I’ve been writing a lot of buzzword posts lately. Today is not that post.
Today, I rode my bicycle home from work, a nice reasonable, 6 miles. I lane shared with traffic which I don’t normally do, because people down here are generally too stupid to avoid running over a cyclist unless he is fearfully hugging the curb. But today, I did stop light sprints. This is when you weave up through the lanes of traffic at a light, and drag race off the line. If you really do it right you can drop the people from the last stoplight at the next one and only get passed by the first 3 cars. I passed perhaps 100 cars like that. It feels amazing… to beat people in huge powered boxes with only the strength of your legs and the help of delicate metal frame.
So I was pretty jazzed up when I got home. Today is also a special day… today I am home without my adorable wife and daughter. Don’t get me wrong, I love them both dearly, but there is something hedonisticly decadent about coming home to an empty house when you are a family man. Supper is in the crock pot. So I took my clothes off in the living room as I walked into the kitchen, yup supper is going to be amazing. I went up the stairs. I was still hot from the ride home and I rinsed my head in cold water, then shaved it. Then I took a nice cool shower. I came down stairs and cranked up all the music I don’t play in front of my young, impressionable daughter. My Goth, my hardcore, my death metal.
Some days I am up, some days I am down. Yesterday morning I was really sad. The problems of this old world were really getting me down. Injustice everywhere, men unworthy of responsibility vested in them, global warming, bloody knuckled jihad, unholy compromise, and heroes for sale.
But today, I am that sort of delightfully angry. I am clean, feed, cool, and hungry. This place I live in a real crap hole. My wife and I chose it purposefully to save money. I look around at the decay. I am the king of my tiny, broken, world. Right now I feel like I am the change I want to see and that’s good. I can punch ignorant people in the face and feel no pain right now.
It won’t last, so I will enjoy this whilst I may.
NOTE: This written a while ago. Its not that great.
You might be aware of the impending world food crisis. People in the less affluent world are going to start dropping dead like flies, apparently, because food is too hard to get or too expensive.
There are a number of micro-explanations for this, but pretty much everyone agrees that the macro-explanation is a causal chain which goes like this: America and other rich powers consume too much. This overconsumption causes overconsumption of fossil fuels, as fossil fuels are the backbone of their economies. This fuel consumption causes global warming, which causes climate change, which causes crop failure. Crop failure raises the price of food. Further exacerbating this is the use of food crops as hydrocarbon substitutes, i.e. biofuel. The conversion of land from food to biofuel, and the reduced supply of food, work to further increase the price of food.
In essence, rich nations caused the global food crisis, and it is they who are therefore responsible for fixing it. Ronin says, bullshit.
The whole food process is a series of interlocking non-sequential factors. The following things must exist for the food process to take place.
- There must be local buyers who can get a surplus of calories out of the food, spending less calories working to get it than it provides.
- There must be sub-distributors who can make enough surplus buying it in bulk and selling it to be able to afford their own food.
- There must be a transportation infrastructure that can make enough surplus moving food from rural regions to urban regions and food payment from urban regions to rural regions that they desire to do so.
- There must be farmers who can make enough of a surplus selling their food that they have enough surplus to maintain their farms.
- There must be laborers at every stage who can make enough of a surplus working that they prefer to work.
- The buyers must be able to pay enough that by the time payment gets through the many hands to the farmer, the farmer will have enough of a surplus to desire to sell his grain.
- There must be land and water for the food to grow.
Any failure of the above 7 points will result in famine. If you noticed the word surplus over and over, you might have remembered the other word for surplus is profit. I postulate the following very simple axiom:
The solution to famine is surplus (in a non-money economies) or profit (in money economies).
- The worst famines in modern history occurred under Marxist regimes which had completely dismantled Adam Smith’s “guiding hand” of free market and attempted to control every aspect of the economy from a central government. For instance, Mao’s great leap forward (30 million dead.) or the Holodomor famine (3 million dead).
- Famine in Europe during the middle ages was directly related to market distortions caused by the aristocracy.
- The Irish Famine was caused by Protestants not allowing Catholics to own land or learn to read. This created a market distortion where the people who worked the land were not allowed to sell what they produced, but instead had to give it to the landowners without charge.
- The State of Arizona is geophysically incapable of growing its own food. Statistically, all food is imported. Yet there is never a famine. Everyone in the state has access to sufficient resources to pay for food even if a food shortage raises the price.
- No functioning democracy has ever had a famine. There is a correlation between political and economic freedom.
- The Netherlands, which have relied on importation to fully satisfy economic need for over 400 years, have not had a famine in that time (despite numerous famines over Europe during that period.) A complex and rich economy has always allowed them to trade sufficiently with other nations to cover the increased cost of food during a food shortage.
This might lead you to the conclusion that in the coming global food crisis those who have the least surplus will be the most affected. True. Sustenance farmers, who by definition have no surplus, are the group most at risk for famine at any given time. The cost of food is pretty much fixed world wide. World wages are not. A pound of rice is about 25 cents in the US. It’s about that everywhere. It’s just that in, say, Angola, more than half the population makes less than $18 a day. For us in the States, food costs about 15% of our income. For much of the world it costs around 75% of their income.
We don’t have a world food crisis. We have a world capitalism crisis. The question is not “Why is food getting so expensive?” Food gets expensive from time time. The price goes up, which decreases the supply, increasing the demand and thus the price. When the price goes up people buy less, and the supply increases, lowering the price. The question is, “Why isn’t capitalism taking it’s natural course of improving lives in places like Africa, the way it is in places such as India and China?”
The answer is as tragic as it is simple. World aid destroys developing economies. Remember the first 7 points? If the UN brings in grain, that means grain is free. If grain is free, farmers cannot make a living selling grain. They leave their farms to seek their fortunes in the city, exacerbating the grain shortage by removing local grain as well as consuming the aid grain.
The US rose because no one was there to help it. China has refused help. India refused colonization at any cost. As long as there is United Nations Aid presence in these impoverished countries, they will not go through the fire of developing the methods to deal with local crop failures on their own.
The process of economic freedom is the lifeblood that feeds the process of political freedom. It is awfully hard to revolt if you can’t afford any bullets.
Capitalism is the glove on the hand of self-determinism. Economic freedom buys all the other freedoms. Economic freedom buys lobbyists, education, and simply buys opportunity.
Sadly, the United States press has laid the fault of the impending global food crisis on the economic policies which prevent famine in the affluent world (free market and democracy), rather than on the polices which cause famine in the poor world (controlled market and autocracy). Furthermore, they have stated that the solution is reduced economic freedom…
Prices must be fixed, after all it worked so well for Mao.
Biofuel must be stopped. (Even though mixed agricultural economy is what ensures a nation has something valuable to trade for food in a food shortage.)
And of course, Aid must be increased, even though it bankrupts the local economies which receive it.
How many more millions must die to prove the point that wealthy educated people such as the UN, the Soviets, and the Chinese Central Government do not know what is better for poor uneducated people than those people themselves?
Read here for a more scholarly look at the situation: http://fabiusmaximus.wordpress.com/
As I write, I let the music flow through my soul. I see the little white house at the end of the lane. I see the row of abandoned cars. I think about the way people looked at my clothes; the way people asked why my family didn’t do the things that theirs did; the way people laughed at me when I talked about my dreams.
Last night my wife and I had a friend over. My wife and I are not the people that we married. People grow, people mature, but we love each other still. Becky talked about how different she would be if she could go back to where she was but being who she is now. She wondered aloud if I then would still be interested in her if she was so different now.
Considering this I said, “If you had said, ‘I’ve never met anyone like you before. I want you. I want more of you. I want more of all of you. I want to know you better. I want to see more of your soul and your body. I want to go deeper and know more of everything that makes you, you.’ I would have melted chocolate-like into your hands.”
Upon hearing this speech our friend remarked, “That is the most beautiful thing I have ever heard. If a man said that to me I would be his. We would go through the pretense of courtship, but I would just be his in every way.”
So, these are the magic words. As our friend said “That is the most beautiful thing…” I was suddenly a younger man. I was not the man I am today. I did not have my own place, I lived with my folks. I did not have a new car. I did not have a good haircut. I didn’t have any of the outside things that mark me as who I am. I was just a desperately lonely boy, the seed of a successful life planted but not yet growing. Many years ago and miles away, I laid my heart of the table with those words “I just want more of you.” It wasn’t a plea for sex, as she well knew. It was admitting to her that I loved her, as she had told me she loved me tearfully months before. But I, thinking that a woman wanted a man of integrity, had told her, to wait. She’d said it while crying over the loss of her boyfriend (my best friend), and I wanted to give her sometime to really think about whether she meant it or not. She cried then too. I was so understanding, so mature, so kind. Yes, of course she would think about it and give me time to think about it. Anything for me, this man who treated her with so much respect.
And those words, “I want more of you.” Followed not by a smile, but a sneer. It was all a mistake, Israel. As if I would feel that way about you.
I was the same man, the same heart pumping the same blood. The only thing different now is that I look on the outside like what I always knew I was on the inside. Hearing ‘today me’ say “I want more of you” a friend says its beautiful. Hearing ‘then me’ say “I want more of you” a friend says, “You?!”.
Once, I believed that I had forgiven everyone who ever hurt me. This was because I believed forgiveness was pretending everything was cool. Well, it’s NOT cool. Some 10 years later it still stings around the edges. She could see the broken down cars and little shack at the end of the lane, but she couldn’t see the man who was going to rise above it. She could perhaps see the the brittle brokenness in me, but not the steel at the core.
I’m sneaking up on my life. I threw it away when I was about 16. I not quite back to where I should have been when I was 16, but I am sneaking up on it. So to the chorus of voices who saw the Wal-mart glasses but not the fire behind them, I just want to say one thing for closure to each before I move on.
Well the Associated Press has done it again. They have trotted out pure crap and called it news, and done such a shoddy investigation that the editor of a high school paper would pull his hair out.
The gem is a story called “Colt’s grip on the military rifle criticized”. Normally I would post the whole article here on my page but honestly, this story is such crap that I refuse to reprint it. If yellow journalism rocks your socks here’s the link.
Let me draw attention first of all to paragraph two. This is where the AP informs you, that like a toddler who just made stinky, you should be very proud of the outstanding job they did, “…according to interviews and research conducted by the Associated Press.” Aren’t you proud, Mommy? I did interviews and research and everything!!!
Let me draw a series of statements, emphasis mine.
Page 1 paragraph 1: Colt Defense of Hartford Connecticut
Page 1 paragraph 3: “What we have is a fat contractor in Colt who’s gotten very rich off our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” says Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.” Oklahoma
Page 1 paragraph 5: “The fact is, the American GI today doesn’t have the best weapon. And they ought to.”
Page 2 paragraph 2: “Coburn is the M4’s harshest and most vocal critic.”
Ok, now lets go look at another article
“Coburn asked the Army to hold a “free and open competition” before inking sole-source contracts worth about $375 million to M4 manufacturer, West Hartford, Conn.-based Colt Defense..” Specifically he mentioned the HK416, made by Heckler and Koch
Here the good senator has this to say “incoming Secretary of the Army Pete Geren agreed in July 2007 to hold a “dust chamber” test, pitting the M4 against H&K’s HK416 and XM8, as well as rival Fabrique Nationale’s SOF Combat Assault Rifle (SCAR) design. Coburn had threatened to stop Geren’s Senate confirmation if he did not agree to the test.” Here he specifically mentions the FN SCAR
These two rifles the HK416 and the SCAR are mentioned many times in the original AP article, as is senator Coburn.
The AP article basically says that the M16/M4 rifle currently being manufactured by the Colt Company of Hartford Connecticut is an inferior weapon to the Fabrique Nationale SCAR or the H&K HK416. The article begins and ends with quotes by Senetor Coburn, and he is the spark plug for this whole issue. Fabrique Nationale, by the way, just happens to own Winchester and Browning. Colt is the last US weapons manufacture capable of providing battle rifles in the quantity demanded by the DOD that belongs to a US company.
So who is Senetor Colburn? Had the AP actuallly done that investigating they were talking about they would have discovered the following:
Coburn is a member of the United States Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs
Coburn, despite his statements above about making sure our troops in Afghanistan have the best weapon, seems to think they are ok without funding. He’s voted against them being funded twice now.
What about Oklahoma? Read the following April 21, 2004 press release from the Oklahoma State Senate here.
Or read my highlights
“There are parts of the country that are hostile to gun manufacturing. What we want to do is get the word out that we welcome these jobs. Oklahoma has a great western heritage and a college that has a top-notch gunsmith program. We want these companies to know we’d be a perfect fit”
“This is a multi-billion dollar industry. But those high-dollar manufacturing jobs are in states where those companies aren’t even wanted. There are 75 major firearm manufacturers with facilities in 12 states. I think if we get the word out about what we have to offer in terms of education programs and economic development incentives, we could bring some of those jobs here”
“We have an excellent gunsmith curriculum at Murray…We’d be able to provide a highly-trained work-force for an industry that Oklahomans would appreciate having here. This is something we really needed to pursue.” (Murray State College has the US’ largest and most prestigious gun smithing school.)
“Attracting these businesses here would not only create jobs in firearm manufacturing, but it would also boost economic development through the domino effect new companies have when they locate here. This ultimately will benefit our entire state”
And finally one last quote, again a Oklahoma State Senate press release, this time from March 13, 2007. This the real kicker, in my opinion.
“I can tell you right now that we are in negotiations with a leading gun manufacturing company interested in bringing some very good-paying jobs to Oklahoma. I believe this legislation will help us make an even more favorable impression. If we are successful in these talks, it’s going to be good economic news for our state.”
So the good Senator Coburn just happens…
to serve a on a committee that puts him in regular contact with gun manufacturers.
to represent the state that has the largest gunsmith school in the US
to represent a state in active negotiations with a leading gun manufacturer, and finally,
to TOTALLY COINCIDENTLY want to keep Colt from getting a weapons contract. But that is totally coincidental. He’s just doing it for the troops… that he won’t vote to give funding to.
May I remind you all. Fabrique Nationale, and H&K are not US companies. Browning and Winchester belong to the Belgian super company Fabrique Nationale. Smith and Wesson does not make rifles. They rebrand Stag Arms rifles and Stag does not have the industrial capacity to take the M4 contract. If we take the battle rifle from Colt, we will be turning our arms industry over to Europe. Yep, Senator Coburn sure is pro-American.
So, one of the advantages to the this crazy internet, and the beauty to blogging, is that I get to talk to a lot of people from other countries. I’ve run into something incredibly odd. Everyone I know thinks that at least half of the politicians in their country are corrupt. Specifically, they distrust the one’s whose views oppose their own. I saw this growing up a lot. The problem with this country was Democrats, because my parents were (and I suppose are) Republicans. When I got older the problem with this country was not so Democrats but liberals. Then the problems was the “Homosexual Agenda”. (I want to make a note here, about the brain rocking stupidity of the “homosexual agenda”. I know several homosexuals. Yet to meet one that has a agenda. Anyway…)
So, I get older and find out that Rush Limbaugh played as fast and loose with the truth as any liberal he purloined. I meet people who championed liberal causes and are NOT in fact, baby banging, commie coddling, pot smoking, pretentious coffee shop intellectuals. I find out there is some very hard evidence to back up the some of the claims of the liberals. Further fact checking reveals, however, that Rush was right. The politicians he held up for mockery are as deserving of jeers as he claimed. But the liberals are also right when they complain about industrial cash flowing like a big green river into the hands of good God fearing conservatives.
Basically people wring their hands and say, “We would have a great country if it weren’t for those darn ___________” Whatever. Liberals. Conservatives. Homosexuals. Fundamentalists. Environmentalists. Multi-national corporations. Now, where this really weirds me out is the fact that no matter what country a person I talk to is from, they say the exact same thing. “Ah, if only the Bologna Salad Party was out of congress/parliament/office/dukedom then all things would be sweet and wonderful. Corruption would stop, full employment would reign, and everyone would be above average.”
So I put forward a weird idea. What if we are ALL right. What if conservative politicians are every bit as evil and hypocritical as the liberals claim. What if the liberals are really as freeloading and incompetent as the conservatives claim? What if every charge that every competing group makes against these people is true.
In short, what if we really would have a great country if we just got rid of them all? Seriously. I can hear people whining, “No without politicians we would have no law.” Um, really? Why is that? “The strong would rule the weak!” Yeah, that would sure be different than now. “We would have drugs running like water through the streets!” Per capita, more people are hooked on cocaine now then in the 1890’s when it was in going into children’s cough syrup unlabeled. All those laws sure fixed the problem. “People would do whatever they wanted!” Don’t they now? “No! They are held in check by the law.” No, they’re not, people break the law all the time. “Well, more people would do more bad things!” Really? I always thought I wasn’t a murder because it didn’t appeal to me. Who know all these years the only thing keeping me from smoking crack, selling drugs to school kids, beating my wife, and parking in the handicapped zone was not my conscience, but the law. “Well, you and others might have the self discipline to live in such a society, but some people don’t!” Indeed, they do not. That some people would most likely be the 5 to 10% that are already repeat offenders. I guess the law didn’t keep those people from doing evil anymore than it does me. Some people choose to treat themselves and others with respect. Some don’t.
Seriously, why do we need these politicians? They produce no valuable product; they sell no necessary service. No one spends hours talking about how badly we need pickpockets, con artists, pimps, and thugs. Unless they are REALLY good at it. Then they become politicians or evangelists and suddenly the whole country will go down the crapper if we stop them from taking our money, stealing our hope, selling our lives, and beating up strangers. I don’t get it. Let be clear here. I am in NO WAY advocating any destructive act toward the existing government. I’m just saying, are we really sure that more laws, more authorities, more agencies, more programs, just plain more government is really what we want? If laws haven’t fixed the problems we have, why would more laws fix them? If the existing bureaucracy can’t “fix” us why would more? Maybe the problems aren’t fixable. Maybe they just part of the delightful mess of being people and we should just stop trying to fix them. Just a thought.
So, I really don’t have much to say tonight, but I don’t want to blog tomorrow, because I have spent the whole evening answering emails tonight and I need to spend some time with my daughter tomorrow.
So, here is the Aptera
Its a slippery little car made by a composites company. It gets 300 mpg. (Actually it doesn’t, more on that latter.) It looks funny because for a car it has obscenely good aerodynamics. Drag coefficient is a what is called a dimensionless number, or what I think of as a magic number. No mater how big or small something is, it’s shape has a C/d. The lower the C/d the less energy it takes to push the shape through the air. (The truth is bit more complicated, but thats pretty much it.)
The C/d for the Aptera is 0.11. Now, that is very good for a car. The Honda Insight (which is no boxy fuel hog) has comparitively icky 0.25. However, a Boeing 747 has 0.0331. If a 747 and the Aptera had the same cross sectional area, the Aptera would take 3 times more energy to go the same speed as the 747.
This is where that whole 300 mpg thing ties in. The Aptera doesn’t get 300 mpg. It gets 120 mpg. When being used as a plug-in-hybrid it gets 300, but the straight performance is 120. (For more about plug-in-hybrids click here) And, quite frankly, 120 isn’t good enough for a vehicle that must be licensed as a motorcycle.
Here is a car that gets 75 mpg, seats 2, and is street legal. It was also made by some dude in his garage.
Out of a 1989 Geo Metro. See, when some guy with a hacksaw can make an insurable, drivable, 4 wheeled car, that meets all the crash and emissions standards for its year of manufacture with no engine modifications…
Lets just say I am a little suspicious that 120 out of pure carbon fiber is really even trying that hard. May I remind everyone, that elite cyclist have a maximum output of about 2000 watts in a sprint. The land speed record for a fully faired bike is…81 mpg. On 2.6 horsepower. The Aptera is cool. I hope they sell. But we can really, really, do better.
When I was a 11 years old my dad bought a brand new Geo Metro. He had to get something to replace his wheezing Chevette. He had, at that time, a 120 mile round trip to work everyday. The Metro was the highest fuel mileage vehicle he could find. Now, in the 1990s there were small cars and then there were tiny cars. The Metro was tiny. It had tiny 12″ wheels, a tiny backseat, and under the tiny hood something I didn’t even know existed.
I started working on cars when I was eight, so most of the cars I worked on were late 70’s early 80’s full size sedans. Beneath the hood was an engine so small you could actually work on it. When you looked down the engine you could see the ground on every side of the engine. You could get a wrench to any part of the engine without taking out 2 belts, a shroud, 15 vacuum hoses, and a wiring loom.
It’s not that the engine compartment was big, it was as tiny as the rest of the car. It was just that the engine was that small. One liter displacement, smaller than my uncles’ motorcycles. It had a watch-like 5-speed manual transmission. It would drag me, my dad, my mom, my sister, and all of our crap for a trip down the road at 70 mph and getting 50 mpg. Since my dad put a lot of miles on it, I got to work on it a lot. It got me thinking about mileage, and the environment.
It also introduced me to something that I had remained blissfully ignorant of until then: the power of stupid people in large numbers. People hated that car. People at gas stations would insult the driver. My parents were told by other drivers that they were criminally irresponsible for allowing their kids to ride in that death trap. Strangers would call it a roller skate, a go-kart, or a beer can with wheels. Tire store employees would refuse to sell us tires until we brought a tire into the store and proved to them it really did take 12″ tires. On the rare occasion that my dad and I could not fix it and we had to bring it into a shop the people would try and sell us a new car that was “safer”. Once, a shop refused to work on it. (My dad and I took fantastic care of the car. With it’s freakishly overloaded little 3 cylinder engine we put over 300,000 miles on it. The shop said that they would not work on small cars with a lot of miles on them.)
Which in turn introduced me to skepticism. Conventional wisdom said the car was dangerous. Yet my mother and father felt it was safest car they ever owned? Why? If our little car could get 50 mpg, why couldn’t other cars do better? Why did (does) the EPA require expensive catalytic converters, but not require cheap manual transmissions, which reduce pollution as well? What was the real secret to good gas mileage?
And this is what I learned. Some of it relates to cars directly. Some not so much.
(1.) Don’t make technological solutions to social problems. The problem with pollution is not that engines pollute. Its that the owners’ of those engines don’t give a damn. Seriously. No process is 100% efficient. There is always irreclaimable energy released and usually byproducts created. The problem isn’t the technology. The problem is that people don’t care what consequences their actions will have on other people or even themselves. When we try to solve social problems technologically, we end up with more complicated problems to solve.
Case in point: coal power plant. The problem is that people waste too friggin’ much power. That means they burn a lot of coal. That means the coal puts out a lot of waste. “Solution” clean the coal waste gas. Now, coal plants don’t have huge plumes of stinky smoke. Nope, now they radioactive solid waste to dispose off. (Coal contains radioactive isotopes in fractional quantities. Burn enough coal, and scrub enough of the exhaust and you will have radioactive solid waste.) Again for clarity. Technological solutions to social problems will make the problem more complex and expensive, not solve it
(2.)There is no free lunch. Like most kids I didn’t really learn much in school. Real learning comes from the things you decide you want to know, not what a textbook writer decides you should know. My early science education came from investigating 100 mpg carburettor scams. My dad said they didn’t work. I wanted to know why. Had to learn some chemistry to understand fuel/air ratios. Had to learn some thermodynamics to understand the amount of energy the engine can make. Had to learn some physics to understand why the engine has to store some of it’s energy in the momentum of the crank and flywheel to be able to finish the next cycle. I learned that engines waste around 80% of the energy that they make because they must, not because of a global oil company conspiracy.
(3.) Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large numbers. American cars get crappy gas mileage and handle like bloated whales because that is what people want enough to pay for. There may be many things that people want. Most people want a car for free if possible. It is not the car companies job to give you what you want. It is the car companies duty to it’s stock holders to make money by giving you what you want more than your money. If Americans wanted electric cars more than they wanted money, they would have them. But they don’t. Americans DO want big V8s more than they want their money. So they have them. Remember I am not saying people don’t want electric cars. They do. They just don’t want electric cars more than they want $30,000.
Case in point:The BMW mini. Things people like the most: sporty but with good fuel economy. Things people dislike the most: to small and not good enough fuel economy. The cause of the things people like is the things they dislike. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
(4.)Government agencies (and other large groups of people who aren’t paid to produce anything) are more interested in next year’s budget than their stated mission. The EPA mandated catalytic converters. But not manual transmissions. In the 70’s when they mandated that automatic transmission mechanical efficiency was about 85%. Remember that cars are only about 20% efficient on a good day? That takes it down to 17%. That’s a 15% reduction! (A properly made manual tranny will have losses equal to a plain shaft of the same length when in road gear.)
(5.)Not all sciencey stuff is scientific. Case in point: Hydrogen economy. We need a hydrogen economy to save us. How do we get the hydrogen? Electrolysis of water, which wastes 60% of the energy that goes in. Well, how else can we get hydrogen? Cracking of natural gas. Who owns the natural gas? The same oil companies who own the gasoline. The hydrogen economy talk is bread and circuses to keep you from noticing that rich and powerful have you by the soft bits. But psudeo-science is a magic totem for the stupid. Hold up sciencey words and “smart” people will line up behind you like Crusaders behind a cross.
So the other day I commented on someone’s Monorail post. There are not nearly enough posts about monorails on wordpress. I love monorail hype. In fact monorail hype is so bad that I call any person pedaling any technology that claims benefits completely out of proportion to its ability “monorailers”.
(This comes from a claim I read on someone’s page once that said that small monorails could end sexual discrimination and racism. The theory was this: Increased travel opportunities would allow the disadvantaged to get out of their disadvantaged communities and compete for jobs with advantaged people from advantaged communities. If we just built this guy’s pet transit technology, BOOM no more racism or sexism. I love it.)
Anyway, monorails have the best hype because everyone knows that people in the future will ride monorails everywhere. (See picture to left). To quote a favorite website of mine “It wasn’t that long ago that we had a future. I mean, we have one now; the world isn’t going to crash into the Sun or anything like that. What I mean is that we had a future that we could clearly imagine. The future wasn’t tomorrow, next week, next year, or next century. It was a place with a form, a structure, a style.” And part of that vision was monorails.
I admit it when I visualize a hip, green future, it is a city covered with voluptuously curved buildings of pure white concrete and sparking glass. Where roads of wheezing autos were once locked in traffic, long narrow meadows blow gently in the breeze in the spindly shadows of silent monorails.
So why don’t we have more of them? Well, the truth about monorails is this: they are unique adaptation of narrow gauge rail fitted with rubber tires. That’s all folks.
Narrow gauge has numerous advantages in hilly terrain. It can climb steeper hills and take tighter turns while moving freight through small right of ways. Often it is the railway system of choice when the rail is used only lightly, as it is much cheaper to build and operate. Least you think narrow gauge is old fashioned, truly tiny trains (as tiny as 18″ gauge) receive very heavy duty use in some of the most modern mines in the world. Narrow gauge carries passengers and freight all the world over (1 meter gauge). And is the backbone of Australian sugar production in the form of a 460 mile 24″ gauge fully dieselized line. (here)
Rubber tired trains, on the other hand sound retarded. Isn’t the whole benefit to rail the absurd efficiencies of steel wheels on steel rail (about 99.994 percent efficient in lab conditions)? So why a rubber tired one? Well, steel on steel’s superb lack of friction becomes a real liability when one needs to do anything where traction rather than efficiency is of prime importance. Hill climbing is one of these situations. Rubber tired trains can climb grades of up to 13%. ( More than 680 ft of rise per mile) They brake faster and are quieter and smoother. The big disadvantage to rubber tired trains is that they require guide rails as well as concrete or steel “rails” to carry the tires.
Enter the monorail. A single rail, around a meter wide. The train runs on truck tires on the rail and holds onto the sides as well as the top. This means aside from the advantages of narrow gauge (tight turns, steep grades) and the advantages of rubber tired trains (very steep grades, quite operation, rapid speed change) it has the final advantage of being able to handle very steep embankments (since it can’t fall over, even if it stops on one.)
So why don’t we see them every day?
(1.) The guideway (beam) is both structural (like a bridge) and precision guiding (like rail). Large load carrying members made to .005 precision are expensive. Theoretically, in mass production it should be cheaper since the two operations are combined but this savings is hard to realize in real life.
(2.)The guideway is big, and cannot ever cross roads at grade level. Grade separation is safer. It is also expensive.
(3.) Switching T-rail is easy. Switching multi-ton beams isn’t. Switches are expensive. (Not impossible mind you, just pricey.)
(4.) Full size trains put such huge loads on such tiny areas that any ice or water on the rail is literally vaporized at the contact patch. Narrow gauges don’t put down that kind of load and require manicured track. Rubber tired trains have even softer contact and so they require very clean “tracks”. Since a monorail is just a rubber tired narrow gauge, they require constant guideway attention during rain/snow/sleet etc.) Again, this can be done but at a cost. (One in Russia just uses a steam heated guideway.)
(5.) Elevated trains are not fun, easy, or cheap to evacuate.
So why is monorail used at all? At its own line of work, nothing is better. Monorail is absolutely ideal for what it is used for worldwide: grade separated mass transit that must operate through narrow and hilly city corridors. If the train has to be elevated anyway, then the prefab monorail guideways are cheaper than bridge + rail. If it is narrow and hilly, than rubber tires make more sense than steel. If people have to walk under it and live by it, rubber tires are nice. So, as I said, IDEAL for elevated urban corridors.
But I stand by my idea: monorail is rubber tired narrow gauge. Use it where it works, but let’s not pretend it is anything more than that.
In 1816, the Reverend Robert Stirling invented a engine. From time to time an astute reader will hear about this engine as the solution to the world’s problems in general, and as the perfect candidate for automotive hybrids specifically. Pure bunk and here’s why.
First, you have to know a little about hot gas. (Gas like air or CO2, not like gasoline.) When gas is heated, it wants to get bigger (ie. increase in volume). When it has its heat removed (cooled), it wants to decrease in volume. If it is in a sealed container, it can’t increase its volume, so it presses against the walls of the container all the harder when heated (pressure). That’s why aerosol cans say to not expose to temperatures of more than 120 degrees. They are full of gas at a certain pressure and if they get too hot, the pressure gets too high and they pop. (Also, if you have a weak container, like an empty closed pop bottle and stick it in the freezer, it will collapse. The removal of the gas’s heat causes a reduction in volume, which reduces the pressure, meaning the air pressure on the outside is higher, and it squishes in.) There are mathematical formulas that describe these relationships of pressure, volume and temperature called gas laws.
A man named Carnot (above) put all of the gas laws together and drew some rational conclusions. He performed a thought experiment about the perfect heat engine. (An engine being a device for turning heat energy into mechanical energy.) The perfect heat engine would be made out of a magic material which would let heat in but not out at one point, and out but not in at another. It would have no friction, and would never leak. That way, any energy flow could be controlled and monitored.
(1.) Heat would be added perfectly instep with the expansion of the gas, so that no energy was wasted. (Heat is added but the temperature doesn’t increase, because it’s expanding instep.) It expands while taking heat, pushing the piston down.
(2.)The heat in the gas is then “used up” as the gas continues to expand without new heat. It expands while cooling, still pushing the piston down.
(3.)The heat is then removed from the gas, causing the gas to shrink (reduce in volume), pulling the piston in.
(4.) Now the piston is pushed in (further reduced in volume), raising the temperature of the gas back to the temperature it was before the heat was added in step 1.
For various reasons deduced from the gas laws, Carnot’s engine is the most efficient on earth. Since we know what perfect is, we know the best way to design any engine on earth.
Though every part of Carnot’s cycle is right, none of them are true, and therein lies the problem. There is no material which can conduct heat only in one direction, give us choice of direction, and switch direction at whim. There is no gas which behaves exactly as the gas laws say they should, though hydrogen approaches it. There is no material that is totally frictionless and perfectly sealing at the same time. Carnot’s engines says the key to efficiency is the difference between the temperature of the heat input in step (1) and the heat removed in step (2).
Material science is the kicker. The engine’s material must be a good conductor of heat or the heat in it will build up until it melts. But it must not be too good a conductor of heat or it will take heat out of the engine which the engine is supposed to be making power out of. It must allow a tight seal for the piston but without to much friction.
Long story short, the engine must be all at once: a good conductor, insulator, bearing surface, and pressure vessel. Due to the properties of combustion, it must do all of this while white hot and resistant to corrosion.
In the case of the Otto engine (the kind most likely in your car), you can add to all of those challenges this: the heat is not made outside the engine, but in it, and the gas not heated by an outside source, but within the cylinder itself by flame. Furthermore, there are the complexities of piping the gas in and out.
At this point one might cry, “Wait a moment! Do you mean to tell me that the efficiency of an engine is based of the difference between the temperatures at the beginning and end of the cycle? My exhaust manifold GLOWS red! I must be throwing away a huge amount of energy!” Yup.
And that’s a very good thing. The reason you can afford a car is because the Otto cycle, with all its oddities of valves and spark plugs and not reusing the working gas, dumps excess heat out the exhaust stream. If it didn’t, the engine block would need to be made of the same alloys that jet engines are made of, instead of cast aluminum or cast iron.
So, here’s the danger of a little information. (And full circle back to the Stirling engine.) The Stirling engine does not burn inside the engine, it burns outside of it. Its gas is sealed away inside. Of all the engines in the world, Sterling comes the closest to Carnot’s imaginary engine in its cycle. Only in its cycle. Remember that Carnot’s engine is imaginary and made of unobtanium? Carnot’s cycle only has meaning as a thought experiment because you can’t make an engine out of magic alloys which do not exist.
People read that the Stirling engine is theoretically the most efficient heat engine and assume they don’t have one under their hood because it was simply never maximized. Actually it is not that it has not been maximized but that it CANNOT be maximized. Though combustion creates temperatures of thousands of degrees, the Otto engine need not operate at that temperature. If a Stirling was going to operate at that temperature the heat would have to move through the engine and then into the gas. So the engine block, under full power generating stress, must be hotter than the low stress exhaust pipes of an Otto cycle.
Though invented in 1816 to save people from the danger of boiler explosions, the Stirling was never widely used. Steam engines are also external combustion engines, but they have the boiling of water to serve as a temperature regulator. Stirlings do not have this, and a frequent and persistent complaint is burnt out parts.
Another HUGE misunderstanding about Stirling engines is their ability to use very low temperature differentials; that is to say, freakishly small differences between input temperature and output temperature. It’s true. In a 72 degree room, a small Stirling can run off the heat of your palm. These tiny engines create just enough power to overcome their own friction. What would happen if you scaled it up? You would have an enormous engine with equally enormous bearings. Again, the engine would create just enough power to overcome its own friction.
But just for the sake of argument, let’s say you had a truly enormous engine, one the size of a house. The hot part is in the sunshine, and the cool part is in the shade. The low temperature difference would be overcome by the truly enormous amount of energy available, right?
A qualified no. The smaller the temperature difference, the greater amount of gas the engine has to pump around to get the same amount of power. There’s no free lunch. For the same amount of power, high temp = small working mass, low temp = large working gas. The losses to pumping all that gas through the small passages necessary for heat reclaiming mount up very quickly. For this reason, efficiencies are very low. While low efficiencies with free power (like solar) are OK, it’s a niche application.
Another route to efficiency is high pressure. Reverend Robert made his Stirlings low pressure and large (For instance, about a cubic foot of displacement per horsepower, or 172,800% larger than an Otto cycle of the same HP.). The modern trend is to make them high pressure and small. But then they must be filled with inert gas and sealed just so, because if air and lube oil are pressurized and heated the Stirling engine becomes a bomb. This is also why Rev. Stirling could make his engines with a foundryman and bricklayer and modern engines are “lab queens” in college physics departments.
Finally, another story that pops up now and then is Ford’s Stirling research in the 1970’s. Yes, they made a Stirling engine. No, they didn’t produce it. They didn’t produce it for the exact same reason Chrysler didn’t produce its turbines nor GM its Wankle. Material science could not mass produce certain key components at low enough cost to get enough people buying. This, in turn, means mass production could not be used, further raising the price and decreasing the market in a vicious catch-22.
Don’t get me wrong. I think Stirlings are cool. I think they have applications to green science. But we will never see one in a car produced by market forces. Further, if you want to invest in expensive technologies, fuel cells have higher real world efficiencies than Stirling’s theoretical ones.