Friday, June 21, 2002

My apologies to all of the college students out there that actually do think. It's just that I haven't had the priviledge of meeting you.

James Lileks has a wonderful screed today. He tears apart a survey of college students that show that they pretty much have their heads up their butts (you can find the survey here).

I tried to go to college twenty years ago. After trying for a few years to pay the bills at home AND pay for classes, I decided that starving wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Starting a career and eating regular has a certain appeal, and so I went that route.

A few years ago I met an aged couple. We hit it off, and they asked me to be the executor of their will. As a "Thank you" they're bankrolling my return to college. So here I am, a 38 year old undergraduate at one of America's largest universities (Ohio State University). There are a few things that are painfully obvious to this old man.

First off is that the kids around me really want to do good. They're concerned about their fellow man, they want justice and freedom to prevail, and they're really concerned with protecting the helpless from the powerful. All of these are good things.

Unfortunately, almost all of the ones I've met haven't developed the ability to reason. Just as an example, a recent rally at my school was protesting guns. The organizers of said rally pushed all of the right buttons by stating that "Every 23 seconds a child is killed in the United States by a gun!" The kids they were talking to really got behind the effort to end this injustice, even scrawling the message on the campus sidewalks. But none of them thought to ask just HOW MANY children would be killed in a year if there's more than two a minute. None of them thought to ask what that would do to the population if so many were dying.

Asking the question doesn't help. The few students that I asked just stood there, staring off in to space, doing the math over and over again in their heads. Unil they would finally just ignore the figures they were getting and insist that I wanted to slaughter children because I was in favor of gun ownership. (Considering that about 1.4 million children would die every year if a child died every 23 seconds, I'm WAY behind my quota)

There are those out there that are explaining this away right now. "But they're just kids!" some are saying. "Still wet behind the ears. Just a few months from high school, just out of their parent's basement for a few weeks. Give them some time to develop in to thoughful adults. Going to college is just the thing to teach them critical thinking skills."

I agree that they'll develop in to thinking people eventually (most of them, anyway). But I'm not yet convinced that college is the place to nurture these skills. One of my professors trotted out the old chesnut about how women only make 70 cents for every dollar that a man earns. When I asked if his wife (another professor) made less than he did he explained that Universities were special places, where such injustices would never be allowed by the enlightened and concerned (ie: liberal) administration. I pointed out that the police HAD to be just as enlightened and concerned, since female police officers earned just as much as their male colleagues. Then my professor just sat there, staring off in to space, stunned by the idea that THE MAN would actually have an "equal pay for equal work" policy.

So far I'm having a ball, but I do have to admit that it's a rather surreal experience. The whole place is overrun by people who never had to immerse themselves in the real world. But I'm sure that I can find someone who, like myself, actually had to question some basic assumptions.

All I have to do is follow the trail of the people staring off in to space with stunned expressions on their faces.

Thursday, June 20, 2002

Yesterday I posted something about China's excess male population. I surmised that the Chinese gov would either use the excess males for massive work projects, or they would start a war to bleed off (literally) the extra. The most likely opponent in a war, I figured, would be India.

Today I was very pleasantly surprised to find out that popular blogger Megan McArdle had linked to my humble post (Thanks, Megan!).

But I also noticed that Megan had racked up 17 comments about her post, and some of them even speculated about China starting a war with India to get rid of the excess. How many comments did my post garner? None. Zero. Big fat nothing.

Now before I start getting either expressions of sympathy or demands that I stop being a wussy and grow a pair, I'd just like to say that I'm very amused by the whole thing. The main reason I blog is to start a dialogue with more people than I meet during my regular day. Sort of increase the audience for an exchange of ideas. It's obvious that everyone who might have read my post via Megan's blog are motivated by the same thing!

After all, if they post here the only one who'll probably respond is me. If they post a comment on Megan's blog they'll certainly start a dialogue with about 12 other people. It's worth it to stick to the more trafficked areas if talkin' is what you want to do (and why post a comment if you don't want a discussion?). That way you won't feel like one of those homeless people who sit all day at the bus stop and mutter to themselves.

And before anyone jumps to the wrong conclusion, I most definately do not feel like the above mentioned homeless person. After all, Megan reads this blog!

While browsing, I came across this reference to a new Australian army vehicle. It's just a lighter and cheaper version of the U.S. Army's Humvee (hmm, looks like the Germans have bought some). But the name, BUSHMASTER, intriqued me.

Oh, the bushmaster is a very dangerous snake. But I started to wonder what other products were available with the same name.

It would seem that there is a paintball gun named the Bushmaster. Okay, whatever. For more serious people there's a custom gunsmith shop called Bushmaster. Looks like they are interested in modifying existing M-16's to increase accuracy. Not bad work, but nothing really innovative.

There's a longbow called the Bushmaster for you archery buffs. (Spiffy lookin' thing) An Australian optics company is named Bushmaster. And a 25mm cannon mounted on the Bradley infantry fighting vehicle.

But I remember the Bushmaster as being some sort of machine pistol. For some reason I think the little things are really neato. By sniffing around a bit I found some pictures. This particular gun fires the .223 NATO round, which makes it one of the most powerful sub-machine guns in the world.

Another Bushmaster is a 9mm pistol that Croatia is developing. Ah, yes, another old Warsaw Pact country that is smitten with the FAMP concept. Well, they look neat even if you can't hit anything with them after the first shot.

Another Bushmaster is this .223 bullpup-style assault rifle. Kinda neat lookin', as well. Check it out painted in arctic cammo. Kinda looks like it's made out of white chocolate, doesn't it?

Anyway, I was just wondering what all of this has to do with snakes. Nothing, so far as I can tell.
Courtesy of comes this article. It appears that the U.S. Navy is having serious problems with warm bodies. There just aren't enough of them, it would seem. To try and address the issue the Navy is conducting a survey and asking the sailors what would make things more pleasant on board ship.

According to my buddy Kathryn Woods, there's actually a salad bar on board her ship, the USS McFaul. This provides an alternative to the mostly fried foods that are a staple on board ship. Email services are another plus, since it always helps for people to get a word from home.

Other than trying to keep the people happy, it would appear that the Navy is trying to reduce the number of people it needs through automation. This reminds me of the first ship the Navy deployed that relied heavily on automation. First launched in 1983, it was so automated that it could be run and fought with only four people.

Makes me wonder what the future will bring.

Courtesy of USAToday is this article. It seems that China's One Child Policy has produced an enormous surplus of male children. To the tune of 40 million more males than females.

The One Child Policy was seen as a way to reduce China's population in a humane way. Whether or not you agree with the idea that each married couple is only allowed one child, it's undeniable that it was a very gentle policy as far as Communist regimes go. They aren't known for being too gentle with people that they don't want to have around. But China's culture favors male children over female children. The One Child Policy simply encouraged parents to abort female fetuses or kill the children after birth. Now the first children born under the policy are just turning 20 and the problems are considerable.

This is hardly news to those that have been paying attention, as this report from 1995 shows. But the Chinese government doesn't seem to have thought about what to do about it.

One solution is to put the men to work. Massive public works projects are something that China has some experience with. This would probably be the best thing, since most of China is "undeveloped" (ie: primitive and backwards). You can see how undeveloped with this orbital picture of Earth at night. Look over at China and notice that the interior is vast and dark and cold. Plenty of people live there, but there's not much there to make the livin' worthwhile. Some roads and a dam or two would be just the thing.

Another way to get rid of excess population is through war with a neighboring country. War with India makes the most sense, since both China and India don't have much of a navy (but India is stronger in this area). This would keep it to a straight-up infantry war, which would be just perfect to reduce some population pressure. Of course, India now has nuclear weapons, but so does China. And China has a decided edge over India when it comes to delivery systems.

Still, this is all speculation. China has way too many problems inside it's own borders to go looking for trouble, and just to get rid of some excess guys to boot. But sometimes reasonable men have been known to act in decidedly unreasonable ways.

Wednesday, June 19, 2002

Ask any child (or any school teacher) who invented the steam engine and they'll tell you that it was James Watt. And they'd be wrong.

The inventor of the basic steam engine was a Greek named Hero. The device was useless for industry, but Hero made money by selling them as toys to the rich. In this respect Hero's Aeolipile was the first commercially successful steam engine.

Other steam devices were commercial failures until Thomas Newcomen invented a steam engine in 1712. Keeping water out of below-ground mines was (and still is) a big problem, and the Newcomen Engine was used to work water pumps. The way it worked was that a cylinder was filled with hot steam, and then cold water was either sprayed on the cylinder or in it, directly on the steam. This would cause the steam to condense and take up less space, so the greater air pressure outside the cylinder would push the piston down. One way to look at it is that the machine used suction to work. You can find some really cool animated GIFs that show how the machine works here, and here.

So why the low pressure? The machine could only operate at 14 PSI (1 atmosphere) at best. The reason was that the fittings that joined the steam lines to the boiler and cylinder couldn't stand more pressure. So, even though it was slow and couldn't perform much work, it was the best that they had at the time. Although the low pressure meant that the engines would last a very long time with little wear (some of them lasted for more than 130 years with only routine maintenance), they just didn't have much oomph.

Another problem was the water. The Newcomen Engine used a bunch of it, so much that it it usually had to be built near a stream or pond. True, it was pumping water out of the mine, but it couldn't pump enough volume to meet it's own needs. This led to some interesting situations where there was too much water underground, but not enough on the surface to use a steam engine to get it out.

This all changed in 1765 when a tinkerer employed by Glasgow University to keep the machinery running was told to fix a model of Newcomen's steam engine. It occurred to him that the engine was doing double duty, since the cold water not only cooled off the steam but it also cooled off the cylinder that contained the steam. So more steam would have to be used to heat up the cylinder and keep the steam from condensing (anybody get all that?). Instead of cooling off the whole cylinder, why not run a pipe through a cold water tank? This would save water, save the steam, and keep everything nice and hot so less fuel would have to be used to run the engine. Think of the savings!

This tinkerer was named James Watt (there he is!). But having a good idea and getting it to work are two seperate things. Watt hooked up with a guy named John Roebuck (no relation to the "Sears and Roebuck" fellow). Roebuck agreed to pay the bills while Watt worked the bugs out in exchange for some of the profits. Seven long years later Roebuck goes bankrupt and the engine isn't ready yet. So Watt went to Matthew Boulton, who owned a mine in Soho that needed to be pumped out, but there wasn't much water above ground for a Newcomen engine. Two years later (in 1775) Watt's engine hit the market and suddenly the money started to pour in.

The basic difference was in operation. Metallurgy had improved to the point that Watt's steam engine had fittings that could take more pressure. Instead of working a piston by condensing low pressure steam to form a vacuum, the Watt steam engine would push a piston with high pressure steam. Instead of operating at 14 PSI (1 atmosphere), the Watt steam engine could operate at 140 PSI (10 atmospheres), or even higher. So instead of sucking the Watt Steam Engine would blow. It worked out that a Watt engine would do four times the work for the same fuel and water expenditure. All of a sudden a Newcomen Engine looked like a booger. A cool GIF animation showing how a Watt engine works can be found here.

But it didn't stop there. The Watt Engine was an example of a cascade technology. This means that the engine spurred innovation in other areas, all because there was money to be made if you could get in on the ground floor in some way. For example, all of these suddenly dry mines meant that there was plenty of metal ore, so metal prices dropped. More and cheaper metal meant that metallurgy advanced, since it was easier and cheaper to experiment with ores and alloys. Improved metallurgy, along with all of these steam engine boilers, meant that technology to use rare gases improved. And all of the steam engines needed more fuel to operate, which meant that even more coal mines were drained using a steam engine so the coal could be sold to keep steam engines running.

The best example of the changes a cascade technology brings is by William Murdoch. Murdoch was a tinkerer employed to keep the machines in James Watt's steam engine factory working (just like Watt had once been a tinkerer employed to keep Glasgow University's machinery working). He was dorking around one evening with his pipe and some coal dust left over after running a steam engine. He put the dust in his pipe and held the pipe over the fire. He noticed that heating up coal dust produced a gas that would burn evenly and brightly. Thinking that he could bottle this gas and use it for lighting needs, Murdoch set up the Gas Light Company to provide lighting to businesses. The first city that benifitted from this was Glasgow, the same city where Watt saw his first steam engine.

So what's the moral of the story? It would seem that anyone who wants to get ahead in the mechanical arts first has to find employment as a tinkerer. And he has to move to Glasgow.
Steam engines increased production and ushered in the Industrial Age. But it took a few years before steam was accepted in the world of shipping.

The one man most responsible for putting steam on a boat is Robert Fulton. An American inventor, he had the idea that a steam powered boat could navigate against a current and manuever when conditions were unfavorable. Fulton even managed to build the first steam powered warship for the United States, which he called the Demologos. (Ugly lookin' thing, wasn't she?) To protect the vulnerable paddle wheels, Fulton built a double-hulled vessel like a catamaran and put the paddle wheels in the middle. Unfortunately, it never saw battle.

Rivers were the ideal place for steam ships due to the fact that the swift current and narrow confines of the river meant that using sail was rarely practical. Many countries had their own paddlewheel steam boats. But most people from the U.S. think that they're uniquely American, mainly due to this writer. But, even Mark Twain admitted that they were extremely dangerous. Steam boat explosions were appallingly common. In fact it was an exploding steam boat that was the cause of the greatest maritime disaster in history.

Steam also transformed the warship. Because early steam engines consumed so much fuel, ships would rely on their sail to get around and only fire up their boilers right before action. For decades steam powered warships didn't look much different than their traditional all-sail cousins. But the tactical advantage of being able to sail against the wind or current allowed the European powers to access to Asia, particularly China and Japan. So, why didn't the uropean powers manage to make any headway in Asia before the invention of the steam powered warship?

The main reason was the Chinese junk. Although it looks primitive to Western eyes, the rigging of a junk meant that the sails could be lowered or raised like a venetian blind. This meant that the ship could set it's sails to catch the wind at any angle. No European vessel could manuever as well until steamships made their appearance.

Tuesday, June 18, 2002

Most people who live in the United States and Great Britian think of locomotives if they think of steam engines. Vast distances in America's heartland were conquered with steam engines, and they eventually became very high tech and neato lookin'. (I could imagine this to be a prototype of a steam powered space craft) Many steam locomotives still exist in the U.S., most relagated to museums. An excellent resource to find a musuem near you can be found here.

But steam locomotives were slowly replaced by diesel electric engines. These engines would have diesel motors that would generate electricity. This would power electric motors that would drive wheels under each car, so it wasn't just the engine in front that was pulling everything else. But, considering that some Newcomen engines were still running 130 years after being built, why would anyone switch?

The answer was water. Even though the Watt style engines used less water then a Newcomen engine, the locomotive still had to stop every 100 miles or so (160 kilometers) to replenish the water supply. In the United States, little towns were set up with the express purpose of supplying water. A water tower would be built, and the trains would pull up to the tower and release the pressure in the boiler by blowing the whistle. After filling up the train would be on the way. That's why these little towns were known as whistle stops
But the water would eventually screw up the engine. Take a look at this picture. Notice all of the big bolts holding the front of the boiler on? This was so the nose could be taken off and the engine serviced. It seems that mineral deposits left by the boiling water would gum things up after the train travelled about 2000 miles (3200 kilometers). A crew would have to spend a couple of days chipping the deposits out of the engine. This is why Chicago became a big meat-processing center. It was on the edge of the Great Plains, but it was also 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) from New York City. So the steam engines could make one round trip before having to be serviced.

What many people don't realize is that steam powered automobiles used to be big. Really big. Those in the know at the time thought that it was the coming new technology. But the Achilles Heel of the steam cars was the same as with steam locomotives: water. Although steam engines weigh less than diesel or gasoline engines, all of the water they have to haul around more than makes up the difference. And all of that water takes up space, which reduces the amount of cargo and passengers you could carry. Eventually gasoline and diesel engines could put out enough power to make steam vehicles obsolete.

Also virtually unknown is that there actually was a steam powered airplane. It was invented by an American named Hiram Maxim. This guy's famous for inventing the first practical machine gun. (His first invention was an improved, electric mousetrap which didn't sell. I suppose the old saying isn't true after all)

After making his fortune, Maxim designed and built a steam powered aircraft. According to all accounts, the craft broke free of a track it was supposed to move along and was airborn for a few seconds before crashing. This was probably due to extreme headwinds, and no serious attempt was again made to get the craft off of the ground.

Another proposal to build a steam powered aircraft was the nuclear aircraft program. The idea was to build an engine that would use some nuclear material to boil water. The steam would be sent through turbines to generate electricity, and the electricity would power the engines to make the craft fly.

The problem with this was the radioactivity and the water (of course). The weight of the water would mean that the aircraft would have to be huge, gigantic, really really large to have enough wing area to provide enough lift. The radioactivity that would be generated along with the heat meant that the engines would have to be replaced every few months, and the whole aircraft would become so poisonious that the entire plane would be useless after two years or so. The only thing left of the project is two rusting experimental engines. Damn, look at the size of the things! Those are supposed to be small prototypes of aircraft engines!

It's a pity, really. The nuclear aircraft would be as big as an airship, and it would have stayed up until the crew ran out of food or the engines had to be replaced. It would have been neat to see them drone by overhead.