“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."