Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Low-Tech Satellite Navigation

A couple of years ago I got lost while driving around the Isle of Man (IOM) in the United Kingdom. The IOM is a medium sized island in the Irish Sea, so this isn’t as bad as getting lost, in say, Australia. However, none of the roads on the island are straight, and you can pretty turned around. I had a map, but what I needed was a compass.

Like everywhere else in the developed world, most people on the IOM have small DBS satellite dishes on the roof. One of the requirements of satellite TV is that the actual broadcast satellites remain stationary in the sky so the dishes are always pointing in the right place.

DBS satellites orbit the earth at 35,786 kilometers above the equator in an area called the “Clarke Belt” (named after author Arthur C. Clarke). When satellites are in the Clarke Belt, they orbit at exactly same speed as the earth rotates – making them appear stationary from the ground.

Since most of the DBS satellite dishes point in the same direction (southerly), they’re almost as good as a compass. Just find the nearest satellite dish, and you’ve got an instant direction finder.

Sattelite navigation - no technology required!

Monday, March 27, 2006

The decadent west

Somehow, while looking for information about fallout shelters, I ran across this website. Very cool. Very pointless. It features some spectacular but stultiloquent flash animations by the Dutch artist Han Hoogerbrugge. Sort of like a cross between Monty Python and the Matrix.

Why was I looking for information about fallout shelters? Maybe I'll get to that on another post.

Click HERE to view the site.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Car of the Future

The car of the future was invented in 1933. It carried eleven passengers, got 30 miles per gallon with a top speed of 120 MPH. The car was called the Dymaxion, and was designed and built by the great American designer, Buckminster Fuller. You may have heard of him – the guy who invented the geodesic dome.

The Dymaxion looked more like an airplane than a 1930s era car. It had a sleek aluminum teardrop shape with wrap-around windows. Steering was accomplished with a single rear wheel – this design allowed the car to be extremely maneuverable. Using this unique steering mechanism, the eleven foot long vehicle could turn on its own axis. It also had some high tech features like shatterproof glass, an aerodynamic profile, and a rear-view periscope.

To get some idea what cars were like in 1933, take a look at this 1933 Ford station wagon. As you can see, technology wasn’t very far advanced from the Model T.

The Dymaxion was clearly technologically superior, so why aren’t you driving one today? That’s a tough question; here are some possibilities:

People don’t like weird looking cars.
It was invented by a guy named Buckminster.
Bad Luck.

Bad luck, or why the obvious choice isn’t.
The engineering of the Dymaxion was first rate. Buckminster Fuller was a natural promoter who had a knack for making headlines. In the end the project failed for multiple reasons, but one serious problem was a poor choice in personnel. Picking the right people is always important, and it’s easy to make mistakes.

A brief digression on picking the right people for the job:
When the US went to war with Nazi Germany in 1942, it needed to quickly build up the spy service. (Back in those days the CIA was called the OSS.) Spies need a lot of enemy documents, including military orders, ration cards, travel papers, and money. During wartime the best way to get these documents is to counterfeit them. The OSS needed top quality forgers right away.
Q) Where do you find the very best counterfeiters?
A) In prison.
The obvious thing to do would be to scour the prisons and enlist the services of the best counterfeiters and forgers. These people have lots of experience and they are available immediately.
That’s not what the OSS did. They thought about the problem, and decided they didn’t want anyone who had been caught. Instead they recruited a group of successful professionals – printers, bankers, and law enforcement agents. These newly “minted” counterfeiters quickly learned their new trade, and were soon producing forged documents that were better than the original German documents. They picked the right people.

Getting back to the Dymaxion - why they picked wrong test driver.
You’ve just invented a technologically superior automobile, and you want to generate publicity about it. You start by taking it to auto shows, world’s fairs, and other big events. You need somebody to drive this car around and show off its capabilities.

Q) Where do you find the very best drivers?
A) Professional racecar drivers.

That’s exactly what the promoters of the Dymaxion did. Racecar drivers are very skilled professionals. They have great reflexes, keen eyesight, excellent spatial judgment, and lots of experience. Unfortunately racecar drivers are also risk takers who like to drive really fast. Oh-oh.

One of the car's test drivers was American racer Francis T. Turner. On October 27, 1933 Turner met the Graf Zeppelin in Chicago and picked up two passengers. On the drive back a carload of rubberneckers decided they wanted a closer look at this weird 3-wheeled car. Turner got annoyed, and tried to outrun his pursuers. There was a collision, and the car was destroyed, killing Turner, and the future of the Dymaxion.

The crash was a public relations disaster. Worldwide headlines condemned the car as freakish and unsafe. Although subsequent engineering investigations cleared the design of the car from any fault, the damage was done. The Dymaxion was dead. Fuller went on to produce two improved versions of the car, but it was soon forgotten.

Dymaxion Car #2, c. 1934.
For more information see:

Friday, March 17, 2006

Turtle Dragon

I don’t collect knick-knacks, but I don’t throw them away either. One of the odder things I’ve accumulated is a brass turtle dragon. I have no idea where it came from. What is a turtle dragon anyway? I hit Google to find out.

The turtle dragon is a traditional fung shui symbol of prosperity and long life. Fung shui is the ancient Chinese art of arranging stuff. (Can you say “fung shui”? That’s right, I knew you could!). The dragon symbolizes success, courage, and determination. The turtle represents long life.

If you are fortunate enough to have a turtle dragon, you shouldn’t put it just anywhere. The rules say that you should place it on your desk, or in the north or east sector, but not directly in front of you. It’s also good to place it behind you, showing that you have the support of both the dragon and the turtle. A turtle dragon should never be placed in a bathroom. This makes perfect sense to me – nothing good can come from a dragon or a turtle in the bathroom.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Sore Loser

As an American, I find some aspects of English history truly incomprehensible. Take for, for example, the history of Oliver Cromwell’s head.

To summarize the plot, King Charles I (1600-1649) believed that he had a “divine” right to absolute power, and parliament disagreed. Protestant supporters of the parliament and royalist supporters of the catholic king fought for control of the country between 1642 and 1651. The parliamentary forces were lead by Oliver Cromwell, a skilled general and a charismatic leader. Cromwell’s army trounced the royalists, and captured the king. The king was tried for treason and beheaded. (As they say in Virginia, Sic simper tyrannis)

Cromwell became "Lord Protector" of England - essentially a president-for-life. Cromwell died in 1653, and was buried in state at Westminster Abby. Nothing remarkable so far - here’s where it gets strange.

In 1658 the old kings son, Charles II, was restored to the throne of England. In what is perhaps England’s worst case of sore-losership, Charles II ordered Cromwell’s execution.

Cromwell’s desiccated body was dug up, hung, drawn and quartered, and his head chopped off. The severed head was dipped in tar and displayed on a pole outside Westminster Hall, where it hung for 25 years. (Needless to say, Cromwell took it all stoically.)

When the head eventually fell down, a soldier picked it up, and Cromwell disappeared from history until the 1770’s. The head was bought, sold, and put on display several times. It eventually ended up a private collection. Finally, in 1960, the head was re-buried, where it remains today.

This easily makes Cromwell England's longest serving head of state.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Air Trailers

SEATTLE - The Boeing Company announced Monday that it will begin production of the new T7 'AirTrailer'. Initial sales include a company-record 22 units from the U.S. discount carrier AirSouth.

The T7 represents a new direction in commercial aircraft design, extending the cargo capacity of the current fleet of jetliners. Known as an “Articulated Extender”, the concept has been around in military aviation and the trucking industry for years. The T7 works similarly to a standard automobile trailer, attaching to a hitch on the rear of a jet aircraft.

Members of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) have raised concerns about the safety of the design. “It’s a trailer, for heaven's sakes!” exclaims ALPA spokesman Pierre Closterman. “Landing a big jet is difficult enough - we’ll need extra runway, wider taxi areas, not to mention hundreds of hours of training.”

Industry experts dismiss the pilot’s concerns, citing years of research conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for airline manufacturers. Currently the FAA has only approved the T7 for carrying cargo, although approval of a passenger model is expected in mid 2007.

“The T7 is actually safer then a conventional passenger jet,” says Eric Hartmann, spokesman for AirSouth. “Since the unit is un-powered, there is no aviation fuel to ignite in the unlikely case of an accident.” Airline security experts also point out that the design is virtually hijack-proof since the cockpit crew is physically separated. High-risk passengers could be segregated to the rear compartment.

Industry executives have eagerly anticipated the arrival of the T7. By adding T7 units to existing routes, air carriers expect to realize billions in savings. The extenders can be added at times of peak demand, allowing the airlines to increase passenger loads without costly additional flights. Baggage could be offloaded to the cargo unit, and passengers with discount tickets would be bumped from economy class into the cargo area.

“They may not like traveling as baggage, but it’s better than getting bumped and missing the flight completely,” explains Hartmann. Surveys show that airline passengers are willing to forgo luxuries such as meals, larger seats, and pressurized cabins if it saves them money.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The square wheel

"Lets put it frankly: The Square Wheel idea
is one of important ideas of the centuries."
Tomas Jokubonis, Inventor

It's hard to ignore a claim like that. On his website, Mr. Jukubonis demonstrates his device, and offers to license the technology. I don't think he is serious, but it's hard to tell.

Most of us have encountered a square wheel at the grocery store. Every so often you get one of those shopping carts that has been run over once too often. As you push the cart one of the wheels makes an infuriating "thump-thump-thump". Maybe it’s not exactly square but it seems so.

It’s not too surprising that mathematicians find the square wheels interesting. If you “roll” a square wheel on a track of precisely calculated catenary segments, you get a smooth ride. Stan Wagon of Macalester College built a special bicycle and track to demonstrate the feasibility of the idea. It turns out that with the right track, a wide variety of shapes will roll smoothly. This includes ellipses, cardioids (hearts), pentagons, and rosettes.

Even a square wheel rolls smoothly on the right track. I find that comforting.

© 2008 Raoul Rubin