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Saturday, January 9, 2016

Driving and Physics : the laws of the road that cannot be broken


   There are two sets of laws involved with driving a car. The first set is made from the human-made laws which are a set of etiquette laws of how people can share the roads and passageways while driving 700+ kilogram vehicles. The other, underlying, laws are associated with the laws of physics. The first set can make interacting with other vehicles, and their drivers, more predictable -- and generate income for the various cities in which you drive. The second set -- unlike the situation for the Coyote or Bugs Bunny in Looney Tunes -- cannot be broken and determine what will happen when your car interacts with other physical objects.

   The first topic that I'll mention is that of relative velocities. If you are driving 30 mph (or 50 kph, if you prefer) and you run into a wall, there is 30 mph (times your mass) amount of force with which you hit the wall. This is called kinetic energy. If you run into something coming towards you (such as another car) at 30 mph, the amount of energy is doubled and it is as if you hit a wall at 60 mph. (Note that hitting a wall at 60 mph does more than twice the amount of damage as 30 mph.)

   If two cars are going in the same direction then the collision energy is subtracted. If you are driving at 60 mph along a road and someone driving at 65 mph bumps into you then it is the same as if they drove into a wall at 5 mph. Not very noticeable unless that bump makes you lose control and you use your 60 mph kinetic energy to run into a tree.

   This is the principle behind merging. The idea is that you drive your car such that you are driving at approximately the same speed as other cars by the time you leave the on-ramp to the highway. You speed up a little and safely merge ahead of a car. You slow down a little and safely merge behind a car (preferable). If you are going 30 mph while all the other cars are going 60 mph it makes it much difficult for you, and for all the other cars, to merge safely.

   This leads to the next topic -- "tailgating". This is where you are traveling at a speed such that it is not possible to stop without colliding into the car ahead of you if they abruptly stop. My old traffic books indicated one car length per 10 mph -- so, around 90 feet for travelling at 60 mph. I routinely see people driving with a single car length between cars while driving 60 mph. This situation is very dangerous for two reasons -- if the car ahead abruptly stops, you have converted a 5 mph bump into a 60 mph crash into a wall. The second reason is that it makes it very difficult to merge. The merging car cannot safely go ahead, or behind, other cars on the highway if there is no room.

   Tailgating is directly involved with another law of Physics called inertia. This is Isaac Newton's "First Law of Motion". It says that if something is at rest it will want to stay at rest (difficult to start moving) and if it is in motion it will be difficult to stop and will continue at the same speed and direction unless outside forces change it.

   So, let's apply this law of inertia to tailgating. Stopping distance involves the factors of "reaction time" and physical stopping time. Reaction time varies between people. In general, women have better reaction times than men and, in general, younger people have better reaction times than older people. However, reaction time can never be zero as it takes time for the outside signal to reach your eye (you see a brake light) and your brain to process the signal to start a reaction (stepping on the brake).

   This is why it is impossible to stop if you are tailgating someone and they abruptly stop no matter how good are your reflexes. IF you both started stopping at exactly the same time AND both had the same tires and same braking systems on your cars THEN tailgating could be safe. Those factors are not true.

   This leads into the final topic for this blog. Driving in weather. Weather affects a lot of factors. It can make visibility easier or harder -- which affects reaction time. It can make the traction of the tires on the road better or worse -- which affects physical stopping time. Results from relative velocities remain the same but the outside aspects which makes a difference in how, when, and why have changed.

   So, if you drive on a snowy, icy road you have increased reaction time, physical stopping time and the principles of inertia make it more difficult for you to either turn or stop without the car wanting to continue in the same direction and speed.

   In the end, the laws of physics will exist and they won't change so merge properly, don't tailgate, and allow for changes in road conditions for judging safe driving.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Houseboat philosophy : The Four "R"s


   Once upon a time, I lived in Seattle -- loved it there because it was an environment in which I could walk, or take public transportation, to 80% of the places that I wanted to go (exceptions being grocery shopping -- mainly out of laziness). A pedestrian-friendly city gives a natural interest in adjusting one's life, in general, to the environment and trying to live within the environment rather than take it over.

   My wife-to-be was taking courses at the local University of Washington (Udub) and one of her teachers invited us to a lunch on her houseboat that was docked on Lake Union. While there, and conversing on various topics, she introduced the "houseboat philosophy". A houseboat has a certain capacity -- it weighs a certain amount and it can support a certain amount without sinking. So, unless you want to start swimming for shore during the next rainstorm (when the lake becomes definitely non-calm) you recognize that clutter is not something that you can tolerate.

   When something comes onto the houseboat, something has to go off. In a way, this is parallel to time organization of "most important now". What do I most want to have around me? If I bring something aboard, what do I want to take off and what will I do with it? Of course, there are a certain number of things that are in constant transit -- like food. Most things, however, including a stockpiling of the pantry must be considered to be an added weight.

   What to do with what one takes off leads directly to the three "R"s of Recycling. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Reducing is associated with packaging material and extra things that are not directly part of the item which you acquire. Reuse can be a matter of giving used items to charity to be re-sold or to become part of the lives of other people who need them. It can also be used to indicate a refilling of containers and such. Finally, recycling allows the materials to be incorporated in new products.

   The Houseboat philosophy adds one additional "R" -- Rethink. This is a preparatory thought before acquiring something. Is this something that will add to the quality of my life? Is this something that is more important than something else that I presently have around me? This isn't something that happens a lot in the current consumer-directed economy and society in which we live. (It DOES start moving that direction when one starts going towards the final direction of life -- a desire to eliminate the unneeded before someone else has to take care of it.)

   All together, the four "R"s are really the Houseboat Philosophy. While, for most of us, our houses are not likely to sink if we get one too many things into the house, clutter still affects our lives. How many times do you have to look for something you have mislaid? Is it easier to find one item out of a thousand that you have around -- or is it easier to find one item out of a hundred? How about cleaning? Is it easier to clean around 20 pieces of furniture or is it easier to clean around six?

   We are presently reducing in our household. We have a lot of books. Each book includes memories -- where did we get it, what thoughts arose when we read it, what other people were around when we read it, what was our mood before and after reading it. It is hard to remember that, even if the book is no longer around, the memories can still be present. If you have a box of things that hasn't been opened in ten years then how important are the things in that box?

   What are the important items to keep on your houseboat?

Saturday, December 19, 2015

History isn't what it used to be -- it never was


   History is a tale of what has happened. But is it really what happened? How do we know? What is the evidence? If we have records of what has happened what about records of what did not happen?

   In the Harry Potter series, the instructor of History is dry and boring and most students in the class don't pay a lot of attention -- until something from out of history seems to pop up once again in the present. This happens with the Chamber of Secrets. But really, the same thing happens to people all the time -- they lose track of what has happened in the past until it starts to happen again in the present and then SOME people recall the events in the past. There is the notion of people remembering the past in advance of events occurring -- an attempt to prevent old mistakes from happening again. But this rarely happens. Fashions cycle. Historical events cycle. Political environment cycles.

   One thing that does bother many people is an active attempt to hide history of which we no longer find acceptable. School systems start to change books to remove the realities of human slavery in the past (and deny the occurrence of present day slavery). Videos are actively altered to sway opinion and emotions. Some people try to deny past atrocities in spite of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of witnesses. Books are edited to make the language of the times in which they were written change to reflect the attitudes of the present. There have been many stories and novels written about such attempts -- often by governments but sometimes by active minorities. But it is very likely there have already been changes actively made that no one influential has noticed.

   Another area in which history does not match what happened in the past is something that might be a coincidence (and might not) which is that (in English) history is very similar to "his story". And it is true that history is predominantly a story of males and male events. Possibly this is because patriarchal (run by males) societies have dominated the past. Perhaps it is because males have been more likely to learn to read and write. It is certainly true that many inventions and creations have happened by women and been uncredited. Check out books such as "Mothers of Invention" (by Ethlie Ann Vare and Greg Ptacek) and "Underside of History" (by Elise Boulding).

    Another problem with resolving the accuracy of history is that of translation of primary documents -- those records that were produced at the time of the events. Who wrote those documents -- probably the "winners" of conflicts. What happened from the point of view of the losers? Decimation of the First Nations in the American continents or the subjugation of the Ainu in the Japanese islands or the aborigines in Australia all have forcibly cut out a good section of the ability to balance the events of history.

   Even recognizing that only the "winners" and the powerful usually have their documents preserved -- language is not independent of the context of the times. If I write a sentence in English today then that very same set of words is unlikely to have had the same meaning 500 years ago and is unlikely to have the same meaning 500 years in the future. It is horrendously difficult to be able to know what was meant within a language within a context that is no longer present. Books that are the bases of religion often expose this fragility.

   In my own family, I recognize how much knowledge as been lost. Where did my mother meet my father? Where was their first date? (I don't know.) What was the occupation of my multi-maternal great-great-great grandfather? What color did he like best? Who fired the first bullet between the Hatfields and the McCoys? Certainly these may be "unimportant" pieces of information but there is no longer a way to know -- the knowledge has been lost.

   So, our ability to know what has happened in the past can only be an approximation. Sometimes things are changed deliberately. Often the documents that are saved reflect only a narrow set of perspectives. The understanding of the meaning of documents and language change through the years. And, in general, much is lost because more was lost from knowledge than was recorded. So, if I read an article in a newspaper or book about a current event and they refer to historical aspects -- I can read it and recognize that that is how people think about the history. It may, or may not, be a reflection of what really happened.

   But that is not an excuse to not try to do better in the future.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Entropy : or why is my house a mess?


   Physics is basically a bunch of descriptions (called "laws", "theories", "postulates", etc.) that allow us to predict how energy and matter (something that can be touched by other matter -- like a chair or oxygen or water) will be affected by other matter or energy that is applied to the original system. Note that, with special relativity (the old famous Einstein equation of E = mc**2) it is recognized that energy can be converted into matter and matter can release energy if broken into less complex units. (As usual, it is easier to break something down than to put it together.)

   One concept is called entropy. This is a measurement of disorder. It applies to the melting of an ice cube. It applies to the complexity of atoms -- with entropy increasing when fission occurs breaking a uranium atom into smaller atoms. It can also be used for everyday things -- such as a tidy room becoming messy. In each case, the situation of order moving towards disorder is called entropy.

   Local entropy can be reorganized. This often requires putting in energy -- but not always. The free flowing molecules of liquid water are less organized than that of ice which has a static configuration and form. In order to create ice from water, it is necessary to remove heat (energy). Because there are different ways that order is created from disorder (or disorder from order), there are considered to be different types of entropy.

   Notice that I say local entropy. According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the overall process of entropy cannot be reversed. If you leave something alone, it will eventually break down. In a house, everything will get covered in dust. A moving part will wear and break. Radioactive particles will continue to convert into non-radioactive masses.

   So, whether one believes in creationism or the big bang theory, everything started in chaos, order was imposed, and everything keeps trying to make its way back to chaos. We can clean the dishes but they'll get dirty again (even if we don't use them, dust will settle).

  Next time you look into your house and say "didn't I just clean this up the other day?" just tell yourself -- "Oh yes, entropy".

Saturday, October 3, 2015

What is Critical about Mass: having enough to sustain a process


    There is a phrase used from time to time -- "critical mass". This phrase was initially used in regards to the manufacture of nuclear weapons. In order for a nuclear device to be able to start a fission (splitting atoms) reaction, there must be enough material that each splitting of an atom creates enough energy to allow for the splitting of additional (at least one more) atoms. So, the critical mass is enough radioactive material to allow for the process to continue once it is started.

   This concept is central to the creation of weapons because a bomb is created such that two, or more, amounts that are less than critical mass are kept close together -- when it is desired to detonate, the smaller amounts are pushed together to create the critical mass and the reaction can take place. A bomb is "clean" if it has the opportunity to split most of its radioactive material before spreading apart and "dirty" if it ends up spreading the radioactive material (not fissioned) into the surrounding area.

   This concept is also important with the design of nuclear power plants -- rather what NOT to do when designing a plant. A properly designed plant will maintain control of how much radioactive material is allowed to be near each other (with the addition of materials called "damping" rods which absorb excess energy). This is important not only for safety but also for the economic operation of the plant. If a plant is not designed this way then it is just a one-time-use bomb. Thus, nuclear power plants (though there may be other dangers) are almost impossible to cause nuclear explosions.

   One more term that is very important to this topic is the "tipping point". This is the very small range that exists between NOT having a critical mass and the amount reaching a critical mass. Just a bit more and it becomes critical. Remove just a bit and it becomes inoperative. Before the tipping point is reached, the process requires continued external energy to maintain progress towards the critical mass.

   All that is just a preamble to this blog [smile]. The concept of critical mass enters into many areas of our society -- political, economic, sociological, and so forth.

   One area of present interest and, which is entering the region of the tipping point, is that of electric cars. Electric cars have been around for quite a while (according to the Net, 1834). However, we do not see electric cars everywhere -- it is mostly internal combustion (gas or diesel) engine cars. Cars, by definition, are used for movement. This means that the source of their energy must be carried along with them. In the case of gasoline engine cars, this means tanks of gas. In the case of electric cars (actually, electric engine powered cars), this means batteries (or an awfully long electrical cord [smile]).

   Batteries have traditionally not been very powerful or very efficient. This continues to change and, although not specifically a critical mass, they are now reaching the point of efficiency to be able to be used more practically. (Note that the same idea is involved with the efficiency of solar cells for solar power.)

   Even with more efficient batteries, they still must be charged on a regular basis and the means to charge them must be close enough together (driving range) such that an electric car can go from one charging station to another. Additionally, the time needed to charge the battery must be relatively short or timed such that the charging can reliably be done at "non-use" times (such as night).

   So, the technology needed to have practical electrical cars on the roads requires three things: sufficiently efficient batteries to provide workable range, charging stations within that range, and technology sufficient to compete with other alternatives. This is now beginning to happen. We are close to the tipping point. The external energy causing us to reach this point has come from the dedication of various people who want the end result. Note that the same process happened to make the internal combustion car practical in the early 1900s.

   Another area of critical mass is concerned with political, or social, matters. Let us take the matter of the ability to vote, within the United States, for women. Within the democratic process, one group cannot grant themselves additional authority, privileges, or rights. They must be granted such by the people who already have that power. This means a process of change of thoughts and attitudes. The energy to achieve that came from dedicated people who worked towards that goal. They achieved critical mass when enough of the existing authorized voters were convinced that women should be granted the right to vote.

   There are many areas where the ideas of a tipping point, and critical mass, are important. They are both involved in areas of change. The change may be a chemical, or physical, process. The change may be a social process. The change may be a political process. But they each have stages and move from one to another by approaching the tipping point, reaching critical mass, and effecting the change.

    What areas of critical mass do you see approaching and which ones do you see from the past?

Saturday, August 29, 2015

A body for all diets


   The human body is a marvelous set of systems. Eating and processing food seems relatively simple but, as seen in previous blogs about nutrition and inner bacterial colonies, it is not really that straight-forward. Nevertheless, our bodies can definitely be considered omnivorous -- able to eat anything that is not poisonous (and a limited amount of some foods, such as alcohol, that are poisonous).

   Our bodies need certain "building blocks". These include calories (for basic energy), amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and basic nutritional blocks (such as fats/oils, carbohydrates, general proteins, and so forth). Since I have already spent a number of blogs on this subject, it does not make sense to go into further detail at the time. The point is, these building blocks are required for a healthy body -- but the form in which we take these building blocks in can vary a lot.

   For the sake of argument and categorization, let's say that there are four types of diets available. The first is carnivorous -- eating only meat. The second is omnivorous -- eating foods that come from other animals as well as plants and items that are difficult to classify. The third is vegetarian -- eating only foods that do not require animals to be killed. The fourth is vegan -- eating only foods that are considered to come from the plant side of biology.

   As mentioned earlier, our bodies are designed to be omnivorous. Thus, this can be thought to be the "easiest" type of diet. Eating a mixture of meats, plants, and animal-derived foods gives the easiest access to our nutritional building blocks. This does not mean that it immediately gives rise to a healthy diet. For all diets, it is still needed to make sure that quantities of calories and the balancing of other building blocks is kept in mind. Most people in the world are omnivores.

   One of my sons calls himself a "carnivore" -- but he still eats pasta (and cheesecake) and other items from the rest of the planet's living matter. A true carnivore eats only meat (some large carnivores eat a small amount of grasses for fiber and minerals but not for calories). For humans, this only occurs naturally when living in an area where plant food is very scarce -- such as the Arctic regions. The Inuit eat an almost exclusively carnivorous diet and, in general, stay quite healthy. Upon study, it has been found that this relies on two things. In order to get a full set of nutritional building blocks, they must eat most of the animals including bones (or bone marrow), internal organs, and other parts that many humans avoid. It is also important that some of the animal bodies be eaten without cooking as cooking can destroy many vitamins and amino acids.

   I always thought that vegetarian meant eating only non-animal-based food. It turns out that the original definition of vegetarian meant to eat a well-rounded diet -- to curb the excesses of the diets that were eaten by those who had access to many types of foods. However, in the modern era, vegetarian is considered to be not eating animal tissue. Animal-derived foods, such as eggs and dairy products, are also allowed. A vegetarian diet can be very healthy -- especially if animal-derived foods are kept to a minimum -- but it is very important to watch the needed building blocks carefully.

   Finally, there are vegans. The word vegan was derived from the beginning and end of the word VEGetariAN. No animal-derived products are allowed. Since this means eating exclusively from the bottom of the food pyramid, it is difficult to find an overweight vegan. It is also relatively easy to become unhealthy if the diet is not watched carefully. Traditional vegetarian cultures and religions work with this and adopt a cuisine and menu that naturally balances out the needs of the body. A self-imposed vegetarian must devise this for themselves. Luckily, it is much easier to do that with an abundance of literature and products in our global economy.

   Which diet is "best"? Telling an Inuit to become a vegetarian would be telling them to starve. If the entire world's population decided to become strictly carnivorous, then probably 90% (or more) of the world would starve as there is not enough animal substance to feed everyone in the world. There are also hybrid eating philosophies such as "vegetarian with fish". Being vegan is the easiest burden on the planet since it uses foods from the lowest levels of the food pyramid. However, this is also not possible for all people, without a global economy, because some areas of the world do not have enough human-edible plant-based food on which to survive (but other animals CAN eat those plants and provide a higher-level food for humans).

   In a global economy, we have choices. Foods can be grown in one place and eaten in another although this places a burden on transportation, fuel, and storage costs onto the planet. Locally produced foods are a lighter burden but is not possible everywhere. Many people choose vegetarian (or vegan) diets based on their individual morals that determine that unnecessarily eating animals is wrong. Vegetarian/vegan eating is also less expensive but requires time for balancing and preparation.

   Our bodies may allow us many choices in diets but the choices are still individual for people. What choices have you made and why?

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Processed Foods: The good, the bad, and the ugly


   The first step in processing foods is the act of harvesting. So, saying that a person doesn't like processed foods is a bit on the silly side. Picking an apple off of a tree or shucking an ear of corn is processing the food.

   The next stage of processing involves changing the food physically. Food is cut up. It is ground. It is juiced. It is shredded. If it doesn't look the same as when it was harvested, then it has been changed physically.

   Now we come to the part that involves chemical change. This isn't always what people consider to be chemical change. Drying something in the sun will involve chemical (and physical) changes. Fermenting a juice into an altered liquid that contains alcohol is a chemical change. Applying heat and cooking a food is a chemical change. Putting something in a different substance (even water) will often -- but not always -- initiate a chemical change.

   Processing food makes it easier to eat -- or more interesting to eat -- or makes it easier to store for longer periods of time. These are not bad goals. So, what is the big deal about processed foods? Why would anyone object to processed foods.

   As usual, the problems arise out of the details -- the hows, whats, and whys. Harvesting isn't usually considered a big problem -- unless it is done in a way that has "side-effects". For example, some foods are most easily harvested by starting a big fire and sifting through the remains. Other foods might be harvested by killing the main plant when only a small part is going to be used for food. Finally, there is the background issue (not to be discussed at length here) of production which is necessary for harvesting to occur.

   Physical processing takes energy. If physically preparing food is part of the daily routine then it is a closed system -- energy given by eating the foods is used in the preparation of those same foods. However, when we buy something already processed then we are also requiring energy to be used for the preparation as well as transport. That energy is likely to include non-renewable energy sources.

   Now comes the most controversial part of processed foods -- chemical changes. The previously mentioned changes would usually be considered "natural" (although they are not all likely to occur without some intervention by some other living entity). When "artificial" processing (as mentioned in another blog, these terms don't have as distinct of a difference as people often seem to think) is involved, the food will change in ways that cannot always be predicted.

   Edible items (we'll continue to call them foods) can be produced from inorganic (not originally alive) components. During the processing of foods, additives can be included that change flavors (this can include spices and herbs -- but also inorganic chemicals) or make the food last longer (usually called preservatives), or become more addictive (added sugars, salt, certain chemical substances) to increase marketing and sales. These types of processing can make the food less healthy -- and this is the big deal about processed foods. Commercially prepared processed foods are often less healthy than fresh or personally processed foods.

   So, why do people buy processed foods -- and why are people buying a larger and larger percentage of their food in the form of processed foods? I would categorize that in the regions of time, convenience, marketing susceptibility, and (for many items) monetary savings. Using processed foods saves time -- it reduces the time to prepare, the time to consider the recipe, and usually time to cook or put on the table.

   In the case of processed fresh fruits and vegetables, you will probably be paying quite a bit extra to have someone process them for you -- but you may save, if you are single, because you are only buying the amount that you will eat. This is a cost trade-off.

   In the case of stored (frozen, refrigerated, canned, or packaged) processed foods, it is often true that it will cost you less to buy processed food from the store. This is because the food processing company pays less for the ingredients because they buy in huge quantities and because the energy costs in labor and machinery are less than what it would take for you to prepare. The actual costs of the food may amount to 1/4 of what you would have to spend to prepare it personally. With the markups of transportation, storage, and profits at different stages, the final price is still often less than what you could realistically prepare. So, it ends up being a choice concerning time and quality.

   Marketing susceptibility is a huge topic (and one on which I have briefly discussed in other blogs). This is buying products that you KNOW are not good for you and which may not even taste as good as healthier alternatives -- but if convinced that it is the popular thing to eat (in the popular quantities) then you may choose to buy and consume it.

   The "ugliest" part of commercially processed foods is the addictive parts. Processed sugar (including High Fructose Corn Syrup) is an addictive and unhealthy substance. It can be found in many processed foods including canned vegetables. Check the ingredient list! Salt is a flavor enhancer but, for some people, it can be hard on the body in excessive amounts. Governmental control agencies have stopped the addition of such substances as cocaine, coca leaves, and other known addictive chemicals (yes, they did use such at one time) into foods but there isn't enough oversight to make sure that other newer chemicals do not have addictive or destructive effects.

   The bottom line is that processing food is a long, and reasonable, thing. Local processing is probably always healthier than commercial processing but there are reasons why people choose to buy commercially processed foods -- and why they take more and more shelf space in the supermarkets and grocery stores.

   Do you make use of processed foods? What kinds do you purchase? Do you check the ingredient lists when you make choices? Does it matter to you if you are preparing for one or two versus preparing for a large family gathering?