Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Personal fabrication

This here is what I've been SAYIN'!

Go watch the video and be filled with the future, kids. He's talking
about science fiction right in your garage. Personal fabrication of
pretty much any doodad, machine, toy, gizmo, material, gimcrack or any
damn thing you can think of. At your house. Which is damn cool, all by

But beyond that, what's cool is the unleashing of humanity from the
coils of ignorance and want. He talks about taking a $20,000 "Fablab"
to third world countries and watching 8 year olds latch on to the idea
and run with it. He's got a video of this little kid whipping up a
working circuit board in a day that he says his engineers couldn't have
done in less than a week. Twenty grand is cheaper than a new Buick, kids.

We are living in interesting times already. They are about to get a
hell of a lot more interesting.

The Phantom

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Farewell Fidel!

Over at Small Dead Animals, Kate has posted something interesting. An internal memo from CNN regarding how Fidel Castro's "retirement" is to be handled. Kid gloves is not an unfair description. So I thought I'd provide some coverage of Fidel's leave taking from a uniquely gearhead perspective.

Friends and family have been to Cuba over the years. I haven't as a matter of both principal and penury. Formerly penury, lately principal.

They uniformly state that while the beaches and hotels are lovely and the staff friendly, if you wander off into town things go rather downhill. If you wander far enough a nice man in uniform with an AK47 tell you to please go back to your hotel.

Most cars are wonderful American 1950's customs, hand built and beautiful.

Which is great, until you think about it and realize those cars are still running from the 1950's, not rescued, restored by avid hobbyists and running again. Because relics of '50s American iron is all there is to drive.

I just happen to have a chunk of old American iron. 1947 Ford 2 1/2 ton COE.

My experience with it tells me that Cuba probably has the greatest masters of fixing cracks in cast iron in the entire world.

I've got two of those ancient Ford flat heads out in my driveway right now. Here's the first one being torn down. See all the crud on there? There's nasssty things hiding under it.
This is one of about 10 or so cracks I found in the block. This one is no big deal, but even by itself it would eventually lift the head gasket and get coolant in the oil pan. Probably one of the reasons they parked the old bastard in the first place. There's nine more like this one, some in the valve area, some headed for the cylinder walls. That's just on the top of the deck, I don't know what's in the lifter valley because we stopped cleaning when this lot showed up.

I found a guy in the next town over who had a flat head for sale, managed to score it off him for $50 bucks. Great score!

But, one problem. Flat head blocks are known for cracking. They pretty much always crack. If both blocks are like this I'm going to stick a late-model fuel injected Ford engine and transmission in my 1947 truck and be happy. Drive it on Sunday. Why? Because I can, of course! Hope mine turns out as nice as this one.

But what about the Cuban guy? His block is going to be as trashed as mine is.

The Cuban guy is going to fix all the myriad cracks with screws, by hand. He's going to get the resulting block back into service as quick as he can, Why? Because that truck is his only ride. Without it, he has no job. And no lunch. Those people who needed him to move something with his truck? They are all S.O.L., because its the only truck in town.Here's the Cuban guy's truck on the job. Note all is not well under the hood.Note that this truck has 8 lug wheels. Note that Cuban guy has only 4 wheel nuts. If you look real close you'll notice he only has 7 wheel studs. You want to carry a couple ton on that wheel? Me neither.

Why can't the Cuban guy buy wheel nuts? Or a new engine? Hell, why can't he buy a new truck? Oh, the American Embargo? Ok, why can't he buy a German truck? Japanese? Indian? Russian? Chinese?!!!

Fidel said. That's why.

Here's another Cuban truck.And here's a 1959 Buick. There's 11 people in that thing.
Viva Fidel. What took ya?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Another stupid idea returns from the dead.

We are, I kid you not, going to be subjected to yet another round of social Darwinism.  I'm going to barf.
The process of natural selection can act on human culture as well as on genes, a new study finds. Scientists at Stanford University have shown for the first time that cultural traits affecting survival and reproduction evolve at a different rate than other cultural attributes. Speeded or slowed rates of evolution typically indicate the action of natural selection in analyses of the human genome.

The Stanford team studied reports of canoe designs from 11 Oceanic island cultures. They evaluated 96 functional features (such as how the hull was constructed or the way outriggers were attached) that could contribute to the seaworthiness of the canoes and thus have a bearing on fishing success or survival during migration or warfare.

They also evaluated 38 decorative or symbolic features (such as the types of carved or painted designs). They analyzed mathematically the rates of change for the two groups of canoe design traits from island group to island group. Statistical test results showed clearly that the functional canoe design elements changed more slowly over time, indicating that natural selection could be weeding out inferior new designs. This cultural analysis is similar to analyses of the human genome that have been successful in finding which genes are under selection.

There seems to be some subset of social "scientists" who just can't leave this alone.  No matter how many times the idea gets debunked, there they are back at it, trying to stick the round peg of human culture into the square hole of Natural Selection.  What makes them keep doing this?
Examples of cultural approaches that are putting humans at risk include "everything from the economic incentives, industrial technologies and growth mentality that cause climate change, pollution and loss of biodiversity, to the religious polarization and political ideologies that generate devastating conflict around the globe," Rogers said. "If the leadership necessary to undertake critically needed cultural evolution in these areas can't be found, our civilization may find itself weeded out by natural selection, just like a bad canoe design."
They're Lefties.  Members of a political ideology that generates devastating conflict around the globe.  They can't help themselves.  Must be genetic or something. 

Clearly these people have never built anything with their own hands.  If they had they would know that tools and materials determine how the work goes.  There's only so many ways you can lash an outrigger to a canoe that will not fall off in the waves.

Alternate explanation, isn't it possible that bad canoe designs are weeded out because Polynesian canoeists were smart enough to bite their finger and knew a piece of shit canoe when they saw one?

The Genetic Phantom

Thursday, February 14, 2008

fun with molecules

Today's Kewl thing of the day is hydrogen bonds.  Some guys have a theory as to why wimpy hydrogen bonds can make spider silk proteins stronger than steel.
In a paper published in the Feb. 13 online issue of Nano Letters, Buehler and graduate student Sinan Keten describe how they used atomistic modeling to demonstrate that the clusters of three or four hydrogen bonds that bind together stacks of short beta strands in a structural protein rupture simultaneously rather than sequentially when placed under mechanical stress. This allows the protein to withstand more force than if its beta strands had only one or two bonds. Oddly enough, the small clusters also withstand more energy than longer beta strands with many hydrogen bonds.

“Using only one or two hydrogen bonds in building a protein provides no or very little mechanical resistance, because the bonds are very weak and break almost without provocation,” said Buehler, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “But using three or four bonds leads to a resistance that actually exceeds that of many metals. Using more than four bonds leads to a much-reduced resistance. The strength is maximized at three or four bonds.”
Put this together with the nanowire maker from yesterday, you've got some serious potential for a brand new generation of super strong materials.

How about ligament replacements for guys with knee ligament tears that are stronger than the original and less prone to immune response problems?  That'd be outstanding.  These days ACL/PCL tears are replaced with a piece of your own ligament stolen from some other place on your body.  I always thought that solution sucked.

The Ligamentous Phantom

Monday, February 11, 2008

Bulk nanoscale wire is now possible.

Materials science is one of my favorites.  They do the most fascinating things.  Today we have a group that has invented a way to make wire that is 100 nanometers thick and as long as you want.  Just to put this in perspective, Intel is currently producing its Core2 Duo chips on a 45 nanometer lithography process.
To use the new process, the researchers begin with a reservoir of ink connected to a glass micropipette that has an aperture as small as 100 nanometers. The micropipette is brought close to a substrate until a liquid meniscus forms between the two. As the micropipette is then smoothly pulled away, ink is drawn from the reservoir. Within the tiny meniscus, the solute nucleates and precipitates as the solvent quickly evaporates.

So far, the scientists have fabricated freestanding nanofibers approximately 25 nanometers in diameter and 20 microns long, and straight nanofibers approximately 100 nanometers in diameter and 16 millimeters long (limited only by the travel range of the device that moves the micropipette).

To draw longer nanowires, the researchers developed a precision spinning process that simultaneously draws and winds a nanofiber on a spool that is millimeters in diameter. Using this technique, Yu and his students wound a coil of microfiber. The microfiber was approximately 850 nanometers in diameter and 40 centimeters long.

To further demonstrate the versatility of the drawing process, for which the U. of I. has applied for a patent, the researchers drew nanofibers out of sugar, out of potassium hydroxide (a major industrial chemical) and out of densely packed quantum dots. While the nanofibers are currently fabricated from water-based inks, the process is readily extendable to inks made with volatile organic solvents, Yu said.

If the process can be scaled up to produce wire and thread in real quantity, as in by the mile, then we are going to see some really serious changes in materials pretty soon.  One of the ways to make composites stronger is to make the fibers thinner and longer.  Another way is to include fibers of different material to get different properties included in the cloth.  How about a rope that is spun from fibers only 800 nanometers across?  How about a fiber optic cable with like a billion threads in it?  That's some serious business.

The Thready Phantom

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Recycling and why it sucks.

Every once in a while an article comes by that just perfectly encapsulates my thinking on a subject.  Here we have one of those perfect articles.

For a long time now I've quietly resisted recycling.  It seems to me that if I'm paying for garbage collection, then I should get garbage collection.  You know, where they come and take the garbage away.  Should anyone wish to sort through what I have paid hard money to have hauled off in the hopes of making a buck on it, they have my blessing.  But if I am going to be required to use my time and energy to pre-sort so that somebody else's job is easier, I expect to get paid for it.  Like, apply the profit from the sale of recyclable material to lower my garbage collection bill.  More fool am I!  They increase my taxes and reduce the service instead, Hamilton is going to go to one-bag-per-week collection rules.

Strangely, I find this irritating.

When I complain about the foul nature of government mandated recycling, people always tell me about Sweden.  Northern eco-paradise where everyone recycles and all is bliss and love.  Or not.

The way it has been presented to me, Sweden has succeeded with what most other governments at best dream about: creating an efficient and profitable national system for saving the environment through large-scale recycling. And the people are all in on it! Everybody's recycling.

The latter is actually true: everybody is recycling. But that is the result of government force, not a voluntary choice.
So, how's that working out for them?

Economically, Swedish recycling is a disaster. Imagine a whole population spending time and money cleaning their garbage and driving it around the neighborhood rather than working or investing in a productive market! According to the government's books, more money flows in than flows out; therefore recycling is profitable. But this ignores the costs of coercion.

The government bookkeepers also take advantage of the cost cuts they have been able to realize through centralizing the garbage collection system. These "cuts," however, are mostly cuts in service, whereas rates for consumers have been increased. A recent problem with the garbage-collection centers is that the containers aren't emptied very often (a typical example of government "savings") and thus remain full, which means that people's garbage piles up next to the overflowing containers while the government contractors sit idle: they are only paid to empty the containers on schedule, not to pick up the trash sitting next to these containers. The result? Disease and rats. Newspapers have been reporting on a "rat invasion" in Stockholm and in other Swedish cities in recent years.

If we consider the costs in monetary terms, in terms of wasted time, and in terms of increased emissions from automobiles, this is hardly environmentally friendly. Adding the annoyance and the increased risk for disease, Swedish recycling is at least as disastrous as any other government scheme.

Just about as expected, then.

So the next time some good hearted soul chides you about not sorting your glass from your plastics, tell them about the Great Swedish Rat Invasion.

The Phantom Recycling Denier.