Category Archives: Engineering

Links o' the day

Two out of three Irish who surf the net log onto social networking sites. They’re bloody addictive. (Irish Examiner)

The future of news: rational business decisions. Some US publications are making the conscious decision to scale back on some services because it costs too much per subscriber — with consequences for the quality of journalism. (Scholars and Rogues)

The Kennewick Men. Catholicgauze continues his look at the pre-Columban settlers of North America with a post on Kennewick Man, who was of Caucasoid rather than paleo-Indian origin.

Band releases album on floppy disk. It’s 74 minutes of music compressed to fit into 1.44mb. (PC Pro)

Egypt plan to green Sahara desert stirs controversy. Well it was grassland and forest a few thousand years ago… though it may deplete already sparse water sources. (Reuters)

Abode of Kings

Disposable Words has uploaded the first pictures I (and quite possibly the world) has seen of Naypyidaw, the new capital of Myanmar. The nation’s military government has never fully explained the 230km move from the old colonial capital of Yangon (Rangoon), although I seem to recall talk of it being more difficult for America to attack. The city, the name of which means “abode of kings” is still under construction. The photos have been up since June but I only stumbled across them now… better late than never.

Naypyidaw: Abode of Kings in a Derelict Kingdom.

Next stop: the Moon

Russia plans to start building a base on the Moon by 2027. It aims to land cosmonauts in 2024 and have the facility finished and staffed by 2032.

The former superpower had suggested being part of a joint expedition with NASA, but after this was apparently rejected — although the US agency said in April that it had not received any such proposal — the decision was taken to go solo.

The first step will be finishing work on the ISS, followed by refurbishment of the Soyuz craft. How cosmonauts are going to get to the Moon has gone unmentioned. It might be using thisKliper craft, but there’s just as likely no plan in place at all.

Unless the government rows in behind the federal space agency, Roskosmos, this proposal will never get off the ground (pun, dire as it was, most certainly intended). The agency only has an annual budget of $1.3bn, compared to NASA’s $16.8bn.

In 2005, NASA estimated its coming lunar programme could cost $104bn over 13 years (Apollo cost half that over eight). There’s no reason Russia can’t come up with a way of doing it more cost-efficiently, but doing it on the current budget seems idealistic at best.

It will inevitably turn to space tourism to raise funds. Five have flown so far — each paying $20m-$25m a pop — and one Russian gentleman is set to go into orbit in 2009. It also charges NASA somewhere in the region of $20m per person per flight on its Soyuz capsules to the space station.

Roskosmos chief Anatoly Perminov has said launches of foreign satellites and other commercial services are expected to generate $800 million in sales for Russia’s national space and rocket industry in 2008. This would be useful hard cash for a lunar programme, especially with the timeframe the agency has in mind. It’s unlikely to be enough though.

Collaboration would be the easiest and most efficient avenue to take, but without NASA on board that seems dead in the water. Russia is considering developing satellites and such with several Arab countries, but it’s fair to say these do not have sufficiently developed space programmes to be technically useful in a lunar expedition. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t contribute financially.

Russia isn’t the only nation with the Moon in its sights. China — which sees a successful space programme as a major tool in establishing its international reputation and prestige — and Japan are planning lunar flights by 2022 and 2025, while India might steal a march on both with a mission by 2020.

India is to spend $1.5bn over five years developing the requisite technology, and what it can achieve in this timeframe and on this budget will indicate if Russia can achieve its goals.

Ultimately, the more resources dedicated to lunar exploration and occupation the better. Earth won’t last forever…

Fuel to eradicate poverty

Jacques Diof, director general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, feels the bioenergy sector has the potential to drastically reduce hunger and poverty.

If we get it right, bioenergy provides us with a historic chance to fast-forward growth in many of the world’s poorest countries, to bring about an agricultural renaissance and to supply modern energy to a third of the world’s population.

It’s a bold claim, but he’s got the background for us to take him seriously. In the article he sets out three things which need to be addressed for bioenergy to have the desired effect: lowering of trade barriers against ethanol imports, ensuring smallhold farmers can organise themselves to produce the biofuels on a large scale, and certification to ensure bioenergy products meet environmental standards.

I like the last point. One of the arguments against biofuels — particularly ethanol — is that it will result in more forestry clearance etc to allow more crops such as corn to be grown. As the soil in the Amazon rainforest is generally poor and quickly washed away once the trees are removed, ensuring the products meet environmental standards will have a beneficial effect on ecosystems.

I have also come across articles and news reports claiming ethanol isn’t as clean a fuel as commonly thought, largely because it takes more energy to produce a litre of ethanol than it does to produce a litre of oil. However, I would argue that this is because companies have had more time to refine oil production.

Diof says his three measures

would allow developing countries – which generally have ecosystems and climates more suited to biomass production than industrialised nations, and often have ample reserves of land and labour – to use their comparative advantage.

A fair and sound point in terms of economics, and the core of his argument that bioenergy can reduce poverty and hunger. Creating a valuable trade resource for less developed countries would not only foster economic self-sufficiency but generate wealth for better public and private services that a wider population base can afford.

Diof continues:

To focus debate exclusively on bio­fuels for transport is therefore to miss much of the point about bioenergy’s potential for poverty reduction. This lies more in helping 2bn people to produce their own electricity and other energy needs than in keeping 800m cars and trucks on the road… Helping 2bn people living on less than two dollars a day switch to affordable, homegrown, environmentally sustainable bio-power would represent a quantum leap in their development.

He’s thinking on a grand scale, and for that I applaud him. However, I am not convinced his dream will become a reality. Diof has urged the formation of an international bioenergy market and unless this happens in a balanced and fair way it will be dominated by existing major trade powers.

If that happens the potential benefits for less developed countries will be hindered, though not necessarily eliminated. We may face into a situation similar to that regarding chocolate and coffee production, where small sums are paid to farmers in poorer countries and the refined goods sold on for significant profits.

I’m not advocating some sort of global socialist approach to bioenergy. What I would urge, though, is that the governments of developing countries ensure they have a major role to play in the formation of an international market. This could go a long way toward using bioenergy wealth for the good of people who need it rather than corporate enrichment — although I’m not naive enough to suggest such enrichment won’t happen.

While we’re on the subject of alternative fuels, take a look at these pictures from CNet. They show a system of wave-power buoys that’s being installed off the coast of Oregon, USA.

Meanwhile, Spiegel Online is reporting that the rise of biofuels is threatening the humble gummy bear because a rise in crop prices threatens to jack up the price. I kid you not.

Far beyond Terra

There’s a nice opinion piece in the latest issue of Cosmos about why we should colonise other planets. Interestingly, Wilson da Silva, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, doesn’t talk about expanding beyond the solar system but rather highlights the possibilties within Sol: Mars, orbital habitats around Earth, the Moon, asteroids and worlds further out.

The article does tend to glorify our species of monkey men and women:

So what if humans pass into history? It’s not just a tragedy for us, but also one for nature. Without us, there is no one to witness its infinite beauty; no one to marvel at a sunset, revel in a view, or thrill to the breaking of a wave on a beach. As the late astronomer and author Carl Sagan once said, “we are a way for the universe to know itself”.

The comments are quite interesting too. One anonymous poster leads off with “The article is an astonish [sic] example of wishful thinking” to which someone else writes “Your reply is an astonishing example of doomsaying and defeatist attitude”… ah the internet.


Interesting stories I’ve read in the past few hours (Una does this style of post more regularly and far better than I): Ancient Egyptian may have had the world’s first prosthetic toe. (With pic!)

San Francisco Chronicle: Hackers crack all models of electronic voting machine in California. More reasons the system will never get going in Ireland. Michael Moore served with a subpoena while backstage at the Jay Leno show. Architect Shigeru Ban builds a bridge out of cardboard tubes. It’s in France and can hold the weight of 20 people at any given time.

Catholicgauze: The future of mapmaking. Points to two excellent articles on how customised dynamic maps are transforming cartography.

Associated Press: YouTube’s system to stop copyright-infringing videos.

Reuters: Dumbass shoplifter leaves address with the shop assistant.