Monday, February 9, 2015

Slow down to avoid disaster

Decades from now the few who have the aptitude to read and the motivation to study history will be incredulous that people used to drive individual  un-linked vehicles.

"How could that possibly be true?" they will muse. 

By then light rail will handle most transportation and "automobiles" will no longer be autonomous. They will be sensibly guided by computers that will also record locations, trips, driving habits, and other personal information.

Meanwhile, drivers have lost any knowledge they ever had about the Newtonian physics that govern how wheeled vehicles operate on snow, ice, and other low-friction surfaces.  Think back to high school:  an object in motion tends to stay in motion, an object at rest remains at rest; all of that stuff that your insane physics teacher directed at you without any context.

Sir Isaac Newton, a pretty unpleasant and strange character, and also a genius, created experimentally verifiable theories of gravity, motion, optics and even invented calculus. So independently did Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.  Somehow mathematicians chose Leibniz's confusing notation.

Among Newton's accomplishments were his "laws" of mechanics, such as Force equals mass times acceleration; mass times velocity equals momentum, and the idea that potential energy was converted into kinetic energy at the rate of one-half of the product of mass and the square of velocity.

Newton also linked the dropping of apples (as the story goes) with why the moon orbits Earth, and correctly described the inverse square law of gravitational attraction and calculated the gravitational constant of Earth at 32 feet per second per second. 

These relatively simple laws were sufficient  to solve artillery firing solutions and guide Apollo to the moon and back. Albert Einstein's equally revolutionary theories of relativity supplanted Newton's laws, but many engineers and scientists continue to use Newton's far simpler formulae. Einsteins ideas take over at very high speeds and enormous masses.

Fortunately, cars cannot travel at even one millionth of a percent of the speed of light, because drivers apparently do not understand or appreciate that their vehicles must conform to the laws of physics. No, driving a 2-ton sports utility vehicle does not protect the driver from losing control on ice or allow him to stop any faster than a conventional car. 

The brakes of four-wheel drive vehicles are no more resistant to "slipperiness" than a two-wheel drive car. Moreover, even if they could, a vehicle that weighs double takes correspondingly higher forces to start and stop. 

Yet light trucks glide past you insouciantly on the interstate, spraying your windshield with sand, salt and slush. The sand is spread to increase friction between tires and road surface.

There are two types of friction: static (for example) would be pushing a heavy box down the driveway, and dynamic, the friction that rotating wheels experience. 

The odd properties of water further complicate winter driving. The melting point of frozen water drops under pressure. A car's mass, or weight, melts the surface of an ice patch, reducing the frictional coefficient of the ice.

Which is to state the obvious. Driving  safely on ice or snow simply requires a slower speed. That's all, basically. Simple. 

Problems can arise if the car's brakes lock, changing dynamic friction into static, and causing a skid. To avoid a skid, drive slowly and slow down before trying to stop. 

Ultimately, to avoid accidents, collisions, injury and so on, just drive slowly

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Not that I'm bitter or anything


Brewing beer is fun and not terribly complicated. 

The mystery to me is why so many beers are almost too bitter to drink. 

Generally to home brew you need to like beer. Beer, however, encompasses hundreds of different ales, lagers, stouts, pilsners, wheat beers, Belgian beers, stouts, etc. 

Virtually all beers are made out of a handful of ingredients: malt of some type, yeast, water and hops. Spices, fruit, chocolate, and other odds and ends can also be added, if that's what you like.

Malting involves tricking barley (usually) into sprouting. The seed produces enzymes that break down starches (the seed's food supply) into simpler sugars that the growing plant will need. The brewer stops this processes after an enzyme in the barley breaks down the starches into maltose, fructose, glucose, and other mono- and disaccharides.

This is done so that the one-celled yeast fungi can consume the sugar and release carbon dioxide and ethanol as waste products. Make sense so far?


When beer was invented or discovered a long time ago, hops were unknown. The resulting drink probably would have tasted sweet and malty. In the 13th century, we are told, Europeans started to add hops, which to simplify, are flowers of the hops vine. 

Hops added bitterness to balance the sweetness of the malt and acted as a preservative. Specifically hops contain acids which, when boiled, turn into bitter chemicals.

To summarize: you malt barley, boil it with hops, cool it down, add yeast, and in a few weeks you have beer.  If you have added a large amount of hops, you will have extremely bitter beer. That's pretty much what dominates are craft brewing industry(?) these days.

Why drink something that tastes like Paregoric? 

I cannot think of any other widely consumed food or beverage that is predominantly bitter. Bad coffee can be bitter. The human sense of taste has evolved to reject bitter flavors because bitter usually means "poison" or some other unpleasantness.

Bitterness in beer is measured in International Bitterness Units, or IBUs. I'm not making this up. A beer like Coors could have about 10 IBU, give or take.  Below that and what you're drinking doesn't take a lot like beer.

At the other end of the brewing spectrum are concoctions like India Pale Ales, typically from the Northwest, that have IBU levels of 50, 60, 70 or even higher. Since the human sense of taste maxes out at about 50 or so IBUs, all of that extra bitterness is a marketing ploy.

Personally, I would not intentionally brew something that had 60 IBUs. My sense of taste is perhaps closer to 25 to 30, which in some circles would make me a beer wimp. So be it. 

If for some reason you crave bitterness, and assuming you've discussed this with your primary care provider, you simply need to buy some hops online steep them like tea, or maybe boil then, and there you are. No need for yeast, malt or any of that brewing stuff (Mash tuns, sparging, kegging, conditioning, and so on.)

I, on the other hand, like malt. So no "hop bombs" for me. The stuff that I brew barely contains any alcohol, and tastes kind of estery or fruity. 

But infinitely better than a 70-IBU slap in the tongue. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Dead Man Networking

Linked In has its uses and many find it a powerful social tool.

However, it has a creepy side.

(I should say that not only a member of Linked In, I am a premiere member, meaning something or other).

A day or two ago, Linked In suggested that I congratulate a former colleague for a work anniversary. The problem: I was pretty sure the man was dead.

Why would Linked In suggest I communicate with a dead person? Maybe he's not dead. Perhaps I had misunderstood. So I sent him a congratulatory note. 

Then I called his listed phone number, half afraid that he would answer and I'd have to explain that I thought he had passed away but decided to call him anyway. After a few rings a woman answered and I apologized for my wrong number.

Then I Googled the guy. Sure enough, he was dead. He had succumbed to an autoimmune disease. However, his blog was still active and one of his final posts was a self-validating promise to fight and overcome the disease. I read it sadly.

How could Linked In sill consider him alive and well, and having a work anniversary? A buggy algorithm? Outdated information? He never informed Linked In that he had died. He probably had weightier matters on his mind. Besides, dead people cannot make Linked In entries. I assume.

This was all more than a little creepy, not to mention, pathetic. 

And what's up with Google and its blogging system? Doesn't Google know everything about us?

Didn't our virtual Big Brother notice that this particular person had stayed in the exact same spot for several years? That he had stopped using email, stopped shopping online, stopped purchasing books from Amazon, stopped bidding on eBay?

Should I look up "slow monkey brain virus" Google would hit me with ads for safaris. I would start receiving solicitations from Lumosity. You know how it all works.

How many other dead people are in Linked In, I wonder. How many messages have I sent to them? "Congratulations on working at self for 10 years!" (Should a member be self-employed Linked In terms them "working at 'self.'")

Will Linked In notice when I have hopped off this mortal coil? 

Perhaps when my payment for premium service runs into trouble at MasterCard. 

Because if MasterCard know anything, it's actuarial precision. If you pay the minimum amount on our debt at 30 percent APR, you will finish paying it back in 5,000 years at a cost of $ trillion.

What a bunch of sweethearts.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

How Can a Flat Bridge Be "Extradosed"?

The bridge over the Quinnipiac River may be more expensive  and less efficient than necessary.

This is certainly not my opinion because I am not an engineer or bridge designer.  This is the stated stand of the Structural Engineering Forum of India.

Before we get into that, what exactly is an "extradosed" bridge? Just because the state Department of Transportation calls the structure that in press releases, does not excuse publications that print the press releases from explaining.

To summarize, extradose is the outside measure of an arch. The inside curve is called, what else, the "intradose." Architecture is filled with esoteric names for things. Know what "ogee" means?

Architecturally, a Gothic arch with a peak is made out of two ogees. (right)

 "Ogive" describes the  shape of the nose of a rocket or a bullet. (below)


 There are dozens of words for different curves. The Sears-Hack Body, for instance, is a an aerodynamic shape that produces the least drag.

If you're sitting around with nothing to do, search "names of curves" on Google. 

Now, the bridge over the Quinnipiac does not seem to have much extradose, or extrados.

Extradose and iontradose
 In fact, it is a cable-stayed extradosed design. This looks superficially like a suspension bridge, but is fundamentally and physically different.

Suspension bridges use much larger towers to carry a thick "caternary" of cable. Smaller cables connected to the large one are connected to the bridge deck, holding it up. 

A cable-stayed bridge uses cables from shorter towers to connect directly to the bridge deck.  The cables also perform different work. Since they meet the deck at a low angle, they tend to add to the longitudinal strength of the bridge. 

Cable-stayed extradosed bridges have a box-girder bridge deck, but are thinner than  plain box-girder construction as typified by the old  Q bridge that is now being torn down.

The idea of cable-staying a bridge dates to the 19th century. Now cable-stayed exterdosed bridges are used because they require shorter towers, have less of a footprint than box-girder bridges, and they look kind of cool.

Lots of cable-stayed extradosed bridges have been built in Europe and Asia. Which brings us back to the Structural Engineering Forum of India. India has many of its own cable-stayed extradosed bridges.

Writing in October of 2012, Dr. Narayanan said:

Extradosed bridges are relatively expensive and material inefficient. Almost any span that could be bridged by an extradosed bridge could be spanned more inexpensively with a continuous girder, or more efficiently (but at even greater cost) with a cable-stayed. In most cases the spans are short enough that the use of cables at all is an aesthetic rather than engineering-necessitated choice. This does not imply that is a "bad" choice, since in some cases the difference in cost and efficiency is small, and the extradosed type is a very elegant form. 

This is one person's views, although Subramanian is the author of several books on the subjects of concrete, bridge design, and related topics. He probably knows as much as the people who designed and are carrying out the Quinnipiac project at glacial speed. 

So, there you have it.  Seems like whoever runs bridge construction in Connecticut could have saved money and perhaps decades, by building a new,  bigger  box-girder bridge than by selecting a nonsensically named "extradosed" design. 

Just food for thought as you negotiate the ever-changing lanes and soaring ramps of the Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge.

 Let's hope it is finished while veterans of Pearl Harbor are still alive. 

Extrados(e) and intrados(e) turn up all over the place, including the design of airplane wings. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

You Get What You Pay For, Especially In News

The sad sack who nominally runs America on Line, apologized recently for firing someone during a conference call, which is a pretty unpleasant way to act.

Tim Armstrong, AOL chief of something or other, was informing other AOL middle managers that he was considering pulling the plug on Patch. Patch is a service provided mostly by would-be writers and masochistic "editors," who search for the "hyper-local" and post stories on the Patch web site, wherever that is.

Something like that. My impression is that editors break their backs re-writing everything, posting everything, and whatever else constitutes everything. Some media outlets call Patch AOL's "media and information platform." Please.

You could have seen the story in the Wednesday, Aug. 14 New York Times, which to its diminishing credit, still pays reporters, professional reporters, some of the best, to cover stories and then edit and print the stories on newsprint.

To digress for a moment,  the Times wants to be a newspaper and a Web presence simultaneously. The problem is that short of making people pay for what's free on Google news and other places on the Internet, the Times has no good way to make money on the Web. 

People will pay to watch baseball, football, or basketball -- or to watch pornography -- but otherwise, who wants to shell out cash for some intangible electrons? Even well written intangible electrons. That's why the Times loses tons of money on its Web edition, which comes out of the newspaper's newspaper division.

The newspaper on paper version sells at least okay. Many people are willing to pay along $700 a year to have the Times delivered every day. Now the Times is restricting un-paying Web readers to three stories a day. After reading three stories, you'll need to come up with some electronic dollars.

 This applies even to the people who pay almost a grand a year, sadly.

There is an alternative. What you do as publisher is invite people who think of themselves as reporters and/or writers to replace the real reporters, who frequently use to have advanced degrees in journalism. They also had experience, and more importantly, experience in newspaper writing.

Trust me, teaching people to write like seasoned reporters is not easy. Not in the least. Might be easier to teach them Mandarin or linear algebra. 
Following that formula, you the published, get something along the lines of Patch. Or, worse yet, "the Examiner," which pays its "freelance writers" one tenth of a cent per Web hit. Kind of hair-raising.

Ultimately, it made sense for Armstrong to downplay Patch by firing and humiliating an otherwise loyal employee.

 Better to be seen as a lout than the money-hungry purveyor of maybe-news by amateurs. 

To Heck With Cancer in Google Land

Last night I had occasion to purchase online two T-shirts that read "Fuck Cancer."

I'm entitled to buy them because I have/had/am having head and neck cancer.  Part of my throat was removed in April and then I underwent  six weeks of radiation therapy and infusions of cisplatin.

Aside from the pain and discomfort, which there is plenty of, I lost my sense of taste,  the desire to eat, some facial hair, some hair on the back of my head, and concluded with a strangely weak right arm, because surgery to remove a few dozen lymph nodes impinged on a nerve.

Also, the x-rays and chemotherapy were not beneficial to my salivary glands.

My taste and appetite returned, for the most part, my facial hair is trying to return, my arm is improving, and the back of my head may even be growing hair.  Saliva is back, most of the time.

(That is among the reasons I have not been blogging much lately).

So, I felt entitled to buy a Fuck Cancer T-shirt. 

I was not sure where I had seen them online, so I searched Google for "fuck cancer T-shirt."  But Google would not cooperate because the search is permanently set on "safe." Consequently, I turned up many anti-cancer T-shirts, but no fuck cancer.

If anyone has figured out how to turn off Google's safe search, please drop me a line. If one tries to turns if off, one is directed to "settings," which do not contain a way to turn off "safe" mode. The exercise has an infuriating circular character. 

My sense is that I could probably find all manners of hate, prejudice, violence, killing, crime. and other unsavory things on Google, no problem. Fuck cancer? Nope.

Google, for mysterious reasons, eventually "asked" me if I wanted to search for "fuck cancer T-shirts" and I responded positively. 

To sum up: I was not searching for pornography. Not every instance of a word such as "fuck" is necessarily immoral. Google's safety program cannot easily distinguish between the two.

Google eventually relented. I'm not sure why. 

But trust me. "Fuck cancer" is one of the milder feelings one has after a malignant chunk of throat is removed and then exposed to death rays and poison.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Saucers Beyond, Way Beyond, Reason

Kenneth Arnold pointing to a drawing of what he saw "skipping" like a "saucer" in 1947.
The shape looks more like a boomerang than an actual saucer.

The "secret" flying saucer that reached an altitude of 20 feet.  Inconsistent details inside!

The "secret" Avro (also known as Avrocar) flying saucer in a public display in 1958.

The idea of a "flying saucer" has managed to  become so entangled in confusion, misunderstandings,  ancient  hypotheses,  and possible government-created misinformation, that it we may never be able to consign it to the Dumpster of history.

The saucer's latest appearance is on the cover of the Feb. 13 Popular Mechanics, which carries a story about a recently declassified file containing information purporting to show that the U.S. and Canada were developing a Cold War flying saucer, with which to shoot down Soviet bombers.

A digression: Isn't it only mid-January? Is the magazine from the future? 

The box of "secret" documents included drawings, but not the kind of plans that a company would use to construct an actual machine.

To straighten out this miasma of the not-quite true and blatantly false, it helps to first understand where the concept of "flying saucer" originated. A Washington state businessman pilot,  Kenneth Arnold, was flying over Mount Rainier, when he saw a formation of unidentifiable flying objects.

Upon landing at Pendleton, Ore to refuel,  Arnold told his story to the "media." The version I like best has him describing the event to Nolan Skiff, an editor of the East Oregonian newspaper. Depending on whom you believe,  Anderson described the motion of the mysterious objects as skipping up and down like a saucer hurled onto a lake.

He did not say he saw something shaped like a saucer. Later on, he did describe the objects as saucer-lilke, convex at the front and concave at the rear, whatever that means. Skiff, or someone else, invented the word combination "flying saucer."

Arnold described what he saw as acting like saucers. Soon thereafter, some people strangely open to suggestion, started to report sightings of flying saucers. A staple of science fiction was born.

Arnold died in 1984,  at age 68, relieving him of having to describe what he saw over and over and over and over, if, that is, he saw anything.

The fable continues in the mid-1950s. Depending on the narrator, either the Nazis had been working on a flying saucer, or the idea simply occurred to a Canadian John "Jack" Frost, who worked at an aeronautical company called Avro Canada. Frost, somewhat optimistically, predicted that a saucer-shaped airplane could travel at four times the speed of sound at more than 100,000 feet.

The real flying pancake designed and built by Vought in the late 1930s

The next part of the tale starts to get more and more complicated. For starters, the U.S. aviation company Vought  proposed a circular craft, which became known as the "flying pancake," in the years before World War II.

Vought, in Stratford,  also manufactured the famous F4U Corsair fighter that decimated Japanese aircraft during the war in the Pacific.

The plane's designer, Charles H. Zimermann,  came up with a flattened, cylindrical fuselage, which had two engines in the front and stabilizers in the back. Note that the plane vaguely resembled a pancake, especially after a 1939 prototype was painted in Navy colors of the time, yellow on top and silver on the bottom.

The XF5U never entered service and did not acquire a fighting name. It is now in the Smithsonian.

The flying flapjack was aerodynamically sensible and a flattened disk with an oval cross-section minimizes drag and maximizes lift. Note that it has a front end and a back end. The fuselage was intended to go in one direction.

Flying saucers, however, spin. At least in the movies. So one way or the other, either the front or back, both and/or neither is rotating around you.  Somehow. Helicopter blades and rotors are complex, but nothing compared to engineering something piloted that revolves at perhaps 10 times a second.

The saucer, code named 1794-A had no front or back and drawings and photos in Popular Mechanics indicate that it did not spin. Consider the difficulty of a spinning disk manned airplane. How would it maneuver? How would it travel in a straight line? Or Turn?  How about the problem of torque? And what would connect the pilot and controls to the rest of the craft?

Some images of the secret saucer show it spinning. Others do not. Some show a fan-like "turbulator" in the center, others, do not.  Popular Mechanics shows both. Also, a drawing of one with a pilot's seat in the middle.

Project 1794-A does not spin, but is "omnidirectional," meaning it has no "back" or "front." Jet engines are buried in the craft, and are vented to the surface through complicated gated slots. The principle that was supposed to make this thing fly is called the Candoa effect.

This effect is named after Romanian aerodynamic physicist Henri Candoa, who realized in 1910 that the effect could play a role in airplane design. The actual effect was described by Thomas Young in a lecture to the Royal Society in England in 1880.

In essence, the Candoa effect is what makes water run down the side of your glass and under your glass, when you are trying to pour a glass of water, or some other liquid, into another container. It is what causes liquids and gasses to cling to curved surfaces. Something like that.

The Avro Car 1794-A employed Candoa to provide lift. Jet exhaust would speed out and over the smooth surface of the saucer and gather under the craft.  This was somehow going to make the craft travel at Mach 4. A "secret" flight test in the mid-1950s found that the craft could climb no higher than 20 feet.

The U.S. Air Force canceled its part of the project in 1961, by which time conventional airplanes with fuselage, empennage,  wings, and vertical and horizontal stabilizers were reaching Mach 2 and beyond.

If there's any irony here, it's that the Vought flying pancake could actually fly, and if powered by World War II era jet engines, may have reached 550 miles an hour. If only Arnold had been flying over Stratford instead of a volcano in Washington and a decade or so earlier.

Flying saucers, as they inhabit the imagination.

To be fair to Popular Mechanics, what they show photos of actually does or did exist. But the implication that the Avro was a big secret until now is just silly.

As for Kenneth Arnold, why didn't he, at some point, clarify his description of what he apparently saw?  What if he'd said the mystery craft were somehow acting like teapots, would everyone assume that they looked like teapots, and start seeing teapots?

Remember then: If you think you see a saucer-shaped UFO, than either the aliens are in on the joke, it's an incredible coincidence, or you're seeing something that was suggested to you that does not really exist.

Were the Germans really doing flying saucer research before "flying saucers" were known to allegedly exist?
This one does not look heavily armed.