Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Two posts in one day. Mark it on your calendar!

My Halloween costume. A bit of touching up to make the text stand out more.


I'll eventually get back to Solar Decathlon stuff. But this is Halloween so I felt the need to write something more relevant. Today I want to address the misunderstood Lucifer since Venus was so prominent in this morning's sky.

Lucifer was one of the few Greek angels. He's also known as the "morning star" or Venus. But as the Christians slowly crushed the Greek polytheistic belief Lucifer became one of the angels who challenged the Christian god and was cast down to Hell.

Movies have made Lucifer synonymous with Satan. This is just one of those Hollywood things. Satan was the leader of the rebellion against the Christian god. Lucifer was just one of the many angels who followed. Let me repeat that. Lucifer and Satan are not the same being. They just both happened to tell Yahweh where he could stuff his prayers when he demanded that they worship and obey him.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Home Repairs: The Continuing Saga

I'm busy. Read this.
Since nearly the beginning of this blog I've been regaling you with periodic tales of this man's struggle with home repair. Well I'm gonna do it again.

Last Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday the weather realized it was sorely behind in providing DC's rain quota for the year and tried to make up for that shortage. Friday in particular was a soaker. So Friday night, as I was contemplating sleep, I heard a familiar drip-drip-dripping coming from the ceiling above my couch in my first floor living room. I realized now that I had really opened up the ceiling in my former geek room and torn out the sheetrock covering the ductwork and other half of the chimney. I should now be able to see the leak that has plagued me these last three years.

Sure enough there was a steady drip-drip of water coming from the darkness above. Sometimes it hit the ductwork I was trying to remove and sometimes it dropped onto the sheetrock of the ceiling in the living room below.

I grabbed a flashlight, leaned a ladder against a ceiling joist, and proceeded up into the shadows. I could see water marks where it had been running down the outside of the chimney and down the plaster that covers the shared wall. Up and up I went stopping several times at places I thought the leak should have been coming from but wasn't. Finally, I found the origin of the drip coming not from the chimney or the brickwork but one of the boards that makes up the actual roof. It could be the water running down the roof until it hits the chimney where it hesitates long enough to come through. But the drip was from the lowest point on the board which means that it could be coming from nearly anywhere from there to the front of the house and running down to that point.

Of course, up on the roof the next day I could see where my previous expeditions had tried filling holes and applying patches. I got everything that looks like it should be got. There's no visible reason that water should get through. But isn't that always the case? Even in programming you sometimes have to retype a faulty line character for character to fix a problem that has no visible cause.

So I guess I'm gonna call up Eric, the handyman, again. I'm good at a lot of stuff but slopping around hot tar is not on the list. I'm expecting the old surface to be torn up and a new surface put down. Any water damages and/or rotting surfaces to be replaced in the process. Not a complete replacement. Just problem places. And since Eric knows he'll be putting the mythical deck up there eventually he can have any modifications to the room that he'll need to make while they're there.

So I've replaced one whole surface of the house, I'm having another one stripped and resurfaced, and I'm personally routing out and repointing part of a third surface. Any bets on when I do the front wall?

If I had more money stuffed away I'd spend the next year getting my house rezoned and have them put a third story on.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Jack and Jill

Blogspot isn't letting me upload pics at the moment so you get this instead.

Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water.

What the hell was the well doing on the top of the hill? Whoever dug it just had that much more soil to dig through. Wells are at the bottom of hills where they're closer to the water table and you have to haul the heavy pail of water back up the hill.
Then again, I'm assuming that there was a well. The poem doesn't actually say there was a well. It's just that all the art in the nursery rhyme books show there was a well at the top of the hill. The poem doesn't say they went to the top either. They just went up. We just accept that because of the picture. Kinda like how we assume that Humpty Dumpty was an egg despite the fact that the rhyme never mentions an egg.
No, Jack and Jill could have been going up the hill to where the river water was still fresh, clean, glacier runoff and easy to carry downhill because the river water further downstream is polluted by sewage runoff from the city.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Solar Decathlon: Visible utilities

Since the schools at the Solar Decathlon were permitted such small footprints for their houses they had to make do with what room they had. Instead of stuffing their hot and cold water tanks in a utility closet they incorporated them into the house. They wrapped them in translucent cylinders with colored LEDs around the top and bottom. Red for the hot water tank and blue for the cold water tank. My camera artificially enhanced the red and diminished the blue

The same school, from Colorado, built their own radiator. It's the divider between the kitchen and living room. It makes for a psychological barrier between the rooms while still leaving things open. It's also decorative. They pump either hot or cold water through the pipes to heat or cool the room. Someone asked about condensation. But being from Colorado they don't have enough humidity to worry about it. Lucky bastards.

Another school tore apart some old refrigerators for parts. The grill from the back that radiates the heat became a dual purpose decorative light cover and temperature control system. They lined the living room with lights like you see in the picture below. There's similar units on the roof. This way the house becomes a big refrigerator. They can circulate the heat in or out as desired.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Movie Review: Wristcutters: A Love Story

I hadn't heard about this movie until I won tickets. This movie will probably show at the independent theaters so you Wichita-area people are out of luck.

"Wristcutters: A Love Story" opens with our main character, Zia, cleaning his apartment and then killing himself. He wakes up in an afterlife just for suicides. It's not the Dante suicide land where you become a tree where harpies tear your branches off. This one is just like our world only worse.

The landscape looks like Southern California (pre-fires). It's all desert and scrub brush, the occasional tree, and mountains in the background. Everything looks like it's from the 70's. Every building has fluorescent lights. When you go outside it looks like the sun must also be fluorescent. There's no stars, you can't smile.

Zia finds out that the ex-GF that he killed himself over committed suicide a month later. He and a Russian friend get in the car and go looking for her. The car's headlights don't work no matter how many times they fix them. And there's a vortex under the passenger seat so anything that you drop down there is gone forever.

They pick up a hitchhiker who is looking for the authorities because she thinks that she's there by mistake. She died by her own hand but not on purpose.

They find a camp where minor miracles happen all the time. This leads them to a neighboring cult leader who is promising to get people to a better place.

You can see the trailer at

The movie is amusing all the way through. Grinning but rarely laughing out loud.

I liked it but won't get it on DVD.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Solar Decathlon: Barn wood

This particular entry is directed more at my parents than the rest of you. Ok, not this part... or the next bit... but we'll get there.

My parents live on a farm. There's a stone chicken coop that needs the foundation jacked up a bit, a stone garage designed for a model-T, a stone cow milking structure, a huge wooden hay barn, and a less huge wooden barn that happens to have hay, a boat, and a styrofoam castle in it. These wooden structures are in less than ideal condition. Now that he's retired Dad has expressed some interest in replacing the huge hay barn with something that better fits their existing needs instead of those from fifty years ago. Some interest. Not a lot. Not as much as me. But some.

Anyway, what I want to do is tear down the old barn and sell off the old wood to raise money to pay for the new barn. I detected a bit of skepticism at my plan. However, to further prove my point that there is a demand for barn wood I present Exhibit A.

A barn wood ceiling

A close up of the same ceiling

Three of the houses at the Solar Decathlon used barn wood in their house. Or rather, three houses talked about it. Most of the time you couldn't tell. Only in this house was the wood clearly from a barn. As you can see, they ran it through a planer to get rid of the warping but didn't cut so deep that it would lose the cracks and some of the surface oxidation that gives it the barn wood look.

Also, I'm revising my sketches of the replacement barn to incorporate a shipping container or two.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Solar Decathlon: Aerogel

A popular material this year was a translucent polycarbonite material. We had some sealing the windows in the office while the old windows were off being cleaned and repaired. I've seen them in greenhouses (Solexx) and plan to use them in my kitchen ceiling... eventually.

Solexx greenhouse panel

This is spiffy material, but not a great insulator. Probably better than the office windows they replaced, but then what isn't?

Aerogel is a substance developed by NASA. (more)
-It's used in the Martian Pathfinder,
-it was used in the Stardust mission to catch comet and other stellar debris,
-it is 99.8% Air,
-provides 39 times more insulating than the best fiberglass insulation
-is 1,000 times less dense than glass

Georgia Tech, and possibly others, put Aerogel in the holes in the greenhouse stuff and probably put a bit more between two sheets of the greenhouse stuff. The inside of their house looked like this.

The walls, the ceiling, everywhere. It lets light in while maintaining your privacy. And at night your house appears to glow.

I'm not sure how I'd apply this technology to my existing house. I suppose I could make a couple of window inserts to put up during the winter to better insulate the windows without loosing too much of the natural light.

Also cool...

I've been planning to do something similar with my kitchen ceiling. Cover it with the greenhouse stuff and then put lights behind it. I'll probably use ropes of white LED lights instead of a couple of blue lights like done here. Mine will never look this cool but it was nice to get an idea of how my idea will play out.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Movie Review: 30 Days of Night

Vampires are great storybook creatures. They have a list of powers and a list of weaknesses. Beyond that you can do whatever you want with them. The creatively inclined (a.k.a. Geeks) can spend hours figuring new ways to use the powers of vampires, new ways to fight vampires, and how a vampire would fare against other heroes or monsters.
Why are they afraid of crosses? Do other religious symbols work? What's the harmful element of sunlight? Etc.

Frequently writers will drop some of the more obscure rules and limitations to make the story work better. For example, most movies just require you to stake them in the heart instead of stake them through the heart and into the ground as traditional folklore says. They make vampires just retreat into the shadows when the sun comes up instead of collapsing back into a deathlike state.

As a kid I played with vampire ideas. Some got written up while others didn't. One idea had them retreat to the North Pole in the winter and South Pole during the summer so they could make use of the extra long nights that can last for months. So I was thrilled when I saw someone else used that idea as the basis for a graphic novel and the movie "30 Days of Night".

In a small Alaskan town along an oil pipeline the sun is about to vanish for the next month. 4/5 of the village leaves to wait out the sun further south. There's no roads connecting this village to the rest of the world. Only dog sleds and planes can get them in or out. The last plane has just left and someone killed all the dogs.

Soon the vampires come. But they're only vampires in the loosest definition. They seem to be speaking some slavic language. Transylvanian probably. But they also squeal a lot. Possibly inspired by echo-location in bats. Instead of just elongated incisors all their teeth are fangs. And their faces are permanently distorted. They are sensitive to sunlight. But where a proper vampire tries to be tidy and not spill any of the blood they use as food these vampires rip, tear, and make a big ol' mess. No holy water, crosses, mirrors, stakes, etc. These vampires are to Dracula what "28 Days Later" zombies are the old voodoo model.

The movie flows more like a zombie flick. A small group of people starts trapped in a hidden attic. There's some Anne Frank moments ruined by the constantly playing background music. They move on from building to building over the course of the month as storms come and go. They're a people under siege.

A lot of people are coming down hard on the movie. It's just not scary. It's not what you think of in a vampire flick. People were laughing at the screeching vampires. I rather liked it. It's a good siege story with good camera work in places. Maybe some Anne Rice vampires would have been more acceptable to the public, but if you can think of them as photo-sensitive monsters instead of vampires it'll go a lot better.

I probably won't get it on DVD. Still, compared to the other stuff out these days it's pretty damn good.

Friday, October 19, 2007

I've got an owie

I'm gonna interrupt my scheduled Solar Decathlon coverage to moan about an owie on my finger.

I may have mentioned that with the weather cooling that I'm getting a lot more work done on my house. I haven't used the AC all summer partially to see if that would work in this climate and partially because my house leaks. It's mostly there to remove the humidity anyway. But this did mean it was too miserable to do any work upstairs. The temperature is artificially enhanced by the dust mask which keeps me from venting body heat through my mouth. So even in 70 degree weather I'm sweating.

But I'm making great progress. Last Friday and Saturday I got about 10 troughs of mortar pushed. I've had to do some mortar work with bare hands before, but not in this quantity. I got two holes worn in the tip of the middle finger of my left hand. I cleaned it with a toothbrush (oh yeah, ow!), disinfected it (more ow), and wrapped it up.

Not being able to scoop mortar I had to find other things to do. I tore down the rest of the ceiling and then last night I cleaned and vacuumed the room with a shovel and a wet/dry vac. The carpet is still filthy, but it's visibly carpet instead of just sandbox.

So tonight when I went to push more mortar (there were still marks on my finger but it seemed safe) I got a real impression of what the finished room is gonna be like. I REALLY like it. It's warm. It's friendly. It's cozy. There's a wall of exposed brick and a ceiling of exposed wood. I'm gonna want to spend a lot of time in there.

This is in stark contrast to two days before when I was tearing down the ceiling and finding unpleasant forms of dust that made me want to just burn the house for the safety of the planet.

Oh, about 1/2 way through the second trough my finger reopened. Wanna see?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Solar Decathlon: exterior shots

I took a ton of pictures at the Solar Decathlon. These are my wide shots of the houses. I'll be showing the closer and interior shots later to talk about specific subjects.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Solar Decathlon: Induction stoves

Some day I will have an induction stove in my kitchen. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept let me explain. Forgive me if I start too simple. I've been rather disturbed with how many people required me to go back to the fundamentals when explaining this stuff.

When you run an electrical current through a coil of wire it produces a magnetic field. This is the idea behind an electromagnet.
The opposite is also true. Wave a magnet at a coil of wire and you "induce" an electrical current in the wire. This is induction. This is how turbines work.
In an induction stove a magnetic field is created by the stove. If there is iron in your pots then it will try to generate electricity in your pot. Since the resistance of your pot is so high it will heat up instead. This means that your glass and aluminum pots don't work on induction stoves. But there's still lots of workable pots in most stores.

pros and cons
Most of the homes in the Solar Decathlon use these instead of gas or electric because they're more efficient.
Gas stoves are about 30% efficient. You get heat instantly but there's lots of waste heat doing nothing but heating your kitchen. Plus you have to worry about an exposed flame.
Electric stoves are about 60% efficient. It takes longer to heat up but there's less waste since the heating coils are in direct contact with the pot. It's easier to forget you left it on since there's no flame. These days they tend to have solid surfaces which are easier to clean.
Induction stoves are about 90% efficient. There's little to no waste heat since the pan itself is heating up. The pan warms faster than with gas. You can boil water in just a few minutes. You can set your hand right next to the pot without burning yourself. If you drop a towel on it while it's on the towel won't catch fire. It won't burn stupid kids or forgetful elders. They also share the solid and easy to clean surface. On the down side you do need to watch out for your jewelry. One of the students talked about his necklace heating up.

The last time I went looking for induction stoves was about a year and a half ago. At the time most models were either massive systems for large and expensive restauraunts or little hotplate looking things. All except for Diva.
Now the market has expanded. I'm going to be pointing you to the various vendors.

Wolf has a nice little 15"x21" two burner jobbie with touch sensitive controls.

Bosch has.... ok, looks like I was misled. That was just an electric rangetop. Bad, Bosch. No treat for you.

KitchenAid I know has one. It says "induction" right on it. There's a five burner 36" wide model ( and a four burner 30" wide model ( also with touch controls. You know, you should just take touch controls for granted.

Diva I mentioned before. They have six models ranging from 12" wide to 36". Just go to and click on "Products".

Siemens sells them, but looking about it appears they don't sell them in the United States. I'm gonna make you international readers look for them on your own. Yeah, I know you're there. Someone is reading this at 2:00 in the morning.

K├╝ppersbusch has press releases talking about theirs, but nothing in their product list. seems to be showing off. Check out their song and dance at And it looks like we should be able to pop out to Sears to see one in real life.

To me the biggest drawback is the fact that it's only a rangetop. The oven still has to be purchased separately.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Movie Review: The Dark is Rising

With the success of "Lord of the Rings" studios are rushing around trying to make childrens novels into movies. The latest is "The Seeker: The Dark is Rising" based on Susan Cooper's "The Dark is Rising". Oddly enough this is the second book in the series. I get the impression they intend to adapt more, but I'm also still expecting the second "Chronicles of Narnia" movie.

There's a 13 year old kid who just discovered he's some immortal being called "The Seeker". A lifetime of movies flashes through my head.
"Your father wanted you to have this [lightsaber] when you were old enough."
"You're a wizard, Harry."
"You are the last Dragonrider."
Luckily this veers off from the Star Wars formula. His mentors aren't remotely ObiWan-like or remotely helpful. The boy continues on with his life but over the next three days he keeps seeing signs that lead him to the seven signs that will defeat The Dark.
Christopher Eccleston (Doctor Who) plays the agent of The Dark. His power is growing so that by the end of the third day he'll be able to spread darkness over the whole planet unless the kid uses the seven signs.

I've never read, nor heard of, this series and I'm glad I haven't. It's clear that they stripped out a lot to make it movie length. But that's to be expected isn't it? It felt like it could have comfortably been two or three movies, but if they did that it wouldn't interesting enough for me to come back for the second part.

It's ok, but it's not wonderful. There's just somethings that you do while writing a movie that you don't while writing a book and vice versa. Movies work better as long short stories than shortened books.

I will not get it on DVD but I'll probably go see the next movie.

Monday, October 15, 2007


I've been lax in updating lately because I was at the National Archives on Wednesday and at Fort Dietrich on Friday. This morning I had meeting and file management of the Wednesday and Friday stuff to deal with. So while I ready the first of what will be several Solar Decathlon related posts I give you something I lifted from

posted by Liberal Eagle at 12:51 PM
In this column here, which you should read, Paul Krugman analyzes the conservative sense of "humor." (I'm so glad the NY Times is no longer putting its opinion writers behind a subscription wall, if only for Krugman and Bob Herbert.)

It has not escaped my notice in the past that when conservatives are being "funny" they always come off as complete and total assholes (P.J. O'Rourke, who I actually quite like, being the one notable exception I can think of). Think of Rush Limbaugh joking back in the '90s about holding the "Homeless Olympics" or calling Chelsea Clinton, who was 14 at the time, the "White House dog."

Molly Ivins wrote of Rush, around the same time:

Satire can be quite a cruel weapon. It has historically been the weapon of powerless people aimed at the powerful. When you use satire as a weapon against powerless people, it is not only cruel, it is profoundly vulgar.

When I listen to Limbaugh, as I often do [brave woman, Molly], I find he consistently targets dead people, little girls, the homeless, and animals--none of whom are in a particularly good position to respond. It is the consistency of his selection of helpless targets that I find so appalling.

I miss Molly Ivins.

(And we won't even get into the slime of Ann Coulter, who thinks it's the hight of hilarity to call people "faggots" and advocate murdering Supreme Court justices and blowing up the New York Times building with all its reporters and editors inside. I've been told I don't "get" her humor. My theory is that this is because I have a soul.)

Of course, as Krugman notes, conservative assholery has a high pedigree, having been given legitimacy by the patron saint of modern conservatism, a man who (ironically) is widely thought of as sunny and positive.

But Ronald Reagan thought the issue of hunger in the world’s richest nation was nothing but a big joke. Here’s what Reagan said in his famous 1964 speech “A Time for Choosing,” which made him a national political figure: “We were told four years ago that 17 million people went to bed hungry each night. Well, that was probably true. They were all on a diet.”

Ha ha ha ha ha ha. I think my sides may have split. Billy Kristol, writing in the present day, can you follow that act?

In anticipation of [Bush's veto of the SCHIP bill, which would have expanded health care for children], William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, had this to say: “First of all, whenever I hear anything described as a heartless assault on our children, I tend to think it’s a good idea. I’m happy that the president’s willing to do something bad for the kids.”

Honestly, it's very hard for me not to hope Bill Kristol gets flattened by an ambulance on his way home from work.

I suppose this is inevitably what you get when you mix these particular ingredients into a political movement. Take a bunch of privileged rich kids. In high school and college, have them all read Ayn Rand, thereby drilling into them the idea that acting in their own naked self-interest at all times is not only allowable, it's a supreme moral virtue. Stir.

Krugman also points out something interesting about George W. Bush, he of vetoing a children's health care bill that has over 70% support nationally:

Mark Crispin Miller, the author of “The Bush Dyslexicon,” once made a striking observation: all of the famous Bush malapropisms — “I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family,” and so on — have involved occasions when Mr. Bush was trying to sound caring and compassionate.

By contrast, Mr. Bush is articulate and even grammatical when he talks about punishing people; that’s when he’s speaking from the heart. The only animation Mr. Bush showed during the flooding of New Orleans was when he declared “zero tolerance of people breaking the law,” even those breaking into abandoned stores in search of the food and water they weren’t getting from his administration.

At least he didn't tell a lot of jokes about the displaced refugees. (He left that to his mom.)

But I think this underscores an important point about who we as a nation should be empowering. George W. Bush is only interested in being the big tough manly man, not in, you know, actually governing. What was so great about Bill Clinton, for all his failings, was that he actually liked governing, believed in it, and was good at it. He cared about policy and making it work.

In a way, that's the choice in front of us in the next election, isn't it? Vote for the party which, by and large, actually wants to govern, or vote for the party which, on the whole, couldn't care less about governing, unless by "governing" you mean going out and kicking some weak little country's ass so we can all feel tough.

The nerdy administrator who'll make your life easier, or the macho bully who'll make fun of your kids if they get sick. It's up to you, America.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

New shows

There's three new shows this season which are basically the same show. The basic premise of these three shows is some early twenties person in a go nowhere job has something happen which grants them great power which more powerful people wish to exploit.

The first show is "Chuck". Chuck works as a computer geek at a "Best Buy" knockoff. An old college buddy of Chuck was in some government agency and he went rogue. Before getting killed he sent Chuck an e-mail of a video which jumped into Chuck's head with all the secrets of the FBI, CIA, and probably some others. Now both agencies have someone using him for missions.

The second show is "Reaper". Our hero works at a "Home Depot" knockoff. His parents sold him to Satan before he was born in exchange for curing his father. When he turned 21 Satan comes to collect. Satan made him a bounty hunter to collect the souls of people who escaped from hell. So far this is my favorite.

The third show is "Bionic Woman". Our hero works in a bar and takes care of her little sister. One day she was in the car with her boyfriend when it got hit by a semi. He was just banged up, but she was mangled. He also happened to be part of a secret project to develop super spies with bionic bits and pieces. He saved our hero's life by getting her broken bits replaced. Both legs, an arm, an eye, an ear, and her blood. Now she works with the agency.

Another new show of interest is "Pushing Daisies". It's sort of Tristan and Iseult made for TV. Our hero was born with the ability to bring the dead back to life by touching them. When he touches them again they die and stay dead. If they stay alive for more than a minute someone else dies. A detective found out about this. Now they work together. They bring murder victims back to life long enough to ask who killed them and then collect the reward. This is not the Tristan and Iseult part. That comes when he brings back his first sweetheart and keeps her alive. Now they're deeply in love and can never every touch each other or she'll die.
See, in the original Tristan and Iseult were separated by a wall with a small hole in it. They conduct the entire romance through that hole.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Solar Decathlon: pregame show

Gandolf (my parrot) and I went down to the National Mall to check out the Solar Decathlon setup. We've gone together to every show so far. The 2002 show was her first major public outing. I've got a couple groups to show around next weekend when the houses are open and I wanted a preview to prepare myself. Sorry, I didn't take the camera this time. Next weekend, I promise.

There seems to be less diversity in design than in other years. It's all pretty much a box with south facing solar panels on the roof. The differences should be more clear on the inside.

Texas has some artwork on the sides and some plastic panels covering it. I saw a few flapping up in the wind. I couldn't quite figure out why so I asked a young lady on break. The short answer is that they're there for aesthetic purposes. Some are clear and some are opaque and they're arranged in an artistic manner, but they're real purpose is just to keep the rain off the real art.
Texas also stands out in that their hard hats are shaped like stetsons.

A couple of the houses have vertical planters stuck to the southern exposure. They're dirt and peat in a plastic housing which is turned vertically so the plants stick out the side. One has an elaborate system welded together to hold their trays in a rack with a big plastic grey water tank mounted near the top to water them. Grey water is used water sans-sewage. Stuff from the sink and shower, but not the toilet.

It looks like all the houses are using evacuated tubing for their hot water. These are replacements for the old fashioned pipes in a black box that I grew up with. They're supposed to be arranged with one end higher than the other so that convection currents convey the heat to the top and into the water pipe. The first year some of the schools had to start covering theirs or taking it apart because they were getting so much hot water. One school this year covered their southern exposure with these pipes. They have enough to power a turbine, it seems. But they installed them horizontally so I think they'll have trouble getting the heat to the correct end.
Having had time to think about this I think I know what's going on. One school had what appeared to be a hot tub as part of the design. Maybe that's this school.

Besides ingenuity in energy savings the students must be creative in design for transport. One school put their panels in wooden frames to make them easier to put up and take down. The rest of the schools are assembling theirs on site. You may notice on this house the shadow that these boxes cast. Some of the boxes act as awnings over the southern windows. During the summer time when the sun is high (you can reach right up and touch the sky) the shadow covers the windows completely. But in the winter they provide nearly no shade so the sun shines in to make the most of the winter sun.

The Germans have an all glass southern exposure and nearly no awning. I thought they were gonna cook in there. But they have folding doors with screens on them that can be opened and closed to provide as much or as little light as possible.

The Solar Decathlon officially opens on October 12 and runs through the 20th. It's located near the Smithsonian Metro stop at the Mall exit. They're open for tours 10:00 AM - 5:00 PM on weekends and only until 3:00 PM on weekdays. If you find yourself near there after dark they typically have plenty of solar lighting making it an attractive place even at night.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Science Lesson 5: How planes fly

Ira Flatow (Newton's Apple, NPR's Science Friday) was in town Tuesday signing his new book "Present at the Future: From Evolution to Nanotechnology, Candid and Controversial Conversations on Science and Nature". I'm only about 30 pages in, but flows nicely. I'll tell you all about it when I finish it.

One subject that Ira is passionate about is the myth of how planes fly. He dedicates a chapter to it, discusses it in the introduction, and spent part of the talk on the subject.

What we've always been taught in school, and what Ira used to believe, is the Bernoulli's Principle story. That is that a wing has greater surface area on the top than the bottom so the air has to travel faster over the top to reach the back of the wing at the same time as the air that goes under. Since the air is moving faster over the top the pressure is lower and the wing gets sucked up.

It always seemed to me that this was wrong. The pressure difference would create some lift, but not nearly enough. I didn't see why the air on the top would really need to move faster. Even if it were so then wouldn't greater and lesser lift be best created by making the top of the wing expand and contract to alter the surface area?

This isn't wrong, it's just incomplete. If this were all there was to it then a 747 would have to be traveling at 400 mph to get off the ground.

I've always supplemented Bernoulli with how a fan works. Blades at an angle push the air when they're moving. Surely that's why wings have that flap. The flap points down forcing the air that goes under the wing to go down and the wing up. So the wing is getting pushed up. Right? Wrong. When I stick my arm out the car window and shape my hand like an airfoil it feels like angling my hand or wiggling my pinky causes the air hitting the bottom of my hand to lift my arm.

But, I'm told, that if you read books on aircraft engineering that they don't mention Bernoulli at all. It's all about Newton. Now, when I heard this I was cheering myself for figuring all this out way back in grade school. But I was still wrong.

A rocket doesn't depend on how the air moves over it to fly. It pushes the exhaust down and by pushing the exhaust pushes back. A helicopter pulls air down. Bernoulli has nothing to do with either one of these. The airplane also pulls air down. I'll get to how in just a moment.

Think of yourself in the shower. You reach up to wash your hair and water runs down your fore arm. Instead of just shooting off your elbow it curves around and runs down your upper arm. It's attraction to your arm is greater than gravity. There's even rain gutters that use that trick to make the water cling to a curve and run into the gutter while any debris off the roof shoots off into the yard.

Air does much the same thing when going over a wing. We get an idea about this when talking about Bernoulli. It's just that instead of trailing behind the wing the wind continues more or less in the direction it was going when it left the flaps. The wind is rushing down and pulling the plane up. The steeper the angle of the wing or the flaps the more downward the wind rushes.

According to Ira, the underside of the wing isn't terribly important. That's why they can strap on engines and guns and rockets and whatnot. It's the air flowing over the top and then downward that's really important.

note: I had this entry proofed by El Cid, an aircraft engineer with Boeing, just to make sure I understood correctly. His further notes are below.

At low speeds it is very hard to push the air around; it just gets out of the way. That is why the shape of the bottom of the wing is not so important. Most every thing that happens at subsonic speeds happens because of the air getting pulled around by a low pressure area. Low pressure can be maintained in a stable thing called a vortex (smoke rings, dust devils). There is no stable high pressure area. When you introduce an area of high pressure into the air, it is called an explosion. Not stable. A wing or a fan blade carries a vortex along with it. The relative effect of lift caused by low pressure vs high pressure is about 8 to 1. (you won't find that in any textbook, it is El Cid's calculation.) And yes the result is that after the wing has passed by, a large quantity of air gets flung downward.

If you want to look at it mathematically, look up Newton's 2nd law F=MA. Rearranging it gives F = dV*M/dt, the Force generated by the wing is equal to the Velocity that the air gets flung downward times how much Mass of air gets flung per second.

"...wouldn't greater and lesser lift be best created by making the top
of the wing expand and contract to alter the surface area?
Yes!, that is exactly why we use flaps at low speeds: to change the area, and shape, of the top of the wing so that it sucks the air downward at a greater velocity. The result: less M/dt, more dV, same F.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Would you kill Hitler?

Old question: If you had a time machine and had a shot at killing young Adolf Hitler would you do it?

In various contexts it's a question about whether you could commit murder for a good cause, kill someone who hadn't YET done anything, alter the timeline, and a few others I can't recall at the moment. I'm gonna say that I wouldn't and show you the thought process.

At the time the Jews were pretty much despised across Europe. Many world leaders liked Hitler because Hitler hated the communists. Lots of other people were content to let him do his thing because they were only Jews. But by going after them in these numbers Hitler created sympathy for them and made Jew bashing a bad thing. So, a lot of dead Jews, but afterward people didn't actually WANT them dead anymore.

However, this newfound sympathy got the British Empire to give up Palestine to found Israel. Sixty years later Israel is a constant source of tension and conflict in the region. The actions of their government even draws comparisons to WWII Germany.

So, he helped squash most Jew bashing in Europe but he created the longest lasting and hardest to solve source of conflict in the Middle East.

On the plus side of the Holocaust the population was diminished. There were already some overpopulation issues causing economic problems. Think how many people there'd be in Europe now if Hitler hadn't culled the herd.

And then there's the space program. Hitler did more for rocket research than anyone in history. He got all the greatest minds and got some serious research done. Then all those scientists got divvied up between us and the Soviets. Hitler fathered the Space Race. If not for him we probably still wouldn't have gone to the moon, never mind all the weather, communication, and GPS satellites zipping around in orbit.

Sure, there'd still be tensions in the Middle East. They've got the oil. But most problems over there wax and wane. The existence of Israel is a persistent problem and a key recruiting point for terrorist organizations.

So would I rather be rid of the terrorist fuel or have the space program and population relief? I'd rather have the space program, population relief, and a President who believed in diplomacy working to defuse the Israel problem.

Monday, October 01, 2007

I hate sleep

I think the term I'm looking for would be "somniac inertia" or some such nonsense. It's meant to apply Newton's First Law of Motion to a state of wakefulness. A person at rest wants to stay at rest and a person awake wants to stay awake.

At least that's how it works for me. On weekends, if I wake up before 10:00 then I feel I have somehow failed. Getting out of bed is always an ordeal. I tried setting my alarm clock to a country music station to force myself out of bed in a hurry. It works, but starting your day in a frothing berserker rage isn't conducive to having a good day. My new alarm clock has two alarms set 31 minutes apart. When the first one shuts off I get a minute of silence to let me know that I've been there for half an hour before it goes off again. It also projects the time on the ceiling above me so I can't miss it.

Then at night I have the exact opposite problem. I'm working on a project, I'm reading a book, I'm watching some DVD, I really don't want to go to bed. I've got stuff to do.

Part of the problem is that my natural sleep cycle doesn't mesh with that of the business world. I'd sleep all day and work all night if it were up to me. Or at least switch me to a 28 hour day.

If you think this is nuts then you probably shouldn't hear my rant about how much a waste of time I think food is. Just give me a box of "Bachelor Chow" and I'd be happy. 100% of your daily nutritional requirements. Available now in six artificial flavors. Makes it's own gravy when mixed with water.


By now you've totally missed the Friends of the Arlington Library Book Sale. I went last Thursday with My Krode, a chap that works in a nearby museum. Only members could get in so I had to pay a $15 cover charge to become a member and hope they had something I wanted. I walked out with $101 worth of books averaging about $1.75 each. And here I was finally getting my book pile whittled down. Mr. Krode on the other hand made a couple of trips and used his daughter as a book sherpa. I think he bought $350 or so worth of books. Many of those he will be selling to some university that he's an informal buyer for.
If you can you should try to go next year.

Saturday my parrot and I went out to the LoC Book Fest on the National Mall. Not as many gotta see authors as normal, but there were a few. Terry Pratchett has a new book out so he was there telling stories and taking questions. That chap who was writing all those alternative history books was there. And some older lady whose stuff I've never read but whose name you'd recognize if I remembered it was there.
Mostly I sat there hoping to hear from someone that I might want to read.

Sunday me and the bird went to Adams Morgan for the Crafty Bastards shindig. If I were a woman I'd have loved it.
I got a massage since I hadn't had one in several years. That's one of the things I miss about college. Massages were as plentiful and freely exchanged as sex back in the 70's. And sex definitely wasn't plentiful. He was fairly good. Mostly he loosened things up enough for me to be aware of all the stuff that still needed to be loosened up. But the money went to some AIDS for kids charity. I failed to ask if they were for or against it.

From there we went down to Dupont Circle in hopes of reading the book I was carrying around. Some little boy, 10ish, who seems to move around so much that he doesn't have much in the way of friends spent most of the day wanting to hold Gandolf. He was born in Russia and has lived in Paris, Holland, DC, and a few other places. He spoke fluent Hollish, Hollandaise, uh, DUTCH! yeah, he kept swapping between English and Dutch depending on who he was talking to. I think I read all of a page.
While in Starbucks I ran into this girl who didn't know me from Adam, but I recognized her immediately. I responded to her personal ad once. She never wrote back. She was terribly embarassed. I'm the second person who has come up to her and said something to the effect of "Hey! Didn't I see you in a personal ad once?"