Mar 312011

At the Kennedy Space Center, they began to take the space shuttle Discovery apart, and I don’t feel sad.

Why should I? Come on, these venerable machines are older than most airliners still in service. And taking them apart offers a unique opportunity to learn how reusable space vehicles actually fared after a large number of missions. Besides, some of the parts are truly reusable and may, in fact, end up being used in future hardware. Isn’t that a better legacy than simply stuffing a Shuttle in a museum somewhere in its last flight configuration?

Of course, it means that we lose the illusion that the Shuttle we’re looking at is ready to fly, if only one fueled it up. But then, without an external fuel tank, booster engines, and a launchpad, it’s not like they could get very far anyway.


 Posted by at 11:36 pm
Mar 282011

What happens when you’re a sailor, your boat has been detained by port authorities, and the owners aren’t paying, letting you stay stuck for the better part of a year, running out of food and supplies? Why, you wait for a revolution to break out, of course. That’s what happened to a Georgian boat that has been stuck in the Libyan port of Misurata for 11 months.

 Posted by at 8:37 pm
Mar 272011

Am I a fan of nuclear power? Probably not… but I like it more than most of the alternatives, including many supposedly “clean” ones.

I have seen statistics before that showed nuclear to be one of the safest, if not the safest, form of electricity generation. I was trying to find the data, and instead, I found this excellent article on the topic, followed by a passionate, but surprisingly civilized discussion with actual information content.

I wonder how many of the purported 200,000 who protested against nuclear power in Germany actually realize that if their wishes came true, many more people would be condemned to death than those killed by all nuclear disasters combined. Here are two numbers to illustrate that point. The worst nuclear disaster, Chernobyl, killed perhaps as many as 10,000 people. Compare that to the worst hydroelectric disaster, the collapse of the Banqiao dam in China… roughly 170,000 killed.

Fukushima was hit by a once-in-a-millennium natural disaster that far exceeded its design limits. Not surprisingly, it failed, along with many other man-made things, buildings, oil refineries, roads, bridges, railway lines, and more. We don’t single out any one of those industries as being inherently unsafe, despite the fact that hundreds (thousands?) died in Japan as a result of these failures in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami. In Fukushima, to date only one person died, in a crane accident. I’d say that this suggests that nuclear power is pretty safe even under a worse-than-worst-case scenario.

 Posted by at 2:27 am
Mar 242011

So you’re flying your airplane late at night and approach an obscure airport. You try to radio the tower, but there’s no response. The tower is unmanned. Not altogether unusual… pilots are able to land at uncontrolled airports, using the radio to inform one another of their progress if there’s more than one airplane about.

Oh, did I say obscure airport? Well, there’s the problem. The airport where this happened last night wasn’t some municipal airfield in Wyoming or the Yukon. It was Reagan National Airport, in Washington, D. C.

Reportedly, the lone controller in the airport’s control tower either managed to lock himself out or fell asleep.

 Posted by at 1:40 pm
Mar 202011

March 19 must be a bad date in the calendar of Middle Eastern dictators. Bush started his war against Hussein on March 19, 2003; and now, on March 19, 2011, Western powers began bombing Libya. For better of for worse… we shall see. I’d still like to know how it came to be that African countries in the Security Council didn’t vote against this fairly broad resolution, and China and Russia didn’t veto it.

 Posted by at 3:06 am
Mar 192011

Let me preface this with… I have huge respect for eminent physicist Michio Kaku, whose 1993 textbook, Quantum Field Theory: A Modern Introduction, continues to occupy a prominent place on my “primary” bookshelf, right above my workstation.

But… I guess that was before Kaku began writing popular science books and became a television personality.

Today he appeared on CNN and astonished me by suggesting that the best course of action is to bury and entomb Fukushima like they did with Chernobyl.

Never mind that in Chernobyl, the problem was a raging graphite fire that had to be put out. Never mind that Chernobyl had no containment building to begin with. Never mind that in Chernobyl, there was a “criticality incident”, a runaway chain reaction, whereas in Fukushima, the problem is decay heat. Never mind that in Chernobyl, the problem was localized to a single reactor, whereas in Fukushima, it is several reactors and also waste fuel pools that are threatened. Never mind that the critical problem at Fukushima is the complete loss of electrical power. Never mind that a single chunk of burning graphite flying out of the Chernobyl inferno probably carried more radioactivity than the total amount released by Fukushima after it’s all over. Who cares about the actual facts when you can make dramatic statements on television about calling in the air force of the Red Army, and peddle your latest book at the same time? I do not wish to use my blog to speak ill of a physicist that I respect but I think Dr. Kaku’s comments are unfounded, inappropriate, sensationalist, and harmful. I feel very disappointed, offended even; it’s one thing to hear this kind of stuff from the mouths of ignorant journalists or pundits, but someone like Dr. Kaku really, really should know better.

 Posted by at 12:56 am
Mar 172011

Today, a Home Hardware store just across the Rideau River here, one we visited frequently, went up in flames, along with several other businesses, as the whole building was demolished by firefighters combating a toxic column of smoke. I don’t yet know if my favorite barber shop, Lester’s, which is right next door, survived or not.

 Posted by at 1:25 am
Mar 142011

Back when the Iraq war was raging, I often put some statistics into my Day Book, comparing what has been said vs. what has been found (e.g., weapons of mass destruction.)

It’s time to do some statistics again.

Number of times the US economy (nominal GDP) is larger than China’s: 2.5
Number of times the US per capita GDP is larger than China’s: 10
Number of years it may take China to catch up to the US at present growth rates: 30
Number of people seriously injured by radiation at Fukushima: 0
Percentage of people in an informal CTV Ottawa poll who think nuclear power is unsafe: 53%
Number of people protesting nuclear power in Germany: 60,000
Number of nuclear weapons in existence: 22,000
Largest nuclear weapon ever detonated (the Tsar Bomba): 60 megatons
Number of Tsar Bomba’s with the energy equivalent of the Japanese earthquake: 100,000
Democracy index of China according to the Polity IV project: −7
Democracy index of Iran: −6
Democracy index of Iran just five years ago: 3
Democracy index of Japan: 10
Democracy index of Saudi Arabia: −10
Life expectancy in Japan (years): 82.6 (#1)
Life expectancy in Canada (years): 80.7 (#11)
Life expectancy in the United States (years): 78.1 (#36)
Life expectancy in Iraq (years): 59.5 (#153)
Life expectancy in Afghanistan (years): 43.8 (#188 out of 194)
Number of top ten most literate US cities found in the top ten most conservative US states: 0
Number of top ten most literate US cities found in the top ten most liberal US states: 5
Ranking of the state of Mississippi in the list of conservative states: #1
Ranking of the state of Mississippi by health according to the United Health Foundation: #50

The thing about presenting raw numbers is that you can draw your own conclusions. Except of course that choosing which numbers to present may already amount to a not-so-subtle lie. For what it’s worth, I chose my numbers on a whim.


 Posted by at 4:31 pm
Mar 122011

You gotta love these talking heads on TV.

A few minutes ago, I was listening to a CNN expert (I made a note of his name but it’s not relevant; this is not meant to be a personal attack on anyone but a criticism of television journalism in general, putting talking heads who know little more than the general public in front of live cameras). The expert was discussing the possible fate of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, making comparisons between the events unfolding in Japan and what happened 25 years ago in Chernobyl. This is when he uttered the sentence, “in Chernobyl, the core got uncovered“.

The problem with this utterance is that the core in Chernobyl was never covered (with water) in the first place.

The RBMK reactor used in Chernobyl has a graphite core that is not submerged. Water circulates in channels. What happened in Chernobyl was not that the core was uncovered, but that water boiled away. The resulting voids (containing only steam, far less dense than water) were no longer absorbing neutrons (which were still moderated by the graphite, but now in greater numbers), further accelerating the rise of heat in the reactor, producing more voids in a runaway reaction. Nothing like that can happen in a water-moderated reactor, where boiling the water away reduces the reaction rate, as fewer neutrons are moderated.

That is not to say that such a reactor cannot suffer a catastrophic meltdown. This is what happened at Three Mile Island, when a reactor’s core there was indeed uncovered due to errors in operating procedure and a stuck valve. In Three Mile Island, what saved the day was a reactor containment vessel that prevented a Chernobyl-type release of radioactive material to the environment. I fear that rather soon, we’ll find out just how good the containment vessel is at Fukushima I-1.

 Posted by at 2:28 pm
Mar 082011

Back in the 1950, movie studios switched to widescreen in order to arrest the loss of audiences due to the emergence of television. The intent was to create a format that was intentionally incompatible with the 4:3 aspect ratio of the television screen.

In the 1990s, various standards for high-definition television were proposed but they never caught on; I suspect that part of the reason was that regular television already provided a signal that was of sufficient quality for most viewers.

So, our masters and secret overlords reinvented the wheel: a new high-definition television standard emerged that not only increased the number of pixels you see, but also changed the width. Instead of 4:3, we now had a new standard with a 16:9 aspect ratio.

I don’t know if 16:9 is in any way “better” than 4:3. I suspect it isn’t, actually (you may think HDTV adds pixels on the left and the right but it’s equally valid to think that it’s taking pixels at the top and the bottom away) but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that in the minds of most people, “HDTV” has little to do with “definition” (i.e., pixel resolution) and a lot more to do with the wide aspect ratio. What they may not realize is just how badly we have been cheated.

Why? Well, take that nice shiny new HDTV that you just unpacked and hung on the wall, verifying that all 100% of its pixels work as they should:

So you turn that TV on and tune it to the first station, which happens to be an analog station (or perhaps a digital station sending a non-HDTV signal). Unless your TV has been factory set to “stretch” (and distort) the picture, chances are that you will see two wide black bars on both sides of the narrow picture:

Not too bad, perhaps, but what if that non-HDTV signal was actually originally an HDTV program? Happens more often than one might think, especially as a growing number of non-HDTV stations are just rebroadcasting an HDTV signal with horizontal bars at the top and bottom:

And that, unfortunately, is not the end of it. That original HDTV signal often contains clips that were shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio, which means… yes, more black bars:

And this is not an extreme case. It happens quite regularly. Here’s an example from CNN just a few minutes ago:

There is the set of horizontal bars at the top and bottom and, apart from the news ticker at the bottom, two sets of vertical black bars framing the picture. That shiny new HDTV with its 42″ full-HD screen is suddenly reduced to a 26″ diagonal visible area with the resolution (1080×810) of a decade-old laptop.

Progress is wonderful, I guess. The good thing is, you can all watch it in stereoscopic vision, I mean “3D”; so long as you don’t mind wearing goofy glasses, taking lots of Aspirin for that nasty headache, and not moving your head around too much, lest the lack of parallax destroy the illusion.

 Posted by at 2:59 pm
Mar 062011

Courtesy of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, I just stumbled upon an amazing data visualization project, complete with a downloadable desktop version, providing animated plots of many important economic, health, and social indicators. Statistics is usually a dry topic, but the bouncing bubbles of are actually fun to watch!

 Posted by at 4:59 pm
Mar 052011

Hungary’s government thinks destroying secret police archives from the Communist era is a good idea. I have to wonder… is the intent to protect those whose personal lives were monitored and recorded in minute detail by the almighty State? Or, more likely I think, are they planning this because they have something to hide? For what it’s worth, I signed an online petition protesting this destruction of historical documents.

 Posted by at 7:06 pm