Popular Science – Solar Freaking Roadways

So there has been a ton of discussion lately about Solar Roadways (I’ll ping a friend who has a blog The Non-Working Cat if you haven’t heard this Meme)- and oddly enough – the Fermi Paradox. I think I’ll link the two together, ’cause thats the kind of weird thinking you expect from me.

Lets look at Oklahoma, I used to drive there all the time. I40 kinda sucks, huge blocks of Portland cement which aren’t level anymore, cracked all over the place, the drive goes “THUMP thump THUMP thump” for 200 miles. Portland Cement is probably the only thing ever developed which may potentially last forever. It is essentially a man-made rock. Nearly identical to the locally found rocks placed by the Romans to build their roads which have lasted (though not through cars) for a thousand years.  Cement, placed in blocks of sufficient thickness, can withstand 50 years of heavy driving conditions. For its cost, best road ever.

They put in an asphalt road to my old house in Normandy, Tn. It lasted a year before it washed out. Tractors ruin the heck out of mountain roads, really hard to build a 5′ drainage substrate and support structure on the side of a mountain. Turns out that a little damage and boom, the natural environment takes it away. 50,000 bucks down the drain. Should have used cement I guess.

Solar Freaking Roadway…

Solar Freakin Roadways !

1) There isn’t a clear substance anything like cement.
2) Light absorbtion during the day isn’t enough to glow all night – Hell, buy a garden light and test it yourself.
3) Light absorbed can’t melt snow. (Hilarious to even think about. Why isn’t this on roofs? Oh, because it doesn’t work. Snow – oddly enough – is opaque and solar cells get no juice.)
4) Well, the road heating… would get people killed. They don’t heat roofs because it causes ice-sheets which can float on water (like river ice) this is really dangerous stuff to drive on, and if the roof-line breaks they slide off of houses killing people.

The list of reasons the solar road breaks physics is lengthy and silly. But who cares, really. If you want to spend your money on a glowy brick, you do that. Beats minecraft.

Here is the rub. Good ideas don’t always work. Just saying, “science will solve these problems” doesn’t make it possible. Sometimes Physics is a bitch. 

The (Enrico) Fermi Paradox can be stated as “Where is everybody?”
Basically, if you figure there is life some percentage of the time, then the sky should be full of life. Got it? They also postulate some levels of tech, where people build Dyson Spheres and finally take over their whole galaxy turning it into a private dynamo for their civilization.

So, why haven’t the Evil Robots come to take our sun, build a mirror array around it, and point it at some distant star?

‘Cause Physics is a bitch.

Here is the real answer to Fermi’s Paradox. Tech level 1 (taking the whole value of energy on your planet) may exist, Tech Level 2 (taking the whole energy of your sun) probably doesn’t exist. Tech Level 3 is magic and does not survive applications of physics.

There is no real energy-efficient way to move power over light years. We could bang on it all night, and your only real answer would be “magic” or “Black Holes” – which, given our lack of understanding of them right now, is really a scientific word for Magic.

1) 1000 light years is all we really see.
    Like an astronaut looking down at Europe, it all looks green to me. (Hit google map, knock off the drawn-in lines, run out to 50 miles to the inch… hard to spot us, ain’t it.) Of course, at night it is easier, so we’re looking for what amounts to light polution at light-years distance.

If something interesting is happening 2000 light years away, we don’t know about it. I don’t mean that we’ll see it in 2000 years, I mean that the light from those stars doesn’t get to us. The scale of stellar activity is too small. In some cases, the Light/Noise ratio might let us detect a planet, but … the local 1000 light years is a mess. That is our neighborhood and we should get used to it.

2) There is nothing – NOTHING that they could do to a galaxy that we could determine was caused by intelligent life. “Oh, they wrote the alphabet with stars.” (only a close galaxy and then I hope Spiral isn’t one of their letters.) If a Tech 3 exists Somewhere out there, (obviously not locally) it probably can’t do anything we’d know wasn’t natural.

3) The speed of light, the distance of a light year. Real Physics.

A light year is far away. Our solar system is only light minutes across. (Oort cloud… well, technicalities) We’re not talking Light days here, or even light hours.

Assume we had “perfect engine.” I put in enough fuel to move me to 99% light speed. (Whee) and travel to something interesting, say Sigma Draconis. So, 40 years later, I’m there and back. I’ve met strange new creatures and travelled new places. I’ve still spent so much energy that I could have built gold bars in a cyclotron for less.

Yes, information will then flow, but how long would it take to hit all 2500 local stars? More importantly “How much additional information comes from each star?” After a few thousand, we’d pretty much be tired of that shit and moving on to black hole basketball with cyclotron gold balls.

And out of 400 billion stars in the galaxy, we wouldn’t have hit many of them. To be on someone’s “to see” list, we have to assume Millions of advanced civilizations. millions. Using the usual calculations, there are probably thousands of advanced civilizations in this galaxy. we just ain’t neighbors.  

3) The big wrap-up

I was watching TV last night and an alien invasion used designer viruses to program humans. The amount of crazy pants here is overwhelming, but this was their best infinite replication machine. (I’ve designed better during a stomach bug.)

Physics (and Biology) are hard and don’t actually let you make an “Existential Conflict-O-Mat” Just because you want one. Just because our Sci-Fi writers believe super tech should be possible, it might not be. Probably isn’t. Heck, half the things our physicists believe today HAVE to be false, as they contradict each other. Dark Side of Higgs

4) I love Physics, but it is definitely different than magic. Engineering is hard, requires a ton of work and shows that everything breaks down: in ways you don’t expect and faster than expected. Only stars and planets appear everlasting and that just shows how little we know about them.

Busy Week

Sorry guys and gals, as often is the case, my personal fun got in the way of working on the blog (or going to the office for most of a week.) I was out getting killed the last week. Now I’m back in the office and I’ll try to get a blog post up asap. My knee is sore but I’ve won the Queen’s Rapier Tourney, so I’m a happy Hawk.

Now I’ll get back to Martial Arts: where I can also get beat up by my fellow man.

I clearly need to stay at sci-fi conventions where they let me kiss the pretty girls and they don’t hit me as often.

American Education

I guess I have to stipulate, right off, that I know zero about education in other countries. I’m quite familiar with education in the South-East of the US, as that is my home turf. I’ve interacted with people from all over the world and some have good educations and some are quite spotty.

But, for the moment, I’d like to complain about the current path of education in America. First, it isn’t primarily the teachers’ faults. Why?

1) Because they aren’t hiring top level people for education.

I’m not blaming the teacher, but if you’ve just finished your 4-year degree in education, you don’t know anything. Coming into a high-school and expecting the kids to follow the “how-to-teach” model you were taught is one thing, knowing your material is the other. Educators should not be thrown through the “stupid farm” of a 4-year elementary education degree. They should have degrees in literature, math, science, and engineering. 

I frequently teach a day-class in Shakespeare. Several years ago I had two teachers invite me to school.  One teacher had watched the Mel Gibson movie before teaching Hamlet – so she was pretty smart about it – while the other was still trying to figure out the Cliff Notes. They had both “skimmed” the text and weren’t sure which part I was dramatizing. 

2) Because they are spending their money on their office empires.

This chart says a lot in a small space. The number of students is pretty much flat. The number of teachers is half again as many as we used to have. So, with the new classroom management techniques and teacher’s aids, class size can be about cut in half from 1970. Awesome.

What is going on with non-teaching staff? Secretaries, accountants, paper pushers, etc. Those areas have more than doubled. And lets be clear, teachers aren’t getting secretaries. I was in the back halls behind the office of my son’s school (more often that I would like) and they had a little world back there. I counted a dozen offices besides the principals (3). I don’t know the admin/teacher ratio, but it is greater than 1/4. I’ve been told that if I count the Union and State offices, there is an education administrator for every teacher. I know how these grow up, but in the land of the government union, there is no way to shrink them.

3) As a side note, a lot of the efficiency in non-government engineering has been through the reduction of admins. Most Engineers/Scientists work their own phones/papers/payroll. We use commercial off the shelf software for most of this. Economies of scale only help when you have to report to the Feds.

I’d say that education unions reduce the quality of teaching, reduce the pay of teachers, and prevent reform. I’t ain’t likely to reform under a Democrat, but I’d vote for anyone who’d remove government unions.

The Future and the Past

We can’t really predict the future. People like to pretend to know the future of 200 – 1000 years, but we can’t predict the rain.

The calving front of Thwaites Ice Shelf looking at the ice below the water's surface as seen from the NASA DC-8 on Oct. 16, 2012. Note how the water acts as a blue filter.

Sometimes we act by the preventative principle – IF IT IS NEW IT IS SCARY!  By this principle, Europe bans GMO products. But frankly, banning stuff that is a small relative cost is easy. How about banning hard stuff, like cars or Killer Robots.

Killer robots

Ok, should be easy to kill this off – I mean, who hasn’t watched Terminator? But lets look at them more reasonably.
Do we want people to go kill people?
1) first off, we have to designate people 1 as good people and people 2 as bad people. If we consider all those people with guns as bad people, then it is no loss to have them kill each other, but honestly, we don’t.

2) good people have to kill. This isn’t easy for the good people and often leaves them with a lifetime of problems.

3) good people might get killed. The bad people don’t lie down and die, they fight back. The people who are willing to shoulder this burden for their communities are some of the best people in society.

4) SO, we should save our good people, design some controllable “Bad” robots, and send them to kill bad people.

Despite the fear-mongers, these are no easier to build than nuclear bombs. But, maybe we are just marking time till the inevitable Cylon war. We don’t know much about this year, we can hardly predict next year, and 100 years is just plain crazy talk.

We can’t predict the future and we don’t know much about the past. As an example, we always KNEW that stonehenge was about 2000 years old and build by immigrants to England from Europe. The earliest inhabitants that were well considered dated from only 2500 bc. The problem I always had was that the structure was too primitive for the civilization that they believed to have built it. By 2000 bc., there was interaction between the immigrant population of England/Ireland and the Grecian Isles. So I don’t see a long term neolithic civilization surviving and prospering. Since it clearly did, there must have been a separate – well founded – civilization which controlled the central parts of England.

A new study drops the date of English habitation to before 8000 bc. A long-term society had a meeting place at Stonehenge for thousands of years. The evidence suggests that they built a wooden structure first, then the outer stones, then the inner stones. There may have been a structure before they planted the posts, but they didn’t dig it into the ground before 3000 bc. The society there lasted nearly 2000 years. You can’t say they didn’t leave any trace, but it sure is hard to read it.

What do you think, in 4,000 years our great^100th grandchildren will say the same about us. “Sure, there are lots of artifacts, like this rusted piece of iron with chairs in it. But what could they possible have used it for? If only they had left proper memory crystals we’d know something about what they thought!” Remember, whatever stenohaline was before they planted posts – that structure predated writing. For all I know, Writing is a flash in the pan, 3000 bc – 3000 ad. Used for 6,000 years out of 60,000 years of language and we’ll never use it again.

Green Religion

This is a German TV show, so you have to read the subtitles…but listen anyway, omg funny. SNL was funny like this once, when it was free to make fun of the government.

This is comedy, of course, but I think they’ve hit the nail on the head with this one. The truth is hilarious, where it isn’t a terrible shame. The important point is that it is only money. What is a few billion here, a trillion there. Who really cares? Well, if you actually, seriously, cared about the environment, then you would be upset.

What you really hate is that the cheapest forms of energy are used by most people in the world. The cheaper the power, the more toxins it puts into the atmosphere. The answer isn’t building more and more expensive forms of energy, but instead, make better and cheaper energy. Coal is cheaper than firewood – if properly distributed and burned in modern plants. We could distribute coal power to Africa and solve a great deal of their health issues in less than a decade. It would also move to solving their farming issues. With actual redistribution of real wealth (food, shelter, health, energy) many of their government problems would go away.  Not all, but that is a different subject.

China’s problem is mostly charcoal, but also cheap oil and bad coal. They need to move to more expensive power, but 50% of their population is still deep in poverty with better food, health care, and shelter, but real energy issues. They use wood/charcoal in their apartments and the coal/oil they burn is 1950’s technology. Moving up from coal will require cheap alternatives that won’t bancrupt the country. Solar won’t do it. (though they’ve tried.) Nuclear is good, but hard to build cheap without safety risks. Natural Gas is a good interim, but they don’t seem to have the reserves. 

Not that it matters what I say (or anyone says) about China. Five guys in black suits will continue making all the decisions about that country – which has the largest population in the world – despite what anyone else wants or thinks. Instead worry about making innexpensive and efficient power supplies available to the world, and hope that all countries use them. Instead, the US is competing with Germany in the Race to the Top. Lets build the most expensive windmill in the world! That will make us the holy church of the Green Religion. what a laugh


I wish I had more pictures of me in these shades, they are awesome. (I think I look awesome, but I’m known to be a bit biased there.) I bought them from www.igaaks.com. Paul is the maker and – when I called him for an emergency pair before DC, he got them out. I really appreciated that. I hope he does good business. He just added a new cut, the snow pattern, and a zebra-looking paint job.

I swear these should be the goggles for some ice-shooting villain.

If you buy a pair, I recommend some stick-on tabs for your nose, these things are metal. Other than that, awesome. (oh, and I do recommend you buy a pair. They run from about 45 bucks to around 130, depending on metal, cut, and treatments.) Most importantly, he does custom work, so use your imagination. Clearly the brass ones make good steampunk accessories, but the copper has an asian feel to it that I can’t explain. I’ve got to work on some kind of Future Samurai look for those. And obviously everything with color on it could be turned into some version of a super-hero costume piece.

I’m definitely feeling Diesel-Punk this year, so I may have to figure out how to incorporate these.

The Engineer’s Baby – Bed time

We’ve been having way too much fun the last year. She’s learning to use the potty, eat with a fork, and sleep in her own bed. Shall I say she is exceptional in every way, well, of course.

Just as a side note, kids love a schedule. The wife is of a “It’s 8:31 and she needs to be in the B A T H now.” but it really isn’t about the time of day. The kids are usually flexible on an hour or so. But the pattern is the key. Get into her head for a minute and “See” how she perceives “Bed Time.” Is Bath a part of it? Or just something that happens sometimes.

The pre-sleep story/snuggle is bed time for this cutie. We’ve been skipping the snuggle down for a few days, trying to get her to go to sleep in her own bed – instead of propped up in a chair with daddy. (Usually watching some bad anime. She loves Fairy Tale.) Well, she was being a bit hard to corral, so I decided to read her a few poems from a Russian “Mother Goose” book. (It is translated, I can’t read Cyrillic) I grabbed her up and let her poke the pictures while I started reading. (It kept her from running away.)

The wifey poked me in the middle of the second poem. Baby Girl had dropped off without me noticing. She just missed the “cuddle down to sleep” part of bedtime so much, that adding it back knocked her out. This leads to a trick, if you know a pattern of behaviour, you can encourage certain behavior sets. Make sure they do what you want.

Hey, I’m an engineer. I’m not above manipulating people just to get my projects to work. But it follows easily enough for babies. They are infuriating when you think they’ll listen to reason, but when you appeal to a pattern that gets them what they want, they get a lot easier to deal with.