Showing posts from 2009

Wind Power is Broken - How to Fix It

Any advocate of "wind power" should go through the “Electrical Energy, Science & You” presentation by John Droz, which very capably dissects the problems of wind power .

However, many of the conclusions derive from lack of a way to store wind energy, and I’m not yet convinced that is a dead end.

Regardless of the validity of the CO2 global warming hypothesis, we’re now politically on a path to CO2 reduction, so it makes sense to do it as economically as possible. Since there is also a lot of pressure to use wind power, we should also see if we can overcome as many as possible of the (quite reasonable) objections in the presentation, finding a way to make wind technology affordable and efficient enough to be picked up even in developing nations that are rapidly expanding their electricity production.

Rather than generating electricity and distributing it, wind power could be used locally to generate storable, transportable, useful products. While production would va…

Improving Mars Direct

It should be possible to improve upon Robert Zubrin's "Mars Direct" plan:

Zubrin's plan is good, but we could make the mission much safer. There are two main potential failure points in Mars Direct that are risky for humans: Will the crew vehicle be able to aerobrake into orbit and land; and will the ERV be able to lift successfully from Mars?

Reduce both risks by simply not landing humans in the first few missions. Instead, land robots to be tele-operated from a Mars orbital station. Eliminating the mass of the lander and aerobraking shield allows the ship to arrive with enough fuel to get into Mars orbit using the 3rd stage rocket. Even better, use two rockets, providing backup, and to act as each other's counter-balance when rotating for artificial gravity - no need to discard the 3rd stage rockets. Instead, the crew can return to Earth on the same ship(s) in which they arrived. They just need fuel for the return trip - and Zubrin's approach can be used to…

Science Insurance instead of Precautionary Principle

Perhaps we should have "science insurance", instead of the "Precautionary Principle".

"You want to do a nuclear fission chain reaction experiment - but you don't think it will *really* destroy the world? OK, we set the potential damages at $1 x 10^16, and an independent panel of experts reviewing your research sets the probability that you are incorrect at around 1 x 10^-8 - so pay $100 million up front."

"No refunds if you're correct - the money will be spent on amelioration (e.g. efforts to get humanity off the planet)."

"Your biological experiment would only cause $1 x 10^12 in damages? We agree with your projection of 99.9999% certainty it won't. So pay $1 million and go ahead."

"What's that? You say you can add some controls that will reduce the chance from 1 in a million to 1 in a hundred million? OK, if you can do that, the cost drops to $20,000. Why not $10,000? You should have come up with better saf…

RepRap Alternatives

RepRap just doesn't hit any sweet spot with their current design. Too limited and crude to create much of interest for developed nations, other than RepRap hobbyists. Too high-tech and limited (and I am guessing unreliable, if one tried using it for regular production) to be of interest in less developed nations. In order for it to take off, it must offer easily accessible high value, to excite potential users who don't "get" that it's "just so darn cool!" AND be able to produce most of its own parts.

A computer controlled wood milling machine, with a 3D scanner to capture designs from hand carved wood parts, would at least have had a real market. Wood-working hobbyists in developed nations would pick it up fairly quickly. Craftsmen in less developed nations could use it to turn out copies of hand-carved furniture parts, decorations, bowls, etc. Where RepRap needs steel structural members, a wood milling system could turn out thick structural par…
Michio Kaku interviewed on Fox News about Molecular Manufacturing

I wonder if Kaku understands what he's saying when he says "second industrial revolution". If you count everything since the printing press, molecular manufacturing is likely NOT going to be THAT revolutionary. We've had about 4 industrial revolutions, each one re-shuffling society:

Peasants; nobility
***Printing Press, ocean-going ships**
Peasants/slaves; craftsmen/merchants; nobility & colonial exploiters
***Steam power & steel**
Farmers & servants; factory & store workers; Capitalists
***electricity and Internal Combustion Engines**
Factory & store workers; office workers; Management & owners
***Electronic automation/computers/internet**
Store workers and govt dole recipients; government and management and specialists; Entrepreneurs & owners


***Molecular manufacturing**
hierarchy workers and govt dole recipients; entrepreneurs & specialists; owners & retirees


Charles Ponzi - Financial Genius for our Times

Charles Ponzi - after whom "Ponzi scheme" was named - convinced people to invest in postage stamps. This plan was widely criticized, because it promised profits, when in fact all it did was pay off early investors with a fraction of the money put into the scheme by newer investors.

These days, anyone who isn't self-deceived recognizes that this is the entire basis for Social Security, and increasingly all government spending. The entire idea behind the national debt is that someone will pay it off later - someone who must be a lot smarter than we are today, or perhaps a lot harder working, or perhaps just really stupid to pay off such a huge debt without having ever gotten any benefits and having no realistic chance of ever getting such benefits themself.

So ultimately, as no one seems willing to admit, the debt will be retired in one of two ways - repudiation, or inflation. Probably a combination - inflation to reduce the value, then some complex "currency re-valuati…
Wolfram Research is planning to introduce a web tool/service that is apparently supposed to be "google with math" - searching for information and calculating answers to quantitative questions such as "How much did it rain in Boston last year?". I'm a bit skeptical that it'll be able to do much more than point to numerical sources. E.g. how would it handle a query like "Based on US federal government budgets, how much was spent on wages in 2005?" Could it really pull together all the sources needed to asnwer such a question?

Even if Wolfram Alpha works, I'm not enthusiastic about the creation of a "mathematical oracle" that people just have to trust knows what it's doing. Oh, I'm sure it'll provide references to where it got its data, and perhaps even allow you to peek at the equations it applied, if it does more than extract data it finds.

It'd be much more useful to define "web-math" - i.e. the HTML eq…

Making Laser Launch Take Off

Laser launch technology could replace conventional chemical rockets with a more efficient, higher specific impulse (ISP) form of rocketry. The basic idea is to shine a powerful laser - or a bunch of less powerful lasers - onto a rocket to deliver energy to heat reaction mass to a high enough temperature to make it expand rapidly and drive the rocket in reaction as it is expelled. Jordin Kare has suggested a form of rocket that is quite simple - a heat exchanger and a big tank of liquid hydrogen.

The problem is that this technology requires a substantial amount of investment in fundamental technologies - improved lasers, the heat exchanger, development of tracking systems, etc. And even once it's working, it requires a very substantial investment in infrastructure before you could make a rocket that could fly into orbit - fields of lasers being the biggest investment.

It seems to me that laser launch could be dramatically accelerated, by finding short term goals worth investing in…

A Blade Runner Sequel?

What would it take to make a good (or even great) Blade Runner sequel?

The original became a cult hit mainly because (a) it had an interesting, well textured setting (b) it projected a very clear style or mood that fit well with (c) an interesting moral question about what makes one "human" that is ultimately left up to the viewer, (d) while including enough action directly related to the question to keep it interesting on first viewing.

I think a good sequel would need to (a) replicate and build on the setting (b) choose a DIFFERENT question, or perhaps deeper examination of the original moral question to examine; and (c) fit the style/mood to that examination - and of course (d) driving it all with some cool action scenes.

Forget the off-world colonies - it's far more interesting to look at how alien Earth would have become, to our eyes. The original looked at an organic mix of decaying remnants of today's cities threaded and overshadowed by ultra-tech future stuff, a…