Perpeptual Motion Machine

January 12th, 2012 by Potato

Another perpetual motion machine scheme has cropped up, this time stealing its name from a popular carnival ride, the gravitron. What made this one come to my attention was the fact that they are looking to hire a post-doc to run some calculations for them.

Now, I need a job, so I’m tempted to apply (though I have no desire to go to BC — perhaps I could work from home in Ontario?). If they’re going to waste their money to get someone to tell them precisely why their idea for a generator doesn’t obey the laws of physics, I suppose I’m as good a person as any to be the recipient of that money. On the other hand, perpetual motion machine pumpers tend to be flaky at best, and fraudulent at worst, so I’d have to negotiate for cash up front.

Their description of how it works is full of unit errors (using Watts for both power and energy, then comparing one to the other), and lots of dubious explanations. Rather than trying to work out where they’ve gone wrong on the physics (hey, they might hire me to do that!) let’s instead look at the economics. They say that it’s not a perpetual motion machine, because:

The Gravitron is not a perpetual motion machine, that is, it will not work indefinitely. The neodymium magnets that make up the magnet track will lose magnetic energy over time, and at some point will no longer have enough magnetic energy to lift the neodymium spherical magnets from the bottom to the top, at which point they will need to be replaced or remagnetized.

Ok, so let’s take that at face value: their not-a-perpetual-motion-physics-defying machine is just a really neat way to turn the energy in the magnetic field of a neodymium magnet into electricity. Well, obviously you can’t round-trip that or it’s again going to run into the perpetual motion problem, so the machine is going to extract less energy than it would take to re-magnetize the neodymium magnets when you’re done. The only way to work the machine then is to run it until you “drain” the neodymium magnets, throw those away, and buy brand new, fully-magnetized magnets to extract the energy from those anew. The question then becomes how much energy do you get, and how much does a replacement magnet cost?

Without spending too much time looking up the properties of neodymium and how to calculate the energy density of its magnetic field, Wikipedia provides this figure: an energy density of ~500 kJ/m3, or in electricity terms, 0.138 kWh per cubic meter of neodymium. A ballpark figure for the cost of electricity is 5 cents/kWh, so in order to be economical, they’d have to be able to source magnets at less than a penny per cubic meter. I don’t think so.

A former classmate says on facebook:

Here is some free advice to all inventors out there: if you have to include an explanation on your web site why your invention isn’t a perpetual motion machine, you’re probably trying to invent a perpetual motion machine.

When I told Wayfare I was thinking of applying, since hey, if nothing else I need to do some mock interviews to get some practice, she said: ‎”When I say you need to do a mock interview, I don’t mean an interview where you mock the interviewers.”

Not Because They Are Easy, But Because They Are Hard

May 25th, 2011 by Potato

Today is the 50th anniversary of JFK’s speech at Rice.

My favourite part of the speech — I’m sure the favourite of many — is in the title. There are many situations where those words apply, from choosing worthwhile courses over electives with easy marks, to bike routes for your daily work-out.

My second-favourite part:

We have had our failures, but so have others, even if they do not admit them.

Tater’s Takes – UBB, Copyright, and Nuclear Power

March 18th, 2011 by Potato

It’s been a tumultuous year so far, and the snow hasn’t even melted yet! The big news story has been the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, which has killed thousands of people and caused billions in dollars of damage. Oh, it also put some nuclear reactors into partial meltdown which added salt to the wounds by possibly making a few hundred more people sick, and releasing radiation into an area around the plants. But since it’s the ongoing story which will take weeks to fully play out, since people are afraid of the very word nuclear, and since fear-mongering sells papers, it’s been the headline story all week. Not that I am free of blame — I’ve re-read my radiation safety training materials and spent a lot of time brushing up on nuclear power generation this week, and have been soaking up the Fukushima stories.

While I do want to help everyone who’s going out of their minds keep perspective, I also don’t want to minimize the tragedy: the workers are being very brave while facing a terrifying situation, and are making personal sacrifices to try to minimize the damage to the rest of Japan. There have been fires, explosions, and meltdowns, leading to some radiation release (though whether the panicked mobs in Tokyo have anything to fear is an open question)…

Oh yeah, and there’s a civil war in Libya, demonstrations in Saudi Arabia, and crackdowns in Bahrain.

Joe Kelly over at Nerd Boys has a few posts on UBB up. He even tabulates the UBB fees by various ISPs.

Michael James reports that AT&T in the US has introduced UBB, which has sparked some outrage… at 1/10th the price of Canadian UBB.

Something I haven’t really drawn enough attention to is the very framework the CRTC laid out for making its decisions. They state that when congestion occurs, it should be corrected first by network infrastructure upgrades, then by economic incentives (i.e.: UBB), then by throttling and other traffic control measures. The thing is, there’s no structure to those guiding principles, leading to perverse incentives with UBB: an ISP can make more money by encouraging congestion, then charging UBB than it can by upgrading the network to stay ahead of traffic growth. Anyway, it was back in my 5-page submission if you read that, and if not, you probably want to focus on other things now.

Michael Geist, who has been debating Dan McTeague about proposed copyright reform, points out that despite calling for severe penalties for copyright infringers, Dan McTeague himself appears to fit the criteria for a repeat infringer. Zing!

Laser pulse pistol. Yes. The future is here.

On the profiteering side of the Japanese tragedy, Financial Uproar discusses investing in Tepco, which I was actually just talking about today with Netbug. I saw a lot of parallels with the BP situation there. Though there is an ADR, it trades on the pink sheets and is quite illiquid: TD Waterhouse wouldn’t let me put in a bid online, I had to call. I decided to sleep on it, but it’s now up ~20% in Tokyo tonight, so I may have missed my chance.

National Post: Language used to describe Japan’s atomic crisis borders on reckless hyperbole.

An old Scientific American article about how the emissions from coal plants are more radioactive than those from nuclear power plants. However, the mercury, particulate, and greenhouse gas emissions of the coal plants are far bigger concerns, not to mention mining issues.

And finally, I think my favourite link in the round-up: A post showing the deaths per TWh for different power generation methods. There’s lots of room to quibble about an order of magnitude here or there, but the end result is that coal is several orders of magnitude more deadly than nuclear. And coal never provided us with medical advances like radiotherapy or diagnostic nuclear medicine.

Radiological Accidents: Some History

March 16th, 2011 by Potato

There’s Chernobyl, everyone knows that one. Then a handful of other accidents involving nuclear power generation, with the most famous perhaps being Three Mile Island, though the impact of the non-Chernobyl accidents have been pretty minor.

In the early days of research, there were a fair number of accidents, especially with enriched fuel, and a bunch of military accidents.

But after Chernobyl, most of the worst civilian radiological accidents come from the medical side. As much as people rail against nuclear energy, I don’t hear a lot of people trying to ban nuclear medicine.

The biggest cause of accidents seems to be the escape of radiation sources, with the Goiania, Brazil accident being perhaps the best example. There, a medical clinic moved, and left behind a radiotherapy device. These guys came in to the abandoned, half-demolished structure, and stole the Cesium-137 source at the heart of the machine, to sell for scrap. In dismantling the source, they got a large dose of radiation, and then later did sell the core for scrap. The scrap dealer noticed this blue glow in the material, and — I kid you not — decided it was magic.

He invited his friends and family over to check it out, made jewellery and body paint out of it, and spread this stuff all over. People were putting it on their bodies to increase sexual potency, ingesting it, and selling it. It took over two weeks before it was realized that a disaster was unfolding. 4 people died, many others got sick, and something like the equivalent of 100 transport truck containers of contaminated waste were produced.

There are also a number of cases of accidental over-exposure from radiotherapy or imaging, though those seem to be more accepted as there is always some background medical mistake risk.

Tater’s Takes – Space Wall

February 28th, 2011 by Potato

Went grocery shopping, with largely two things on my list: real food, and candy. At the intersection of the two: cocoa krispies, but they look to have discontinued them! Which is dastardly, because they were on sale this week!

Wired had a good article on magnetic navigation in sea turtles. Neat, because I was just talking about this in my lecture last week! Hope the undergrads find this. I love this quote: “A skeptic could reasonably believe that the latitudinal cue is magnetic, but that determining east-west position depends on magic,” Another recent article also discusses the radical-pair mechanism. I’ve long lamented the poor quality of journalism, especially science reporting, in these times of ours, but I have to say that I’ve been reasonably impressed with a few articles from Wired recently, in particular because they actually include the citations to the papers they’re talking about, so I’ve subscribed to their RSS feed.

The Berkshire Hathaway annual results are out, including Warren Buffet’s famous annual letter to shareholders. Worth a read even if you’re not a shareholder. Of course, many blog posts out there to help you digest the wisdom, including Larry MacDonald, Canadian Capitalist, and Michael James.

Barry Rithotlz points out that banks are writing credit default swaps on debt that doesn’t exist… if you figure out how to view the full story on the WSJ, let me know, I only got the first few lines as a preview, and there wasn’t even a link with the option to buy the article, so to me it just looks like a broken website (way to go, newspapers, you show the internet how conveying information is done!).

I got a response from my MP after my UBB letters: basically just a form response that the Liberals oppose UBB, and that they’ve received a lot of letters on the topic! Other than that, I haven’t noticed any news on the matter, so now I think we just wait and see what comes out of the CRTC.

A bunch of other bloggers got copies of various tax programs to give away (come on Intuit, it’s not a personal finance blog, but I do taxes too!). Oddly enough many of them only opened their contest up to their email subscribers. I guess people who use RSS to follow every. single. post. just aren’t worthy.

With even the permabulls like the real estate boards calling for the housing market to at the very least flatten out, it’s important to market your home’s selling features. A snazzy virtual tour may help, but might I suggest a space wall?

Space wall. A whole wall for a space scene. In your basement. What more do you need from a house?

Toronto Realty Blog considers moving up. The post highlights a few things that I see as being horribly sick and wrong with the current Toronto market (well, it doesn’t intentionally highlight them, but they stand out to me):

  • Five years is far above the average time that a condo-owner will spend in one unit in downtown Toronto…” Transaction costs are high: so far, price appreciation has dwarfed them, but in a flat market, moving very often means more people should lean towards renting rather than buying. If people are feeling squeezed out (or bored, or whatever other reason they have for moving so frequently), then they do need to start to consider the risks of buying at the top, as they can’t just wait out a downturn in the unlikely event that it happens (even if that’s what they tell me). Five years sounds like a very short amount of time to buy a place for to me, so for that to be above the average sounds crazy.
  • As I look around the living room, I see a bookshelf with so many books stacked on top of the unit itself that I’ve begun a small pile on the floor […] and I can’t tell you how many things (skiis, snowboard, golf clubs, hockey equipment, baseball gear, winter tires) I keep in seasonal storage in my mother’s basement. Not only have I outgrown my space, but I can afford far more now as well.” The condos that are going up (even in Markham) are freaking tiny. I have trouble seeing how a single person fits in some of them, let alone a couple. That is partly due to amenities: no need to set aside room for a treadmill if your building has a gym, and space for more than two guests can be taken care of by the party room and movie theatre. But I have to wonder how much of the demand for these tiny units is driven by people buying from plans, and when the buyers will finally stop trying to get a place, any place, and start demanding livable space.
  • Let’s assume that I own my condo in cash, and I have no mortgage.[…] For whatever reason, I would rather keep my money in my condo th[a]n throw darts at the board known as the stock market […] so my all-in cost of living is only $545 per month.” Once again, the fallacy that owning your shelter somehow makes it free, or nearly so, without taking into account the opportunity cost, that is, the return one could get by investing that money elsewhere. Even a GIC-like rate added to the other costs listed would put that monthly total north of $1600 — more than what a 1-bedroom rents for. And along with it, the notion that somehow the stock market is risky but Toronto condos are not. Eventually, fundamentals will matter.