Shots Across the Bow

A Reality Based Blog

Wednesday, November 20, 2002

Holiday Blogger’s Bash

Announcing the Tennessee Holiday Blogger's Bash!

We'll meet up around 6:30 on Saturday Dec 7 at a location to be named later. All bloggers, commentors, and lurkers are welcome. Bring your husbands, wives, significant others, or that girl you just met at the bar. (Especially if she has a friend for me...) The last bash was held at Barley's in the Old City, and was a great chance to meet the people behind the pixels. Come on out and let's have some fun! I'll post the location by Friday.

Posted by Rich
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Monday, November 18, 2002


I'll be tied up (dating has changed) the next couple of days, so bloggage will be light. Check out the folks to the left to help kill the hours until my return...

Posted by Rich
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An apology

I have to apologize to Randy Sanders. I've been giving him a hard time during the season, blaming him for the lackluster Vol offense. After last Saturday, I have to take my hat off to the man and admit I was wrong. I'm here today to tell you that Randy Sanders is an offensive genius.

All year he has been sandbagging opponents, laying back, not showing all of his cards, just so he could unleash two surprise throwback passes against our hated and feared arch rival, Mississippi State. So what if it cost us wins against Florida, Georgia and Alabama; nobody cares about those teams. Randy picked out the key game on our schedule months in advance, and made sure we were ready.

Here's to you Mr. Sanders; you have my most humble apologies.

Report Card

I spent Saturday out in the cold and the rain helping remove air handlers, support beans and other stuff from the roof at work. I didn't get to see the game, although I did see the highlights the next morning. 3 pass attempts in the first half?


Prediction for Vandy game: There will be more players on the field than 'dore fans in the stands.
UT 35 Vandy 24

Posted by Rich
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Modern Science at work

A team of British researchers has discovered that television is so popular because it combines sound and vision.
Human brains are genetically programmed to enjoy television, research has suggested.
A Manchester University study found watching television exercised both sides of the brain, making information easier to understand.

Researchers said that the brain also assimilates information best through sound and vision, which is why TV works so well.

Three months and how many pounds to determine that the brain evolved to handle audio and visual information?


Posted by Rich
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Saturday, November 16, 2002

More on fuel cells

William Burton asked an interesting question in the comments on my first fuel cell posting. While I addressed it there, it did make me curious. Could the ancillary benefits of fuel cells outweight the costs? I decided to do a little research, followed by some low rent modeling to see exactly where things fell out.

Let's start with the IC engine. As technology has improved, we have come a long way in IC engine efficiency. Today, a standard engine runs in the neighborhood of 32% efficient, not counting drive train and friction losses, which will be the same regardless of power plant design.

Obviously, this is far worse than the 85% efficiency achieved by the fuel cell. The problem comes when we fuel the cell. Making the hydrogen requires cracking water, and the standard method involves electricity. A steam generating plant, whether fired by coal, fuel oil, biomass or some other fuel typically runs at about 34-38% efficient. So combining the steam plant with the fuel cell efficiencies gives us a range of 28-32%. So, in the best case, we merely equal the efficiency we already achieve, at a greatly increased cost. We're using the same amount of fuel, or better, resulting in the same environmental impact, the same dependence on foreign oil, only we're spending a lot more money to do it.

Now, let's examine solar power for a moment. I did a quick search on the net, and the best efficiencies I could find for solar voltaic conversion was 28.7%, and that was using a terrestrial version of solar modules designed for use on satellites. The cell yielded 2.571V at 12.95mA/cm2 on a 30cm2 area. A standard solar cell usually runs at around 12% efficient, giving 10mW at .6V on a 2 cm2 cell.

Time to pull out our trusty conversion calculator. We'll assume we have economical access to the super cell.

Power=Voltage X Current=2.6V X 12.95mA/cm2 = 33.7 mW per cm2, or 1010mW per cell.

Let's assume a typical power plant size of 700MW.

700MW/1010mW per cell=693 million cells or 746,000 square feet, or just over 17 acres of solar panels. Except it will probably be more like 21 acres, if you figure 20% overhead for operating equipment, framing materials, access paths for maintenance, etc.

My trusty Pocket Ref tells me that 1 horsepower is equal to 746 W so this 700MW power plant will produce 940,000 horsepower. Now to make things easier, we will neglect conversion losses and assume that all available power is transformed from electricity to hydrogen. The true efficiency is probably around 95%, so we aren't introducing much error. However, we do have to account for the 85% efficiency of our fuel cell, which reduces our available horsepower to 800,000. Next, we'll assume that the auto fuel cell is around 100 horsepower. We'll also assume utilization at 10% since cars do sit idle most of the time, giving us an effective horsepower of 10. Now we have a grand total of 80,000 fuel cells per 700MW power plant.

Now, at any given time, there are approximately 175 million cars in the hands of our get up and go population, meaning we will need almost 2200 new solar power plants just for the auto industry alone. 2200 plants at 22 acres per plant, add in another 15 acres (very conservative) for physical plant, parking etc, and you have 48400acres, or 76 square miles of solar panels.

Next we have to consider the costs of constructing a delivery system for the hydrogen, one which is efficient, and safe. Liquids can be piped relatively easily. Designing a nation wide network of pipes to contain hydrogen proves to be trickier, and significantly more expensive.

So, at a rough glance, in order to replace the IC engine with fuel cells, we will need to construct 2200 new power plants, whether solar or conventional, and develop a nationwide delivery system for a very volatile gas. As SKB suggested, there are stabler forms of hydrogen, but none of those forms are suitable for fuel cell use, except methanol, which involves CO2 emissions, negating the chief advantage to the fuel cell. As far as I can tell, the benefits are minimal, compared to the expense.

Posted by Rich
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Friday, November 15, 2002

Proof positive of time travel

Check out this pic from the Age website:

Obviously, people from the future went back in time and left us this message, unmistakable evidence that time travel is possible.

Or it could be a coincidence....

You be the judge.

Posted by Rich
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Thursday, November 14, 2002

Fuel cells and other myths

There's a little discussion on fuel cells going over at SKBubba's house, and I wanted to add my two cents worth. I put an abbreviated version of this in the comments section over there.

There is a tendency for people to see fuel cells as the solution to all our energy problems.

"It burns hydrogen, not oil, and produces clean water as it's only emission. How wonderful! We are saved from pollution and the Middle East at the same time!"

Unfortunately, while the above is true, it only represents half the story. There is a little known flaw in this panacea that dooms it to marginal success, if not abject failure. Come with me while we explore...

The Dark Side of the Fuel Cell (Cue the spooky music.)

Our story begins with the laws of thermodynamics. Unlike election campaign laws, these laws are inflexible and cannot be ignored, no mater how much politicians might hope. Breaking them is out of the question, as is bending them, except at the quantum level, but we don't want to go there.

Trust me, we don't.

The first law says that energy and matter can neither be created, nor destroyed, only altered. In essense, you can't get something for nothing, despite what the late night infomercials tell you. The second law says that in any closed system, energy tends to decrease, while disorder tends to increase. In short, you'll never get outt what you put in. Except when you dig a hole For some reason, you always have more dirt than when you started...but I digress. These two laws are iron clad. Unbreakable. Mother nature enforces them with utmost strictness, and you know what a mother she can be.

So, let's see how those laws apply to our happy little fuel cell.

First, hydrogen doesn't play nice. Where oil plays hide and seek, once you find it, it comes along quietly to the refinery. Hydrogen, on the other hand, has to be dragged kicking and screaming away from oxygen, cause they really get along very well. It takes a lot of energy to rip the two of them apart. Just picture two teenagers in the back row of the movie theater necking. While chewing gum. And wearing braces.

Got it?

OK, so now we have separated the hydrogen, and filled up our happy little fuel cell. All is right with the world now, right? So we drive down the road, and our car, instead of burning petroleum as fuel, burns hydrogen.

This brings us to the second part of our tragic tale. Burning is another word for oxygenation, or the addition of oxygen. What we are doing is allowing our teenagers to get back together again. In the process, the hydrogen and oxygen give off energy. How much energy you ask? (OK you didn't ask, but this post would end abruptly if I didn't ask for you.)

Here's where mother nature's cops step in and ruin the party. Law one says that the most energy we can extract from oxygenating (burning) hydrogen is the same amount we used separating them in the first place. Breaking even is the best we can hope for. Law two tells us that we can't even break even, that we will lose energy with each transformation.

Yes, there's a hand in the back?

"If law one says we can't destroy energy, where does this lost energy go?"

Good question, I'm glad you asked. The lost energy is radiated away in the form of heat and light, which are useless to us in this application.

The picture gets even worse when you figure in the efficiencies of the fuel cell, which runs around 83% for the ideal fuel cell.

Finally, hydrogen has a nasty tendancy to oxidize at a highly accelerated rate. In the lab, we call this an explosion. Think Hindenberg. Now picture every car on the interstate at rush hour being the equivalent of a Ford Pinto. Every fender bender would be a potential conflagration.

In essence, we haven't reduced our energy demands at all. In fact we have increased them, so how has that reduced our dependence on foreing oil?

The sad answer is that is hasn't. Fuel cells alone do not provide an answer to our energy problems. So why are we working on them?

Well, fuel cells do have some significant advantages over internal combustion.
  • They produce a clean exhaust, heat and pure water.
  • The conversion from chemical to electrical energy (fuel cell) is significantly (about two times) more efficient than from chemical to thermal (internal combustion), which translates into better mileage. Unfortunately, the increased production costs associated with manufacturing both the cell and the fuel more than offset this advantage.
  • A fuel cell coupled with small solar panels makes a good, clean back up power supply in stationary applications, ie office buildings.

So, while fuel cells are nice, they don't really buy us much in terms of reducing or dependency on oil. The bottom line is we need a new fuel source, one which is clean, cheap, dependable, and plentiful. The folks arguing for alternative fuels have yet to provide one which meets all of those needs. Solar conversion would be nice, but the efifciencies of solar cells makes the cost per kW prohibitive. Nuclear would work, but I don't see us exploring that path with any real enthusiasm. Hydroelectric would be nice, but unless we put turbines on every creek and waterfall, there just isn't enough to go around.

Assuming that we do crack the provlem of a cheap energy source, there is still the problem of distribution of the hydrogen. Either we lay hundreds of thousands of miles of pipes, or we transport the hydrogen via tankers, with the attendant risk of explosions. Since hydrogen production needs an abundant source of water, we can't spread out our power plants like we do now. Nor can each house have it's own fuel generation station, like some dreamers have proposed. I see another hand in the back...

"Why can't every house have a solar converter, hooked to a fuel cell for it's main power supply?"

You haven't been paying attention. This is the same ring around the rosie we dismissed earlier. OK, hook solar panels on your roof to a fuel cell in your basement. Use the solar energy to produce the electricity needed to crack the water into hydrogen and oxygen. Then oxidize the hydrogen in your fuel cell, and where are you? Even further behind than when you started. You converted sunlight into electricity(minus efficiency and thermo losses) then spent that electricity(minus efficiency and thermo losses) to crack the water, then got back the same energy during oxidation, minus efficiency and thermodynamic losses. You'd be better off skipping the fuel cell, and using simple solar conversion. Fewer losses that way.

Now as mentioned above, a solar/fuel cell combo makes an excellent back up power supply for a building. It's much cleaner, more efficient and significantly cheaper than batteries. However, it still comes up short as a primary power source.

So, what have we learned today?

Fuel cells run on hydrogen which does not exist in large reserves like oil, but must be manufactured.
Hydrogen is tricky to work with and tends to explode at the worst possible time.
Fuel cells, like every heat engine, consume more power than they put out.
Fuel cells alone will not reduce our dependence on foreign oil. In fact, it will increase it in the short run.
We still have to develop some alternative to oil power in order to make fuel cells a viable alternative to the IC engine.

And I have entirely too much time on my hands.....

Posted by Rich
Science • (5) CommentsPermalink

Wednesday, November 13, 2002

Simply Surreal

A collection of stories proving we are living in The Crazy Years

Via reason magazine:

Informant Alert!
A kid in Omaha was suspended for not turning in a classmate quickly enough. The classmate handed him a baggie of marijuana. Our hero threw it away, then contacted his guidance counselor as soon as she was available. The principal then suspended him for 5 days because he waited to see the counselor instead of reporting it right away.

The Decathalon. The Marathon. Gymnastics. And Bridge?
the Silver medalist in the world bridge championship tournament was stripped of her medal for refusing a drug test. Apparantly, the Bridge Federation, or whatever they call themselves, wants to make Bridge an Olympic event, so they have to adhere to the rules governing Olympic athletics, hence the drug test.
A card game as an Olympic event?

Johnny can't read or write, but he still gets a diploma.
Nova Scotia has introduced a diploma for kids who can't pass a literacy test after 4 years of high school. The so-called "adjusted diploma" notifies future employers that the bearer is sub-literate. Minister for Education Jane Purves says that it is unreasonable to expect all high school graduates to read and write. Presumably, this lack doesn't stop Canadian students from entering college, or, apparantly, politics.

via the Washington Post:

Don't forget to wash behind your ears

A 6 year old girl had to be rescued from a washing machine turned carnivore.
Where was mommy?

via USA Today

Thankgving dinner's revenge

OBERLIN, Ohio — This is one tough turkey. A 15-pound wild turkey has been pestering residents of this northeast Ohio community and eluding trappers who want to capture it. The bird has chased after schoolchildren and pets, trapped people in cars and left its droppings on porches. "Most people think it's a poor, cute little wild turkey," animal trapper Dave Thorn said. "People begin feeding the wild animals, which is the wrong thing to do because, basically, this turkey has taken over this territory." Thorn said the bird may be roosting in the chimney of Prospect Elementary School, where it has been swooping on the playground. Lorain County wildlife officer Dave Shinko said he has gotten 20 complaints about the bird. He said it will be killed once it is caught and could be donated to a food bank. "But who knows if it's even any good," Shinko said. "I mean, we're not talking Butterball here."

That privilige is reserved for bureaucrats.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The West Virginia Ethics Commission ruled two state-owned bloodhounds, as public servants, cannot serve as pitchdogs in television ads for dog food. Buckeye Feed Mills Inc. of Dalton, Ohio, provides free food for the Division of Forestry's bloodhounds. But the commission ruled Thursday that allowing the dogs to appear in the company's ads would violate the state Ethics Act, which bars public servants from using their public positions for their own private financial gain or the gain of others.

From yahoo:

Not real bright

A Texas man tried to emulate the Dick Van Dyke character from Mary Poppins and slide down the chimney. Hmmmm Mary Poppins and Jackass; two of a kind? You be the judge.

From News of the Weird

For an anniversary tribute to Sept. 11 victims, the city of Jersey City, N.J., planned to release a flock of doves at a downtown ceremony, but since officials waited until the last minute to order the doves, all suppliers were sold out. Jersey City wound up having to use pigeons (which had been caged most of their lives), and observers at the solemn ceremony were forced to witness the awkward birds smashing into office-building windows, plunging into the Hudson River and careening into the crowds. [New York Times, 9-19-02]

"As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly" Mr Carlson, WKRP in Cincinnati

Posted by Rich
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Retailers stuck n the past…

and they want to keep us there too. States are working together to develop plans to allow taxation of items sold over the internet, and traditional retailers couldn't be happier.
In a meeting in Chicago, lawmakers and tax officials from 30 states -- including Virginia and the District of Columbia - endorsed a proposal to simplify their tax laws and enter into a voluntary pact to collect online sales taxes. Maryland officials present at the meeting abstained from today's vote.

"This is a 21st century system that will dramatically improve the morass that currently exists," said Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt (R), a key leader in the states' effort. "I'm confident that this agreement....will mark the beginning of a new phase of this process."

Here's what one trade group rep had to say:
Today's vote is a welcome development for the nation's largest main street retailers, who have argued for years that the current system gives online vendors an edge over so-called "bricks-and-mortar" stores.

"Our ultimate goal is that everybody will have to play by the same rules," said Maureen Riehl, state and industry relations counsel for the National Retail Federation, a trade group that represents nearly 1.4 million stores.

Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door. At least, until retailers of the traditional mousetrap lobby your advantage away.

Posted by Rich
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Flat sales tax

In Washington, the Bush Administration is looking at replacing the income tax with a flat national sales tax.
The administration's plan, first reported by the Washington Post last month, calls for shifting the tax system away from taxing income and targeting consumption instead. The paper reported that administration tax policy wonks within the Treasury Department are still working out the details, and that their progress has largely been kept under wraps.

Some of those who oppose the sales tax say the rate would have to be too high to fund the gov't at current levels:
William Gale, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institute, a public-policy think tank, estimates that proposals to replace virtually all federal revenues with a 23 percent tax-inclusive national sales tax rate are based on assumptions that real government spending would decline by $480 billion per year, and that there would be no tax avoidance, evasion or political erosion of the tax base.

"Correction for these assumptions indicates that the required tax-inclusive rate would be over 50 percent," he writes in a 1999 policy paper.

Hmmm. My actual tax rate now runs about 14%, after all my deductions. This guy is saying my tax rate will more than triple if we go to a consumption tax. I wonder, if the rich aren't paying their fair share now, who is covering that other 36% for me?

The poor?

Posted by Rich
Politics • (1) CommentsPermalink

Been there, done that

Iraq has accepted the new UN Security council resolution.

It remains to be seen whether they really mean it this time. I'll hope for the best, but expect more of the same old stuff from Hussein.

"You can look everywhere you want."

"OK, how about this munitions factory?"

"It's a baby formula factory, and you have no need to look at it. Next."

"OK, this chemical lab has the capability of refining and weoponizing bio toxins."

"All we do here is manufacture fertilizer. There is no need for you to look here."

"All right, let's check out the 2 acre storage bunker underneath this palace."

"You are disrespecting our national sovereignty! If you don't have any legitimate places to search, you must leave now."

Posted by Rich
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A Bargain at twice the price

Start with Second City, throw in a scoop of Monty Python, add a dash of grits and you have Einstein Simplified, an improv comedy troupe in Knoxville. (That e on the end of troupe adds class to this blog. Goodness knows it needs it!)

I went to see Einstein Simplified at their regular gig at Patrick Sullivan's Saloon in the Olde City. (I'm just dripping with class, ain't I?) The show is on the third floor, starts at 8:30 and runs until about 10:00 give or take a few minutes. Admission is free, but the group does ask for tips at the end of the night.

You might want to get there a little early. I showed up about 8:15, and most of the tables were full. I found an unused table in the back, and dragged it to the backk of the crowd, swiped an unused seat, and I was in business. I sipped my coke, and checked out the crowd while I waited for the show to start. There were about 50-60 people there, mostly UT students, but some older folks were scattered through the audience.

The show began shortly after 8:30, with the entire company taking the stage. One member acts as MC, running the show while the rest performs the games. If you've seen Whose Line Is It Anyway, either the BBC or US versions, you know how the show goes. What you may not know is that taping for Whose Line runs anywhere from 2 to 3 hours. The tape is then edited to get the best thirty minutes. Einstein Simplified doesn't have that luxury. They work live, without a net. Fortunately, the guys are up to the task. The audience is called on to provide locations, topics, actions, whatever the MC needs to set up the performers.

The show is certainly not a family show, which is fitting, since it's held in a Saloon, after all. There are no mikes, but since the room isn't all that big, hearing isn't a problem, unless you're next to some guy trying to pick up a girl during the show. Who tries to pick up women at a comedy club anyway? I know girls all say they like guys who make them laugh, but have you ever seen a comedian chased down the street by his groupies?

The guys were all sharp, and up to the challenges of live improv comedy. Wes, the token tall guy, has a mind that operates at a 90 bend to reality. When asked to make a joke about prima donnas, he made a joke about pre-Madonnas. Paul is a virtual clone of Michael Jeter, and is just as funny. One of his best bits was as an old man, remembering the past "When I was a young man, the snap of a rubber glove didn't scare me." In comedy, it's a rule of thumb that when in doubt, you go for the dick joke. Last night, Bill was in doubt a lot. Frank unveiled a singing voice fit for the Met; not the Opera House, the ball field. Brad, who is best described as "value sized" got off the best quip of the night when the MC, in order to hurry him along, shouted that there was a stripper in the cake. Brad quickly replied, "There's cake?" Justin was the MC, and Todd was there too. Sorry Todd, I know you got a good bit or two in last night, but my cat ate my PDA, and I had to rely on memory instead of notes for this review. I'll make it up to you next time...

Each game lasts 5-10 minutes, and the show passes quickly. Before you know it, the house lights come up, and the MC is passing around the tip jar. The show is free, and worth every penny; I even tipped 15%. I felt guilty about stiffing the guys, so I came home to write this review.

If you ever get to Knoxville on a Tuesday, go see the guys of Einstein Simplified, and enjoy some good improv. They're funnier than you are, and will tell you so at the end of the show.

That's it! Todd plays a mean acoustic guitar...

By the way, the rude guy utterly failed to pick up the girl. There is justice in the world.

Posted by Rich
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Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Take a peek to the left

and you'll find an updated picture of your friend and humble narrator.

Posted by Rich
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Something different, for a change.

Redundant? You bet! But I'm a little giddy! You see, I'm going out tonight. Yep, gonna leave the computer behind and actually go out into the world of flesh and blood. Gonna have a little fun to make up for all of this overtime I've been working. There's an Improv troop in Knoxville called Einstein Simpified that performs at Patrick Sullivans on Tuesdays. They work a lot like the guys on Whose Line is it Anyway, so it should be a good time.

Now if I had a date, it would be perfect....

Anybody ever picked up a girl at a comedy club?

Posted by Rich
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Sunday, November 10, 2002

War is hell

SKBubba has a piece up that you all should go read, particularly if you favor war with Iraq, as I do.
I continued to dig. Well I tell you, we were under a barrage of what they called them screaming memees, a German artillery piece that they had that was a rocket launched type of thing. We didn't have any such thing as that, but the Germans did. It was fired 15 - 20 rounds just as fast as it could fire. They were like rockets. It screamed and hollered. It made such a noise it would half scare you to death. We were under a barrage of those, so I kept right on digging and got my hole dug except I didn't get it very deep. I just barely got my body below the top of the ground. That was about as far as you could go. It was in an orchard and the ground was hard as a rock. Daylight was coming on us so as soon as daylight came, the Germans really began to pour it on us. Mortars, machine guns. It was one that, well, would scare you half to death, you know. You didn't have that much time to get scared.

There was a little tree next to my foxhole that was as big a round as your leg, I guess; and that tree was completely cut down by machine gun fire. When I finally came out of the hole later on, I looked at the tree. It was laying over and was just the stub. It was mowed down right over my head.

But anyway, we held out until maybe 11 or 12:00 in the day and everybody was out of ammunition. An awful lot of the guys had been killed or wounded.

War should always be the recourse of last resort. That doesn't mean that there aren't times when it is necessary, and I do believe that now is such a time, but it shouldn't be entered into eagerly, but soberly and resolutely.

Posted by Rich
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