31 January 2008

Two Out Of Three...

Two technologically significant stories to bring to your attention today, and one funny one. Usually the funny ones don't involve so much microbiology.

High Costs Cited as U.S. Shuts Down Coal Project
Board's Theory on Bridge Collapse Facing Tough Sell
Dip Once or Twice?

29 January 2008

Go With The (Nework) Flow, Part I

Some preliminaries:

(1) I couldn't resist posting a link to this New York Times piece about eHarmony, et al. The "Algorithms of Love" in the headline alone made it worth it. (By the way, I love it when copy editors choose to force "EHarmony" and the like when these ridiculously capitalized words come up at the beginning of a sentence. It's like a little "screw you and your trademark" from the folks for whom sloppy capitalization is almost an affront. Speaking of which, sorry for the up-style headlines on this blog. I abhor up style, but I somehow backed myself into this corner and am not about to back down now.)

(2) My friend Rachel just let me know that you can hear David Foster Wallace reading "The View from Mrs. Thompson's" from Consider the Lobster on "KCET Podcast: Hammer Conversations" (Episode 16), which is available on iTunes. I listened to it this evening, and it's terrific. Copy snobs will love the little explanation about his use of em dashes, but anyone will almost certainly be moved by the story. Plus Wallace's reading voice matches his "authorial voice" really well, in my opinion.

OK, on to the main event. I mentioned a couple posts ago that I hope to use this space as a sort of whiteboard for trying out ideas, and I'm expecting to need such a space in the coming weeks. I'm getting ready to start working on the algorithms for matching material offers and requests in GENIUS and as such am learning about solving network flows problems. Wanna learn a little bit about them with me? If so, read on.

We'll start with the basic first lesson, which I sat through just the other day. The gist of flow networks is that you've got a collection of nodes with material traveling between them along directed connections called arcs. Nodes are either sources (supply nodes that create material), sinks (demand nodes that consume material), or transshipment nodes that simply send a material along.

What we try to solve for in these problems is an optimal flow vector, which is just a fancy name for a long list that says how much of the material flows along each arc. The vector is optimal in the sense that it represents the flow for which the problem constraints are met in the cheapest way possible (there's a cost associated with moving a unit of material along each arc). The problem constraints are flow bounds (upper and lower limits on how much flow must move along an arc) and conservation of flow, which says that the outflow minus the inflow at each node must equal either zero (for transshipment nodes) or the supply or demand of the node (for sources and sinks, respectively). The second set of constraints are also called divergence equations.

Brief mathematical note for those who are interested: network flow problems are special cases of linear programs, albeit much easier to solve ones (via the network simplex method, rather than general linear programming's modifier-less simplex method). There are also, apparently, special algorithms for solving various special-case problems that can be posed as network flow problems, including Euler's famous Konigsberg Bridge Problem.

What does all this have to do with the nuclear fuel cycle? Stay tuned as I try to figure that out.

28 January 2008


Thought this article about MBA-like degrees for scientists was interesting. Here's something you don't see every day:

Sloan left engineering out of its grant specifications because, said Carol B. Lynch, PSM director at the Council of Graduate Schools, "engineers get it and already understand the value of a master's degree."

I actually agree with her opinion; it's just a bit of a shock to the system to see a quotation that gives engineers this kind of credit.

The credit's due, though. I tend to ignore the business side of engineering ed., but it's something we need to be doing, and it's something we're getting right increasingly often, I think.

27 January 2008

Sunday Judgment I

Today's subject: chagrin.

At last, I'm unveiling today the probably-not-so-highly-anticipated Sunday column I've been promising for three or four weeks. Column isn't really a good word for it. Weekly feature might be better; I've realized that the key to maybe keeping this thing regular is to keep it short.

My advisor puts a premium on his students developing engineering judgment--that quality that allows one to make wise, technically sound choices on issues that do not have a black-and-white answer. Deciding which parts of a system to model and which parts to omit is a good example of a situation calling for engineering judgment. Two parts technical experience and one part common sense, engineering judgment still eludes me in many situations.

However, this quality is closely related to an analogous one: editorial judgment. You develop editorial judgment in much the same way, and after numerous jobs in writing and editing, I think on this front I can at least say I'm on my way. Thus, in hopes that you might occasionally find them useful, I'm going to share with you a particular judgment every Sunday.

The subject of this first installment of Sunday Judgment is the usage of the word chagrin. This one drives me crazy, so it occurred to me first, though in future installments I'll try to choose some more practical examples.

Anyway, chagrin has nothing to do with anger, at least not in and of itself. It has to do with embarrassment. Sure, annoyance may spring from those feelings of embarrassment, but don't say "much to his chagrin" if what follows is an account of something that simply made a fellow mad, rather than embarrassing him. Of course, people ignore this advice all the time, which is probably why American Heritage's definition mentions the annoyance angle, whereas Merriam-Webster ignores it.

That said, the whole essence of editorial judgment is that it is (semi-)subjective; reasonable people can disagree on these matters. If you do, I hope you'll let me know, either by posting a comment or via email.

That's all for this week. See you next time on Sunday Judgment.

Speaking of Sunday fixtures (or at least would-be ones), I'm currently listening to this week's Prairie Home Companion rerun (I seldom remember to listen Saturday evening). Good stuff, especially from Roy Blount, Jr. and Nellie McKay. The former's frequent mentions of Roger Miller (see the previous post's "Kansas City Star" link) in his bit on "honky tonk philosophy" made me happy and nostalgic, and the latter's "Mother of Pearl" was both hilari- and venom-ous. You should be able to checkout highlights soon on the show's Web site.

26 January 2008

News Dump

I've only sort of mentioned GENIUS (Global Evaluation of Nuclear Infrastructure Utilization Scenarios) in passing on this blog, but it's a huge part of my life. I'm developing Version 2 of the code for my master's degree work, which is supported by a fellowship from the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative/Global Nuclear Energy Partnership program. The "elevator talk" about my research work (at least the Gen X/Y version) is that we're trying to build the nuclear fuel cycle version of SimCity. Once we get our "SimFuelCycle" up and running, we get to wreak havoc on it ala the SimCity 2000 monster. Except our monster manifests itself as uranium supply shortages and eroding political agreements.

Anyway, in order to do non-proliferation analysis, we've set the ambitious goal of tracking the isotopic histories of each nuclear reactor fuel assembly in this fuel cycle systems analysis code (after an assembly is taken out of a reactor, its composition has changed substantially; we want to track this isotopic inventory for each assembly). Why is that an ambitious goal? Because each reactor contains hundreds of such assemblies, reactor cores are reloaded every eighteen months, and we want to simulate thousands of reactors and other fuel cycle facilities over the 1200-month simulation. That means we need to store a TON of data, and I've spent the week getting the code to periodically dump this information, which is stored in memory as the code works, to an SQLite database.

[Here comes the segue.]

When I troll through various news sources each morning, my similarly ambitious goal is that I'll email myself the articles I find interesting and then comment on them on my blog each night. As you can see, that seldom happens, and eventually I lose all hope of commenting extensively on each story and just have to get rid of them. Thus, I've stored the topic history of my week's news reading in my inbox's memory. Without further ado...

CSC.dumpNewsHist(& inbox) /* Dumps all the news items from my inbox to standard output via CSCout. */

/*For you data structures-savvy folks, I usually treat my inbox like a stack rather than a queue, so my order here will be LIFO (last in, first out).*/


New York Times
| "With Third Title, Sharapova Shows She's Back" | What a boring match. Ivanovic only looked sharp for like a four-game stretch in the first set. She'll be back though; the three young Serbs (Ivanovic, Jankovic, Djokovic) are too good to not start winning some slams.

New York Times | "Beating Federer, Djokovic Has Look of a Champion" | Case in point. I've always thought Tsonga's been underachieving, but I don't give him much of a chance tomorrow against the Djokster. Also, I'm kind of irked by Scott Van Pelt's comments on yesterday's Mike Tirico Show about what a snooze this final will be because of who's playing. I love Federer's game as much as the next guy, but Djokovic is really something special and I was glad to see him pull off the upset.

Science News | "Big Foot: Eco-footprints of rich dwarf poor nations' debt" | More from the haves and have-nots front. Kind of makes you nauseous. No surprise, though.

Science News | "Mercury, As Never Seen Before: MESSENGER visits innermost planet" | Special delivery: sweet planet pics.

Chicago Tribune | "Scientists posited to create life" | "I didn't know we could do that."

USA Today | "S.E. drought could idle nuke plants" | I'm blown away by a spokesman from the N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network being critical of nuclear power. How about you raise awareness to the fact that we don't indiscriminately dump our waste into the air?

PHD Comics | "Your Research Interests" | Hilarious, although I'm lucky enough to actually share many of my advisor's research interests.

New Scientist | "Origami spaceplane aims for space station descent" | How badass is this?

New York Times | "Los Angeles Editor Ousted After Resisting Job Cuts" | Sad, but I'm glad to hear he took a stand. Made me sort of yearn for my high school days of wanting to be a journalist.

Education Week | "Lawmakers kill bill requiring students to apply to college" | How this ever made it to becoming a bill is beyond me.

Kansas City Star ("that's what I are") | "Missouri, Kansas engineers studying bridges with gusset plates after Minnesota disaster" | Paging Henry Petroski: your next book has arrived.

That's all I've got time for, so I guess the rest of those stories are gone forever.

25 January 2008

Wouldn't That Be Nice

About a year-and-a-half ago, I started to get into tennis. My friend Emily taught me how to play, but I also learn a lot from David Foster Wallace. His essay "Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness" (from A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again) is one of my favorites (I also like "Federer as Religious Experience" from the Times' Play Magazine). Part of what's cool about it is his commitment to showing you what the networks won't; he talks, for instance, about the psychological implications of the players warming each other up before the match, and his overall thesis is pretty well summed up by his observation that

The realities of the men's professional tennis tour bear about as much resemblance to the lush finals you see on TV as a slaughterhouse does to a well-presented cut of restaurant sirloin.

You know what you should at least be able to see on TV? Those lush finals! Neither the men's nor the women's Australian Open final is on broadcast TV, so I'm now forced to choose between going to the bar next door and begging them to switch one of the TVs off the Badger men's hockey game and onto ESPN2 or heading back to my office to watch it over the internet (Charter Internet doesn't carry the ESPN360 online channel, but the university's ISP does). Since it's a Friday night, I'm gonna go with the former.

I get that most Americans don't care much about tennis (especially when there aren't any Americans in the finals), and I know Australia's especially challenging when it comes to carrying live events, and I know that in today's information climate watching tape-delayed sports is borderline pointless...But for crying out loud, this is a Grand Slam!

Sorry for the rant. I'm just really sad that nobody much cares about my second-favorite sport. At least my favorite's only a few months away.

21 January 2008

Balancing Act, Part III: King Day Cold

All day in the back of my mind I was thinking about what might make a good Martin Luther King Day post (unfortunately, I did go into work, so in the front of my mind I was thinking about SQLite--a scaled-down database tool I highly recommend). Maybe the coolist MLK Day coverage I heard was a nice impromptu interview with former basketball coach George Raveling on today's Mike Tirico Show (ESPN Insiders can get the audio).

What I came up with was this excerpt from Craig Werner's Higher Ground: Steview Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rist and Fall of American Soul. It's freezing today in Wisconsin, so Stevie Wonder's remarks from a pro-MLK holiday rally on a cold January day in 1982 are perhaps especially appropriate to pass along. Wonder and co. were successful at making the holiday happen, but these words sound no less urgent today:

I know you've been standing in the cold for a long time, but I hope your spirits are warm. Many times in life things happen and we question God as to why. These are not easy times, yet they are not hopeless times. We must refresh our souls and uplift our spirits and harmonize with our brothers and sisters. Dr. King left an unfinished symphony which we must finish. We must harmonize our notes and chords and create love and life. We need a day to celebrate our work on an unfinished symphony, a day for a dress rehersal for our solidarity. I hope your spirits are hotter than July!

Balancing Act, Part II: Scott, Free

I mentioned in my last post that the timing of the launch of this blog was no mere coincidence. Indeed, I don't think I could have started one at any other time than during a holiday's week away from the place where I practically live.

But the other motivator was that over the break I thought a lot about blogs, thanks to my friend David Meerman Scott. I connected with David back when I was interim copy editor over at EContent. He offered me some editing work on early drafts of his book The New Rules of Marketing and PR: How to Use News Releases, Blogs, Podcasting, Viral Marketing and Online Media to Reach Buyers Directly. The book became a best-seller and made BNET's list of 10 Underrated Business Books. It was my first crack at any book-length editing, and I had a really great time working on it.

Since then I've been fortunate to work with David on a couple other projects, one of which was released yesterday. You can download his new e-book, The New Rules of Viral Marketing: How word-of-mouse spreads your ideas for free, from his blog Web Ink Now. And as you'd certainly guess if you're familiar with his ideas, it's available for free.

What I appreciate most about David's work is the way he teaches with analogies (a subject I've written on a bit myself). My favorite is his simple admonition against creating content the consumer has no interest in: "Think like a publisher." That's wise counsel, and it's an analogy rich with plenty of takeaway examples. (It also reminds me of the advice we give engineering students in writing classes about the similarities between the writing process and the design process.)

Anyway, his most recent analogy is that those keen to harness the power of viral marketing would do well to "think like a venture capitalist." The research university is increasingly spinoff-centric, so David's comparison of the success rates of startup companies to those of viral marketing campaigns immediately resonated with my otherwise not-at-all business-savvy mind (I've spent some time on the receiving end of the laughably one-way PR pitch "cycle" [David describes it as "begging the media to write about you"], but I knew absolutely nothing about marketing before I started working with him).

Anyway, you can't work with David for long and not see the value of having a blog. Even if you don't draw huge numbers (I don't) and can't post every day (I can't), David reminds you that everyone benefits from having a forum for bouncing ideas off a few friends, colleagues, or total strangers.

CSC is now such a forum for me, and it probably wouldn't exist but for the spark David's books lit in my head. Whatever your business, some of strategies he suggests should probably be part of your stock-in-trade.

Balancing Act, Part I: Introduction

If you've been following CSC, you've probably noticed that it's been a little science-heavy for a blog that aspires to straddle the letters-and-science spectrum. Blame the lopsidedness of my life, in part, but also blame the NFL playoffs.

You see, my not-so-double life as a full-time engineering grad student and part-time freelance writer and editor (the latter more to preserve my sanity than to pay the bills) dictates that almost all of my freelance work gets done on weekends and semester breaks (the timing of this blog's launch is no coincidence). Thus, the writing/editing/humanities-grab-bag aspect of this blog is (I believe) going to take shape on the weekends, which is when I try to temporarily forget about science (at least when GENIUS is behaving itself and the homework situation is favorable). But since I'm a good green-blooded Wisconsinite, that weekend shape-taking has been usurped of late by Packers playoff games--at least until yesterday's frustrating loss (what happened to the run game, Mike?).

So, to even things up, I give you a trifecta of posts that don't mention science any more than I already have (unless I just can't help myself or it becomes genuinely necessary, which latter would only serve to reinforce this blog's complementary M.O.).

15 January 2008

Insane in the Brain

Two crazy brain-related stories caught my eye today in Science Times. One of them, get this, involves involves a monkey controlling a robot on another continent. Monkeys and robots? Nice. Turns out we wrote a similar story in Wisconsin Engineer; there's some (probably related) research going on at UW-Madison.

The other story, perhaps more bizarre, just screamed out for me to link to my two favorite Dinosaur Comics. [Warning: some sexual dinosaur content.]

14 January 2008


Apologies for the week-long absence. I'm sure it doesn't seem to bode well for the future of this blog, but I'm honestly just trying to enjoy my last couple weeks of relative sanity before the new semester starts. And again, that means we're pushing back the anticipated release of the CSC Sunday column. (Conveniently, that gives me more time to figure out just what the hell it's going to be.)

Plus it was my birthday. More on that in a second.

First, here are a bunch of news items that caught my attention in the past week:

Financial Times: Green activists concerned over People's Car

This has been in the news quite a bit and is a little worrying due to the pure numbers involved.

Science Daily: Mysterious Explosion Detected In The Distant Past

Includes some brilliant science writing:

Most bursts fall in one of two categories: long bursts and short bursts, depending on whether they last longer or shorter than three seconds.
New York Times: Digital Tools Help Users Save Energy, Study Finds

One of the (relatively few) John McCain ideas I can get behind is his point about wanting to inspire people to be willing to make sacrifices for something bigger than themselves (see David Foster Wallace's excellent "Up, Simba!"). I think efforts like this could turn into our generation's version of victory gardens and the like. Then again, my roommate and I have been talking about finishing up that insulating-plastic-on-the-windows thing for a couple weeks now (ever since we got our first real winter electric bill to go with our frickin' hotel room heater), so it's not like I'm tearing it up on the being-part-of-the-solution tip.

New York Times: Running and Fighting, All to Save Her Son

Why have my roommate and I been watching "Terminator: The TV Show"? (1) I love robots. (2) It's writer's strike good:
I propose circumventing the problem with the creation of two temporary critical categories: strike-good and, well, just plain good. To the second denomination I submit “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” a new Fox series that begins on Sunday.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that I don't think Michelle's actually interested in the series, it's just that we only have one TV.)

Science News: Small Infinity, Big Infinity

In other David-Foster-Wallace-has-written-a-book-or-essay-or-something-about-it news, here's a neat little Cantor article. Set theory, meet game theory.

The Chronicle Herald: Another way to fly: blimps

No energy- or technology-related insight here, I just think it would be cool to fly around in blimps.

New York Times: Team Creates Rat Hearts Using Cells of Baby Rats

One of those "I didn't know we could do that" moments. Well, something like that. Until recently, we couldn't.

Times West Virginian: 'Kids think it's a game'

Another "Officials noted there may soon be a shortage of engineers" sighting.

Waco Tribune-Herald:
Hewlett-Packard CEO visits Waco, talks about U.S. technology field

And another.

New York Times: Ford and Chrysler Unveil Their Redesigned Pickups, G.M. Buys Stake in Ethanol Made From Waste, Toyota Will Offer a Plug-In Hybrid by 2010

Thought it was interesting that all three business articles in my NYT email this morning were about auto makers. By the way, if you're interested in "the alcohol economy" (as an energy, not intoxication source), check out Energy Victory by Robert Zubrin.

New York Times: American Cut Back Sharply on Spending

I don't want to sound like a total economics ignoramus, but I really want to be excited about this news.

whatsnextblog.com: We Can Use Salt Water as Fuel Right Now

I'm not sure you should believe the hype, but this is interesting. I'd heard about this guy's "radio"therapy stuff but not the burning salt water.

Lake Superior State University 2008 List of Banished Words

Great leadoff: "perfect storm."

See, I wasn't totally neglecting my blogging duties this week. Anyway, here's a few pics from my birthday Saturday. Thanks to everyone who came out; it was terrific to see you all.

My parents came into town and brought a stadium cake (we were all sitting around watching the Packer victory). Not a good thank-you line: "Wow, did Rachel make it?'

Sarah and co. had just come from a rodeo (well, bull riding only).

The next day, Sarah brought over another cake, one Emily's mom made. She (Sarah) went a little overboard with the candles.

Sorry about the ratio of pictures of cake to pictures of people. Apparently it's no longer a good idea to post pictures of adults drinking beverages they're legally allowed to drink.

07 January 2008

Gaining Energy

I got one of those thirty-hour stomach bugs this weekend, so I didn't get to unveil my cool Sunday column this past weekend because I could barely get off the couch. Stay tuned!

As I slowly regain my own energy, I thought I'd pass along two energy-related news items, complete with short, grumpy commentary:

Detroit Free Press: "Ford to unveil eco-friendlier engine"

I know embarrassingly little about how cars work. Seriously, Car Talk is the source of virtually all my automotive knowledge. But even I know about turbocharing. I even wrote a report about it in my sophomore dynamics class.

Yes, implementing new technologies into any complex machine is a difficult task. And, yes, I realize this article mentions that the EcoBoost derives its performance "with a combination of turbocharging and direct injection technology" (emphasis added). But, damnit, why couldn't we have had this thing five or even ten years ago? It's awfully hard not to assume it's just because of industry lobbyists fighting against emissions standards. Better late than never, though (one hopes).

Muskegon Chronicle: "Pondering wind energy possibilities"

No speculation is necessary about why many wind energy projects don't go forward, though--people apparently think they're ugly! Are you frickin' kidding me? Who cares? Uglier than the alternative? Surely not.

This article goes to great pains to bring up--three times--the issue of whether or not this and other offshore wind projects are actually visible from shore. Why? Because apparently most people's aesthetic sensibilities are totally divorced from any symbolic influence. I've said for several years now that I believe spent nuclear fuel should be held up as a beautiful beacon for a technology that doesn't force us to indiscriminately dump our energy byproducts into the air. Unfortunately, spent fuel it's actually much to look at. (Though it's not the glowing green stereotype from The Simpsons' credits. It looks exactly like fresh fuel!)

Quiet, graceful, and lithe, windmills really are beautiful, and they also symbolize responsible environmental stewardship. Why do we treat them like eyesores?

05 January 2008

Hitting the Links

I added a bunch of links to my work today, and it occurred to me that two of the items I posted do an excellent job of representing the kind of complementary writing I'm trying to do in this blog of letters and science. I wrote them both a few years ago, but I'd still love any feedback you might have.

Wisconsin Engineer: "Mercy mercy me"

I took two courses this summer. The first was Afro-American Studies 156: Black Music and American Cultural History, taught by UW-Madison’s Professor Craig Werner. The second was Nonproliferation Issues for Weapons of Mass Destruction, a symposium at the University of Missouri. In retrospect, I’m grateful the order wasn’t reversed.

As I have argued in the past, I believe courses from both ends of campus can complement each other in sophisticated ways. For instance, I certainly expected that my year of studying some history of science would have prepared me for a class on WMDs, and it did to a certain extent. Not long after I got to Missouri, though, I found myself much more grateful for my newfound knowledge of black music than for my perhaps more applicable knowledge of Niels Bohr’s idea of the complementarity of the atomic bomb or Donald Mackenzie’s commentary on the history of weapons testing. That’s because, by the end of the first day of the symposium, I was in need more of emotional support than historical or scientific background information.
Read on...

Wisconsin Engineer: "Resonant frequencies"
In February, Scientific American reported what fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien had written half a century before. The creation of the universe, it seems, might be better summarized by "Give us some music" than "Let there be light."

It's high time Tolkien agreed with a scientist.

The article, entitled "The Cosmic Symphony," described how cosmologists have come to reason that the big bang "triggered sound waves that alternately compressed and rarefied regions of the primordial plasma." Scientists have a record of this compression wave phenomenon in the form of the cosmic microwave background, a nearly uniform spread of radiation that has guided cosmologists in their quest to explain some of the mysteries of creation.

Read on...

Point of Contention

Is The Tipping Point's central tenet--that "'social epidemics' are 'driven by the efforts of a handful of exceptional people'"--correct? Some networks theorists writing in Journal of Consumer Research don't think so.

I won't start my "Network Flows" class until the end of the month, but I think these guys' central point makes sense:

Dodds compares the spread of ideas to the spread of a forest fire. When a fire turns into a conflagration, no one says that it was because the spark that began it was so potent. 'If it had been raining,' Dodds says, 'that same match wouldn't have had an effect.' Instead, a fire takes off because of the properties of the larger forest environment: the dryness, the density, the wind, the temperature.
In other words, they're claiming that it's better to find a way to reach "a critical mass of easily influenced individuals" rather than a few "exceptional people".

This is disappointing news, if you ask me. I'd rather hear about trends from well spoken experts than a gang of easily influenced chumps.

In other news, it turns out I'm not the only one who watches video on his lunch break. Then again, I'm in grad school, so I do plenty of non-lunch-hour video watching as well. You try sitting at a desk 12-14 hours a day debugging code without a few Power Thirst breaks. Unacceptable!

04 January 2008

Molten Swing

This article from Power Engineering caught my attention today. One common claim about renewable energy is that you can't use it to make "base load"--the electrical power you need available all the time: day or night, rain or shine, wind...or no wind. My gut tells me that the claim is effectively true, though of course I'm biased and there vehement detractors (some of them Australian, apparently). My (developing) expertise in systems analysis--nuclear fuel cycle systems analysis, though, not the power grid--says that the question's probably harder to answer definitively than either side is willing to admit.

Anyway, the game would totally change if energy produced from renewables such as solar and wind could be efficiently stored. One interesting idea for storing solar power is to use the collected energy to heat up molten salts, which are suitable thermal-hydraulic fluids because of their high heat capacity and good conductivity. This is one of those great "now why didn't I think of that?" ideas, although the news note is a bit light on details. Let me know if you know anything about how the currently-employed technology (in the Nevada Solar One plant) works.

Speaking of molten salts as thermal-hydraulic fluids, I was (as usual) fairly impressed with the Wikipedia article on molten salt reactors. Check it out.

And on a totally unrelated note, here's some news about our continuing, tragicomic insistence that spending billions of dollars on missile defense is a good idea. (And as long as we're talking about missiles and whether they hit their targets, I can't help but point you toward "Nuclear Missile Testing and the Social Construction of Accuracy" by Donald Mackenzie, which I read some time ago in Richard Staley's excellent history of 20th century science class.)

02 January 2008

New Year's News Wrap

Mourning yesterday's Badger loss in the Outback Bowl due to a "gutsy" but selfish and foolhardy performance by Tyler Donovan, subpar secondary play, and questionable play-calling (you guys had all three of your gifted running backs available and this is the best you could do?!), I decided to just do a quick news wrap-up today. (By the way, congrats and thanks to Michigan; you guys helped the Big Ten manage to not look like total chumps yesterday.)

USA Today: "Tech could reduce coal facilities' emissions"

I didn't know USA Today wrote stories this long. Anyway, this one's worth a read just to keep tabs on this important technology (integrated gasification combined cycle). Any honest nuclear engineer will tell you that nuclear alone isn't going to solve all our energy problems, so everyone should be rooting for the carbon-capture potential of IGCC.

Chicago Tribune: "Space power could be bright idea"

The hallways of UW-Madison's Fusion Technology Institute (which takes up most of the floor I work on) are decorated almost exclusively with framed articles about the interesting but rhetorically nightmarish idea of mining the moon for helium-3 to fuel fusion reactors ("but you haven't even gotten one to work yet!" the critics would rightly decry). This power-from-space idea seems slightly less far-fetched, though still a little frightening ("but what if you point your one megawatt microwave transmitter in the wrong direction?").

New York Times: "Rock Is Back. Give Him a Cookie."

Review of that show I mentioned earlier. Glad to see Jill Scott opened. By the way, not that I'm any authority, but I've never read a disappointing article by Kelefa Sanneh.

New York Times: "The Invisible Ingredient in Every Kitchen"

This article contains a half-dozen book ideas for some food-loving engineer. It reminded me of the time I had a homework question that asked for fluid mechanics and heat transfer arguments for why fryers and convection ovens cook turkeys faster than traditional ovens. (Come to think of it, that might make a good holiday post next Thanksgiving; this past year, CSC didn't exist yet, plus my friends Carl and Brenna and I were too busy eating Thanksgiving burritos at Las Iguanas in Toronto).

New York Times: "Web Playgrounds of the Very Young"

When judging the recent regional Ethics Bowl Madison hosted, I heard the argument that "marketing is not brainwashing." While I'm inclined to agree most of the time, the way the suits talk about "instill[ing] brand loyalty in a generation of new customers" in stories like this makes me not so sure. Those new customers are, like, seven.