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Live webchat about energy, past and future, tomorrow afternoon

The way we use and make energy is going to change, one way or another. Tomorrow afternoon, you can join me, along with The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal, author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology , and Science magazine's Eli Kintisch, author of Hack the Planet: Science's Best Hope - or Worst Nightmare - for Averting Climate Catastrophe, for a live web chat as we talk about how Americans created the energy systems we live with today, and how we might build better ones for the future. "Green Energy's Forgotten Past, Uncertain Future" starts at 3:00 Eastern on ScienceLive. We'll be taking questions from the audience and talking about our respective books, including my upcoming book "Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before it Conquers Us," which is due out next March.

How To: Make Polaroid Film

Joel Johnson and Bill Barol have blogged here before about The Impossible Project, a group of Dutch Polaroid enthusiasts who bought an old Polaroid factory and recreated the company's instant film manufacturing process. General consensus: It's an impressive undertaking, but also kind of unnecessary and expensive.

Today, we're going to focus on the impressive part, with this video showing the manufacturing process that creates Impossible Project instant film. It's 5 minutes long, but the joy you'll get from watching it rivals those old Sesame Street crayon manufacturing videos, so it's totally worth it. Conclusion: The Impossible Project may not be necessary, but it sure is a lot of fun to watch.

Video Link

Via Gizmodo, with a tip of the hat to Gideon VanRiette.

Montage of ships being launched

If you were never quite sure what happened after the pretty lady broke a bottle of champagne against the hull, you might find this amusing. Apparently, after all the pomp and circumstance, boats are just kind of unceremoniously dropped into the drink.

Video Link

Via Alan Simon

Amazing trains that never were

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In honor of Japan's decision to build a $100 billion maglev train from Tokyo to Osaka, the Infrastructurist blog has put together a list of ambitious train projects that were never completed. Or, in some cases, never even begun.

It's not meant as a knock against the Japanese maglev, which will (in approximately 34 years) carry passengers 320 miles in a mere 67 minutes. Instead, this is more about the way imagining what could be reminds us of what might have been. Some of the things on the list are relatively practical—like Germany's "Rail Zeppelin." Other projects are a little more, shall we say, fanciful. Like the image above, which depicts a proposed network of rail lines leading directly to St. Paul, Minnesota, from such exotic locals as London and, um, the North Pole.

Nebraska nuclear power plant still holding out against Midwest floods

In this June 14, 2011  photo, the Fort Calhoun nuclear power station, in Fort Calhoun, Neb.,was surrounded by flood waters from the Missouri River.jpg

Among the places surrounded by floodwaters in the American Midwest: Nebraska's Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Station. And when I say "surrounded," I mean literally. The power plant is a berm- and sandbag-protected island in the middle of temporary lake. This has not ever happened to an American nuclear power plant before. So far, it sounds like things are going fine (though, of course, the power plant's owners are the primary source of information here, along with government regulators). Overall, there are some good reasons to be nervous, and some good reasons not to be too terrified.

First, on the positive side, the power plant's single reactor has been in cold shutdown since April for maintenance. But that's not a guarantee against problems. After all, Fukushima Daiichi's Reactor 4 was also down for maintenance, and the spent fuel in its cooling ponds still overheated and caused problems with hydrogen explosions and fires. That said, a reactor in cold shutdown is significantly less vulnerable than one that's operating.

Second, on the downside, the power plant got into trouble with federal regulators last year, because its flood defenses weren't up to standards. But, on the positive side, that's ended up meaning that the flood defenses that Fort Calhoun is currently dependent upon are newly improved and inspected—the results of mandated upgrades.

Floods also happen at a slower place than earthquakes and tsunamis, and Fort Calhoun has had time to really double down on preparedness. They've built dams around not only the plant itself, but also the electrical substations that supply its primary source of power. And they've stockpiled weeks worth of fuel for the backup generators, so that in case those power lines go down the fuel rods will continue to be cooled.

On the other hand, all that preparedness is kind of dependent on conditions. According to the Omaha World Herald, The Army Corps of Engineers expects the river to crest no higher than 1,008 feet elevation, and the flood barriers would protect the power plant to 1,010 feet. But that doesn't leave a lot of margin for error. If rainfall becomes extraordinarily heavy again, the river could crest higher. If that happened, Fort Calhoun would be at much greater risk. Hopefully, the container around its reactor would be as watertight as advertised, and the water wouldn't reach the spent fuel pool, which is on higher ground at 1,038.5 feet.

There've also been a couple of small accidents. On June 7th, the cooling pools lost power for an hour and a half because of an electrical fire. And, on the 26th, one segment of secondary flood berm collapsed. The berm was water-filled, and so its collapse caused some flooding in the plant, even though the floodwaters, proper, remained at bay. That accident forced a temporary switch to backup power.

Shorter version: From the information available, it sounds like things are currently under control and that the power plants owners are prepared for the situation they're dealing with. But it's also too soon to know how this will play out, or whether "prepared for the situation they're dealing with" is the same as "prepared for a worse-but-plausible scenario."

Image: Nati Harnik/AP

Early 20th century electricity class

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Matt Novak of Paleofuture sent me this great photo of an early 20th century trade school electricity class. According to the Library of Congress, there's no specific date associated with this shot, although I'd guess early 1920s, which was when electricity installation really started to take off in a meaningful way. There are a lot of apartments in Minneapolis that still have those tacked-to-the-ceiling conduits.

Also interesting, this photo comes to us from the Bain News Service, one of the first news photography agencies, which started distributing photos to subscribing newspapers in 1898. The LOC has the Bain archives now, and you can check them out on Flickr.

Thanks, Matt! We miss you up here in the Frozen North.

Pervious concrete is awesome, kind of zen

Pervious concrete is, basically, just concrete that allows water to flow through it. This has some benefits and detriments for urban environments, as explained on NPR's Science Friday. Frankly, though, it's kind of pleasant to just sit back and watch this patch of pervious concrete absorb 1500 gallons in five minutes.

Photos from post-atom bomb Hiroshima

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After we dropped an atom bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, the U.S. government used the remains of that city as an engineering research project—a place to study what nuclear blasts did to physical structures, and how we could build homes, shops, and schools that would withstand nuclear war better than those in Japan did.

The photos taken by the United States Strategic Bombing Survey have survived to this day. Some of them are featured in a photo essay at the New York Times. The one I've posted here is the least disturbing of the lot.

Via Brain Picker

America's first monorail: Even older than I thought

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The other day, I ran across some photos of Fawkes' Aerial Swallow, a circa-1910 monorail built on a ranch in what is now Burbank, California. The site where I found the photos, and a couple of others, referred to the Aerial Swallow as America's first monorail. But, in the comments on that post, several people noted earlier examples that put the Swallow to shame.

The photo above, for instance, is a stereoscope image of General LeRoy Stone's Centennial Monorail, which ferried attendees of the 1876 Centennial Exposition between the Agricultural Hall and the Horticultural Hall. (Thanks to Square for linking me to that one!)

Ten years later, another monorail was operating, this time in the Boston area. And unlike the Centennial Monorail or the Swallow, this one really looked like the Fantasy Steampunk Monorail of Dreams.

Read the rest

Fine photos of America's first monorail, 1910

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Burbank, California, was the site of America's first monorail. In the upper left of this picture, you can see the "Aerial Swallow" or Aerial Trolley Car, running on a line across the ranch owned by its inventor, Joseph Wesley Fawkes.

Fawkes built the experimental line—which ran between what is now Lake and Flower Streets in Burbank—in hopes that the city would adopt it as the new, local form of public transportation. But, the next year, Burbank chose to invest in an electric streetcar line, instead. The Aerial Swallow never made it off of Fawkes' ranch.

You can see some great up-close shots of the Swallow at the How To Be a Retronaut blog. That blog dates the monorail to 1911. I'm using the date given by the University of Southern California digital library.

The Fracking Song: "My Water's On Fire Tonight"

Video Link, more about the project here. And read the investigative report that inspired this video "explainer" at ProPublica (* warning, major bummer alert).

A snip from the lyrics:

Fracking is a form of natural gas drilling
An alternative to oil cause the oil kept spilling
Bringing jobs to small towns so everybody's willing People turn on their lights and the drillers make a killing

Water goes into the pipe, the pipe into the ground
The pressure creates fissures 7,000 feet down
The cracks release the gas that powers your town
That well is fracked..... Yeah totally fracked

But there's more in the water than just H2O
With names like benzene and formaldehyde
You better keep 'em far away from the water supply

"My Water's On Fire Tonight" is a product of Studio 20 NYU in collaboration with ProPublica.org. The song is based on ProPublica's investigation on hydraulic fractured gas drilling. Music by David Holmes and Andrew Bean, vocals by David Holmes and Niel Bekker, animation by Adam Sakellarides and Lisa Rucker.

(via Jay Rosen)

NYT magazine on the hunt from Air France 447

The New York Times magazine has an amazing narrative story about the hunt for Air France 447, and how the crash has affected victims' families, air safety science, and French regulators. It's beautiful, haunting, and—by the end—damn near guaranteed to make you cry.

How journalists uncovered earthquake risks in California's schools

The Center for Investigative Reporting's California Watch site has a really fascinating multi-part, multi-media report about problems with creation and enforcement of construction standards, which have left the State's public schools vulnerable to earthquakes.

The report, itself, is great, but I wanted to highlight one aspect of this package that might otherwise go unnoticed. Included in the On Shaky Ground report is an interactive timeline documenting "the story behind the story". It's a great inside look at how journalism sausages get made—and how an assignment to write a short piece about the 20th anniversary of the Loma Prieta 'quake evolved into something much larger, and much more important.

Via Allie Wilkinson

Engineering a real-life "Star Wars" AT-AT

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At Innovation News Daily, science journalist Jeremy Hsu explores what it would take to make Mike Koehler's AT-AT For America dream a reality.

Making a modern-day robotic walker is not impossible, said Heiko Hoffman, a robotics expert at HRL Laboratories in Malibu, Calif., but it easily could cost $100 million or more.

"[The cost] would likely be much higher for a seriously armored vehicle," Hoffman said of the cost. "If we just build an AT-AT that looks cool, it could be much cheaper."

The AT-AT walker lumbers along like a mechanical elephant, lifting just one foot at a time. That "statically stable" walking style works for a heavy vehicle, because the center of mass always sits above a "triangle" created by keeping three feet on the ground, Hoffman said.

But building a huge 50-foot-tall walker is challenging because structural strength does not increase on par with sheer mass, Hoffman explained. A vehicle 10 times the size of a smaller model might have a supporting beam 10 times larger, but it would have to support a mass 1,000 times greater.

The AT-AT walker also must deal with huge stress on its leg joints, which makes running virtually impossible.

Innovation News Daily: Could America Really Build a "Star Wars" AT-AT Walker?

Who was this Rube Goldberg guy, anyway?

Writing the last post, it occurred to me that I had no idea who Rube Goldberg, the actual person, was. Turns out, he was an artist who drew cartoons parodying the machines-can-fix-anything philosophy of early 20th-century America. Pressured into an engineering degree by his father, Goldberg designed sewer systems for the city of San Francisco before quitting to become a cartoonist. As far as I can tell, he never built any of the machines that were named after him, just drew them (luckily for the city of San Francisco). But his legacy continues to inspire engineers to explore their artistic sides. Read a short bio or check out the official Rube Goldberg website.

Behold: The world's most complicated Rube Goldberg machine

It may not portray the most accurate representation of science (or history), but this Rube Goldberg machine designed by engineering students at Purdue does tell a compelling story, and, with 244 steps to water a single flower, it does earn the title of World's Most Complicated Rube Goldberg contraption—edging out previous record holders at Michigan's Ferris State University, who'd built a machine with 230 steps.

Popular Mechanics has an inside look at the machine, and how it was created.

Video link

How To: Build a radiation detector out of a digital camera

Obviously, this is probably not the most accurate or sensitive way to measure radiation. It's also showing you relative increases or decreases, not exact numbers. Nevertheless, this hack, worked out by Andrew Lathrop, is pretty damn cool.

Via PopPhoto and Leisa Fearing.

It would surely ruin everyone's day if Nuclear Boy pooped

The Fukushima nuclear crisis, explained for youngsters. [Kazuhiko Hachiya via Laughing Squid]

Russian nuclear power plant is all buttons and knobs

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The control panels in this Russian nuclear power plant look like something out of the 60s, but it was built in the 1990s. Why so little computer interface? It's probably a budgetary issue, but, at Fast Company Design, John Pavlus wonders whether there's a bigger lesson we can learn.

But what about all those clunky, straight-outta-Star-Trek knobs and lights -- what if they're a safety feature, too?

Well, here's the thing, as Christopher Mims at Technology Review brilliantly points out: touch is a powerful, powerful thing. And not the sterile, featureless version that passes for "touch" on your iPad. I'm talking about the physical, primal, ultra-high-res sensorium that you experience from interacting with everyday objects in the real world. Our brains and hands evolved they way they did for a reason, and virtual displays and interfaces simply don't "click" with the kind of infomation-processing we've evolved to do so well. Deep, spatial sense-memory—"colored THING in THAT location that feels like THIS and STAYS there"—is how our savannah-dwelling ancestors navigated their environment and avoided getting killed, and it's still true today.

There's more photos of the power plant at Fast Company Design.

Photos taken by Ilya Varlamov

Via Mark Changizi!

Float: ultralight rubber-band-powered duration model planes

Float Documentary Trailer from Phil Kibbe on Vimeo.

These beautiful dragonfly-like model planes can float for up to half an hour under the power of one single-wound rubber band. Check out the trailer for Float posted by Phil Kibbe. Amazing craftsmanship and techniques! Video link. (via devour.com)

How to: Move a room

When the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra plays at Minnesota's Ordway Theater, they do it inside the orchestra shell—a massive, mahogany-paneled, three-walled room that sits on the stage. But the Ordway hosts more than just orchestra, so the shell has to be movable. It's no easy task. The back wall, alone, weighs 70 tons. How do they do it?

Turns out, the entire orchestra shell is a hovercraft.

Each wall is equipped with air casters that help lift them off the ground. A soap and water solution is sprayed on the floor to keep the it slippery when the wall touches down, and to ensure the walls move at an even pace, a couple stage crew members guide motorized palette jacks like slow motion motorcycles.

Minnesota Sounds: Ordway Theater

Full Minnesota Sounds series