Friday, May 27, 2011

Limerick of the Day, May 27

There was a young belle from old Natchez
Whose garments were always in patches.
When comment arose
On the state of her clothes,
She replied, "When Ah itches, Ah scratches."


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

No More Cheap Oil

               The May 24th issue of Wall Street Journal has an article entitled Facing up To End of “Easy Oil.” (I would provide a hot link but you’d just hit a pay wall.)   The article describes an oil extraction project in Wafra, along the Kuwait /Saudi Arabia border.  The project is using injected steam to recover very viscous, heavy crude oil.   The oil is as thick as molasses, and without steam, it would be unrecoverable.   Using steam to recover heavy oil is nothing new, but usually this is done in places where a source of fresh water to feed the boilers, and cheap natural gas to fire them are both available.   This area has neither.  For water, they are pumping salt water out of the same formation that contains the oil, desalinating it, and then heating it with imported LNG.
              Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are jointly developing this field, with the cooperation of Chevron Oil.   And Chevron is putting up the capital.  If they succeed in extracting oil, the oil they get will be low grade oil that is extremely expensive to refine into any useful product. So why are they even bothering to do this?  Of course, they wouldn’t be doing it—if they had any better alternatives.  For several decades, that part of the world dominated world oil trade not just because they had vast amounts of oil, but also because the oil they had was easy to extract and easy to refine. But those days are over.
            All the great Saudi oil fields, including the Ghawar field, are well past their prime. They will continue to produce oil, but in decreasing amounts.  And the fact that the Saudis and Chevron would even consider a project such as Wafra shows that there aren’t many options left.
            The world is passing, (or has already passed) the point of peak oil production. That means that half of all the oil we started with is now gone.  Of course, the other half is still there, and we can burn it. But there’s a catch.  When our fathers and grandfathers took the first half, they took the easy half.   If some oil was technically easy to extract and some was not, they took what was easy.  If some was in convenient locations and some was not, they took what was close. If some oil was cheap to refine and some was not, they ignored the heavy and skimmed off the light. If some was located in countries that were agreeable to doing business with us and some were hostile, they went where they were welcome.  In short, they did what we would do—they picked the low hanging fruit.  So while half the oil is still there, from now till the end of the oil age we can expect to spend astronomical sums to extract nearly useless oil in remote locations, some of which will be so hostile (think Nigeria) that every oil field will be a battle field.  But with a billion Chinese and another billion Indians who have now entered the world oil market, this oil will be extracted.  But don’t expect any of it to be cheap. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

We All Die of Immune System Failure.

   I was arguing with my doctor a while back, and I made the comment that anyone who dies a natural death dies of immune system failure.  (I was having some immune system issues at the time.)  My doctor was taken aback by what seemed like a perfectly absurd idea.  But when I explained exactly what I meant, he nodded in agreement.
      I said that in even the worst epidemic of any infectious disease,  the majority of people survive because their immune system simply fights off the infection.   So those who do die are victims of immune system failure.  And in some epidemics, like the flu of 1918,  the disease kills by provoking such an exaggerated immune reaction that those who die are actually killed by their own immune system.  And of course, with autoimmune diseases like MS, death is also due to immune failure.
     He said, "What about heart disease?"   I replied that most heart disease begins with arteriosclerosis,  which begins with inflammation  of the lining of the arteries, and inflammation is a function of the immune system.  And cancer too is an immune failure.  All normal people have a few cells going cancerous every day, but their immune system finds and destroys these cells before they cause trouble.
       So what use is this perspective?  It's simply this:    If all natural death is in some way attributable to immune problems, then the one area of basic research which should be receiving more attention is immunology.  Understanding more about the immune system helps us fight everything that kills us.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Is it Rapture Time Yet?

   Just after 6:PM EDT,  I began looking for telltale signs of the rapture--perhaps the sight of unmanned SUVs careening  out of control---or empty green polyester pants suits crumpled up on the sidewalk.  But so far, I don't see much of that.   But then it suddenly occurred to me:   An observer in Iowa might not see the rapture.  Remember the line in Field of Dreams which asks:  "Is this heaven--no, it's Iowa!"   This would clearly imply that Iowa and heaven are one and the same place.   So righteous souls being raptured to heaven wouldn't even notice it if they were already in Iowa.  They'd just stay put.
    So if any of my many friends outside of Iowa observe a noticeable degree of rapture, please respond.   (Not that I imagine that righteous persons anywhere are so numerous that their immediate absence would make much difference. )

Friday, May 20, 2011

Limerick of the Day, May 20

Lightly stirring some gin and vermouth
Makes a drink that's exceedingly couth.
(Unlike boiler makers,
And drinks made in shakers,
And things that they'd drink in Duluth.)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Rabbits as "foodies?"

   For many years, my wife and I have grown a large garden, and except for lettuce, kale, and other leaf crops, we've never bother with fencing out the rabbits.  We could plant 75 tomato plants and the rabbits would ignore them.   Then last year,  instead of just buying young plants from the local supermarket, we sent away for some "heirloom variety" seeds and started some of our plants from seed.  But we still bought some commercial variety plants.  But when the stuff was all planted, in one night, the heirloom plants were all eaten off to the ground by rabbits.  And the next night, they pulled up the roots and ate them too.  Yet the commercial cultivars, planted a few feet away in the same garden, were unmolested.
     So, what's going on here?  Do the commercial varieties have some genes that repel rabbits?  Or do the bunnies simply know what is yummy and what isn't?  I had always assumed that rabbits were fairly  indiscriminate in their choice of food, eating any edible leaves.  But given a choice, the bunnies are the real foodies--not we humans.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

More Beaver Shots

      I have added an additional photo to the report on beaver activity posted two days ago.  The new photo views the dam itself from a better angle, and shows how its actually constructed.  Also, the dam shown two days ago was a work in progress, as the road crew had ripped the original dam out with a back hoe a week earlier, and the beaver at that time was just beginning to build the replacement.  Now, only 48 hours later, he has added about two tons of sticks and mud, and the dam has started to assume the look of a standard beaver dam.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Limerick of the Day, May 17

A muscular fellow from Gratz,
Who had for his staffer "the hots,"
Behaved rather wild,
And now has a child,
But suffered the loss of his shatz.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Limerick of the Day, May 16

A lady renowned for her vanity,
Which she drove to the point of insanity,
Used oceans of potions,
And various lotions,
But still had the skin of a manatee.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Beaver Shots: Life, the Universe, and Beaver Engineering.

            As you drive north on I-380 towards Waterloo, Iowa, when you reach the I-380, US 20 interchange,  if you look to the left just after you pass under the bridge you’ll see something fascinating.   Some enterprising beaver has dammed off the entrance to a culvert which is supposed to drain the road ditch.  This has created a shallow lake, and since the road ditches on both sides are connected by a culvert, this has backed up water on the other side of the road, where said beaver has built a fine lodge.  This is in a small triangular area, about a half block on a side, where the DOT has planted trees.  And the beaver is chopping them down. 
            But his choice of site is unfortunate.  Assuming that the road dept does not rip out his dam and trap him before he kills the rest of the trees, the site is still doomed.  The only water fed into this area is the runoff from the triangular plot itself, and there is no rain in winter. With no source of year-round fresh water, this shallow lake will surely freeze to the bottom.  Not good news for a beaver.  Today, he is probably a very happy little beaver.  But before next spring he will be a very dead little beaver unless he can manage to beave somewhere else.
            At one point in the Nineteenth Century, science took a sudden interest in beavers.  Engineers in particular were impressed by the fact that beaver dams are always placed in exactly the right position and use an economy of materials.   Many scientists felt that such exquisite engineering indicated that beavers possessed some kind of conscious intelligence.  But recently it has become known that beavers are creatures of instinct, and a very simple instinct.  They are guided by one simple algorithm: to listen for the sound of running water-- and to pat mud and sticks on it until it stops running.  That’s it!    Such behavior will not only repair existing dams, but construct new ones.  Thus dies the notion of the wise and thoughtful beaver.
            I think this may be a useful metaphor for the universe in general.  Among my close friends are persons of a wide range of philosophical persuasions, from traditional Christians, to Atheists, Agnostics, Pagans, Animists, Deists, and just people who use the word “God” to mean the forces of the natural world.  Personally, I am more comfortable as a Deist, (a person who says that,  “Yes, there is a God—and he created the universe,  and wound it up like an alarm clock and tossed it out into space—and hasn’t been seen since.”)   The first five presidents of the United States all claimed to be Deists.   But whatever our philosophy, when discussing the cosmos and its origin we find ourselves using metaphors like “Grand Designer,” or “Watchmaker,” or Engineer.  I think all of these are poor metaphors because they all imply a conscious intentionality.  “Big Beaver” might be a better term.   Just as the beaver’s elegant works are all the result of a simple algorithm, I suspect that the present universe is simply the result of a small number of very basic rules—rules at the particle level—for how mater and energy interact.  And from these rules the cosmos has organized itself into atoms, molecules, stars, planets, life forms—and us. 

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Chaos Theory and Klystrons

       Is it possible that klystrons, traveling wave tubes, and all velocity modulation amplifiers are an expression of one of the central elements of chaos theory? These devices  are simply tubes wherein a beam of electrons flowing down the length of the tube interacts with with a tiny e.m.f. introduced by a small antenna at the upstream end.  The signal to be amplified is "broadcast" into the tube, and the individual electrons in the beam are either accelerated or decelerated as they past through the radio wave, depending on the phase of the wave at the instant they encounter it. This change in velocity is extremely minute, but with the passage of time, the electrons which were accelerated drift further and further ahead of the others, and those which were decelerated get further and further behind.  By the time they get to the antenna at the downstream end, there is a pronounced "bunching" effect.  As these grouped electrons strike the antenna, they induce an alternating current waveform identical to the tiny current introduced at the upstream end, only a thousand times greater in amplitude.  But for the process to work, time must be allowed to do its work.  In chaos theory, time is also a central element.  The idea  is not that a butterfly flapping its wings in Tibet might cause a stock market crash in London. It's that a butterfly flapping its wings in Tibet might, after the passage of sufficient time---cause a crash.   Of course, in chaos theory, the idea is that the ultimate results of an action can eventually get so complex that no prediction of that result is possible. Whereas a well designed klystron is quite predictable.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Tom Swiftie of the Day, May 2

"You can have your dog back," he said petulantly.