Archive | October 2012

Nuclear Con-Fusion

At Consumer Energy Report, Andrew Holland writes Why Nuclear Fusion is Worthy of Further Research and Government Investment, which is yet another article about the promise of nuclear fusion. He makes a good summation of what we have been told about fusion since the 1950s:

Fusion is a technology that holds great promise in meeting our energy needs. By fusing together two hydrogen isotopes – deuterium and tritium – enormous amounts of energy can be produced, as predicted by Einstein’s equation, E=MC2. The heat from this reaction creates steam to spin a generator just like any other electricity power plant. Since deuterium comes from ocean water, and tritium can be bred from lithium, fusion holds the promise of providing a nearly inexhaustible supply of energy, with no pollutants, no greenhouse gases, and no radioactive waste. There is no threat of a nuclear meltdown like there is with the nuclear fission reactors of today.

This is the same process that powers the sun, and it could completely revolutionize the energy system when commercialized. However, the problem is that it is fiendishly hard to initiate a reaction anywhere other than under the tremendous gravitational force of a star. Scientists have not been able to confine the heated plasma on earth in such a way that it creates a reaction that generates more power than it put in – a term called “ignition” or “energy gain.”

Mr Holland has returned from a conference where everyone requires a lot more funding.

Critics of fusion often say that it is the energy of the future and always will be. However … there have been plans for new machines that could lead to breakthroughs, but persistent budget cuts have prevented new advances.

Even so, scientists at the conference seemed convinced that they are on a pathway to achieving ignition with energy gain over the next decade or two. These predictions are dependent upon the level of government funding – not an easy or guaranteed thing at this time – and some scientific breakthroughs. The ITER project in Cadarache, France promises to achieve energy gain when it is operational by the end of this decade.

Now, with all respect to Mr Holland, reading this opus (couldn’t resist) didn’t change my opinion in the slightest. In January 2012 Tom Murphy dealt with the problems of Nuclear Fusion and concluded that after sixty years, fusion was “the definition of hard.” I wrote Hot and Cold Running Fusion back in March 2012, and quoted Ugo Bardi:

Now, of course, it is impossible to say that tokamaks will never produce useful energy. But look at the figure at the beginning of this post. Doesn’t it make you wonder? It looks like we are just making the same machine bigger and bigger, in the hope that, eventually, it will work.

I did find something new while scanning the comments. I expected that someone would suggest LENR/cold fusion instead (which happened), that someone would suggest solar energy instead (which happened), and that someone would insist that hot fusion would never amount to anything (which also happened). I didn’t expect that anyone would still endorse the very old Project Plowshares idea of exploding hydrogen bombs in underground chambers, an extension of which is the also very old PACER concept. What was new was that Maury Markowitz cited fears of fusion radioactivity in his provocative article, Why fusion will never happen:

… boy do we need fusion! It’s unlimited, safe, clean, and cheap. It’s the perfect source of power. Except it’s not, well, any of those things.

Markowitz claims that deuterium and thorium are expensive to obtain, and that tritium doesn’t last very long. Markowitz claims that fusion reactors will create a lot of radioactive waste, which I’ve never heard mentioned before. Markowitz claims that if the liquid lithium barrier should ever catch fire, the tritium could burn with oxygen, evaporate and fall as radioactive rain. In footnotes, Markowitz cites The Trouble With Fusion, an 1983 article by MIT Prof Lawrence Lidsky, who then switched from fusion research to fission research. From a 2002 obituary:

“Larry Lidsky was one of the smartest people I ever met,” said Professor Jeffrey P. Freidberg, head of the MIT Department of Nuclear Engineering. “He was often way ahead of his time in delivering insightful and crucial analysis of the prospects of both fusion and fission power. In the fusion area, Professor Lidsky was one of the earliest engineers to point out some of the very, very difficult engineering challenges facing the program and how these challenges would affect the ultimate desirability of fusion energy. As one might imagine, his messages were not always warmly received initially, but they have nevertheless stood the test of time.”

So what did Lidsky say? A PDF of the Trouble With Fusion is available, and Lidsky essentially makes a case for yet-to-be-designed, neutron-free fission reactors instead of large fusion reactors emitting heavy neutrons:

The most serious difficulty concerns the very high energy neutrons released in the deuterium-tritium (D-T) reaction. These uncharged nuclear particles damage the reactor structure and make it radioactive. A chain of undesirable effects ensures that any reactor employing D-T fusion will be a large, complex, expensive, and unreliable source of power. That is hardly preferable to present-day fission reactors, much less the improved fission reactors that are almost sure to come.

Lidsky notes the challenges in obtaining fuel and in working with lithium, but seems to dismiss one of Markowitz’s concerns, noting that tritium is only weakly radioactive and does not linger in the body. Lidsky does, however, note that there will be so much radioactivity inside a fusion reactor that maintenance workers will not be able to service it. Repairs would have to be carried out by robots (who after stealing our jobs will conquer the world).

Lidsky was hardly the only one to criticize fusion, there have been many criticisms and many rebuttals back and forth, but the issues usually seem to boil down to complexity and cost. MSM articles on fusion, though, rarely mention radioactivity at all, implying that fusion reactors are actually much cleaner and safer than the fission reactors that have failed often enough to engender widespread opposition.

Revolution: NYC

Like the world of the television show Revolution, much of New York City is suddenly without electrical power. Unlike the show, this was a Predictable Result. Unlike the show, Big Apple residents will not be uniformly affected, because many will have backup generators or homes in unaffected areas. Unlike the show, most will not be wearing stylish outerwear, though some already do. Unlike the show, most will not be learning to use crossbows and machetes, though some already do. And unlike the show, New York will recover power within a few weeks, and most people will think that everything is back to normal.

A dark NYC is a powerful symbol, though, and as on Discover, a lot of pundits are discussing whether the Frankenstorm will push anyone – the public, the media, the politicians – from Denial of climate change into Acceptance. They are, however, skipping over Anger, Bargaining, and Depression. I think the Red Staters have been waffling between Denial and Anger for years, and I don’t see that changing soon. Some Blue Staters and many Greens have progressed to Bargaining, as in, “I’ll drive a hybrid car, reuse grocery bags and buy organic foods … OK? I’ll support wind and solar … OK?” Essentially bargainers want to go on doing the same things while making only symbolic changes to their unsustainable lifestyles. We’re a long way from Acceptance.

Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief correspond very roughly with Bodhi Paul Chefurka’s Ladder of Awareness, which I learned of recently, in that it is a five step progression to full realization:

Dead asleep
Awareness of one fundamental problem
Awareness of many problems
Awareness of the interconnections between the many problems
Awareness that the predicament encompasses all aspects of life

Again, most people are dead asleep, abetted by the sleight-of-hand of media and denial of government. Many young people became aware of one problem – looming unemployment in their age bracket – and rushed to join the Arab Spring, the Indignados or Occupy. Many adults have joined Bill McKibben to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. The question is whether a large number will realize that solving their one problem will not get them out of the long range predicament.

Perhaps when large swaths of the US starts having an intense, rainy season every year, will people climb a few more rungs up the ladder. I suspect that only widespread deprivation and death will make situation clear, but even then there will always be scapegoats.

Earthships, and Everything

We ran across the “biotecture” of architect Michael Reynolds and profiles of his “earthships” several years ago, and I was reminded of him by a recent piece on Democracy Now!

Garbage Warrior has its own website, and the full length documentary is well-reviewed on Heso Magazine. The full film is on youtube, but we ordered the DVD, which includes half an hour of extra footage.

The documentary is fairly straightforward. Reynolds and his followers build a collective of various earthships, which combine trash recycling, solar collection, solar mass, and water recycling to function as very sustainable homes in semi-arid open land near Taos NM. After many years, their collective draws the ire of traditional planning and building code officials, who want to see a normal subdivision with storm drains, sewage fields and power lines. Reynolds must stop construction, layoff workers and even loses his architectural certification. Reynolds tries to introduce a new law to allow experimentation in building design. He finds some allies, but mostly runs into a wall of hidebound politics.

In contrast to the developed world’s refusals to let him work, Reynolds and his team head to the Andaman Islands to provide technical assistance to survivors of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. Instead of the usual corrugated metal quonset huts, his team build a small earthship that solves the critical problem of fresh water by harvesting and collecting the ample rainfall.

Somehow, their efforts overseas begin to be rewarded here in the US.

There was a lot less technical information than I would have liked, but the documentary is very inspiring. Whenever I read about these guys, I wonder why I didn’t follow a less conventional path towards sustainable architecture.

Why Open Forums Go Toxic

On Salon, I ran across, I’m never reading the comments again:

On Jan. 1, I made a resolution I never thought I would. I took a Sharpie and a Post-it and wrote the words “DON’T READ THE COMMENTS” in big letters and stuck it on my computer. I’ve been so much happier ever since. …

I used to believe that as an online writer, I had an obligation to read the comments. I thought that it was important from a fact-checking perspective, that it somehow would help me grow as a writer. What I’ve learned is that if there’s something wrong or important or even, sometimes, good about a story, someone will let you know. I’ve over the years amassed an amazing community of Salon readers who engage via email, who challenge me, who inspire new stories, who are decent people and treat me like one in return. What I was getting in the comments was a lot of anonymous “You suck, bitch.”

I admit it’s depressing for one who’s invested almost her entire career in online community to throw in the towel on it in this way. I want it to be better. But it’s just not.

And this reminds me of what I’ve seen happen on several sites:

COINTELPRO Techniques for Dilution, Misdirection and Control of an Internet Forum

There are several techniques for the control and manipulation of a internet forum no matter what, or who is on it. We will go over each technique and demonstrate that only a minimal number of operatives can be used to eventually and effectively gain a control of a ‘uncontrolled forum.’

Technique #1 – ‘FORUM SLIDING’

If a very sensitive posting of a critical nature has been posted on a forum – it can be quickly removed from public view by ‘forum sliding.’ In this technique a number of unrelated posts are quietly prepositioned on the forum and allowed to ‘age.’ Each of these misdirectional forum postings can then be called upon at will to trigger a ‘forum slide.’ The second requirement is that several fake accounts exist, which can be called upon, to ensure that this technique is not exposed to the public. To trigger a ‘forum slide’ and ‘flush’ the critical post out of public view it is simply a matter of logging into each account both real and fake and then ‘replying’ to prepositined postings with a simple 1 or 2 line comment. This brings the unrelated postings to the top of the forum list, and the critical posting ‘slides’ down the front page, and quickly out of public view. Although it is difficult or impossible to censor the posting it is now lost in a sea of unrelated and unuseful postings. By this means it becomes effective to keep the readers of the forum reading unrelated and non-issue items.

Technique #2 – ‘CONSENSUS CRACKING’
Technique #3 – ‘TOPIC DILUTION’
Technique #4 – ‘INFORMATION COLLECTION’
Technique #5 – ‘ANGER TROLLING’
Technique #6 – ‘GAINING FULL CONTROL’

CONCLUSION

Remember these techniques are only effective if the forum participants DO NOT KNOW ABOUT THEM.

Renée Would Walk Away Today

I never thought of Renée Richards as a “Jewish Jock,” but Slate posts an excerpt from the book:

Renée Richards (1934– ), from Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame.

Richards has expressed ambivalence about her legacy. She continues to take pride in being “the first one who stood up for the rights of transsexuals.” But she also mused, “Maybe in the last analysis, maybe not even I should have been allowed to play on the women’s tour. Maybe I should have knuckled under and said, ‘That’s one thing I can’t have as my newfound right in being a woman.’ I think transsexuals have every right to play, but maybe not at the professional level, because it’s not a level playing field.” She opposes the International Olympic Committee’s ruling in 2004 that transgender people can compete after they’ve had surgery and two years of hormonal therapy.

The science of distinguishing men from women in sports remains unsettled. And Richards has come to believe that her past as a man did provide her advantages over competitors. “Having lived for the past 30 years, I know if I’d had surgery at the age of 22, and then at 24 went on the tour, no genetic woman in the world would have been able to come close to me. And so I’ve reconsidered my opinion.” She adds, “There is one thing that a transsexual woman unfortunately cannot expect to be allowed to do, and that is to play professional sports in her chosen field. She can get married, live as woman, do all of those other things, and no one should ever be allowed to take them away from her. But this limitation — that’s just life. I know because I lived it.”

Back when Richards was trying to play on tour, my mother had heard a story about her in the women’s locker room. According to the story Renée disrobed very openly, instead of somewhat shyly. To my mother and her friend, that made her really a man. After all these years, though, I can imagine all sorts of reasons for Richards’ wanting to display pride about her body in the semi-public of the locker room.

Back then, 60 Minutes showed Richards rallying with Chris Evert, and asked if it was fair that a former man should be on the women’s tour. I never heard the argument that the treatments and injections actually reduce muscle mass, thus make a transgendered man physically more like a woman.

In a related vein, we watch athletes with radically different handicaps all competing in the Special Olympics. On one video a man with no arms could swim faster than others with paralyzed legs. The introduction of such differences, not to mention drugs and exotic training methods, into sport makes the concept of a level playing field harder and harder to believe.

Rapeublicans and Skepdicks

Seems like a lot of Republican politicians think they know a lot about rape, or at least enough to classify rapes as Legitimate, Honest, Emergency, Gift or Easy.

Law and order conservatives loftily proclaim that liberals are only soft on crime until they themselves become victims. By the same logic it seems that conservatives are soft on rape because they themselves are unlikely to become victims. Perhaps if we sent more white collar criminals to real prisons these Republicans would feel less sanguine about their chances of being raped.

I’ve dated many women, a few of whom quietly told me about their rape. One was coerced into oral sex by a coworker who threatened to make her lose her job. One was raped during a date with an older man. Another was raped by someone that broke into her apartment. It would have been easy for me to sit back and say, well, you should have stood up to that coworker, you shouldn’t have gone out with that guy, and you should have kept your windows locked.

But I remember that when someone broke into my apartment and stole my stuff, the police said, well, you should have had better locks and you shouldn’t leave nice things visible from your windows. And when someone smashed my car window to steal something, the police said, you shouldn’t leave stuff in plain sight.

So I’m supposed to hide all my stuff away behind locked doors and women are supposed to wear burkhas and stay at home. Then all thefts and rapes will be “legitimate.” But I still won’t get my stuff back, and women will still have to deal with unwanted pregnancies.

It is clear that the Religious Right doesn’t want to cede women any power over their bodies, but it was surprising to read that the same may be true about supposedly intelligent Skeptics. Female skeptic Rebecca Watson wrote, It Stands to Reason, Skeptics Can Be Sexist Too for Slate.

… after a few years of blogging, podcasting, and speaking at skeptics’ conferences, I began to get emails from strangers who detailed their sexual fantasies about me. I was occasionally grabbed and groped without consent at events. And then I made the grave mistake of responding to a fellow skeptic’s YouTube video in which he stated that male circumcision was just as harmful as female genital mutilation (FGM). I replied to say that while I personally am opposed to any non-medical genital mutilation, FGM is often much, much more damaging than male circumcision.

The response from male atheists was overwhelming. This is one example:

“honestly, and i mean HONESTLY.. you deserve to be raped and tortured and killed. swear id laugh if i could”

I started checking out the social media profiles of the people sending me these messages, and learned that they were often adults who were active in the skeptic and atheist communities. They were reading the same blogs as I was and attending the same events. These were “my people,” and they were the worst.

Perhaps the common thread between these articles is that people with little empathy enjoy wielding any sort of advantage against those with less power. Nowhere is this more obvious than among those that use the anonymity of the internet to attack and insult any sort of target. At least the Republicans may have to answer on Election Day.

Pipe Dreams


This morning I’ve been reading about electric velomobiles, driverless cars, and limitless nuclear energy.

I looked into velomobiles five or six years ago. A velomobile is essentially a recumbent bike with a wraparound shell and a small windscreen to see where you are going. I really liked the lines of the Versatile (above), but I decided that pedaling a low-profile vehicle on American streets was way too dangerous for me. I do commute by bicycle, but I’m up high enough that I can see and be seen. A velo would disappear in city streets. Maybe when cars and trucks disappear from paved streets, velos will take over, but I suspect paved streets will disappear before trucks.

Anyway, Low-Tech magazine has an article worth reading, Electric velomobiles: as fast and comfortable as automobiles, but 80 times more efficient.

Meanwhile, in the The Driverless Road Ahead, The Economist expects driverless full-size cars will appeal to young urbanites that would rather text than drive. The mag predicts that people will commute further because they don’t have to pay attention while they drive. That they will no longer have pay insurance. That they will no longer speed, hence not get tickets, hence no need for traffic cops. Etc, etc.

I’m wondering if anyone at the Economist has actually used an automated machine lately. I had to drive to work today, and used an automated parking meter, which worked fine the first time. A few hours later it refused the same credit card I had used the first time. When I go to the grocery store or drug store, I have learned to avoid the self-checkout lanes because something always requires a store employee to step in and clear the machine. It might be that I am holding something that I already own, but the machine keeps telling me to scan it anyway.

Do I really want to travel through high speed traffic under the control of some chip, mass-produced in Shenzen? Will driverless cars be smart enough to avoid children, bikes and velomobiles? And where will we get the energy to run big, comfortable driverless cars?


On Resilience — the new incarnation of Energy Bulletin — Tom Whipple is again telling us that Low Energy Nuclear Reaction (LENR) is our only hope for the future. He sort of slipped it in at the end of his latest peak oil piece. As far as I can tell, Andrea Rossi (above) is still promoting the E-Cat, Jed Rothwell is still trolling anyone that disagrees and Discover Magazine and Popular Science have posted LENR articles.

In Bring Back the “Cold Fusion” Dream, Discover discusses a new theory that isn’t that new:

A growing cadre of scientists now suspect that Pons and Fleischmann’s observations were the result not of fusion but of more plausible physical processes. Some are even cautiously optimistic that those processes could be exploited to generate abundant amounts of clean energy. … [The Widom-Larsen] theory showed how a film of negatively charged electrons covering the palladium could combine with positively charged protons from the water’s hydrogen atoms to form neutrons. Those neutrons could then be gobbled up by nearby lithium nuclei, disturbing the delicate balance of protons and neutrons that keep the nuclei stable. The lithium nuclei would rapidly decay, first into beryllium and then into helium, and emit radiation. Finally, the film of electrons would absorb the radiation and reemit it as heat. … So far, Larsen still has only a theory and some circumstantial evidence.

In Can Andrea Rossi’s Infinite-Energy Black Box Power The World–Or Just Scam It?, Steve Featherstone of Pop Sci tries really hard to keep an open mind:

Rossi isn’t the best ambassador for a field with credibility problems, though. In the ’80s, he invented a machine that magically transformed household garbage and industrial waste into oil—only it didn’t create a drop. Leaky storage tanks at Rossi’s “poison factory,” as one Italian newspaper called it, contained 77,000 tons of toxic sludge that cost $50 million to clean up. While under investigation for environmental crimes, Rossi was also charged with gold trafficking; he went to jail for six months and was later acquitted. As it happens, his engineering degree is from Kensington University, a notorious diploma mill shut down in 1996 by the state of California. … To my astonishment, after three days of asking every cold-fusion researcher in the house, I couldn’t find a single person willing to call Rossi a con man. The consensus was that he had something, even if he didn’t understand why it worked or how to control it. The more I learned, the more confused I became. Could Rossi actually have something real? The only way to know for sure was to go to Italy.

So he did, and he writes an interesting study of characters, but doesn’t provide any proof of LENR’s validity.