Saturday, August 29, 2009

How Dangerous is the Road?

Using data from 2005, as supplied by the National Safety Council, we can add up all the number of deaths related to normal road travel, that is excluding categories such as 3-wheeled vehicles, ATV's, construction equipment, trains and so forth but including pedestrian and bicycle deaths since the vast majority of these are caused by collisions with other motor vehicles. Including the very ambiguous unspecified transportation-related category, the result is 45,180. Since the total number of external injury deaths (which excludes health related mortality such as cancer and heart disease but oddly including suicide) is 176,406, we can subtract to get the number of deaths unrelated to driving: 176,406-45,180 = 131,226. To get the percent of external injury deaths related to cars, we divide the category by the total, 45,180 / 176,406 = .2561, thus 25.61% or one quarter of the people who died from external injuries in 2005 did so because of car accidents.

However, if you choose to not consider suicide an external injury, the percentage jumps up to 31.43%, or nearly one third.

Using statistical projections from Carnegie-Mellon, we can (somewhat sloppily) extrapolate these results across all causes and by age group into the next year. We take the number of injuries in "accidental" and multiply by .3143, which is acceptable since this data doesn't include suicide in accidents. Now we divide the result by the sum of all causes for each age group, and come up with:

Age     % Projected to die from motor vehicle accidents

5-9          12.59 %
10-19      14.75 %
20-29      11.98 %
30-39      7.17 %
40-49      3.86 %
50-59      1.66 %
60-69      0.71 %
70-79      0.56 %
80           0.57 %
All           1.32 %

These figures aren't necessarily very precise at all, but the general idea is the same, cars are really dangerous. Studies have shown that talking on a cell phone while driving increases the chance of a car accident by 400%, and my guess would be that there has been a substantial increase in driving while talking since 2005, suggesting a similar increase in vehicular accidents. Nonetheless, using these figures we can see that people under the age of 40 are generally more likely to die from a simple car accident than anything else. It's time to face the facts: humans are not equipped to react appropriately to everyday driving conditions - from the neurophysiological perspective we simply can't react fast enough, as the time for a neural impulse to transmit from eyes to feet is substantial enough that it is measurable with a normal watch. If you want to test this, get 5 or 10 people holding hands. The game is to have one person squeeze their neighbors hand, who is then to squeeze the next person. Another person can measure how long it takes the "pulse" to go from beginning to end; that time divided by the number of people is the average amount of time it takes to propagate a real neural impulse from one hand to the other. Again, if you do this from foot to hand (if you can manage to find enough willing people), you get maximal neural distance and it takes measurably longer. When moving at 40 mph, milliseconds make a difference, and this reaction time is not even considering the amount of distraction we have in the extremely fast paced modern era nor the amount of unpredictable obstacles (other people on cell phones) we must be aware of to be safe, which often exceeds the amount of things we can be conscious of at any moment. Add into the mix blind turns, unskilled drivers, and thousands of other impediments and there is no uncertainty in the result: people should not be allowed to drive.

We have the technology for automated vehicles, it is very doable, and now more than ever we have both the need and chance to make this a reality. Combined with the fresh and tenable (enough to get $100,000 in DOT funding for development) idea of solar panels embedded in roads, we could save many lives, increase efficiency of travel and energy, banish automotive And power plant pollution, etc. etc. Where is the downside?

Am I the only one thinking this through??

Friday, August 28, 2009

Energy? Let's Keep it Real.

When I was in elementary school my dream was to make a perpetual motion machine, which are commonly referred to these days as "over-unity" devices. I'm all for other people trying to do it, but I no longer feel the need to waste my time with it. Of course, there are loads and loads of people lacking a strong scientific background trying to come up with these devices, and as such it is useful to know a bit of the scientific background so we aren't so easily deluded into believing their claims. Personally I'm a fan of innovative approaches and casting much doubt towards commonly held assumptions, but there are definite limits to this concept - at some point, you are just wasting time trying to come up with results that have already been long known (and which were discovered by geniuses who got lucky, something unlikely to happen again to any naive experimentalist).

Conservation of energy is the first law of thermodynamics and fundamental to every physical science, it's shown up in every one of millions of experiments and is about as established as a theory gets. Even more, the theory is one that makes a lot of sense and is descriptive to the extent that it has encapsulated and explained every single experimental observation yet made. Of course, science hinges on the precision of explanation, which implies that experimentation outside common conception--a theoretical dictum such as Thermodynamics--is not a threat but either 1. A chance of showing that common conception is accurate, or 2. A chance at showing it is incorrect and must be changed to accommodate new observations. Quality observation is very difficult to do, and it is easy to make mistakes in measurement that will lead to erroneous results, as was the case with the famed events surrounding cold fusion. Scientists as a community realize this difficulty and thus relies on an unofficial system called peer-review. In attempting to submit your results to a reputable source, a small group of individuals including some in the field of concern reviews the document for possible experimentation errors. Rather than publishing it outright, the expectation is that you receive your returned paper with questions and concerns to which you respond or preclude publication with that journal. This kind of process is often not enjoyed by scientists, but I'd say on the whole it is accepted as important when not disheartening. Thus, with proper background, it makes sense that there was some controversy over cold fusion, because the researchers went to the popular media which lacks peer-review or the knowledge to vet the material. As it became more clear that such technology would revolutionize the world, it was also with growing disappointment as other scrambling scientists failed to reproduce their results. Thus also we can see the importance of proper procedure with science, and the reason pseudosciences always have air-time on the local news but not space in reputable journals. This too is why anything related to emerging science in mass media should be taken with serious skepticism (though if I take my science pants off I'd also argue that all mass media content should be avoided at all cost).

Perpetual motion now acknowledged as very unlikely, the closest we're going to get to "free energy" in the real world/foreseeable future is going to be nuclear power. That's not to say nuclear power is anything less than enough; the process converts mass directly into energy, and there is an incredible amount of energy stored in mass. Einstein's famous and very proven equation shows this clearly: Energy = mass * speed of light^2 aka E=m*c^2 (the c is thought to stand for celeritas, Latin for speed or swiftness). Thus, even the slightest amount of mass stores an amount of energy proportional to the speed of light squared, which is an Incredible amount; the Fat Man dropped on Nagasaki was the result of just ~1 gram (the same mass as about half of a US dime) of mass being turned into energy.

This is actually really easy to calculate with the help of google's calculator, since google is just awesome like that. The wikipedia article says Fat Man released about 88 terajoules of energy. Since we know energy and c, rearrange to solve for mass:

E = m c^2
E / c^2 = m

and simply google "88 terajoules/(c^2)" (or clicky here).

So the whole bomb weighed over 4,000,000 grams... had all that mass been turned to energy there would probably no longer be a place called Earth. Likewise, my body mass (and I am a rather Skinny Man) converted directly into energy would be about 74,000 times more powerful than Fat Man. Thus, one could guess that the next greatest energy discovery be how to turn some "more stable" mass (as in not plutonium) into energy by nuclear fission, which is the idea behind cold fusion. Cold fusion is generally considered impossible, but some researchers continue to look into it.

Electromagnetism was discovered in the early 1800's, so it's pretty safe to say that any secret way to get free energy with magnets/electricity would've been figured out by now, particularly given that we have explored electromagnetism (EM) at the most fundamental (quantum) level; EM is one of four fundamental forces in physics: strong nuclear, weak nuclear, EM, and gravity. Since we're on a physics roll, connecting these four forces (referred to as unification) into a single theory is the holy grail of physics research today, and the person who figures it out will probably become the most famous scientist in history. String theory (actually theories) is an untestable proposal for the unified theory. Since they are untestable, they aren't considered scientific and thus not viable candidates until tests are developed.

Back to nuclear power: recently a story in the local paper had our new governor Gary Herbert saying much about the role of nuclear power in future infrastructure. This all stems from the current Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, pushing for nuclear reactors to be the future energy source for the USA. It has been suggested that the US has wasted the past 30 years by not developing energy infrastructure based on nuclear power, and this is true. Nuclear power is the cleanest, most sustainable and efficient way to get power. Likewise, there is a lot of opinion that the explosive growth seen in China over the past few decades has been fueled by nuclear power, and it isn't difficult to see that without this kind of powerful technology for power generation the rate growth couldn't have had such a pace.

There have been plans put forth for miniature reactors, termed "neighborhood nuclear reactors" or "nuclear batteries." Residing in a 10 foot cube of heavily reinforced concrete, the reactor can provide power for 20,000 homes for 10 years. Divided evenly between 10,000 households, the projected cost for a decade of electricity is $250. Backyard reactor sounds like a bad idea? Absolutely not. Even if a group were able to secretly reach the buried cube, they would need to penetrate several feet of reinforced concrete. Assuming they were able to do that, they would need to do it many times as each reactor contains a diminutive amount of nuclear material. They would be better off just buying some on the Internet, which anyone can do (I used to have a bookmark for an online store with plutonium available for purchase, but alas, no longer). Assuming these would-be idiot terrorists had secured enough nuclear material, they would then need the resources of a nation to refine it into something weapons-grade, not to mention the necessary detonation device. Thus, there is no risk of terrorism aided by nuclear batteries, QED.

What about catastrophic failure, as in Chernobyl or 3-mile island (which is when we stopped building reactors)? Not possible. First, nuclear power technology has come a Long way since the 1970's, just like Everything else. Second, the mini-reactors are closed systems with no moving parts, there is no way for them to catastrophically fail. Third, there isn't enough radioactive material in them to do much damage in the impossible case they were to fail.

Quick digression: radioactivity gets a bad rap because of a few common misconceptions, so it's re-education time! Everything you see is radioactive! Color is simply a form of electromagnetic radiation in the range of frequencies we happen to be able to see... in other words, light is radiation. Heat can also be radioactive, which is why something "glows red hot." In fact, there is a whole construct called the electromagnetic spectrum, on which all radioactive frequencies are described. On this spectrum resides color (light), micro waves, radio waves, gamma rays, X-rays, and so on. Thus there is an important distinction to be made with different types of radiation, and it's very simple: there is ionizing radiation, and there is non-ionizing radiation. Things like light and radio waves are non-ionizing, which means there is no risk of cellular damage. You can think of it in terms of light: light can't penetrate a piece of paper (otherwise it would be invisible) much less your skin, and neither can many other forms of radiation. On the other hand, there are very powerful forms of radiation that can ionize. These compact rays of energy are so powerful and concentrated that they literally knock atoms out of molecular bonds, and this is a bad thing for we cellular/molecular creatures. A small dose of ionizing radiation will probably not have major effects, which is why it is considered ok to have an X-ray done every once in a while. A large dose of ionizing radiation will completely disrupt the cellular processes that allow a living thing to live, thus able to cause extremely fast death. However it is not even necessarily to be considered a negative thing, ionizing radiation--Carl Sagan postulates in Cosmos that the occasional radioactive wave that manages to penetrate the ozone layer may have been critical in the role of evolution, by knocking apart random pieces of DNA with possibly beneficial side effects. By analogy, we might imagine a lucky hominid named Peter Parker getting hit by an interstellar wave in such a way that he gains super-human, spider like abilities, making him an exceptionally viable reproductive candidate (all the ladies know Spider Man is hawt). Thus evolution could depend on cosmic rays for random mutation, with similar albeit far more subtle results. Amazingly, simple forms of life have been found that can repair cellular damage due to radiation. For one, this opens the possibility of anti-radiation medications, but this also means that were humans to wipe out most life on Earth in a global nuclear war And the ozone completely wiped out, other forms of life would continue despite the heavily irradiated environment, ionizing and otherwise.

Nonetheless, nuclear power is the only viable energy source for the very near future. And it can't happen soon enough, when you consider the amount of pollution from coal and fossil-fuel power plants... which is so extensive that nearly every body of water is severely contaminated by mercury, a dangerous neurotoxin. In case you don't know the connection, coal fired power plants are by and far the greatest source of mercurial emissions, about 50 Tons released into the air each year according to EPA estimates from 2000. I would much rather have spent nuclear material buried in my literal backyard than be breathing mercury. Let's get the ball rolling, folks!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Not a Robot, But a Ghost...

is the title of a song on the album Noble Beast, by Andrew Bird. I can say with certainty, from my own diminutive and humble personal perspective, that this song is the greatest song I have ever heard. Nothing has ever spoken to me or defined my life so perfectly, so efficiently, or so profoundly as this song just did with its succinct five and a half minutes. I'm not one to pay attention to lyrics, most often these words to me exist wholly separate from their meaning as instead an additional instrument, but the instrument I'm speaking of is not the voice as one might expect. Instead, it is a sort of dreamlike sensation of the words abstracted, stripped of context and intention, rearranged into an entirely new personalized meaning; in other words, instead of trying to understand what the artist is trying to communicate, I focus on understanding what the music makes me feel. With that in mind, here's a portion of the lyrics:

I run the numbers through the floor
here's how it goes: I crack the codes
I crack the codes that end the war
I crack the codes that end the war

I pushed a note under your door
here's how it goes: things come to blows
but we don't want this anymore
No we don't want this anymore
We don't want this anymore

I crack the codes, you end the war

I hear the clockwork in your core
time strips the gears till you forget what they were for
I push the numbers through your pores
I crack the codes
I crack the codes that end the war

I think life is the most beautiful thing, that earth is the most amazing planet, and that reality is a mind bending paradox of a glory far beyond what is conceivable. Often enough I realize that I don't know anything relative to the amount there is knowable, but if I know one thing more than any else it is that I am incredibly grateful for every single moment I spend in this impossibly magnificent phenomenon called existence. No matter what happens to me or where I go in life I will always be ecstatic just knowing that I have been alive. Just the same, I will always do my best to give more than I am given; to have been given anything at all seems an impossibly tremendous favor to recompense.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Tired of Furry Clothes?

As the owner (or own-ed) of a very fuzzy long hair cat named Pickles, having everything be constantly coated in fur was just something that had to be adjusted to. Everyone who has ever had an indoor cat or dog will agree, trying to have a fur-free home is an impossible battle. However, a few days ago I realized that my clothes weren't nearly as furry as they had been for a long time. Seemingly moments afterwards I accidentally discovered why, and with that a way to have clothes nearly fur-free. Beside how pleasant it is, it's also very simple! The answer is microfiber cloth.

A few months back I was perusing the local Harbor Freight and found a bag with a dozen microfiber cloths for some absurdly low price, as is usual. I had been hearing some whispers here and there about these remarkable fabrics so I picked them up. In essence, I realized that if you put a bunch in with your laundry, the microfiber practically sucks the fur off most other fabrics; In effect it seems as though fur is to microfiber as the two sides of velcro. It doesn't work for everything - from what I've noticed some other fabrics are even more "sticky" to the fur... in my case I noticed this because when I pull my clothes from the drier, a particular pair of shorts has every microfiber cloth stuck to them, as well as all the fur. It's kind of nice, the shorts take care of sorting out the rags, just a smidge less work for me to do.

When you go to buy some cloths, be sure to pick up a few extra. A damp microfiber cloth (just water, no chemicals needed) does an Astounding job at cleaning just about everything: mirrors attain a genuinely surprising clarity, and chrome looks freshly polished. However, you really don't want to use the same fur-magnet cloths for cleaning, as they tend to release the captured fur. I especially don't recommend the same cloths for washing your face - it's a good way to discover the amazing amount of fur they capture (as I did), but otherwise you just end up with a really furry face.

I'm not sure if they will work for dog fur as well - if you find out that they do, be sure to let me know!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

A Radical Proposal

What if you could decrease the US's oil consumption (and the foreign dependence requisite therein), cut greenhouse gas emissions, increase general public health, reduce obesity substantially, and preempt cardiovascular deterioration in one stone's throw? It isn't difficult to imagine how it could be done, they're all related problems.

In the USA:
Percent of all energy consumption that is used for transportation: 29
Percentage of that energy used that comes from oil: 95
Percent of all trips that are 3 miles or fewer: 50
Percent of those that are driven: 72
Percent that are by bicycle: less than 2
Percent of all trips that consist of driving 3 miles or fewer: 36 
Percent of bicycle trips that are 3 miles or fewer: 85
Estimated average speed of a moderately fit cyclist: 12 mph
Time for this cyclist to cover 3 miles: 15 minutes
Estimated time for a lawful driver (regardless of physical fitness): 15 minutes
Estimated gasoline used by the car to cover 3 miles: 0.1215 gallons
Amount of energy this represents: 15,800,000 joules
Estimated energy expended by the cyclist: 135,000 joules
Estimated additional food calories the cyclist burned: 32
Estimated total food calories the driver burned: 29
Amount of food calories the car burned: 3,775
Food calories in a gallon of gasoline:  31,070
Example daily Caloric intake of an ultra-endurance athlete: 6,000
sustained horsepower of Lance Armstrong: 0.67
sustained horsepower of an average male: 0.20

In Amory's video below, it is mentioned that less than 1% of the energy consumed in moving a vehicle is moving the driver - obviously, too, the car weighs an awful lot more than you do and weight costs energy to move. So we are wasting 99% of our highly condensed energy to move a hulking steel shell a couple of miles. Cars are great vehicles for moderate distances, 30 miles and up at least, but they're too wasteful for anything less--just the same as how you wouldn't taxi an airplane to travel a few miles.

But wait, weren't we supposed to be talking about health? Where does health fit in? Right here.

Bicycles. Yes, they've been around for ages, all the laws regarding their use are (internationally) in place, they're cheap, familiar enough in culture to not be mocked (ahem, Segway), and just about every business has some kind of object a bicycle can be locked to, usually closer than the handicapped parking space. The bicycle is a legitimate form of transportation; having ridden a bicycle the ~3,600 miles that span the US this is a statement in which I have authority to represent. A healthy human being can sustain an average of 15 miles per hour for one hour without much problem. The result is that anything within a few miles of where you are is a short bike ride away. For me, and I'm nowhere near as in shape as I was, riding my bike 3 miles takes about the same time as in a car. When closer, the bike is definitely faster in most cases, and a whole lot more pleasant. Of course, the more you ride a bike the more fit you become, and so forth. If everyone were to abandon their cars for short distances, the streets would be flooded with cyclists. You wouldn't need to worry as much about being hit by a car because there wouldn't be near as many cars, and many of the people who were driving would realize what it would be like to be a cyclist and would drive more defensively. Bicycle collisions aren't much of a worry, nothing like auto collisions which are the 4th greatest cause of death in the US--cars are, to people, a disaster; the human brain is not built to process the number of things at the speed required for driving, as much is clear in the amount of accidents that happen every day. Add on top of this our increasing distraction by the fast pace of modern life (drivers on cell phones, grrr) and that a four thousand pound vehicle (such as an average SUV) moving at 35 mph has tremendous kinetic energy, about 11% of a stick of dynamite: kinetic energy is 1/2 * mass * velocity squared, which ends up as 222,088 Joules. A stick of dynamite has around 2.1 million Joules of energy, so the percent of dynamite's energy the vehicle has is 10.6%. The result is clear: people just shouldn't be allowed to drive, we aren't capable of doing so safely. I love driving a lot, but there is no question here, no way to justify allowing people to drive. The way to make a vehicle inherently safer is to reduce its energy, which means lighter and slower; bicycles are singularly wonderful in that they represent one of the lightest forms of transportation conceivable, however even they are not perfect, as in the wrong hands they can be tricked into traveling at dangerous speeds ;)

Pushing cars off the road and people into the streets with motivation/education for physical fitness is, very unfortunately, not enough. We need to truly revolutionize our understanding of existence--not a new same-as-usual car with an astonishingly expensive marketing campaign that uses the word "green" a lot. In this small domain of personal, local transportation we already have the technology, we just need to use it!

The craziest thing about the low utilization of bicycles is that self-powered transportation would be an overwhelmingly positive thing for the majority of people. It comes down to health, wealth, and happiness.

Wealth is obvious, bicycles are a lot cheaper than cars, even absurdly expensive bicycles. 17% of the average USAmerican yearly income goes to transportation, which is the second largest spending category after housing. Furthermore cycling naturally supports the very local economy, which the cyclist necessarily participates in and at least indirectly benefits from. The savings can even be realized directly with participation in the Bicycle Benefits program, with presently almost a hundred local, conscientious businesses (some of my favorite) offering incentives such as 10% off purchases.

A widely accepted goal for life is to live a long and healthy life. Healthier lifestyles would substantially reduce the majority of deaths, including their often extensive associated medical care/cost, by the biggest killers (followed by the chance any person will die from it):

1. Heart disease, 1 in 5
2. Cancer, 1 in 7
3. Stroke, 1 in 24
4. Motor vehicle accident, 1 in 84
5. Suicide, 1 in 119

I included suicide because there is evidence that shows exercise effective in mediating the symptoms of depression. There is no reason I know of to imagine that an active society will have significantly reduced cancer rates (except for the decrease in environmental pollutants), as the many causes of cancer aren't so well understood. For the next greatest causes of death some arguments could be made for the effectiveness of cycling in prevention, though they get weaker: number 6, falling, could be diminished by increased muscular fitness of elderly folks and increased spatial coordination for (tragically) clumsy people; number 7, firearm assault, could be decreased by the increase in social interaction that is inevitable when you aren't enclosed in a glass and metal box and by increasing the wealth of immediate neighbors through the support of local economy. Number 8, pedestrian accidents, would clearly decrease with the amount of cars on the road and number 9, drowning, could also decrease with increased general fitness. Of course each of these causes have instances in which the fantasized bicycle culture won't help, but there is little question that increased mean health of the population ultralight human powered vehicles would have an incredible impact on healthcare expenses. There is no other way to say it but that bicycling is a miraculous thing that a (growing) few take advantage of. Riding a bike leaves the air cleaner, your self happier and your body healthier, where's the downside? You can't say safety because cars aren't safer, car accidents kill way more people than bicycle accidents. There is no downside, ride your bike.