Monday, May 21, 2018

NASA/JPL Planning Autonomous Helicopter Drone for Mars 2020

This is a mission that brings back memories of bold missions in the past.  The next Mars rover, to be launched in 2020, will bring an autonomous helicopter; the first mission in history to bring a flying, heavier than air vehicle to another world.
The next iteration of the Mars rover has similar design features to the Curiosity rover currently exploring Mars, however it is more technologically advanced than its predecessor. The new rover will have seven new instruments, redesigned wheels, and be more autonomous. However, the standout feature of the new Mars 2020 rover is the Mars helicopter—the first of its kind. It is small, autonomous, and will help demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on different planets.
Designing a helicopter to fly on Mars is a challenge; the air is a tiny fraction of the density of the surface atmosphere here on Earth.  According to Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL, the surface atmosphere on Mars is like being at 100,000 feet here.  That's well beyond the service altitude of Earth bound helicopters and a couple of times the helicopter altitude record.

The helicopter system took four years to design; it's electric, powered by two motors totaling 220 Watts, and running on Lithium Ion batteries charged by its own solar panels.  It's also not much in the way of performance, according to the Machine Design article, which only says it, “can make short vertical climbs of up to 10 ft and hover for about 30 sec.”  Anyone with battery-operated tools knows well about the trades of battery life vs. size and weight. 
The aircraft weighs less than four pounds and its fuselage is the size of a softball. It has twin counter-rotating blades and will rotate at 3,000 revolutions per minute (rpm), about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth. The helicopter contains its own instrumentation to explore Mars, including solar cells to charge is lithium-ion batteries and a heating mechanism to warm it in low-temperature situations. The helicopter will be launched once the rover reaches a suitable location and its batteries are fully charged. The hope is that the helicopter will be lead to future low-flying scouts.



In case you missed this hard physics reality in The Martian, Mars is light minutes away (how many depending on exactly where the two planets are in our orbits).  As Project Manager Mimi Aung said,
"We don't have a pilot and Earth will be several light minutes away, so there is no way to joystick this mission in real time," said Aung. "Instead, we have an autonomous capability that will be able to receive and interpret commands from the ground, and then fly the mission on its own." 
All helicopters balance lift created by the rotor vs. total weight, but lift depends on the atmosphere and as was said, Mars doesn't have much of an atmosphere.  In the designer's favor, though, it has less gravity (about 3/8 of our surface gravity).  The response was to focus on removing weight rather than developing larger rotors.  The embedded video shows the little drone lifting off in a pressure chamber, presumably matched to Mars' thin atmosphere.

Mars 2020 is scheduled to launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and is expected to reach Mars in February 2021.


NASA/JPL illustration.


This is Post #2800 In This Blog's Life

Just for fun, one from the emails.



Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Move to Make the Electoral College Irrelevant

Just like all the insane "resistance" movement going on in society, refusal to accept an election if your preferred candidate doesn't win, the move to overthrow the electoral college system is still pushing on.  We kind of talked about this in March, but the Daily Signal updates us on a vote from Connecticut to counter their voters.
Opponents of the Electoral College achieved an important victory last weekend when Connecticut’s legislature passed the so-called National Popular Vote compact. Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is expected to sign the measure.
...
States that approve this legislation enter a simple compact with one another. Each participating state agrees to allocate its electors to the winner of the national popular vote regardless of how its own citizens voted. The compact goes into effect when states holding 270 electoral votes (enough to win the presidency) have agreed to the plan.
Most of us haven't heard of this "National Pact", by which states potentially counter the will of their voters.  Author Tara Ross points out they're almost two thirds of the way to locking up the necessary 270 electoral votes to win the presidency.
[Counting Connecticut] 11 states and the District of Columbia have now approved the measure, giving the compact a total of 172 electors. It needs only 98 more to reach the 270 mark.
It's inevitable that, at some point, the state will vote for a Democratic candidate (it's Connecticut after all) and a Republican will win the national popular vote.  When that happens they will counter the will of the majority of their voters to change their electors over to the Republican.
What would Founders such as Roger Sherman think? That Connecticut statesman was an influential delegate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The Great Compromise—sometimes called the Connecticut Compromise— which gave Congress its bicameral structure, might never have been brokered without him.

Moreover, Sherman was one of many delegates from small states who refused to go along with the idea of a direct popular vote for the presidency. He knew that little Connecticut would be outvoted time and time again.
Recall that Hillary won the popular vote by a little over 2 million votes.  In the 5 counties that encompass NYC, (Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Richmond and Queens) Clinton received well over 2 million more votes than Trump. (Clinton only won 4 of these counties, Trump won Richmond).  Why would any candidate visit a state like Connecticut?  Why wouldn't the next Democrat candidate just rent an apartment in New York City or El Lay and mostly stay there.  Work harder in those big population centers to reach a few more voters who lean toward you anyway rather than build a diverse coalition.  Or to quote myself from March:
Whether they know it or not (and I assume they do know it), the desire to get rid of the electoral college is a desire to avoid those icky flyover-country people (with their bibles and their guns!) and have candidates just campaign in a few big cities.
One thing we can be sure of.  If this becomes law, and passes the Supreme Court, you can bet that there will never be any effort devoted to the issues affecting people in flyover country.  There will never be another minute wasted (after the primaries, which are state by state) talking about any of the concerns of any state less than the top third of the national population.  

Our country was designed to protect the small states from the big ones, and to protect the minority from the majority.  The bicameral legislature with one house's representation proportional to population and the other equal representation is just one example.  The electoral college with its incentives for presidential candidates to build broad-based coalitions is another.  There is a full-time, well-funded effort to destroy that. 

Saturday, May 19, 2018

A Partially Done Part

I've been continuing work on my flame eater engine which I post about regularly.  The next part is machined on both the lathe and the mill, and today I took it out of the lathe to move to the mill for the rest of the operations.   Before that, I grabbed a quick picture.


The engine pedestal, the first part I built, pressed onto the base easily.  It can be wiggled off with a bit of effort but I'm not sure that's a concern. I could remove that concern with a drop of red LocTite.   (It was never on the cylinder while the lathe was running)

When I went to put the the the part in the vise on the mill, I found it doesn't really fit.  The vise jaws are too low profile,  and the vise barely opens wide enough.  A quick unplanned side project to make a couple of temporary jaws for the vise is jumping in front of this.  While I'm at it, I'll make these thinner than the current steel jaws (.390 thick).  By changing the mounting screws, I can reduce the jaw thickness s to .250, each, which will pick me up a little over an eighth on both sides, so a total of a quarter inch.  Instead of the current 15/16" height, I'll make them about 1-1/2 inches tall, which will put better pressure on the side of the cylinder, which is 2" in diameter. 

I never know exactly how much detail to put into these posts, because I never know what kind of readership there is.  I don't see any sense in telling you about every 1000th of an inch on every cut, but rest assured I need to pay attention to them. 

Friday, May 18, 2018

Nuns Putting Pressure on Publicly Held Gun Companies

Perhaps you saw the statement from Ruger within the last week or so, saying they have to prepare a report because of a shareholder vote but they will not change their business.  If you missed their statement, I repeat it here:
Please understand that Ruger was obligated by applicable law to include a shareholder’s activist resolution with its proxy materials for a shareholder vote.   With its passage, the proposal requires Ruger to prepare a report.  That’s it.  A report.  What the proposal does not do . . . and cannot do . . . is force us to change our business, which is lawful and constitutionally protected.  What it does not do . . . and cannot do . . . is force us to adopt misguided principles created by groups who do not own guns, know nothing about our business, and frankly would rather see us out of business. 

As our CEO explained, “we are Americans who work together to produce rugged, reliable, innovative and affordable firearms for responsible citizens.  We are staunch supporters of the Second Amendment not because we make firearms, but because we cherish the rights conferred by it.  We understand the importance of those rights and, as importantly, recognize that allowing our constitutionally protected freedoms to be eroded for the sake of political expediency is the wrong approach for our Company, for our industry, for our customers, and for our country.  We are arms makers for responsible citizens and I want to assure our long-term shareholders and loyal customers that we have no intention of changing that.”
Change their business?  What's going on here?  Where did this come from?

According to the Seattle Times, Ruger (a publicly traded company) has been targeted by gun control forces, specifically Catholic nuns who are trying to make them adopt policies that are bad for the company.    
Last week, Sister Judy, who lives in a convent in Seattle’s Wedgwood neighborhood, helped orchestrate what is believed to be the first activist-led shareholder revolt at an American gun manufacturer.

The size of the nuns’ win appeared to startle the gun industry. It also came as a welcome shock to the gun-control movement, which was long accustomed to being ignored by the big businesses at the center of the gun debate.

“This is our biggest win, by far, in 20 years of pushing corporations for social change,” Byron said Tuesday. “When they announced it, I couldn’t believe it. I about fell out of my chair.”
Unlike conventional investors, the nuns buy stock specifically so they can go to stockholder meetings and propose gun control initiatives.  Rather than investing in a company for its growth potential, the nuns invest in it to try to make it do things in compliance with their view of social justice. 
Out of a small office in the Roosevelt neighborhood, Byron has for two decades run a campaign to get corporations to include “good works” in their profit-making. It’s called the Northwest Coalition for Responsible Investment. The strategy is to first buy stock and then request an audience with corporate boards or CEOs. If that doesn’t work, the nuns take it up a notch by petitioning directly to the company’s owners — the shareholders.

These resolutions almost always lose. In the past three years, of 56 corporate resolutions filed by the group, only one was approved by a vote of the shareholders (in 2017, when Exxon’s shareholders agreed to force the company to report on how climate change will affect its long-term business.)

Sturm Ruger ignored the nuns’ request for a meeting. Big mistake: As anyone who has ever been to a Catholic fundraising breakfast can attest, nuns can be very persistent.

By then the nuns owned the minimum amount of stock ($2,000 worth) required to file a formal resolution. The one for Sturm Ruger called on the company to track incidents of violence involving its firearms; to reveal what it’s doing to make guns safer, including research on “smart gun” technology; and to report on the risks that gun violence poses to the company’s reputation and finances.
As always, the gun grabbers don't know what they're talking about.  They're laboring under the bad conception that gun sellers are unregulated, not that they're regulated every step of the way from the factory receiving raw materials until a buyer at a gun store undergoes background checks and fills out a Federal form before getting their gun.  They completely miss the fact that the vast majority of guns used in crimes are stolen and whether Ruger's products are used in a crime or not as nothing to do with Ruger.

As I'm sure you'd guess, the nuns say “We’re not trying to get rid of guns,” they're just trying to improve gun safety.

The Seattle Times is clearly in favor of what the nuns are doing, and I expect that.  More troubling to me is that they imply the investment company BlackRock is with the nuns.  I went to their link to a statement by BlackRock and they say they are not shareholders of any gun company.
There are three publicly traded companies in the US whose primary business is firearms manufacturing: American Outdoor Brands, Vista Outdoor and Sturm, Ruger. BlackRock holds none of these firearms manufacturers in our active equity portfolios (where stocks are selected by our portfolio managers within guidelines agreed to by clients). In BlackRock’s index equity products (where stocks are determined by third-party index providers) – these three companies represent 0.01% of total assets.
The distinction is fine, but they're not shareholders, they have invested in index funds from other companies that hold stock in those companies.  The other companies hold stock in the gun companies.  That's the referenced 0.01% of the company assets.  BlackRock is the world's largest asset manager with $6.3 trillion in assets under management as of July 2017.  That 0.01% is still $630 Million. 

Exact details of what BlackRock has discussed with Ruger and the others are confidential, however in that linked piece, they mention the kinds of things they ask the companies and it implies they don't know enough about what they're investing in.  To excerpt the two that seem the worst:
  • How do you determine where you will allow your products to be distributed? (Do your distribution channels include private sales? Do you require distributors to disclose to you warnings received by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives? Do you monitor whether distributors and retailers of your products have a high volume of their guns identified as having been used in crimes?)
  • What strategies do you employ to monitor how your products are being sold? (Do you require retailers to certify that they do background checks? Do you require training of retailer staffs? Do you have a process in place to flag orders of unusual size or identify patterns of disproportionate sales?)
Do those sound like questions from someone who understands firearm sales to you?  Where do they find retailers who don't require background checks?  A company the size of Ruger sells most of their inventory to wholesalers - distributors - who sell to retailers.  Do they think these companies don't follow federal laws?  I don't expect everyone at BlackRock to be familiar with these laws, but I do expect anyone buying into these companies to learn about their business, and I especially expect anyone who wants to lecture the industry to know more than I see here.  Should BlackRock investors demand they get educated? 

The decision to be a publicly traded company vs. privately held is a big decision.  It brings opportunities for raising money for expansion.  That your company can be taken over by a big enough stock buyer, and driven into the ground is a drawback that plays out in many mergers and acquisitions.


(Sister Judy Byron - Seattle Times photo)


Thursday, May 17, 2018

It's Kind of Sad

It's kinda sad watching Slidefire sink into the sunset.  Like many of you (I assume) I've been getting their "going out of business sale" emails for the last few weeks.  It seems I've been getting their ads every other day (? I think) for a few weeks and it has just been a continuing dribble of sad news.

I don't own a bump-stock.  Never wanted one.  Never cared about them.  I'm just sad to see a small business killed by the stupidity that flared into existence over banning bump stocks.  One crime in the history of the world has used a bump-stock and because of that we need to ban them and drive some entrepreneur's dream into the dirt.  Slidefire is not responsible.  Neither the owner, the company nor the devices are responsible.  Only the moron pulling the trigger is responsible.  

Bump-stocks were, if you're unaware, outlawed in the Florida RINO Gun Control Act of 2018, passed within days of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.   Which also didn't involve a bump stock.

At the very top of the web site, it says:
STORE NOTICE

ALL SALES FINAL – On Sunday, May 20, 2018 at midnight CDT, Slide Fire will cease taking orders for its products and shut down its website.  Orders placed prior to May 20th, 2018 will all be processed and shipped.  We thank you for your support.
Everybody thinks bump-stocks on ARs or AKs.  They also make a nifty little kit for "America's littler rifle", the Ruger 10/22.  


Here's wishing them luck in whatever direction they choose.


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Hacking Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant With Hidden Voice Commands

A lot of people have written about how getting one of these voice-activated digital assistants is voluntarily bugging yourself.  The reactions have widely varied, but for the software to recognize when you call it, ("OK, Google"...) it has to be listening at all times.  It's a deliberate design feature, or decision.  Most people who read here, at least, would be aware that they were installing a full time listening device in their homes.  To some, they assume it's an invasion of privacy and don't want these things; to others, it's something they ignore for the perceived benefits of the digital assistant.

The New York Times tech blog reports that a group of researchers in a couple of institutions have been able to secretly activate the systems on smartphones and smart speakers, simply by playing music with sub-audible (to humans) sounds hidden in it over the radio.
A group of students from University of California, Berkeley, and Georgetown University showed in 2016 that they could hide commands in white noise played over loudspeakers and through YouTube videos to get smart devices to turn on airplane mode or open a website.

This month, some of those Berkeley researchers published a research paper that went further, saying they could embed commands directly into recordings of music or spoken text. So while a human listener hears someone talking or an orchestra playing, Amazon’s Echo speaker might hear an instruction to add something to your shopping list.

“We wanted to see if we could make it even more stealthy,” said Nicholas Carlini, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in computer security at U.C. Berkeley and one of the paper’s authors.
In a way, this isn't much of a surprise, right?  They're taking advantage of the "always-on, always listening" nature and trying to see just what the algorithms can extract from the other sounds.  I'd think the designers would do this.  Further, hijacking these things is nothing new.  Remember when Burger King grabbed headlines with an online ad that asked ‘O.K., Google, what is the Whopper burger?”  It caused Android devices with voice-enabled search to read the Whopper’s Wikipedia page aloud.  The ad was canceled after viewers started editing the Wikipedia page to make it more ... let's say comical.  Not long after that, South Park followed up with an entire episode built around voice commands that caused viewers’ voice-recognition assistants to spew adolescent obscenities.

A research firm has said that devices like Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant will outnumber humans by 2021, and add that more than half of American homes will have a smart speaker by then, just three years away. 

These security researchers aren't leaving bad enough alone. 
Last year, researchers at Princeton University and China’s Zhejiang University demonstrated that voice-recognition systems could be activated by using frequencies inaudible to the human ear. The attack first muted the phone so the owner wouldn’t hear the system’s responses, either.

The technique, which the Chinese researchers called DolphinAttack, can instruct smart devices to visit malicious websites, initiate phone calls, take a picture or send text messages. While DolphinAttack has its limitations — the transmitter must be close to the receiving device — experts warned that more powerful ultrasonic systems were possible.

That warning was borne out in April, when researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign demonstrated ultrasound attacks from 25 feet away. While the commands couldn’t penetrate walls, they could control smart devices through open windows from outside a building.

This year, another group of Chinese and American researchers from China’s Academy of Sciences and other institutions, demonstrated they could control voice-activated devices with commands embedded in songs that can be broadcast over the radio or played on services like YouTube.
Security researchers have a habit of saying that releasing information like this isn't bad because they think the bad guys have either thought of it already, or they would think of it on their own.  Maybe, although some times just knowing something is possible can keep the experimenter going during the inevitable times when things just don't seem to be working.  The article does say these exploits haven't been found "in the wild", but as more people become aware of the possibility, I'd expect them to start showing up.

Hopefully, the research being revealed will get the companies selling this software to try to get ahead and make their devices more robust.  My version: I have an older iPhone (6s) with Siri.  It's possible to configure the phone to listen all the time, so that when you say, "Hey, Siri" it answers.  I have that turned off, and have read Siri does not actually send data back when it's disabled.

I'm going to close with one of the last paragraphs in the article, because it contains the very best phrase in the whole piece. 
“Companies have to ensure user-friendliness of their devices, because that’s their major selling point,” said Tavish Vaidya, a researcher at Georgetown. He wrote one of the first papers on audio attacks, which he titled “Cocaine Noodles” because devices interpreted the phrase “cocaine noodles” as “O.K., Google.”
For some reason, it reminds me of this meme:



Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Inside the Worst Maritime Disaster in Decades

Any recreational boaters here?  Anyone who has been out of sight of land, where you know that if things go squirrely you don't go home?  Known that the bottom was a mile or more below you and that was closest land you could get to?  Without your boat you're in a world of trouble.  If you're waiting for a search and rescue aircraft, you're a tiny target in a big ocean.  

I've always thought that the giant cargo container freighters, giant oil tankers, and other vessels in the size class near that of an aircraft carrier are capable of surviving anything the sea could hand out.  All of these are monstrous compared to sizes of boats I've been out on.  I've heard of guys on small sailboats surviving hurricanes.  Boats that people who work for a living and decide to get away for a few years, or retire onto, buy.  If a 40 or 50 foot, single-mast sailboat can take on a hurricane, why not a 790 foot long cargo ship capable of carrying 15,000 tons? 

Last month, Vanity Fair (of all places) ran an article on the wreck and sinking of the cargo ship "El Faro", a cargo ship that sailed right into the path of Hurricane Joaquin in 2015.  I remembered this because it was early October, and storms in that general area are always worth keeping an eye on.  I heard about this ship that had sailed and was heading for trouble, but assumed that with a professional captain on a ship that size, they shouldn't be at terrible risk.  So they get inconvenienced by changing course to stay in a lee or "heave-to", slow down, and point the bow into the wind, so what?  They should make it to their destination.

The article is long, but worth reading.  I don't think I'm giving away a major spoiler that the problem was a convergence of the storm intensifying more than expected, and the captain not willing to give it the respect it deserved, worrying too much about making his schedule.  Compounded with bad and conflicting information about the storm, because the forecasts were made by people.  Despite the elegant computer models and supercomputers to run them, no two models agree exactly: an experienced forecaster is still the best judge.  As the old saying goes, experience is gained by making mistakes and, most importantly, learning from them. 
It is unlikely that Davidson ever fully understood that he had sailed into the eye wall of Joaquin, but he must have realized by now that he had come much too close. As is usually the case, the catastrophe was unfolding because of a combination of factors that had aligned, which included: Davidson’s caution with the home office; his decision to take a straight-line course; the subtle pressures to stick to the schedule; the systematic failure of the forecasts; the persuasiveness of the B.V.S. graphics; the lack of a functioning anemometer; the failure by some to challenge Davidson’s thinking more vigorously; the initial attribution of the ship’s list entirely to the winds; and finally a certain mental inertia that had overcome all of them. This is the stuff of tragedy that can never be completely explained.
Davidson is Captain Michael Davidson; experienced, 53, and known as a stickler for safety.  He left behind a wife and two college-age daughters. Neither his remains nor those of his shipmates were ever recovered.  As best as can be reconstructed, El Faro went down around 7:40 AM on the morning of October 1st.  Search operations were actually started by Hurricane Hunters later that day, but not beginning in earnest until the next day due to the hurricane.  No survivors were ever found.  The ship was eventually found in 15,000 feet of water, and recovery operations attempting to find the onboard voice recorder lasted until April of 2016.  Coast Guard investigators placed virtually all of the blame on captain Michael Davidson.


GOES-13 Image (from Wikipedia) that's coincidentally captured as El Faro was sinking.


Monday, May 14, 2018

How a “location API” allows cops to figure out where we all are in real-time

That's the provocative title of a piece that was on ARS Technica over the weekend - and they include a really novel link.  You can try to see if your phone, or a handful of other things, can be located.  Think of it as a way to test your privacy measures, your VPN or browser security.
The digital privacy world was rocked late Thursday evening when The New York Times reported on Securus, a prison telecom company that has a service enabling law enforcement officers to locate most American cell phones within seconds. The company does this via a basic Web interface leveraging a location API—creating a way to effectively access a massive real-time database of cell-site records.
The API - Applications Program Interface - is the key.  It's what appears to be Securus' contribution to the tracking.  The API makes it possible for any programmer to write applications that use this data.  The data itself is not from Securus.  They rely on data brokers and location aggregators that obtain that information directly from mobile providers.
The Texas-based Securus reportedly gets its data from 3CInteractive, which in turn buys data from LocationSmart. Ars reached 3CInteractive's general counsel, Scott Elk, who referred us to a spokesperson. The spokesperson did not immediately respond to our query. But currently, anyone can get a sense of the power of a location API by trying out a demo from LocationSmart itself.
If you want to see where the fight over the end of the Fourth Amendment is currently taking place, this may not be it exactly, but I bet you can see it from here.
Securus’ location service as used by law enforcement is also currently being scrutinized. The service is at the heart of an ongoing federal prosecution of a former Missouri sheriff’s deputy who allegedly used it at least 11 times against a judge and other law enforcement officers.
...
"To access this private data, correctional officers simply visit Securus’ Web portal, enter any US wireless phone number, and then upload a document purporting to be an official document giving permission to obtain real-time location data," Wyden wrote.
The reason the data is available is because cell phones need to "talk" with the towers and the towers triangulate on a given number to aid in handling the call.  If several towers receive the handset, as is usually the case, they can tell by signal strength changes the likely direction the phone is moving, so that they can hand off to the next cell more easily.  

With the Securus system, the phone's location isn't obtained from the phone's GPS; the provider's  knowing the location has nothing to do with a phone being a Smart phone or a dumb old flip phone, and it has nothing to do with turning "location services" off.  The location awareness comes simply from being a phone on the cellular network.

Similarly, while the location provided by triangulating between cell towers is low resolution - they might know that the phone is somewhere in a quarter or half mile diameter circle - this was adequate for a lot of criminal prosecutions.  If someone's argument was "I wasn't even there", and the phone records verified they weren't within that quarter mile circle but in another cell some distance away, the story checked.  GPS enhances that measurement.  You can envision someone being falsely accused of something by a third party but being in the same cell as the third party.  Perhaps they're within a few hundred yards of the accuser; two or three houses or apartments away.  They're really "not even there", but the location being accurate only to within a quarter or half mile circle is incapable of proving or disproving that. 


The LocationSmart test page.  I haven't decided if I really want to run the test.  With a service like this, I want to read the "Terms of Use" and they don't really make me comfortable.  I'd like them to say, "this is a one-time demo; we're going to destroy the number you gave us in 24 hours along with all the information you entered".  Nope.  In one place it says, "You agree to provide LocationSmart with true, accurate, current, and complete information about yourself (the "User Information") if requested, and maintain and update such information to keep it true, accurate, current, and complete at all times."  I added that bold format.  That sounds like they're going to keep anything I tell them. 

In the old days, people used to wonder if the FBI had a file on them and we used to say the easiest way to get an FBI file started on you was to request a copy of your FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act.  I just can't help but wonder if checking to see if your phone (or browser, landline, and so on) can be tracked is a way to ensure that it gets tracked.  But then I tell myself it's already tracked anyway.


Sunday, May 13, 2018

Mother's Day 2018

Mothers's Day started early for me.  I started tonight's dinner, a smoked beef brisket, last night right before midnight.  My smoking equipment allows me to get about 6 hours out of a load of wood chips, but the chips tend to not fall down into the zone where they smoke, and by two hours into the burn, they need to be given a bit of a shove (I use a BFS - a big screwdriver).  As I usually do, I set a timer on my phone to wake me in two hours and went to bed.  Got up at 2AM, took a quick inspection, poked down the chips, set the time again, and went back to bed.  I basically got up a 2, 4, 6 and 8 AM (a few minutes later every time).  It went about as well as these overnight cooks go, and I got a decent amount/quality of sleep. 

The brisket reached its desired internal temperature by just before 1:30 this afternoon, and we quickly wrapped it in parchment cooking paper and stuck it in a cooler to let it rest for a while. 


Nice bark, but no pink smoke ring (a known drawback to these electric smokers), and a bit too dried out.  This is just the flat of a brisket; a higher quality brisket to cook is what's called a packer brisket, which has the flat and a higher-fat portion called the point.  The thinner sections of brisket, near the camera, were more dry than sections cut better across the grain farther to the right.  The thicker portion of the brisket came out more moist.  Slices the width of a typical #2 pencil should not break when supported by their middle, and they don't.  Grading myself, I'd give it a C. 

As I've mentioned before, with the kids living out of town and both of us now the oldest parents in the family, it tends to be low key here on holidays. 

We're in for an unusual week here, at least for May.  80% chance of rain tonight and tomorrow, and it stays above 50% through next Friday.  Good time for cutting some metal. 



Saturday, May 12, 2018

Redesigning the CNC Mill Enclosure

When I finished converting my milling machine to CNC, I moved onto building an enclosure for it. More details here.  Briefly, the enclosure always struck me as an afterthought on an otherwise very worthwhile DVD of plans I bought.  The creator, Daniel Kemp, better known as Hoss, did good drafting quality drawings for all of the parts involved in the conversion, but the construction of the enclosure was in a handful of videos on his YouTube channel and the materials needed were found on his dedicated forum at CNCZone.   The only drawing was for the plywood chip tray that the mill sits in.  I've run this picture before, but this is the enclosure when I finished it. 
As the system has aged, a couple of issues have surfaced that have gotten to the point that I need to change the front over to something else.  The biggest annoyance is that the doors are just too short, and I scrape my head on the top rail far too often.  The doors slide on a screw captured in the track on top, folding in at their middle - they're bifold doors - and so I can't put some foam or something on the middle of it so I don't scrape myself.  (The track is also source of another annoyance - the doors come off the captive screws and fall into the enclosure, suspended by just the hinges at the end panels.)

After a lot of research, I'm going to completely redesign the front.  I'm going to three doors, with the middle door sliding to the side to access the center of the mill where most work needs to be done.  I'll put the middle door in one sliding track so that it can slide to either side, and there will be two doors on another track, so that they can slide to the left or right and allow access to the corresponding end of the table.  It's going to look more like this:
The doors will still be clear Lexan; the smokey, almost purple color here is an artifact of the rendering in Rhino3D V5.  The frame is sitting on the front board of the chip tray in this rendering; the new pieces will all be wood, 1x2s, and mounted to the aluminum extrusion top and bottom.   

Most importantly, the doors will be 33 inches tall instead of 25.  That should keep me from hitting my head.  Right now the top rail is the same distance above the floor as my upper lip.  The extra 8" ought to eliminate that problem.  If the Lexan I can find is 36", I'll make the doors .36"

I'll need to work this into the shop at some point, where I'm working on the fire eater engine.  This week's work has all been on the big lathe, but there's a little work to be done on the milling machine before I interrupt everything. 



Friday, May 11, 2018

New Frontiers in "There's Never A Shortage of Things to Fix"

I don't know about the rest of you, but there's always something around here that needs to be fixed.  Most of the time it's something I've never tried to fix before and frequently something with no electronics content - what I consider my "home field advantage".

This week ended up being broken vacuum cleaner week.  I've never had one broken vacuum cleaner to fix in my life; this week I had two.  As it turned out, they were both electrical problems, which helped.

The first one was the carpet attachment for our house cleaner.  It's not this model Panasonic, but the same basic concept: there's a canister with the dust bag, power on/off switch and a connector for the hose to plug into.  The hose has wires embedded in it that brings the power to carpet attachment.

On Sunday, Mrs. Graybeard got the thing out to clean our couple of throw rugs and the carpet attachment wouldn't turn on.  Before going too far into the whole assembly, she opened up the carpet attachment and verified that the belt was good.  I eventually came over and volunteered to dive in.  We verified that everything in the beater was wired up and motor seemed good, so now we're down to the main vacuum or the hose.  We quickly isolated it to the wires that run down the hose, and eventually bring power into the carpet beater.  There are two wires, one was open from end to end. 

It took more time to take it apart because there are single piece molded plastic parts on both ends.  On the vacuum cleaner end, there's a rotary joint, so the hose can spin around.  On the handle end, it just ends in the handle, which has a switch.  A wire had pulled out of its connector in the end of the hose nearest the handle.  Aside from a piece of duct tape to hold together a rubbery plastic elbow that I cut open to inspect the wires (visible in the picture at the top of the hose, going into the connector on the body), it's just as it was before the wire pulled out. 

Once that was fixed, on Wednesday I went to turn on my Shop-Vac to clean up some chips and residue on the lathe (where I'm working on the cylinder for my flame eater engine).  The Shop-Vac didn't turn on - I had used it the day before.  Putting an ohmmeter across the AC plug, I could see the motor never got connected.  Now it's down to the motor, the power switch or the power cord.  I started looking for a circuit breaker or fuse or something.  Nothing found.

After some research online and YouTube, I found that the motors in Shop-Vacs have some sort of fuse attached to the motor with a molded plastic holder.  With a couple of videos watched, I went and tore down the vacuum until I could hold the motor in my hand.  Sure enough, the fuse was open.  Only it's not a fuse.  After unsuccessfully trying to find one for this specific model Shop-Vac , I found that the thing is built in an amazingly crude manner.  See that little yellow square? 


This is a pic from online, not from mine, but it looks exactly like mine.  The orange wire goes to the power switch and the copper wire goes to a stator on the motor.  Inside the yellow plastic piece, it has two sorta V-or U-shaped spring clips that you shove the flat terminals under (these are crimped onto the orange and copper leads) and these clips ride on what looks like a short piece of wire.  Only it's not wire, it's solder.  That's right: when the motor draws too much current, the solder melts and disconnects the power.  Looking at the terminals in mine, it's hard to see how it could not work, since only about an eighth inch (or less) of solder wire looks like something other than pristine wire.

I spent my entire career in high reliability electronics and I know that influences my thinking, but when I understood what they were doing, I was appalled.  Think of the numbers of Shop Vacs that get thrown out because a little piece of solder (fusible link) opened and there's really nothing substantially wrong with the motor.  For some reason, the motor drew too much current and blew the fuse.  If it was a real circuit breaker, maybe add a buck or two to the cost, you could just press a button and reset the fuse.  Maybe let it cool down, first.  Heck, letting it cool down overnight makes more sense than using a piece of solder and throwing it out when it opens. 

Better yet, a thermal fuse that opens if it overheats and then resets itself when it cools down enough. 

Shop-Vac has a warranty, and I read that if you had proof of purchase and contacted them, they'd send you a new motor.  Otherwise the motor cost what a whole new Shop-Vac costs.

I spent a lot of time agonizing over this, because I don't really have numbers on what the "fuse" needs to do.  I could put a piece of solder in there and call it a fuse.  I could put a piece of copper wire in and call it the fuse.  Maybe the solder is 20 ga. wire while the copper would be 30 ga,.  At some point either one will melt. Whether that's before or after the vacuum catches fire is something I can't answer.

I eventually just dialed up a bit of "you're over complicating things", found the thickest solder I have, wound a double strand of it (to approximate the original's size) and put the vacuum back together.  Works like a charm.  I used it a half dozen times today, a few seconds to maybe a minute at a time. 

Will it hold up?  Time will tell.


Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Rats and the Law of Unintended Consequences

I've got to say this is a new one on me.  According to a story in USA Today this week, some auto companies have gone to wire insulation based on soy instead of a plastic.  The insulation is derived from a bean instead of petroleum.  The Unintended Consequence is that the soy-based insulation is attractive to rats, and the rodents chew through it, causing (sometimes) thousands of dollars worth of damage.
ROYAL OAK, Mich. — Every evening, Janice Perzigian puts Pine-Sol on the ground around her 2017 Ford Mustang.

Dryer sheets go under the front seat and in the trunk. Spray made with essential oils is applied to the tires, the sides and the back.

Why does she go through this 5-minute routine?

She has a simple answer: to avoid another $600+ repair bill after a rat chewed through wires under the hood of her car, leading to problems last month starting her car.
Turns out Ms. Perzigian isn't alone.  In 2016, a class action lawsuit was filed against Toyota by Los Angeles attorney Brian Kabateck on behalf of Albert Heber of Delphi, Ind., whose 2012 Tundra had its soy-based insulated wiring chewed through by rodents three times, the first time in 2013. The costs of repair totaled about $1,500; damage that Kabateck said Toyota wouldn't cover under warranty.
"Our contention, [while] soy is certainly — it's laudable — they're trying to be more green, at the same time, it's becoming a potential food product for rats," Kabateck said. He believes rats find it "delicious." [Note: anything in square brackets is added by me - SiG]
One thing I had heard of was rats chewing through wires in all sorts of things, and I don't think it's a foregone conclusion that this really has anything to do with the soy based insulation.  Chewing on things is what rats do.
Jim Stevens, a sales representative at Suburban Ford of Ferndale, MI, said finding rats chewing through wires "is a pretty common thing around here," with two or three vehicles coming in a month.

Though he has been aware of the problem for the last five or six years, Stevens said he doesn't buy the theory of the soy-based coating.

"it's just like your home; it's pretty common (rodents) just chew on stuff," he said, noting that he lives in the country and has a pole barn, where rodents have chewed on wires in his tractor.
Tracy Noble, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, takes the view that there is an increase in these damage incidents, and it probably is because of the soy-based insulation.  She said that in the early 2000s, requirements were put on the automakers to manufacture cars that were more fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly.  In addition to the problems with the soy based insulation, Noble also said there were problems with insulation from natural products such as sisal and flax, and seat cushions made from coconut fiber.


(Wiring harness damage photo from NBCDFW story)

Ultimately, it's probably a worsening of a problem that has always been around to some degree.  The best thing you could do is probably to try to make sure your area is rat free.  Keeping them out of the car is probably easier than getting them out once they live in your firewall or someplace.  Perhaps Janice Perzigian's routine with Pine-Sol, peppermint oil, dryer sheets, and all the rest is a good idea.  Lacking that, there are commercial rat repellents.  You could always try to convince some owls to move in nearby.  Good luck with that.


Tuesday, May 8, 2018

If This Thing Was 20kW, I'd Have to Start Looking for Financing

Machine Design relays a report from NASA and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) that a small, fission-powered, nuclear power plant has undergone some robust initial testing and is working perfectly.
A small, lightweight fission reactor built at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland recently passed extensive testing in the Nevada desert “with flying floors,” putting it one step closer to powering human outposts on the moon or Mars.
In what may be a desired name in search of an acronym (and a nod towards “The Simpsons”), the reactor is called KRUSTY - Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology.  KRUSTY went through testing from November 2017 through March.  NASA report pdf here.
The experiment culminated with a 28-hour, full-power test that simulated a mission, including reactor startup, ramp to full power, steady operation, and shutdown. Throughout the experiment, the team simulated power reduction, failed engines, and failed heat pipes, showing that the system could continue to operate and successfully handle multiple failures.
KRUSTY is said to be able to deliver 10 kW for up to 10 years.  I know I've talked about this before, but while your house may be rated for 30kW (120V with 250 Amp service), you typically don't use a third of that.  The way power is distributed to progressively smaller groups of houses in a neighborhood, the power companies budget around 6kW per house.  The higher voltage going into the neighborhood is dropped to the 120V that goes to your house (in the US, of course) by distribution transformers.  There is usually one of these to every five houses, and it's rated for 25 kW.  They budget 6kW for the average house and you can quickly see that 5 houses makes 30 kW not 25, but they rationalize that by saying it's not likely everyone will be using the full 6 kW at the same time.   

That says KRUSTY could power a typical house easily; maybe even two houses.  Cool.  What's inside?  And exactly what do they mean by "Stirling Technology" in the name? 
The reactor core is in a solid, cast-uranium-235 core about the size of a roll of paper towels. The prototype power plant uses passive sodium heat pipes instead of cumbersome pipes, pumps, plumbing, and a liquid working fluid used by traditional reactors to carry heat from the reactor.
The heat powers two Sterling heat engines which convert heat energy to mechanical work and mechanical work into electricity.  This means it could power a human outpost, which is ideal for the Moon, where generating power from sunlight is difficult due to the 14-day lunar nights. The  reactor is also fault tolerant, so any loss of cooling leads to an automatic reduction in fission power with no possibility of uncontrolled  reactions.  Ultimately, though, the target is to power more exploration, including Mars.


Artist's sketch of an array of four KRUSTY power plants on Mars.  From NASA's Kilopower project page.

Back in the first year of this blog, 2010, I offered a strange thought.  The US Navy has been powering ships with nuclear reactors for around 50 years.  These reactors have become a standard federal part number.  At least in concept, they could say "we need a new A4W" or "we need a new A1B" and order one from the approved suppliers.  One A4W delivers 104 Megawatts, or more than 10,000 times the power KRUSTY can deliver.  If KRUSTY can power a home, an A4W can power 10,000 homes.  One A1B delivers 700 MW.  You can do the math. 
What if we covered the country with these reactors?  Instead of giant, centralized power plants, what if we had a distributed network of thousands of these reactors?
Now maybe this isn't the exact ticket.  Maybe the Navy's reactors require too much human attention and maintenance, and maybe the design is based on having as much cooling water as they could ever want - the entire ocean as a coolant source.  I just still think the answer lies in distributed power systems and fewer centralized, single-point failure scenarios.  I'd love to have a KRUSTY in my backyard.  Yeah, considering it's NASA hardware I don't think there's a chance I could ever afford it.

Edit 0710 EDT 5/9/2018 - correct typo.


Monday, May 7, 2018

Glock? Sig Sauer? Remington? I'm Lookin' At You!

It's not news that the National Shooting Sports Foundation has kicked out Dick's Sporting Goods for hiring gun control lobbyists.

Nor is it particularly New news that Springfield Armory, well, cut off Dick's.  From the email they sent me:
GENESEO, IL, (05/03/18) – Springfield Armory is severing ties with Dick’s Sporting Goods and its subsidiary, Field & Stream, in response to their hiring a group for anti-Second Amendment lobbying.

This latest action follows Dick’s Sporting Goods’ decision to remove and destroy all modern sporting rifles (MSR) from their inventory. In addition, they have denied Second Amendment rights to Americans under the age of 21. We at Springfield Armory believe that all law abiding American citizens of adult age are guaranteed this sacred right under our Constitution.

It is clear where Dick’s Sporting Goods and its subsidiary, Field & Stream, stand on the Second Amendment, and we want to be clear about our message in response. Their position runs counter to what we stand for as a company. At Springfield Armory, we believe in the right and principles fought for and secured by American patriots and our founding forefathers, without question. We will not accept Dick’s Sporting Goods’ continued attempts to deny Second Amendment freedoms to our fellow Americans.
(hey - they're the ones who used the word "severing")

What is news, at least to me, is that it seems no other gun company has cut off Dick's.  After an exhaustive web search (I looked at four whole pages!), the only company I can find is Springfield Armory.  How about it, gentlemen?  Glock, Ruger, Remington, Sig Sauer, Savage, Smith&Wesson, Taurus, and any of the multitude, I'm lookin' at you!  How about we shut down Dick's?  Why do they even have guns and ammo to sell?  (As an aside, I haven't been in a Dick's Sporting Goods store since they made a show about stopping MSR sales after Sandy Hook, so what guns do they sell?)

Two can play at this economic pressure game.  Hornady did a great thing with refusing to sell to New York state or city entities as return pressure for their Governor pressuring financial companies to attack gun companies.  How about the rest of the ammo companies?  How about Glock or whoever sells the New York Police Departments their guns cancels the contracts?  Make them use a "bucket full of rocks" like that Pennsylvania school district. 



Sunday, May 6, 2018

Deep Brain Stimulation Implants Susceptible to Lightning EMI

From a story at ARS Technica that links to the Journal of Neurosurgery, we learn about something new in biomedicine.  Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) devices are becoming common treatments for Parkinson's Disease and some other movement disorders.  The Journal reports on a woman whose DBS reset itself after a lightning event.  This is considered "electromagnetic interference" or EMI.

In the world of EMI, there are a couple of principle mechanisms by which and electromagnetic field can get into a device: being conducted into it on wires or being radiated into it by electromagnetic (EM) fields around the device.  This appears to be the second case.
Doctors in Slovenia report that a 66-year-old woman with an existing brain implant experienced a close call with the device after lightning struck her apartment building. The strike ruined the woman’s television and air conditioning unit and managed to switch off her brain implant. Luckily, the woman and her device were not otherwise harmed.
They say the woman's apartment was struck by lightning, although in many such instances thought to be direct strikes, they turn out to be caused by strong EM fields induced by a nearby lightning strike.  Regardless of the exact mechanism, things in her apartment were damaged and her DBS brain implant reset and turned itself off by the strong EM field.  Since her DBSwasn't plugged into its charger, we can be sure the surge wasn't conducted into the DBS over wires, which means it entered by radiation
Luckily, at the time of the thunderstorm, the woman wasn’t charging her pulse generator or charging the recharger system, so none of her equipment was damaged. But the tremor in her neck—which the brain implant was effectively treating—returned about an hour after the storm. When she checked her device, she realized it wasn’t on and went to a clinic, fearing her device had been fried by the jolt.

Doctors there discovered that the implant was simply turned off and not harmed by the electrical blitz. They speculated that a safety system in her device (the Activa RC neurostimulator by Medtronic) kicked in during the storm, sensing the electromagnetic disturbance, and caused it to turn itself off. While this is a good fail-safe for the device, it could be devastating for patients who suddenly have debilitating symptoms return unexpectedly when their implants shut off.
The doctors point out the implications of this; that patients should avoid sources of high EM fields.  They even note a case where a patient with a DBS device to treat Parkinson’s disease suffered “serious, permanent neurological injury” after their DBS electrode heated up during an MRI scan. 

Strangely, and this seems hard to believe, it sounds to me as though the medical equipment field isn't as established with respect to lightning and EMI problems as commercial aviation requirements are.  In aviation, there are standard tests and requirements all the equipment has to meet.  Equipment with different usages, for example, inside a pressurized environment vs. exposed to the outside temperature and air pressure; perhaps connected to outside antennas as opposed to equipment only connected to power or other wiring inside the aircraft. 

While the Journal of Neurosurgery listed a lot of things to be cautious of, I think they err on the side of over caution:
Patients should be regularly warned to avoid environmental sources that generate strong EMFs, such as arc welding equipment, electronic power generators, electrical substations, ham radio antennas, power lines, microwave communication transmitters, industrial furnaces, induction heaters, resistance welders, and transmission towers for television and radio signals.
Microwave communications towers, TV/radio broadcast towers, and even ham stations are set up to be safe to be around (general intro here).  They're much weaker than a lightning strike. I don't know about the exact risks from welding equipment, but the things I do know about produce fields much weaker than lightning does, so they don't concern me.


(Getty Images photo from ARS Technica)


Saturday, May 5, 2018

The Happy Ending to the Rotary Table Issue

I should have posted about this earlier in the week, when I finished the part that caused me grief on the rotary table.  "Finished" in the sense of being done with the machining on the rotary table.  I "finished" in the sense of using several grits of sandpaper to make it look nicer yesterday. 

Nevertheless... 


Not perfect, but totally usable and ready to mount.  The last cut I made with the boring head on the mill made that opening in the middle a couple of thousandths too big, but that's not a problem.  The next part I make, the engine's cylinder, gets press fit into that bore so it just gets cut it to match. 

I've begun work on the cylinder, preparing the stock for the operations it's going to get. 

This is the first part for the current project.  There are many more to come.   


Friday, May 4, 2018

The Financial Attacks on Gun Owners

While there have been lots of stories about Citicorp and Bank of America curtailing or ending funding for gun manufacturers, the financial attacks on the legal commerce in firearms are bigger and more wide ranging.  They have the potential to be a serious problem.

I'm not talking about the same thing Peter, Bayou Renaissance Man, and Zero Hedge talk about: about credit card companies getting involved in micromanaging purchases.
[S]ome banks and credit card companies are now considering a more permanent move that would transform them into foot soldiers in the deep state's push to create a register of all gun owners. The Wall Street Journal [paywall warning] reported Monday that some lenders are now discussing ways to identify purchases of guns through their payment systems. This would effectively transform them into tools of the intelligence services by monitoring virtually all gun sales at sporting goods stores and other merchants that aren't transacted in cash.
What I'm talking about is how New York Governor Cuomo is pressuring the financial institutions, which have large presences in New York City, to have nothing to do with gun makers, gun sellers, the NRA, insurance or anything related to guns.
Cuomo, a Democrat seeking a third term as governor, says he wants “every individual, company and organization that does business across the state” to make gun safety “a top priority.”

To that end, the state Department of Financial Services Commissioner Maria Vullo, a Cuomo appointee, on April 19 urged the banks and insurance companies regulated by her agency to sever any ties they may have with the National Rifle Association and similar groups.
The Blaze has a more complete quote from Cuomo:
“New York may have the strongest gun laws in the country, but we must push further to ensure that gun safety is a top priority for every individual, company, and organization that does business across the state … I am directing the Department of Financial Services to urge insurers and bankers statewide to determine whether any relationship they may have with the NRA or similar organizations sends the wrong message to their clients and their communities who often look to them for guidance and support. This is not just a matter of reputation, it is a matter of public safety, and working together, we can put an end to gun violence in New York once and for all.”
Although it's often cited as aftermath of the Parkland shooting, Chubb Insurance informed the NRA they would no longer issue the NRA's Carry Guard Insurance three months prior to Parkland.  Business Insurance magazine (previous link) says the New York Department of Financial Services launched an investigation into Carry Guard last year.  That implies New York has been at this for a while and it has nothing to do with Cuomo's campaign or any specific event.  Chubb appears to be a subcontractor to Lockton Affinity in Carry Guard.  Lockton Affinity Insurance told the NRA they would no longer sell any insurances that they previously sold for the NRA - which I find strange since I just got my bill for my NRA firearms insurance renewal as if everything was the same as always. 

I think everyone pretty well recognizes that a typical manufacturer can't do business without a banking partner and that short to longer term loans are part of their world.  I'm optimistic that other banks and other insurance companies will step forward to make the money these companies are giving up, but that doesn't mean there can't be interruptions and difficulties. 

For individual buyers, though, it seems that buying on a credit or debit card could go through periods of trouble.  Our state just passed a law prohibiting long gun sales to 18-21 year old buyers, and that's what Citicorp and BoA have passed as their new regulations.  I suggest that if you're in that age group, live in a state where you can buy one, and would use one of their credit cards to buy your long gun, take out a cash advance. 

All that said, and always remember IANAL, I think that banks like BoA and Citigroup, that are recipients of tons of taxpayer dollars, should be required to respect the civil rights of all people.  Maybe we should push on our elected officials to remind them of that.  Wells Fargo CEO Timothy Sloan famously said, "We don’t think it’s a good idea for banks to decide what products and services Americans can buy,"  Around the same time, Visa issued a statement saying, “We do not believe Visa should be in the position of setting restrictions on the sale of lawful goods and services.”

Make no mistake, there are tons of people on the anti-gun side who think that destroying gun sales this way is completely right and they're mad at Visa for not trying to shut off gun purchases.  They have no problem destroying the gun business By Any Means Necessary.  It's not just New York and not just the NY Times; even Arizona Central puts up an editorial praising Dick's Sporting Goods and attacking Visa for not stopping sales of guns. 



Thursday, May 3, 2018

Can You Imagine the Dead Birds?

General Electric has a web page announcing the world's largest wind turbine.  Called Haliade-X, the 12 Megawatt turbine is enormous.  As the blades rotate, it will sweep out 360 meters tall, taller than the Eiffel tower and a bit shorter than the Empire State building


They're rating the Haliade-X to produce 67 Gigawatt*Hrs over the course of a year.  That's 45% more energy than any other offshore wind turbine currently available.  If there's no wind, there's no energy output, so the usefulness of a wind farm with an array of these depends strongly on the specifications for the wind.  You'll note about midway down the left column the legend, "Wind Class IEC:IB" appears. 

What's that?  The company that makes the blades for GE is called LM Wind Power, and they post this web site.  IEC is the standards organization and IB translates as wind class I, the highest, and turbulence class B, on a scale of A to C.  Installed offshore, the winds tend to be less turbulent than over ground.  Especially a hundred meters up in the air where the blades are. 
Wind class I lists a 50 year gust of 70 m/s, which my calculator converts to 157mph.  That's in the Category V hurricane level, and while I doubt that these will last 50 years (because saltwater) it seems sane to rate it to that.  Note that the category says the average annual wind speed is 10m/s or 22mph. 

These are still vaporware, but they're trying to sell them now.  The first Haliade-X turbines will probably be in demo next year.  Production units shipping to wind farms could be as early as 2021.

In case you've been in a cave, a lot of people are upset that wind turbines kill birds.  The numbers of just how many birds are being killed vary with the source and it's hard to know who's right.  It's honestly probably hard to know.  The Institute for Energy Research says:
According to a [2013] study in the Wildlife Society Bulletin, every year 573,000 birds (including 83,000 raptors) and 888,000 bats are killed by wind turbines — 30 percent higher than the federal government estimated in 2009, due mainly to increasing wind power capacity across the nation.  This is likely an underestimate because these estimates were based on 51,630 megawatts of installed wind capacity in the United States in 2012 and wind capacity has grown since then to 65,879 megawatts.
Put another way, it's reported that the BP Deepwater Horizons oil spill killed 800,000 birds.  BP was fined $100 Million, yet only wind power facility has ever been fined for killing birds: Duke Energy was fined $1 Million for killing 163 birds in Wyoming from 2009 to 2013.  Two years at that modest 573,000 bird deaths per year easily exceeds the oil spill tally and wind turbines have been doing that for years, not just a one time disaster.

But no one will ever notice how many birds get killed by an offshore wind turbine.  Especially if there's no way for people to take videos of birds getting killed or photos of dead birds around the base.  Sounds like the wind power industry gets everything they could ask for. 


Wednesday, May 2, 2018

A Little Followup on Cryptocurrency Mining

For reference, back in January, I ran a piece about whether bitcoin was in a bubble.  As part of that piece, I introduced the concept of Bitcoin mining. 
The algorithms were designed to be resistant to computers becoming faster over time, so while someone can "mine" bitcoins by running software, it would be better for them to have a room full of computers than one supercomputer.   It costs energy and time to mine bitcoins.  Newer, faster computers are slowed by the algorithms so that technology doesn't give them an advantage in mining the "harder to mine deposits".
This week, Electronic Design runs an article on cryptocurrency mining and the impact it's having on the world.  There's a couple of pull quotes that are a bit mind-boggling.  The first one is the lesser of the two:
When it comes to mining cryptocurrency and how much power is consumed during mining operations globally, nobody knows for sure. However, based on varied utility costs alone, it’s estimated at 53.99 TWh, or enough energy to power the country of Bangladesh annually, according to the Digiconomist Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index—a website dedicated to providing in-depth analysis regarding cryptocurrencies. 
Personally, 53.99 Terawatt-hrs (which I'll call 54) means more to me than the annual power consumption of Bangladesh.  A Terawatt is 1000 gigawatts or 1 trillion watts.  A budgetary number for a house in the US is around 20 kW, and while it varies over time, let's just say it's that much energy all the time. In one year, that's 175 Megawatt-Hours.  That means they're saying that cryptocurrency mining uses the same amount of energy as 308,000 of those houses.  Given the accuracy of that 20 kW estimate, probably over a million of them in real life.  Spread out over the world, that doesn't seem like much. 

The other pull quote is the one that's mind blowing. 
The online sustainability website Grist purports that if current mining trends continue to climb, the entire cryptocurrency network will use the same amount of power the world consumes annually by 2020.
That's an astonishing number.  Specifically, Grist says:
By July 2019, the bitcoin network will require more electricity than the entire United States currently uses. By February 2020, it will use as much electricity as the entire world does today.
While neither Digiconomist or Grist impresses me as objective - they both reek of climate change alarmism and anti-cryptocurrency bias - if it's remotely true that by February of 2020 the amount of energy used to mine cryptocurrency (Bitcoin is still the biggest example) exceeds all the energy supplied in the world, that just ain't gonna happen.  Mining will stop long before 2020.  Mining will stop long before July of 2019. 

We all know, "things that can't go on won't go on".  We all know that extrapolating trends tends to be completely worthless, usually as soon as the trends are pointed out.  What will stop it is the pure cost/benefit ratio.  The cost of the electricity to mine a coin will go up until it exceeds the amount gotten from the coin.  Just as gold miners will park the heavy equipment when the price goes below some level (depending on their cost per ounce), cryptocurrency miners will turn off the computers when it becomes unprofitable.  

Right now, I find the price of a Bitcoin to be $9,212.09.  According to that Electronic Design article, (link to a MarketWatch piece) the cost to produce a coin varies from  $3,244 worth of power in Louisiana, to $9,483 in Hawaii.  While I can see someone spending $3,244 to get a coin worth $9,212, nobody is going to keep mining if it costs more than they get back.  According to MarketWatch, cryptocurrency mining in general, and Bitcoin in particular, is profitable in any state except for Hawaii at today's prices.
 

 Cryptocurrency mining station, from Electronic Design.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

A Momentary Pause for the Rock Music Fans in the Audience

Gibson, the maker of many iconic guitars in rock music, announced they have filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy reorganization today.
The Chapter 11 filing on Tuesday in Delaware keeps Gibson in business but gives ownership to noteholders, replacing stockholders that include Chief Executive Officer Henry Juszkiewicz, the company’s leader for more than three decades. According to court filings, current noteholders include Silver Point Capital, Melody Capital Partners and funds affiliated with KKR Credit Advisors.

The restructuring will allow the instrument business to "unburden" itself of a consumer-electronics unit that Gibson blamed for its financial woes. Gibson owes as much as $500 million, and lenders will provide a new loan of up to $135 million to keep the company in business, according to court papers.
The main reason for the reorganization (IMO, of course) is that Gibson took advantage of free money during the last decade and expanded into that "consumer-electronics unit".  To use the business jargon, they went well beyond their core competency, made some bad decisions, and overextended themselves.  There's no secret here; people have been talking about Gibson's problems with looming debt in several online forums (like one I belong to); debt that had to be paid back any day now.  One of those dates when notes came due was yesterday, and Gibson pulled the ripcord. 
Gibson, founded in 1894, sells over 170,000 guitars annually in 80 countries. Its guitars are U.S.-made, with factories in Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee, and Bozeman, Montana. It also sells studio monitors, headphones, turntables and other musical instruments. Units also include the company’s Baldwin Piano business. All told, the music instruments business employs at least 875 people, according to court papers.
In addition to the Baldwin Piano business, Gibson owns Epiphone and their family of brands.  

While chapter 11 is going to mean big changes, it's nice to see Gibson intending to emphasize making instruments again.  CEO Henry Juszkiewicz is pretty much out; he has a one year contract to "help with the transition".  Juskiewicz is the guy who led them through the Obama-era attack alleging CITES treaty violations, which appeared to be all about violation of the laws of India as interpreted by the US DOJ!!  Or an entirely politically motivated attack.  He's also the guy who made most of the bad decisions that led to chapter 11.  Henry was at the helm of Gibson from 1986 until now (well, next year), so that's just one episode from his career. 

There's a bigger question here, though.  It's being reported that both Gibson and Fender's electric guitar sales are sliding down, year after year.  A year ago, online magazine Quartz published an article saying rock and roll is dead and that, "Nobody wants an electric guitar anymore".
Electric guitar makers are seeing their sales steadily plummet. Leading guitar companies Fender and Gibson are both in debt; Fender was forced to abandon a public offering in 2012, and Gibson’s annual revenue fell from $2.1 billion to $1.7 billion over just the last three years. Guitar Center, the largest chain of its kind, is $1.6 billion in the red.
One can philosophize all they'd like about the facts, but the numbers are undeniable.  Fender has improved its fortunes, primarily via sales of their amplifiers and lately with a subscription-based guitar lesson business called Fender Play, but the trend in guitar sales can't be ignored. 
Acoustic models began to outsell electric guitars in 2010, and that trend has only continued with every new soft-crooning Ed Sheeran- and John Mayer-like doppelgÀnger climbing the music charts. And even then, unplugged guitar music has to compete on the charts with the more synthetic sounds of pop and rap.
I get a weekly Fender email and they are regularly promoting their acoustics.  Gibson has some excellent acoustic guitars as well. 

A year after that Quartz article was published, they added a followup email from Fender CEO Andy Mooney:
“Sales of fretted instruments are in great shape and Fender’s electric guitar and amp revenues have been steadily rising for several years,” he said, adding that electric sales are holding steady, acoustic sales are on the rise, and “ukelele sales are exploding.”
I own only one Gibson-branded, made in America guitar, a Les Paul pictured in the right column, a few pictures above the list of books from Library Thing.  I don't have skin in the game, but they're a company with a big history and I hope to see them get back to health. 


(a "golden oldie" image when Gibson raised the middle finger to the Fed.gov)