Sunday, February 28, 2010

Alternative Energy

Most of the United States' electrical power comes from coal fired steam plants. There's an effort to shift away from this, because coal is made almost entirely of carbon, and produces a sooty ash that pollutes everything in its immediate environment. Even "clean" coal, which would be more accurately described as "slightly less sooty than usual." (And lastly, to use coal requires coal mining, which isn't pleasant work.) Yes, the soot can be scrubbed, if you bother with that. Many don't.
So, how else can we generate power? In a world increasingly thirty for electricity, and increasingly wary of the problems with traditional electrical generation, how can we get the juice to keep our cities running?
* Nuclear
We put a very heavy metal into a chamber, where we ram it with neutrons until it splits into two smaller metals. This makes heat, boils water, and makes power.
+ No carbon output or soot
+ Fancy
+ Uses relatively little fuel
- Nuclear waste
- Media will get hysterical about it
* Natural Gas
+ Cheap
+ No soot.
- Same carbon problem
Natural gas is a hydrocarbon trapped in many rock formations. It burns easily, and cleanly, producing carbon dioxide and water, with none of that sooty problem.
* Bloom box
I've heard quite a lot of bragging media about this, unfortunately most of them neglect the part of mentioning how it actually works. It's a small box into which natural gas is pumped. The gas burns, but instead of making heat, it instead is channeled directly into electricity. A bloom box the size of two bricks can power an average American house, a bloom box the size of a refrigerator would power a commercial building, and each uses natural gas in proportion to its size.
+ Same as natural gas
+ Power is made where and when it is used, for greater efficiency
+ Awesome hype
+ More reliable than electric grid connection
- Setup costs
- Same carbon problem
- Stored natural gas could potentially explode
* Gravity power
A building contains a large shaft, with many turbines embedded in the edges. At the bottom is a steel plate on a spring, and a doorway to a large chamber. Rocks are thrown down the shaft. When they hit the sides, they impart rotation to the turbines, and when they hit the bottom, they compress the springs, both of which are exploited for power. The rock will bounce out into the chamber. I assume that there are stairs to the lower chamber.
+ Hillariously overengineered
+ No pollution. (Maybe noise?)
+ More easily constructed than the other methods. Could be built anywhere gravity exists.
+ Fuel not required. Rocks are not destroyed by being used.
- If rocks are not collected, they will first fill the lower chamber, then the shaft, ending the usefulness of the system.
- If rocks are collected, this will inevitably take more energy than was put in, possibly by cheap human labor. Unskilled workers would take a large bucket, fill it with rocks, and haul the rocks up the stairs.
* Hydroelectric power
A river is dammed up, forcing it to run past a turbine to get back to the ocean. The river backs up behind the dam, producing considerable pressure.
+ No carbon. (Sometimes even absorbs some as the cement cures!)
- Requires a river
- Will flood the region behind the dam
- Flood will likely damage wildlife far beyond where the water eventually reaches. Rare species could go extinct.
* Radioisotope
A piece of nuclear waste the size of a soda can is surrounded by a vast metal stiller machine. the metal enclosure absorbs the various radiations (alpha, beta, gamma) emitted by the waste, and as the heat flows out, the machine uses the flow to produce electricity.
+ Safe, Stable, few moving parts
+ Heats area where it is housed
+ Makes something useful out of nuclear waste
+ Consistent, will last for thousands of years with no maintenance
- Making it requires handling nuclear waste
- Bulky and heavy. A unit as tall as I and as thick as a trash can would produce 300 watts. You'd need 5 of those to power an ordinary American house
- Only made by one laboratory in Idaho, which will only sell them to the government.
* "Hamster Wheel"
A hamster wheel is a small wire-mesh device with a round rotating part attached to a stand. A small animal, like a hamster, can run inside the wheel for exercise. scaled up, a horse or human could run inside one, and a shaft connected to a turbine. The turbine would make power when the wheel is spun by running.
+ Power is made near where it is used
+ Could be run by unskilled labor
- Excessively crazy
- Worst. Job. Evar.
* Fusion power
In a process basically identical to what happens in the sun (or any other star), hydrogen atoms are rammed together, where they combine into helium. Some mass is transformed into energy instead, from which power is extracted.
+ can take hydrogen from any source, including water
+ Water is extremely abundant on earth
+ Carbon not produced until at higher temperatures, and even then as solid carbon, not gas.
- Current setups use more energy than they produce.
- Higher technology level required for efficient use.
* Antimatter
An oppositely charged particle is run into a conventional one. Both destroy each other in a burst of energy, some of which can be extracted.
+ Anything would be fuel. Anything. Water, garbage, coal, toxic waste, rocks, anything.
+ No pollution
+ No carbon emission
- Inputs destroyed forever and irretrievably.
- Half the input must be antimatter, which makes it....
- Impossibly expensive with today's technology if even possible at all.

So....we have options. Let us hope we choose wisely.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Nonhuman Music

I have four tracks of music on my computer that were written by something that wasn't a human being. This is not a surprise to me -- birds and some other animals use music for communication and whatnot, but it has disturbed some people who believe that music is somehow uniquely human.
Two of the tracks are by an elephant orchestra in Thailand. Elephants write rather strange music by human terms, with a jarring and chaotic sound. This doesn't disturb the critics, because they can easily proclaim it not to be real music.
The other two are written by a computer program, in the style of European classical music, as was popular from 1400 - 1800. They are indistinguishable from a composition written by a person back then, and that really bothers people. because they feel that only a human being can produce music that touches their emotions like that, and if a computer can do it, maybe their feelings somehow weren't real in the first place.
The program, EMI, has undergone a lot of evolution. It was first taught to write music according to rules, but that proved too boring. So then its author, Miller McCune, reviewed how classical composers wrote, and they did often break their own rules. So randomness and rule breaking were introduced. Many small improvements later, it was writing music that could fool all the critics.
In a way, it doesn't compete with human composers, because human composers can work with many different styles, and can even chose styles, while the program is limited to one style.
Personally I have dabbled in music, but I ironically seem to be some sort of hypothetical composer, being quite able to produce interesting scores, but unable to actually perform them. Strange. I like this idea, because people love music, and this ensures that there will be a lot of it.

Friday, February 26, 2010


As a society, we Americans pour quite a lot of water down the drain. Then we get fresh water from the faucet to water plants, the lawn, or a flower box. Most of the country is experiencing drought. My cognitive dissonance is massive.
Okay, sure, you rather sanely wouldn't want to drink water that's been in your sink with the raw meat and dirty dishes. Plants are less picky. If your water is full of bacteria, they think that's awesome, it'll bring them more vitamins. If it's hard, even better, free mineral supplement! It's warm, no biggie there, either. It's we animals that worry about that kind of thing.
Greywater systems that recycle safer sources of used water to water a lawn or garden have existed for years, the main obstacle being legal. See, plumbers used to install septic systems really close to the house out of sheer laziness, and then when something went wrong with the septic system, the homeowner had a massive flow of unmentionable straight into the basement, which was bad for the owner's health. And whatever plumber was called in to fix it. So the universal plumbing code requires all septic systems to be a certain distance away from any house, and numerous safety features that don't play well with greywater.
However, in an increasingly thirsty world, more and more municipalities are forced to reconsider these rules, lest they be forced to pay for expensive treatment plants on increasingly stressed budgets.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


When I think about it, Paper is a kind of carbon sequestering. Trees that get made into paper are grown specifically for that purpose on large plantations owned by the paper company. After being made into paper, they spend varying time being shuffled around various printers, desks, envelopes, and so on until they are eventually thrown away into a landfill, where they at some point return to the pre-tree carbon.
If we were to somehow figure out a way to keep the paper from rotting, this could actually prove an interesting way to keep carbon out of the air. It's commercial, so someone could actually make money on it, which means the big corporations could get involved....

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Cybernetic Running Suit

Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius has been disqualified from running for an interesting reason. His carbon fiber feet give him what the Olympic officials consider an unfair advantage. He only uses a quarter the energy that a biological-legged person would use, and therefore could run four times farther on the same effort.
Mr. Pistorius lost most of his legs as a young child due to a bone deformity, in which his fibula, the longer leg bone, was missing, and the remaining bone did not support his weight. Rather than be saddled with legs that could not function, doctors amputated everything below his knees. Nonetheless, prosthetics have advanced to the point where he was able to play rugby, and his running habit began to recover from a rugby injury, according to CBS news. His limbs give me an idea.
I see a strapped-on device, attached to the lower leg of an ordinary person, which effectively lengthens their leg by 300 centimeters (or so) and ends in a carbon-fiber "foot" like Mr. Pistorius's prosthetic leg. After a brief adjustment period, the user would be able to run further and faster than before, and at the end of the run, the device could be removed. What for? I see it as advantages for people to use more foot-power to travel to where they need to go, and less gasoline. They would be small enough to stow in a locker at the destination, unlike a bicycle, and wouldn't require any more safety equipment than a jog would. With it, I could easily run to the nearest city for work or shopping without using my car.
The main disadvantage of the device would be that it would look slightly silly.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Flatten and Reinstall -- It's the only way

Yesterday my main computer went mad. Software that I was trying to use refused to run, and it refused to reinstall, so I backed up everything, wiped the hard drive clean, and whipped out my reinstall scripts.
I deliberately broke their automation to a degree. After all, by default it would restore binaries of my applications, as would be appropriate were I to be, say, replacing the hard drive. But I want it to replace the software with new, sane, software, and to monitor the process in case everything went crazy. And I learned some things.
For one, large amounts of my script are now broken, thanks to distribution changes. Thank you very much, upstream. Some of it is my fault -- I expand archives to the temporary directory instead of my intention, the root directory. Some of it is upstream's fault, due to my list of software now involving circular dependencies unless I specify it literally one at a time. I can automate around this, of course, but it's one more irritation in the system.
On the plus side of this, this ends all hanging dependencies, all out of date software, and all substandard anything. Everything on the computer is now shiny and new on the software level, which is awesome.
Now for the mad engineering level, which I know you're all anxious for, embedded wall computer. We drill a hole in the wall, and put a computer and touch screen inside it, connect them, then seal around the touch screen with drywall. Tape over the screen, paint the wall, and remove the tape. It will seem like your entire wall is a computer now, especially if it has a domotics (better known as home automation) software installed on it. Control your entire house...from your living room wall. Awesome

Friday, February 19, 2010


For the past week, I've had what I'm fairly sure is a viral infection. The low temperature have compounded the problem. Constantly hacking up phlegm isn't conducive to inventing insane machines, but I have made some discoveries about previous ones. None are big enough to merit their own post, but I may retroactively change the old posts.
Anyway, viruses. Viruses are constructs of protein that are debatably not alive, but are still able to hijack your cells for use as a virus-factory. This is how they reproduce. Others can rewrite their genetics into DNA and slip them into yours, a trait that leaves them labeled as "retroviruses." Between 10 and 50 percent of a human's genes were actually virally inserted. (Mostly into their ancestors.) Mine is, I suppose, a "cold," a family of rhinoviruses whose symptoms include nasal mucus, sneezing, coughing and miasma, all not caused by the virus itself but by the body's immune system frantically fighting it off, lest your important cells be used as virus factories. (The viral factory conversion typically kills the cell by depleting it of resources.) The name of the disease was due to the pre-germ-theory speculation of what caused it. They then believed that low temperatures were to blame.
Most viruses in existence actually cannot infect you. Bacteriophages are the most common kind of virus, and count on certain constructs of their chosen bacterial prey to use their cells, and your cells and mine do not have these constructs. Were you to inhale a cloud of mist containing a trillion bacteriophages, they would bounce around in your lungs for a bit, then either get exhaled, or die of starvation and then get exhaled. They could not deal with your cells, and would harmlessly bounce off them.
Biology has a lot of studies to do about viruses. Retroviruses offer a potential remedy for genetic disorders of all stripes. Targeting remains the biggest issue, one does not wish to replace one problem with a different one. Or wind up producing children who have little resemblance to yourself, if one modifies your genome too heavily. Viral diseases and the treatment thereof is a large part of medicine, particularly a cure for horrifying diseases like Ebola and AIDS. Unfortunately, intensive research has yet to find an outright cure for even trivial diseases like my cold, although even a treatment plan would prove major progress. A treatment plan would save millions of lives worldwide. Good luck with that, ladies and gentlemen.
For my cold, fluid, rest, and hot liquids are recommended. Goodnight.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Health Care

A fight over health care rages in the United States between liberals who wants a government-run system along the lines of Canada's, and conservatives who favor the existing privately held insurance companies. Mad Engineering wishes to endorse a third way: automated health care.
All processes can, with some effort, be automated. Including medicine, a complicated field. Medical care will be difficult to automate, due to the inherent complexity, but it can happen.
I propose a series of machines be invented, each one capable of one particular procedure, and one able to give a physical exam to suggest which other machine should be availed. As a gesture in favor of the liberals, I propose that the government pay for and place at least one physical-giving machine per city, and as a gesture to the conservatives, I suggest that it charge 25 cents per exam, and that the manufacturing company sell the machines to those willing to pay for one.
Medical doctors will now only have to handle the more complicated cases that the machines cannot handle. These tasks are also either more interesting to the doctor, or better paying. (I do know of people who have gotten free medical care, simply because their cases were interesting to the doctor, who was able to write a long report that increased his or her fame. The loss of the $2500 or so the doctor normally would have charged paid off with the chance to do the report and be talked about by other doctors.)
A government program should be in place for the indigent to offer a quarter or token to use the machines as needed, and private insurance companies can also provide tokens to use certain machines. Now nobody need suffer a lack of health care, human doctors mostly do complex procedures that interest them, and both government and insurance companies pay out less for more health care. Everybody wins.
Now you can stop with the cranky messages about how your idea of how health care should be distributed is the only good way and everyone else is plotting to make everyone die in a ditch somewhere.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling one gets when one realizes that two of your beliefs contradict each other, therefore one of them must be wrong.
As an example of this, let's say that you've paid $100 into a fund, only to realize that the opportunity that you were hoping to exploit turns out to be extremely stupid, like a timeshare that you didn't really want. (Because let's say you hate traveling, it's somewhere you don't want to visit, and it's kind of small for you.) You are faced with the following beliefs:

  • I am a smart person

  • I paid $100 for this

  • It's extremely stupid

One of these has to go. You could go reverse sour grapes and convince yourself that you actually did want the timeshare and it's not stupid in any way. You could somehow believe that you didn't actually invest the money. (It was actually for the hotel stay on your vacation, or something else.) You probably won't decide that you're actually a dumbass who shouldn't be trusted with so much as a dime, because you probably respect yourself. Thinking of yourself as a fool is both harsh and very depressing.
Lately I've been reading a lot about George Orwell, Propaganda, and particularly Mr. Orwell's writings about nationalism and totalitarianism. He points out this phenomenon in his field (literary criticism) and nation (UK, 1940) occurs practically constantly. He gave constant examples of people wildly bending facts that implied things that they didn't like. His fellow critics often saw books in political terms, currying favor when the implied politics agreed with them, and loudly denouncing any implied disagreement.
He goes on to demonstrate how you could determine if a person was a Fascist by asking them to name the title of Haile Selassie, leader of Ethiopia. Anti-fascists would translate his official title to "Emperor," Pro-fascists would leave it untranslated (and thus threateningly foreign) as "Nagus." These terminologies were required by the person's beliefs about the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, specifically the justification. Pro-fascists saw it as the civilization of an uncivilized country, Anti-fascists saw it as a cynical land-grab.
This concept affects us today because more and more operations involve a psychological aspect. Wars are fought in which one side can win without firing a bullet, but instead by persuading their would be enemy not to fight. In peace time, advertising seeks to sway your behavior into buying the sponsor's products or services. Advertisers therefore have to minimize this effect, if not for honesty's sake, then for the hope of getting a repeat sale and good word of mouth.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


In the future, when we humans as a species have some project so massive that all the world's supercomputers aren't enough, I have an idea for a huge omni-computer.
We build a planet, of which one side is purely solar cells, and the other is all a massive supercomputer-complex, with a radio-array to send and receive instructions. The interior could be storage batteries, or maybe even is hollow. Due to the massive size of this, it would have to be constructed in space. We then move it to a very close orbit around the sun, where it becomes tidally locked with the solar-cell side always facing the sun, and the computer array always facing away. The solar cell side heats to over 500C, and provides Exawatts of power. The computer side is very cold when the machine is off, -300C. When the computer turns on, that will change.
This project would easily cost a quadrillion dollars, but it would solve every computation problem known to humankind in 30 minutes. Only a more complex problem would justify the massive expense.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Brownian Motion

It's been a while, hasn't it? Job hunting kinda drained away my ideas, so I'm going to describe a basic principle today.
Brownian motion is the hardest means of harnessing energy, but also in a way the most useful. Brownian motion is the random molecular motion from heat, and it can technically be harnessed to do useful work.
I once read a piece (I forget where, like most things I know), asking the reader to imaging having a car with no engine, perfect brakes, and in the middle of a massive hailstorm. The car is in front of a hill. When the brakes are deployed, the car doesn't move, when not deployed, the car is pushed by the momentum imparted by the hail. Using the brakes cleverly, depressing them when hail lands in front and releasing when hail lands in the back, the car can go up the hill. Even go up the hill reasonably quickly. This is how brownian motion can work for you.
Technically, this means that you could recycle heat directly into useful work, but you'd have to be very clever to do so. Probably more clever than current engineering allows. (Although biologists tell me that our own cells have some Brownian motion utilization systems, which is interesting.) But for now, the closest we have to this technology is Stiller's engine.
The reverend Stiller lived in a highly industrial town, and many of his parishioners were maimed in boiler explosions. Boilers didn't explode very often, but there were so many in town that somebody inevitably was around one. So he studied mechanical engineering to try and find a better way to transfer power. One that could not explode. He eventually produced a heat-differential type engine that had no moving parts. The user put one end into a fire, and the other hung in the room, and the temperature difference made power. This was useful, completely silent (except for the fire, but fires are reasonably quiet), and most importantly, didn't explode under pressure. Stiller's parishioners were safe. Since then, the technology is often used in submarines, to produce completely silent operation. I recommend them for any power system that needs to be quiet, and has a readily available heat difference. (Or where you can build a fire, which is the beauty of it -- any heat source at all works.)
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...