Radioactivity Art

Greenpeace photographer Greg McNevin has created a beautiful series of photographs based on walking around areas formerly contaminated by the ongoing Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters with an LED stick connected to a geiger counter. It’s unfortunate that most people won’t be able to see the art past the politics, but I think it has value in both spheres.

$1 million Google Tiny Box prize won

Belgian contenders The Red Electrical Devils have won the $1,000,000 Google Tiny Box prize.

There’s a .pdf of the paper describing their design here, but don’t bother trying to read it if the word “schematic” means nothing to you.

Google’s challenge was for a tiny, lightweight device that converts DC (the type of electricity that batteries and solar panels put out) to AC (the type of electricity that is most useful for doing work). Such devices are called “inverters” and improvements in inverter technology would obviously be useful for electric cars, home solar power systems, and many another thing.

The winning team exceeded Google’s minimum requirements to win by three times, creating a device that is ten times smaller than existing technologies while meeting all of Google’s other restrictions (such as 95% or better efficiency, air cooling, &etc.) It’s extremely impressive work.

killing wildlife doesn’t make your food safer

In an ill-considered response to a 2006 e. coli outbreak, for years now food sellers have been pressuring food growers to turn the areas surrounding farms into a blasted, sterile wasteland, devoid of any wildlife.

A recently published paper shows that this practice is not beneficial, and has measurably decreased food safety.

Blasted wasteland surrounding a farm

“There is this misguided idea that agricultural fields should be a sanitized, sterilized environment, like a hospital, but nature doesn’t work that way.” — Daniel Karp, postdoctoral research fellow UC Berkeley Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management.

Well, now, about those hospitals, Dr. Karp…

Audi e-Diesel

Audi and Sunfire have invented a robot plant. With a dumb name.

The Dresden energy technology corporation sunfire is Audi’s project partner and the plant operator. It operates according to the power‑to‑liquid (PtL) principle and uses green power to produce a liquid fuel. The only raw materials needed are water and carbon dioxide. The CO2 used is currently supplied by a biogas facility. In addition, initially a portion of the CO2 needed is extracted from the ambient air by means of direct air capturing, a technology of Audi’s Zurich‑based partner Climeworks.

Drink up, Monsanto.

Robert Chesebrough, the chemist who created Vaseline, was challenged to prove the safety of his product. His response was to eat three tablespoons of it, and he later claimed to eat a teaspoon of it every day as a health tonic. He lived to be 96, and white petroleum jelly is still considered safe and non-toxic.

More recently, Wang Chuan-Fu, the CEO of BYD, publicly drank the electrolyte liquid used in the lithium ion battery produced by his company.

But Monsanto doesn’t even want to label their products, and while their shills might say that it’d be safe to drink a quart of glyophosate pesticide, they certainly won’t do so.

Of course, if he’d drunk it, that wouldn’t have proved it was safe. Thomas Midgley publicly drank tetraethyl lead… and then snuck off to Europe for lead poisoning treatment!

Update: Monsanto tells Xeni Jardin:

Dr. Moore is not a Monsanto lobbyist or employee. Knowledgeable scientists, consumers and our farmer customers may be familiar with and confident in the safety of glyphosate, but their statements don’t make them lobbyists for our company. Dr. Patrick Moore is one of those individuals. He agrees with the science that supports the safety of glyphosate, and is an advocate for technology and innovation. But as I mentioned, he is not and never has been a paid lobbyist for or employee at Monsanto.

Unexpected fairness from UK PM

British Prime Minister David Cameron on the BBC’s desire to exclude the British Green Party from televised debates: “[The BBC] can’t have some minor parties in and not other parties in”.

“The Greens have a member of parliament, they beat the Liberal Democrats in the last national election – the European Elections, so I don’t see how you can have UKIP and not the Greens. That is my very strong opinion.”

BBC political editor Nick Robinson claims the PM’s private view is “if we, the Conservatives, are to get hurt by the people to our right, UKIP, then Labour and the Liberal Democrats should get hurt by people to their left, the Green Party”.

Sounds to me like Robinson & the BBC are at least as guilty of manipulation as Cameron is. In any case, Cameron says he will not debate if the Greens are excluded. Good show, lad.

Dump Cleanup Begins

The Delaware Department of Transportation, who have been willing to step up where Delaware’s corrupt Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control will not, started cleaning up the Pike Creek dump today. That dump was being run by a Wilmington police officer with the full knowledge of DNREC.

DelDOT workers begin removal of Pike Creek dump debris

The leader of the dumping ring will be charged for the cleanup, so I guess my neighbors and I should prepare for more police harassment.

Holiday Dump Status Report

Thanks to State Representative Michael Ramone, last week the Delaware Department of Transportation served a “cease and desist” order on the leader of the illegal dumping ring that’s been filling the wetlands on Upper Pike Creek Road with construction debris. He was given seven days to remove the fill or DelDOT will do it for him… and charge accordingly.

Unlike DelDOT, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control continues to do nothing, but State Senator Karen Peterson has bluntly told DNREC’s David Small that she will be instigating a senate inquiry if they don’t stop shirking their responsibilities.

State Representative Timothy Sheldon has engaged the New Castle County Department of Land Use. If past history is any guide, Land Use won’t be taking any back talk from contractors or local corrupt cops. The status of the County action can be tracked by looking up complaint #201409617 here.

What a lovely Xmas present for me and my neighbors!

Dumb and Dumber

I am not so secretly amused by the emergence of the term “warmist“.

“Global warming” is a dumb name for a single, highly academic globally averaged measure of one of the many harmful effects of mankind’s pollution of our environment. Focusing on global warming is like focusing on smoke damage to your drapes during a house fire. Pollution is the problem to be solved.

The big polluters are very pleased that the rest of us are wasting time calling each other names instead of looking for a sensible common ground.

Dodder interfaces at the mRNA of the host plant

Dodder, the parasitic strangleweed, was already pretty damn interesting. It can find and choose between host plants by smell for one thing. Now I find out it does bidirectional cross-species mRNA transfers.

Messenger RNA (mRNA) is a short-lived carrier mechanism that copies instructions from an organism’s DNA and takes them to a ribosome where those instructions will be used to create and chain together amino acids. Amino acids are basic building blocks of living organisms, so being able to read and write mRNA means being able to direct what gets built – for instance your body could build muscle cells, or blood cells, and in either case your mRNA would provide the patterns for the chemical factory that we call a ribosome.  Dodder can literally hijack the command and control communications that govern a host plant’s growth.


Image by Phil Gates

The scientists who carried out this study were specifically looking for mRNA. They theorize that other sophisticated chemical communications may be going on as well. But this is pretty impressive by itself!

Nukes and America’s Energy Future

Even if ground-based nuclear power was economically viable in the USA (which it it isn’t, despite massive subsidies) I don’t think our socio-economic system is set up to handle nuclear power. It seems unlikely to me that an adequate level of quality technical administration can be maintained in the post-Reagan business environment; our corporations will inevitably cut costs and staffing until an accident occurs. And that kind of feedback loop does not match up well with pollutants that have lethal doses measured in parts per million and half-life measured in thousands of years.

Fermentation products, particularly methane (aka “Natural Gas”) and alcohols from cellulose (currently not in large-scale production, but China’s already building out the infrastructure) are a far better choice than nuclear. We’ve already got the infrastructure and distribution media for it, and it’s infinitely sustainable and carbon-neutral. Scientifically, it’s a no-brainer; it even leads theoretically to future global temperature management schemes based on vegetative sequestration and release of carbon.

Nuclear power generation works great in space, and we should use it there. On earth we already have clean methane burning appliances available in the Home Depot and Sears, and we already have containment technology that works and restricts accidents to manageable proportions. The biggest real obstacle is that sustainable fuels displace profits from the currently dominant political and economic powers, namely the Texas Oil Barons and their dirty energy lobby. If you build a giant algae vat in Death Valley that generates clean methane or alcohol from waste agricultural products incredibly cheaply, you will directly take income from Esso and Texaco. If you build a nuke plant, there’s no problem, because the dirty energy lobby also owns the means of nuclear power plant construction and operation, and I’m sure they’d much prefer walled nuke plants patrolled by Erik Prince’s armed goons to huge empty plains spotted with oil derricks.

No “right to water” in Detroit

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes on Monday refused to block the city from shutting off water to delinquent customers for six months, saying there is no right to free water and Detroit can’t afford to lose the revenue.

Ever since a bunch of well-meaning idiots who don’t understand basic math or science (otherwise known as the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) declared that clean drinking water is a fundamental human right, activists have been trying to force people and organizations that provide access to safe drinking water to destroy themselves, apparently in the honest belief that inexhaustible supplies of safe water can be magically delivered to every single human being that might ever exist, free of cost, so it can’t matter if we wreck every existing system that actually provides water to people.

All these people have their hearts in the right place, I’m sure, but they have apparently misplaced their brains. The complex interweaving of ecosystems that makes up the terrestrial environment required to support the human race cannot sustain wholesale reallocation of water based on arbitrary human population densities; if a “right to water” actually existed, we’d eventually have to destroy huge swaths of riparian ecosystems in order to keep human desert-dwellers alive. Not to mention the collapse of every existing water allocation system – since they are all based on the idea that human beings will have to fight, work, or inherit wealth in order to obtain water.

The worst thing that could happen to these people (and everybody else) would be for them to succeed, condemning rich and poor alike to a global environmental catastrophe in the name of watering the poor.

Square D car charger after two months

Back in June I blogged installing a Square D Model EV230WS level 2 electric vehicle charging station.

The new charger is connected by 8 gauge copper wire with a NEMA 14-50 plug and receptacle, a Square D QO series safety switch, and a 40 amp breaker. The actual current draw of the charging station is 30 amps at 240 VAC, so I am still well within code for the 100 amp subpanel in the barn, and having the 14-50 plug means we can potentially support other 240 mobile loads like Teslas, large RVs, plasma cutters, and portable welders.

As promised, the system charges our plug-in Prius in roughly 1.5 hours, and the Nissan Leaf in 5. It’s very simple, no unnecessary bells or whistles, you just plug in and walk away. There’s no need for anything more complex, because the cars themselves both have externally visible charge indicators (the Prius just tells you if it’s done charging or not, but the Leaf gives you a rough indication of charging progress with three top-of-the-dash LEDs) and both cars can give you detailed charts and graphs of charging status and history from their on-board computer systems.

We’ve had a total of one unusual incident – last week the system lit its red “alarm” LED when the Leaf was plugged in. Since I installed it with a safety switch, it was easily rebooted, which cleared the alarm and restored normal function.

Last night a nearby lightning strike spiked our power, causing computers to reboot and making the HVAC system noisily unhappy, but the charger (which was plugged into the Prius at the time) didn’t seem to care much, it just rebooted itself and carried on normally.

All in all, we are quite pleased with everything about the charger except the price. All electric vehicle charging stations are ridiculously expensive right now, though, and at $600 the Square D EV230WS was the most cost-effective charger available without building our own.

Wood of Life

Wikipedia and Google Translate both say that “Lignum vitae” is Latin for “tree of life”. Though no Latin scholar, I disagree; tree of life would be “Arbor vitae”. Lignum vitae is the lumber of life; lignum being the ancient Roman word for a beam or roof timber.

Confusingly, lignum vitae wood does not come from Thuja occidentalis, the arbor vitae tree. Instead it is harvested from small ironwood trees of the genus Guaiacum, which are native to the Caribbean and the northern coast of South America. Lignum vitae has been an important export crop to Europe since the beginning of the 16th century, so much so that it’s now an endangered species. The trees take three to four hundred years to mature, so it’s not particularly amenable to tree farming, especially given the long-term political instability of the regions where it is found.

Lignum vitae’s claim to lasting fame is a remarkable combination of strength, toughness, and density. The wood is so dense it sinks in water, and it’s so tough that it has been used for submerged bearings in hydro turbines in continuous operation for a hundred years. Yes, I said in continuous use as a bearing supporting a heavily loaded rotating shaft for a hundred years. Bearings made of lignum vitae were used for the rudders of great sailing ships, for the propellor shafts of steamships, for the main bearings of water-powered mills, for nearly anything you can imagine including wheelbarrows and snowblowers. Any place that bronze isn’t tough enough and steel is too likely to corrode, you’ll find a use for lignum vitae, and somebody’s probably used it. There’s just no other material like it – which is why the US Navy still uses it for jackshaft bearings in nuclear submarines, and it’s still used in huge modern hydroelectric plants. It’s been used for pulleys in steel mills, for British police batons, for cannon balls, and for gears in wooden clockworks. Only two woods have ever tested harder – South American Quebracho or “axe breaker” wood (Schinopsis spp.) and Australian Bull-Oak (Allocasuarina luehmannii) – neither of which have the workability or durability of lignum vitae.

DENSITY: 80 lbs./cu.ft.
SPECIFIC GRAVITY: 1.37
TANGENTIAL MOVEMENT: less than 1%
RADIAL MOVEMENT: less than 1%
VOLUMETRIC SHRINKAGE: less than 1%
JANKA HARDNESS: 4,500 lbf (20,000 N)
DURABILITY: Exceptional resistance to moisture, fungi and rot
DESCRIPTION: Reddish brown when freshly cut, with pale yellow sapwood. As it oxidizes, the color turns to a deep green, often with black details. The grain is highly interlocked, making it difficult to work with edge tools, but it machines well and takes a high polish.

But it’s not just these exceptional engineering properties that make lignum vitae marvelous.

The flowers, resin, bark, and wood chips of Guaiacum trees have dozens of medicinal uses, some traditional and unverified, others well-documented in modern medicine. The resin is used for coughs, arthritis, and is a traditional West Indies pick-me-up and reputed aphrodisiac. The modern expectorant guaifenesin, (which is also used by veterinary surgeons as a horse muscle relaxant) is derived from the wood. Cellini cites it as a treatment for syphilis. Teas made from the bark and flowers have spawned more folk medicine than ginseng, and guac cards are still used for fecal blood testing. As a food additive Guaiacum has the E number of E314 and is classified as an antioxidant (insert eye roll here). Oil of guaiac is used as a soap fragrance. The list of uses just goes on indefinitely!

There are a lot of names for the various species of guaiacum. It’s called “caltrop tree” because of the foot puncturing seeds of some varieties, and the Spaniards called it palo santo or “holy wood”. If you live in an area where it can survive, you’ll find it under various names in garden centers, where its sold for its muscled trunks and pretty blue flowers. Because yes, it’s not just amazingly useful, it’s also attractive – Guaiacum Officinale, the common or true guaiacum, is the Jamaican national flower, and Guaiacum sanctum is the national tree of the Bahamas.


Installing a Square D Electric car charger

Since we’ve got two electric vehicles and a plug-in hybrid, it seemed like time to install a level 2 charging station.

After spending about six months studying the options, we decided on the Square D Model EV230WS which periodically goes on sale at Amazon and the Big Box stores (where shopping is a baffling ordeal!) for about $600.

Honestly, I don’t know if it’s really appropriate to call things “Square D” any more. The company was bought out by (nominally French) multinational megacorp Schneider Electric in 1991, after which they introduced the “homeline” series of circuit breakers and load centers, which are not as well regarded as the industry-leading QO series. But on the other hand, Schneider does still make the QOs, and they are still an excellent product family – I put a big QO breaker box in my house when I upgraded the main service a few years back, and I am very satisfied with it.

The new charger is connected by 8 gauge copper wire with a NEMA 14-50 plug and receptacle, a Square D QO series safety switch, and a 40 amp breaker. The actual current draw of the charging station is 30 amps at 240 VAC, so I am still well within code for the 100 amp subpanel in the barn, and having the 14-50 plug means we can potentially support other 240 mobile loads like Teslas, large RVs, plasma cutters, and portable welders.

Now the plug-in Prius should charge in 1.5 hours instead of 3, and the Leaf is supposed to drop from a totally impractical 16 hours (on the level 1 charger) to much more user-friendly 5 hours.