Sunday, October 31, 2010


Solipsism is a philosophy that the only thing that you can be sure exists is your own mind, because you experience it. Everything else, like other people, the world, and even your own physical body, may be an elaborate fraud that you dreamed up because you got bored. You cannot be sure that other people aren't philosophical zombies, you cannot be sure that other people even exist. Even the world and your body may be a dream. It comes from the latin solo ipse, meaning, "Only Self."
Solipsism is non-falsifiable. Anything I could demonstrate to show you that I'm conscious could be dismissed, as you don't directly experience my mind. In fact, anything I point your attention to could very well be imagined on your part. That rock I dropped on your foot? It's possible that neither the rock nor your foot really existed in the first place. The pain you feel may just be leftover guilt from something you forgot. Or remember.
Since it's non-falsifiable, and leads to some very bizarre conclusions, most philosophers reject solipsism. Even if it was true, you could draw no useful conclusions from it. If you're really a brain in a jar, imagining that you're reading this post...well, could you stop? Recreate the world to suit your own needs? Escape from what seems to be danger? Since you don't seem to be able to stop, you may as well assume it's real.
One of my favorite quotes says: "Reality is that which doesn't go away when we ignore it." Solipsism amounts to plugging our ears and asserting that we can anyway.

Saturday, October 30, 2010


I hear that Bunnie's Chumby device is quite popular. It's a small, portable computer that can report on preprogrammed feeds of information, so you can always know what's on twitter, or in the news, or how your favorite stock is doing. While you're on the subway. Or at the dentist's. Or at work. (Warning: Do actual work while at work. Checking twitter or whatever all day will get you fired.) It's portable, and can get its Internet connection from any wireless connection, which are more and more common these days.
There are some times when you might want the information, but looking at it is a bad idea. Like, while you're driving. Taking your eyes off the road for even a second is a terrible idea, even if your stocks are tanking, your best friend is having a tempest-like breakup, or the news announced that we're now at war with the entire rest of the earth. As important as these things may be, they're not more important than not colliding with another car at 100KPH.
So, I propose either an addition to the chumby, or a separate device, that connects to a bluetooth receiver in your ear and reads out, in the best synthesized voice that it can manage, a summary of events as they are brought to the device's attention. It would be no more distracting than a radio, which are standard in cars and haven't proven too severe a distraction. It wouldn't be very harsh on the device's CPU, either, due to big advances in speech synthesis. It will sound like a droning robot, which would probably get very old, very fast.
Bonus points if speech transcription software is running at the same time, so you could verbally address the thing. Even if to say, "Computer, shut up." Operating the thing while not being distracted is paramount.

Friday, October 29, 2010


I'm flabbergasted at what cabinets cost. Every house and apartment has them, for storing dishes and things, they're very simple, and they're several hundred dollars. For a very simple arrangement of wood. What the hell?
I'm imaging a system that, given six planes of particle board, slices them into a very attractive arrangement of cabinet, and staples them together. Or nails them together. Or in some way attaches the pieces. It also attaches shelves. Users take this to a forklift-like device that holds them against the wall, where users, knowing where the wall studs are, drills them into place.
Total cost: about $40.
Of course, one problem: No doors on this arrangement, and lots of scrap. But people prefer artistic doors anyway, and would probably be willing to pay a human carpenter to come up with something interesting.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Incremental Cooking Automation

A long time ago, I proposed automated cooking, which quite a few people expressed interest in. It's a tricky task, one that I think we'll have to do with incremental evolution, the way that Wright brother's bicycle-like plane that flew slower than I can walk evolved into the supersonic jet. one step at a time.
Some things are more automated now than before. Hand-mixing has mostly given way to mixing machines. Tortillas used to be rolled out by hand, but are now mostly made with a massive metal contraption that rolls them evenly flat, tosses them into a heated area for baking, and produces a picture perfect tortilla every single time. There are bread machines that kneed, rise, and bake the bread, requiring the consumer to add the ingredients and plug it in. These steps are the increments. They do one thing perfectly well. When one of these exists for everything, then the automated kitchen that I described can be made. By integrating one of everything.
Take the tortilla-maker. If I have a food nozzle, a sauce nozzle, a cheese dispenser, and a folding machine, I can combine all of these into a machine that grinds out tortillas and enchiladas. Food factories already have such things, but they don't run all the time. People like a variety of foods, so only so many burritos and so many enchiladas are made, and then those things go back into storage while the factory is set up for something completely different, like chicken pot pie, or crab bisque, or borsch. These are often also at least semi-automated, because the machines work faster and cheaper than humans.
Since I don't work in the food industry, I could not tell you what still needs automation. More complicated dishes, probably. I have yet to hear of a automated risotto machine, or a souffle maker. This is probably due to low demand. Anyone who really wants a souffle is generally willing to hire a professional chef to do so.
I think in the meantime, machines that can do some simple things could be installed in the kitchen and made to cook for you every day, if you really don't like cooking and don't mind having a limited number of things to eat. A limit that goes up every time a new technology is developed and installed.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Nieman's Physics

for the New York Times, artist Christopher Niemann proposes physics laws of parents. Often even slightly accurate.
Eating all cold food would indeed take energy from your body to heat it to body temperature so that you could digest it. As would standing around in extremely cold areas. The Laziness explanation of Newton's first law (Object at rest stays at rest) is one of the funnier ones. As is his explanation of elasticity.

Free Will

Advocates of Philosophical Free Will report that all people are deciding agents, who make decisions without interference from the universe at large, and that people are responsible for the implications of their decisions. If you decide to have ice cream, then this was entirely your decision, and the resulting pleasure (and weight gain) are both your own responsibility, and one cannot blame anyone else for chosing the way that you did.
Debates rage about how this fits in with the idea of Determinism, in which things have logical consequences and necessary requirements to have happened in the first place. Under hard determinism, everything that ever happened in the universe, and everything that will happen in the future, was pre-determined from the beginning and there is no other way that it could have happened. Some people argue that determinism is mostly soft, and it is compatible with the idea of free will, but others argue that determinism and free will are incompatible and that only one could possibly apply. These are further split by those that argue that there is free will and no determinism, and those that argue that there is perfect determinism and no free will.
I dislike the idea of determinism, at least in the absolute sense, because I think it undermines the idea of responsibility. If you promise not to get wildly drunk at the weekend party, and then screw up and get wildly drunk...well, then it was inevitable from the formation of the universe that it would happen that way. It seems to encourage a lackadaisical attitude, things are inevitable and don't really matter. Why try?
I also think that absolute free will results in equally silly ideas. We are not omnipotent and omniscient. Sometimes we make bad decisions because we don't have enough information to make a good one. Sometimes we have to follow sub-optimal things because we don't have the resources available to us to optimize. People are bullied into making bad choices, or tricked. Under pure free will, it's your fault when a bad product you made bankrupts the company, even if your boss ordered you to make it or be fired. This seems less than fair. Worrying about things out of your control just seems so...neurotic.
I know scientifically, that some things are deterministic. My computer, given the same instructions, will behave the same way every time. Engineering, chemistry, physics, and electronics relies on consistent reactions and would be impossible without them. And I would also like to believe that humans have at least some free will, and have some responsibility over things that they choose.
Free will also butts heads with religion. Deities, be they a pantheon of gods or one supreme one, are often described as being omniscient and knowing the future. However, if we humans have free will, then the future cannot be known until we make our decisions, as what we decide changes the future. If I decide to work in a research lab, then the future will be different than if I decided to work as a librarian instead. So if God or gods know about what I chose before I chose it, then was my choice really free? Knowing about what hasn't happened yet smacks of hard determinism. The best loophole I can think of is that gods or God know what I'm thinking now, know what the consequences of every choice are, and have some fuzzy-math confidence in which option I will take. (God is 73% confident that I will have a ham sandwich for lunch, and 82% confident that I will go to the bank today instead of Friday.) This is less than satisfying to theologins who proclaim absolute omniscience, and probably has a few loopholes in it, but it's the best I can think of for now for resolving the claims.
I would encourage my philosophical readers to write back with their own opinions on determinism versus free will.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


When I was 12, I wanted to be an astronaut. Several things screwed this up. The first one being that I suffer from major motion-sickness. I have to dope myself up to the gills to not heave up my latest meal should I travel by boat or plane or train. (Another thing being that I'd have to join the air force and do well in it, but that's another story.) I do okay in cars for some reason.
The big reason for motion sickness has to do with your vestibular system in your ear. When what you see doesn't match what your system reports the local gravity to be, your body concludes that you're in a whirlpool, and decides that you need to be a little lighter to escape. Up comes your stomach contents. The misery of this also attempts to condition you to not jump in whirlpools, fool. One big problem of this is that it's not a whirlpool, it's a plane, and you can't exactly just jump out of it anytime you feel like.
Then some time ago, I saw a TV program in which physicist Michio Kaku is given something out of science fiction, and told to try and describe a way to have it really happen, as best physics will allow. This particular episode was about "destroying the death star," the pivitol scene from the movie "Star Wars." His version was very different from the movie. One of the things he had to work with was G-Force, in which inertia plus a fast turn proves really, really bad for pilots. Each "G-Force" is an increase in force above what is felt due to gravity, so a pilot experiencing five g-forces is thrown with 5 times the force of earthly gravity. Air force pilots routinely suffer 7 g-forces, and astronauts experience ten. Both require elaborate systems to stay conscious by reducing the effect this has on them. Too many g-forces can prevent your brain from receiving blood, causing you to pass out, and too much more can smash your body to pulp. Dr. Kaku's solution was to immerse the pilot in water. Buoyant force counteracts the inertial force, so even as the water experiences 7, 10, or 50 g-forces, it also distributes it so that your own body doesn't feel them. He proved this with a water balloon in a centrifuge. The balloon in an air filled beaker was flattened by the force. The balloon floating in water retained its shape, no matter how fast the centrifuge went.
This makes me wonder if I flew in a tank of water, if maybe I wouldn't get motion sick. The plane could experience all the turbulence in the world and I wouldn't feel it. I'd need some sort of breathing system, as we humans don't have gills or skin-breathing the way animals that live in water do. If everyone was in tanks like that, you could not bother pressurizing the cabin, just a breathing tube in the tanks. Flying would be a more comfortable, if soggier, experience. I say this because there is a limit to cabin pressurization. The more the plane is pressurized, the harder the forces on the hull, and more than about 8.6 psi is an intolerable risk. Too much pressure and the plane simply pops like a balloon. A balloon made of metal. Not fun for anyone, but even worse for those inside it. So even with pressurization, flying in a plane is like a trip to Tibet. You have much less oxygen, and it's woozy and difficult and your sense of taste is diminished from the low pressure. In tanks, you could get a sea-level amount of air and breathe normally.
The air force would also be interested in this technology. A pilot that flew in a water-filled cockpit could turn harder and faster than one in a conventional cockpit, as he would be without the risk of blacking out. This probably makes it worth the extra weight. Especially if competing planes don't have such a system. Enemy nations would face planes that could abruptly turn around and destroy them from positions that were previously thought of as totally vulnerable. Dives could be further and faster with fewer consequences. Mobility in general would vastly improve.

Monday, October 25, 2010

On Employment

I, the Mad Engineer, am looking for work. Employers, meanwhile, are very nervous about bloggers. Some have seriously disrupted company-customer relationships, by doing things like posting snark about the customers, posting pictures of themselves drunk (which customers feel reflects badly on the company,) and revealing the inner workings of companies, often unflatteringly.
I promise, if employed, the following principles to my employer:
1. This blog represents my own opinion, not that of my employer. Should my employer wish to express their own opinion, I can create a blog for them. Or a twitter, facebook, or whatever other media. It will be under their name, not mine. The employer's official blog will represent their opinion, not mine, even if I am tasked with writing it. I may take on a second writer in the future, in which case this blog would represent the opinions of their respective authors, not their respective employers.
2. I will assume that, by default, all activities at work are confidential. That new widget or program that you're paying me to design? Top secret. What the customer ordered? Also top secret.
3. I will not discuss my employment unless told otherwise. Not even "I work for so-and-so company."
4. That if an incident is told to the public, by your order, that all names be changed to arbitrary ones to protect everyone's identities if it makes sense to do so. It makes sense to do so if any party could be made to look bad in any way. It does not make sense when all parties involved benefit from having their names told.
5. My lack of use of my real name will provide you with plausible deniability should anyone complain about any content of this blog.
6. I will not badmouth you. Besides being biting the hand that feeds me, it wouldn't fit the tone of this blog.
7. In the unlikely event that you wish some sort of official association with this blog, I can switch to my real name. I feel this is unlikely because I would insist on editorial freedom.
8. This blog is not about my personal life. If I should get massively drunk on the weekend, you will never know. I will keep water-cooler knee-slappers to myself.
9. I would be willing to "plug" (ie: endorse) you as an employer. You would have to specifically allow me to discuss my employment with you, of course.
10. I will provide a resume on demand. If you got it from here, you may use any part of this blog as a writing sample. Resumes provided from this blog will be stripped of my real name, relying on the official email for contact.
11. I will not snark upon the customers in public. There's enough of that on the internet as it is.
12. Work is higher priority than this blog.

Aztec Computing

So, some guy keep searching my blog for an "Aztec Computer." Let me discuss briefly the computing technology of the Aztecs.
For computations beyond those doable on ones fingers, the Aztecs used a device similar to the Chinese abacus, that they called the "Nepohualtzitzin." These were recorded in a base-20 number system. (Unusual, but Welsh also works on this basis.) They had no other computing technology, and didn't require it. Archeologists argue about what technologies they would have invented had they not been destroyed in 1519, but in their 300-year empire, they never once invented the wheel, which was the first invention in practically every other culture.
Modern Mexico does a lot more computing technology, having 14 world-famous physicists, especially Dr. Miguel Alcubierre, most famous for describing a hypothetically possible warp drive. An Alcubierre drive is unlikely to be constructed any time in the near future, especially as it revolves around things that we're not sure even are technically possible. Part of an Alcubierre drive would need materials that have negative mass. Nothing we have found in the universe to date has that property.
There is a modern company called "Aztec Computers." I'm not sure what their connection to the Aztecs is, if they have any. Possibly the founder has some connection to Mesoamerica or Mexican or Guatamalan heritage. Their website doesn't specify.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

I'm 30

As of this posting, I am 30 years old. This is slightly less than one third of my statistically predicted lifetime, and exactly one fourth of what I predicted as a youngun.
...where did all the time go?
Well, actually, if I go by my own internal sense of time, I'm about 9 trillion years old, because of all the un-fun things I had to do (when your perception of time totally drags), like attend classes, do paperwork, wait in waiting rooms for doctors or dentists or whatever, and so and so. It would probably be 12 trillion by now if not for all the fun things I've done over my lifetime too. Psychology textbooks suggest that the remaining 45 - 90 years of my life will seem to take less time. Maybe only 3 or 4 trillion more years. I swear to make them.....awesome.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Reconfigurable Furnature

I think it would be cool if a mechanical engineer were to invent some sort of furnature that could be easily bent around into many different shapes. It would be a sofa, or a bed, or an end table, or an ottoman, or a TV stand, all at the click of a button. There's sofa-beds already, of a sofa whose interior can be unfolded to provide a bed, but I'm thinking of an even more flexible version that can become anything in the house that doesn't have water or electricity flowing through it. It would really help perpetually indecisive decorators.
Probably more trouble than it's worth.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Breaktime Chair

Quite a lot of workers in the US now operate their jobs from chairs, typing at computers. This is a welcome relief from the jobs of hundreds of years ago, which involved shovels, the hot sun, and misery. The chair jobs have disadvantages too, though, namely that they're awful for your health and eyesight. Ergonomic experts recommend that office workers take a 30 second break every 10 minutes in which you look away from your computer and do finger exercises to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome.
I'm imagining a chair that has a timer, and every ten minutes, it vibrates (to remind you that it's break time), then spins the chair around, looking you away from the computer, and the worker uses this time for finger exercises. 30 seconds or a minute later, it flips back, and you're back to work. I would try to make this chair both cheap and comfortable, so companies want to buy it, and workers want to sit in it.
Ideally, it would reduce health & comfort costs to companies, but pessimistically, it'd be another ill-conceived toy collected by hipsters who want steep discounts.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Computer for Sir Terry

Sir Terry Pratchett, Order of the British Empire, is a very prolific writer, most famous for his Discworld series of books. He is known for a major use of computers and the Internet, and yet has said in an interview that his favorite computer of all time was the first one he owned, the ZX Spectrum. That computer also proved insufficient for modern works, as the same interview reported that his novels exceed 10 MB by the time of their completion, and the ZX Spectrum had only 64k of memory and recorded to tapes, a slow and sequential process.
Hobby groups exist that recreate old computers, and if Sir Pratchett requested, I would ask one of them to make a portable computer with the features of the ZX Spectrum, like its rubber chiclet keyboard, and write software with a similar interface. We would need at least a word-processing program and an Internet browser. I would ask that it have at least 100MB of RAM, a framebuffer (with more RAM, the Spectrum supported a 256×192 color display, and I would want better than that), RF Video, and wireless network access. It will also need Z80 emulation if it isn't using a Z80 type processor (do they even make those anymore?), and NFS (Network File System, a means of storing files on a separate computer that it reaches with a network). The reason for these will become apparent in the next component.
I would then provide Mr. Pratchett's home with a wireless network, and an immense server with RAID 10. The RAID would be shared with NFS, and here is where the Spectrum clone's OS and programs would be stored. It would have room for terrabytes of data for Sir Pratchett to use, and would provide the Internet connection. The RAID setup would ensure both a metric insane supply of space, plus reliability in case of the loss of any of the drives. Ideally, the drives would be setup for hot swapping, to minimize issues for the end user.
One major obstacle I have this this is my unfamiliarity with the ZX Spectrum, which was not sold in the United States where I live. Pictures of it suggest that it was portable and battery-powered, broadcasting video to a television set. Articles describe it as receiving its programming from audio cassette, yet only some models have a visible tape player, leaving me wondering how the other models received programs. (burnt permanently to a ROM, perhaps?) The design would be much simpler if wired connections could be involved, since electrical power can be received via socket, wired Internet is faster and more reliable than wireless, as well as more difficult to snoop from the outside. And video to the television almost assuredly works better if we can send it by a wire, instead of having to broadcast it. I would want the device to resemble the Spectrum in physical size, and operate similarly to one only better, since it could view the Internet, which the average person couldn't in 1982, edit entire novels, and save to the massive server instead of a gazillion tape cassettes. I have literally no idea how the ZX's OS operated, and so can't help with the programming.
I would encourage the creators of the Spectrum clone to license the design with Sinclair Research Ltd, the company that invented the Spectrum, and sell it together. I could probably be convinced to buy one.
Sir Pratchett, however, would probably prefer that people donate towards Alzheimer's research, as he was diagnosed with the disease in 2007, and has noted with quite a lot of alarm that research into the cause and treatment of the disease has been somewhat lacking.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Great Underway

I don't think anyone really likes living near a highway. They're loud. (VRRRROOOOOOOOOSSSHHH!!) They're grey. They increase the amount of traffic near you. And when there's a traffic snarlup..... HONKHONKHONKHONKHONK, and then it promptly spills over to the nearby streets, because people get impatient. I'm sure the city doesn't like the loss of so much land either. So much land that could, I don't know, be a business district.
I'm imagining a layered highway. On the top layer, a two lane road with a business district on either side. Quiet. Calm. Peaceful. 35 MPH speed limit. And occasional lanes down to a lower layer. This one has no stop signs or traffic lights, and the speed limit is 55 MPH. It's enclosed, which reduces the sound the cars make, with paintings along the side showing what the next exit leads to. The exits are special lanes that go back up to the surface street. And in the middle, there's an occasional lane down one layer more.
The lowest level has speed limits of 120MPH (or higher). It's meant for the really long hauls, Interstate or further. Fans on the ceiling drop air resistance by a significant amount. Your massive rocketing speed remains unnoticed at the surface, as you are quite some way down. Exits lead back to the main freeway level every so many miles.
Ideally, this would use the earth as a sound absorber. If you lived near this freeway, you might not notice, even though the lowest level's outer lanes ran directly under your house. You would just notice that there were shops nearby, and when you needed to go in the freeway's direction, you could get going at a fast or ludicrous pace within a very short amount of time.
I have three concerns to work out. One is exhaust. If I don't vent it somehow, it will build up to lethal levels in the lowest tunnel. Another is water management. If this gets lower than the local water table, all hell breaks lose engineering wise. The last is breakdowns. If you run out of gas or your engine fails at the lowest level, then what?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mining Space

NASA says that the solar system is rich in gold. (And some other things.) Meanwhile, demand for gold on earth has skyrocketed. If the other eight planets (and dwarf planets and meteors) are as rich in gold as the earth is, then there's quite a pretty penny in reaching it. I think the only reason why not is the immense cost of space travel. And there are ways of bringing that down.
A quick investigation into space fountains and railguns could, I think, cut the cost of space travel by a factor of ten. From $10,000/kg to $1,000/kg. Geologists would tell us the most likely locations to find gold, and automated probes would go mine and refine it. The immense cost of setting up this industry would be recouped within a year's operation.
If the price of gold collapses, other materials can be mined as well. Platinum, perhaps, or silver. Even bulk material like iron or lead could be mined in massive scale with no concern of environmental damage, as the non-earth planets of our solar system have no plants or animals to damage. Iron may sell for a mere 2c per pound, but when you can move a billion tons, that adds up to some serious money.
The cost of these materials dropping would be a boon to the manufacturers who make things from them, and and a disaster to the companies who mine it from the earth. (Though, if too many of them object, a change in focus would be doable, maybe even easy.)
Some places would be easier to mine than others. Mars would be easier than, say, pluto, which in turn would be easier than, say, Venus.

Monday, October 18, 2010


Robots have gotten very advanced lately. Modern robots can move about, avoiding obstacles, learning where obstacles are, and can manipulate objects like a pro. This gives me an idea to improve office productivity.
A set of robots, each dedicated to one task, roams the office in a set pattern. One replaces every garbage can with a fresh one. At the end of its route, all the cans are dumped into a larger container. One passes around coffee, tea, and/or snacks. It should also take away old cups, depositing them in a washing machine at the end of the route. One delivers mail with an internal map of which worker is in which cubicle. One brings paperwork left on it to the manager's desk. And one vacuums. (That one has already been invented, and there are at least 4 brands on the market.)
With these robots, workers don't have to worry about trivial tasks, and can keep up flow for a bit longer. They will still require breaks from work occasionally, and I suspect social networking would fill the gap. If they learn any new information from that, their productivity will improve.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Lake Gas Control

There are three lakes in Africa with a major problem. Their names are Nyos, Monoun, and Kivu. Volcanic activity beneath these lakes cranks them full of carbon dioxide, which builds to ludicrious pressure. This changes them, over time, from an ordinary lake into a can of violently shaken soda. At some point, a trigger sets them off into a huge explosion of water and carbon dioxide, which floods everything nearby and suffocates all animal life to death in a massive cloud of CO2.
French environmental scientists have installed a solution in Nyos in which they deliberately set off the eruption...inside a tiny pipe. This small eruption is cleaned up by local trees before any human sees it, and effectively is a self-perpetuating fountain. The lake's own CO2 shoves the water up the pipe, over and over and over, and this usage makes it impossible to build up to explosive levels. The villagers that live nearby can sleep peacefully.
Now, this fountain is pretty, but it's pretty sane science. Also, it is reported that to truly prevent eruption, we need five more of them. Maybe ten. So, I have a much much crazier solution.
We deliberately eutrophize the lake by adding iron and phosphorus, and extract the resulting plants for fertilizer and/or animal feed. Oxygen tends to bubble out of the lake rather than build up until it explodes, and the resulting muck is economically useful. This would be a continuously available resource, as we can recycle the phosphorous and iron from cheap sources. In phosphorous's case, sewage. Iron can be taken from rusted machinery beyond its useful life. This also sinks a large amount of carbon into animal life. Namely, whatever animals survive long enough to consume the algae. They may have to be manually reintroduced -- the natural state of the lake probably killed off any naturally present animals with carbonic acid.
On the downside, I think that much algae together may smell strange.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Pool Robots

One of the things my father loves about his house is his pool. He can go for a swim any time he feels like it, and then go right back home afterwards. No fees, no dealing with car keys, or locker rooms, just a happy dip whenever. One of the things he doesn't love about his pool is the maintenance.
Pools require a lot of maintenance. The water must be circulated, or mosquitoes will lay their eggs in it, bacteria grow and prosper, and pond scum grow, stinking up the entire yard. The water requires chemical treatment to ensure that diseased based organisms can't take root. Organic debris like leaves tend to fall in, and must be fished out. My father spends a lot of time on this. Though it will put many pool-boys out of work, I'd like to automate this work. Pools are nice, and I'd like to make them more comfortable and affordable for everyone.
Already on the market are automated machines to sweep the bottoms and sides of the pool. Experiments with automated quality control tests in factories suggest that a netting machine could work by having many cameras looking at the pool, and bringing down one of many nets on a mechanical arm to remove the offending object. A perpetually running pump circulates the water, but before it returns to the pool, it gets run through a chemical probe, which determines the numbers all pool owners need to know: pH and Chlorine levels. It would have a reserve of chemicals so that it could adjust these levels as necessary. It could also email or tweet when these chemicals are in short supply. Lastly, a trip past an ultraviolet light would kill off any bacteria or virus that survived that far. The then clean water is returned to the pool. Ideally, the pump should be underground, where the noise it makes will not be heard.
It may also be wise to have a reserve water tank. When it rains, dad's pool sometimes overflows, which annoys him. When it doesn't rain for a long time, the water level decreases. (Dad's usual solution for this is a hose.) With the reserve tank, when the water reaches a certain level, we can siphon some off into the tank, and return it later when the water level reaches a lower level. The pool would maintain a certain homeostasis. (The water tank would also need to be ultravioleted. We could probably skip on the chlorine, and mosquitoes are unlikely to lay eggs in an underground tank.)

Friday, October 15, 2010

More News On Ocean Feeding

An experiment about ocean feeding, as a way of cutting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, is at the same time both failed and successful. (In the movie sense. In the real science sense, any significant result is a success, the only failure would be an ambiguous result or an obviously tampered with result.)
The experiment suggests its a failure, because the resulting bloom did not sink to the ocean. Instead, it was eaten by small prawns. The carbon will not be locked away at the ocean bottom. Instead, it will become food, and the food of food, and generally enrich the life of the ocean. Arguably this is a big success, because this solves both the global warming and fish stock depletion problems in a single stroke. All our carbon problems will be turned into fish, which we promptly eat.
Now, if you wanted the carbon to sink, like this group wanted, apparently what you need is hydrosilicic acid, common in polar waters and rare in the tropics. This material is essential for diatomes to build their cell walls. And unfortunately, chemical production of silcic acids are not carbon neutral, so back to the drawing board.
Unless you can figure out some way to reshape the ocean's currents.....

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Kidney Cloning

Organ donation is an interesting thing. You can donate some things while you're still alive. A large portion of your liver, which will grow back. One of your two kidneys. One of your two lungs. (Those don't typically grow back.) Other things, you can donate when you die. Your heart. Other things, you'll probably want to wait until your death to donate, like your skin or your corneas.
I was reading earlier this week about how scientists have rebuilt lungs to improve compatibility. Essentially, your own diseased lung is rebuilt from scratch using your own stem cells, then reimplanted. They reported that this will save hundreds of lives every year, because hundreds die while waiting on donor lungs. You can also use a donor who would otherwise be incompatible, which saves even more lives.
And I was thinking, you know what other organ could benefit from this? Kidneys. Millions worldwide depend on dialysis, because their kidneys have totally failed. There's a limited number of machines, and we can't seem to build more fast enough. But if we rebuilt the patient's own kidneys, they would no longer need dialysis. It would be merely a stopgap measure to get them through the failed period, which is no longer "the rest of your short life." In fact, the more organs we could apply this to, the better the organ donation works out. Incompatibility would cease to exist, making every donated organ more useful.
But the best aspect of all was suggested by a reader of the original article who called himself "dancupid." He suggests using 3d printing techniques to lay out an artificial extracellular matrix. If that could be done, then we never need organ donation again. Each person could have an organ bank of 5 or so of their own organs, grown from a printed extracellular matrix and their own stem cells, and kept alive in life support machines. If I get stabbed in the kidneys, I can have my loved ones take a kidney from my organ bank to the hospital, where they implant it. The stabbed one can be donated to someone who couldn't afford the printed organs (and will have its cells replaced with their own), and when I get home, I print a new one in case this happens again. If my lungs should develop cancer from all the air pollution, I have a printed replacement ready to go. If my heart should give out, as happened to many of my ancestors, I have spares. In all cases, I'd cheerfully donate the old one.
....dear God, we'd be nearly immortal. We'd last as long as our brains. (You could print a new one, I suppose, but would it still be you?)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Air Scrubbing Farms

It's been brought to my attention that in Nigeria, cocoa is a very popular crop, lead-based gasoline additives are super popular, and cocoa has an unfortunate tendency to extract lead from the air and incorporate it into itself. The bad side of this is that Nigerian-grown chocolate is contaminated with lead. The good news is that I can use this to clean the air.
Cocoa isn't alone. Different kinds of plants take different chemicals out of the air. As an example, there's a type of daisy that extracts benzene from the air. If we plant these in the right combinations, we have perfectly clean air, no matter how much pollution nearby industries spew into it. You wouldn't want to eat the products of these plants, so we're not going to. Instead, we're going to chemically extract the pollution, much of which is industrially useful. Wait, what?
Lead, in air or paint, is a pollution, which mostly serves to give people who absorb it brain damage. But lead in a car battery is what gives it its range, and lead in a denistry apron is what makes it absorb radiation. Lead is mined in tons and tons a year, even though it only sells for 2 cents a pound. (The extraction process is cheap enough that even at that low price, a lead mine makes millions of dollars for its owners.)
Likewise, many other common pollution particles have a high industrial value. Benzene is useful as a solvent. A portion of smog is actually gasoline that managed to escape combustion. Formaldehyde, a common VOC, is useful in the paper and textile industries. (it's a precursor chemical there. The final chemical bears little resemblance.)
After the extraction is done, we'll be left with a wet slurry of plant goo. We can throw this away. Or we could grow pretty flowers in it. You know, whichever.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Floodproof House

Some 90% of humankind lives within 10 miles of the ocean. Historically, that's because only sea-ports gave one access to the world market, and those living further inland had to be content with what goods could be hauled by wagon. Now that trains and trucks exist, people still prefer living by the sea because the beach is fun, and there's a near guaranteed supply of water in the form of rain. (One would be unwise to try to drink the ocean. Too saline.) Another 9% lives near rivers for similar reasons.
However, there's an obvious downside to living near water: storms. Some forms of weather can raise the levels of water until it's quite inconvinient to the nearby humans. The water gets in your house and promptly ruins everything it touches, usually because mud and/or pollution come with it.
Looking at houses, they look rather water-tight. There are no obvious gaps in construction, and you can spray the average American home with a hose without anyone inside noticing. This is deceptive. Water changes shape to fit its container, and so tiny gaps in nail holes, cracks made by mechanical stress or termites, provide just enough space for water to sneak inside. However, the primary defense that American homes have against floods is basically being built on each a little tiny hill, which slopes down to the street, encouraging water to flow down the street instead. Past that, nothing really.
I can engineer a waterproof house. It would have certain disadvantages. One could not open the windows, and it would get dangerously stuffy inside, as it would breathe only from the attic. However, it would also not be ruined by hurricanes, flash floods (as occurs near rivers during heavy rain), or other storms. Occupants could wait out even the worst storm in reasonable comfort. (Warning, electrical power, phone service, and internet service not guaranteed.)
I would do it by sealing things, as is done in bathroom construction. A plastic or rubber gasket would surround the entire house, extending into the windows, which fit on with a watertight flange, and are sealed with a thick layer of calk. There would be zero space for water to enter, and therefore, even in the worst flood, the interior would stay dry. The windows would have to be rated for significant pressure, lest they rupture during a hurricane (high speed winds and pressure differential outside and inside), or a major flash flood (water is heavier than air, again resulting in a really big pressure differential). Also, for breathability, I would make the house tall. At least two, and probably three stories. Let's go with 3. Only the 3rd story's windows open, and that's where your house gets fresh air from. A venting system circulates it to the lower floors. (The regions most at risk of flooding tend not to have earthquakes. Usually.) A decorative siding would be pasted onto the seal to give this house the look of a home (and not an avant garde scupture.)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Chinese Democracy

A leutenant general in the Chinese army has an argument that democracy will come to China inevitably. It can be delayed for a limited amount of time before heads roll, but it will come, sooner or later, and the later, the messier the transition. The president also seems to believe that democracy is inevitable.
I can think of a few ways it could happen. It could spread from an already democratic section, like Hong Kong, or Taiwan. It could be a populist revolt. Or, it could be granted by the existing Chinese government, which would work wonders on its retention of power. Let me assume that, and discuss the existence of a democratic China, one year after the transition.
Democratic China

Taiwan's last objections to rejoining the mainland are gone, and the Pan-Blue movement of Taiwan overwhelms their Pan-Green opponents to vote to rejoin the mainland. And there was much rejoicing, although not in the Pan Green parties.
The Chinese nation now has 1,361,732,740 people, living on 9,677,012 km2 of land. These people are immediately massively shifting about. The eastern seaboard is being rapidly depopulated, and the empty west is somewhat less rapidly being filled. (Part of the reason that China's western regions are so depopulated is that they're very hard to live in. Deserts in the north, and really high mountains in the south.) GDP rises by 40% annually for quite a few years as the Hukou system is dismantled from a regional-transition barrier, to being a mere family record kept for personal genealogical purposes. The now mobile people find economic opportunities, starting with arbitrage, but quickly moving into regional factories and business opportunities.
On election day, the Chinese voter has some 14 political parties to chose from. I predict a tight race primarily between the CCP (having gained popularity from allowing democracy) and KMT, with a very marginal victory by the CCP, which must then establish a coalition to govern effectively. The results will largely depend on how the system is structured, with some systems working better than others. I think a European parliamentary system could work, or the Israeli system, but the US style "winner take all" would not work. (China's political opinions are diverse enough that a "winner take all" system would self destruct within 3 elections.)
Internationally, I predict that absorbing Taiwan would mellow China towards Japan slightly, but not by much. It would still treat Japan as an arch-rival, and glare at it suspiciously with every chance it could get. I predict it would dump North Korea like a hot coal, and enjoy warm friendship with South Korea. A cool, mild like of America would also ensue.
I also anticipate that the Chinese guy will, at his convenience, point out numerous things that I turn out to be wrong about.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

VOC Plant Removal

Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs, are an unpleasant part of indoor air these days. They can make you dizzy and nauseous, or tired, or headache-y, and are in things from paint to adhesives. The best way to get rid of them is to vent them out, as they are, well, volatile.
A better way is to absorb them with plants. A group of artists have made an attractive chart showing which plants are best at absorbing which VOCs, which they learned from chemical data.
When art and science combine, wonderful things happen.

Materials Science in computing

When I first started using computers, you could buy a 10 megabyte harddrive. "That's amazing!" people of the time exclaimed. "That's like ten really high density floppies!" Last year, I bought a 1 terrabyte harddrive, literally100,000 times the capacity of the first. The larger drive worked pretty much the same way. What changed was the material in the platters, which has been studied continuously to improve the capacity. The newer drives can store more ones and zeros on the same amount of magnetic ribbon. (It also rotates faster, and has a more sophisticated attachment system that transmits the data faster. I could do without this -- I did work for a while completely off live-cds, which are way slower than hard drives, when my big hard drive died.)
So, materials. Typically, you start with chemistry. Is the a more interesting way we can arrange the atoms so that it works better? (Sometimes yes, sometimes no.) In the hard drive's case, we've had to make smaller and smaller magnets, which started with mostly iron, but are now mostly a platinum and chromium alloy.
Mechanics have changed slightly. More plates, smaller magnets, more sophisticated magnet-arm. Not nearly as much as the chemistry.
So...thumbs up for chemistry, even though I suck at it. And that it bears little resemblance to the chemistry most people took in high school or college, with the many tubes of bubbling colored liquid. Making a new material alloy is still chemistry.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Mine Repair

A popular kind of mining these days is strip mining. When coal is to be found beneath a mountain, the easiest way to get the coal is to remove the mountain, and grab the coal. Unfortunately, this is also the worst for the environment, since both the mountain and where the rock is put generally gets completely destroyed. So federal law, and numerous state laws, require mining companies to repair and reclaim the land after the mining is done. After all, few people wish to live by a massive hole in the ground that will collapse the instant a heavy rain occurs. Mining companies have techniques to fill in the holes, plant grass, and leave the site looking similar to how it looked before, albeit now somewhat flatter.
I want to take my own stab at it. I think we need to fill the lowest level with rock, then we can have a small landfill layer (that we can fill with garbage or whatever), covered by a thick slab of cement. On the cement we have a thick layer of (finished) compost that reaches the surface. In the compost, we plant many many trees. After a few years of care, the trees grow into a mighty forest, which will stabilize the local environment. Areas in which the trees do not survive should be tested for things that may have killed them off, and to find a treatment plan. Can grass be grown instead in those areas? Or, are there chemical problems requiring treatment?
I think that geological research can establish a procedure cheap enough for the mining company, safe and stable enough for the land quality and environment, and accurate enough to be done over and over and over.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Y Chromosome tinkering

There are two genetic things in our biology that are very gender specific. Your mitochondria came strictly from your biological mother. Mitochondria are little structures in your cells that function as their power plants of sorts, and have completely different DNA than the rest of you. (It's speculated that they were a completely different organism that incorporated into our ancestors symbioticly.) If you're a man, your Y chromosome had to come from your father. I bring this up on the heels of many news stories about the mitochondrial Eve and the Y chromosome Adam. No, these are not backings for creationism, and there's a logical reason for this.
As you may be aware, people have 2 biological parents, which means that for ever n generations, they had 2n ancestors. However, not all of these were unique, as merely 250 is greater than the entire population of the earth. Some people had more than one child, (often way more in the past, when it wasn't clear that many of them could survive) and only some people went on to have their own children. (Some where infertile, killed, or just never got a mate in the first place.) Also, with a limited pool, family trees aren't perfectly branching. Some people married (usually distant) cousins, and basically, everyone on earth is at least 50th cousins with each other. Also, there were numerous bottlenecks in human genetic history. Disasters wiped entire civilizations off the map. At the most imperiled time of our species history, there were only 10,000 living humans on the planet.
So, while the mitochondrial Eve, a woman who lived some 200,000 years ago, is the ancestor of basically every human alive today, she was not the only living woman of her time. The other women's mitochondrial lines died out when either they had only sons (who would not pass on the mitochondrial DNA) or no children at all, leaving only hers. Same for the Y chromosome Adam, an ancestor of all men alive today who lived 60,000 years ago. He was not the only man alive, but the other men's lines all ended across the 60,000 years when they either had only daughters (who do not have a Y chromosome) or no children at all. This was further sped up by Genghis Khan, a Mongolian ruler who had a lot of children, who in turn had many more children. He is the ancestor of 16 million people today. Being a powerful Emperor probably did have a part of the ladies interest in him, as did his reputation for being wealthy and benevolent.
However, some signs show that our genetic bottlenecks may be disastrous for us. The Y chromosome has been shrinking over time, which may slowly damage male fertility (should those genes, located in the Y chromosome, be lost), or perhaps even end altogether, leading to an all-female humankind. (We could technically survive, but it would be...inconvenient.) The shrinkage is mostly due to interference from the Y chromosome's rival, the X chromosome, which you need to live. The most critical of the Y chromosome's genes are a group called SRY, which is responsible for 99% of what people think of when they think of men. In some species, the Y chromosome has been destroyed, but their SRY migrated out, so they still have males.
So to improve the genetic state of humankind, I would like to see some volunteers, dissatisfied with the genes they inherited, undergo a retrovirus-based retooling of their genome. This would hopefully prove helpful to them, in some way or other, and their new genomes would make them genetically unrelated to anyone on earth, and thus the best person to marry if you want to avoid inbreeding.
There is one particular group of pacific islanders, I can't remember their name right now, who would be the most interested, as their tribes have a tradition of marrying passing sailors as a way of avoiding incest on their tiny, historically isolated, island. (Children of an outsider are less genetically related members of the tribe, and thus more eligible for marriage, see?)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Analog Computer

You know you're a CS geek when you make computing parts that don't use electricity. How? I've seen plastic brick (a la Lego), wooden dowel (along the lines of Tinkertoy), and I heard of someone using PVC pipe and water.
The most common part I hear constructed are half adders, and for the real obsessive types, whole adders. Whole adders are a complicated chain of half adders that can do addition of up to three numbers, as large as the word size of the processor. Half adders are only made of about five parts, and so can only add two single-digit binary numbers, and at most product a two digit result. Single digit binary numbers can't represent very much by themselves. A whole adder almost certainly exists in your processor, in electric gate format, as part of your central processor's Arithmatic and Logic Unit (ALU).
Why do this? Retro-fun, mostly. There's a wide world of hobbyists who, for fun, practice obsolete skills. There are, assuredly, at least 10 people in my city who practice flint-work, even though flint as a tool material has been obsolete for well over 5 thousand years now. Similarly, analog computers are built from toy parts not for utility, but for bragging rights. And the knowledge that if civilization somehow collapses tomorrow, they can still run VisiCalc. On their own power. Awesome.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Sum Economics

Some people think that Economics is zero sum. That is to say, for me to "win," you have to "lose," and it's all a fight about how much of the total "pie" of wealth we each can have. Others think that the "pie" of wealth can be grown, and the people who make it grow need to be rewarded for doing so, lest they stop doing so. The second is the usual belief of business owners, who fervently believe that they're growing the pie. (Some aren't. It's hard to see how, say, spam, or car horns that honk annoying tunes, makes society wealthier on the net.)
I don't think we're doing either model very well. If it is zero sum, then we're losing our wealth to overseas interests. And if it isn't, then we really need to do something about this unemployment problem before it starves the entire system to death. (No employment equals no customers equals no buying, equals bankrupt company.)
I have a business magnet who agrees with me on this too, albeit a historical one who is now dead: Henry Ford. His shareholders called him insane for paying his workers a living wage, and pricing the car cheap enough that the factory line workers could buy it too. And yet this proved a very smart business decision, as they praised it both as the builder of the car, and the owner of the car. He gained at least as much from the ever desired viral marketing as he lost to high wages and cheap product, plus immensely greater productivity as his workers stayed with the job and put their growing experience to work. (The low turnover also saved on Human Resources costs of hiring and firing.) Mr. Ford went on the express less.....savory....opinions.
In any case, consumer's can't rescue this economy. They're broke.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Centrally Planned City

I'm wondering if it would be possible to have a city designed entirely by one person, or a team of people that work together, and totally planned out before so much as a single brick is laid down. Massive living quarters erupt in one part of town, with easy access via subway or other mass transit to various shops and commercial areas, transportation to massive factories or other employing concerns, all of it extremely high density with extremely smart transportation systems so everyone gets everywhere quickly and with no massive pile-ups.
The buildings are extremely smart, and riddled with domotics. They have been designed to remain at a comfortable temperature with a minimum of energy use, and the built-in computers anticipate your needs and change things to meet your every whim. Sensors also handle security functions, locking up when you're not there, summoning police when signs of intrusion exist, and summoning the fire department when uncontrolled fire is detected. A smart grid attempts to shift energy usage to when it is cheapest.
Distributed power production minimizes line losses, and increases electrical reliability. Other services should also be, if possible, distributed. If no region is far from a police station, then commiting a crime in this city will be immensely difficult, if not impossible.
Recycling would be very prevelent. Instead of bothering with waste receptacles, there would be labeled chutes. Household robots would be able to identify wastes, and file them correctly. ("Here, robot, throw this away, kthx.") Heat and light would also be carefully crafted resources, moved to where they are most helpful. Even the most noxious waste, like blackwater, is quickly funneled away from people, and taken to distant water purification plants where the water is recovered, and the waste composted into organic fertilizer, in which we grow flowers. (Preferably without directly touching them. Ick.) With enough chemistry resources, there is a use for everything.
My only concern is that having designed all this, no one entity can afford to build it all alone. And building only part of it may lead to...problems. If the living quarters is built, but not the workplaces, then people will have shiny apartments that they can't afford the rent on. If the transportation system is neglected, then people will have to walk everywhere, because there's no room for roads with this many people. (And the footpaths will be unbearably crowded.) If waste management is neglected, this city suffocates beneath a layer of garbage. Its primary strength is the way that the entire system works together as a whole, and it is all designed by the best experts available to work together.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Curing ALS

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as ALS in most of the world, and "Lou Gehrig's disease" in the United States, (after a famous baseball player who died of it), is a motor neuron disease that slowly kills off the part of your brain that tells your body how to move. The result being that a person suffering from it slowly becomes more and more paralyzed until they can't breathe anymore, at which point they die. The rest of the brain is unaffected. A similar condition is Locked-in Syndrome, in which a person abruptly becomes paralyzed, usually after a stroke. (In which case the motor-control cortex of the brain probably died in the stroke.)
Motor-cortex conditions are rather baffling to treat. The muscles are technically fine, but the person can't move them. The muscles then deteriorate from a lack of moving. The problem lies in the brain, which we know the least about and are the most afraid of messing around with, lest we make it worse.
I think, in the circumstances, I would want to try to invent a cybernetic motor-cortex replacement. This would take 100 years of neurology research, and the best electronic-communication experts known to man. And having done so, no one would ever be paralyzed for brain-reasons again. If this research also found a good way to reconnect severed nerves, then all paralysis would thereafter be treatable.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Space Railgun

The most efficient way I can think of to move a large amount of mass to space is to have a site with many solar panels, and many deep cycle batteries, and a massive railgun. In existing rockets, 91% of the weight must be dedicated to fuel. Fuel which will instead by in the batteries. We would launch something along the lines of a 10 ton cargo container. With some kind of docking port.
Randall Monroe's XKCD suddenly becomes terribly relevant here, as Mr. Monroe used to be a NASA consultant. Accordingly, he brings me a chart of how much force I need to apply to escape various planets in the solar system. Escaping Earth's gravity is essentially the same as moving 5,478 6,379 km straight up. From this, I can calculate energy.
10 tons * 6379km / .1 s ^2 = 5.87 x 10^11 newtons. Quite a lot of force, for sure, but only 9% of what would be needed if it were a traditional rocket. And, this can be used over and over. Every few months, we can launch another cargo container, until either the batteries or solar panels break down, and if we replace one of those after every launch, the system will run indefinitely. (Solar panels last for about 20 years before requiring replacement. Batteries depend on the manufacturing, but I give them 5 years. We can replace a component once a year, or if we're paranoid, once a month. More than enough capacity left, so every launch should succeed.)
The best part of this system is that it would bank sunlight until launch day. You can't launch every day: there are narrow windows when you can get to your destination with the most gravitational assistance from the other planets, and reach your actual destination in space rather than drifting forever into the void. In the meantime, the system is not idle so much as gathering energy. Energy it will use when the time is right.
I'm hoping that this will reduce space launches costs by a factor of ten. Not as good as a space elevator, but a definite improvement. Did I write this before? I feel the strangest deja vu....

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Artificial Animal

It's been established to me that biologists can, technically, recreate animals or bacteria from only a description of DNA. (By manually sequencing genes, which I'm sure is more difficult than it sounds.) This means, among other things, that we can recreate extinct animals, from taxidermied models, or even possibly from bones. Given enough wildlife preserves and biology labs, "extinct" and "endangered" would be things of the past.
A second possibility is that we create an animal that never has been. We would need greater knowledge of protein-folding, proteins in general, and DNA. We would also need some sort of artificial-womb technology, as this new animal wouldn't be guarenteed to gestate properly in any animal that currently exists. (I've heard we have this, but I've learned only innuendo that it exists, with no technical details, which makes me dismiss such claims.)
We need protein knowledge because DNA does not code traits, but proteins. Proteins and their foldings gave you and me the shape of our bodies, our hands, face, and eyes, and establishes every difference between you and me, us and monkeys, monkeys and dogs, and dogs and bananas. Different only by DNA, and therefore protein.
We would also need a seriously dedicated team of biologists. Biologists artificially sequencing up a bacteria was major news -- even though it was a copy of a bacteria that exists naturally. This would not only need that level of sequencing, but would also be coded from scratch. A defective code would produce no useful results, and we'd be programming with a language that we don't yet understand. A difficult proposition.
But in theory, we could have any animal we want. A chicken with 8 sets of legs, so drumsticks are plentiful? Sure. A draft animal stronger than a tank, but eats grass instead of gasoline? We can. An ant sized animal that can reproduce human speech, used as an espionage device? It'd be hard to train, but I'm confident it could be done. Farm animals with strong disease immunity? Goodbye antibiotics! An ultimate pet with the traits of all the best companion animals? Can do.
Only a mountain, no, a planet, no, a solar system of work is in our way. And some of that can be automated away.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Fighting Fire

We humans need oxygen to survive. An unfortunate chemical fact of oxygen is that it sometimes has this reaction that we don't want wherein it violently combines with materials that contain hydrocarbons of some sort, a reaction we know as "fire." (They're more prevelent than you think. Wood is made of a complex matrix of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and so on. Plastic is pure hydrocarbons. Think of how many things you own that contain some amount of either wood or plastic, or both.) Fire is bad for us. The heat damages us, the combustion products damage us, and if the temperature gets high enough, we can combust too. So it's best, if a fire does occur, to escape, and have insurance pay for all the stuff fire ruined.
In the early days, we found that water quickly smothered out fire. Partially because fire proved unable to extract the oxygen in fire, and also partially because water quickly absorbed much of the heat the fire needed to continue. This isn't always the practical way to fight it. Electrical fires don't react to water very well, and water in a grease fire, as may occur in a kitchen, will only make it worse as the burning grease manages to rise above the water's surface before it can be extinguished.
Later, work with computers produced carbon dioxide and halon exguishers that could end fire without damaging the water-sensitive electronics. Humans had to quickly evacuate, as any human near these would be suffocated in short order. Halon also proved bad for the environment after its release.
Firefighting experts tell us that fire is like a triangle. There are three factors for the continuation of a fire. If any one of them is removed, the fire stops. The three factors are: Fuel, Oxygen, and Heat. So you can fight fire by removing what would have burned, by smothering it under water, earth, or chemicals, or by chilling it. Most firefighting today works on the oxygen angle, as anything that displaces oxygen from the fire works.
Now, I can imagine a thermal-extinguisher that dropped well-insulated liquid nitrogen on fires, ending them, or some sort of brick-off machine that seals rooms that catch fire, perhaps from the top down to assist human escape, but I think the most important thing is to plan for fires. History tells me that Rome often caught fire, because it was made mostly of wood, was really crowded, and had a lot of people who could benefit from arson and didn't care who else was hurt by that. Rome would often burn down, because the fire department back then were bucket brigades, who could kind of ineffectually splash water on the blaze, which only slowed it down a bit. This was when they were not personally the arsonists! The modern world has way more burnable things...but also a fire hydrant once a block, fire departments who have all kinds of equipment, including hoses that spew water at ludicrious rates, chemical extinguishers, and tools to extract all humans from the area so that all kinds of chemical hell can be poured on the fire.
So to prepare, I think all areas that could conceivably catch fire have some sort of sprinkler, halon, or other firefighting system. If people leave the scenes of fire quickly, automated systems can rob the fire of oxygen with minimal damage to life and property. I'm also wondering about the safety of a liquid nitrogen based system.
Breaking news: It seems I wrote this article before. Whoops.

Sea Tunnel

Many aquariums now feature a plexiglass walking tube, so you can see the tanks not from the top, or the side, as was traditional in the past, but from the bottom. The fish glide about over your head. It's really quite majestic. And then I heard a restaurant is doing this too, serving the food in a plexiglass tube in the ocean, where the fish glide over your head as you eat....other fish. I won't be dining at this restaurant anytime soon, as it's half a world away from me and charges well over $200 per meal. It's some fancy fish.
But this gave me an idea for something...interesting. We would build a tunnel, with plexiglass, between two islands. Let's start with the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. A small electric tram runs through the tunnel. When customs approves your trip (because this would cross an international border), you get on the tram, and the tram goes into the dark tunnel. Then there is light: you are in a plexiglass tunnel, with the fish idly swimming above your head. The glories of the ocean are all around you, and it is quite arty. After some time of that, then it's dark again, and then you're at the other island, where you disembark. Visitors approved for the trip in the other direction now board the tram.
Further tunnels would go to other islands from here, as there is a chain of islands that eventually reaches Venezuela. Then I would look into other potentially interesting connections. A cross red-sea connection, from Yemen to Ethiopia, perchance? A visible chunnel, from London to Chalais?
The technology would only allow for short tunnels. Tsushima to Busan would be doable. New York to Brest would not. (The deeper part of that tunnel would collapse under the immense weight of the Atlantic, and the entire tunnel would flood.)
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