Russian Akula-class Attack Subs Patrolling US Coastal Waters

A story reminiscent of the cold-war submarine tailing and territorial water patrols (see Sontag and Drew’s great book Blind Man’s Bluff), 2 Russian nuclear attack subs have been paroling the coastal waters of the US. The New York Times broke the story a few weeks ago and Bill Gertz followed up with additional detail suggesting that one of the subs had gone undetected through the Gulf of Mexico. The nature of brinksmanship and submarine espionage requires hiding ones capabilities of detection while pushing the limits of stealth in other’s territorial waters. In reality we can assume that nothing goes undetected across the Atlantic or Pacific and numerous classified US Naval capabilities were tracking at least every-other move of this ghostly intruder, likely recording invaluable data to aid in the future tracking.

The Akula‘s are designed to destroy our ballistic missile submarines to prevent them from launching a ballistic missile strike, but the last place to do that is close to American shores. Our SSBNs are likely lurking only a few hundred miles off the coast of the Eurasian continent where they can end life as we know it in under 15 minutes.

This expeditionary deployment does point to a more aggressive stance of the Russian military.


The Dangers of manned Spaceflight

Today,  Day of Remembrance (the final Thursday of January) commemorates the lives of astronauts who have perished in pursuit of human presence in space.  While most remember the Challenger (Jan. 28th, 1986) and Columbia (Feb 1st, 2003) disasters, fewer are probably aware of the Apollo 1 fire that killed Gus Grisson, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee.  Still fewer are aware of the numerous Cosmonauts and Russian scientists that have perished.   And while Yuri Gagarin is the first man to survive spaceflight, how many Phantom Cosmonauts may have been lost, there existence hidden by the Soviet Union.

Spaceflight is inherently dangerous and will be for the foreseeable future.  Its continued pursuit is necessary for the advancement of mankind and human culture.  Robots can take pictures and collect samples but only a human can poetically describe a orbital or lunar sunrise.  In the future, manned spaceflight may be necessary for  mankind’s survival once the Earth’s resources have been used up or polluted.  IF in 5 Billion years we are still living on Earth, at that point we will have no choice but to leave the solar system in search of a new home as the Sun expands to a Red Giant and it engulfs the Earth.


Spread It Around

China’s coal power grid causes huge amounts global pollution. It is estimated that on a given day, up to 25% of the pollution over Los Angeles originated in China. According to the World Bank, China’s pollution related health costs amount to 4.3% of its GDP! If you buy Chinese goods, your contributing to this (rapid)destruction of the environment. Sure “Made In China” is hard to avoid these days, but with minimal effort you would be surprised how easy it is to spread your purchases around to Malaysia, Korea, Taiwan, India, Turkey, etc. Lets make the global economy truly global!

Buy Local

Trucking of goods from distant producers contributes to pollution and traffic. Smaller local producers are also more likely to use sustainable and ecoconscience practices. Profits from your purchases are taxed locally, directly benefiting the roads you travel and the quality of the schools in your area. Salaries paid by the producer sustain regional economic growth.

•    Buy locally grown/produced food: If you live in New England like I do, buy Cabot Cheddar instead of Kraft; Hannaford cold cuts instead of Hormel or Healthy Choice; Stoneyfield Farms Dairy instead of Hood.•   When shopping for clothes, but the items made in the USA or Mexico, not shipped across the ocean on a heavily polluting diesel powered cargo ship. A simple “USA” search when browsing most online retailers will return the items manufactured domestically. Avoid The Gap, Banana Republic, and Old Navy, besides looking like everyone else, you won’t be able to find clothes made domestically.Try these companies:

American Apparel
New Ballance
Zappos with “USA” search
Eddie Bauer with “USA” search

Coolest Mil-Tech Of The Moment: Autonomous MH-6

What is scarier than a flight of Ah-64 Longbow Apaches and MH-6 Little Birds ready to engage? How about a fleet of unmanned MH-6s commanded by the Apaches!

Boeing photo
The optionally piloted (OPV) MH-6 can be armed worth 0.50 cal guns, rockets, and/or Hellfire missiles, all tied into the operator. The Apache can control the MH-6′s sensors, fire weapons, and have the MH-6 designate targets.
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How many lights do you regularly use at night? Replace these with Compact Fluorescent bulbs. Same light output, 25% the energy. These blubs are coming down in price so grab a dozen from your local independent hardware store and notice the difference each month on your electric bill.

I recently ordered a few bulbs from a great online store that sells every bulb you can imagine. For the greener of us, they stock a full selection of compact fluorescent bulbs. They have bulbs for every fixture you can imagine. They also stock a full selection of LED lighting as well, but the prices on LED lights are not very competitive (even though the bulb basically never has to be replaced). Stick with compact fluorescents unless the LED light will save you from lugging out the ladder to change a difficult bulb.

Worlds Largest Landfill

A plastic garbage deposits the size of Texas floats in the middle of the Pacific Ocean

An Albatros that ingested dozens of pieces of plastic

Massive deposits of plastic have collected in the North Pacific Gyre, an area of converging ocean currents. Unavoiadably these polutants get into the marine food chain. That is the same food chain we utilize for human consumption. Just the number of plastic bags thrown away this year is staggering:

Plastic bags consumed this year:

Video of it

So now we need a major cultural change. As a society, we need to ask for paper, not plastic bags at the market. Bring a travel mug to Starbucks instead of throwing away 1-2 plastic lids a day. Don’t buy food and products packaged in plastic (so pretty much everything, how frustrating!).

Most importantly, talk about these steps with your peers, since a major societal change is the only thing that will keep us from causeing our own extinction.

The Ethanol Myth

Many sources indicate ethanol production is now becoming very efficient, achieving an energy balance of about 1.67. For every 100 BTU of energy put into ethanol production, the ethanol equivalent to 167 BTUs is created. Is this really true? Is ethanol really the future?

Ethanol in the United Sates is produced from corn. Who is behind this energy balance figure? Why it is the National Corn Growers Association. Yeah, they might have an agenda. An agenda of maintaining their $5.7 Billion dollar tax credit over the next 5 years! They are not going to simply admit ethanol is a marginal idea and volunteer to forgo these credits. They are going to fight, kicking and screaming to convince the government and public that ethanol is the wave of the future offering reduced emissions and sustainability. I have seen more believable numbers indicating an energy balance of about 1.20. I have also seen a U.C. Berkeley study that indicates ethanol actually requires more BTUs of fossil fuel to make than it contains. When you factor in the energy to run irrigation systems, diesel fuel to run tractors and other farm equipment, diesel fuel to truck the corn to an ethanol factory, and the energy the factory needs to produce the ethanol, the lower or even negative energy balance starts to look a lot more believable.

In addition to the questionable energy balance, corn production is the most polluting crop grown in the U.S. While ethanol may reduce the emissions coming out of your tail pipe, the pollution from fertilizer and pesticides used on the corn fields is causing animals drinking runoff from the field to have reproductive problems. (Makes you wonder about eating veggies soaking up the fertilizer and pesticide contaminated water) The ethanol plants themselves use large amounts of water (3.5-6 gallons per gallon of ethanol) and most of it is expelled as contaminated waste water.

Is it cheaper? A quick check of your local gas station might make it seem so, but the per gallon cost is deceiving. Ethanol is very high octane, so it is great for boy-racers who want high horsepower and don’t mind dumping huge quantities of ethanol into their cylinders. If you have a turbocharged vehicle, you could run very high boost with ethanol. The problem is that getting 5 mpg on ethanol pretty much eliminates the cost benefits even though you may make a lot of power. It is a simple fact that burning more of something produces more polluting. Sure ethanol is clean, but you need to (buy and) burn more to travel the same distance. An ethanol powered Chevy Tahoe gets 10 mpg vs the 14 mpg running gasoline. That mean if you pay more than about 1/2 to 2/3 the cost of gas for your ethanol, your being ripped off.

Maybe it isn’t great now, but is on its way to being sustainable? Not even remotely. If every acre in the U.S. used to grow corn (70 million) grew corn for ethanol, we would only be able to replace 12% of the countries gasoline usage. Sounds like a pretty poor improvement considering it would mean the end of tacos, corn on the cob, corn bread, and popcorn! Several countries in Central and South America with abundant sugar cane produce ethanol for significantly less cost and energy than the United Sates, forcing ethanol tariffs to ‘level the playing field.’ Ethanol might work for them but it is a total joke for America.

So what SHOULD we do about pollution and petroleum problems? The gasoline engine is actually remarkable efficient when operated properly. Just look at your highway fuel economy. If fuel economy of U.S. vehicle doubled, we could reduce our petroleum consumption (and emissions) by 1/3. The car companies aren’t going to volunteer to spend money developing cleaner more efficient engines. It takes regulation from the government(Take action). These mileage improvements would be very quick to implement. Hybrid technology, although pretty marginal, is already here. As fuel prices rose, it took car companies only months to develop engines that shut down cylinders to improve mileage. In 5-10 years, the roads of America could be filled with radically more efficient vehicles.

If better fuels economy is a simple, short term step to reduce oil dependence and pollution, better hybrid technology is the solution. The rather marginal hybrid Prius can easily achieve 100 mpg if owners plug it in every night (Don’t get me started on electricity generating. We haven’t built a nuclear power plant in this country in 20 years! Sure spent fuel is nasty, but it is easier to store than CO2. If every roof had solar panels on it(Stanford Ovshinsky might single handedly save the world), imagine the reduction in transmission inefficiencies, increase in panel efficiency and reduction in cost. Germany is already leading the world in solar power, yet our government spends $5 billion on corn subsidies!).

How about electric cars, no gas required? The technology is here. It was here 10 years ago and has only gotten better. Rent this: Who Killed The Electric Car


Say Goodbye to Oil

Peak Oil, the point at which world oil production peaks, is maybe 20 years away. Maybe 2050 we hit it, plenty of time to enjoy my Hummer. All the major oil producing nation’s productions have been in decline since 2002.

Don’t buy it? Read this:

No new large oil fields have been discovered since about 1970.

Peak oil is here.

Marion King Hubbert, a 1950s era geophysicist, predicted that global oil production would peak around turn of the century. The 1970s oil embargo and a recession puts his prediction to right about now. The second half of the oil era is not going to be pretty. Most take for granted how cheap and energetic fossil fuels are. Until recently gasoline was pretty much the cheapest fluid you can buy in the U.S. A barrel of oil, which will cost you about $93 as of Nov. 2007, is equivalent to about 15,000-25,000 hours of human manual labor! Oil’s amazing energy/cost ratio has fueled global economic growth for over a century. Could we switch to nuclear power? We would burn through the worlds Uranium in 1-2 decades. A Bridge at best. Wind won’t match oil. Solar? The Earth is constantly bathed in 20 times the Earths total oil energy. Cover 1/3 of California and the US might be there, but that is an enormous technical challenge.

Kicking the oil habit as easy as car pooling and putting solar panels on your roof. During your daily routine, you obviously use electricity, maybe drive to work or ride a bus. You probably use a plastic tooth brush, shower with soap, and if your a woman (or a strange man) you wear makeup. You probably eat cereal made from grain harvested with a tractor. Your 400 Calorie breakfast required up to 2,800 Calories of fossil fuels to produce and transport. Your computer required 10 times its weight in fossil fuels to manufacture. (More, pardon the partisanship) Imagine transportation, and all the other items made cheap and abundant by oil were suddenly scarce and expensive. Imagine air travel unaffordable to 99.99% of the population.

Some economists say that a world without fossil fuels could support maybe 1.5-2 billion people, no where near what global population is predictions to be in the next few decades.

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The New Area 51

Area 51 abandoned? Operations shifted elsewhere? According to Popular Sciencethere are no more “UFO” sightings, guards in Jeeps, and advanced unattendedground sensors. On the other hand we have the very enthusiastic Groom Lake observer Norio Hayakawa who claims it is actually expanding and Wired backs it up with some good research. So no worries, tons of cool shit is still taking place. I figured it was still worth checking out the alleged replacements for the Dreamland Resort.
Michael Army Air Field, UT
Dugway Proving Grounds, UT
Hollman Air Force Base, NM
Green River(Utah) Launch Complex

Green River is shut down, but played a large role in the development of the US missile arsenal. An unlikely successor or even peer to Area 51 considering you can walk right up to it. Michael and the Dugway Proving Grounds are quite interesting peers to Area 51. Michael was selected as one of 3 landing sites for the cancelled X-33. The fields location at the 1,200 square mile Dugway Proving Ground makes it the ideal location for testing operations. The proving grounds also support research for the U.S. defense against chemical and biological weapons. The remote site is perfect for such high risk research and in the past has been used for open air tests of chemical and biological weapons. Holoman Air Force Base is definitely a peer to Area 51, hosting the QF-4 drone squadron and being the nations home base and training location for the F-117 stealth fighter. Both Holloman and Michael are really secret bases, but they represent ideal locations to test lower profile stealth and low-observable unmanned aerial vehicle technologies. Satellite Photos:
Michael Army Airfield: 40°11’48.76″N 112°56’37.90″W - MichaelsAAF.kmz
Holloman Air Force Base: 32°55’36.79″N ?106°15’1.41″W - Holloman AFB.kmz
Green River Launch Complex: 32°55’36.79″N ?106°15’1.41″W

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Commentary from an Aerospace Engineer, Environmentalist, Capitalist, Conspiracy Theorist

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