Misc: February 2008 Archives


February 21, 2008

Check out this report from Seton Hall, published two weeks ago. They FOIAd a bunch of documents an uncover some, stuff that is not widely known (þ Slate):
I. A report issued by a Lieutenant General of the United States Army indicates that more than 24,000 interrogations have been conducted at Guantánamo since 2002.

II. A second report, produced almost simultaneously by the Surgeon General of the United States Army, reveals that all interrogations conducted at Guantánamo were videotaped. Thus, many videotapes documenting Guantánamo interrogations do or did exist.

This has the potential to become interesting pretty fast.


February 14, 2008

The NYT reports on an interesting concept, making synthetic fuel from atmospheric CO2:
Scientists there say they have developed a way to produce truly carbon-neutral fuel and useful organic chemicals at large scale using water and carbon dioxide removed from the air as raw materials. There are plenty of schemes brewing to capture carbon dioxide, both directly from the atmosphere and from the stacks of power plants. All of them, for the moment, are costly or hard to envision at the billion-tons-a-year scale that would be needed to blunt the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere coming mainly from fuel burning.

UPDATE: 2/13, 5 p.m.: This plan has a minor hurdle, too; the electricity for driving the chemical processes, according to a white paper describing the overarching concept, would come from nuclear power. The proposal says it'd be worth it to have a payoff of steady, secure streams of methanol and gasoline with no carbon added to the atmosphere (and a price for gasoline at the pump of perhaps $4.60 a gallon -- comparable to petroleum-based fuels as oil becomes harder to find).

So, I don't know if this particular plan makes sense, but there's an important underlying concept here: gasoline (any fossil fuel, for that matter) serves two purposes: it's both a source of stored energy that we can extract and an energy transportation medium. From a physics perspective, energy is energy, but since batteries have a fairly low storage capacity and you don't want to tow a power line behind your car, chemical fuels are pretty much the only game in town. That's why people are interested in hydrogen power, since it's plausible that you can synthesize it from common materials (e.g., water) by application of energy. Hydrogen's not an energy source in itself, but it's at least a plausible carrier.

Unfortunately, it's not really that plausible a carrier. The problem is that it's not really compatible with our current storage and distribution infrastructure. On the other hand, if you had some way to efficiently synthesize liquid fuels that were compatible with the existing infrastructure, then you could synthesize it centrally without changing anything else. Moreover, this would give you flexibility to use any energy production mechanism that was convenient or practical (wind, solar, nuclear, etc.)

Based on this article, I can't tell if this method actually is practical and of course it doesn't solve the problem of aggregate energy supply. However, a practical version of something like this would allow you to separate the fuel problem from the energy problem, which seems like a good first step.


February 3, 2008

I don't claim it's any kind of statistically significant sample, but on my run today, I saw 5 Obama lawn signs and 0 for anyone else.

February 2, 2008

The NYT describes some pretty cool research by Yorobyev and Guo where they use a femtosecond laser to restructure the surface of a metal and change its optical properties. Here's their abstract. The article is behind a paywall, but here's the NYT summary:
The result is that pure aluminum looks like gold, and the appearance is literally skin deep.

"I cannot tell it's not gold," Dr. Guo said. "It looks very pretty."


The laser bursts -- each lasting only about 60 millionths of a billionth of a second -- melt and vaporize metal atoms near the surface, which then reassemble in minuscule structures including pits, spheres and rods that are a fraction of a millionth of a meter in size.

By changing the length, strength and number of pulses, the researchers found they could vary the resulting color.

In some cases, the change causes the structures to absorb a range of colors so that they cannot be seen. But the colors that are not absorbed are still reflected, and thus visible, resulting in gold aluminum or dark blue tungsten.

That's some clever stuff. Not quite programmable matter, but still pretty cool.