Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Stop with the hydrogen already, it's stupid.

I love hydrogen, really I do. It's a prime ingredient in the biggest bombs we can make. It makes a wonderful bang when you fill a balloon with it and then poke it with a match. It burns clean, producing nothing but chemically pure DHMO. But for the love of god, stop with the 'hydrogen economy' crap. It's terribly inefficient. Don't take my word for it, go ask a physicist.

Electric transportation is the way of the future, and it's awesome, but we need to ditch this fixation on hydrogen. Fuel cells are good for two things: Sounding cool, and distracting the public from battery electric vehicles. This whole hydrogen thing was started by car manufacturers back in the late '90s so they could look like they were saving the environment while they continued to build lounge-room-sized SUVs, and it was encouraged by the U.S. government because they couldn't figure out how to appropriately tax EVs. Petrol taxes elegantly combine paying for road wear caused with an incentive for efficiency by the vehicle in a way that is nigh impossible with EVs. But I digress.

Let's face it, physics is not on the side of hydrogen. First, you have to generate the hydrogen, which today is generally done by processing 'natural gas', the primary source of which is fossil fuels. Yes, your hydrogen fuel cell car will run off dinosaur farts just like your old banger does now. The only carbon neutral sources of hydrogen are processing biogas (unlikely to ever provide the quantities required) and electrolysis of water, which in the very best case is still less than 50% energy efficient.

Next, once you have your supply of pure hydrogen, you have to store it. This bit is a pain in the ass. The main technologies we currently have for hydrogen storage are high pressure tanks, cryogenic storage, and storage as metal hydrides. Compressing hydrogen to between 350 and 700 bar. for high pressure storage requires a large energy input, which is wasted as heat when the hydrogen cools to ambient temperature after compression. Cryogenic storage requires similar energy inputs to both compress and cool the hydrogen. Metal hydride storage systems are safer than high pressure systems but are heavy and require heating to 120-200°C to release the stored hydrogen.

Now, you can get to the cool bit, which is recombining the hydrogen with oxygen to produce actual turning of wheels and so forth. The only problem is that by now, less than a quarter of the energy you had in the first place is still available to you in the form of hydrogen. 75% of that energy is gone.

Compare this with a battery electric vehicle running with nanophosphate lithium batteries. Charging and discharging the battery requires power electronics which are typically around 80-90% efficient. Other than that, energy losses are minimal. Overall, a hydrogen infrastructure would require around three times as much input power as a battery-based infrastructure. And that's terrible.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

YoVille is scary and depressing.

So I logged in to YoVille, because my nearest and dearest just started playing it and she sent me some notification thing telling me to log on. She's no longer online (thanks to one of our cats making a mess) but her avatar's standing around in her house, which I'd logged out in... I guess that's like staying over, right? Anyway, apparently by 'joking' with her (by which I mean 'clicking on the happy/sad drama masks button and getting a funny face from her avatar in return') I reached a new level. I am now a 'friend'.
Since you're great at maintaining relationships, you have the opportunity to share and collect Friendship Tokens for each of your friends. Collect them all!
So now visiting someone's virtual loungeroom once a day makes me 'great at maintaining relationships'? And Friendship Tokens are something I have to collect from my friends so that I know they like me? I feel vaguely ill. And then it gets better... her avatar sweetly entreats me:
Remember to come back tomorrow or our friendship will weaken!
Seriously, wtf. Remember, this is my wife we're talking about here, listed in my Facebook profile and everything, and this game is telling me that I have to visit her daily in-game to remain as her friend.

I think if I ever need a game to reassure me that I'm 'great at maintaining relationships' (especially when I've done nothing in the game to indicate anything of the sort, although that reminds me, I must catch up with the lads for some beers, it's been weeks!) then I should probably engage in terminal autoasphyxiation immediately.

Trust me... the Earth will be fine.

There's an old saying that "those who do not study history will be doomed to repeat it". I hold that we're not looking far enough in the past when we panic about the current state of our environment.

Cast your mind back 65 million years, to when Tyrannosaurus Rex ruled the land and Plesiosaurs and Mosasaurs hunted the seas. The world was warm and tropical, with a cosy blanket of volcanic carbon dioxide covering the Earth. Glaciers were banished to the highest mountains. All appeared perfect, but for the dinosaurs, the terrible menace of climate change loomed.

For millions of years, careless dinosaurs and hapless plants had been falling into peat bogs and, trapped, sinking to their dooms. Instead of decomposing on the surface and returning their nutrients to the biosphere as all environmentally responsible dinosaurs should do, the precious carbon that made up nearly a fifth of their body weight was trapped. Each peat bog death trapped enough carbon to remove from the atmosphere almost half the creature's body weight in carbon dioxide.

For a time, volcanoes continued to release vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and balance was preserved. Eventually, though, among the lush overgrowth, the peat bogs began to win their eternal war against the greenhouse effect. As the carbon dioxide levels dropped in the atmosphere, the Earth began to cool.

The dinosaurs were now in terrible danger - if they'd had the same computer modelling tools that we humans have now, they'd have known that our Earth is very vulnerable to the so-called Snowball Earth scenario. As the climate cools, more of the Earth's surface is covered in highly reflective snow and ice. This increases the Earth's albedo, sending much-needed solar warmth back into space and further cooling the planet. The resulting positive feedback cycle sends the temperature spiralling downwards, and soon the entire globe is covered in ice and the equator is as cold as Antarctica.

Eventually a massive meteor strike tipped the balance, and the Earth entered an ice age. After millions of years of warmth, the dinosaurs could not adapt to the snow and ice, and began to die out, leaving the world to the birds, the fish, and us annoyingly cute fuzzy warm things. We shivered and grew our fur ever longer to keep warm, and waited for the patient volcanoes to finally spew forth enough carbon dioxide to trap some scant warmth from the sun, and melt the ice again.

Now jump forward to the present day. It looks like we're about to repeat the dinosaurs' fatal mistake, doesn't it? We're releasing all that sequestered carbon that they stored over so many years, carelessly tampering with our environment, and we're sure to cause certain doom... right?


Consider the following points:
  1. The carbon balance got messed around in the opposite, much more dangerous, direction while dinosaurs roamed the Earth. We're still here and the world is quite alright.
  2. It wasn't actually carbon sequestration that caused the last ice age anyway, it was a stonkin' great meteorite that blew up a 600km wide chunk of the Indian ocean near Mumbai.
  3. Earth is slowly heading into an ice age, right now. Over the last 3 million years, the cycles of glacial growth have been intensifying. Every 40k - 100k years, the glaciers grow and then retreat, and each time they grow a little further.
  4. The carbon dioxide that we're releasing by burning fossil fuels was taken out of the atmosphere when prehistoric plants and animals fell into peat bogs instead of decaying in the atmosphere. We're not introducing it into the atmosphere... we're just putting it back.
  5. We're fuzzy mammals with big brains. We can build things like fur coats and air conditioners to allow us to live in a far wider range of environments than big slow dumb lizards can handle.
Really, the notion that we are responsible for this planet's biosphere is hubris beyond belief. Sure, we have an effect on it... but that effect is minuscule. Our entire contributions as a species, with all our terribly clever machines and 'big' industry, are responsible for less than 5% of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere.

There are things that can dramatically alter our planet's environment, this is true. These things can mess up our ecosystem and probably kill most of us, although I'm a firm believer in humanity's ability as a species to survive pretty much anything - we beat cockroaches hands down.

Things that can destroy our planet's environment:
  1. The sun. If the sun changes its output significantly in any way, we're fucked.
  2. Meteorites. If we get hit by a supermassive meteorite, we're fucked.
  3. Stars. If a star goes supernova within 20 light years, we're probably fucked.
Things that can mess with the environment enough to worry us:
  1. Volcanoes. These things made virtually all of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. They can always make more, and in fact they're constantly doing so, a fact which saves us from a permanent 'snowball earth' scenario.
  2. Continental drift. This seems to be a major factor in long-term (millions-of-years scale) climate changes.
Somewhere way down around position 73 on this list is 'humans doing stuff'.

We'll be fine. Or if we're not, it'll be because of something that we can't do jack about, so there's no real point worrying. Carbon limits are fun (I intend to make my millions off 'em :). Renewable resources are wonderful because in future they'll become cheaper and more convenient than burning tonnes and tonnes of coal a day to keep the trains running on time. But really, people - stop worrying that we'll destroy the world. We're not that big.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Cheap power tools are fun!

Having been getting a little into the D.I.Y. stuff recently, I'm coming to a deep appreciation of low-quality tools. You can get incredibly cheap knockoffs of virtually every power tool known to man, meaning that for under $50 you you can get just about anything that buzzes, cuts, nails, staples, or drills.

The obvious good thing about tools like this is the simple fact that they're available. I need to cut a tree down, I can either spend 5 hours hacking at it with an axe, or I can plonk down $99 and pick myself up a chainsaw. :D Sure, you could go and spend $600 on a STIHL that's virtually identical, but for me, the $99 one is better.

The less obvious good thing, and the reason that in my opinion it's even better is that, while the two probably do similar jobs of actually cutting wood, the STIHL won't break down. This is a bad thing, you say? Not if (like me) you like doing DIY stuff, and you like learning about how things work. I don't think I've owned a single China brand tool that hasn't broken at least once. In each case, I've taken the thing apart, learned exactly how it works, fixed it (cheap generally implies simple, so they're easy to fix) and put it back together. Ever afterwards, I'll not only have the power tool, but I'll understand it.

If money's no object, you just want a tool to get the job done and you don't care how, then by all means get the expensive version. But you'll learn a lot more by using and fixing the cheap one, and honestly, it'll be more fun. :)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Damn microwaves and frozen food

Remember back in the day, when microwave ovens focussed the microwaves at the center of the oven? And when you put that bowl of frozen soup in, you ended up with a little boiling pool of soup in the middle and frozen soup around the outside? Yeah, that was annoying when it was something solid you were heating and it was all uneven, but it was a damn sight better at thawing frozen soup than modern microwaves. I've had frozen soup for the last two days for lunch, and while it's delicious soup, it's really highlighting this shortfall for me.

What we need is a microwave with two different microwave channels. One does the modern, well dispersed microwave pattern, and a second one (with adjustable power compared to the first) just nukes the hell out of the central 2 inches of the platter. That way we can have food heated evenly and the world will be a happy place and hugs and puppies and lollipops and a rainbow and a chocolate fountain!

*sigh* Off to re-microwave my half boiling half frozen soup.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Middle aged mum terrorises airport with imaginary gun!

Jackiey Budden, 51, was detained for 45 minutes and strip searched after joking about having a gun when asked if she had "anything dangerous" in her bags at an airport. Maybe if I were more judgemental, I'd just say "serve her right for having parents who spell 'Jacky' wrong."

I would be inclined to laugh it off as "only in England" if it weren't for the fact that a few years ago, I witnessed an almost identical event with my own mother. We were travelling to New Zealand, and while going through our second pre-boarding screening at Perth International Airport, we had (once again) to plonk all our stuff into the plastic conveyor belt box thingy. Mum held on to the plastic ticket pouch, which was about the size of a cheque book. The guard ordered her to put it in the tray with the other stuff and, being my mum, she replied "oh yeah, because I've got an Uzi in there!"

An Uzi. An antique submachine gun that's almost half a meter long and weighs 3.5 kilos. Not very subtle. Good for shooting Nazis and ruling small African nations with an iron fist. Not good for concealed carrying. Tucked in between our boarding passes in the 8-inch-long ticket pouch that she's waving around with one hand. Yeah. I laughed, the security guard didn't. He detained her for about 15 minutes (almost causing us to miss our plane), and if his superior hadn't told him to stop being a dickhead and let us go we'd probably still be there to this day. She got a massive angry lecture about how it's "no joking matter" and a "very serious offense to threaten security staff"... fer' chrissake, some people just aren't smart enough to be let loose on polite society.

Help! I'm addicted to talkback!

It started with Slashdot, then Ask Bossy (I've always been a closet Agony Aunt). From there it spread to commenting on news stories on So far, nothing sinister or worrying. Then, one day while driving to work, I heard a particularly stupid comment on the radio and the next thing I know, I'm looking for the 'post a comment' button on my steering wheel! Soon it was way out of control, and I've been wishing I could post responses to everything from billboards to peoples' bumper stickers.

I really can't wait until the internet is better integrated with the world around us. I've always been fascinated by the idea of reverse geocoding, in the extended sense of taking your current location and view direction, and finding locally relevant data to display. The end result would be sort of like real-life tooltips for your physical surroundings. I want to walk down a street, and when I look at a shop, I see an overlay saying "Today's specials: widget X for $75!". Or I look at a train station and the times and stopping patterns of the next three trains pop up above it. Or I'm meeting a friend in a crowded public space and they get a neon MMO-style nameplate floating above their head so I can see where they are (and they can see me) even round a blind corner. (This last one, you can do to an extent with Loopt on an iPhone).

And of course, imagine the opportunities for commenting on stuff! You could tag someone's hawaiian shirt as "tastelessly unneccessary". You could voice your opinion on, well, pretty much anything! Which, I guess, is the fatal flaw of all this - that most people don't have that much interesting to say. :/ And worse yet, they have it to say about everything, so any system like this would result in an incredible quantity of mundane crap. Still, with some kind of reputation system to use as a filter on it all (mass moderation, Slashdot style? Whuffie? Or even applying Google's PageRank to people en masse?) it could lead to some very interesting possibilities.

Monday, April 27, 2009

So much for do-it-myself maintenance...

Well, I finally gave in and booked the Supra in for a service today. I've been going on a DIY binge recently, especially for things like car maintenance (I changed the front brake pads a couple of weeks ago which was fun, it took me three hours when it should have taken 30 minutes but now I know exactly how to do it and next time it'll be a lot quicker). I've got a 1980s-garage-style hydraulic jack now, which is awesome because I hate cranking the stupid emergency jack and when the car's up on it it's about as stable as Lindsay Lohan anyway. I've got all the different varieties of oil that I needed to do the change myself. I have a new oil filter ready and waiting. There was only one thing stopping me from doing the entire service.

The damn sump lug.

I don't have a proper set of stands yet, and I have to work on a gravel driveway anyway, so I don't want to be yanking too hard on the underside of the car while I'm under it, even though I'm reeeasonably sure that the jack and the bricks holding the car up can't BOTH fail at once. But when I'm lying on my back in the gravel, merrily bending a forged steel spanner on the sump lug which isn't even budging, with a tonne and a half of Supra poised six inches above my nose, the $150 it costs to get a mechanic to do the change in his shop doesn't seem quite so bad. So now I've got the old girl in at the Auto Bahn near work. Here's hoping that they don't add another huge dent in the side like Carbon Tune did. And here's looking forward to One Of These Days(TM) when I have an actual garage with concrete floor and stuff. That's gonna be awesome!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Ah require a blogging tool.

Welcome to TurboCrank! All the soap has been removed from the box, it's upside down, and now I'm going to use it to stand on so that you-up-the-back can see what I'm writing.

It's been a fair while since I had a web site. My old one, Fractal Infinities, finally died when the ISP I used to work for closed. I frequently rant about life, people, the world, culture, in fact pretty much whatever crosses my mind, so I figured if I had a blog and I pretended that people read it, that would save my friends and family from the worst of it. ;)

About me; I'm 27, somewhat recently married, play World of Warcraft, work for a company that makes financial software (I used to work at Interzone Games until their haed asplode due to the Global Fubar Crash). I like fast cars, alcohol (not at the same time), mi goreng, nachos, and things with blinky lights. My political views are fairly libertarian and my attitude towards nanny-state safety laws verges on Darwinism.

You can expect literate, well thought-out and yet hopefully amusingly opinionated blahblah to follow. There will probably also be annoying movie quotes, mostly from Arnie because that's just how it is.