“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” - Often attributed to Plato but likely from Ian McLaren (pseudonym of Reverend John Watson)

Friday, November 25, 2011

I call shenanigans on Rocket City Rednecks

There's a show on the National Geographic Channel called "Rocket City Rednecks." The basic idea revolves around one Travis Taylor who, apparently, "has worked with the Department of Defense and NASA for the last 25 years." Taylor lives in Huntsville, Alabama and, with his father (who, apparently, worked in the Apollo program in the 1960s), a nephew (who, apparently, has a high IQ), a brother in law (who, apparently, holds a Ph.D. in physics), and some other guy whose background and qualification are unstated, get together on weekends and create wacky science projects and experiments. Some seem to be simply for grins, whereas others are represented to have some component that would, in some way, serve humanity. An example of the latter is their "Tornado-Proof Outhouse." You can see synopses for some (but not all) of the episodes here.

Unfortunately, the one I have in mind is not listed there. I recorded it on my DVR and then recorded that on my iPhone so the video here is not... um .. of pristine quality. But that's not necessary to make my point. The episode is called "Power My Party Boat" and involves attaching two paddle wheels to a pontoon boat, anchoring the boat in the Tennessee River, and having the passing current generate electricity by turning the paddle wheels.

They utilized automobile alternators (one, with which they had problems, from a salvage yard and the other new) to actually generate the electricity, ran the current (the electrical current, not the river current) through a voltage regulator into a set of batteries. The electrical current was thus used to charge the batteries. They then used a pair of inverters to supply energy to a "kegerator" (a refrigerator with a keg of beer inside and a tap). a flat screen television, a laptop computer, and a string of lights.

Here's a video clip:

I was extremely dubious when they described the plan, the video cinched it. But let's run a plausibility analysis. I'll list the items they claimed they were powering, and a very conservative estimate of the power consumption of each. We have the following:

  1. A "kegerator": 100 watts
  2. A flat panel television (I'll assume 32", Energy Star qualified): 77 watts
  3. Laptop computer: 20 watts
  4. Light string (20 lights, incandescent, at 0.4 watts per light): 8 watts 
The total is 205 watts and I've been VERY generous.

In order to determine the plausibility, we need to know the size of the paddles and the speed of the river. While I can't find definitive data for the speed at the location the Rednecks utilized, this paper mentions "there are some sites with velocities in excess of 5 fps (feet per second)." The show mentioned 3 fps, I'll average the two and go with 4 fps or 1.2 meters/second.

As to the size of the intercepted stream, I'm estimating that each paddle wheel intercepts about 2 square feet (again, generous) or 0.19 meters^2. I'll round to 0.2 meters^2 and multiply by two for two wheels. Thus, the intercepted stream is 0.4 meters^2.

The basic equation for determining the power in a stream of moving water is P=(rho*A*V^3)/2 with A the area, V the speed (assuming the area is perpendicular to the velocity of the stream flow), and rho the density of the water. Here we have rho=1000 kg/m^3; V=1.2 m/s; A=0.4 m^2. Thus, the total power in the stream intercepted by the paddles is about 690 watts.

Now, a paddle wheel is not the most efficient way to extract energy from passing water. The best sources I found were here and here. The Rednecks seemed to have built an "undershot" water wheel, whose efficiency seems to top out at 25%. Considering the slapdash nature of the construction, I'm going with the 20% listed in the second article. This means that, before the alternators, the voltage regulator, the batteries, and the inverter, the system could deliver about 0.2*690 or 138 watts.

And yet the lights were on, the beer was cold, the television and computer were working. What gives? I suspect that the batteries were supplying the power at the rate of 205 watts (or likely more), and the paddle wheel system was simply slowing the rate of discharge. I'll concede that, if I were on the boat, I'd be able to live with intermittent operation of most of those appliances, so it's possible that the river could supply my energy needs in such a circumstance. And the wheels could certainly have been built much bigger - available power scales directly with area. But I'm disappointed because the show, as presented, was quite misleading.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Bell Laboratories and incentives

For decades, Bell Laboratories and innovations in fundamental research leading to commercial production were nearly synonymous. Claude Shannon and information theory, Shockly, Bardeen, and Brattain and the transistor, Tibor Rado's amazing 1962 paper "On Non-Computable Functions" which introduced us to the busy beaver function, radio astronomy, the C programming language, the laser, and a truly incredible variety of geniuses and inventions owe their origin to Bell Labs. Seven Nobel prizes stem from work at Bell Laboratories.

Unfortunately (imho, ymmv),  in 1982 AT&T entered into a Modification of Final Judgement pursuant to an antitrust suit filed in 1949 which required the divestiture of the Bell Operating Companies from AT&T. Bell Laboratories is now the R & D subsidiary of a French-owned firm, Alcatel-Lucent. Alcatel-Lucent announced in 2008 that it was withdrawing from basic research in materials science, physics, and semiconductors to direct its research investment to more "immediately marketable areas."

This is a symptom of the incentive system built into capitalism in its current implementation. Obviously, I'd rather have a dollar in this quarter than a dollar in a year. Even given the choice of, say, $1.00 now versus $1.10 in a year I need to determine the likelihood that the contract to give me the $1.10 in a year will be honored, that the entity promising the $1.10 to me will have the means to pay it, that my assumptions regarding what $1.00 will buy today versus what $1.10 will by in a year are valid, etc.

When adjusting for investment in basic research, I must add to this the likelihood that marketable results will follow from the funded research. And, if I'm on a board of directors for a publicly held company (or even a closely held company) then I must satisfy the owners (to whom I owe, by law in theory if not in actuality, a fiduciary duty) that my research and development investment should provide the largest return on the invested capital. If I don't satisfy them, there's a body of attorneys ready and willing to sue me on a contingency basis.

So who's to fund basic research? The Federal Government has had an active role in this research both through the system of United States Department of Energy National Laboratories and through the funding of research at various Universities. Of course, prospective President Rick Perry, among others, will do away with the Department of Energy (at least if he can remember or, perhaps, write it on his hand). And Republicans (a party of which I used to be a member) cast a very wary eye on the National Science Foundation - the governmental agency that provides the lion's share of basic research funding (leaving out the National Institues of Health, which funds much medical research but is, course, also under attack, along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - particularly hated due to its support of research on anthropogenic global warming).

So non-governmental industry is highly incentivized not to undertake basic research and the government not only has the Republican hatred for objective research but also startlingly large budget deficits and an enormous debt thwarting its ability to provide funding for this research. No wonder we're falling behind.

Government can't or won't do it, private industry can't or won't do it - whom does this leave? I would propose that a few fundamental changes in the structure of incentives would go a long way. I advocate the following:
  • Amend the antitrust laws to allow consortia of companies to work together through an organization funded by the participating organizations
  • Change the tax structure on capital gains to significantly reduce the incentives to pursue short term results at the expense of long term gains.
  • Litigation reform to make the losing party responsible for court costs and legal and expert fees of the prevailing party.
  • For suits that would require massive expenditures to defend, require plaintiffs to post a bond.
  • A "basic research risk bank" under the direction of arpa-e with 10 figure funding.
  • Reconfigure and then make permanent the Research & Experimentation Tax Credit. This reconfiguration would be toward applying the credit to basic research and eliminating the requirement that it be "useful in the development of a new or improved business component" of the taxpayer.
Over the next few weeks, I'll try to hang some meat on the bones outlined above since I'm certain that Congress and the President are reading.

Update: on the other hand, maybe all is not lost.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Worst phish bate ever

I can take a joke as well as the next guy but this phishing attack was so unbelievably bad that it's insulting.

Click either jpeg to embiggen

Come on now. At least give it the old college try.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

The arrogance of engineers

Apologies for the lack of posting. Between a large business deal, my starting of graduate school, and attempts to become conversant, if not fluent, in Mandarin, time has become quite precious. I even thought of abandoning my blog for a while but decided against it. For those who do take the time to read my thoughts, thanks!

So, back to work!

There have been many blog posts and articles written alleging the arrogance of physicists when it comes to believing that their superior understanding of the basic forces, energies, and interactions of our universe gives them the ability to quickly synthesize all of the pertinent information in any field in which physics is involved.  They then, it is said, feel entitled to make authoritative pronouncements that those who've devoted as many years to the study of their own field (say, climatology for example) have it all wrong. The iconic example is Freeman Dyson, a truly brilliant man.

While there's likely a kernel of truth to this accusation of arrogance, there's another field whose practitioners can give physicists a run for their money. I speak of engineers (mechanical, structural and aerodynamic seem to be the worst offenders).

As my regular readers will know, I'm a pilot. Everyone I know who's involved in any way with aviation will acknowledge that Burt Rutan is one of the most original thinkers, brilliant designers, and skilled fabricators in the field of aircraft design in the last, say, 50 years if not more. Rutan retired from the firm he founded, Scaled Composites, in November of 2010. 

In the U.S. general aviation world (i.e., non-scheduled flying including corporate, private, etc.) there is no bigger event than the annual EAA Airventure  gathering. Many attendees have built kits designed by Rutan. On July 29, 2009 ( coincidentally, my birthday) Rutan made a presentation entitled "Non-Aerospace Research Quests of a Designer/Flight Test Engineer." A pdf of the presentation can be found here (though the title is different - "An Engineer's Critique of Global Warming 'Science'" and subtitled "Questioning the CAGW theory," the essentials are the same).

The document comprises a full 98 pages and is replete with graphs (many of the usual ones, some of his own), photos, and quotations. It's a superb example of the "it's not happening, and if it's happening we didn't cause it, and if we caused it's probably good anyway, and if it's not good we can adapt because we've been to the moon and the bottom of the ocean and we fly in the stratosphere" line of argument.

Rutan has been quoted as saying that “If someone is aggressively selling a technical product whose merits are dependent on complex experimental data, he is likely lying. That is true whether the product is an airplane or a Carbon Credit." He is convinced that his engineering skills enable him to understand climate science as a "hobby" in a way that enables him to debunk the accumulated knowledge of those who've made the study of climate their life's work.

In the presentation linked above, Rutan includes on page 95 a quote (or at least I think it is - Rutan's use of quotation marks is sporadic) from one James P. Hogan (more in a moment) as follows: "Science doesn't really exist. Scientific beliefs are either proved wrong or they quickly become engineering. Everything else is untested speculation." Hogan, who was a prolific writer (he died in 2010), authored a tome entitled "Kicking the Sacred Cow," described on his site as "A Collection of nonfiction essays questioning scientific issues that I believe have become dogmatized, where institutionalized science rejects or ignores evidence inconvenient to preconceptions and established theory."

Among the topics covered by Hogan, as shown in the "Summary" page, are intelligent design,  "Did Relativity Take a Wrong Turn?," "Catastrophe as Ethics" with subtitle "The Case for Taking Velikovsky Seriously" (seriously???), and a variety of essays on "Environmentalist Fantasies." I ask you.

Now, it might be said that I'm painting with a broad brush - Rutan's excessive zeal in celebrating his depth of understanding shouldn't tar all engineers and I don't mean to do that any more than the authors cited above mean to tar all physicists. But I've spent more time than I should have reading the comments on skeptical blogs, and a frequent theme is "I'm an engineer. We design things that have to work or lives will be lost. We're much smarter and better equipped to understand climate than a bunch of computer modellers." Of course, there's no way to know if these commenters are actually engineers.

My firm employs eight registered engineers and none of them obviously exhibit this characteristic so I suspect that it's a small minority, just as with physics. But it's worth thinking about the tendency for experts in some fields to think their knowledge base and skill sets transcend the boundaries of their own field and enable them to become experts in unrelated or tangentially related fields without putting in the time to learn from first principles. An excellent complementary personality characteristic to brilliance is humility. Or, quoting that well-known liberal, Dirty Harry Callahan, "A man's GOT to know his limitations."

Sunday, September 25, 2011

CO2 and the Nissan Leaf

Image Credit: Biomass Technology Group
In an earlier post I gave a few of the details of the Lexus CT 200h I've been driving for a few weeks now. Then, in my immediate predecessor post I discussed the fact that a much larger portion than I'd have thought of the electricity supplied by Anaheim Public Utilities, my electrical provider, comes from the burning of coal. Finally, in a much earlier post, I discussed the Nissan Leaf. The question to be addressed here: given my driver profile, which of the two vehicles would have the smaller carbon footprint with Anaheim Public Utilities supplying my electricity?

Starting with the CT 200h, let's calculate the CO2 emissions per mile (for my driving style). I'm averaging 51.16 m.p.g., and from this EPA site I find that running a gallon of gasoline through the internal combustion engine in a car (see the site for the assumptions which seem very reasonable) results in the emission of 8.8 kilograms of CO2. So dividing 8.8/51.16 yields 0.172 kilograms (172 grams) of CO2 emitted per mile.

I'm not sure of the accuracy, this site says a Prius, at 51 m.p.g. city and 48 m.p.g. highway, emits 127 grams/mile. I achieve mileage this good, so I should have a similar number. On the other hand, here at Grist we read that the Prius emits 238 grams per mile. These are large discrepancies. Since the EPA site lists its assumptions and since these seem reasonable, and since the number calculated from them is intermediate between the other two, that's what I'm using.

The Leaf would have gotten most of its energy from my home and thus, as best I can determine, 65% from the burning of coal, 20% from the burning of natural gas, and 15% from renewable sources (hydroelectric, geothermal, wind, and biomass in that order - I'm assuming no emissions from these). Here we find that the Leaf uses 34 kilowatt hours per 100 miles or 0.34 kilowatt hours/mile.

I'd need to supply this electricity, and I'll assume that the charging system is 85% efficient and that the transmission from the power plant is 80% efficient. That means that the output of the sources of my electricity need to supply 0.34/(.8*.85) or 0.50 kilowatt hours to propel my hypothetical Nissan Leaf for a mile. 65% of this half a kilowatt hour, or 0.325 kilowatt hours would be supplied by burning coal. From the same site I used in the previous post, I find that a typical 500 megawatt coal power plant will emit 3.7*10^6 (short) tons of CO2 to produce 3.5*10^9 kilowatt hours. Thus, the production of a kilowatt hour entails the emission of 1.06*10^(-3) tons of CO2. This is 0.962 kilograms, so the burning of coal to charge the Leaf will result in 962*0.325 or 313 grams emitted per mile.

For the 20% of my electrical energy supplied by natural gas,  this site shows (after some calculations, from the details of which I will spare my patient readers) that the 0.2*0.5=0.1 kilowatt hours that will derive from that source will produce 59.6 grams of CO2.

Thus, driving a mile in the Leaf will entail the emission of 313+60 or 373 grams of CO2. This is higher even than the high Grist site estimate for a gasoline powered Prius and over twice the estimate I derived for my CT 200h from the EPA site. I'd, without a doubt, spend less money on electricity in the Leaf at $0.14 per kilowatt hour vs. $3.899 (today) per gallon of gasoline in the CT 200h but my CO2 footprint would be over twice as high. And this is in the allegedly green state of California.

Finally, I'm now driving about 21,000 miles per year, thereby emitting 3.6 tonnes or 4.0 short tons (US tons of 2000 pounds) of carbon dioxide.

Friday, September 23, 2011

A tonne of coal

It's been a hot few weeks in Southern California and, unfortunately, I like it chilly. Thus, my air conditioning system has been quite busy lately. I received my utility bill yesterday and, though I knew it would be high, it exceeded my expectations. Anaheim Public Utilities bills on a bi-monthly basis and my current bill represents 62 days of consumption. The total electrical usage was an eye-popping 4,473 kilowatt hours. This is an average rate of a bit over 3 kilowatts continuously. Ouch!

Along with our bill, we receive a "power content label" that tells us the energy resources used to supply our electricity and the percentage (estimated for 2010 and I used these estimates for the information to follow) of electricity supplied by each.

Let's take a look at coal: I entered the query "how much coal is burned to produce a kilowatt hour of electricity?" into Google and followed a link to this site. It could be that I should look at a variety of sources but, for my purpose in this post, this is close enough. There I found that a ton (a short ton) of coal, burned in a modern generating facility, will yield 2,460 kilowatt hours of electricity. I will assume that its transmission to my house is 80% efficient, so that ton will yield 1,968 kilowatt hours at my service entrance (where the meter is). This converts to 2.169 kilowatt hours/kilogram of coal burned.

Looking at the Power Content Label, 65% of my 4473 kilowatt hours, or 2,907 kilowatt hours were supplied by burning coal. Yes, I understand that, for these particular 62 days that might not be the right percentage, but it's the best number I can find. In any event, these 2,907 kilowatt hours required the burning of 1,340 kilograms, or 1.34 metric tons ("tonnes" - note that this is 1.48 "short tons" or 2,954 pounds) of coal. This is 21.6 kilograms/day of coal being burned to keep me cool, pump my pool water, light my house, entertain me, etc. Looking here, I see that a reasonable approximation (not knowing the nature of the coal being burned) of the density of the coal is 1000 kg/m^3 so, during the 62 days, about 1.3 m^3 of coal was burned to supply me with 65% of my electricity needs.

Frankly, I was surprised by the high percentage of coal estimated to be used by Anaheim Public Utilities to supply electricity. We have two large nuclear generating facilities in Southern California as well as a huge plant west of Phoenix, AZ. Further, Hoover Dam is about 300 miles away.

Before I purchased the Lexus CT 200h, I'd contemplated, among other vehicles, the Nissan Leaf. While that vehicle would definitely have reduced my driving costs per mile, I'm now suspecting that it wouldn't have reduced my vehicular carbon footprint. That estimate will be the subject of my next post.

Sunday, August 28, 2011


In a previous post I mentioned that I'd purchased (more accurately, my Company purchased) a Lexus CT200h hybrid. I've now run a few tanks full of fuel through the vehicle and, to a certain extent, gotten accommodated to its driving characteristics (not so good) and its technology (adequate but nothing special in 2011). One thing the photo at left doesn't reveal is that this car is SMALL!

The vehicle's propulsion system consists of a small (1798 cc) Atkinson cycle internal combustion engine with a maximum power output of 73 kilowatts (98 horsepower) and two motor generators - one that's engine driven and can charge the battery or provide additional power to the other, a drive motor. It features four "modes": Normal, Eco, Sport (amusingly), and EV. In the EV mode the car can go a bit under two miles at a bit under 30 m.p.h. on battery power alone.

The CT200h incorporates a couple of features that obviate some of the fuel economy measures I employed in the Land Rover LR3 HSE I previously drove. The internal combustion engine shuts off at stops. It also shuts off on downhills, converting gravitational potential energy to charge the battery. It also employs regenerative braking.

With all that, stated candidly, the vehicle is a dog. Why, then, did I select it? It's comfortable, it has a reasonable technology platform, it's quite reasonably priced (by Lexus standards - I got out the door for less than a Chevy Volt would cost before the tax credit), and it's capable of excellent fuel economy. It's EPA rated at 43 m.p.g. city and 40 m.p.g. highway using regular gasoline. In my five tanks full I've averaged about 52 m.p.g though I'd hoped for better. I've not tried the "pulse and glide" method - it's simply more work than I want to devote to fuel economy.

Above is the output of a (trivial) Mathematica program I use to estimate fuel economy. Its prediction in the case of both the LR3 that I used to drive (and my wife now drives) and the CT200h are pretty close to the numbers I actually achieved at the pump. Of course, the calculation is for 55 m.p.h., the fastest I drive.

In the news in the last month, we see that President Obama and "Detroit automakers" reached an agreement to raise the CAFE standards to 54.5 m.p.g. by 2025. Of course, this resulted in an outcry that this is another example of big government interference in the free market and an example of creeping socialism. Maybe it is. But impossible, or even impractical, to achieve, it is not. I'm driving a comfortable vehicle that, while by no means quick or fast, comes close to this without any radical driving techniques (I haven't even tried drafting). As you may have noted, it's currently 2011.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Anaheim Energy Field

The City of Anaheim, using a $350,000 grant together with internal funding, has taken what was previously an unused three acre (what's three acres? think three American football fields, including the end zones, and you'll be close - this helps me to visualize it) site beneath power transmission lines and installed a park facility with a walking path, a lunch/picnic area, and some open field area for recreation. The facility is now called Anaheim Energy Field.

56 kW Solar array
The unique aspect of this facility is the installation of two sets of solar photovoltaic panels. One set, consisting of 385 panels, is in a fenced off area and at ground level. The other set is integrated with the three sun shades for the picnic and play area. It also utilizes artificial turf and drought resistant plantings. I went to visit this park a couple of weeks ago to see how it looked and how it was being utilized.

Across field viewing shade structures
I was there on a beautiful Sunday afternoon from about 2pm until 3:30pm, and during that time I was alone for all but 15 minutes. For those minutes, one individual came by and did some pull ups on one of the park's installations. I took a bunch of photos (on my iPhone, so the quality is low) and explored the park. I'm not sure why it isn't being utilized, the artificial turf is quite nice, the picnic areas are well maintained, and it's altogether a nice place to spend some time. Perhaps people are afraid of the power lines, though I hope not.

The movers and shakers getting iCeL tour
(Photo credit: City of Anaheim)
When I got home, I dove a bit deeper into the park and its technology. As it happens, the City of Anaheim (where I live) and scandal-prone former Anaheim mayor Curt Pringle had worked out a deal with a "green energy startup" called iCeL Systems, Inc. This firm was to supply a system of "smart batteries" that can both charge and discharge simultaneously (don't ask me) and that would enable Anaheim Energy Field to deliver energy continuously rather than only when the sun shone. Anaheim paid iCeL nearly $100,000 for the pilot project. I won't link to their site as Google reports that there is a risk of virus infection by visting.

Unfortunately, the iCeL system was never implemented and the firm itself had an involuntary petition for liquidation under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code filed against it in May of 2010. As it happens, Chaz Haba, iCel's founder and CEO has what could be described as a colorful history as an energy and electronics entrepreneur. 

In any event, I wondered if the solar panels were operational. I sent an inquiry on the "Anaheim Anytime" web site and received a phone call the same day from Dina Predisik of Anaheim Public Utilities. Ms. Predisik was very open (though she couldn't speak on the iCeL matter) and assured me that the panels have been generating electricity since 2009.

The panels on the sun shades are rated at 20 kilowatts, and those in the field at ground level are rated at 56 kilowatts. They are expected to deliver 114,000 kilowatt hours/year, thus the "capacity factor" is 18%, not bad at all. Looked at another way, this is the power available from about a 22 kilowatt (NOT megawatt or gigawatt) generating station operating at 60% capacity factor (fairly typical for fossil fuel generating stations). Clearly, they are not massive energy providers. Without a doubt though, they're a good example of "distributed generation."

While I'm proud of my city for installation of what is clearly a positive development with respect to turning a vacant and overgrown field into an environmentally friendly recreation area, the cautionary tale here is that where non-expert governmental officials become enamored with cutting edge and ostensibly "green" technologies, the opportunity for malfeasance is great.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

I used to be a Republican

For those who are used to posts with hypermiling, energy, or physics content, my apologies for the following political rant.

I consider myself to be conservative. I believe in conserving natural resources. I believe in conserving the rights affirmed in our Constitution and its amendments (in particular, the Bill of Rights). I believe in personal responsibility. I believe in living within my (and our) means. I believe in granting others the right to differing opinions and acknowledge that, while I can campaign and proselytize for my beliefs, I must grant that same right to those with different beliefs and compromise with them. I believe that, on occasion, I will not get what I want and that that's OK. I believe that a mature individual accepts this. To me, these beliefs represent true conservatism and used to be the positions represented by the Republican party.

But now, the Republican party is a party of extortionate thugs. In order to change an existing policy (with respect to FAA funding) to the liking of those in whose pocket they dwell, they are willing to hold thousands of people hostage economically and flush millions of dollars down the toilet. I might even agree with the owners of the pockets on the specific policy issue (it revolves around unionization) but I don't believe in scorching the Earth to get my way at the point of a metaphorical gun.

The Republican party is now the party of ignoring evidence. "If it doesn't fit with my belief system/philosophy, it doesn't exist. Don't confuse me with facts." This leads to the possibility of ignoramuses such as Michelle Bachman, Rick Santorum, or Rick Perry  becoming the Republican nominee for President of the United States. These are people who reject science in the name of letting students decide and support a false balance between evidence based science and facts on the one hand and faith-based superstition on the other. Quoting Professor Steven Dutch of the University of Wisconsin Green Bay, "If your religion says something that conflicts with objective evidence, your religion is wrong." Governor Perry's response to the drought in his state? Pray for rain.

The best that they can come up with for the crying, aching, desperate need for a coherent, far-reaching energy policy is "drill baby drill." This shows all the depth of understanding of third graders. Worse yet, they may understand it all too well but venally sacrifice sound long-term policy for short term political gain.

Further, the Republican party has decided that, no matter what concessions are made by Obama and the Senate Democrats (for whom I have no love whatsoever), it's more important to pander to their so-called base than to honor the obligations of the United States. It grieves me that this is what has become of their vaunted "American exceptionalism," i.e., in their minds we are the exception to having to pay debts. To make this point, they are willing to create an unpredictable amount of turmoil.

I am no longer a Republican. It's saddens me that the party has chased me away. On the other hand, don't confuse me for a Democrat.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Embarrassed to be conservative guest post

I can't come close to the piquancy (great SAT word) of Baratunde Thurston's torpedoing of Michelle Bachmann's ludicrous signing of the FAMiLY LEADER pledge (the lower case i is, sadly, not a mistake).

Michelle Bachmann is running for president on a pro-slavery, anti-porn platform? - Blog - baratunde.com

My government loves me and only has my very best interests at heart

My government loves our Constitution, and its only goal is to Constitutionally protect my life, my liberty, and my pursuit of happiness. Of course, that's why they have prohibited me from playing poker for actual money online. I know that this can only be because their love and regard for me is so very high that they must do all in their power to prevent anyone, including me, from being able to engage in any activity that could conceivably cause me harm.

They are able to provide this desperately needed action of protecting me from myself by implementing the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, a document that is erroneously believed to have the purpose of limiting their powers. But such beliefs are foolish - it's clear that the Commerce Clause is applicable to stopping me from harming myself and others by playing poker online for money because there is no conceivable activity or lack of activity to which that Clause cannot be applied by our benevolent protectors in Congress.


Note: In my 218 posts, this is my first (and hopefully last) f-bomb.

New car, minimal carbon reduction

As I mentioned in a previous post, I've been contemplating replacing my Land Rover LR3 HSE with a new vehicle - something much more fuel efficient (despite the fact that I've gotten about 28% better fuel economy than the EPA rating for the LR3). Through a series of unfortunate circumstances, my hand was forced.

In the post linked above, I contemplated the Chevy Volt and the Ford Fusion Hybrid. Which did I purchase? Neither. Instead, I drove away with a newcomer, the Lexus CT 200h. This is a well-appointed, VERY small hybrid. Its EPA ratings are 43 m.p.g. city, 40 m.p.g. highway, and 42 m.p.g. combined. This exceeds the Ford Fusion Hybrid and will enable me to save something like 575 gallons of fuel per year and $2,400 on fuel costs (the number is greater than simply gallons times price because the LR3 requires premium while the CT 200h needs only regular).

This is certainly happy news, so why has my family's carbon footprint not decreased significantly as a result of this change? The unfortunate circumstances referred to above involved the total loss of the vehicle my wife had been driving (thankfully, no injuries occurred to any of the involved parties). The decision was to take the insurance settlement and purchase the LR3 from my Company and make it my wife's vehicle. Now, she does absolutely no hypermiling and puts a spectacular number of miles on a vehicle (on the order of 60,000 per year). Her previous vehicle was no fuel miser at 14 m.p.g. city, 23 m.p.g. highway, and 17 m.p.g. combined but many of her miles are highway miles where she'll get about 18 m.p.g. by my estimate. Thus, she'll add about 500 gallons per year for a net reduction in fuel consumption for my family of a mere 75 gallons.

Now, moving on to the CT 200h, this is a vehicle that shares the drivetrain of the Toyota Prius and is thus amenable to some of the more exotic hypermiling techniques such as pulse and glide. I will certainly run through a few tank fulls of fuel prior to experimenting with that technique so that I have a baseline for comparison. Frankly, I'm not so sure that I want to work that hard to drive. And with respect to another technique - drafting - the CT 200h is very small and very low. Thus, the danger level is increased (not to mention not wanting to damage a new vehicle's finish by rocks being thrown).

I'll make another post at a later time with some specifics of the CT 200h (Cd, weight, engine and motor sizes and ratings, etc.)

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Hierarchy of qualifications to evaluate research-like information

I habitually listen to Radio Paradise when working (or playing) at the computer. The station's web site is equipped with a comment facility for the music Bill Goldsmith plays, and with listener fora where all manner of topics are discussed. There's a denizen of the fora with screen name "nuggler" with whom I've exchanged barbs in the song comment areas. In the fora, nuggler is about as rabidly anti (Israel, "big Pharma," American military, Republican, "big oil," etc.) as anyone with whom I've ever interacted.

Nuggler is also fairly tin foil hat conspiracist with respect to HIV-AIDS, GMO crops, "allopathic" (i.e., done by actual doctors) or "Western" medicine as opposed to CAM (complimentary/alternative medicine), etc. He believes the strain of E Coli recently determined to be responsible for multiple deaths in Germany was genetically engineered. He had a long rant about one Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski who has supposedly developed an effective cancer cure involving "antineoplastons" that big Pharma and the FDA have brutally squelched.

So, I read a little bit about Dr. Burzynski and some of the material regarding him from his own site and from sites like Quackwatch and Science Based Medicine. I'm obviously ill-equipped to digest material from the primary medical literature both by background and by opportunity cost of time. So again, I have to decide whom to believe. I went into this a bit in a previous post regarding Anthropogenic Climate Disruption. Thus, it's back to a "who seems most credible" situation which is not at all easy (or at least it hadn't ought to be).

So I decided to propose a little hierarchy of how much confidence to have in one's ability to trust one's interpretation of research conclusions (especially conflicting conclusions) based on background and proximity to that research. This is what I came up with, I welcome suggestions and criticisms.

  1. I did the research.
  2. I am an expert in the specific subject area of the research and, though I didn't do the research, I have fully read and understood it.
  3. I have some specific knowledge in the particular area and deep knowledge in the general area of the research.
  4. I have a reasonable background in the general area of the research.
  5. I have done formal research, but not in any area related to that being evaluated.
  6. I have studied this area in depth, but not in any formal venue.
  7. I have completed a formal program of study though not one related to the topic at hand (this shows, at least, some ability to absorb and synthesize complex information).
  8. I have evaluated the coherence of the arguments propounded with respect to agreeing and disagreeing viewpoints.

These levels are not necessarily mutually exclusive. But, if I'm at any level less than this, the fact is that I simply should not allow myself to have an opinion. "It fits the way I'd like the world to work and believe it to be" simply will not suffice.

Wait... what? Fox News "poll"

This is a screen shot of the result (after I "voted") of a Fox News Poll. I find it confusing. The response gathering the most votes is "No, it's purely a scare tactic." The implication is that running into the so-called "Debt Ceiling" is not a real problem. But, if that is the case, then why would raising it be a big deal to the typical Fox News reader? That is, if not raising it would not have dire consequences, then what purpose is it serving? I suppose that it could be quibbled that "no, it's not the ceiling we're saying is merely a scare tactic, it's the date. We think it's really September 4, (or whatever)." Because, you know, the average Fox News reader is well-attuned to the details of when specific obligations will be unable to be met. Is this really the level to which political economic debate has sunk?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Daily Kos makes sense - say WHAT??

It's true. There's a long article in Daily Kos (I was sent there by clicking on a link in a Tweet by @mtobis) by Mark Sumner that addresses steps to be taken in the two major areas of energy use in the U.S. - transportation and electricity. It has none of the insane leftist tripe typically characteristic of Daily Kos. And, I have to say, Daily Kos is not as wacky as it was a couple of years back. Yes, back in the waning days of the Bush administration and the 2008 Presidential election I wandered over there a bit. As I've repeatedly stated I try very hard, in electronic, print, and broadcast media, to listen carefully and critically to both "left" and "right" wing outlets.

In any event, it's well worth 20 minutes of your time to read. I have a few relatively minor criticisms:

  • Sumner states that "Nearly all the energy numbers in this article came from the bounty of data made available at the U.S. Energy Information Administration site." All well and good but I'd sure like specific footnoting for many of the statements.
  • Wind energy suffers from significantly more obstacles than Sumner indicates. Many who live near them hate them. Sumner suggests placing wind farms atop Appalachian peaks that may otherwise be removed in "mountain top removal" type coal mining. Maybe so, but many would find that to be (almost as) equally revolting.
  • Sumner proposes a tax on gasoline and diesel fuel that starts at $0.01/gallon and increases by that amount each month for 10 years. I think a larger tax more quickly is crucial.
  • Sumner makes almost no mention of distribution other than advocating the speeding up of "smart grid" technology.
But one key point explored by Sumner but often overlooked in dissertations about our electricity generating needs is that many, if not most, of the installations that currently provide our baseload power are at or beyond their expected service life and will need to be replaced in any event. Thus, the choice is not between spending money on replacing many of our current energy resources or not; it's between replacing many of our current energy resources in a systematic method geared toward reliability and independence from fossil fuel imports and spending much more money on ad hoc, sub-optimal "tourniquet" solutions as price fluctuations and equipment breakdowns force immediate action.

It's by no means a scholarly article with references, etc. but I highly recommend reading it. By the way, Dr. Tobis' Bruce Sterling's comment in Dr. Tobis' re-Tweet that sent me to the article was "Great Program. Now do it while broke with planet on fire." So I guess despair is the solution.

Update: Corrected attribution of despair quote.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Central Air for sale - cheap!

I'm attending the Clean Technology Conference and Expo 2011 in Boston, MA. One of the featured programs is the CTSI Utility Challenge, where early stage firms in the Clean Tech "space" vie for recognition of their technology by a panel of judges from the Utility and Municipal sectors.

One of the 15 finalists was 7AC Technologies, a firm whose technology uses a "Liquid Desiccant Chiller" for cooling buildings. The Company's representative caught my attention when he stated that "a typical residential central air conditioning unit costs as much annually to operate as its initial purchase price." Really?

I looked into the A/C unit at our house in Anaheim Hills (not known for a Mediterranean climate, and I like it very cool) in a post in 2009. I determined at that time that the 1995 Goodman Manufacturing unit draws about 5,890 watts when cooling. I'd measured it at about 5,000 watts but I'll go with the higher number to make my point.

I will estimate on the high side that the A/C unit is on about 12 hours per day for 150 days per year. This certainly does not underestimate its usage. Thus, I'd use 12*150*5.89, or 10,600 kilowatt hours. I'm paying $0.14/kilowatt hour so this usage will cost me slightly under $1,500. And I'm in a hot area, with an old and inefficient A/C unit with our thermostat set at around 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

I want my new central A/C unit for $1,500! I wonder why the speaker felt it necessary to MSU (make s _ _ t up)?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Shall I become an expert on Anthropogenic Global Warming?

Apparently, I must. In the past, I've concluded that I can comfortably decide how to vote, purchase, act, etc. with respect to the possibility of mankind-caused climate disruption due to the burning of fossil fuels and the resultant carbon dioxide emissions (hereafter abbreviated by "AGW" - anthropogenic global warming) by determining whom to trust as "experts." I've linked several blogs that clearly support the notion that we are dangerously destabilizing the atmosphere/ocean system by our prodigious carbon dioxide emissions.

But, while such as "Watching the Deniers," "Eli Rabett," and others discount many, if not most, who are skeptical of the AGW claim as lacking in intelligence, being in the pay of fossil fuel interests, the Chamber of Commerce, or other less than savory motivations, there is a sizeable contingent of folks who seem to have intelligence and integrity and yet who argue against AGW.  Some aren't even listed in Sourcewatch. The one who's caused me to ask the question in the title of this post is Warren Meyer of the Coyote Blog.

Meyer is (apparently) a small business owner and avowedly a political and philosophical libertarian. I'm a medium sized business partner and inclined toward a libertarian philosophy. I'm inclined to think that libertarianism will meet its downfall in the excessive discounting of the long term so that when people acting in their individual interest recognize the phenomenon of energy descent it will be (if it isn't already) too late. I would be interested in Meyer's opinion of the societal goal directed behavior that was necessary to enable the U.S. to fight and win the Second World War.

And while Meyer acknowledges that his credentials to speak as an expert on climate change do not come from peer reviewed papers, a professorship in the Earth Sciences Department of a University, or a Doctorate in a Climate Science related field, the arguments in the paper linked above are compelling and, were it not for a couple of years of absorbing the information in the "pro AGW" (exceptionally stupid phrase) blogosphere I would have found them dispositive. He states that he thinks his paper should be read as journalism rather than a scientific paper.

So what am I to make of this? If I rely on the experts mentioned above, Meyer is to be ignored. And yet I find that to be problematic. Dr. Tobis, Eli Rabbet, Steve Carson, etc. are not going to take the time to absorb Meyer's paper, dissect it, and summarize its errors and misconceptions. My choices are thus to ignore it or to learn enough to evaluate it on its merits myself.

Specifically, Meyer argues that:
There is no doubt that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, and it is pretty clear that CO2 produced by man has an incremental impact on warming the Earth’s surface.  However, recent warming is the result of many natural and man-made factors, and it is extraordinarily difficult to assign all the blame for current warming to man.  In turn, there are very good reasons to suspect that climate modelers may be greatly exaggerating future warming due to man.  Poor economic forecasting, faulty assumptions about past and current conditions, and a belief that climate is driven by runaway positive feedback effects all contribute to this exaggeration.  As a result, warming due to man’s impacts over the next 100 years may well be closer to one degree C than the forecasted eight.  In either case, since AGW supporters tend to grossly underestimate the cost of CO2 abatement, particularly in lost wealth creation in poorer nations, there are good arguments that a warmer but richer world, where aggressive CO2 abatement is not pursued, may be the better end state than a poor but cooler world.
This is far different than Dr. Tobis, Grinzo, Rabbet, et al would contend. But I need more than simply "Meyer is wrong, we know, trust us." I guess I will have to build my edifice of knowledge from the ground up.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Split personality

Yes, I'm talking about me. I'm currently reading some of the posts of John Michael Greer, the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America. Don't laugh, this is one extraordinarily intelligent, thoughtful, and perceptive man. His posts cover the topic of the inevitable end of our era of profligate energy waste based on plentiful fossil fuels. He has many innovative ideas and, as I read, I think "I could do that" and that it would actually be productive and enjoyable.

But, as I sit in front of my iMac 11.3 with its 27" display and quad core i7 Sandy Bridge processor on the second floor of our 2,500 ft^2 house in suburbia, contemplating my work week in our Engineering Consulting firm in the construction sector and whether or not my airplane's annual inspection will be completed this week, planning my trip to Boston next weekend for the Clean Technology Conference and Expo, planning to meet with some people for the purpose of developing new business opportunities with the hope of being able sell the Piper Saratoga and purchase a Piper Meridian turboprop aircraft and build a custom home on a hillside in the desert exurbs - let's just say I'm a bit conflicted.

On the one hand, it could be a case of "hope for the best, plan for the worst." On the other, it could be that I'm simply full of BS. But I do intend to rekindle the steps I planned to start taking and documenting in my other blog (which has a single entry from over three years ago). To that end, I have some skills in the Archdruid's suggested portfolio, having learned to do some woodworking and machining and possessing some tools for those purposes. Such skills will probably be at a premium in James Kunstler's World Made By Hand. By no means do I think that such changes will have a measurable effect on the trajectory of civilization, but they should enable me to be better equipped for what's to come - for better or worse.

It's fun to contemplate arming myself to the teeth, providing a bunker for myself and my family, and figuring out how to provide for the bottommost two levels in the ubiquitous Maslow's hierarchy of needs in a post-apocalyptic world. But I'm not sure that that's a constructive approach for a 56 year old businessman, even one who was a Boy Scout and can self-sufficiently camp in the desert and is very familiar with firearms.

So, what (watt?) can be done? Well, in the most recent billing period, my household used electricity at the continuous average rate of 1.92 kilowatts. What about cutting that by, say, 40%? I've blogged previously about replacing my Land Rover with, say, a Chevy Volt. Of course, I'd be using electricity to charge it, so adjustment in the 40% reduction in electricity use would be in order. My tools are located about 70 miles from where I currently sit, I will be bringing them here. I have a roof that's ideally suited for a solar installation, and sufficient room for both solar photovoltaic electricity and solar water heating. I'll seriously look at these types of investments of time, financial resources, and energy in the ensuing few months. Implementation of some more of the Archdruid's recommendations may well follow.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Another foolish "fuel saving" gadget

As I've mentioned previously, I frequently listen to SirisuXM RadioClassics. This particular channel has advertising on the half-hour. I was listening the other day and heard an ad for the "Platinum 22," which promised dramatic increases in gasoline mileage. The product comes from National Fuelsaver.

Upon checking, I found that this concept has been around for decades and its idea is that huge amounts of gasoline are not burned in the cylinders of an internal combustion engine. The spiel continues that the purpose of a catalytic converter is to utilize a platinum catalyst to burn this fuel after it leaves the engine. The Platinum 22 claims to inject microscopic amounts of platinum through the vacuum system into the cylinders, and thus to catalyze much more complete oxidation of fuel in the cylinders.

The "22" comes from a claim that, in a typical engine, only 68% of the hydrocarbon fuel is oxidized (!) and the Platinum 22 boosts this to 90%, a 22% increase. Never mind that this is actually a 32% increase. There is a huge variety of other specious claims of, for example, non-existant government agencies having run tests to verify that the product works as claimed, etc. A  look here at an EPA report debunks this claim (refer to No. 7, "Conclusion").

A complete debunking of the concept is available here, by a Tony (last name unknown), a UK "Chartered Engineer" who has worked in the automotive industry for Land Rover, BMW, Bosch, and others. His site should be your first stop when you hear about a miraculous fuel saving device. Suffice it to say that, rather than 22%, more like 2% of the fuel entering an engine is not oxidized. Evidence of this is presented in the linked page.

Among other things, Tony points out that if the catalytic converter in the exhaust (not using the Platinum 22) were to be burning 22% of the fuel from the tank, almost one third (22/68) as much heat would need to be dissipated from the converter as that from burning fuel in the engine. Note that the engine uses a complex system of water jackets, a water pump, and a large heat exchanger (the radiator) to dissipate the heat from fuel burned in the engine. That 32% as much heat could conceivably be dissipated by the catalytic converter, which is without any cooling system, is completely out of the question.

It's disappointing to me that SiriusXM allows such pixie dust to be advertised.

Update: I sent the following to SiriusXM, we'll see what happens.

YouTube - Was Extra Equipment Attached To Flight 175? (The plane that struck the south Twin Tower on 9/11)

YouTube - Was Extra Equipment Attached To Flight 175? (The plane that struck the south Twin Tower on 9/11)

OK, disclaimer up front. I am emphatically not a conspiracy theorist and I'm not claiming that the events of 9/11 were anything but the act of 19 hijackers. In fact, I'd downloaded the Tracker Video Analysis and Modeling Tool and was looking for video to utilize to familiarize myself with the software. I downloaded a high resolution video of the North Tower collapse to see if I could dispel the notion that the towers had fallen at a free fall velocity as claimed by the conspiracists, unimpeded by the piston effects of air in the buildings, structural and non-structural building elements, etc. In this, I was arguably successful:

This is the plot of the "y" position of an identifiable spot on the antenna atop the North Tower at the start of the collapse and followed for about 2.25 seconds. Fit to a parabola, the "a" parameter should be the 0.5*g in the term s=0.5gt^2, the equation for gravitational acceleration. For free fall, "a" should be 16 (this was done in feet and g=32 ft/s^2). The -12.2 would indicate an acceleration of 24.4 ft/s^2, implying that there is an upward vertical force acting against gravity, consistent with the factors mentioned above.

All well and good (though I'm certain that it's unconvincing to the conspiracy sector), but then I looked at the video linked above. My initial motivation was to chuckle at the silliness of some of the videos, and this I did. In the case of the linked video though, I have to concede that while I'm unwilling to agree that it is proof that the Towers were not hit by hijacked civil airliners, I also cannot explain its key elements to my complete satisfaction.

I'm certainly interested in any deeper analysis and possible explanations for what seem to me to be anomalies. The best I've seen in explaining the points raised is in this video, part of a series entitled "9/11 Debunked" and subtitled "Debunking every single 9/11 conspiracy theory, one at a time." But there's nagging doubt as to whether this is the explanation.

Regardless, the inability to explain every single detail in such a complex chain of events is certainly not sufficient to posit an inside job.