do it any more. By political relationship, Japan would have to be connected to Taipei through Naha. This would be at least ten times more expensive to build.

Within the US, there's no good way to reach Hawaii. (Any tunnel between mainland North America and Hawaii would involve thousands of miles undersea.) And Alaska can be reached either by sea or through Canada. Hawaii should still be connected between its own islands. (Hawaii is about six islands. Ferries run between them when practical.) If Canada complained about US traffic between Washington state and Alaska going through its boarders, then the US would have to dig an expensive sea tunnel between the two. Urgh.

Australia and new Zealand would be a major pain to connect, and there's no other good connection for New Zealand. (Except maybe Antarctica, and that would be an even bigger pain to work with.) Australia would reach Asia through Papua New Guinea or Indonesia.

Probably the most profitable first connection to make would be the tip of Alaska with the tip of Siberia. (Chukchi.) If this connection were made, it would be possible to drive from southern Chile/Argentina, all the way to the northern UK, in a massive, world-spanning trip.

I tend to believe more in the obvious concrete benefits of building some of these bridges, such as increased commerce and reduced transportation costs, over the tauted benefits of increased world peace.

Monday, August 25, 2008

China's Olympics: The Engineering

Right, so having read the previous post, we can now discuss the actual things China did to solve its real and/or perceived problems in Beijing.

The smog would have to be the first thing to go. "Come to Beijing, die of lung disease!" is a horrible tourism positioning. That and harm coming to invited guests is really shameful, especially to a "face" culture such as China. (China's neighbors are also "face" cultures for the most part.)

A large portion of northern Beijing had nothing in it. So it was converted into a large park with an intricate pond. The plants would, in theory, soak up the pollution. But this wouldn't happen fast enough to have clear skies in August, so a supplemental step was taken of deliberately causing a eutrophic bloom. The growing algae sucked all the pollution from the water, which made the water hungrily absorb more pollution from the air. The algae was then harvested and put somewhere discrete so it wouldn't decay, which would have ended the cycle.

With clearing skies, the Beijing authorities then looked to traffic. The load of cars was not only making getting around a slow process, but was also a major contributor to the pollution problem in the first place. It was ruled that cars must alternate their trips on the road, with one day for cars with even plates, the next for cars with odd plates. Carpooling was encouraged.

This was still not enough, so the subway system was massively expanded, especially between the airport, most of the hotels, and the grounds. Traffic would not be a problem with all of these subway lines in place. (More are still planned to encourage a reduction in car use after the games.)

The city ugliness then got the authority's attention. The various stadiums were works of art, certainaly, but wouldn't work well in a drab, brutalist city. Gardeners worked madly to grow many little flower gardens, especially near the stadiums. City residents quite enjoyed this sudden splash of color.

Satisfied with the physical conditions, social engineering was then examined. The authorities had multiple fears on this matter.

Firstly, the continuing fight against rudeness. A lack of service culture had been noticed over ten years before, with locals complaining of clerks rudely dismissing them over anything deemed not part of the clerk's job. The clerk felt so secure in his position that he felt he could treat the customers any way he pleased. The government had been disabusing the clerks of this attitude. With firings. This was stepped up.

Secondly, spitting. While the traditional Chinese thing to do when one has a phlegm problem is to spit it on the sidewalk, and this is in fact the best thing to do medically, it tends to horrify people of European descent, who had a history of airborne disease that would be spread by such practices. (China has no such history, hence the spitting. Spitting the phlegm gets the problem outside your body, and unlikely to spread to another's, unless you spit it ON them, which they don't.) Many "manners teachers" went about the city instructing people about the rudeness of doing so, advising people to swallow their phlegm instead. While not as good as spitting medically, this still works. Stomach acid tends to destroy most bacteria and viruses. This way, the wealthy "first world" nations would not observe Chinese people behaving like the "backwards bumpkins" that they were depicted as in the past.

Language was then addressed. There are at least as many languages in China as in Europe, but functionally one can operate in China with two: Mandarin and Cantonese. Almost every Chinese citizen speaks at least one of those. Unfortunately, knowledge of non-Chinese languages is a bit more limited. China has a very long history of being an isolationist country, with little interest in what goes on outside its boarders. A recent interest in English was ramped up with government assistance in teaching, as well as instruction in French, German, Japanese, Russian, and a few other languages likely to be prevalent during the games. (As neither Mandarin nor Cantonese are common outside of China, most language students are utterly boggled by the ideographic writing system.) Confused outsiders would not be a good thing, it feels "unfriendly." (If I were told that a group of Beijing citizens were coming to see me, I think I'd want to learn at least a catch-phrase knowledge before they showed up. Even if they did learn a little English from the movies or Internet.) Japanese was especially surprising, as China has all but declared Japan to be a blood rival.

Dissent is a common worry of the Chinese government. Every dynasty since the earliest ones have made decisions unpopular with somebody or other, and the tradition about dissent is that you shut up and get back to work before you get in trouble. The authorities felt, for whatever reason, that protesters visible in the streets during the games would be embarrassing. This was solved in a method I don't really approve of: Anyone seen as likely to protest was unceremoniously deported. It may have short-circuited on-camera protests, I suppose, but that kind of behavior isn't good for the long term reputation. China is, like Germany, ultimately an "Order" nation, so I don't think it minds suffering the wrath of some for the desire of more.

Lastly, the authorities wanted to show off. To ward off the reputation of China as a poor country, and to flaunt technical sophistication, the airport was stocked with talking robots that recognized and spoke back with each of the languages I listed above. The robots reportedly walk autonomously (a difficult task), recognize specific people, remember short conversations, and other tasks. They have stock answers to common questions in the top languages. Speech recognition is difficult for robots, and recently large strides have been made by Chinese people in this topic. (I recall a researcher describing using his own difficult struggle to learn English to try and do the same to a computer, which doesn't understand any human language to begin with. Many aspects of speech recognition are counterintuitive.)

Many of China's dreams for the games did not come true. The organizer's idea of the long, multicircumnavigational torch relay was dogged by protests in quite a few of the ports it stopped at, to the annoyance of both government and common citizen alike. (The Chinese government has enraged quite a few people during its years. Many of the citizens feel like they are unfairly targeted as well.) The organizational efforts have been criticized rather soundly. Even in China, a few people suspect that the entire event is essentially a stunt, and that by the end of September, many of the improvements they enjoyed for the games would be dismantled for whatever reason.

This Olympics have often been described as China's "coming out" party, much of it being the Chinese government and people's way of saying, "Hey, we're a rich and powerful country now. We should be proud." They've worked hard for it. And plus, last week, the Chinese government did something I thought it would never do in a million years. It agreed to negotiate with someone they previously considered practically the devil himself: The Dalai Lama. (The Dalai Lama used to be the leader of Tibet, and pretty much has every reason to stir up trouble there and otherwise make the Chinese government miserable.)

Welcome to the first world, China. It isn't easy. You'll have to fend of entropy, sloth, and stagnation, and sometimes people will make fun of you.

Oh, and what's with you guys and Sudan? Really, I'd like to hear it.

Friday, August 22, 2008

China's Olympics -- The History

Ah, a mad engineering special. But first, a little history.

The Olympic games were an ancient greek sporting event that they abruptly stopped holding in 393. Perhaps the newly converted to Christianity Greeks were unfond of their old pagan culture, or the way that they traditionally held the games completely naked. Or maybe they didn't feel like bothering anymore. But for a long period, the Olympics were not held. There were a few one-nation imitators, but nothing formal.

The Greeks became interested in holding the games again in 1833. This time, they would wear clothes while doing traditional sports, and this time they would invite the whole world. It took some time to organize it (communications back then were kind of slow,) but what we could call the modern olympic games took place in Athens in 1859.

China, who is hosting the olympics right now, first showed a glimmer of interest in 1908. China's government has repeatedly changed throughout its 6000+ year history, and at the time, the Qing ("Ching") dynasty was in charge. The Qing dynasty was rare because its imperial line was held by an ethnic minority group. It had its glories, but by the time it encountered western nations in the 1800s, the decrepidness was showing. Especially when the UK declared colonial war on them and won easily. This showed China that it was not the superpower that it was in past times, and the world was blowing past it, much to the humiliation of the Qing government.

The Qing government collapsed in 1911, and a republic rose in its place. The republic had a number of problems, including two wars with Japan (one of which was part of World War II) and, in addition, there were communist insurgents that also desired to be the proper government. They became more interested still in the Olympics, even if they couldn't field a team yet. (China then had about as much technology as Africa today. Build a track field to practice on? Surely you're kidding.) The operating committee still got a Chinese member by 1922.

The republic also became corrupt, and did a fairly poor job fighting world war II. Japan held a large part of Manchuria during the war, and entered a team from that area as an independent nation, much to Chinese displeasure. The Chinese tried to field a team, but they didn't qualify. Again, no good track to practice on, not enough time off from work.

World war II ended in 1945. The communist insurgents were quite popular with the Chinese for doing most of the WWII fighting, and the republic officials fought to retain control, unsuccessfully. The republic officials were forced to retreat, which they did to Taiwan, a small island long held by China. The communists, who were now the government in charge of China and called themselves the People's Republic of China (PRC), turned around and took back Tibet, which was previously Chinese held and had broken away before. The republic officials, operating out of Taipei, still claimed to be the rightful government of both the island and the mainland, as did the Communist government.

China was now having observers watching the games on a regular basis, and managed to send an athletic team that qualified in 1952. Taiwan occasionally played, and the Chinese government bitterly complained about Taiwan's description as "Republic of Taiwan." This lead to boycotts of the olympics until Taiwan's team was renamed "Chinese Taipei," which reflects both governments feelings on the matter.

During the 50s through the 80s, there were a lot of boycotts, mostly about communism. The capitalist countries were enraged that communist countries could participate, and vice versa. China was interested in hosting the olympics now, but as an almost entirely rural, farming nation, was continuously rejected. Transportation was impossible, farms tend to reek of animal poop, sanitation is not good before urbanization and so on. Also, the US changed its recognition from Taiwan to China in 1973, thanks to the efforts of, surprisingly, Richard Nixon. (The mainland and Taiwan governments only allow you to recognize one of them. If you recognize one of them as a nation, they forbid you to recognize the other. Otherwise they won't respect the relationship.)

In 1984, the games were in Los Angeles. The mainland Chinese team won a gold medal for the first time, and both the mainland and Taiwan governments participated together. China was quite proud of itself, and was starting to finally industrialize after many false starts. As was its neighbors in Korea. The soviet union boycotted these games to protest the boycott of theirs in 1980.

South Korea held the games in 1988, the first Asian nation to do so. South Korea was hoping to demonstrate its newfound industrial power to the world. Unfortunately for them, the people protested the fact that South Korea was, at the time, a dictatorship. The South Korean government looked immensely stupid, and was so humiliated that it collapsed in favor of a democracy, which still stands.

In late 2007, China finally was accepted to host the 2008 olympics, in their capital city of Beijing, much to the delight of the Chinese government. And the people. At this point, stock was taken in Beijing, and a number of problems were noticed.

For starters, industrialization had led to smoke-belching factories and numerous cars. The roads were full of traffic, the pollution combined with wind-blown sand from a nearby desert to form a thick yellow fog (which I'm told also kind of smells), and visitors to the city often complained of rude clerks, unflushed toilets, Beijing residents hocking phlegm on the ground, and bad food. Also, a number of groups were displeased with the status quo in China, and wanted to protest vigorously and (from the government's perspective) embarrassingly. And the reputation of the Chinese government abroad was mostly about brutal repression of dissent, internet censorship, and bizzare assertions.

Beijing itself was famous mostly for being a megacapitalism area with a gazillion businesses, all working intensely in brutalist buildings for a brighter tomorrow. (And the brighter tomorrow has greatly improved Chinese lives, because as hard as sweatshop labor is and as low as it pays, it's a hell of a lot better than utter-crap-paying farm work.) This would not do for China -- this was the first glimpse that the worldwide media would have of it, and China does not want to give a first impression of a polluted, rude, artless hellhole.

The boundries of sanity would clearly have to be breached here. One year to completely remake the city not only physically, but also socially. Engineering, sociology, psychology, art, chemistry, and earth science would all have to be stretched to their limits to ensure a bright, photogenic, picture-perfect Beijing. With, of course, bright blue skies under a warm sun. Also, for astrological reasons, it should be held on August 8th to take advantage of the most possible 8s before 2088. (2088 is deep in the future, some time after I'm predicted to die.) 8s are lucky to Chinese numerology.

The people of Beijing collectively rolled up their sleaves, and citizens from all the rest of China poured in to lend a hand. After all, Beijing was representing all of China, and they wanted their nation to look good, for patriotism if nothing else.

The Mad Engineering of Beijing had begun.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Washing up, The Mad Engineering Way

I've always disliked doing laundry, because for the longest time I didn't know how to do it right and would wind up with soapy, bleach stained clothes.

Well, we have a saying in the engineering department, "Work is good, but drudgery is evil." Meaning that it's good to work very hard on interesting problems, and if a problem isn't interesting, you should work a thousand times harder to automate it so you never, ever, ever have to do it again.

Okay, so what tasks are involved in laundry? In the ancient past, this would involve boiling water, cutting soap into it, adding the clothes, scrubbing until clean, draining the water, and hanging the clothes outside until they dried. If the clothes were white, there was chlorine bleach that would make it even whiter, but if it was added to colored clothing, it would...make it white. Anyway, this whole process was deemed to be a royal pain in the ass.

So the washing machine was invented. Selecting washing time, load size, and water temperature from a handy gage, I can then put the clothes into the machine, add some detergent, pull the knob to start, and come back in about an hour to washed clothes. Similarly, there is a drying machine that blows hot air into a motorized drum, and if I put my clothes in it, select the time and temperature (some clothes will be damaged if the air is too hot), and pull the knob, it will dry my clothes, at which point I can fold them and put them away.

Unfortunately, this too has some problems. I can't readily determine if my load is "large" or "medium," and often wasted water with too large a selection, or not enough (and would have to wash again.) I used to add too much soap because I wasn't sure how much to use. And worst of all, if I had run a white load before, the machine often had spots where a bit of bleach remained, behind the drum where I couldn't see it. If I put my clothes in before the water filled, it would make a little white blotch on my nice clothes.

My idea was also influenced by an invention I saw for sale at the appliance store: A combination washer/dryer. This eliminates the need to transfer the clothes between the two.

So my ultimate wash idea is a hamper, that drops into a washing machine with a scale and a sophisticated computer. The hamper backs up until the washing machine has a "full" load, determined by the scale, at which point all the clothes are added, along with a dose of soap. A separate hamper would be required for bleach loads. Sensors could detect the soil-level and adjust the amount of soap and/or bleach. Using the combined wash/dry technology, the clothes would also be dried here, and ejected into a clean bin.

Automatic folding and putting away of the clothes will have to wait for the invention of robotic butlers.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Technical Language

Engineering involves a lot of technical language, much of which is actually less complex than it sounds.

Take This cartoon involving two groups of people trying to out-engineer the other, one is trying to find the other without being detected, and the second is trying to foil this.

The ultimate gag is a "Connector Ejector" that causes a part to fall out of the opposing machine, sabotaging it. So the good guys find out where the evil guys are...but the evil guys know that they're coming.

Now the ultimate setup (each part involves the entire name of the previous part, for hilarious reasons,) is the "Quantum vector collector inspector detector deflector projector protector connector ejector." Certainly a complex sounding compound idea, but each of these can be broken down conceptually so that even a 4th grade student could understand it.


From the Latin "Quantus," meaning "How much," it has come to mean "Immensely small, on the atomic scale." So this device involves really tiny particles.


A mathematical idea involving a number that is not only a quantity, but also a direction. Very commonly used in physics, where things like velocity and acceleration are affected not only by how much, but in what way. Changing directions affects things at least as much as speeding up or slowing down.

In this case, only the "direction" part matters. So far it is "using small particles to find a direction."


To "Collect" is to "Gather up." This is the villain's first counter measure, gathering up the quantum vectors so that the heroes cannot read them.


To "inspect" is to "examine." This part of the device checks for the gathering of quantum vectors, and presumably has some way of retrieving them if they are being collected.


Like the inspector, the detector can tell if something this case, the villains can detect the snooping around of the heroes.

Calling a device a "detector" implies it to be more of a passive sensing than an "inspector." An "inspector" would actively search for the condition, while a "detector" would more passively watch for it.

If you can see the picture, it shows a smoke detector, a device that can sense if smoke is present in the room. Most smoke detectors I know aren't very good at it, being set off by cooking smoke, or even steam from a shower.


To "Deflect" is to "bounce off." So this device would "bounce off" anything that the detector used to detect, foiling it. The heroes would then be free to find the villains without fear of detection.


Meaning "A device that throws forward." Most Americans are familiar with light projectors that project a still image on a flat surface, and film projectors, that does the same with a continuous film strip to produce a moving one.

This one "throws forward" something to harm the deflector, foiling the heroes' security system once again.


To protect something is to keep it safe from harm, so this device would somehow absorb or make harmless whatever it is that the projector throws forward.


Complex machines are not generated by magic. They are constructed from simpler machines, often factory made. These simpler machines must be connected together in the right configuration to do a complex job.

In fact, a modern computer could not be made by any one person anymore. You need a team of 20 to design even the central parts. The parts only work because the simpler parts (which one person knows how to make) can be connected together by experts until a complex design emerges.

So the villain's final stab at victory is to mess with his opponent's machine directly.

(Yes, the connection points ARE the weakest point in modern manufacturing. This will continue to be the case unless some kind of magical teleportation gets invented.)


To "eject" is to "throw out." So an ejector throws something out of a machine. In this case, it removes one part from the hero's machine. Namely, the "Protector" part, and anything attaching it to the rest of the machine.


So for this strip, team evil was just SLIGHTLY smarter than team good, and team good accidentally tipped their hand. But team good won in the end. And you got to learn a whole bunch of fancy words that might even help you invent something*.

* Inventions may be slightly or totally insane and/or non-practical.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sugar car

Sugar cane residue can be used as a biofuelImage via Wikipedia

It was suggested to me that since high fructose corn syrup is both rampant in modern products (and therefore cheap and plentiful), and not good for human consumption, therefore it should make a good fuel.

Fuel thought in the untrained is often spoiled by the idea that any matter could be a fuel if it is destroyed by use. Not so. Fuels are specifically chosen because of their internal chemical energy, which the engine extracts to power the work. So "water is a fuel" is a non-option, sorry. (Yes, it is obviously tempting. The earth is 70% covered in salt water, and if that could be made into a fuel, we'd never want for energy ever again.)

All sugars, whether they come from corn, cane, beets, or fruit, have 4 calories per gram. Would this be more or less than gasoline? After all, it won't be worth my time to work it if the sugar car gets only a few miles to the gallon. (This is the problem with electric cars - sure electricity is cheap, but if you can only store enough to go 10 miles, it will only be worthwhile to people in dense, dense cities, and those people tend to walk or have cheap mass transit in the first place.)

Working it out, gasoline has about 10 calories per gram. So if the sugar car is as efficient as my gasoline powered car, it would get 6 miles to the gallon, and only have a range of maybe 100 miles. Sugar might be cheaper, but not that much cheaper.

So the sugar car doesn't work. But wait, while researching this, I discovered that HFCS is made in the first place by digesting corn starch. If you put the corn starch into a yeasty solution, you could produce ethanol from that. Ethanol has at 7-10 calories per gram, and a high octane number (~111). So if manufacturers made ethanol instead of HFCS, that would be a worthwhile thing to dilute gasoline with. (If 10 pounds of corn make 9 pounds of HFCS, then it would make 2 pounds of ethanol. Manufacturer will be slightly less pleased about that.)

So sometimes you can salvage an idea from the jaws of defeat.

PS: I in fact fuel up with 10% ethanol diluted gasoline.
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Thursday, August 7, 2008

World Problems: Water

Another problem postulated to me is the lack of food and water for many of the world's poor. I think I already discussed food.

In many impoverished countries, not only is food pricey for many of its citizens, but clean water is not readily available at prices less than 1st world bottled water (which is a fortune as far as they are concerned.) They get water, but it's scummy river water and needs extensive sterilization, lest they get sick. And sometimes, they don't do it right, either because they forgot, are in a hurry, or the water seems fine at first. (The water could be perfectly clear and clean smelling, but still riddled with bacteria.)

Much of this is in Africa, which has mostly murky, unwise-to-drink-from rivers. I propose an inter-African water-pipe system, with filtering plants in the uninhabited desert part. Yes, water treatment plants do tend to smell, but why not stink up the places where nobody goes anyway?

Another part of the problem is political in nature: water bottling pays the local governments for the water better than all the peasants could, even collectively. Sometimes a government really needs to do what is best for its people, rather than what's best for its wallet. And unfortunately, sometimes a local government doesn't.

Some researchers are working on a cheap, portable, water sterilizer for those regions where the government doesn't. They've almost got it. Almost.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Self milking cows

This is actually the second time I've heard this story, but I lost the first one.

A dairy farm has set up a booth that a cow can walk into, get milked, and then released. Cows do want to be milked -- an un-milked cow's udders are swollen and sore, and this system allows the cow to be milked when the cow wants it, not just when the farmer is available. The first time I heard about this, it was a different farm, with slightly different technical specifications, and it was not selling the system to other farms.

The system in the article uses an embedded computer with Linux as an operating system. The cow walks into the booth, and the booth recognizses, by the change in weight, that a cow has entered. A robotic probe finds the udders, cleans them, and attaches the milking device. The device milks the cow until no more milk flows forth, and then the door opens and the cow is gently pushed out. The booth cleans itself after the cow is gone. The cows have the entire system down pat within a few days, and milk themselves about 6 - 12 times per day. A farmer tends to milk a cow 1 - 4 times per day.

The first time I heard of this kind of thing, long ago on Slashdot, the computer was based off of Berkley's BSD, a Unix system that inspired Linux, the farm had 4 booths, and that farm was not going to sell the system to other farms. This article does not say how many booths it has, but mentions that the dairy itself is 122 years old -- likely it has thousands of cows.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Managing Trucker Bombs

Many municipalities are claiming a problem with what they call, euphemistically, "trucker bombs." No, it's not a terrorist threat, merely kind of gross. "Trucker bombs" are milk jugs full of pee, tossed to the side of the road so that the truck doesn't have to stop.

Now the easiest solution to this would be to collect them, empty them into a toilet, and flush. Of course, few people want to do this without at least a pair of disposable latex gloves and a nine hour shower afterwards to remove the dirty feeling. So the communities would like to identify the trucker responsible and punish him (truckers doing this are almost always male, guess why?) so that he doesn't do it again.

Two things are against DNA testing here. First, the jugs are not discovered for a while, and DNA tends to deteriorate when left outside a human body. Secondly, urine does not contain DNA, unless it brings with it epithelial cells, and the DNA is entirely confined to those cells. Truckers are unlikely to pee out these cells, as this only happens with people who have certain urological diseases. So chemical tests won't discover the identity of the culprit unless picked up immediately, while still warm. Ick.

If you combined my previous idea of uibiquitous internet, and motion-activated cameras, you could have it snap pictures of the vehicles of everyone who throws something out their window, but that wouldn't stop it immediately. What to do about these nasty jugs?

I propose robotic collection. Every few days, the robot is sent out to the highway, and picks up all white or yellow objects and puts them in a bin that it carries on its back.

And while it could be flushed, there's a better thing that could be done: Urine is rich in nitrogen, and would make an excellent fertilizer if watered down. So a field of crops could be watered from beneath with pipes fed from a water tank, which has a trucker bomb emptied into it once per emptying. A typical farm would consume 147 trucker bombs per day. Plants are thirsty.

147 trucker bombs tends to be the entire production of the Halifax area.
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