Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Seems We Can't Go A Week Without Getting Some New 3D Printing Story

This week we get two.

The first is an interesting development that's a refinement of the very first 3D printing format, stereolithography.  In this form of printing, a laser traces out the outlines of the layers of design being printed on the surface of a bath of liquid resin.  At the start of the print, there's a metal tray just under the surface of the pool. The resin polymerizes into a solid, the tray drops a few thousandths and the next layer is scanned.  Eventually the entire object is printed, the tray is raised back to the top and the printed piece removed.  (The "splash" in this print is the 3D printed object itself)

The new process is more like a hologram, with the laser projecting deeper into the fluid, polymerizing 3D structures directly, not just doing a scan on the surface - 2D that builds up 3D objects.
[...] by using laser-generated, hologram-like 3D images flashed into photosensitive resin, researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), along with collaborators at UC Berkeley (link is external), the University of Rochester (link is external) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (link is external) (MIT), have discovered they can build complex 3D parts in a fraction of the time of traditional layer-by-layer printing. The novel approach is called “volumetric” 3D printing, and is described in the journal Science Advances (link is external), published online Dec. 8.

“The fact that you can do fully 3D parts all in one step really does overcome an important problem in additive manufacturing,” said LLNL researcher Maxim Shusteff, the paper’s lead author. “We’re trying to print a 3D shape all at the same time. The real aim of this paper was to ask, 'Can we make arbitrary 3D shapes all at once, instead of putting the parts together gradually layer by layer?' It turns out we can.”
Volumetric 3D printing creates parts by using three overlapping laser beams that define the object’s geometry from three different directions.  This creates a hologram-like 3D image suspended in the vat of resin.  The laser is left on for about 10 seconds to cure the object (too long and the entire bath solidifies!).  Then the excess resin is drained, note there's no precisely moved tray like the one-layer-at-a-time system, and the fully formed 3D part remains. 

This is still leading edge research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the things they're printing are pretty small.  Another issue is that there are restrictions on part resolution and on the kinds of geometries that can be formed.  Extremely complex structures would require more than three intersecting laser beams and would limit the process.  It will be a while before you can order one of these printers from your favorite retailer, but it's pretty interesting to see.

The other new 3D printing tech is a way of printing composite materials with fibers embedded in a plastic matrix.  Called "rotational 3D printing", the new technique allows for precise alignment of the fibers to get the desired properties.  
The key to their approach is to precisely choreograph the speed and rotation of a 3D printer nozzle to program the arrangement of embedded fibers in polymer matrices. This is achieved by equipping a rotational printhead system with a stepper motor to guide the angular velocity of the rotating nozzle as the ink is extruded.

"Rotational 3D printing can be used to achieve optimal, or near optimal, fiber arrangements at every location in the printed part, resulting in higher strength and stiffness with less material," Compton said. "Rather than using magnetic or electric fields to orient fibers, we control the flow of the viscous ink itself to impart the desired fiber orientation."
This method is aimed at answering a different question than the first one.  The first one is asking "can we speed up the method of printing?" but it also offers the promise of removing the layers and "jaggies" that 3D prints can have.  The rotational 3D printing approach seems to be asking for more control of exactly how the print is made, at the expense of the additional stepper motor, driver and so on to control the rotation of the print head.  The resin model isn't capable of having fibers at all, so they're aimed at different uses. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Quantum Computers Throw Some Confusion at Buyers

A little short of five years ago, I ran a piece about a player in the quantum computer field called D-Wave Systems.  It included this little tidbit.
Dr. Ladizinsky talks about the fact that in his quantum computer, a loop of super cold niobium wire has all of its electrons going in one direction and at the exact same time the same piece of wire has all of its electrons going in the opposite direction.  Their niobium wire is exhibiting quantum behavior in a macroscopic object.
For illustration, assume current in one direction is a logic "0" and current in the opposite direction is a "1".  The superposition of two different states at the same time is what constitutes a qubit, or quantum bit, and creates quantum computing.

In the intervening five years, quantum computing as entered into field trials.  D-Wave has sold systems to Lockheed Martin, NASA, the NSA (National Security Agency), and Google, each of which paid somewhere between $10 million and $15 million for the system.  Recently, D-Wave committed some of the important software they've been developing to open source.  The only problem is that the buyers aren't sure that they actually bought a quantum computer.  It turns out that's a hard thing to prove.
These machines are of little use to consumers. They are delicate, easily disturbed, require cooling to just above absolute zero, and are ruinously expensive. But the implications are enormous for heavy number-crunching. In theory, banks could use quantum computers to calculate risk faster than their competitors, giving them an edge in the markets. Tech companies could use them to figure out if their code is bug-free. Spies could use them to crack cryptographic codes, which requires crunching through massive calculations. A fully-fledged version of such a machine could theoretically tear through calculations that the most powerful mainframes would take eons to complete.

The only problem is that scientists have been arguing for years about whether D-Wave’s device is really a quantum computer or not. (D-Wave canceled a scheduled interview and did not reschedule.) And while at some level this doesn’t matter—as far as we know, D-Wave’s clients haven’t asked for their money back—it’s an issue of importance to scientists, to hopeful manufacturers of similar machines, and to anyone curious about the ultimate limits of humankind’s ability to build artificial brains.
Surely it can't be that hard right?  Why not take it apart and probe it?  Or why not run a sample computation, a benchmark if you will, on it and another computer to see which is faster.  Unfortunately, it's not that easy.  It violates the laws of quantum physics to be able to look inside (probe it), so the system can't be probed.  When a quantum system is observed, it collapses to one state or the other.  In the example from the original  paragraph, if one measures the current flow in any of the 512 niobium wire loops it will only appear to be moving in one direction, not both.  This is collapsing the Quantum Wave Function - made famous by the analogy Erwin Schrodinger proposed about a cat that is simultaneously fully alive and fully dead.
The controversy surrounding D-Wave is rooted in the fact that the company doesn’t claim to have built a full-fledged “universal quantum computer” that can tackle any problem. In particular, it doesn’t claim to able to crack secret codes; if it did, the argument would be over quickly. The technique it uses, called “quantum annealing”—which we won’t even try to explain—is only good for solving specific sorts of mathematical puzzles called optimization problems. As their name implies, these involve finding the quickest or lowest-cost way to do something. (That could make the technique useful to banks and mining companies, but not spy agencies.)

The trouble is, it’s possible to build a device that produces a similar result to quantum annealing without any quantum behavior—i.e., without invoking superpositions and parallel universes. So the question is: Is the D-Wave machine doing quantum annealing, or just something that looks like it? And this is where things get tricky.
Researchers can't look into it, and they may not even be able to test its speed.
Even if there were a speedup, it would be hard to measure. There was a good deal of hype about an experiment last year by a scientist whom D-Wave had hired as a consultant, showing that the D-Wave 2 did a certain calculation 3,600 times faster than a conventional machine. But as it turned out, the likelier reason the conventional computer was slow was that its software was slow. Other researchers said they’d been able to make an ordinary laptop, using different software, run as fast as the D-Wave.

Even D-Wave admits that in its work with Google, it’s machines were only “comparable or slightly better” than conventional computers. Google wrote on its research blog a year ago that it has been able to do some interesting things with its D-Wave, but carefully avoided claiming that they were things only a quantum computer could do.
It ends up being fundamentally hard to answer the question of whether or not the D-Wave Systems boxes really are quantum computers, and the whole article is worth reading. 
In this recent photo, we find that Schrodinger's cat learned to create a quantum superposition of kibbles in each of the parallel universes it visited, so that alive or dead, it had an unlimited supply of kibbles.  Photo from the Quartz article. 

If you're waiting for me to reveal if the D-Wave Systems box really is a quantum computer, the Quartz article doesn't say conclusively.  We could say it exists in the superposition of states of simultaneously being and not being a quantum computer.  They point out that Michele Mosca, a co-founder of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo in Canada, says that the very meaning of the words “quantum computer” is fuzzy. He proposes five (actually five-and-a-half) definitions, which are listed at the bottom of the Quartz article for the technically minded.
The D-Wave, Mosca says, definitely meets definition 2, and probably its stronger variant, meaning that it is behaving somehow differently from classical computers, but not necessarily faster. If further research can show that it meets definition 3, that means it can be faster than classical machines at certain tasks, provided the problems aren’t too large. If it meets definition 4 (the best, Mosca says, that it aspires to) then it has the potential to continue to be faster for any larger, more complex input —though again, only for certain tasks.

That would still be hugely important. It would mean that the D-Wave is taking advantage of the weird properties of quantum physics to do things that, until not so long ago, were thought literally impossible, and open up the ability to solve problems that would otherwise remain out of reach.

But the full power of a quantum computer will be realized only when a machine can satisfy definition 5—a general-purpose device that far outstrips conventional computers at any task they can perform. That machine has not yet been built.
If the D-Wave is not a quantum computer that raises perplexing questions.  It raises questions of whether or not they know what they're doing, if they knowingly sold fakes, or unknowingly sold fakes (that is, they were faked out themselves) and if the buyers are thinking they bought fakes.  

Monday, January 15, 2018

Heh Heh Heh

That's the sound of a smug, self-satisfied chuckle when something I designed behaves exactly as expected.

The LED display isn't popping out at you because of the flash picture, but the variac box works as intended.  It's reading 100V and 00.0 Amps while the yellow (Horrible Freight) voltmeter reads 102.  Which is correct?  Is either correct?  The digital voltmeter I trust the most isn't pictured, but it was close to midway between the HF meter and the .  It turns out that if I tweak the big variac dial until the box's display stops flickering 99 to 100 and back, the trusted DVM says just about 101.

Pretty much all of those are "close enough" for what I expect to be doing with it, which is primarily to reduce the line voltage to some of my older radios and things that haven't been on in a while in order to reduce the risk of something failing because it hasn't been on.

This variac is rated for 5A, which is enough to power anything I've got and maybe a couple of them at the same time.  Some collectors of vintage, vacuum tube gear (popularly called boatanchors) run all their equipment on a variac or fixed transformers to reduce the house line voltage a bit.  Over the years, the typical house voltage has gone up from more like 110 up to closer to 120, which I suppose was done by power companies to ensure that after the usual voltage drops folks at the end of a branch didn't get too little voltage.  The boatanchor collectors say that the higher line voltage stresses the parts too much. 

On one hand, I can kind of see that, especially for some capacitors.  Most equipment has big electrolytic capacitors in it that can actually change value and running them at a lower voltage does what they call forming, and restores them to the right value.  On the other hand, one of the quotes that goes around about vacuum tube design is that transistors have limits, tubes have guidelines.  Typically, if you exceed the absolute maximum voltage on a transistor by even a little for a tiny amount of time, you generally let the smoke out.  If you exceed the voltage on a tube, it usually just shrugs it off.

Unlike this project, the antenna is fairly underwhelming and needs a little emphasis.  It delivers a bit weaker signal than my vertical when the radio preamp is on (on for the loop, off for the vertical) on the one band I was most concerned about.  On the other band, it's much worse than the vertical.  On the positive side, though, it delivers some of the claimed ability to null signals off the back. 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Is This the Year Humans Launch from the US Again?

That's the provocative subtitle of an interesting piece on ARS Technica which lists the launches they find most interesting in the coming year.

The first thing they mention is the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, which is likely to launch this month.  The company has said they plan to test fire the boosters this coming Thursday, and the vehicle is on pad 39A as we speak.  An ambitious vehicle with 5.1 million pounds of thrust, capable of launching "37,000 pounds to Mars", SpaceX fans have been eagerly awaiting the first launch since it was announced in 2005, but its development was dependent on all of their other launch hardware and (probably most importantly) their experience.  That view tends to be something those not "in the business" don't understand.
And if you haven't heard the rumors, the plans for the first launch are a bit PT Barnum-style "in your face":
Although this is just a test flight—with a whimsical payload of Elon Musk's cherry-red Tesla roadster bound for an elongated orbit around Mars—the flight of the Falcon Heavy nonetheless represents a landmark moment in the US spaceflight industry. It will mark the first time a US company has developed a heavy lift rocket with largely its own financing. True, SpaceX leveraged some NASA funding to build the Falcon 9 rocket. But it has developed the core stage and integrated two Falcon 9 boosters to create the heavy rocket with its own resources. This is a truly private rocket. [Bold added - SiG]
Throwing a Tesla car into orbit around Mars only solidifies Elon Musk's reputation as a huckster showman.

A rather interesting, if not fanciful, mission is the launch of a light sail for the Planetary Society.  Likely to be in Quarter 2 or 3 of the year, on the third launch of a Falcon Heavy.
Sails that propel a craft by riding on the solar wind have been talked about for a long time and launched before, but are still in their infancy and missions are trying to prove the concept is useful.
The crowdfunded project will attempt to make solar sail-powered flight in Earth orbit. Once in space, the 61cm-long spacecraft will separate from the upper stage of the Falcon Heavy rocket and undergo a series of maneuvers to deploy a light sail made of Mylar that will spread out to encompass an area of 32 square meters.

After the light sail has deployed, the spacecraft will attempt to use the constant pressure from solar particles to raise itself to higher orbits around the Earth, perhaps by as much as 1km per day. If this test is successful, solar sail technology could be deployed on future missions as low-cost, propellant-free propulsion to explore planets and moons in our Solar System.
A mission I've previously heard some talk about, but not the interesting details, is China's proposed Chang'e which is two-fold mission likely to launch in the second half of year (Q2 to Q4).  The part everyone talks about is to land on the far side of the moon.  That immediately raises the problem  of how the satellite communicates back to Earth, since the moon both blocks radio waves, so  I assumed that they were going to launch an orbiter that would relay information from the surface, but the proposed mission is more ambitious.  The Chinese propose to put a relay point at the Lagrange point L2, which is in orbit around the sun, not the moon, and about a million miles from Earth.  Description of L2 orbits here.

A very interesting mission, and the only one virtually iron-clad guaranteed to be on schedule, the New Horizons spacecraft that went past Pluto in 2015 is going to flyby the Kuiper belt object called 2014 MU69.  Since the spacecraft's position and motion are known very precisely, as is the position and movement of its destination, this flyby is guaranteed to a level of certainty that no other mission in the article can match.  I can only imagine two things that would stop it: New Horizons hits an unknown object first or the Klingons show up and use it for target practice. In the case of an unknown object, the risks are tiny but real; in the case of the Klingons (or other extraterrestrials) that risk has to go to as close to zero as you can imagine.

Old movie references aside, and getting back to the title of the post, both SpaceX and their competitor Boeing are saying they're "on schedule" to test their manned vehicles for bringing crews to the Space Station.
Officially, both companies say they are on track for crewed launches this year. Boeing plans an uncrewed flight test of its Starliner vehicle in August, with an initial flight carrying astronauts in November. SpaceX has said it will make a test flight of its Crew Dragon vehicle in April, with a crewed mission in August.

However, there are good reasons to be skeptical about those dates. Sources have told Ars that both companies have plenty of work to do to get ready for human test flights. Moreover, NASA has yet to announce specific two-person crews for each of those human test flights, and such assignments are likely to be made at least a year before the flights themselves occur. (There are four commercial crew astronauts, Robert Behnken, Doug Hurley, Sunita Williams, and Eric Boe). And finally, NASA has moved to begin formally acquiring Soyuz seats to launch its astronauts in 2019.
There are other missions in the article that I leave out, but since some of you readers are much more closely involved with the Cape than I am, I'm interested in hearing your versions of the "most interesting missions" for 2018.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Turnabout is Fair Play

I ran across an interesting story in the Machine Design daily newsletter.  It pertains to H1B visas, in a way.  H1B visas are the ones that are granted typically to "hi-tech" workers with the mythology that the skill set doesn't exist in America.  You might remember the 2016 talk about Disney hiring IT workers on H1B visas, and forcing the American workers to train their replacements before being laid off.

That story turned out to be far from abnormal; it was literally the tip of an iceberg, an orgy of cronyism in which a handful of companies lobby the US government to allocate H1B visas so that they can get cheaper workers, foreign companies lobby to provide those visas to workers in those countries and displace American workers.  Meanwhile, we have national programs to push STEM education to provide graduates for jobs in the US - that are being taken by H1B visa imports.
On one side, we have national programs to convince US kids to major in STEM programs to produce the "next generation of scientists and engineers" while on the other hand we import these H1B visa holders to fill the very jobs we're trying to get American kids to prepare for.  Don't forget the workers who were in those jobs, were replaced by H1B visa holders, and are now either unemployed or underemployed.  The is creating unemployment and misery for generations to come.  It's easy to understand Gates, Zuckerburg and those CEOs: the more of these H1B visas the allows, the more they can suppress wages and the more candidates they can choose from.  It's, unfortunately, also easy to understand the; they get money from Cognizant, Wipro and the like.  In the case of our administration, already concerned that Americans have too much of the world's wealth, it's even easier to see a motivation to send that wealth overseas. [Note: this is from 2016.  SiG]
So while it's true that the illegal immigrants hold down wages for low end jobs (how could they not?), and conservatives rightfully try to change that, we also have the wages of hardware and software engineers, as well as IT workers and other STEM careers being held down by the H1B visa industry (again, how could they not?).
With that background, this week's Machine Design story shows the shoe on the other foot.  Foreign companies are hiring engineering talent out of the US. Is it possible the big picture might be engineers from low income countries move into the US (on H1Bs) while US engineers move overseas on whatever the equivalent law is there? 
However, the skilled job market is growing. Deloitte —an audit, consulting, and financial advisory company—published that 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will become available from 2015 to 2025, and about 2 million of them will go unfilled due to a skills gap.

“Getting people interested in these careers is challenging—especially young people,” says Bruce Hamm of the Manufacturers Association of Central New York (MACNY). “Historically, over the last few decades, we’ve had so much manufacturing leave New York because of offshoring; we were one of the rust belt states. The fact that modern manufacturing has changed the whole equation hasn’t penetrated to the public, the schools, the kids, or the parents for that matter.”
Germany, a strong economic and engineering powerhouse, failed to find 1.1 million skilled workers and professionals in the third quarter of 2017. In an economic upswing, there is a shortage of young talent to meet the high demand for labor. Now German companies are urgently looking for talent from all over the world.
While Germany is an “economic and engineering powerhouse”, the other country they specifically mention is New Zealand.  The Kiwi projects they mentioned are major construction projects, not systemic growth in their engineering sector. 

Still, the US is 4x the population of Germany (total population, not engineers) and 67x the size of New Zealand, so Germany could make a dent in the US job market but it's hard to imagine New Zealand could.  I don't really imagine a large percentage of people want to make that sort of migration, anyway.  (Wait... I might have to think about New Zealand.)  The US still has the (alleged, reported) shortage of high-skilled workers that leads to trying to import (and grow new) engineers here.
A published report from the Public Policy Institute of New York State Inc. states that, “While shortages in professional skills were most pervasive, employers reported that STEM-specific skills and qualifications were the toughest to find. Almost a quarter of executives reported ‘high difficulty’ finding candidates with the necessary scientific, engineering, and technical skills. Half reported moderate or high difficulty finding candidates skilled in using technology, and close to 30 percent reported moderate or high difficulty finding candidates with other STEM skills such as data analysis and applied math.
My summary is that it's interesting but probably not a big influence.  Engineering salaries are among the few percent that have held up well over the last 40 years.  Will that trend last?  Some of you know what I'm going to say: “prediction is difficult, especially about the future”.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Is Bitcoin a Bubble?

Despite the incredible rise of Bitcoin in a short amount of time, I find this question surprisingly hard to answer.  (We can talk some other time about the wisdom of buying bitcoin; this is just about the wild run up in price over the last couple of years).

On one hand there are sure signs that this is an epic bubble.  Warning signs are all around.  According to The Atlantic,  "It Is Silly Season in the Land of Cryptocurrency" and they give reasons to back it up.
In October, the Colorado biotech company Bioptix changed its name to Riot Blockchain. The company’s valuation doubled within a few days.

This might strike you as an extraordinarily bizarre story. But even more bizarrely, it’s becoming ordinary. Weeks later, the British company Online PLC changed its name to Online Blockchain. The company’s shares jumped 400 percent. In December, the Long Island Iced Tea Corporation—which, as you might expect, sold iced tea—rebranded itself Long Blockchain. The company’s shares promptly rose nearly 300 percent. On Tuesday this week, the legacy photography company Kodak announced the launch of KODAKCoin, a “photo-centric cryptocurrency to empower photographers and agencies to take greater control in image rights management.” The stock rose 80 percent in a matter of hours.
People buying anything that seems to have even the most tenuous connection to bitcoin?  Are they crazy?  People are as excited as can be over investing in it and bubble warning signs like people borrowing money to put into Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are starting.

Certainly if you look at at this graph, put together by First in Freedom Daily (I added the color coded lines), Bitcoin appears to be the biggest price run-up in history dwarfing the famous Tulip Craze of 1634-37 and monstrously larger than the 1990s tech bubble.  The Tech Bubble is barely visible at the bottom of this plot (a light blue trace); even the Roaring 20s bubble that led to the Great Depression is hard to find on this scale. 
The first time I became aware of a stock market bubble was long ago.  Over the boom/bust cycles since then, I came to think that a sure sign that a crash was imminent was a news story of some kid who either quit college to be a trader or house flipper or whatever the new craze was.  

On the other hand, there could be something real here.  The technology behind the cryptocurrencies is called blockchain, and it could be a real game changer in a lot of ways.  Briefly, for those who haven't run into anything about this, a description from the Atlantic:
At the most basic level, it is a record of information stored on a network of computers. When people use a cryptocurrency like bitcoin to buy a pizza, a kilogram of illegal drugs, or a yacht, these digital transactions are approved by a network of computers around the world running bitcoin software. Each batch of these transactions—a “block”—gets a cryptographic code, a copy of which is posted to every computer in the network. These blocks are permanently linked to each other in a “chain” of publicly approved transactions that cannot be edited. Thus, blockchain.
In a way, the blockchain system is the opposite of Internet credit card security.  When you use a credit card online, you want all of your information hidden because if someone can get your card number and ID, they can steal with it.  With blockchain, the history of every coin is embedded in the chain of transactions.  Using bitcoin is like using cash in the sense that once it leaves your "wallet" it might be stolen (although that appears hard) but they can't go on a shopping spree with it.  By analogy, if buy a slice of pizza and give two bucks to the shop, those two bucks become their problem to keep from being stolen. 

More importantly, Bitcoin was designed to emulate not just cash but gold.  Nobody has central control over the currency so nobody can inflate or deflate it to achieve some political goals.  There is no Federal Reserve Bank of cryptocurrencies.  The algorithms were designed to be resistant to computers becoming faster over time, so while someone can "mine" bitcoins by running software, it would be better for them to have a room full of computers than one supercomputer.   It costs energy and time to mine bitcoins.  Newer, faster computers are slowed by the algorithms so that technology doesn't give them an advantage in mining the "harder to mine deposits".  Much as the amount of effort required to mine gold is the same as it was thousands of years ago.  We have much better technology but the deposits are much harder to mine. Furthermore, just like the reality that the amount of gold in the crust is limited, the number of bitcoins is limited by the algorithms to 21 million bitcoins.  When all 21 million have been mined, the miners go home. 

"Yeah, I got that, but is bitcoin a bubble??"  I think that yes, it's in a short term overpriced situation.  I think it's possible, even likely, that there needs to be some period of sitting in a trading range and consolidating (strangely, I run across this guy saying the same thing).  People need to settle down a little get some of the fever out of the market.  I think a drop in price of as much as 50% is not out of the question.  However, I also think it has a good future; that there's a real place for cryptocurrencies and they will make a comeback.  I think anyone buying now will never see the equivalent percentage increases in price the last few years have given us, but I wouldn't be surprised for someone buying on the next dip to make more common gains, like "a few" times what they paid.  Remember: it's widely recognized that the first commercial sale with bitcoins was a pizza order paid for with 10,000 BTC coins.  For two Papa John’s pizzas.  With coins around today's $14,000, that would be a $140Million dollar order.  I sure hope someone held onto those 10,000 coins because they'll never see that kind of gain again. 
A bitcoin mining center

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

New Results in Physics Imply A Fourth Spatial Dimension

I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that many of you have heard of something called the "Hall effect" exists.  Hall actually discovered this in 1879, before the electron was discovered, but he found an effect on electrical current caused by a magnetic field perpendicular to the direction of the current.  Today, you can buy Hall effect devices off the shelf from a number of electronic semiconductor makers, such as Texas Instruments.

Although the "everyday Hall effect" is something a lot of Makers and hobbyists play with, there's also a quantum hall effect in which the conductance becomes quantized in discrete levels.
Thanks to some rather advanced calculations – which won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2016 – we know that the quantum Hall effect points to the existence of a fourth spatial dimension.
Fourth spatial dimension?   By now, most people have heard of considering time as the fourth dimension: we have one dimension for movement left/right, one dimension for forward/backward, one dimension for up/down and the fourth dimension is time.  But time isn't a spatial dimension.  We know two things can't be in the same place at the same time.  They can occupy the same place at different times, but time isn't spatial, it's like a separator flowing (in some sense) independent of the XYZ space.  You may have heard something like the quip, "time keeps everything from happening at once".  It's another property of what we call spacetime

So what's a fourth spatial dimension?  It's trivially easy to introduce a fourth dimension in math, but we can't really see it.  While we can't see it, we can see effects that using the fourth dimension predicts would happen.  I turn here to Gizmodo which posted this review of the evidence for it.
This isn’t a fourth dimension that you can disappear into or anything like that. Instead, two teams of physicists engineered special two-dimensional setups, one with ultra-cold atoms and another with light particles. Both cases demonstrated different but complementary outcomes that looked the same as something called the “quantum Hall effect” occurring in four dimensions. These experiments could have important implications to fundamental science, or even allow engineers to access higher-dimension physics in our lower-dimension world.

“Physically, we don’t have a 4D spatial system, but we can access 4D quantum Hall physics using this lower-dimensional system because the higher-dimensional system is coded in the complexity of the structure,” Mikael Rechtsman, professor at Penn State University behind one of the papers, told Gizmodo. “Maybe we can come up with new physics in the higher dimension and then design devices that take advantage the higher-dimensional physics in lower dimensions.”
To borrow a concept from the classic book Flatland (which isn't about my home state) imagine how beings living in a 2-dimensional world might experience a three dimensional object.  They couldn't understand a cube; if they encountered it,  they would see its projection, its "shadow" in 2D.  They would see a line and when they tried to go around it, they'd encounter another line to get past.  A sphere could be anything from a point to progressively bigger lines, depending on where the sphere intersects flatland, and would look like a line as a 2D being tries to get around it.
In other words, just as a 3D object casts a 2D shadow, scientists have managed to observe a 3D shadow potentially cast by a 4D object – even if we can't actually see the 4D object itself. That could unlock some new findings in the very fundamentals of science.
In the same way, the physicists are seeing the projection into our three dimensional world of things happening in the fourth dimension.

Confused?  Me, too.  Well, I understand the concepts, but I can't understand what it looks like any better.  Both Gizomodo and Science Alert embed this explanation from a video game.

Gizmodo points out the drawback of these two precisely-engineered systems that display the expected result:
The major limitation of both is that, well, this is not a real four-dimensional system, but two highly engineered systems demonstrating what some effect would look like if it were happening in four dimensions. Both teams have more work they’d like to do in order to study this effect, though. Lohse and Rechtsman told Gizmodo that the atoms and photons in their systems don’t interact with one another. They’d like to see how the effect manifests itself with interacting systems. 

As for implications, Lohse hopes his system could support the study of even wilder physics, like quantum gravity and Weyl semimetals. Rechtsman thought his system could lead to other photonic devices that take advantage of higher dimensional system, or that perhaps they could find other similar effects in other materials.

“There’s another question of whether real solid-state materials with complex unit cells have these hidden dimensions, and if their physics can be understood in higher dimensional physics that wasn’t accessible before,” said Rechtsman. “Could it give us new understanding of phases of matter with complex geometry?”
If you watch that video on YouTube, you'll get links to a few more videos on trying to visualize a fourth dimension.  I liked this one.

Monday, January 8, 2018

If You're Following My Antenna Project

This is for anyone following this project and wanting to duplicate it. 

I have an important update to Saturday's post.  I made a dumb mistake and connected the ground radial to the wrong place.  This picture explains:
Schematically, it looks like this:
That awkwardly shaped thing on the left is supposed to mimic the loop.  The ground goes electrically between the transformer secondary and the termination resistor.  In my implementation, that junction is about 2 feet long, which is electrically short enough to not matter.  I could have connected it just by moving the wire to the far side of the plexiglass strip on the left, but moved it to the one on the right. 

When I hooked up the loop yesterday, it didn't work. Receive signals were much weaker than signals from the vertical antenna I generally use.  While doing some troubleshooting, I noticed my mistake and fixed it this morning.  Using the vertical and antenna tuner, WWV at 10.000 MHz was moving between S5 and S9 (pretty crappy conditions); switching to the loop and engaging the radio's high gain preamp, it was the same, as accurately as I can tell.  With 25 dB swings like that, it sure isn't like using lab equipment and getting stable numbers.  I did a much briefer test on 40 m and the two antennas sound very close to each other in performance, if not the same.  

Now that I know it's working, it's time to try it out in use and see if I can find out if this whole project was worth the time, effort and cost (admittedly not much cost).

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Lately, This Simple Question Won't Leave Me Alone

Here's the setup:  I'm sure you've seen Evil Party representatives and their fellow travelers, Antifa, BLM and so on, demanding more immigration and open borders.  At the same time, they're always whining about what an awful country this is. 

So the question is, if the country is really that bad, why do they want to lure immigrants here?  Wouldn't the compassionate thing be to warn them to stay away from here?  If they're inviting immigrants into an awful, horrific, hateful place, doesn't that make them cruel and despotic?  

Sort of like asking why anyone would want to live in a sanctuary state.  Like this:

Michael P Ramirez cartoons, obviously.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Switching Projects for a Little While

I've temporarily put aside the variac box I wrote about earlier in the week, to switch over to the antenna project I wrote about last month.  Why?  This project has a deadline of sorts, a major ham radio operating event at the end of this month.  I need to get the antenna built and begin testing it to evaluate its performance and that's a priority.  Within a week or two, I'd like to know how it works on both bands it was intended for and know how it compares to what I have.

Yesterday, I cut all the PVC and glued it up.
The wire isn't installed.  Wiring everything up and getting it ready to test was today's project.
You might have noticed the pieces of orange plexiglass.  That's some scrap that was left over from making the cover for my CNC control box.  We've had that plastic around for at least a decade. 

This plastic storage bin on the back porch made an acceptable workstation.  I carried my Metcal soldering iron out there and kept adding more tools as the afternoon went by.  It was in the low 50s and breezy all afternoon which felt a bit cool to me.  The sun peaked out now and then making it comfortable, but I ended up wearing a wind breaker over a long sleeved Tee shirt for most of the work.

The K9AY antenna uses a terminating resistor (at right) and a matching transformer (on the board on the left).  The terminating resistor's value by what's marked should be 490 ohms, but measured closer to 520.  The actual optimum value is probably a bit lower, and that's probably an experiment I'll be doing.  Everything is unprotected from the elements, just bare soldered wire and parts so that I can get to that resistor or to the transformer, should I need to change that.  Another reason for the deadline date on this project. 

The slow part about today was that I hadn't looked into the details well enough to have parts prepared and ready to mount, so finding resistors, winding and testing a transformer, then cutting and drilling the plexiglass was part of the day. 

Tomorrow will be time to feed the coax through the wall feedthrough into the ham shack and begin the evaluations.  The resistor and feed polarity give the antenna a direction; I believe the "front" is on the left in these pictures, but that's the first thing to determine. 

Friday, January 5, 2018

UK Navy Aircraft Carrier Story is Frankly Puzzling

The British Navy recently launched a new aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth.  As is the usual routine, the ship is undergoing a period of sea trials to evaluate how well everything performs.  A couple of weeks ago, the story broke to much fanfare that the ship was leaking and might have to go to dry dock for repairs.

The part I find puzzling?  A big deal is being made over this:
A faulty seal around one of the vast warship’s propeller shafts means 200 litres of sea water pour in every hour.
200 litres per hour?  In Imperial units, that's just shy of 53 gallons per hour.  Granted that nobody wants to be on a ship that's taking on tons of water, but for a ship that displaces 77,800 short tons, 53 gallons, 442 pounds, just isn't much of a leak. 

As a reference to those of you who aren't boaters, here's a low cost bilge pump I've had on a fishing boat before.  For a mere $70, one can buy a bilge pump that will pump out 750 gallons per hour, 14 times as much as is leaking into the carrier.  I know a MilSpec version of that plastic pump will cost at least five times that, but they could still deploy dozens of those on the ship.  And guess what?  Ships that size have pumps.  A little shopping at a Marine Supplies store like West Marine or Overton's will show you bilge pumps for the recreational boater that vastly exceed the capabilities of that little Rule 750 GPH pump and vastly exceed the amount of water leaking in.

If my boat was taking on 53 gallons per hour, I'd run the pump for 4-1/2 minutes every hour and keep an eye on it to make sure it's not getting worse.  

(HMS Queen Elizabeth, heading for her home port of Portsmouth)

So why the kerfuffle?  That's my puzzle.  First off, the purpose of sea trials is specifically to find issues like this.  None of the companies who built the "largest warship in UK history" are contesting that they're at fault.  The Sun reports:
An insider added: “We’re about to uncover the true cost of carrier ­operations.

"There is a feeling that the ACA mugged us off by not sorting this before the handover.” 

The Queen Elizabeth is currently in Portsmouth and may need to go back into dry dock to be fixed.   [Note: the ACA is the Aircraft Carrier Alliance, a grouping of BAE Systems, Babcock and Thales, who built the ship - SiG]
The BBC has what seems like a bit less sensational summary.
The truth is similar leaks in other warships are not unusual and can be fixed relatively easily.

The difference this time though is the scale of HMS Queen Elizabeth and the fact it has just been handed over to the navy.

The big question is whether the leak can be fixed while it is still in the water.

The navy insists the job can be done without her going back to dry dock, which would be costly and add to delays.

Either way, the navy insists the fault will have to be rectified and paid for by the contractors, along with a list of other "snags".
I just don't see what the big deal is.  While I don't claim Naval experience, I think if you buy a multi-billion pound aircraft carrier and this is all that's wrong, you've done pretty damned well.  Perhaps it's some sort of UK politics, which I have to admit is rather opaque to me.  Perhaps someone from the UK might comment if I've missed things. 

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Is a 50 Year Old Treaty Holding Back Private Space?

Fifty years ago, there were two entities on Earth engaged in "race to the moon".  In what's considered a landmark agreement between the US and the USSR, the Outer Space Treaty (officially it's the United Nations Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space) declares that “the moon and other celestial bodies shall be used by all states parties to the treaty exclusively for peaceful purposes.” It says nothing about businesses or individuals, just states.  Therein lies the problem.

Unfortunately, now it appears to be getting in the way of private space-exploration as a profit-making venture.  As the New York Times put it (in a surprising article) "If No One Owns the Moon, Can Anyone Make Money Up There?"

Meet Robert Richards, founder of a company called Moon Express, now moving into facilities on Cape Canaveral, in what's called the unmanned side (Cape Canaveral Air Force Station), since all manned flight since the Gemini program in the 1960s moved to Merritt Island and the Kennedy Space Center:
Moon Express occupies Launch Complexes 17 & 18 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center on Florida’s Space Coast, where many of the robots that explored new worlds and unlocked the secrets of our solar system began their journeys. We are now honored to be able to re-purpose these historic sites into a vibrant new commercial spaceport, approximately 70 acres of facilities and range, supporting Moon Express spacecraft development and test, and incubating fresh new dreams of extraordinary adventures into the space frontier.
(NY Times photo)
This year, the 30-employee company aims to be the first private company to soft land a satellite on the moon, and perhaps win $20 million in the Google Lunar X Prize competition. To quote the NY Times,
It is investing at least $1.85 million to renovate decades-old buildings here. The company is transforming a parking lot into a miniature moonscape, and will also set up an engineering laboratory, a mission operations room and a test stand for spacecraft engine firings.

Moon Express would not need all of these facilities if its only goal were to win the Lunar X Prize.

Its second spacecraft aims to land in 2019 near the moon’s south pole. A third, larger spacecraft in 2020 is to gather samples and then bring them back to Earth, the first haul of moon rocks since a Soviet robotic probe’s return in 1976.
It's that third probe that ran into the Outer Space Treaty and impacted their plans.
Moon Express ran into a bureaucratic wall because the treaty declares that activities of nongovernmental entities — a classification that includes commercial companies — “require authorization and continuing supervision” of the government. (The United States had insisted on the clause, rejecting the Soviet view that space exploration should be limited to governments.)

“We had a mission planned, we had investors invested, but didn’t have a way forward at the end of 2015,” Dr. Richards testified during a Senate committee hearing in May. “There wasn’t anybody that didn’t want to say yes. There was just no mechanism to do so.”

The Federal Aviation Administration licenses rocket launches and re-entry of commercial spacecraft from orbit in order to ensure the safety of people on the ground. The Federal Communications Commission regulates communications satellites, and the Department of Commerce regulates commercial remote sensing satellites.

But the United States does not as yet have a process for authorizing or supervising novel endeavors like a private company landing on the moon.

Moon Express spent about a year working with the F.A.A., the State Department and other agencies to jerry-rig what Dr. Richards called a “temporary patch,” using the F.A.A.’s existing authority to review rocket payloads in order to gain the approval Moon Express was seeking.
As all of you gentle readers well know, Moon Express isn't the only company trying to go down this path.
Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of SpaceX, boldly proclaims that his company will begin sending colonists to Mars in a decade. Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is using part of his fortune to finance his rocket company Blue Origin, and predicts millions of people will be living and working in space.

As these companies go where no businesses have gone before, they raise questions only fuzzily addressed by the Outer Space Treaty: What are private companies allowed to do in space? Can a company mine the moon or an asteroid and then sell what it has pulled out? How are countries to regulate these businesses?
This problem with one business launching a probe to the moon reflects the larger world we live in.  If there's something you want to do, is it best to consider it legal unless it's specifically forbidden, or is it best to consider it forbidden unless it's specifically allowed?  When I was a kid, walking around the areas well outside the neighborhoods with a .22 plinking at tin cans and whatever we found, I would have never hesitated to say everything not specifically illegal was something we could do - limited by our own ethical systems and the community's enforcement of theirs.  Clearly the bureaucrats here felt it was illegal since it wasn't specifically allowed.  Today, I think the US has morphed to that view.  Everything is illegal unless it's specifically permitted.  (and this is something I fear far, far more than something like "fix NICS" - because we're rapidly approaching a time when our "3 felonies a day" become 5, then 10 or 20 because everything becomes a felony - and everyone is a prohibited person).

Getting back to the story, the FAA fix is valid for one launch only.  Although Richards and Moon Express believe they will eventually be able to launch everything they want, all private space industry is working with this risk hanging over their heads.
Another space upstart is Planetary Resources, a small company located in an unremarkable office park outside Seattle. Its early investors included Larry Page, co-founder of Google, and Charles Simonyi, a former chief software architect at Microsoft. The company is also taking advantage of an investment from the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.

Planetary Resources’ goal is to mine the solar system’s asteroids. Luxembourg, a nation smaller than Rhode Island with a long history in mining, has bet 200 million euros — more than $225 million — on this industry that does not exist. That includes $28 million invested in Planetary Resources. In return, Luxembourg owns a 10 percent share of the company, said Etienne Schneider, the country’s deputy prime minister.
For Planetary Resources, the first wave of development is to culminate in a doughnut-shape spacecraft heading on a prospecting mission to a near-Earth asteroid in 2020.

Sometime after that, the company hopes to mine in earnest — for seemingly mundane water ice. But water, in addition to potentially providing something to drink for astronauts, can be split into hydrogen and oxygen. Both can be used as rocket propellent; the oxygen, of course, also can provide air to breathe.  [Note: if you separate water into Hydrogen and Oxygen with the intent of burning the hydrogen, there's no extra oxygen to breathe - SiG]

As a business, Planetary Resources is betting that by the time it extracts water from an asteroid, there will be a customer like NASA interested in buying water, hydrogen and oxygen.

Eventually, the company aims to extract platinum, currently worth more than $900 an ounce, and other precious metals.

To make these pursuits easier, Luxembourg passed a space law that took effect this summer. Planetary Resources has set up its European office there. Moves like this one are in part motivating policymakers in the United States to devote more attention to American laws that currently govern commercial space activities.
The good news is that, partially aided by Luxembourg passing its law, the US is now reviewing our own policies.   In the last session of congress, the House crafted a bill that would leave the Outer Space Treaty in effect, but create an Office of Space Commerce, which would have 60 days to decide whether to approve or deny a company’s application.  It never went farther.  Two years ago, Obama signed a similar bill that said private companies can own and sell what they extract, but that the companies cannot claim ownership of the celestial body itself.  This is in alignment with the language of the treaty.

(NASA Photos from Apollo 17 - at right, Harrison H. Schmitt, an Apollo 17 astronaut, working beside a large lunar boulder on one of three moonwalks during that mission.)

This could be a great time coming for space exploration.  It's easy to imagine that having a handful of companies competing with cheap satellites could help lots of small organizations interested in exploring in space.  Moon Express' second satellite, for example, is going to carry a small telescope for the International Lunar Observatory Association.  Some locations near the lunar south pole, offering a continuous view of the universe, could be ideal for an astronomical observatory.  It's possible bidding wars for real estate in those locations could happen. 
Dr. Richards compared this moment he sees coming to the 19th century California Gold Rush, when gold diggers jousted over the most lucrative places to sift ore. But he was confident that the new competitors would reach compromises.

“I don’t think there’s going to be bad players per se, but there could be arguments over areas of operation overlap,” he said. “But those are problems for the future, and that’ll be a great problem to have.”

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Model vs. Reality

Reality 1: the deep freeze that many (most?) of you have been enduring is making its way into middle Florida, modified by the warm water everywhere, of course.  The temp this afternoon was 46 (I think it was 2PM).  It has been raining since Monday, stopped after 3 or so, and tonight is forecast to possibly touch freezing.  With winds 15mph gusting 20, I don't think "cold pockets" are stable, so we'll get whatever the area gets.  Certainly not record-shattering, but the coldest night in a year or two. 

Reality 2: given the cold rain until late afternoon, instead of building my antenna on the back porch, I focused on building the box for the AC transformer that I mentioned Sunday.  The model is pictured in that post.  Here's what the looks like in reality after a few hours in the shop.  Only the top is cut out.
No, it's not done, but my main worry, the cutout for the variac came out OK although the initial CNC cut required modification. 

To get to this point, I draw the parts in my 3D CAD program, Rhino3D, then used my CAM program Deskproto to generate a simple tool path, based on cutting it with a 4-fluted, 3/8" end mill. 
The light purple line is where the center of the cutter goes.  No, I didn't need the outer rectangle to cut the panel to size; it came that size.  I just needed the circle and rectangle cutout.  There's a potential GOTCHA here.  I can compensate for the cutter's diameter in either this program or in the CNC controller with a tool table.  I have to remember to Never Do Both.  

The measurements for the big circular cutout and the rectangular cutout for the meter were all taken by hand, and used to make the layout.  Notice that I said I was using a 3/8" diameter cutter?  That means none of those sharp corners you see are actually sharp - they have a 3/16" radius (the cutter's radius).  That means I need a secondary cutting operation, or even finer with a couple of cutters.  I chose to use a single cut with a 1/8" diameter cutter, because that has worked for me before.  Now the corner radius goes down to 1/16" and I can cut the corner square with a file.  You can see those radiused corners in this shot, right after the first pass with the 3/8" cutter. 
To do the last cut, I use the CAD program again to get the X/Y coordinates of where the 1/8" cutter is when the cut is complete.  To do that, I draw a cylinder the diameter of the cutter and push it into the corner until it's tangent at both sides.  Then I take the coordinates of its center at that point, and use those values in the code that moves the mill.  It's a pretty easy cut and takes off very little metal.  You might notice that I drilled and tapped my "tooling plate" for the four screw holes the cover has built into it, and put scraps of 1/8" aluminum under it to save cutting into my plate.

When I said, "the initial CNC cut required modification", what needed to be changed was the depth of the rectangular cutout on the variac; it was too short.  It was right at the top of the part, but to get the box cover onto the variac, I had to slip it over some terminals which are taller than that rectangle allowed.  I extended it 1/10" and it went together easily.  Similarly, the rectangular cutout for the AC panel meter was too small to pass a feature it has on the sides, so The rectangle had to be opened up about 1/8" as well. 

And that's how I spent my day today.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The US Didn't Have A Spike in Violent Crime in 2016

A handful of neighborhoods in the US did.  A mere five neighborhoods in Chicago supplied one third of the increase in violent crime in 2016
Murders in the U.S. rose nearly 9% last year, and one-third of that increase came from just a few neighborhoods in Chicago, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis [paywall warning] of the FBI’s annual 2016 publication, Crime in the United States.

While violent crime (homicide, rape, assault, and robbery) also rose nationwide from 2015 to 2016 — over 4% — the data show the increase was not uniform, but rather concentrated in cities like Chicago and Baltimore.

Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., meanwhile, saw “meaningful declines in violence [that] have been sustained since the 1990s.”
This means the US doesn't have a violent crime problem.  We have a violent zip code problem. 

This, of course, is hardly news.  Anyone watching the country knows that the worst of criminality falls in a handful of places, typically poor neighborhoods in big cities, and the root of the problem is gang violence and turf wars.  John Lott published a study in 2016 using 2014 crime statistics finding that murder in the US is very concentrated by location.
In 2014, the most recent year that a county level breakdown is available, 54% of counties (with 11% of the population) have no murders.  69% of counties have no more than one murder, and about 20% of the population. These counties account for only 4% of all murders in the country.

The worst 1% of counties have 19% of the population and 37% of the murders. The worst 5% of counties contain 47% of the population and account for 68% of murders. As shown in figure 2, over half of murders occurred in only 2% of counties.
Murder has gotten more concentrated in fewer places.  John Lott again:
Murders actually used to be even more concentrated. From 1977 to 2000, on average 73 percent of counties in any give year had zero murders.
Criminologist David Weisburg of George Mason University criminologist, released a study in 2015 that described what he called the “law of crime concentration,” and “the criminality of place”: a disproportionate amount of any city’s violent crime occurs in a small geographic area of the city.  His data showed:
Weisburg found that in large cities, 50% of crime occurs on just 4% to 6% of a city’s streets, while 0.8% to 1.6% of streets produce one-quarter of all crime.
In many concealed carry classes you're dutifully told there's no such thing as a bad neighborhood that you can avoid to have no risk of violent attack.  While I agree with the sentiment that you should always be aware of your surroundings and that lightning can strike in odd places, these statistics show that statement is just wrong.  There are bad neighborhoods, and your chances of being involved in a violent crime are much worse in some places.  If you don't have to go there, don't go.  

Complicating Weisburg and Lott's findings is the side effect of protests against police that have police vowing to have a lighter presence in the areas that need them the most.
A Pew Research Center poll from January 2017 showed that an overwhelming number of police officers say widespread protests following high-profile killings of black suspects have made police less willing to conduct basic police work, such as stopping and questioning suspicious people in high-crime neighborhoods, and using an appropriate level of force to diffuse a situation.

In Baltimore, violent crime rates were going down until 2015, when police officers “pulled back from a more proactive approach” following widespread city riots after the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who suffered a severe spinal injury while being transported in a police van on April 1, 2015, and died one week later.
Violence in Baltimore has stayed historically high following the riots, with arrests plummeting, shootings soaring, and the police force itself getting smaller.
One thing that has been proven to reduce crime rates is more proactive policing.   Yet the "Ferguson Effect" has caused an increasing reluctance of police to go into those neighborhoods, and more reluctant to carry out everyday tasks of policing.  You might have noticed that the left is currently lobbying for all of the things that make the murder rate worse, as in this gem posted at Gun Free Zone
(Daily Wire photo)

Remember: it's not gun control we need.  It's zip code control. 

Monday, January 1, 2018

Nature Show Scene You've Never Seen

Here we see the Mother Wrench feeding nuts to her babies in their nest.
I have no idea who did this and would love to credit it.  I found it on Pinterest, unattributed. 

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Happy New Year 2018

New Year's Eve is upon us, and I just want to wish all of you a happy New Year.

2017 was my second full year of retirement and was better in a couple of ways than the first year.  The biggest was that the year was free of medical issues like my emergency gall bladder surgery in June of '16.  It was largely a year of doing what we felt like doing - the privilege of retirement.  We took two vacation trips, one to South Dakota for a week with the kids and Precious Grand Daughter; the other to Tennessee to see the eclipse and they met us there.  We currently don't have anything planned for 2018, so it's getting to be time to plan something. 

Retirement is a relatively new concept in society, at best a couple of hundred years old, and it's evident that society (in some sort of nebulous, society-at-large sense) is having troubles with it.  See "underfunded pension plans" with your favorite search engine.   

I was looking at last year's blog entries to see what I was doing a year ago, and most of my posts were about completing the CNC conversion of my Grizzly G0704 - a year ago this weekend, I was completing the plumbing for the oiling system.  I also pointed out traps and tripwires that Obama was leaving for Trump.  We've encountered some of them as the year has gone by.

I had the mill built into a functional mill, completely under CNC control by February 2nd.  That quickly turned into a couple of months of tweaking and  improving.   First was reducing backlash on each of the axes, followed by completing an enclosure made from 12mm aluminum extrusion and plastic panels from the local Borg (mostly the blue Borg, not the orange).  And no, I don't know where that nickname comes from, other than I think it was the old Usenet newsgroups (kids, ask your parents).

I can't say I was done, because as recently as a few weeks ago, I talked about improvements to the rotary axis I originally added last May.  I can still think of things to do to improve its usability and user friendliness.  Then came adding an oiling system, fighting leaks until I went over to manual oiling, and finally adding a misting cooler.  It's probably best to never think of a project like this as done.

Then, of course, there was my "Son of Side Project".  Originally, Side Project was a joke because the project was putting a new side on the sawed away Breedlove guitar.  The original side was plastic left over from making the mill's enclosure.  Son of Side Project was a sequel to Side Project to replace the plastic with wood.  Now, it has a quilted maple side where the plastic was.  I gathered up the tools to do a setup on it this week and now it plays quite a bit better.  The guitar was most likely a Quality Control reject, so it needed lots of work.  The frets were uneven and had to be leveled with a file.  It probably needs some additional work.  I know the $8, eBay-special tuning machines I bought for it need to be replaced. 

As far as projects with my CNC'ed, four-axis G0704 mill, I haven't accomplished much.  I built the GB-22 but never got it to function reliably.  It's still sitting as a "one of these days" project, in pieces.  I built the Little Machine Shop wobbler steam engine.  After drilling out the flywheel on my rotary table, I took the whole thing apart and put a shinier finish on all of the parts by lapping them on finer grits of sandpaper, and/or turning in the lathe's chuck.  Put it back together to find it doesn't run as reliably as it did.  I think I took too much mass out of the Flywheel.  I will turn a new one and get it back to where it was. 

In addition to my ham radio antenna project, I have another electronics shop project, a box for a component called a variac.  This will allow me to put lower voltages on older vacuum tube equipment, at least while I get it running the first time. 
The black rectangle on the top is an AC voltmeter/ammeter like one of these and the AC outlet on the front is still under consideration.  This is going to be like my controller box for the CNC 704, with the panels laid out in Rhino3D CAD and cut out on the CNC mill.  This time it will be cut out on the big system, though.

Aside from those two, I'm looking at more projects for the metal shop, with fewer involving guitar resurrection.

Happy New Year!  Remember, if you drink, don't text and if you text, don't drive.  Or something like that. 

Saturday, December 30, 2017

99 Reasons 2017 Was A Great Year

99 Reasons 2017 Was A Great Year is the provocative title of an article linked to by economics writer John Mauldin, available on his website.

Before I go much farther, I have to say that I don't think much of this.  There's too much odor of Hippy to it - celebrating some bad fortunes in the fossil fuel industry for one, and they seem to be completely in favor of big government interventions that always seem to bring more unintended consequences than actual improvement.  On the other hand, they point out some real contributions to making the world a better place, mostly brought to you as usual by doctors, research scientists, and, yes, engineers.  Some of the things they list:
1. This year, the World Health Organization unveiled a new vaccine that’s cheap and effective enough to end cholera, one of humanity’s greatest ever killers. New York Times

2. Cancer deaths have dropped by 25% in the United States since 1991, saving more than 2 million lives. Breast cancer deaths have fallen by 39%, saving the lives of 322,600 women. Time

3. Zika all but disappeared in 2017. Cases plummeted in Latin America and the Caribbean, and most people in those places are now immune. Science Mag
8. Premature deaths for the world’s four biggest noncommunicable diseases­ — cardiovascular, cancer, diabetes and chronic respiratory — have declined by 16% since 2000. World Bank

9. Global abortion rates have fallen from around 40 procedures per 1,000 women in the early 1990s, to 35 procedures per 1,000 women today. In the United States, abortion rates have reached their lowest level since 1973. Vox
12. The United Kingdom announced a 20% fall in the incidence of dementia over the past two decades, meaning 40,000 fewer people are being affected every year. iNews

13. Thanks to better access to clean water and sanitation, the number of children around the world who are dying from diarrhoea has fallen by a third since 2005. BBC
Add to that impressive list (largely) from the Evil Devil Big Pharma industry, that Leprosy has almost been wiped out, with cases down by 97% since 1985.  Other infectious diseases for which there are successful vaccines are also being reduced to much lower rates of infection.

Mauldin chimes in with this shocker:
I read last week that there are 2,049 different types of cancer trials being run all over the world. The one I am most focused on is being conducted by a company called Bexion in Cincinnati/West Covington, Kentucky. They are engaged in a phase I trial and are seeing truly remarkable results with late-stage brain gliomas and pancreatic cancer. Essentially, the patients involved in the trial were the walking dead. The team has treated another person with a type of brain cancer for which there is not even a recognized protocol. This type of tumor is completely inoperable: You just die within a year. A thousand people a year get this type of cancer, and there are usually a number of pediatric cases. It is too soon to know the final outcome, but the person treated has gone from being mostly paralyzed on his right side to being up and walking around, and the tumor has shrunk by 59% in just a few months.. All involved are still shaking their heads. But the researchers know the mechanism of action and are ultimately hoping it works on all mass tumors.
The world dedicated more space to parks and conservation
17. Chile set aside 11 million acres of land for national parks in Patagonia, following the largest-ever private land donation from a private entity to a country. Smithsonian

21. A province in Pakistan announced it has planted one billion trees in two years, in response to the terrible floods of 2015. Independent

28. Cameroon committed to restoring over 12 million hectares of forest in the Congo Basin, and Brazil started a project to plant 73 million trees, the largest tropical reforestation project in history. Fast Co.
And it goes on (there are 99 on the list, after all)
31. The International Energy Agency announced that nearly 1.2 billion people around the world have gained access to electricity in the last 16 years.
34. In the last three years, the number of people in China living below the poverty line decreased from 99 million to 43.4 million. And since 2010, Chinese income inequality has been falling steadily. Quartz
Gaining access to electricity is a big one.  That’s one of the first steps out of poverty. All the modern technologies that enrich our lives and wallets need electricity to work. Gaining it is truly a life-changer.  For an example, look no farther than Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Maria's aftermath still has 50% of the island without electricity and back to literal dark ages.

The list, though, doesn't cover this shocker that John Mauldin put in his newsletter.
We are using roughly the same amount of water in the US as we did back in 1970, but the population has grown by almost 50%. We are producing vastly more food, generating more hydroelectric energy, and doing more of all the other things that can only be done with water. The chart below is from the USGS Water Science School. Other charts on that page indicate that the largest use of water is for the generation of thermoelectric power. And this is the trend all over the developed world: more efficient use and better conservation of water.
Using the same amount of water as we did in 1970 with 50% more population is really an important thing.  It's a jarring reality that as soon as you run clean, treated tap water down your sink, it becomes sewage.

Again, I might quibble with the authors on some items.  They clearly think global warming is a real problem, and they are anti-fossil fuels which, with no real alternative in many places, is immoral. No other commodity in history has helped advance the quality of life for more people.  As I said above, they seem to love big government interventions.  Still, most of the 99 items represent welcome progress.