Saturday, March 31, 2012

Blogging Will Be Spotty

Posting will be intermittent for a while.  Dear son and daughter in law have blessed us with our first grandchild.  Less than a week old here:
It's off on the road north.  From here, we need to travel North to get through the Deep South... 

Friday, March 30, 2012

I Just Don't Understand

H/T to Claire Wolfe for a story about a member of the Free Sh*t Army who does something I just don't understand
An unemployed man in Austria almost died after sawing off his own foot and tossing it in the stove so he could keep his jobless benefits.
They explain he tossed his foot into the open fire of the stove to burn it up so that a doctor couldn't reattach it.   That part succeeded. 

Stupid fool almost bled to death, and they should have let him. 

That's a mindset I simply don't understand.  Pretty much any job I can imagine sounds better than cutting off, well, anything.  Then again, I'm one of those fools who gets up before sunrise to work so I can pay taxes to support guys like him, (yeah, I know he's in Austria). 

Now that he's disabled, they should give him a desk job. So where should a disabled psychotic work?  Driver's license office?  Suicide prevention hotline? 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

This Is Your Captain Freaking

Apparently the New York Post is responsible for that great headline, so credit where due and all.
Of course, the media is all over the story of the JetBlue pilot who lost it on a flight this weekend, and the inevitable "are we careful enough selecting pilots?" stories have begun.  I expect the next thread will be "what if he was one of those armed pilots!!!???"  The best angle on this story doesn't seem to have made the news, though.  Aviation source AvWeb reports:
By then a flight attendant was on the microphone asking for help to subdue the aircraft commander and there was no shortage of volunteers. Many of those on board were on their way to the International Security Conference in Vegas. Former prison guard David Gonzales wasted little time bringing the situation under control.
So the pilot freaks on plane full of guys going to the ISC West International Security Conference?  Picked a bad group to do that with.

Reminds me of the great Glock commercial with "Gunny" - R. Lee Ermey:

H/T to a long-time friend.  

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

CBO Says It's Over in 15 Years

Borepatch has an excellent video by Bill Whittle (does Whittle do any that aren't excellent?) on the sad truth of the economy.  The highlight of the video is an exchange between Paul Ryan and Treasury Secretary Elfin Geithner, and it includes something that has been talked about in the economatrix but not very widely.  Ryan says the Congressional Budget Office has said that unless the current spending plans are stopped, the US economy will collapse by 2027 - that's 15 years from now.  Geithner essentially says "we don't have a plan to fix it, we just don't like yours" to Paul Ryan, so the Secretary of the Treasury, the most powerful guy in the economy (at least, in the structure) is happy to do nothing to fix the structural problems; just kick the can and hope it doesn't all collapse.  Go watch. 
Silly linear thinking - we don't have anywhere near 15 years.  I can't give you an exact date, but how about if I said we have five years plus or minus five?  15 years is based on how the CBO thinks the world will unfold in the coming years.  But anyone who has ever worked on a big project in industry or government will tell you no complex program has ever followed its original schedule and it's a worn out military cliche that "no battle plan ever survived contact with the enemy".

The value of the CBO saying the country ceases to exist in any time frame is that the fact our country is headed for collapse is now out in the open.   Fifteen years isn't that long.  I've worked at my current job 16.  The Simpsons has been on the air for over 20 years.  

Unfortunately, comments get taken over by a goober named Goober who wants to blame everything on "Boomers".  He spends paragraphs blaming it all on the Boomers and then has the gall to finish it up with:
When my generation has been in charge for the last 40 years, and God forbid we're still robbing from our kids for our retirement, I'll universally lambast MY generation, too. You have my word on that - I'm nothing if not fair.

It is hard to write about the actions of a generation, because I am a person that focuses more on the actions of a individual rather than the acts of groups of individuals.
So anybody who fought this all their life and voted against it all their life, and saved all their life because they knew the system would break, those people are all to blame just because they're in that age group?  Exactly what else were those people supposed to do?  Start an open civil war? 

What crappy defective thinking that is!  A favorite saying of mine goes, "you can't out think someone that isn't thinking" - it's not worth arguing with them.  Clarity of thought is something I try to emphasize here. 

I wrote on this problem more recently than I thought, and it's widespread. To borrow a quote from that post, it fits here perfectly with very minor edits (just removing the poster's name):
Not to pick on him in particular, it's the idea. The idea that one generation is responsible for the mess we're in is a poisonous thought, and it's the kind of easy, "let's find a scapegoat" thought that can spread, especially if the SHTF and society collapses.  When people are desperate and hungry, they can whip themselves into a frenzy with ideas like that.
Farther down, about another "hate the boomers" example:
This writer, and I would assume many like her, believes the breakdown of the system is caused by her parents and grandparents, who made the mistake of believing the promises of politicians, much like union members who believed they could retire in their 50s and live on fat pensions paid for out of unicorn droppings. 
Returning to the SHTF scenario,
The problem is, as I posted in reply, when the angry mob comes to "kill all the old boomers", they're not going to wait for you to show them how frugally you've lived, or that you pride yourself in not having taken handouts, or that you fought government expansion and the crippling debt with all you could.  It's going to be mob rule: kill or be killed. When you're pondering a polygonal war space or Matt Bracken's CW2 cube, this adds another complication, that the people you are helping - or fighting alongside - will be firing on you as soon as it's convenient.  
And my last words in the last comment:
It's way too simple to blame it on the old people. Or their parents. My engineer's perspective is that I don't care who screwed it up as much as what I can do to fix it. The only value of knowing who broke it is to keep them from sabotaging my repairs.
In the end there's no such thing as generations.  There's no such thing as race.  There's no such thing as ethnic groups.  There's only people who choose to act in certain ways.  But then we don't get our convenient little scapegoats do we?  And we might have to think hard and critically.  Can't have that, now, can we?  

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Working With Wiring

The posts on Electricity were long on theory, short on practical.  There's a simple reason: personally, I'm the kind of guy who would rather you told me why I should do things some way rather than just tell me to do it that way.  That way, if I have to do something similar, I'll understand what I have to think about to do it right.  If you tell me to always use #14 wire on my boat, maybe that's because for the short distances and the current most stuff takes, the I^2*R losses are low.  If I want to do wiring, not in my boat but on a big RV, maybe that's not the right advice. 

Here's a good example.  If you have to wire in an AC outlet, always install it with the ground pin up, like this:
Why?  The plugs (left) virtually always are not completely flush when plugged in.  If you should be working on something above the outlet (usually a foot or so above the floor, right?)  and a tool drop, the ground pin will deflect it. If the two blades were unprotected, something metal might spot weld to the two pins, or cause a massive spark.  I actually had this happen to me while measuring in my kitchen and using a metal strip tape measure.  We were measuring the length of a back splash or something, when the blade slipped between the plug and the outlet, landing on the pins.  There was an enormous flash, and a loud bang.  The metal tape was blown clear, but the cellphone charger plugged into the outlet had about a 1/8" semicircle blown out of it.  A very big notch. 

Which is more likely for you to remember, someone saying to install outlets with the ground pin up, or hearing that story?  Or having it happen to you?  It's better to learn from other peoples' mistakes. 

Whenever I talk about tools, I always remember something a jeweler told me: I never buy cheap tools - they're far too expensive.  That said, you can get good quality wire cutters, strippers, long nose pliers and a meter at your favorite local home improvement store.  A good set of Stripmaster wire strippers make life easy.  My meter for most electrical work around the house is an ancient Fluke handheld digital meter.  New ones are a tiny fraction of the cost. 

Solder or solderless?  For most connections, crimp-on terminals or wire nuts (house electricians live by these) are the way to go.  A well done crimp is as reliable as a soldered joint, and has the advantage that you can do it without house power available.  I love my Metcal soldering iron, picked up used for a song at a ham radio swapmeet, and the best soldering iron I've ever owned, but without 120V AC, it's useless.  A soldering iron and knowing how to use it can be your best friend. 

Crimping tools go from the simple to the precision, and a simple one will get you there if you're not in production or a specialist.  I still have a beginner's kit like this and have just re-stocked it with new crimp terminals as needed.  For coaxial cable or for big connections, that's out of the range of this type of tool kit.  Think ratcheting and leverage.

For most house circuits, (120V 15A typical in the US), you'll use solid copper wire, usually sold in an insulated jacket under a trade name like Romex, which is a trademarked name.   Commonly in 14/3 (14 ga. 3 conductor) for light duty, and thicker 12/3 for more power.  Running 220 for a hot tub or something power hungry?  Try 10 ga., depending on the distance.  12V, @ 120A, long distances?  Start thinking large copper bars. 

There are many tables of recommended wire sizes online and in reference books; these are based on what somebody or some group decided were acceptable losses in a wire.  You might put up with more loss, or demand less, but they're a starting point. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Blame it On Sharp As A Marble

Robb, over at Sharp as a Marble, posted a link to a video of a song called River Shiver by a couple kids who call themselves Pomplamoose - a playful riff on the French word for grapefruit. This is how they describe their work:
This is a VideoSong, a new Medium with two rules:

1. What you see is what you hear (no lip-syncing for instruments or voice).
2. If you hear it, at some point you see it (no hidden sounds).
Liked it. Looked for more.  Like a lot more of them, too.  So since I've developed a tendency to sound like Fat Tony (Joe Mantegna's character on The Simpsons), this one had natural appeal to me:

I hate to whine, but I probably spent close to 18 hours putting together those posts over the weekend.  The hard part isn't writing it; it's figuring out what not to write!  Time for just a little R&R.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Least You Should Know About Electricity - AC

Before I get started, let me quickly say some things I should have put in last night's post and update a little. 

Why math?  The main reason is if you try to read any technician-level books to repair something you can't get away from it.  Math gives very concise descriptions, if you know how to read it.  In most cases, you won't need to do the calculations I'm going to talk about here, but I'm using it as a way to explain things you need to know about.  I know a lot of people are terrified of math, and the more you put in, the more readers you loose, but a decent scientific calculator is dirt cheap and all you need to know is how to enter the equations. 

If you're going to design things, not just fix them, you will need to calculate answers.  If your pump blows its capacitor or a wire fuses open, and you need to replace it, you need to figure out what value capacitor or what size wire was in there and get a replacement – after you figure out why it blew, if you can.  If you need to design a solar electric system, like we're doing in a side project, you need to do a bunch of calculations.

As I say in my mast head, my purpose here is to help get people resilient to the nastiness that is coming.  Growing food is essential.  Filtering water is essential.  Beans, bullets, band-aids and bullion are all essential.  But so is keeping technology alive and keeping up what we can of what we have, even if it's just a few of us with some form of power.  Make it, make it work or do without.  With that out of the way, onward we go:

Everything you learned about DC applies to AC, and there's way more stuff to keep in mind.

To begin with, let me remind (or tell) you that AC stands for alternating current. The electrons vibrate back and forth at the frequency the circuit is excited by.  For now, I'll talk about the power line frequency, which is 60 Hz (or 60 “cycles per second” as they used to say), and tends to be either 60 or 50 Hz in various places around the world.  The line voltage coming to your house is produced by a generator, which produces a very clean sine wave.  Since it goes from zero to maximum, to minimum and then back to zero 60 times per second, the period of one of those cycles is 1/60 second, or about 16 2/3 milliseconds (16.667 thousandths of a second).  Many light sources and other things around you flicker at that rate, chosen to be faster than most people can see.
First, a question: what exactly do we mean when we say something like our power line is 120 VAC?  You can see by the plot above that the voltage goes all over, sometimes negative, sometimes positive and sometimes zero.  By convention, we mean the voltage that causes the same amount of heating in a resistor as 120V DC.  To shorten things up somewhat, it's calculated by a mathematical method called the root mean square (RMS) but the result is 0.707 of the absolute peak AC voltage.  Conversely, the peak of a 120V AC circuit is 1.414 times the RMS (120) or 170V.  The peak to peak voltage is twice that or 340 V.  This leads to potential confusion when specifying parts: do we care about peak or peak to peak or what?  Parts designed for AC use often tell you.  When you buy an outlet rated for 120V, it will be based on the characteristics of the AC sine wave.

There is never any problem with using parts rated for 220V AC in place of those rated for 120.  In the case of the plastic outlets and plugs you buy at your local store, 220V plugs and outlets are shaped differently, just to keep you from plugging 120V stuff into 220V – which would probably blow it into the next county.  A lot of safety and sense is built into the National Electric Code (NEC) and the things you buy that are compliant with it.

In addition to resistance, there are two other characteristics of circuits that you need to know about.  In a way they are mirror images of each other.  The first of these is inductance and the second is capacitance.  Components designed to exhibit these characteristics are called inductors, or coils, and capacitors.

Inductance is a property of electrical circuits that causes energy to be stored in a magnetic field – however big or small, long or briefly.  Inductors are usually coils of wire, frequently wound on a core material that increases the amount of inductance.  In a 60 Hz component, that core is usually laminated steel sheet (thin to prevent losses from the magnetic fields' "eddy currents"), made from alloys that tune this effect.  They can also be cores made from ferrite, a ceramic composite made with iron powder.  A coil of wire wound on a steel core?  Doesn't that sound like part of an electric motor?  Yes it is and motors are inductors, too.  A coil of wire is just a longer wire wound up to save space, and they conduct DC.  The unit of inductance is called a Henry (after Joe Bob Henry), and is very large for practical inductors.  Instead, you'll encounter inductors in milliHenries (thousandths of a Henry) microhenries and nanohenries (millionths and billionths, respectively). 

The “mirror image” of the inductor is the capacitor, and a similar definition is that capacitance is a property or electrical circuits that causes energy to be stored in an electric field.  The simplest capacitors are just two metal plates alongside each other with an air gap or other insulator (also called a dielectric) between them.  Because they don't present a DC connection, DC can't flow through them; they block DC but conduct AC.  The unit of capacitance is called a Farad (after Joe Bob Farad), and like the Henry, is extremely large for practical capacitors.  Instead, you'll encounter capacitors in most often microfarads, and picofarads (millionths and trillionths, respectively).  A capacitor measuring a Farad or more was a lab curiosity until the mid 1980s, when someone introduced the “super capacitor” to take the place of a small battery for computer memory backup.  Today, super capacitors are being looked at to take the place of batteries in electric vehicles. 

A circuit with the symbols for an inductor (L) and capacitor (C) looks like this:
In addition to resistance to DC, these parts have new property called reactance, an “AC only” resistance.  Their reactances are opposites of each other; for an inductor, the reactance is
    Xl = 2*pi*freq*L 
where pi is the famous irrational number which we can shorten to 3.142, freq is the frequency of the AC in Hertz (Hz), and L is the inductance in Henries.  Result in ohms.

Since this is a linear relationship, for a particular coil, as the frequency goes up, the reactance goes up, or for a fixed frequency, as the inductance goes up, the reactance goes up.

Capacitors behave the opposite way.

Capacitive reactance is expressed by
     Xc = - 1/(2*pi*freq*C)
where pi and freq are as before, and C is the capacitance in Farads.  Result in ohms, and notice that this is a negative number.

In this inverse relationship, for a particular capacitor, as the frequency goes up, the reactance goes down, or for a fixed frequency, as the capacitance goes up, the reactance goes down.

They're inverse in yet another way.  The voltage and current shift out of phase to each other, or the current in a resistor, and inductors behave differently than capacitors.  In an inductor, the voltage zips on through, but as the magnetic field starts to grow, it opposes current flow.  In an RL circuit, the current peaks ¼ cycle, 90 degrees, after the voltage.  In a capacitor, by contrast, the voltage zips in, hits that open plate and stops.  At this point the charge on that plate causes an opposite electric field to grow on the other plate of the capacitor, which then effects the circuit on that side of the gap.  Electrons moving on one side of the insulator gap are causing them to move on the other side.  It sounds a lot like – and is – the same as current flowing, so in the capacitor the current leads the voltage by 90 degrees.

They combine oppositely, too.  Inductors combine like resistors: in series they add (think of sticking more wire on the end of wire in the coil - it makes the coil bigger); in parallel, they get smaller, with the reciprocal of the sum of reciprocals like resistors.  Capacitors in parallel add (think of making the plates a larger area).  In series, capacitors get smaller by the reciprocal of the sum of reciprocals.

While reactance is stated in ohms, it doesn't cause real power to be lost in a circuit.  Power put into the reactance can come back out, but there's still a product of volts times amps in the reactance.  Since it isn't really lost (like power in a resistor turns into heat and goes away) this is called apparent power.  To distinguish apparent power from real power, it isn't referred to in Watts, but VAR – Volts*Amps Reactive.

This probably sounds pretty awkward, but I'm trying to dance around invoking trigonometry.  I'd really rather not get into a ton of vector diagrams and triangles, but the fact is reactance is at right angles to resistance, so that you don't just add ohms of reactance and ohms of resistance.  If you have 10 ohms of resistance and 10 ohms of reactance in series, the total isn't 20 ohms.  Instead, we define a new “super resistance” that includes both reactance and resistance called Impedance, denoted by Z, (pronounced with a long “E” - it impedes the flow of current).  In a simple series RL or RC circuit, Z is the square root of the sum of the squares. 
    Z= Sqrt(R^2+X^2)

If you are familiar with "8 ohm speakers" or "600 ohm headset", that's impedance they're referring to.

What if the circuit has both kinds of reactance, an RLC circuit?  Series or parallel L and C?  That's for later, when we get into “real” electronics.

Have you ever seen a motor with a starting capacitor on it?  Maybe you can see why it's there now: the inductance of the motor windings causes large positive reactance.  The capacitor introduces an offsetting negative reactance to cancel out some or all of that positive reactance.  If you connect a large inductor (motor) to the AC line without that capacitor, due to that right angle relationship of impedance, the inductance of the motor can actually dump power back into the AC generator.  Most generators don't take this joke very well.  The capacitor cancels out the inductance and prevents the motor from dumping power back into the generator.

The concept I'm describing here is called the power factor, after all the inductors and capacitors in a circuit have done their stuff, the circuit has a net reactance; either inductive or capacitive.  This gives a phase angle between the voltage and current.  Power factor is numerically the cosine of the angle between voltage and current, always between -1 and +1.  Power factor is important in the design of power systems.  Even in electronic boxes, where inductors and capacitors are used all over, the power supply designer might impose limits on the amount of excess capacitance or inductance allowed.  (source)
One of the advantages of AC over DC, and why our power grid is almost exclusively AC, is that the voltage can be changed at will, almost completely without loss, by components called transformers.  A typical transformer has two windings, primary and secondary, wrapped on some sort of bobbin (often paper) and wrapped on a metallic core to increase the inductance.  The important characteristic is the turns ratio, N, the ratio of the number of turns of wire on the secondary divided by the number on the primary sets the output voltage.  This is usually just called N.
    V out = N* Vin

For example, if the primary has 250 turns of wire and the secondary has 1000 turns, the ratio is 4, so if you put in 120 V, you'll get 480 V out.  Now a transformer is just a hunk of iron and wire; it can't increase the amount of power; that stays almost constant (there's a little bit of loss).  When the voltage goes up, the current goes down by the same ratio, so that the amount of power is conserved.  The advantage to the power grid is that loss in wire is current squared times resistance, and smaller wires have higher resistance;  going to higher voltages allows them to reduce the losses and keep the same small wire.  Bigger wire is more expensive than smaller and harder to work with in every way, so stepping the voltage up allows “normal” sized wire to be used to link power all around the country.  Similarly, if the ratio were opposite, 250 turns on the secondary and 1000 on the primary, the ratio is ¼: if you put 120 on the primary the output is 30 V at 4 times the current.   

Let's take a breather from a bunch of theory and talk about more practical stuff for a while.

This is as good a place as any to say this: the common 120 house current kills more people than all the high voltage systems combined.  That's mostly because people who work on the higher voltage systems get more training but partly because a 120 shock causes your muscles to paralyze and you can't let go of it.  Think of your house 120 as an infinite power source. No, nothing is infinite, but it will deliver enough power to kill you and burn your house down around you.  How much more do you need? 

What is ground?  As I said before, all voltages are measured across something.  What that means is that potential (voltage) can only exist between different points and a voltage only exists with respect to another potential.  The reference that has the most historical use is ground, and the British specifically call it "Earth".  What we call grounding something - sinking an 8' long rod into wet soil - they call "earthing".  In most systems that use a single polarity supply, like your car, a solar panel, or millions of others, the chassis is connected to the negative terminal of the battery and the whole large mass of metal is called ground.  It could be connected to the earth, but usually isn't (how do you tie a moving airplane to a ground rod?).  I must note the exception: there were positive ground cars.  I think that stopped in the 1950s, but car collectors can correct me. 

The AC and DC worlds have decided to use very different color codes.  DC systems that just have a single voltage use black for ground and red for the voltage.  AC systems use a Neutral (white) and Hot (black) - ground is green (the voltage is from white to black).  This is a good way to get killed.  If you think it's safe to touch the black wire in an AC system, you die.  In DC systems with lots of voltages (a lot of it uses positive and negative voltages) color codes aren't standardized. If you wire stuff that only you will ever work on, feel free to use any connector and any color code you want.  I have actually seen a home made 12 V supply that used plain 120V outlets for the connector.  I guess if you plugged a 120V device into it, it just wouldn't run, but still...  If you care about the folks who will work on your project after it kills you, use the standards.

Edit 1708 3/27 to correct typo pointed out in comments.

A Reminder - Why We're Doing This

The inimitable Mark Steyn,
I was in Australia earlier this month and there, as elsewhere on my recent travels, the consensus among the politicians I met (at least in private) was that Washington lacked the will for meaningful course correction, and that, therefore, the trick was to ensure that, when the behemoth goes over the cliff, you’re not dragged down with it. It is faintly surreal to be sitting in paneled offices lined by formal portraits listening to eminent persons who assume the collapse of the dominant global power is a fait accompli. “I don’t feel America is quite a First World country anymore,” a robustly pro-American Aussie told me, with a sigh of regret.
H/T WSRA  who credits Instapundit (who needs a link from me about as much as Kim Cardassian)
No, wait...

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Least You Should Know About Electricity - DC

The simplest way to describe electricity is the motion of electrons, those carriers of negative charge in an atom.  We could spend a day discussing what an electron is, so let's not; let's just say it's a negative charge.  Direct current is electricity that flows in one direction, so that the individual electrons leave one terminal (usually of a battery or circuit that emulates one), go through the wires and other parts, and eventually arrive at the other terminal.  In a battery powered circuit, the electrons actually leave from the negative terminal and end up in the positive terminal.  This is backwards from the way most people think, but it doesn't really matter.  To remove a lot of negative signs, we define conventional current as flowing from the positive to the negative terminal in a DC circuit.  In an AC circuit, the electrons don't have to go around the circuit, they just wiggle back and forth.  Of the two, AC is the much more useful form of electricity for a variety of reasons.  Varying the frequency at which the electrons wiggle gives us every form of radio, TV, and the entire electromagnetic spectrum.  In what follows, I'm going to introduce the fundamentals of DC, then AC.  The same concepts apply, there are just important differences between them. 

We've all heard of voltage and “high voltage”; fewer people are familiar with current and resistance but these are the fundamental characteristics of a circuit.  Every electrician, and everybody who works on or services appliances, or electronics knows about these things.  And, by the way, if you want to get your ham radio license, this theory is needed for the license if you really want to understand things. 

Voltage, or potential, is a force available that causes electrons to move.  The current is the amount of electrons that flow past a point in a given time.  The unit of current, the Ampere, or simply “Amp”, is a set number of electrons flowing past a point in one second.  (The number is one coulomb per second, and a coulomb of charge is 6.241×10^18 electrons.  That scientific notation number is 6.241 quintillion, 6,241,000,000,000,000,000, a number even larger than the rolled up value of all the CDOs and other imaginary assets the banking system generated before the '08 crash.  But not by much, only by a factor of about 1000.  You will never need to know this, it's just a fun number.) 

The most fundamental relationship in all of electricity and electronics is Ohm's law, which combines voltage and current with a new property called resistance.  Resistance (R) is opposition to current flow, and is the voltage (V) in a circuit divided by the current (I) going through it.  I find formulas with multiplication easier to remember than division so I remember it as
which says that the voltage change across a resistor is the current times the resistance.  The units of resistance are ohms, like the law; I've already talked about volts and amps, the units for the other two.  Ohms are often indicated by the Greek symbol omega, which this editor doesn't even have a symbol for.   If you search online for help on Ohm's law you will find much of it refers to Voltage as E – for electromotive force.  This is an old term that seems to only be used by beginners, but since beginners are the folks who will look for the explanations, that's the term a lot of the web sites use. 

While we think of high voltage as dangerous (and it is...) the reason is that a higher voltage can force a larger current through a resistor (like you, for instance).  How much current is dangerous?  As little as .06 Amp (60 milliamps) of AC at the power line frequency can kill if it goes through the heart.  For DC, the number is somewhat higher, about 300 to 500 mA, if current passes through the heart to complete the circuit.  You can see that if you work on electrical systems, and your body represents some fixed resistance, a 440V system (say) will generate higher currents than a 12V system.  I have heard tales of as little as 20 mA and 32V being fatal and I know everyone at my company who works on anything above 50V requires special electrical safety training. 

A very common illustration is a water tank and pipe.  The tank applies pressure, the potential, and the size of the pipe limits how much water can flow.  That's the current.  The size of the pipe that limits the amount of current the tank can deliver is the resistance. 

The power (stated in Watts) in a DC circuit is simply voltage times current in amps:

Since voltage and current can be expressed in terms of resistance, you can substitute those equations into this one and get power dissipated in a resistor, expressed as the current in the resistor or the voltage across it. Your "power company" doesn't really sell you power, they sell you energy.  The metric unit for energy is a Joule, and a Watt is a Joule/second ( "Watt's a Joule per second?  Yes!") so a Joule is a Watt*Second and the power company sells you multiples of that, usually kilowatt hours (1000 watts for a 3600 seconds).  

Confusing?  You'll find many, many versions of this chart online, which gives you a group of formulas to use, without doing the multiplication on paper or in your head (this one from ) :
So what happens if you have more than one resistor in a circuit?  That depends on how they're connected.  If they are in series, “end to end”, the current has to go through them all one after another, and the total resistance simply adds them up:
         Rtotal = R1 + R2 +R3+...
In this circuit, the two 10 ohm resistors would add up to 20 ohms. The left side of “R1” has the battery positive voltage connected to it, and the right side of “R2” has zero on it – it's connected to the negative terminal.  The only unknown voltage is the one in the middle of the two resistors, and with equal resistors, it's half the applied voltage. We'll talk about voltage dividers in another post. 

If the resistors are in parallel, the current divides between them proportional to the size of the resistors.  They add in a peculiar way, as the reciprocal of reciprocals:
        Rtotal =1/(1/R1+1/R2+1/R3+...)

In the special case where there are two resistors:
        1/(1/R1+1/R2) = (R1*R2)/(R1+R2)
With a modern scientific calculator, you might find either one just as easy to enter, and remembering only one form will help.  I tend to use the reciprocal of reciprocals form because I tend to do this for several resistors more often than just two.

The easiest case is two identical resistors, and here the total works out to be ½ of the resistor value.  It is always true (and worth remembering) that the resistance in a group of parallel resistors is always smaller than the smallest resistor in the combination.
In the parallel circuit, both resistors have the same voltage across them – they're both across the same battery, after all – but the current through them varies with the smaller resistor getting the higher current.  If these were a 10 and 5 ohm resistor, the current in the smaller one would be twice the current in the bigger.  Also, since it's now a smaller load (the two in parallel are 3 1/3 ohms instead of 5) the total current is higher than the current into two 10 W resistors.

There are some other things to see in the example circuits.  Voltage is always measured across something: for example, the battery has a positive and negative lead and the voltmeter leads go one to each side.  I could put one lead on the junction of the two series resistors and the other lead on the other end of either resistor and measure the voltage across it; one direction will be positive voltage, the other negative (if I don't move the probe on the center).  Current always goes through something; I can't measure the current in R1, for example, without opening the wire between the resistor and either the top or bottom of the voltage source.  So voltage is always measured in parallel, while a current is always measured in series.  There's an exception to the breaking the wire thing: there are meters that clamp on and measure current by the magnetism it produces (yes, all electric current causes a magnetic field – it's the law).

OK, so why is this worth knowing?  In a circuit like our solar panel project, all of the losses add up like resistors.  If we have a wire with some amount of loss, we can cut the loss in half by running an identical wire in parallel with it (which is the same as doubling the cross sectional area of the wire).  If we add connectors, or other pieces of wire in series with the panel terminals, we've added series resistances and the total loss goes up. 

If you take an electrical engineering circuits class, you'll get a lot more information, like Ohms' first name (Joe Bob), Ampere's first name (also Joe Bob), and other trivia, but not much more content.  You'll solve a billion and six problems with different connection configurations – some of which are useful for concepts introduced later in the curriculum, but this is the meat of DC circuits. 

(Strangely, everyone in the history of electricity was named Joe Bob). 

Readers:  I need feedback on wether or not this is any good.  I glossed over a lot of material that people might not be comfortable with: SI prefixes like kilo, milli and such; what those squiggly things are, the whole "what's a schematic diagram" thing.  Discomfort with Math.  That sort of thing.  I need feedback on how much more detail I need to add.

A Weekend Must Read

Back in the (relatively) slower and more gentile days many of us grew up in, the Sunday newspaper was so big it almost required our little red wagons to bring it inside.  This was the day it was filled with longer, more thoughtful articles.  In that spirit, I'm going to link to this excellent post on the TSA from a guy with 25 years in anti-terrorism.  H/T Borepatch.  Your teaser:
The report goes on to state that the virtual strip search screening machines are a failure in that they cannot detect the type of explosives used by the “underwear bomber” or even a pistol used as a TSA’s own real-world test of the machines.  Yet TSA has spent approximately $60 billion since 2002 and now has over 65,000 employees, more than the Department of State, more than the Department of Energy, more than the Department of Labor, more than the Department of Education, more than the Department of Housing and Urban Development---combined. TSA has become, according to the report,  “an enormous, inflexible and distracted bureaucracy more concerned with……consolidating power.”
Huh.  Who would have seen that one coming?  I mean besides all of us?

Friday, March 23, 2012

An Interesting New Battery Technology

Lead acid batteries are the backbone of the rechargeable battery world, literally sold by the ton.  The chemistry is one of the first marketed, and the design has been refined for at least a hundred years - some backup information here.  People have been predicting the demise of lead acid batteries for years (example) but the engineers who make them continually improve them. This article emphasizes the shortcomings of the lead acid technology for a lot of the electric car and other "latest fad" applications. 

One of the things that puzzled me when I first came across the design of the cell was how both cathode and anode are lead.  In most electrochemical cells, there are dissimilar materials: I'm sure you've seen NiCad, or Nickle/Cadmium, for example.  Zinc/carbon (the most common batteries in your local store), zinc/manganese dioxide ("alkaline" batteries) and silver/zinc are other common chemistries.  One side is positive the other negative; in lead acid batteries, both sides are lead. 

The new design is more like those familiar systems: lead-carbon, (PbC or Pb-C) where the carbon becomes the negative plate.  It appears that there are two main companies in this arena, Firefly Energy and Axion Power.  This is new technology, not widely available, yet, but the story is old-fashioned "smart guy has a better idea, gets venture capital" stuff, the way it's supposed to be.  No big DoE grants here (that I can tell, anyway).  From a trade newspaper's comments
"The firefly battery uses a rigid carbon foam to replace the lead grid. It's my understanding that the carbon foam is then pasted with the same sponge lead that all other lead-acid batteries use. The use of a carbon foam current collector apparently adds some capacitance to the negative electrodes and helps reduce sulfation by breaking the paste into smaller morsels, but the gains are of the same magnitude as the gains manufacturers are getting from the addition of carbon to their pastes.

The PbC completely eliminates lead from the negative electrodes and replaces it with a highly capacitive carbon. Getting rid of the lead on the negative electrodes eliminates sulfation, rather than simply reducing it."
A pretty wise old graybeard I worked with when I was still in college said, "engineering is the art of compromise", meaning you always trade various things against each other.  There is rarely ever an ideal answer; just some compromises that work better than others in their intended place.  Axion Power, sums up some tradeoffs this way:
Demonstrated advantages of the PbC design over traditional lead-acid batteries include

  • very high charge acceptance
  • virtual elimination of sulfation [note: the big killer of lead acid cells]
  • very high cycle-life; 2000 cycles at 100% cycle every 7 hours vs. 300 - 500 cycles for typical deep-cycle LA batteries (as stated in Axion's test results)
  • robustness when deeply discharged
  • nearly unavailable
(emphasis and note added by SiGB)
Because the technology is new, I don't have a nifty little picture of what they look like inside.  The companies probably don't want any more info out than there is already. But here's what one looks like:
From the outside, Axion’s PbC looks much like its lead-acid predecessor. “We’ve just replaced a stack of lead electrodes with a stack of activated carbon electrodes,” Axion CEO Thomas Granville said. (The Economist and Green Car Congress both have done deep dives on Axion’s chemistry, but here’s the short version: Axion replaces the lead-based negative electrodes found in conventional lead-acid batteries with carbon assemblies.) “The only [noticeable] difference is the feel.” He said Axion’s PbC batteries weigh half as much as traditional lead-acid batteries, while offering just slightly less storage capacity.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

We Pause For a Moment

I find this indescribably beautiful.

Someone once asked J.B.S. Haldane, a famous British geneticist/biologist what a lifetime of studying biology had taught him about the preferences of God, should there be one.  He answered, "He has an inordinate fondness for beetles".  I would say "inordinate fondness for partial differential equations"

The circulation patterns here put Jupiter's atmosphere to shame.  Watch it in full screen, 1080P. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

More Tales From the Over Regulated State - A Series

wherein tonight's episode can be called, "You Owe Us".

It's one thing to live in a state with income tax, as most folks do (and I don't).  You expect a tax bill and you budget to pay it.  But what do you do when you get taxed by a state you don't live in?  Worse yet, what if they just raid your bank account for the alleged tax - and make you pay for the privilege?

I was tipped in a private email from GardenSerf to two articles on Charles Hugh Smith's blog, "Of Two Minds".  In "Welcome to the Predatory State of California - Even If You Don't Live There"  Charles opens the story this way:
On March 14, he received a letter from the California Franchise Tax Board (the agency that collects income taxes) claiming that he owed $1,343 for the tax year 2006. This was the first notification he'd ever received of this claim. This was an interesting claim given that R.T.:

-- Did not reside in California in 2006

-- Did not file a State income tax return in California in 2006

-- Did not have any outstanding tax issues with California in 2006

-- Did no business in California in 2006

-- Owned no property in California in 2006
He goes on to say:
But the truly interesting part of the story is that the state took $1,343 out of R.T.'s Wells Fargo bank account on March 2, prior to notifying him of the claim. Wells Fargo charged R.T. $100 for handling the removal of his $1,343.  
Round about this point,  my chin was reaching almost record separations from my upper teeth.  By the next day, in Part 2 of the article, other folks had emailed to tell similar stories!
1. The old "you didn't pay a $25 filing fee, the fine is now $499 which we took from your bank account." Never mind you have the cancelled check endorsed by the state, proving they received it and cashed it; the Board of Kafkaesque Authority claims "we didn't get the check" and loots your account for the $499 (true story.)

2. "Fishing expeditions" where companies and citizens are dunned for taxes and fees they might owe, though there is no evidence they do in fact owe fees and taxes. I received many emails describing these fishing expeditions, for example, merely having a license is "evidence" that you must have unreported income.

3. Enforce all sorts of dubious claims, most importantly:

A. That anyone collecting a pension from work performed while residing in California is liable for California taxes on that pension, regardless of where they live;

B. Any income resulting from something invented in California must be reported as income in California, regardless of where the income is derived from or where the inventor now lives. [emphasis added - GB]
I read that as California claims that if you thought of something simply while passing through their state that they are owed income tax on it no matter where you set up shop to make money off your idea, or where you live.  What power!  Anyone who invents something that makes them enough money to stand out from the crowd had better hope it can never be shown that they went through California on a trip - or (I imagine) even just changed planes.  How can anyone prove where the creative spark occurred? 
Lest you think this far-fetched, please consider this report sent to me by correspondent J.J.: Will California Gamble in Las Vegas? The Stakes are High in the Gilbert Hyatt Case:

To summarize, the California FTB sued Gilbert Hyatt, an inventor of a microprocessor chip, for tax fraud. The FTB claimed that Mr. Hyatt did not file a return for the income derived from his invention. Mr. Hyatt claimed he was already a Nevada resident at the time he invented the chip; California claimed otherwise. Whether that case has merit is still to be decided and could lead to a recovery of around $50M for the FTB, including penalties and interest, which account for over 80% of the total.

The real issue, however, is the FTB’s misconduct in pursuing Mr. Hyatt in Nevada. According to Bill Leonard, a member of the California State Board of Equalization, as published in his newsletter:

Tax agents rummaged through his trash without warrants, visited business partners and doctors, and shared his Social Security Number and other personal information with the media. This is outrageous behavior and I call on the FTB to rein in their agents. What really galled me is the FTB testified in open court that this level of harassment was only a typical audit. If true, then the stormtroopers are alive and well at the FTB.
This case appears unusual. Most of them seem to be stealing money at a level where it just doesn't make sense to hire lawyers and fight to the death.  They take $500 and make you spend $2000 to get it back - most people give up and write off the loss.  Which is what they're counting on, of course.  

As usual, California is merely the first to do insane or corrupt things, and similar attempts are showing up around the country as bankrupt governments at all levels scramble to get more money.   This is banana republic stuff.  Welcome to the Fascist States of Amerika.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Least You Should Know...

That's always the hard part, isn't it?, deciding what you'll need to know?  That's why folks pay for training rather than try to figure that out themselves.

Getting back to my (dare I say) mission statement of helping to create resilient people, I plan to do a series here with the theme "The Least You Should Know About..." and cover things like basic electricity, basic electronics, radio, machines, gears, magnetics, motors, bearings, a wide range of things.  As I say up there in the header, "Someone needs to know how to do just about anything after the collapse, and that someone is us."  (a statement I said with the intent to mimic one of  Animal House's pivotal scenes.  No, I am not capable of being serious for too long).  It will be mixed in with the usual strange mix of other goings on, spread out over the next several months.

I plan to start with the least you should know about Electricity for two reasons: first, you probably are already aware of most of it which makes it good intro material; and second, it goes well with the solar panel project and discussions about that.  I want to talk about practical things like: if my camera uses a certain type battery, can I substitute it?  If I need to connect two solar panels, how do I do that?  How big should the wire be in my car/boat/whatever? Does the ground wire need to be the same size? 

So look forward to volts, amps, ohms, coulombs, watts, joules and all that.  Just not tonight.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Coolest Pic of the ...

Coolest pic of the ... day?  Week?  Month?  Sunspot group 1429, the source of the X-class flares a week or so ago.  From Averted Imagination
False color, Hydrogen Alpha emission image, with brightness negative:  lighter colors are lower radiation; darker colors are more intense H-a sources.  Looks like some sort of alien face with an under bite, doesn't it? 

This made the Astronomy Picture of the Day last week. 

Thing is, this guy is an amateur.  His gear is high-zoot, but it's all amateur-class gear. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Interesting Day on the Range

Yesterday, that is.  Before writing that long post on the nature of truth - and how to know it when you come across it - Mrs. Graybeard and I got down to our local club range for a little fun.  I put a new stock on my Remington 700 an embarrassingly long time ago, and hadn't even tried it out.  Considering the developing ammo situation*, we brought our .22 rifles for the bulk of the shooting. The 200 yard range was in use for a match (D'oh!!) so we went to the 50 yard range that has a few less seats and less room for really setting up your bench rest. 

The Remmy was excellent, although the new stock seemed to have (perhaps) moved the POI quite a bit.  At 50 yards, it had moved over 3".  Here's my first four rounds in a weird shot from my iPhone that actually focused on the dirt behind the target, leaving the important stuff blurry.  : 
The first shot is the upper one.  Shot two the one below that, and shots three/four the elongated hole next to two.  Those are .30-06 holes, so the actual diameter for the two single holes is at least .30".  It was pretty easy to move the POI with the adjustments on the scope to get into the X ring.  For the terminally curious, I put one of the "Bobby Hart AccuBlock Heritage Classic" laminated wood stocks on it, in "brandy".  The actual installation was "drop in" with no messing around required. Mrs. Graybeard only shot a few rounds, but put them all in about a 1 to 1 1/2" line (just guessing - based on memory). 

Let's face.  Major calibers like this are fun. 

The interesting (read that weird) problem was with our .22s.  These are the Savage 64F rifles we got about 18 months ago and brought to Appleseed, so we know they're good and they were pretty well zeroed last time we used them.  Mrs. Graybeard fired at the target and said, "I don't see any holes?"  Ran a magazine of 10 and still said she couldn't see impact holes.  Sure enough, nothing visible on the target.  Shortening the story somewhat, with either rifle we couldn't put a .22 in a target until I tried to shoot above the top of a vertical stack of 2 (these are 8 1/2 x 11 Caldwell targets).  Then a hole showed up about 25" below where I was aiming.  At 50 yards, with a rifle that had been zeroed on that exact range?  Both rifles POI was over two feet below the POA and I had to crank the adjustments like crazy.  They had not been handled roughly - and had just been sitting in a closet, in an air conditioned room since the last time we had them out.  One of them hit right of centerline and the other hit left of centerline. 

I find this amazingly bizarre.  Tasco scopes.  Something clearly moved around.  Either the internals of the scope or the mounting rings on the rifles' "rail" moved.  Good thing I didn't need to use it to induce a migraine in some zombie!  Anybody seen this?  Any ideas on how to keep it from happening again?

*"developing ammo situation" see here...  about two weeks ago, I got an offer from Cabela's for $2 shipping on any order over $50.  That seemed like a good time to check for ammo deals.  Not one of the calibers I was looking for was in stock.  Zero, zip, nada, zilch.  There was high dollar ammo - JHP SD rounds and such.  Just no range ammo. 

Saturday, March 17, 2012

How Do You Tell Junk Science from Good?

In the last week, I've linked to a few stories that touch on how science reporting - mostly bad, occasionally good - touches us.  The over-hyping of every solar flare, the poor information on radiation levels from the Fukushima disaster, and the cardiac surgeon (3) who believes we've been told all the wrong things about what to eat and what to avoid.  It raises a very important question:

How can we average people tell when we're being exposed to good science and how do we know junk science?

It used to be pretty easy; in the case of a medical study, the more people who were in the study and the longer the study ran, the better; for the harder sciences, if the study was reported in Science or Nature, or another of the big journals, it was probably as sure as anything.  If there's one thing the Hadley Climate Research Unit's emails (ClimateGate) should teach us, it's that considering the journal's reputation is useless today.  There are scientists involved in climate modeling who really are in search of the truth; it just seems that at the highest levels, it's about as corrupt as Chicago politics.  Among the highlights of those emails was how the top guys at Hadley actually controlled journals, getting editors fired if they dared publish anything that questioned the "orthodox view".  So much for judging by the journal it's published in. With the major journals controlled by the "priesthood", any advances will only show up in the smaller, less prestigious journals, inviting the sneers of the priesthood.   

Nor does it mean anything if the ideas appear well supported by other scientists.  The American Physics Society, certainly one of the great academic societies in the world, has declared "the evidence is incontrovertible" about man-made global warming.  Nobel prize-winning physicist (1973) Dr. Ivar Giaever resigned as a Fellow from the American Physical Society (APS) on September 13, 2011 in disgust over the group's promotion of man-made (anthropogenic) global warming fears. 
"In the APS it is OK to discuss whether the mass of the proton changes over time and how a multi-universe behaves, but the evidence of global warming is incontrovertible? The claim (how can you measure the average temperature of the whole earth for a whole year?) is that the temperature has changed from ~288.0 to ~288.8 degree Kelvin in about 150 years, which (if true) means to me is that the temperature has been amazingly stable, and both human health and happiness have definitely improved in this 'warming' period."
When the APS simply published a long letter from Lord Monckton, a well known skeptic about AGW, they went so far as to publish a disclaimer that this was not the APS viewpoint - something they have never done about really "out there" quantum physics.   (It's at the top of article in that link) As Dr. Giaever says; it's acceptable to talk about the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory, which implies that for every decision we make, a parallel universe pops into existence, but it's not acceptable to question computer models about future climates that claim accuracy to even one decimal place? 

A good rule of distinguishing good science from bad might be if they use terms like "evidence is incontrovertible", or "the science is settled", or they have a "consensus committee", it's junk science.  Look at it this way: nobody holds a consensus committee or issues statements like "incontrovertible science" about gravity, where the science, while not settled, is accepted.  Nobody calls a consensus committee unless there is no consensus.  

Neither is it necessarily true that you can judge the quality of research by the connections of the scientist to some "evil" funding agency.  While this is sometimes true (famously, the tobacco companies' responses to anti-smoking studies) it has become a bogeyman used to link anyone who opposes you with an evil funding source - typically a big business .  Linking opponents of AGW with the "big oil", for example.  Everyone works for someone, and scientists who work in government-funded labs are not glowing saints free from comprises either; they often work for agencies with an agenda (the EPA for example).  In the case of the dire warnings about solar flares, do you think NASA might have a dog in the fight?  In an era when government budgets need to be slashed, do they have an interest in trying to get research money to fund more space science missions?  "Cut someone else!  We're more important!"

There's a saying that goes, "the most important words in science aren't 'Eureka, I've found it!', they're 'that's funny....' ".  Science progresses when someone notices the funny results that don't fit the current ideas and begins pulling on the loose thread.  At the beginning of the 20th century, for example, many physicists thought that everything was known about physics and their field was done.  There would be no more physicists in a few years.  All that remained was to dot a few "i"s and cross a few "t"s.  The loose thread someone pulled on led to relativity, quantum theory and an entire century of rich science that no one suspected was there. 

Dr. Dwight Lundell, the heart surgeon I mentioned the other day, appears to be a good example of the kind of guy who says, "that's funny...".  He has observed that the recommendations from the FDA and the other experts who advise us on what to eat have had unintended consequences worse than what they were trying to address - without fixing the problem.  He has written a book to tell you his findings.  Should we ignore his experience with thousands of patients and just assume he's only in it for the money?   The mere fact he's making some extra money on a book says nothing about whether he's right or wrong, and everyone has a right to make an honest living. 

Dr. Lundell is not alone.  Dr William Davis runs a "Track your Plaque" website/program for people diagnosed with actual cardiovascular disease, and his recommendations parallel Dr. Lundell's.  The whole lipid/cholesterol hypothesis is badly broken (at least, IMO), and there are probably thousands of people studying it who will tell you that (excellent summary pdf).  Dr. Duane Graveline, former NASA astronaut and M.D., has a good introductory website.  Statins may have some benefit, but those benefits likely have nothing to do with cholesterol lowering, but are from the changes to epithelial cells that they cause.  They seem to me to be extremely over prescribed. 

The whole low-fat mantra has led to a very fat industry that produces tons of heavily processed and modified foods that make them bundles of money.  In your typical grocery store, anything around the walls tends to be "whole food" (i.e., milk, cheese, butter, meats, fish, poultry, fresh fruits and veggies) that makes these companies nothing, while the other 80% of the store is filled with these processed products (i.e. breakfast cereals, cake mixes, pastas, sodas, breads, all kinds of prepared foods).  Perhaps the McGovern aides who started the whole "low fat diet as national policy" thing simply wanted to force everyone to eat like they do in Big Sur, but in the end, they got SnackWells, Honey Nut Cheerios and other highly processed junk that got a good reputation because it said "low fat" on the label.  Even the mandatory FDA labels that count a handful of nutrients, sodium, and macronutrient composition are deceptive about whether a food is a good choice to eat. 

I wouldn't trade our free market, even as badly distorted as it is, for any other system, but one of the problems with it is that industries and trade groups get together and manipulate government bodies to get their research funded (in the case of climate modeling) or to make their products to appear favorable (in the case of diet/food).  My answer to this is government is too damned big if these tactics make money, but I know that's wishing for days we'll probably never see again.

It's tempting to say that any time the news headline starts with "scientists say", ignore it.  The problem is we need to stay on top of all of this, not only for our good health, but because the behemoth Fed hydra, constantly, addictively driven by thirst for control, uses these ideas to control us.  And it doesn't have to be good science for them to use it as justification for controlling your life.  It's also tempting to say only trust things you read in small journals by honest (if not iconoclastic) researchers, but these things rarely make the news and feed back to the first point: if the news starts with "scientists say", ignore it.  And I think I stand by what I said the other day:  In general, if a government committee recommends something, do the opposite.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Glamor Of It All

Kinda busy around here the last few days.  Nothing terrible, just enough to keep me away from the keyboard. 

If you will excuse me, I've got to go induce some pain in my hands.  If the letter/number combinations E2, movable G2 (or G2 alternate)  and Cm11 mean anything to you, you'll understand.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Shameless Self Congratulations

Bayou Renaissance Man posts this video:

I'm proud to say there's a lot of stuff I designed and worked on aboard that plane.  I had a major piece of the design of three different radio systems. (It's not really fair to say "I designed three radios" like I commented over there; in modern industry, no one person can really say that.  It's always design teams that do the work.  I just designed the "radio part of the radios".)

Watch it in HD.  

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

As Long as We're Dispelling FUD

Let's not stop at solar flares and CMEs.  Nowhere is more Fear Uncertainty and Doubt spread around than what comes from the opponents of nuclear power.  And about as good a treatment as you'll find comes from TFS Magnum with Fear Uncertainty and Government Policy.  Quoting from Dr. James Conca in Forbes:
Every time I eat a bag of potato chips I think of Fukushima. This 12-ounce bag of chips has 3500 picoCuries of gamma radiation in it, and the number of bags I eat a year gives me a dose as high as what I would receive living in much of the evacuated zones around Fukushima. But unlike the Fukushima refugees, I get to stay in my home. We live in a nuanced world of degree. Eating a scoop of ice cream is fine, eating a gallon at one time is bad. Jumping off a chair is no big deal; jumping off a cliff is really stupid. The numbers matter. It’s the dose that makes the poison. There is a threshold to everything.

The radiation in those potato chips isn’t going to kill me. Likewise, no one is going to die from Fukushima radiation. Cancer rates are not going to increase in Japan. The disaster wasn’t hidden like the Soviets did, so that people unknowingly ate iodine-131 for two months before it decayed away to nothing. No one threw workers into the fire like lemmings because they didn’t know what to do.
Go read

Although it might not be very accurate, since it came out kind of early, compare the radiation doses in this graphic from XKCD.  Fukushima was not another Chernobyl - by a long margin.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Solar Flares - Can We Get A Grip?

I assume that everyone saw last weeks' dire warnings about a pair of X-class flares and the hand wringing about all the damage they could do?  One of those two flares was a respectable X5.4, and while the chances of Really Bad Things from an X5.4 are slightly above zero, there was still way too much hand wringing over it.  The really bad part was that they made a fuss over an M-8 class flare over the weekend.

Guys, I don't quite know the best way to put this in perspective, but most of us can damage the grid more with a fart than a M-8 flare ever could. 

In a way, I've covered this before, with my August 2010 post, "Yo, NASA! Can We Knock Off the Solar Storm Scare Tactics?" but it's worth talking about again.  Solar flares are (obviously) a real phenomenon, and the Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) that accompany the big ones are a real concern for satellite operators.  A really big CME could damage the power grid.  But "a flare" is not the same as "a really big CME" .  Back in that August, '10 post, I noted;
See, solar flares vary over orders of magnitude in size.  The smallest go from C1 to C10.  Next up, M class flares also go from a 1 to a 10.  Finally, the biggest flares are X class or X-ray flares.  There's no top to that scale, but in the peak of the last solar cycle, back around 2003, X class flares were hitting every month.  An X10 flare hitting directly can make auroras visible in the southern US.  A monumental flare in 2003 made them visible in north central Florida.  I have heard a big flare in the previous cycle (1990s) caused an aurora visible in the Caribbean.
The strengths of these solar events vary like all natural processes, with weaker ones much more common than strong ones.  A flare strong enough to do the damage people worry about is a very rare event .  Let me quote from that 2010 post:
Is it possible for a solar CME to do the things they talk about? Absolutely. How likely? There has been one CME since 1900 that damaged parts of the grid (it shut down power in Quebec) and that was in the last peak of the 1990s (1996?).  It's not precise to say expect it to happen once in a hundred years, but probably close enough for discussion.  If you own a satellite, you can shut it down when a big CME is coming because you see the flare and ejection when they happen (ignoring that the light takes 8 minutes to get here from the sun) while the particles from the CME take a couple of days to get here.   
Again, during the peak days of the last cycle, in 2003, we were getting X-class flares a few times every month, and the grid was fine, wasn't it?  There was a super flare in November of 2003 that was genuinely scary and the kind of flare to worry about.  The biggest flare seen since the satellite age started, it was classed as X28 in retrospect - only because it saturated the X-ray detectors on the satellites and they couldn't measure it properly.  Why didn't it harm us? Because it was on the limb of the sun and the CME went 90 degrees to our direction.  So not only does this extremely rare event need to happen, but it has to be pointed at Earth - basically perfectly centered on the sun from where we view.
The mother of all CMEs (that we know of) is called the Carrington Event, and occurred in 1859.  It was such a bright flash that legend says people noticed the daylight get brighter.  Auroras were reported in Cuba and Hawaii.  This was in the early days of wired telegraphy and the "grid", such as it was, was damaged.  There were reports of telegraph keys arc'ing and even fires being set.  I remember reading an unlucky telegrapher was electrocuted by his key.   While we can estimate the strength of that flare/CME by other means, it's fair to call it the strongest CME to hit Earth in the last 150 years.  So what do you think the chances of another one are?  According to someone quoted by Reason, the chances of another one between now and 2020 are 12% - 1 in 8.  So something that hasn't happened since 1859, through all those solar cycles, including the strongest cycle on record, has a 1 in 8 chance of happening now?  In this weak, erratic solar peak - in the next 8 years?  Really, dude, you don't have to say between now and 2020.  The next 2 or 3 years should locate the peak pretty well.

I don't buy it.

Wake me up when an X10 flare and CME is on the way.  I wanna see the auroras.  Until then, keep your hype to yourself. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Rainy Day Musings

We had planned to go to the rifle range today - when we went to bed, the forecast called for cloudy and breezy with a "30% chance of rain after 11AM".  When the crazy cat woke me for breakfast at 6:30, I could hear the rain dripping off the roof.  When I got out of bed for good, it was really raining hard.  We need the inch of rain we got, but I could use some range time.  It has rained virtually all day.

Given some unexpected free time, I did a little 3D cad of what I want my solar panel system to look like.  Crude  and lacking in details, but in overview, it will look like this:
Turns out I have a battery that might do well with the proposed solar panel system.  It's a 33AH AGM deep cycle battery that I've had for a number of years.  Old batteries, of course, don't last forever and lose their ability to deliver high currents.  Now that I have a smart charger (runs on AC power) I thought I'd check it out more closely.
The charger would say it charged, but unless you can measure the current it delivers, you aren't sure of its real capacity.  I don't have a metered electronic load that I could set up to draw high currents, so how can I know if it really will deliver 33 AH?  Today it hit me that I could use an inverter and 100W lamp with it to see how long it runs.  A 100W bulb draws (100/120) or 0.833 Amp at 120V.  Just scaling that to 12V is 8.33 Amps, and allowing for 80% efficiency in the inverter (wild-ass guess) is 10.4A out of the battery.  By the way, I was not using the little cigarette lighter with lamp cord on the battery; I was using a set of jumper style cables salvaged from an old broken jump starter box, which you can see attached to the inverter (bottom left - silver and black box).  The lamp ran for over an hour and a half but less than two hours.  The "34" displayed on the charger is the percent recharged when I took the picture.

Today, I found the manufacturer's datasheet for the battery.  DrJim, Quizikle and the other engineers who drop by here will probably understand how I almost let out an audible squee when I found it.  According to the datasheet, a constant current discharge at 10.4A (naturally not on the datasheet) can be interpolated to be around 2 1/2 - 3 hours (probably not as much as 3).  It didn't make it, but I haven't been very nice to this battery and have almost thrown it out before.  Often, old lead-acid batteries can be revived by charge cycles.  We'll see. 

Finally, from the "don't ask me how I know" file, if you need to gather water and you don't have a plastic barrel don't forget canvas.  Canvas can make a pretty effective water barrier to line something with.  It will hold water indefinitely. 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Funeral For A Friend - Elton John

We spent the day with our circle of friends helping one couple lay their son to rest.  The son was 43.  His father, not that much older than me, delivered one of the eulogies.  With much more aplomb than I think I could manage. 

I'm not quite sure why this song is called what it is, or why it only appears in this medley, but have a little Elton John:

And go hug the ones you hold dear.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Friday Night Roundup

1 - Greece Has Defaulted

Tyler at Zerohedge writes "Greece Has Defaulted: Here is Where We Stand"  Short answer: the Euro-weenies believe they've headed off financial Armageddon for three years - although Portugal will default in few months and maybe Spain.  But that's all!  Not Italy! And - for sure - not France!!

It's not like they didn't announce a dozenty-nine times that this would never happen; it's fixed.  We swear.  Look! Over there! Shiny!!

2 - Quick Book Review - Robert Kiyosaki's "Unfair Advantage" 

I don't think I've done a mini-review of a book on this blog before, and like 99% of you, I hated book reports in school.   I've never been a real fan boy of his, but I have read "Rich Dad, Poor Dad", and a book on silver and gold that someone else wrote for him.  What clued me that this book even existed was his appearance on GBTV, and I decided to pick up the book.  I have to say he pulled together a lot disparate facts I knew - like pulling pieces of a jigsaw puzzle from all over the table to make a recognizable picture. 

For those who don't know him, he's a multi-millionaire mostly from real estate; in this last decade he has made more money than.. he didn't really say, but he does say the "lost decade" of '00s was his best decade.  The Unfair Advantage that he writes about is financial education, and he says that's the reason he was able to make this last decade work so well for him.

I think my favorite quote in the book goes something like this (in the form of a question to him, that he gets while out lecturing/teaching):
  • "I have $10,000 I'd like to invest.  What's the best thing I can do with it?"
  • "The best thing to do is not to tell strangers you have $10,00 sitting around.  Lots of people will offer to take care of it for you."
What Kiyosaki really clarified to me was just how much the world flipped when Nixon took us off the gold standard for good.  In the money-is-debt world, saving for retirement is stupid because the government is going to destroy savings.  Learning a trade, even being a professional (MD, etc.) just sets you up to be a blood (money) donor to the government.  It really is completely topsy-turvy to the way we think the world should be.  If saving is stupid, what should you do?  Read the book. 

In the closing days of last year, I pondered about whether or not the US could return to a gold standard and he made me aware of layers of complications I had not considered.  Still, it really needs to be considered because the alternative just isn't working.  A world with no monetary standards doesn't seem to be unconditionally stable, and we sure seem to be heading toward a worldwide economic collapse. 

3 - In General, If a Government Committee Recommends Something, Do The Opposite

A story getting a fair amount of attention is that heart surgeon Dr. Dwight Lundell has written a very important piece arguing that the diets many of us have been eating at the urging of (originally) the is killing us.  Specifically, when they decided saturated fat was Evil Incarnate and we should replace it with omega-6 oils and lowfat diets, they told us exactly the wrong things. Butter isn't the problem: polyunsaturated oils are. 

Did you know that those recommendations originally didn't come from a "blue ribbon committee" of scientists, but from congressional aides to Senator George McGovern?  (talking about the late '60s/early '70s)
And while the data on fat and health remained ambiguous and the scientific community polarized, the deadlock was broken not by any new science, but by politicians. It was Senator George McGovern's bipartisan, nonlegislative Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs--and, to be precise, a handful of McGovern's staff members--that almost single-handedly changed nutritional policy in this country and initiated the process of turning the dietary fat hypothesis into dogma.
The process of coming up with recommended "food pyramid" or "my plate" or whatever they're calling it, is a political process filled with big agribusiness interests working hard (and presumably paying a lot) for those recommendations to eat "healthy whole grains" or to eat "five servings a day".   A $5 box of breakfast cereal probably has about 95%  its cost in the cardboard and a few cents in the cereal. They have a lot of incentive to pressure the to get their product named as the healthy thing to eat. 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Federal Power Grab - Trying to Keep Up

If it's true that the motto of internet users is "they can touch my balls, they can feel up my wife and daughter, but they better keep their damned filthy hands off my Internet", maybe this will trigger some small portion of the outrage SOPA/PIPA generated.  The US has decided they can shut down any .com domain anywhere in the world. According to Wired magazine (that link):
When U.S. authorities shuttered sports-wagering site last week, it raised eyebrows across the net because the domain name was registered with a Canadian company, ostensibly putting it beyond the reach of the U.S. government. Working around that, the feds went directly to VeriSign, a U.S.-based internet backbone company that has the contract to manage the coveted .com and other “generic” top-level domains.
The feds' argument is that since the .com domains are controlled by VeriSign, which is a US company, and were granted a monopoly by the feds as internet registrar, the US has the right to shut down any domain ending in .com whenever they choose. 
Furthermore, it says it has the right to seize any .com, .net and .org domain name because the companies that have the contracts to administer them are based on United States soil, according to Nicole Navas, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman.
Advise to any company spokes-types who happen across this: you might want to consider a different domain.

All the discussion of Sandra Fluke and "slut-gate" has controlled the narrative and shifted it into contraception and "women's health issues" instead of the first amendment.  So Ms. Fluke (I keep hearing it pronounced "fluck"; rhymes with...) did her job as the faithful leftie foot soldier she is and got the media and public distracted.   Meanwhile, it's worse than you think.  Newly-appointed Cardinal Dolan was asked to the White House to discuss the situation.  He was told to shut up and accept what the government tells him to do.  In the Cardinal's own words:
At a recent meeting between staff of the bishops’ conference and the White House staff, our staff members asked directly whether the broader concerns of religious freedom—that is, revisiting the straight-jacketing mandates, or broadening the maligned exemption—are all off the table. They were informed that they are.  So much for “working out the wrinkles.”  Instead, they advised the bishops’ conference that we should listen to the “enlightened” voices of accommodation, such as the recent, hardly surprising yet terribly unfortunate editorial in America.  The White House seems to think we bishops simply do not know or understand Catholic teaching and so, taking a cue from its own definition of religious freedom, now has nominated its own handpicked official Catholic teachers.  [emphasis added - GB]
Cardinal Dolan's letter is here in pdf form  He says the administration told him it's a done deal, the church needs to get over it and just "work out the wrinkles".  Secretary of HHS Sebellius even offered the absurd argument that “Religious insurance companies don’t really design the plans they sell based on their own religious tenets.” Srsly?  When was the last time you were involved in those plans, Skippy?

As I frequently say, don't worry - it's not that bad; it's much worse.  The Obama administration has argued that it has the right to tell churches who they can hire as pastor/teachers
Acting Deputy Solicitor General Leondra Kruger told the court, during oral arguments, that the federal government should be able to trump the church on these decisions.

"Their submission is that the hiring and firing decisions with respect to parochial school teachers and with respect to priests is categorically off limits," said Kruger. "And we think that that is a rule that is insufficiently attentive to the relative public and private interests at stake, interests that this court has repeatedly recognized are important in determining freedom of association claims."
Did you know this made the Supreme Court?   The story is in the context of a woman who developed narcolepsy and couldn't do her job, but when has ever held to narrow interpretations of law?  There's a story that even Justice Kagan looked at the Solicitor General and said something like "You can't possibly be making that argument, can you?"

Trying to keep up with the attacks on our liberty is a full time job for an army.