Monday, May 29, 2006

Obsolete technology I

When my neighbor Steve asked me if I wanted to go flying, I must admit I hesitated a few seconds. I’m not afraid of flying, but it’s not the safest activity either. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

Steve’s airplane is 1946 Piper Cub. The Cub looks like something the Wright Brothers, former bicycle makers, would have built. The airframe is made of aluminum tubing covered with fabric. The control systems are made of pulleys, gears, and cables. Except for the engine, this machine consists of “bicycle” technology. A skilled bycicle mechanic could build one in his garage without much trouble.

The engine is no more technologically advanced than most lawn mowers (although significantly more reliable). The simple 4 cylinder air-cooled 65 horsepower Continental engine has no muffler, no starter, and very few wires or hoses.

Inside the cockpit, things are pretty simple too. The window is hinged from the top, and it hooks onto a little wire hook under the wing. It’s a good idea to leave the window open while flying to clear the gas fumes. The instrument panel contains a rudimentary assortment of mechanical gauges. Notably missing is a fuel gauge. The fuel gauge is positioned just outside the windshield on the gas cap. The gauge is a brass wire poked through a cork which floats inside the tank. As the fuel level goes down, the height of the wire drops lower to indicate consumption.

Compare the Cub’s instrument panel to that of a modern equivalent, the Cessna Skyhawk. Note that the Cub has no built in electronics – it uses a battery powered walkie-talkie for communications with air traffic control.

At 750 pounds, the airplane has the mass of a motorcycle. At 6’2” 225 lbs, it took me a minute to get wedged into the rear seat. Luckily Steve is light, so we didn’t exceed the weight limit. We bounced across the grassy runway and were soon ready for take-off.

The little airplane seems to jump up into the sky. This is the way god intended us to fly. You feel every bump and turn and crosswind. Don’t worry, you can poke your head out the window and barf if you get airsick.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

What ever happened to the potato gun?

No, not a high powered supdzooka that can launch a whole potato hundreds of feet. I'm talking about one of those little potato pop-guns I used to play with as a kid. You just poked the end into a raw potato, pointed it at you brother, and pop!

The potato gun shoots a tiny pellet of raw potato up to a range of 20 feet. Not only fun, but nutritious too! It had a low muzzle velocity so it was unlikely to put someone's eye out. You can order one from Explore! for $2.95 + shipping and handling. I especially like the cheesy old fashioned graphic on the box.

Like everything else, someone's taken the idea way too far. This model manufactured by the CLAYTON BAILEY ARMS COMPANY of Port Costa, Ca, fires a 25 cal potato pellet up to 100 feet. This isn't a piece of Chinese mass-market junk, but a hand made work of art. Expect to pay around $500.00. They also offer a full line cork guns and dueling pistols.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Picture from Mars

Cool Picture. Sleeping Bear Dunes, Michigan.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Where will the next big one strike?

It seemed like nobody was ready when hurricane Katrina slammed into Louisiana and Mississippi. The risk had been known, and even predicted for years, but it wasn’t taken seriously. In the area affected by Katrina only 34% of homes had flood insurance – a sign that most people weren’t worried about the risk. The sad fact is that most of us only learn from painful experience.

The “Big One” for New Orleans was a hurricane. In California, when people talk about “the big one”, they mean an earthquake. You may be surprised to know there’s also an earthquake hotspot in the area around Charleston, South Carolina.

Figure 1. Seismic risk for South Carolina.

The “Big One” for Charleston was the Earthquake of 1886. For its time, this quake was enormously destructive. The quake took place before accurate seismographs were available, but it has been estimated at around 6.8 on the Richter scale. (Estimates range widely, from 6.5 to 7.5) Most of the buildings in the city were damaged; there was about $6 million in structure damage. That was a staggering 25% of the total property value at the time.

Although a 6.8 on the Richter scale isn’t outrageous (by California standards), the shaking of the quake was extremely intense. Shaking was felt as far away as Chicago, and buildings were damaged in Ohio. On the Modified Mercalli Scale, which measures damage, the quake was categorized as “Disastrous”. The Richter scale measures the theoretical energy of the quake, but the Mercalli scale measures actual shaking and its results. The 1886 quake produced a lot of destruction - it was literally the biggest thing to ever hit the Southeastern US in modern times

Figure 2. Damage near Goose Creek, Sourth Carolina, 1886.

Earthquakes are usually associated with tectonic boundaries, like the San Andreas Fault near San Francisco. The nearest tectonic boundary to Charleston is hundreds of miles south near Cuba, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico where the North American Plate meets the Caribbean Plate. So, why is South Carolina so prone to quakes? The short answer is that nobody knows why. Geologists speculate that this is a “weak spot” in the North American Plate.

Charleston’s biggest problem may not be shaking, but phenomena called “Liquefaction”. Liquefaction occurs when soils saturated with water are shaken. When this happens, solid land instantly turns into quicksand. As you might guess, anything built on quicksand will fall down or sink.

Figure 3. Liquifactgion in Nagita, Japan 1963.

About 2/3 of the City of Charleston is filled-in marshland. A lot of this filled-in land will instantly become quicksand during a severe earthquake. Even worse, the filled land will experience about 10 times stronger shaking than solid ground.

The good news? Well, the best news is that the “Big One” is only predicted to occur every 500 years. The likelihood of a smaller destructive earthquake is higher.

The other good news is that the South Carolina Emergency Management Division has planned for the occurrence of an 1886 severity earthquake. Well, sort of good news. The plan states: “The consequences of a large and damaging earthquake are expected to overwhelm state and local government capabilities to respond.”. Sounds familiar.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Extreme Hunters II

A few months ago I published an article about extreme hunters in the Raleigh area. This is a group of local urban professionals who hunt with primitive weapons such as rocks and clubs. They think modern guns have taken all the challenge out of hunting, and are striving for a more authentic experience. Of course, the article was entirely fictional.

But wait! It seems that I wasn't the first person who had this idea. In real life there actually is a small group of hunters who insist on using primitive weapons. They like to get up close and personal with their prey. Instead of clubs, they prefer spears and knives. Here's a sampling of what I found:
  • Hunting wild boar with spears. [here]
  • Deer hunting with an atlatl (spear thrower). [here]
  • Noodling - catching giant catfish with your bare hands. [here]
  • Hog hunting with a knife. [here]
The characters in my article were lawyers and accountants trying to get in touch with their manhood. This isn’t too far from the real Atlatl hunters, who have a certain quixotic flair. The atlatl is a throwing stick invented by Native Americans in prehistoric times. It was used for thousands of years, but was quickly abandoned with the invention of the bow and arrow. Despite being lethal in skilled hands, it’s a thoroughly ridiculous looking weapon.

Noodling is a combination of swimming and wrestling. These guys swim around in muddy lakes, reaching into caves with their bare hands in search of catfish. Once located, they grab the fish by the mouth and wrestle it ashore. Some of these catfish are gigantic and occasionally the fish wins. Noodling is just the thing for a hot summer day.

My impression of the spear and knife hunting is less favorable. To me it seems more like a disturbing redneck obsession than a sport.

Chuck Palahniuk, author of the novel “"Fight Club"” had a similar experience. In the book (and movie), the protagonist discovers an underground network of "“fight clubs"”, where strangers get together and beat each other senseless. Palahniuk insists that he made the whole thing up, but soon after the movie was released people began telling him that they had been going to fight clubs for years. Most of these people were probably just lying, but it's not too far-fetched. In any case, after the movie, real fight clubs started springing up around the country.

"The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun."” -Ecclesiastes

Sunday, May 07, 2006

ANN ARBOR, Michigan (May 2006) -- Domino’s Pizza (DPZ) announced that it is teaming up with Federal Express (FDX) to provide nationwide pizza delivery. In a move expected to revolutionize the food distribution business, the pies will be assembled on-site in FedEx’s Memphis distribution facility, and loaded directly on airplanes for next day delivery.

“The synergies of our business models are obvious,” says Domino’s Executive Vice President of Order Fulfillment, Ron La France. “We’re emerging a new infrastructure that is changing the way we orchestrate capability.”

The technical challenge of delivering fresh pizza thousands of miles is daunting. The process begins when the customer phones the service center in Bangalore India. Once an order is taken, it is forwarded to the FedEx facility in Memphis, where fresh ingredients are assembled.

Next, the pizzas move along a high-speed conveyor at nearly 550 feet per minute. The uncooked pies are routed through a 1000-degree natural gas-fired oven, where they are flash cooked in a little over twenty seconds. From the oven, the system collates and packages the pies and transports them to a waiting fleet of jet airplanes. On a good day, the whole process takes about three minutes.

After arrival in the destination city, the boxes are quickly loaded onto the familiar white FedEx delivery vans, and arrive at the customer’s doorstep just before lunchtime.

Food engineers had to develop a whole new packaging system. Traditional insulated packaging can only maintain piping hot pizzas for five to six hours – but the shipping process can take up to eight. To keep the pizzas warm, each box contains a cesium/argon insert, which warms the content’s by safe low-level radioactive decay. The inserts also have the desirable side effect of preventing food spoilage.

So far, the system has been successfully tested in Houston, Texas and Las Angeles, California. A few early problems were worked out of the system, and the company is planning to roll it out nationwide in early August.

These early problem included an unexpected demand for exotic ingredients such as tamarind, saffron, and millet. “It took us a while to figure out why people were ordering these unusual ingredients,” says Ron La France. “It turns out that they originated in the Bangalore call facility. Customers would call up and ask the phone reps ‘what would go good on that?’ Being South Indian, they would recommend local foods they were more familiar with.”

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

BEAUMONT, Texas – Research published in this month’s Journal of Agricultural Bioengineering suggests that some day tiny beef cattle may roam the ranches of Texas.

University of Beaumont geneticist Jeff Lee and his colleagues have been working hard to engineer the perfect protein source. They are combining the genetic material of Angus beef with those of laboratory mice to produce tiny beef cattle. Why make smaller cows? It’s all a matter of economics:

The average beef cow weighs between 1,000 and 1,300 pounds, and is ready for market in 14 to 16 months. That’s a long time for ranchers to tie up valuable capital. In contrast, mice reach full maturity in 5-7 weeks. More importantly, it takes 20 pounds of feed to produce a single pound of beef. Comparatively, mice gain a thrifty 1-pound for each 8 pounds of feed.

Another drawback of cattle ranching is that it takes vast tracts of land. By growing smaller animals, cattle operations could be moved to more compact facilities. Future cattle ranches would look more like chicken farms. Large warehouse sized production facilities could produce tons of beef at a fraction of the cost of a traditional ranch.

At the grocery store all this technology would result in a 75% reduction in the cost of beef. Dubbed “spamsters”, these diminutive cattle would be genetically 94% Angus beef, so they would taste like the original.

“Of course we won’t be selling 1oz steaks,” says Dr. Lee. “This beef would only be suitable for hamburger and sausage.”

© 2008 Raoul Rubin