Bitcoin has been in the news lately for its amazing run-up over the past year and recent crash. For those who have been living under a rock (or anyone reading this years in the future when Bitcoin has disappeared), Bitcoin is a "virtual currency" created through some clever cryptoanalytic techniques to ensure a limited supply of currency and unique ownership of the bitcoins.
I'm not an expert in these things, but by all accounts Bitcoin does what it claims to do. The total supply of bitcoins is limited and predictable, and ownership of bitcoins is provable and transferrable. Some people are promoting Bitcoin as a replacement for money, and claiming that it can be treated like virtual gold.
But it isn't, and I predict Bitcoin will never achieve anything close to mainstream success as actual money. The fundamental weakness with Bitcoin is that the underlying Bitcoin technology solves the wrong problem. The system uses the model of a physical commodity (like gold) as money, and therefore is engineered to guarantee a very specific and predictable supply of bitcoins.
In the real world, though, one of the most important characteristics of money is that it has a stable and predictable value. It's vitally important that a dollar today is worth very close to what a dollar was worth yesterday, and that we are confident it will be worth pretty much the same tomorrow. But the demand for money can vary widely, depending on whether people want to hold on to their money (like in 2007-2008 when the banks were collapsing) or spend and invest like crazy (like in the dot-com bubble). So the supply of money has to change to match the demand and keep the value stable.
Our financial system has a system for creating and destroying money: through fractional reserve banking, banks create money by making loans, and can destroy money by calling loans in (or simply not making new loans as the old ones are paid off). The system isn't perfect, which is why we have the Federal Reserve and why different currencies change value relative to each other. But on the whole, it's pretty good most of the time.
Bitcoin, though, has no such mechanism built in. With a predetermined bitcoin supply, the value of a bitcoin is guaranteed to fluctuate like crazy as demand changes (and this is, in fact, what has been happening), and that's useless for money. In order to give some flexibility to the bitcoin supply, you have re-introduce fractional reserve banking. That requires an oversight body like the Fed to make sure the banks do the right thing in both boom and bust. In the end, you've basically just re-created the banking system of 1928, which failed in part because the gold standard was not flexible enough to deal with the challenges of the Great Depression.
I do like the idea of having a peer-to-peer currency, where the system creates the right incentives to have a frictionless money with no requirement for central oversight. But the core problem to solve isn't fixing the supply of money, it's democratizing the process of matching money supply to money demand so that the value is stable. I don't have any idea how to do that, but I do know that Bitcoin is entirely the wrong approach.
There are two verbs which sound very similar but have very different meanings.
To damp means to diminish the activity of something, or to reduce the oscillations of something.
To dampen means to make something slightly wet.
So when Geordi LaForge uses a dampening field to counteract the alien probe's tractor beam (or whatever), he's actually getting it slightly wet. What LeForge really should use is a damping field.
(And yes, I know that the dictionary cross-lists both definitions for both words. To my great consternation, this misuse is now so common it has become acceptable usage.)
It's hard to believe, but I've had my 3D printer for nine months. In that time I've printed hundreds of things, a couple dozen of which are my own designs. I've consumed something like 15-20 kilograms of plastic filament (yet still have an inventory of 20 kg in 15 different colors). I've replaced the platform heater on my printer about ten times, the extruder nozzle once, printed a half-dozen other replacement printer parts, and tweaked my printer in four or five ways.
So this seems like a good time to take a few steps back and make some observations about the state of home 3D printing as it stands near the end of 2012.
The first thing that's very clear is that home 3D printing is very much a hobbyist's market. The actual usefulness of a 3D printer in the home is still very limited, though they definitely have a role in education, architecture, engineering, and other professional settings. Arguably the most immediate economic impact of inexpensive 3D printing is to bring the technology within the reach of professionals who have a real need, but couldn't afford to spend five or six figures for a commercial-grade machine.
The vast majority of home 3D printers on the market today are very much hobbyist-grade. These are not plug-and-play: even the easiest printers require adjustment and maintenance from time to time, and most of them are very temperamental. With some of the kit printers, I've heard it can take longer to get the printer tuned and adjusted than to assemble it in the first place.
Makerbot made a lot of noise at the beginning of the year claiming that its Replicator was designed for the average consumer. Makerbot has a great history of making kits, but I don't think the company really understood what "consumer grade" means. Many reports I've seen are that the Replicator still needs fussing to get consistently good prints, and has some design and engineering defects. Makerbot recently announced the Replicator 2 which addresses some of the most obvious flaws of the Replicator (for example, the wood frame is now steel, which is important in a machine which has to be adjusted to within a tenth of a millimeter), but the Replicator 2 isn't shipping yet. I'm skeptical when Makerbot claims a product is "easy for anyone to use," so we will have to see.
My printer, the Up!, is now being OEMed in the United States by Afinia. I had a chance to meet the Afinia team and tour their facilities a few weeks ago, and I was impressed that they are putting some real design and engineering work into improving the product. The Up! is a good printer and produces very nice looking prints with only modest adjustment, but it also has its flaws. Some of the cables are underdesigned for the amount of heat, stress, and motion they have to handle (hence the ten heater cables I've gone through), and some of the adjustments have to be repeated too often. For the most part, these are solvable problems--they just haven't all been solved yet. Fortunately, the Up/Afinia is a very "hackable" printer, making it easy for other hobbyists to tinker with it and improve the design.
The printer which comes closest to being a true consumer-grade product is the Cube, a low-end product by 3D Systems. From what I've heard, the Cube requires a minimum of fuss (though it does require a little bit of adjustment, and the use of a proprietary "magic glue" platform adhesion material) and produces acceptable output. However, 3D Systems chose to lock the Cube into a proprietary filament cartridge, forcing users to buy consumables at wildly inflated prices. That may be okay for occasional use, but heavy users like me will wind up spending crazy amounts of money on plastic.
(How expensive is the Cube filament? Right now I buy filament in bulk and spend around $20/kg including shipping. Retail pricing ranges from $35/kg to $60/kg depending on the source. 3D Systems charges $50 for a filament cartridge and won't say how much it holds, but it seems to have between 200 and 500 grams. That's $100 to $250/kg, or between 5x and 10x what I pay now. Since I go through about 2kg/month, the Cube would cost me between $160 and $460 extra per month in filament.)
3D Systems is going after a mass-market audience with the Cube, but I think they are at least five years too soon to market. We are still at the point where the only people interested in buying a home 3D printer are hobbyists and hobbyist/professionals--and those people want a machine they can take apart and tinker with. Worse, if the Cube is discontinued and 3D Systems stops supporting it, there is no other place to get filament. This scenario would quickly turn a Cube into a brick.
I usually get one of two reactions when I tell people I have a home 3D printer: either "Cool! Where can I get one?" or "What's that good for?"
Get real. Nobody is going to spend upwards of a thousand dollars on a machine just in case they need to replace a ten cent plastic knob someday. And until the manufacturers start posting 3D files for replacement parts you'll have to design your own, which is way more work.
In fact, the most popular "useful" things on Thingiverse are....replacement parts for 3D printers.
But there is one thing a home 3D printer is really good at: making toys. The ABS plastic is cheap, nontoxic and durable, there are thousands of toy designs on Thingiverse for all ages and interests, and you can design your own if you want. I've made toys for my kids, toys for my friends, toys for my kids' friends, birthday presents, you name it. For my nephew's birthday I designed and printed an entire gear toy system just for him (then uploaded it to Thingiverse for the rest of the world to enjoy).
For some reason, "making toys" seems like a trivial application for a high-tech piece of fabrication equipment. But I say: let's embrace it. The toy industry is a $21 billion dollar industry in the United States. There's nothing small or trivial about that.
The great thing about having a Personal Toy Factory is that it lets me get away from the mass-produced cheap plastic junk. It's still made out of cheap plastic, but the toys are now made specifically for the child. There are thousands of ready-made designs to choose from, and I can customize or design my own. If my nephew decides he wants to be a "Space Sheriff," then I can make him a badge with a starship on it and a six-shooter ray gun. Good luck finding that at Toys R Us.
Given that the average American household spends something like $200/year on toys, it's actually not so farfetched that an upper-income family with kids would spend a couple thousand dollars on a machine to custom-build toys for their kids. It's easy to rationalize as useful for school projects--my kids have all used 3D printed stuff for their classes--and the gee-whiz factor would close the sale.
One of the first discoveries for a new 3D printer owner is that the technology doesn't quite live up to the hype. Many people come in to 3D printing thinking that they can print Anything--that was certainly my thought at first.
And you can print Anything, as long as Anything:
Hobbyists also struggle with making sure prints stay attached to the print bed while printing (yet come off easily when done), and keeping prints from warping or splitting due to internal stresses. Commercial printers have solved these problems using techniques like carefully temperature-controlled chambers and disposable print platforms, but (for now) those techniques are proprietary and too expensive for the home market.
So there is definitely an art to getting good 3D prints from a home printer. You can't just throw any old 3D object at it and expect good results, and many hobbyists are still experimenting with new techniques.
There's also a lot of artistry in designing multi-piece things that fit well and have a "finished" look without too much cleanup work. Since 3D printed models tend to warp a bit, you can't just glue two parts together on a flat side without a visible seam. Joints need to be incorporated into the design, with allowances for gaps and other imperfections in the printing process.
I've gotten a crazy amount of enjoyment and satisfaction out of my printer. For me personally, it requires just about the right combination of tinkering and design to give me a perfect cocktail of artistry, technique, and instant gratification.
When someone asks me if he (it's usually a he) should get a 3D printer, my response is usually a little more guarded. This isn't for everyone yet, and it isn't even for most people. But if you are the kind of person who both enjoys working with mechanical stuff and also creative design, you will probably get a lot out of a 3D printer.
Our shopping list this week:
My brother had his 40th birthday party last week. My gift to him was to supply liquid nitrogen ice cream for all the guests. I've been wanting to try LN2 ice cream for years, but didn't know how or where to get my hands on the stuff. In grad school we just had a tank of the stuff in the lab. It was supposed to be for experiments, but a significant percentage was diverted for various graduate-level entertainments.
About a month ago one of the other geek dads at the twins' school served LN2 ice cream at his son's birthday party. The primary reason for enrolling one's children in a Gifted and Talented program is, of course, getting to socialize with geek dads.
I interrogated him and found out that, as long as one has the right equipment (a liquid nitrogen storage dewar), LN2 is easily obtained from your friendly local welding supply store. The nitrogen itself isn't too expensive, though the dewar is a few hundred dollars. On the other hand, the dewar will last for decades if properly cared for, so a one-time investment can mean years of uniquely nerdy party entertainment at a very reasonable price. My brother's milestone birthday gave me just the excuse I was looking for.
Unfortunately, we emptied the dewar before the kids got tired of ice cream. One of the twins (age 10) decided that more LN2 was an essential household supply.
And that is why we are the only family on the block with "liquid nitrogen" on our grocery list.
Now if you will excuse me, I need to go load the dishwasher and check on the cryo-tanks.
My 3D printer consumes three things: my time, electricity, and miles (*) of plastic filament.
To date, I've been going through plastic at about two kilograms per month. At about $60/kg (including shipping) for the manufacturer's plastic, that's about equivalent to a bad Starbuck's habit--an affordable luxury, especially since I don't otherwise have a Starbuck's habit.
There are two problems with buying plastic from the manufacturer, though: first, it costs $60/kg and I'm cheap. Second, it only comes in white.
So I have been on a hunt for alternative sources of 1.75mm ABS filament to feed my 3D habit. Hobbyist 3D printers seem to have settled on 1.75mm ABS and PLA as the "standard," so there are may sources including other 3D printer manufacturers, third party vendors, and guys who bought a palletload of plastic filament and sell it on eBay.
So far I've tried five different sources of filament and I'm still evaluating two others. I've paid prices ranging from $25/kg (for bulk orders) to $60/kg. And I've discovered that all plastic is not created equal.
Size: To get the best and most consistest results in my printer, the actual diameter of the 1.75mm plastic filament needs to be between 1.70mm and 1.80mm. Plastic as small as 1.60mm and as large as 1.80mm can be made to work with some effort, but diameters outside that range will not feed properly.
So far this has been the largest challenge in finding reliable suppliers. I've bought reels of filament which vary between 1.55mm and 1.95mm over a distance of less than two meters. That's simply not going to work. The result is jammed filament, failed prints, wasted plastic, and frustration.
Of the five suppliers, three have delivered plastic which is consistently in-spec: Up (the manufacturer of my printer), Makerbot (which makes a competing hobby printer), and ProtoParadigm. The guys at ProtoParadigm get extra credit for offering bulk 30-lb spools at a substantial discount, but you have to special-order it and wait a couple months for delivery.
Plastic: It turns out that there are lots of different kinds of ABS plastic. The stuff Up sells is an extra-strong grade which gets extruded at 260C. Most other suppliers offer a lower grade of plastic which they recommend extruding at between 200C and 225C.
So far, every ABS plastic I've tried has extruded just fine in my printer, though with the lower grades of plastic it is often harder to remove support material and there tends to be more warping and lifting from the print surface. If I was trying to get perfect models every time this would bother me, but I consider this a worthwhile tradeoff for having a choice of colors and lower cost.
Colors: If Up offered a choice of colors I probably never would have started looking for other sources of plastic. Right now I have reels of about ten different colors, including glow-in-the-dark and metallic silver (which is more like graphite, but still looks sharp). Printing in color gives much more appealing results than boring old white.
Quantity: Most retail sources sell ABS filament in 1 lb or 1 kg reels, at prices around $45 - $55/kg including shipping. Special colors, like fluorescent, glow, and metallic, often cost a few bucks more. A few carry 5lb reels at a discount. ProtoParadigm lets you special order 30lb reels for a significant discount.
I'm just starting to explore ordering directly from wholesalers. Minimum orders range from 10lb to 25kg, making this a little risky since I don't want to buy a year's supply of plastic and discover it consistently jams my printer. On the other hand, wholesale prices seem to be generally around $20 - $25/kg including shipping, so there's the opportunity to save a lot of money if I can find a reliable source. Wholesale orders also seem to have one to three month lead times.
Stock: Right after Christmas, most sellers of 3D printer filament seemed to go out of stock on most colors. I'm not sure if this is a post-Christmas spike in demand or what, but at the moment it is a challenge to find many colors. I'm hoping that availability will improve over the next month or two as the wholesalers catch up.
My Buyer's Guide for Plastic to Feed an Up
Up: You can't go wrong with the manufacturer's own plastic. Pros: best performance and strength. Cons: comes in white only; more expensive than other retail sources; ships from China so options are limited for quick delivery.
ProtoParadigm: These guys are obsessive about quality, and their plastic works really well. Pros: Competitive prices, bulk pricing for 30-lb reels (by special order), very responsive and easy to deal with. Cons: Limited colors, but they say more are coming soon. Right now they have Natural, Black, Glow, and Fluorescent Green, all in stock.
Makerbot: A little more expensive, but consistently good quality. Pros: Lots of color choices, quick shipping, and easy to deal with. Cons: Right now most colors are sold out; prices are at the high end.
3dPrinterStuff: I can't recommend because the plastic they sold me was consistently inconsistent in the filament diameter. When I complained about the poor quality control they were not responsive. They used to have a good selection of colors and some 5-lb reels, but all they list now is black and white.
3dInk: Also can't recommend because of out-of-spec filament diameters, but the owner was helpful and offered a refund when I complained (I refused the refund and am using the plastic). There's hope here. Very competitive prices and respectable selection of colors, though all but one are sold out right now.
(*) My rough estimate is that so far I have used about one mile of filament in my printer. Give or take about a half-mile.
There were several new 3D printers introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show a couple weeks ago. The Replicator, from Makerbot, is probably the most impressive from a price/performance perspective: a large print area, two extruders, and fully assembled for under $2,000. Unfortunately, from everything I've seen, the software is pretty much the same as Makerbot has always used, and that's a significant weakness. I want to just print and not have to fiddle with the settings to get good results. Better software and less fussing is why I chose the Up even though it is more expensive.
Another new model, the Cubify, is aimed squarely at the consumer market with a $1,300 entry point and an aggressively friendly look. They take the inkjet printer approach by sellng the printer cheaply but using a proprietary cartridge design to force you to buy the consumables at outrageous prices. It's hard to tell exactly how much Cubify's plastic costs, but my back-of-the-envelope calculation is that it's between $0.10 and $0.20 per gram--which would make it as much as five times the price of the same stuff from a third party.
Despite these new products I'm skeptical that 3D printing is really ready for the mass consumer market. I (and many other hobbyists) really enjoy designing and printing stuff, and I'm willing to devote a lot of time to tweaking my models, seeing what works, and accepting a fair amount of failure along the way. Not every model will print well, and there's a certain amount of art and experimentation which goes into designing a model which gives good results. An ordinary consumer isn't going to expect that.
There are also safety issues. Not loss-of-life-and-limb safety, but lots of opportunities for minor cuts and burns. Parts of the printer get hot enough to burn, and cutting support material off a model entails all the normal hazards of working with sharp knives. I speak from experience, since I was careless when trimming the support raft off one of my models a couple weeks ago. The knife slipped, and I needed seven stitches in my finger. I am now much more careful, but these kinds of injuries will be common until multi-headed printers and dissolving support become the norm.
I still think there's a good chance that someday 3D printing will be a mainstream household technology. Just not today. For all the breathless press coverage over the past few weeks, this is not yet ready for the average Joe and Jane.
I got my 3D printer late last week and have been having fun making a variety of models to see how it performs. I bought the Up Plus instead of one of the many kits like the Makerbot or the Reprap. The Up is more expensive, but everything I read suggested that the kit-based models require a lot more fussing to get working properly (even if you buy them preassembed) and the software is fairly painful to work with.
The Up, on the other hand, comes fully assembed and tested and has relatively user-friendly software which works out of the box. The software is a big deal, because it will automatically add support structure (for printing overhangs) and take care of other routine chores without too much tinkering from the end user.
Most hobbyist/home 3D printers work through extruding a thin filament of melted plastic--imagine a hot glue gun mated to an old-fashioned pen plotter. There are probably a dozen different basic technologies for 3D printing, but this one seems best suited for the hobby market: it is relatively inexpensive, the materials are also cheap and readily available, and safety issues are minimal.
On the downside, this method is slow, and limited in the materials you can use. The core of the unit (and most expensive component) is the print head, so hobby printers generally have a single head. That means that each model must be made from a single material, so only one color of material can be used and the support material has to be the same stuff as the model itself.
Professional units often have two or four print heads--that lets you use some other type of material for the support (making it easier to remove all the support scaffolding), and have several colors of plastic included in the same model.
I've posted some pictures of models I've build on Thingiverse. So far I've found that the printer can produce really amazing output, though sometimes the software needs some tweaking to get the best results. Support material is a pain to remove, so it's best to use the least amount of support which will still give good results.
I've also found that kids (of all ages) find the 3D printer endlessly fascinating--it's a great way to inspire interest in designing and building stuff, and my kids have already started making models in Sketchup to print.
The weather this "winter" has been shockingly dry and mild for Minnesota. As of today we have gotten a grand total of only a couple inches of snow, and no below-zero temperatures.
Yesterday, Christmas Day, it was in the 40's. I went for an 18+ mile ride to my parent's and back (the kids rode in the car with She Who Puts Up With Me). In anything close to a normal winter, that ride would be out of the question for me because of icy/wet roads and cold. I managed a similar ride on Thanksgiving Day.
The extended forecast is showing only slight chances of snow and nothing in the way of January-like cold for the next week. At the rate we're going this could be the year without a winter. January and February are normally the coldest months of the year, but we are now gaining sunlight every day and the lack of snow means that the ground absorbs a lot more solar energy.
A personal computer in 1975 cost about $2,500 in today's dollars if you bought it assembled. It didn't do much, as there was no third-party software and it only had 256 bytes of memory. (However, for an extra $1,350 in today's dollars you could upgrade it with another 1,024 bytes of memory). A few thousand units sold that year, which was a shocking success.
As a laughably downsized version of what were then giant industrial machines, it was hard to see then what a personal computer would eventually be useful for. It would be another four years before Visicalc--arguably the first really useful thing you could do on a personal computer.
So would you have bought a personal computer in 1975?
In retrospect, many people would probably say Yes, but that's only because we now know how the technology evolved. It's much harder to be in 1975 and see how this expensive toy (which is all an Altair 8800 would ever be) would change the world.
It's this line of thinking which made me decide to buy a home 3D printer. I want to learn about this new technology not because it's useful today, but because it has such interesting potential over then next 10-20 years.
Commerical grade 3D printers are powerful pieces of industrial equipment, and have no place or purpose in the home. Their smaller cousins have only been on the market a couple years and are pretty much expensive toys with limited practical value.
On the other hand, a small 3D printer isn't much more mechanically complicated than an inkjet printer (in some ways it is actually simpler). There's no reason that, with enough manufacturing volume, someone couldn't sell a 3D printer for only a few hundred dollars and put one in every home.
The only reason nobody's selling millions of cheap 3D printers is because nobody knows what your average household would do with one.
I don't know if we will discover the Visicalc of 3D printers, the killer app which transforms this from expensive toy into useful tool. I don't think a lot of people in 1975 knew what the future held, either.
There was another interesting piece of industrial technology scaled down for home use which came around only a few years after the Altair 8800. Unlike the personal computer, however, not too many people today have a personal robot.
Three and a half years ago (in early 2008) I observed that the price of solar power modules had been dropping at a remarkably consistent 6% per year for 25 years, and that sometime before 2025 they would be cheaper than grid power in most places.
The exact year of grid parity depends a lot on where you live: sunny places with expensive electricity (think Hawaii or southern California) get there a lot sooner than cloudy places with cheap power (Seattle). For Minnesota, I estimated that sometime around 2015 a solar power system would pay for itself within the system's lifetime.
That estimate is looking pretty good, at least on the price of the solar modules (this Scientific American blog has an updated version of the graph I made in 2008). If anything, the decline in photovoltaic prices may be accelerating a little--though that could just be a short-term blip.
I'm optimistic that over the next decade solar power will become economically viable in more and more places. On a purely cost basis alone you will start seeing a substantial increase in solar power installations. That, in turn, makes me optimistic that we will manage to transition away from greenhouse-gas-emitting sources of energy in a reasonably graceful fashion.
I may be using "optimistic" in an unusual sense. There's no doubt that the earth's climate is changing, and much of the evidence now points to a faster climate change than most scientists had predicted. There's already a lot of climate change "baked in" to the atmosphere, as cabon dioxide levels have increased over 20% just in the past 50 years. What's more, moving a large fraction of energy production to solar and other renewable sources will take decades, as it's very capital intensive to build an entirely new energy infrastructure.
But I am optimistic that the long-term trends are in place to create a more sustainable energy system and eventually reduce or eliminate net emission of greenhouse gasses. It will take decades. Future historians may see the 21st century's energy revolution as just as important as the industrial revolution in the 19th century or the information revolution in the 20th.
In the meanwhile, global climate change will continue. Sea levels are likely to rise (maybe a lot), storms will get more intense, and a lot of people will have to adjust. Some cities may have to be abandoned or be put behind massive dikes like in the Netherlands (I'm looking at you, New Orleans and Miami).
But it will not be the end of civilization. We will--eventually--muddle through.
For many years, my opinion of nuclear power has been one of an uneasy truce: I've not been 100% comfortable with it, but accepted it because of the potential to generate a lot of power relatively pollution-free.
In the wake of the accident at the Fukushima power plant, I'm rediscovering some things I kind of knew before but hadn't fully appreciated:
Historically speaking, far more people have been killed by fossil fuel power than nuclear power. This is a fact.
But that's not because nuclear power is inherently safer. On the contrary: nuclear power has a good safety record (so far) because it is so extremely dangerous that we entomb reactors with insanely large containment structures to keep the stuff away from us even in an unthinkable disaster. Were we to build similar containment and waste-handling systems for coal-fired power plants, pollution and global warming would be non-issues.
We don't do that with coal and oil because we don't have to.
And if a containment structure is ever catastrophically breached (an event which hasn't happened yet--the Chernobyl reactor had no containment), it would likely render hundreds of square miles uninhabitable for centuries. Nothing else made by humans has that capacity.
Even after decades of nuclear power, we still haven't figured out what to do with the spent fuel. Fukushima shows that in an accident the spent fuel can be almost as dangerous as the reactor itself, in its capacity to contaminate the surroundings and prevent emergency workers from fixing problems.
Here in the U.S., spent nuclear fuel is basically stockpiled at the power plant waiting for the (hypothetical) day when there's some way to recycle or dispose of it. At the Prairie Island plant here in Minnesota, they've actually run out of storage space and have had to build new storage casks. It's safe to assume that these spent fuel casks are considerably more vulnerable than the primary containment around the reactor.
The nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island happened because of internal problems, not because of a natural disaster. Fukushima, on the other hand, was caused by a combination of a magnitude-9 earthquake and a massive tsunami--an event the power plant was not designed to survive.
Nuclear reactors are engineered to withstand the most catastrophic natural disaster expected at their site. What that means in practice is that a natural disaster big enough to damage a nuclear power plant will be bigger than anything anyone expects. Normally simple things like transportation may be difficult or nearly impossible, local emergency services may be wiped out, and it could take days to get even the most basic resources to fix the problem.
If bringing a nuclear power plant under control requires something (supplies, people, expertise) which doesn't exist at the site itself, you might not be able to get it at all.
One argument by nuclear advocates post-Fukushima has been that the Fukushima reactor and containment was an older design with known deficiencies. New plants, they argue, would never be as vulnerable.
Unfortunately, older reactors continue to be used, even decades beyond their original design lifetime. Given the cost of decommissioning an old reactor and building a new one, power plant owners have an enormous incentive to keep the old reactors running as long as possible.
It's hard to know if the margin of safety in older nuclear plants has eroded (it may take another disaster to know for sure), but it is clear that they are not being replaced by newer designs nearly as quickly as the original designers had intended.
Apple refreshed its laptop line today, and the big new feature is the "Thunderbolt" port, aka The Mordor Plug ("....one plug to rule them all....").
Lots of people are really excited about this, but I noticed an odd design choice. Take a look at the symbol Apple is using for the Thunderbolt interface, the lightning bolt with an arrow.
Now take a look at this Google Image search. Striking resemblance, don't you think?
I don't know how eager I am to plug an expensive peripheral into a port marked with a prominent "DANGER HIGH VOLTAGE" symbol.
It seems that Apple is trying to rebrand a universally understood symbol meaning "Danger! Don't touch this or plug anything into it unless you really know what you're doing" to mean "You can plug anything into me and it will be really fast!"
What could possibly go wrong?
Based on a purely random set of observations over my lifetime, I've noticed that houses more than about 100 years old (built before 1910 or so) usually have an attic which is fairly accessible for storage. Houses less than 60 years old (built after 1950 or so) usually have attics which are difficult to get into, or even completely sealed from the living spaces.
My own home, built in 1984, has at least three distinct attic spaces over different parts of the house, and only one of the three has any way to get in at all (without cutting through a wall or ceiling). Getting into the one accessible space requires carrying a large stepladder up to a closet on the top floor, lifting a drywall panel out of the way, and shimmying through a small hole--not at all practical for storage.
I find this a little mysterious. Attics are terribly useful things: they don't take up any living space but can provide an enormous amount of storage (think of all the billions spent on mini-storage); an accessible attic makes it much easier to inspect the condition of the insulation and look for roof leaks (and every roof, given enough time, will eventually leak); and attics are almost as handy as drop ceilings when trying to pull network cables.
So why doesn't the modern American house make it easy to get into the attic, the way our grandparents' houses did? I have some theories:
My guess is that the answer is a combination of 1 and 2, with maybe a little of 3 and 4 thrown in. I really don't know, though, and my attempts to use Google-fu to find the reason came up blank.
So for now this is just a mystery. But if I ever build my own home, I will insist that it come with a proper staircase to an attic where I can keep all my stuff.
I finally got around to putting the current weather back in the blog. This was the one major cleanup from when I switched to Drupal almost two years ago.
It isn't especially elegant: at home I have a Mac Mini running Lightsoft Weather Center; this downloads the current weather from my Davis Vantage Pro weather station. Every 15 minutes, it updates an HTML template and FTPs it as a static file to my web hosting provider. This static HTML page is included on every page of the site through an iframe.
There are also some history graphs which can be accessed by clicking the "Weather in the Frozen North" link; those are also updated every 15 minutes.
I was forced to abandon the Davis WeatherLink software because the Mac version was simply pathetic--it has not been well maintained, and ran as a Java application which seemed to be very brittle. Fortunately, there are now several superior alternatives for weather station software on the Mac which have more features, are easier to set up, and produce nicer-looking output.
Facebook, it's not you, it's me.
I tried to make our relationship work, I really did. At first I resisted--I'm not the kind of nerd who falls for every pretty Web 2.0 app--but when it seemed like everyone I knew was talking about you (even my own mother in law), I gave in.
We had fun together, at first. Reconnecting with old friends, seeing who else was hanging out. After a while, though, our relationship began to change. You didn't communicate with me the way you used to: instead of fun little updates, it seemed like all I got was messages about how many sheep someone raised in FarmVille.
I understand that you have needs too, but our relationship can't be a one-way street. If you want to monetize me, that's fine, but our relationship needs to be about more than just that.
For a while I sort of drifted away, but then I started suspecting that you had a darker side when I learned how many of our shared secrets you didn't really keep secret. Whatever trust and respect I had was gone when I learned that those games my friends were playing demanded a price: not just my friends' privacy, but mine too. Suddenly the sheep seemed more than annoying, almost sinister.
So I tried to leave you. For months I didn't log on, but eventually, and against my better judgment, I decided to give you one more try.
This time, I vowed, I would be careful and give you a fair shake. I would block all the useless applications, to protect both my time and my privacy. I would check everyone's updates regularly and comment where appropriate.
It didn't work.
The harsh reality is that I've been spending as much time blocking applications (you don't make it as easy as it should be) as communicating with people I care about. Of all my "friends," only a handful actually post updates, and those who do update post way too often (I care about these people, but not that much).
So in the end, Facebook, this is goodbye. I've invested too much energy in our relationship and gotten too little in return, and I've finally realized that to you I was never more than one more consumer profile to market to. I deleted my account today--though I have my doubts that you'll respect that. Something tells me you don't really believe our relationship is over.
Apple did not invent graphical user interface. Nor did it invent the digital music player, smartphone, or tablet computer. Apple did take each of these products, do it better than anyone else, and (for a time at least) own the market.
In each case, a large part of Apple's contribution was not a killer feature or innovation, but taking existing elements and finding a combination of elements uniquely appealing to customers.
In each case, this meant omitting some features which every other product included, and which most observers believed to be must-have.
In each case, competitors and industry pundits mocked Apple's products and predicted failure.
In each case, when customers actually tried the products, the missing features turned out to be less important than the overall experience.
Normally when a company launches a new product into a new market, it makes an effort to include all the key features. Without hitting the "checklist features" it can be difficult to get prospective customers to even try the product, and the product is often doomed before it even gets a chance.
Apple's unique talent, and the true nature of Steve Jobs' Reality Distortion Field, is in getting prospective customers to give a new product a try, even when it seems to be missing key features.
Apple's products, at least since the return of Steve Jobs, have been an oasis of quality hardware and software in the sea of cheap, ugly, and crash-prone products that is the computing industry. As much as I like Apple and my iPhone, however, I would like the option to buy my next phone from a different company and not feel like I'm settling for second-best.
So far things are not looking good. The Palm Pre had outstanding software, but it never had enough backing from major carriers. As a result, both the Pre and Palm itself, are for all intents and purposes no more.
Android was also promising at first, and it still is promising in the abstract. Unfortunately, nearly all the actual Android phones on the market come with some combination of a lack of software upgradability, crippled features, obnoxious bloatware, and unhelpful user interface overlays. The main exception seems to be Google's own Nexus One, which lacked the marketing support of major carriers and is for all intents and purposes no more. Though it is technically possible to hack your Android phone or buy a new Nexus One, it's not reasonable to expect a typical consumer to go through the effort involved.
And while Android phones in aggregate are outselling iPhones, those sales are spread across hundreds of different devices from dozens of manufacturers. Given the wide variety of hardware, OS versions, and customized software commercial Android phones are sold with, it begs the question of whether Android is even a single platform.
Why is that after over three years since the original iPhone introduction no other manufacturer has been able to match Apple's combination of commercial success and high quality design?
Or, as an acquaintance recently said as he was showing off his beautiful new Droid phone, "It's great but let's face it: we all just want iPhones."
In order to successfully bring a mobile phone to market, three different elements must come together: the hardware, the software, and the service. That means that up to three different companies are involved in creating the customer experience, though often the hardware and software are from the same company.
Of these, the service is the hardest to differentiate, since consumers generally notice the service only when it fails: when calls drop, when the bill is wrong, etc. When everything is working properly the mobile phone service is like oxygen in the air, invisibly supporting the customer's daily activities.
However, the service provider also owns the customer relationship, since the carrier sells the customer the phone (in most cases), provides customer support, and sends the customer the monthly bill. In most cases that monthly bill is not only paying for the actual cost of delivering mobile phone service, but also most of the cost of the phone itself.
So the mobile phone companies--Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and others--use their customer control to force handset makers to make handsets the carriers want, which might or might not be the handsets which customers want.
At its most benign, this results in the carriers' logo being featured more prominently than the manufacturer's logo on most mobile phones. More importantly, phones are often shipped with important features (like data tethering) crippled or disabled to help the carriers sell more expensive services, and useless applications and overlays added which the carrier uses to "differentiate" its handsets (for example, Sprint's infamous Nascar App). It's also hard for a handset maker to innovate in ways which require the carrier's cooperation, since the handset company has very little power in the relationship and phone companies (as a rule) don't like changing their networks if they don't have to.
The iPhone, on the other hand, seems to exist entirely outside this world. Every iPhone ships with the same interface and user software (no carrier-specific apps or overlays), carriers have updated their networks specifically to support the iPhone's Visual Voicemail feature (Apple did not invent the graphical interface for voicemail, but only Apple convinced a carrier to support it), and Apple doesn't even include the carrier's logo anywhere on the phone. An iPhone from anywhere in the world is essentially the same product, with the same branding, features, applications, and interface.
[The one exception is data tethering, which is enabled in most markets but costs extra under AT&T. In My Humble Opinion this is obnoxious but at least understandable, given that the usage profiles of a smartphone and a wireless modem--which it what a tethered phone is--are very different.]
Uniquely, in the power relationship between carriers and handset makers, somehow Apple has come out on top where every other mobile device manufacturer has had to kowtow to the phone companies.
I'm starting to believe that the iPhone and its success is due to a set of circumstances which make it unlikely any other company will be able to repeat Apple's feat.
At the time Apple was developing the iPhone and looking for a carrier partner, AT&T was still working through the aftereffects of a series of mergers and rebrandings which had, in the course of only a couple of years, confusingly merged Cingular and AT&T Wireless, killed the AT&T Wireless name, then returned the AT&T name and eliminated the Cingular brand. Network and customer service integration was also rocky, and the company needed something unique to offer customers.
Apple is notoriously finicky about its products, and other carriers (notably Verizon) wouldn't give Apple the degree of control Apple wanted. But for AT&T, this was exactly what it needed: Apple was (thanks to the iPod) a powerful brand associated with hip, cutting-edge gadgets, and could be counted on to produce something special. AT&T would give up control of the handset and the customer relationship, but in return would get a phone no other carrier (in the U.S.) could offer.
Only Apple could make this deal, since only Apple had the Apple brand. Had Palm, RIMM, Motorola, Nokia, HTC, or any of the other handset companies built a similar product, it never would have gotten the carrier support required to succeed without the branding, crapware, crippling, and overlays which plague those same companies' products today. The fact that Apple is still the only handset maker to succeed without compromising its product to get access to the customer just proves the point.
It took the unique combination of a powerful brand, a groundbreaking product, and a desperate phone company to break through the carriers' reflexive need to be front-and-center with the customer. These circumstances aren't likely to happen again in the near future, and as a result, Apple's position is likely to remain safe for some time to come.
My iPad 3G arrived on Friday, so after watching other people's shiny new toys I finally got to use my own.
The main use we're planning at my company (or excuse, if you prefer) is to use the iPad as a demonstration device when we exhibit at trade shows. Right now we ship a large iMac to set up in our booth in order to show off our web-based reporting tools. The iMac is a good platform for this, since it gives us an attractive, large display which helps draw people into the booth but doesn't detract from what we're trying to show off.
The iMac has it's downsides, though: it costs over $100 to ship and insure (even ground) each way; the padded shipping crate is heavy and unwieldy; and since we only have one, we can only do one demo at a time, meaning that at busy times we have a lot of people crowded around the one scree
The iPad seems like the perfect alternative. It costs nothing to ship since several will fit into a briefcase to carry onto a flight, it's easy to carry on and off a trade show floor, and we can have several in the booth so we can give multiple one-on-one demonstrations at a tim
After receiving the iPad Friday, I loaded it with a variety of productivity software and tools (mainly Apple's iWork suite, Omnigraffle, and OmniGraphSketcher) on the theory that we may want to actually use the iPads when we're not at a trade show to do real work.
Thursday afternoon, before my 3G model arrived, I was at a technology committee meeting for a local school. Since the non-faculty members of the committee are all technophiles like myself, I wasn't surprised when the pre-meeting discussion was about the iPad. Both of the other non-faculty members had brought a few (non-3G) iPads into their organizations to evaluate, and both had essentially the same conclusion: the iPad is more useful as a business and technology tool than they had expected.
After playing with mine for the weekend, I have to agree. The productivity applications on the iPad are necessarily more limited, but for basic tasks they are significantly faster and more natural to use than the desktop equivalent. The small form-factor, touch interface, and instant-on-always-available quality of the iPad allow the machine to get out of the way of whatever task may be at hand. The fact is that 98% of business tasks do not require advanced features, so it becomes natural to just grab for the pad rather than open the laptop.
A case in point is the OmnigGraphSketcher application. I evaluated this on the desktop a while ago as a charting package and came away unimpressed. The concept is that rather than start with numerical data in a table like every other graphing program, you draw the graph you want freehand and the program makes it look pretty. This didn't work (for me) since I've always found drawing freehand with a mouse to be unnatural, clumsy and imprecise, and I couldn't see why you would want to get away from numerical input data.
On the iPad, however, OmniGraphSketcher becomes and entirely different experience. Sketching a chart with a touch screen is about the most natural thing you can do, and the program takes what you draw freehand and makes it look pretty and professional. The experience is like using a magic whiteboard which takes your rough ideas and turns them into something which looks like a professional graphic artist created it.
There are some surprising glitches and limitations (which I fully expect will be addressed in a future software update). For me at least, the lack of Flash and multitasking are not problems at al
However, long popup menus render in a way which doesn't look scrollable, meaning that items at the top or bottom of a list can get lost. For such a polished user interface, this usability mistake is surprising.
The lack of printing capability and the clumsy mechanisms for sharing and synchronizing files limit the iPad as a serious workhorse. Right now about the only way to move files on and off the iPad for most programs is through e-mail which, while functional for small files, is really not acceptable for big documents.
I'm typing this article entirely on the on screen keyboard (works surprisingly well) but the fancy WYSIWYG text editor I use on this blog does not work on the iPad at all (so after typing this, I will be cleaning up the formatting from my laptop).
Stray taps also seem to be a problem, and when I type too fast I seem to get a little sloppy and occasionally hit the screen outside the keyboard, moving the insertion point in my text and wreaking havoc on what I'm trying to type.
On the whole, these are minor complaints, and I fully expect they will be fixed in months not years. I can definitely see a day when the iPad or it's successor becomes my primary computing device, with the laptop or desktop only hauled out for particularly demanding tasks.
Last week I scouted four possible building sites for She Who Puts Up With Me's cousin to place a primitive one-room cabin on our property at Bogus Lake. I found some places on the property I didn't know existed, and while none of the spots is perfect, they all have a lot to offer.
This site is near the access road and overlooks a massive beaver dam. 15" logs litter the area where beavers cut down large trees but only used the branches.
The highest point on our property is at the top of the highest hill for a considerable distance in any direction, though not all the hilltop is on our property. This site has a steep dropoff in one direction, giving a spectacular view without clearing any trees. Were it not for the trees, there would be a 270-degree panorama affording views of Lake Superior, the BWCA, and possibly Bogus Lake as a bonus.
In my hiking I discovered a small knob above Bogus Lake which (according to my GPS) is just 100' inside the property line. A cabin built here would have the feeling of being perched above a small alpine lake, because that's about what it would be.
Continuing along the hillside past Site 2, there's a broad expanse of mature (100 years old) sugar maple forest. The ground has just enough slope to keep it dry, and the thin underbrush made for easy hiking. Signs of recent moose activity were everywhere. A cabin here would have the feeling of being isolated deep in the woods.
In the Northeastern tip of Minnesota, just a few miles from the Canadian border, there's a lake so small it's Bogus. That's where I have my own piece of the northwoods, a conifer and maple forest overlooking Lake Superior.
At 80 acres, Bogus Lake is certainly small, but it's a lot bigger than some of the drainage ponds they used to call "lakes" when I lived in central Illinois. It's also not the only Bogus Lake in Minnesota--there's another one near Lake Itasca in the central part of the state. There are also Bogus Lakes in Wisconsin, Oregon, and Ontario, among other places.
I bought a parcel of undeveloped land on Bogus Lake in 1991, when the combination of a recession, the collapse of the logging industry in that area, and the fact that Grand Marais hadn't been discovered as a tourist destination conspired to drive land prices to absurdly low levels. I was in college at the time, and scraped together enough money to buy the 158 acre lot. At the time it had been for sale for something like two years with barely any interested buyers.
The land lies at the top of a ridge 1,200 feet above Lake Superior. When the leaves are off the trees you can see the big lake from a number of places around the property. There's a massive beaver pond and stream, and many signs of moose activity.
In my college days, I made a couple of attempts at cabin building with the idea of having a warm place to stay. Unfortunately my ambition ran ahead of my time and abilities--one of the two structures is slowly collapsing, and the other has been in a permanently unfinished state for over 15 years. When I moved out of state for graduate school my visits to Bogus Lake slowed to the barest trickle: first because it was too far, then because I was too busy, and then because it was too hard to camp with the kids.
This year I've been thinking more and more about my place at Bogus Lake. I think this was really sparked by the cousin of She Who Puts Up With Me, who aspires to be the next Thoreau. Over the winter he asked us if he could build a small one-room cabin on our property, and we agreed (it's not like things are getting crowded up there).
The cabin is scheduled to be built starting around the end of May, and this past week I spent three days in Grand Marais hiking all around the property scouting sites. I went further into the property and saw more of it than I ever have in the past, and this has rekindled my enthusiasm for eventually building a vacation (or even retirement) home up there.
I've also hired a surveyor to locate and mark the boundary of the property. Only about 1/3 of the property line has ever been surveyed, so our current understanding of where our land ends is based on taking measurements off topographic maps and punching them into a handheld GPS. This could easily be off by 100 feet or more.
Within the property, there are places where (if it weren't for the trees) you could get stunning 270-degree vistas of Lake Superior and the surrounding hills. There are other places which feel like the shore of a remote alpine lake, and places where the horizon only extends to the first row of trees. When we build a home at Bogus Lake, we will have our pick of places.
In the meanwhile, I've decided that it's high time to start getting up there more often.
When the original iPhone came out, my first reaction was, "Cool, I want one!"
She Who Puts Up With Me was less enthusiastic, viewing it as "an expensive toy and we already have two perfectly good phones so why do we need this?"
Despite these objections, my old phone just happened to fall apart within days of the availability of the iPhone (no, really, it was an old Treo and the screws kept falling out and it was being held together with one screw and a piece of Scotch tape, and besides the web browser was a piece of junk and I couldn't get it to work right with my e-mail anyway). So it came to pass that just a week after they went on sale, I came home with two brand-new iPhones.
For the record, my wife has become a true believer and now plans to upgrade her iPhone (still the first generation one, now starting to lose its battery life) this summer when the next generation comes out.
So it should come as no surprise that when the iPad was announced, my first reaction was, "Cool, I want one!"
She Who Puts Up With Me responded with "it's an expensive toy and we already have five perfectly good computers so why do we need this?"
Let's not fool ourselves. I've basically not grown up past the "give me the shiny new toy!" stage which for most people ends at about three years old. That makes me the perfect target consumer for an iPad--I just needed to find some way to distract the rational side of my brain from the price tag. The mental equivalent of pointing off in the distance and and shouting "Look over there! What in the world can that be?"
My excuse is that the iPad looks like the perfect gizmo for a tradeshow booth where you need to do one-on-one demonstrations of a web-based application. It's very portable (saves shipping), you can have several of them in the booth, prospective customers can hold it up and touch the application (better than huddling around a mouse and screen), and the novelty value alone will bring people into the booth.
It just so happens that my company's reporting system is web-based, and we spend a lot of our time when exhibiting at tradeshows doing one-on-one demos.
So I've ordered an iPad--of course this is to "evaluate its suitability for use in our tradeshow demos," but we all know the truth.
In the past few months, the Conventional Economic Wisdom (CEW) has swung from a recession of indefinite duration (but always lasting at least 18 months longer) to a jobless recovery. This can only mean one thing: job growth in the United States is about to explode.
This is not based on any particular insight I have, just the observation that job growth is a lagging economic indicator, and the CEW is always looking in the rear-view mirror. The CEW saw continued growth in the first half of 2008 after the recession had already started, hard times as far as the eye could see in the first half of 2009 as the economy bottomed out, and now that growth is returning the CEW insists that it isn't really at least not for most people.
So I will once again stake out my contrarian position and claim that the pessimistic CEW is a leading indicator for imminent job growth.
APPENDIX: My contrarianism has actually served me reasonably well. Looking through my blog archives, I find that at the end of 2005 I wrote that there would probably be a recession starting by the end of 2007 (true, but barely). At the beginning of 2008 I wrote that we were already in a recession (before the CEW acknowledged the fact) but that we were close to the bottom (sadly, too optimistic). Then at the beginning of 2009, as the economy was bottoming but the CEW saw nothing but pessimism, I started looking for signs of hope. This time around I could be completely off-base or way too early, but by golly I'm going to stick to my contrarian optimism until I'm right.
Instead of Tony the Tiger in the tank, how about Aunt Jemima? Would it be possible to use a simple sugar syrup (about 50% water and 50% sugar) as a vehicle fuel?
One of the biggest challenges of large-scale use of biofuels is that refining the fuel is often extremely energy-intensive. Most products of biological processes are water-soluable, since biological process all take place in a water medium. Unfortunately, however, most current internal combustion engines can't run on a fuel+water mixture, so it is necessary to remove the water from the fuel as part of the process of refining the biofuel. This can take almost as much energy as is present in the fuel to begin with.
(Note that oil-based biofuels, like biodiesel, don't have this problem since the oil will naturally separate from the water. However, oil-producing plants tend to have a much lower yield of oil than sugar-producing plants have of sugar.)
So if you can build an engine capable of running efficiently on a fuel+water mixture, you can get a lot more biofuel for the amount of energy you put into growing and refining the fuel. In addition to making the biofuel much more sustainable, this also makes the economics of producing biofuels much more compelling since it's no longer necessary to buy massive amounts of fuel to separate the fuel from the water.
Once you've decided to use a fuel+water mixture, sugar becomes a much more compelling fuel choice than ethanol. Ethanol production always begins by fermenting sugar anyway (even cellulose-derived ethanol, since that uses enzymes to break the cellulose down into simple sugars), and sugar has a significantly higher energy density than ethanol. Sugar is a lot cheaper, too.
The only reasons to prefer ethanol over sugar are (a) ethanol can be used in existing engines with little or no modification, and (b) ethanol is a liquid, and sugar is a solid, and solid fuels are really hard to deal with in an internal combustion engine. But if we're designing a new engine specifically to run on a fuel+water mixture, we've already decided that compatibility with existing engines doesn't matter; and a sugar syrup is a liquid.
Sugar syrup has some other advantages: it's readily available from a wide variety of sources, it has a low freezing point and high boiling point, and the desired 50% mixture can be achieved fairly readily by removing water from certain plant saps (no need to dry it all the way to granulated sugar). You can even make the stuff at home, cheaply and easily.
I don't know if a syrup-powered engine is possible, but I think it would be. The challenge is that before the fuel can burn, the water has to boil completely inside the cylinder, since the water boils (even at high pressure) at a lower temperature than the ignition point of the sugar. Boiling the water takes energy and cools the gas inside the cylinder, making it harder for the fuel to ignite.
This isn't an insurmountable problem: you just have to get the cylinder that much hotter to overcome to cooling effect of the water in the mixture. The trick is to design the engine so that the energy used to boil the water can be recovered to help turn the engine. Since the role of the water in the syrup is essentially to vaporize and cool the combustion gasses, the engine has to be designed for a slightly higher volume of slightly cooler gas.
Thinking in terms of modifying an existing engine design, I would think that a diesel engine would be ideal, since it's intended to operate with very high compression and hot cylinders, and fuel which burns as a mist rather than a vapor. Somewhat higher compression (to yield a hot enough gas to ignite the syrup) may be the only change necessary.
One final note: sugar actually is used as a rocket fuel for some model rockets, typically mixed with potassium nitrate (saltpeter), but this is normally done with solid dry sugar, not syrup, since if the mixture has any water in it it becomes difficult to ignite. I did find, however, some YouTube videos of experiments with including sugar syrup in a rocket propellant.
"Please disregard any infractions regarding my behavior this year.
We had thought Scooter, at almost 11 years old, didn't really believe in Santa any more. When Christmas Eve came, however, it looks like he wasn't quite ready to deny Pascal his wager.
We had our first major snowstorm of the season last night, and as I was shoveling the driveway I was thinking about different ways to remove snow.
Okay, I'll be honest--I was trying to figure out how to justify installing a snow-melting system when we have to replace our driveway in a few years. I still shovel the drive by hand, but I can foresee a time when I won't want to do that any more or will be traveling enough so I can't.
There are four basic ways to remove snow and ice from a driveway: shovel it by hand, clear it with a snowblower, melt it with a heated driveway, or hire a snowplow service. (You could look at a fifth possibility, melt it with chemicals, but that would require so much chemicals as to have serious environmental consequences. Chemicals are best used for stubborn patches of ice which are hard to remove mechanically.)
The most obvious way to look at the problem of How to Remove Snow is to compare the energy required to melt snow vs. move it. I measured our driveway and found that it is about 1,200 square feet (I'm going to use English rather than metric units because they're probably more familiar to my readers).
If we get a heavy snowfall of a foot, which translates to an inch of equivalent rainfall (Minnesota's snow tends to have one inch of rainfall equivalent for every 8-15 inches of snow), that's about 6,000 pounds of ice on the driveway which needs to be melted (which will yield about 750 gallons of water, if you're keeping track). It takes 144 BTU to melt a pound of ice, so it will take about 850,000 BTU to melt all the snow.
In addition to melting the snow, you also have to heat the driveway itself. If there's three inches of brick over the 1,200 square foot driveway, that's about 40,000 pounds of brick. In the worst-case scenario, that brick needs to be warmed by about 100 degrees F, which will take about another 900,000 BTU. Normally a snow-melting installation includes a layer of insulation underneath the driveway, so we don't need to heat the ground underneath the driveway. In total, then, we need about 1.75 million BTU to melt a foot of snow from the driveway on a very cold day.
Calculating the energy it takes to move the snow isn't quite as straightforward since it depends on whether you push the snow (with a plow), lift the snow (with a shovel), or launch the snow (with a snowblower). Hard-to-measure factors like friction and ice adhering to the surface can matter a lot. The simplest case is the snowblower, which essentially fires the snow out a chute. If we assume that the snowblower shoots the snow out fast enough to launch it about 30 feet straight up, then it will take about 300 BTU to clear all the snow.
This is a rather lopsided result: it takes about 5,800 times as much energy to melt the snow as to clear it with a snowblower. This is not a helpful result in my quest to justify a snow melting system. It's not the end of the story, though: a snowblower turns out to be much less efficient.
It turns out to be fairly easy to convert chemical energy from natural gas into heat. Our on-demand hot water heater (which would likely be pressed into service to drive any snow-melting system) claims to be 98% efficient, and the required plumbing would have only minimal loss, so over 90% of the energy of the natural gas would be available to heat the driveway. Delivering our 1.75 million BTU to the driveway will require just a little over 1.75 million BTU of natural gas.
Small gasoline engines, like the ones used to drive snowblowers, are not very efficient. Only about 10% of the energy content of the gasoline is actually converted into mechanical energy in the driveshaft of the engine. What's more, the snowblower has a lot of internal friction, idle time, and other losses. It's probably reasonable to assume that only 10% of the output of the engine actually gets converted into flying snow. Realistically, then, it probably takes about 30,000 BTU of gasoline (or about 1/8 of a gallon) to clear the driveway.
Even accounting for the relative efficiency of melting vs. moving snow, it still takes 58 times more energy to melt the snow. This is still not a helpful result, but there's one more wrinkle: a foot of snow on a very cold day is a worst-case scenario for the snow melting system, and melting less snow on a warmer day leads to a direct reduction in the energy required. The snowblower, on the other hand, is likely to use about the same two cups of gasoline no matter how little snow fell or how warm the weather, because most of the energy is going into friction and the important factor is how long it takes to walk the machine across the entire driveway. With only an inch of snow on a warmish sunny day, the snow-melt system might require only 2-3 times as much energy as the snowblower.
Another way to look at the problem is to estimate the amount of fuel consumed by the different ways to remove snow. For our foot of snow, the snow-melt system will consume about 18 therms of natural gas, or about $13 of gas at recent prices from our gas company. The two cups of gasoline the snowblower consumes is about $0.30 of fuel these days.
The amount of gasoline consumed by the snowplowing service is harder to estimate because they likely burn more gas getting to and from our driveway than they use in actually clearing the snow. Plow services tend to drive big four-wheel-drive trucks which get poor mileage (especially with a giant plow rig attached to the front), so it seems reasonable to assume they burn about 1/2 gallon (or $1.20) getting to and from each client on the route.
Finally, when I shovel the driveway by hand, it takes me about an hour and burns 720 calories according to government exercise tables. That's about three candy bars, which cost about a dollar each at the convenience store, so about $3 worth of "fuel" is required.
Here, too, there's a slight wrinkle. Our geothermal system uses waste heat to warm a storage tank for hot water, and this heat could be available for use in a snow-melt system. This could give us the first 25,000 BTU or so for free each time we run the heated driveway--not very helpful for the foot of snow on a subzero day, but a significant factor in the case where we're trying to remove a small amount of snow or ice on a warmer day. This low-use scenario could wind up costing $0.50 or less.
Finally, we can look at the problem from the perspective of how much time and money it takes to clean the driveway. Right now I spend about an hour shoveling the driveway every time we have a significant snowfall, and for bigger storms this sometimes needs to be done twice or more. As already established, this costs about $3 worth of candy bars.
Clearing the driveway with a snowblower takes about a half-hour, and about $0.30 worth of fuel each time. This may seem like a no-brainer (replacing $3 of Snickers with $0.30 of unleaded and taking half the time), but the snowblower itself will cost about $500 and last perhaps five years. If I have to clear the driveway ten times a season, it's clear that buying the snowblower is the most important expense, adding about $10 to the cost of each snowfall.
Hiring a snowplow service is the most expensive option, but it takes me zero time to clear the driveway. We used to hire a service until about 10 years ago, and back then they charged a minimum of $30 every time it snowed with a surcharge for more than three inches of snow. Today it would probably cost $40-$50 for every snowfall, and our foot of snow could cost as much as $75 with surcharges.
The snow-melt system actually starts to look compelling from a time and money perspective. Like the snowplow service, it requires zero effort for snow removal, but the deep snow on a cold day will only cost about $13 in natural gas. I haven't priced the cost of installing the system, but my guess is that it would add between $2,000 and $5,000 to the cost of replacing the driveway (which will have to be done anyway in a few years). Considering that we already have a water heater capable of driving the system, we could well come in at the low end of the range.
The installation price of a snow-melt system is steep, but it should last for the life of the driveway or longer. Over 25 years, the $5,000 spent on the system will cost only $200/year, or $20 for each snowfall if we need it ten times per season. So (rounding off a little), a heavy snowfall will cost about $35 in fuel plus capital expense to melt the snow, as compared to $50-$75 for a plowing service. A light snowfall would cost only about $20 to melt (essentially just the amortized cost of installation), but $40-$50 for a service.
There's no question that moving snow takes much less energy than trying to melt it, and the cheapest, most efficient way to clean up after a snowstorm is to shovel by hand. I'm happy to keep doing this, but She Who Puts Up With Me has zero interest in hand-clearing our driveway.
At some point, I might not want to keep shoveling, or my business travel schedule may make it likely that I won't be in town when the snow flies. When that time comes, we can hire a service, buy a snowblower, or install a snow-melt system.
Buying a snowblower is the cheapest option, but also the least convenient--it will still require someone to spend a half-hour in the cold and blowing snow. I don't think She Who Puts Up With Me will be too excited about this, though it's still better than hand-shoveling.
That leaves hiring a service or going with the heated driveway.
If we have to choose between those options, the snow-melt system is substantially cheaper, as long as we anticipate using the service for a number of years. If we expect to need a service for only a few years (maybe we expect my travel schedule to change, or move to a different house), then the capital expense of the snow-melt system makes it more expensive.
All this is still dreaming at this point: the time to make a decision about a heated driveway is when we replace the driveway. Our current driveway is 25 years old and in poor shape, so it could be replaced at any time. On the other hand, after the geothermal system this year we're not eager to embark on another major home-improvement project for a couple years.
A Northwest flight was in the news recently when it overflew its destination by about 150 miles and the pilots didn't respond to air traffic control. It turned out that the pilots were working on their laptop computers (against airline policy) and got so engrossed that they missed all the attempts to communicate with them.
I don't want to dive into all the hand-wringing over this incident (which ended without damage to anything other than the pilots' professional reputations and credentials). Others far more qualified than I have weighed in on what a terrible lapse of judgement this was.
But this does highlight what I see as potentially an increasing problem in modern aviation: complete and utter boredom.
Over the past 20 years, cockpits have become more and more automated, and modern airliners literally fly themselves with almost no intervention from the crew. Even 4-seat propeller planes of the kind I fly are becoming more automated--it's getting hard to buy a new airplane without a complete digital instrumentation system (aka "glass cockpit") and sophisticated autopilot.
For the most part, this is a good change. Computers are much less likely to make mistakes than people in the routine operations of the aircraft, and can navigate far more precisely. The job of the human pilots is no longer actually flying the airplane, but communicating with the ground and being ready to take over in case something goes wrong (which it almost never does).
The downside is that it leaves the flight crew with very little to do during the cruise phase. If you think it's boring sitting on a 4-hour flight, imagine what it's like for the pilot and co-pilot. They are required to sit in their seats and be alert for hours at a time, but not permitted to sleep, read books, play games, or do much of anything other than talk to each other and (very occasionally) ATC. Even standing up and going to the bathroom is actively discouraged for security reasons.
This sort of enforced inactivity plus alertness is simply not something human beings are good at. The amazing part of this incident is not that the pilots got sucked into some other activity, but that it doesn't happen more often.
In much the same way that JFK was the first TV Age President, it is increasingly clear that Obama is the first Internet Age President.
Kennedy was not the first president to have to deal with television during his presidency, but he was the first one to figure out how to use TV to his political advantage. He knew how to look good on TV, and recognized that this was important. The 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, where Kennedy looked presidential and Nixon did not, are considered pivotal in the outcome of the election.
Similarly, Obama is the first President to really know how to use the unique dynamics of politics in the Internet Age to his advantage. Consider this sequence of events, which has played out at least a half-dozen times since the beginning of the presidential campaign two years ago:
I'm not the first one to notice this repeating pattern. Andrew Sullivan calls it the "Rope-a-Dope," and speculates that Obama manages to subtly bait his opponents into Step 1 above. I'm not so sure about the baiting part--not because I think Obama's above baiting his opponents, but because he doesn't seem to need to. For whatever reason, Obama seems to bring out the absolute worst in his critics.
This strategy is perfectly suited to the Internet Age, where any idea, no matter how kooky, can find a sympathetic audience. It plays perfectly into the 24-hour news cycle where the biggest challenge is finding fresh material to report on. It draws strength from partisan media like Fox News and talk radio where there's always a willingness to push negative stories about Obama, no matter how implausible.
Back when most people got their news from the three major networks and a big-city newspaper, many of these wacky stories never would have gotten off the ground because the mass media would have considered them too fringe. Indeed, back in the Kennedy administration, the media wouldn't even report on JFK's well-known affairs, judging it a personal matter between the President and the women in his life. Good luck with that today. Even if the mass media doesn't want to report a story, the Internet and smaller outlets now are big enough to give them the breathing room to grow to the point where the large outlets feel like they can't ignore the story.
So what does it take to be an Internet Age President? In the TV Age, the advice was simple: Look Good on Camera. Nixon failed to do this in 1960 and it cost him the election.
In the Internet Age, the key is to Stay Cool No Matter What. This applies both to the candidate and to his or her campaign and supporters. McCain made a whole series of rash decisions during the 2008 campaign, ranging from suspending his campaign during the financial crisis to choosing Sara Palin as his running mate. It cost him the election.
There will always be kooks and crazies around the margins of politics, and now that they have a bigger voice it's easy to be baited into doing something dumb. Taking the bait achieves nothing but bringing yourself down to their level.
Instead, an Internet Age politician needs to remain visibly above the fray, while looking for opportunities to use the cacophony to his or her own advantage.
It's been three months since our geothermal system was installed. We've made it through the hottest part of the summer, and proved that a heat pump sized for a Minnesota winter does a bang-up job with air conditioning in the summer.
So far we've discovered only one problem: the sinkhole.
When the contractors buried the plumbing for the loop field, they basically excavated a trench about ten feet wide, twenty feet long, and six feet deep. That's about 45 cubic yards of material removed. At the bottom of this pit, they connected the six deep wells to a manifold and a pair of pipes which run under the garage into the utility room. These pipes circulate the antifreeze solution which transfers heat between the ground and the house.
After all the plumbing was done, the geothermal company just pushed the 45 yards of material back into the hole. They made no attempt to level the ground, nor did we expect them to. On the contrary, they made it very clear that they would leave the yard a complete mess and it was our responsibility to fix the landscaping.
A week or so after the geothermal guys left, the landscapers arrived. They used a bobcat to level and grade the ground and plant grass seed on top.
Now, we had a dry spring and summer and for a while things looked pretty good. If you've had experience with excavation, though, you can probably see where this is going.
A certain amount of settling is always expected when you dig a hole and refill it. That's because the granules of dirt, sand, and clay don't just drop back into the same compacted configuration they had been before. Instead, they're fluffed up a little, and it takes some time to unfluff. A good soaking rain helps, since the water suspends and lubricates the particles.
This August, we got that rain. When we got that rain, the ground above the excavation settled. And collapsed into a big sinkhole.
My best guess is that when they pushed all that material back into the hole, they accidentally left a sizable void in one of the corners of the excavation. This is easy to do when the dirt is dry and lumpy like it was this past spring. The void sat there quite happily for a couple months, until we got enough rain to actually soak all the way down to the underground air pocket.
Once the water reached the void, it collapsed and created our sinkhole.
The sinkhole is about a cubic yard in volume, which is to say, big enough to look ugly and alarming, but not big enough to actually be dangerous. Fortunately it's not in a place visible from outside our yard, so I don't feel like it has to be dealt with this instant to keep the neighborhood looking good.
Right now, I'm thinking that the time to deal with the sinkhole will be in the spring, after we've had a complete freeze-thaw cycle and I can be fairly confident that the excavation is mostly done settling. I would hate to fill it all in, just to have it sink again.
If I had thought of it at the time, I should have taken the garden hose and run it into the rough-filled pit the geothermal guys left before the landscapers arrived. That would have at least uncovered the void and prevented the dramatic sinkhole, even if the ground would still have settled after being regraded.
Update: A few hours after I wrote this entry, I discovered that I was a little too sanguine about the need to immediately fill in the sinkholes. The sinkholes are trapping runoff which would normally flow downhill and away from the house, and with heavy enough rain some of the water is making it into our basement. Not much, but enough to make me want to go get a couple yards of sand and rough-grade the sinkholes before the next big storm.
High Speed Rail, which generally means trains running faster than 110 MPH, is hot again these days. There's money in the economic stimulus package, the beginnings of a plan in California, and just this week, a five-part series on National Public Radio.
I am a big fan of the idea. Personally, I would love to be able to hop on a train in Minneapolis and be in Chicago three hours later without the hassle of airports. Or, even better, an overnight sleeper to San Francisco (currently a two-day trip by rail). For me, this would be a service worth paying a premium over an airline ticket, given how miserable air travel is these days.
But....the cost of actually building and operating a single high speed rail line will be substantial; and the cost of building a national network of superfast trains will be astronomical--though no more astronomical than the cost of other national infrastructure like the interstate highway system, power grid, or airspace system.
Fans of fast trains hope that once one regional network is built, the benefits will be so obvious that other regions will demand their own networks, eventually creating a national system. Opponents charge (probably correctly) that high speed passenger rail service will inevitably operate at a loss and require government subsidies (though the highway and airspace systems also require considerable government care and feeding).
Government is good at building gigantic infrastructure projects, but not at figuring out how to make the most efficient use of the infrastructure once built. Competitive markets, on the other hand, are great at figuring out what customers want, but no private enterprise could possibly afford to build a high speed rail network--and forget about the idea of two competing sets of tracks.
My idea is to have government build and maintain the high speed rail lines, but private companies own and operate the trains. Any company which could meet appropriate technical requirements would be allowed to operate high speed trains and pay a fee for the privilege.
This is similar to the way the highways and airspace systems work today, where government builds and maintains the infrastructure but private companies set schedules, pricing, and routes. It's almost the exact opposite of how Amtrak currently works, since Amtrak has a quasi-governmental monopoly on interstate passenger rail, but has to negotiate with private companies to use most of the tracks its trains run on.
There would be technical issues to work out--for example, traffic control, and how to allocate the most desirable time slots on heavily-traveled routes. But we have decades of experience solving similar problems in the national airspace system.
In exchange for solving these (minor) issues, a high-speed rail system would gain several advantages:
Personally, I've never understood why railroads have to own and maintain their own tracks. The public-private hybrid we use for other transportation modes seems to work much better, and were it not for the historical accident of how the railroads were built in the first place 150 years ago, I don't see why anyone would follow that model today.