Friday, February 22, 2008

No more poison fuel!

As you may have heard, the Aegis-class USS Lake Erie fired one missile at the "dying spy satellite" and scored a direct hit. That is pretty sharp gun-slinging. The squawking from the Chinese and the Russians only underscores how much of an achievement it was. I suppose that the Chinese have more cause to be chagrined as they already destroyed a satellite much higher up last year.

I was a bit bemused by the public statement of the spokesman for an outfit called the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance:
The factual reality of using deployed missile defenses to destroy a falling satellite or a ballistic missile or even a meteor from space that would risk human life is an achievement for mankind. Missile Defense will continue to become more and more universal throughout the world and it will become more reliable and effective, so as to one day in the near future, we as a world can eliminate and mitigate risk from any and all harmful objects coming from space that would threaten mankind.

Our missile defense capability would, indeed, have to improve dramatically for us to "eliminate and mitigate risk from any and all harmful objects". For example, meteors are generally a bit on the small side; certainly not bus-sized. Even if they are bus-sized, they're awfully hard to spot a long way off.

Those near-earth asteroids that have caused a stir by coming "close" to earth have rarely passed within the orbital distance of the moon. There's currently only one, 99942 Apophis, that is of significant size with even a marginal chance of striking the earth. This baby is about 250 meters across and weighs about 2.1 x 1010 kilograms. [Ed. - Since The Town Crank is determined to be metrically and avoirdupois-ally correct, that's about 820 feet and 46 billion pounds, or about 23 million tons.]

What does that mean in terms of destructive power if it ever hit the earth? Calculating the straight kinetic energy using a velocity of 30.7 kilometers per second (69,000 mph), we get:

½ x 2.1x1010 kilograms x (30,700 meters per second)2
= 9.9 x 1018 Joules

The killer is that squared velocity term.

That number of Joules translates to 2,360 million tons of TNT...or in nuclear weapons parlance, 2,360 megatons. That's if the full orbital speed of the asteroid was brought to bear. According to the Wikepedia site, NASA has estimated a lower figure based on the fact that Apophis is orbiting in more or less the same direction as the earth is. Thus, any impact would be a glancing blow or a strike from behind. Still, the speed at impact would be 12.6 kilometers per second (28,000 mph). That's still almost 400 megatons of TNT if the full weight of the asteroid makes it to earth at that speed.

For comparison, the meteor that dug out the 1200 meter wide (3900 feet) Baringer crater in Arizona has been estimated at 3-10 megatons.

Don't you just love huge numbers? By the way, the calculations for this post were assisted by the excellent unit converter available at

Anyway, Apophis looks like it's going to pass within about 36,000 miles of earth in 2029. That's spittin' distance!

The question remains, no matter how accurate an SM-3 missile fired from an Aegis-class vessel can be, what's going to push aside a 23 million ton mass far enough to miss the earth? 23 million tons is about 2400 times the displacement of the USS Lake Erie itself...and the Lake Erie's top speed, while classified, is on the order of 32.5 knots or 37 mph. If the USS Lake Erie were thrown at the ground at 37 mph (equivalent to a drop of around 60 feet [correction: 47 feet – Ed.]), the energy released would be about 0.29 tons of TNT and it would have several large dents in it.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Poison fuel

You've heard about the U.S. spy satellite that's headed towards the ground. As Edison Carter used to say in "Max Headroom", what I wanna know is this: why is it that news stories these days have all got to have a scary health threat angle? Here's what I'm talking about:
One shot. That's all the military hopes it will take to bring down a dying, out-of-control, school bus-sized U.S. spy satellite loaded with toxic fuel and on a collision course with Earth.

As if a school bus-sized satellite travelling at 17,000 miles an hour landing on your house isn't enough of a worry!
Military and administration officials said the satellite is carrying 1,000 pounds of hydrazine, a fuel that could injure or even kill people who are near it when it hits the ground.

Not to mention the school bus-sized body of the satellite that could injure or even seriously kill people who are near it when it hits the ground! Sheesh! They make it sound like the satellite is just going to drop off the back of a truck and that the real threat is the projected reduction in average life expectancy of the neighbors in the 10 square mile vicinity of the crash.
Officials compared the effects of hydrazine fuel to chlorine or ammonia. "It affects your tissues and your lungs - it has the burning sensation," Cartwright said. "If you stay very close to it and inhale a lot of it, it could in fact be deadly."

Holy cow! Are you kidding??!! Especially if it lands right on top of your head!!! Then it might really hurt you!!!!
Experts on military satellites agreed that hydrazine could pose a serious health hazard, although even Cartwright said it probably would be spread over an area the size of only two football fields if it hit the Earth.

My god! It doesn't quit! No mention of the crater that will form when the satellite hits the ground, or the spectacular fireball, or efforts to alert the people in the satellite's projected crash zone. It's the bleeping toxic fuel and the "serious health hazard"!

Do the public relations people at the newspapers or TV stations really believe that we have become so longevity-conscious and so public health-care cost-conscious that the little matter of a 5,015 pound (2,275 kilograms; have to be metrically and avoirdupois-ally correct here at The Town Crank!) satellite traveling at 17,000 mph arriving at ground zero with a kinetic energy of approximately 66 GigaJoules of energy is insignificant? Like, that's as much energy as 31,400 pounds of TNT (source: MegaConverter2)! Isn't that, like, bad for your health?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Time to vote

(Letter to the editor, published 17-Feb-2008, Appleton Post-Crescent)

Presidential primaries are the only elections where you've really got a choice. Last fall, with 16 candidates, I knew that the candidate I preferred was someone I could vote for without holding my nose.

When my guy was asked a question during the TV debates, he answered it immediately and then went on to explain his answer. But highly trained TV interviewers pounce on a "Yes" or "No" answer. They had to have been pleased to be able to interrupt the explanation -- he gave his answer, didn't he? -- so that one of the "star" candidates could throw in his two cents. When thrown into the piranha tank of a televised debate, it's best to dissemble, hedge, demur, equivocate, back-and-fill, joke, divert, and dance rather than answer a question forthrightly.

TV producers aren't interested in substance. Their principal driving motivation is to look like king-makers, to be the ones that were most accurate in forecasting the winner. That translates into ratings. Nothing else matters to them.

That's the political reality: a stupefying concentration of attention on winning. What were campaigns like before thousands of pundits tried to make their prognostications heard above the din? If all the primaries were held on a single day, there'd be no drama, no fake pathos, no nail-biting, no tension. What self-respecting TV executive wants that?

It's a bit disheartening, though, to see the field melt away to five or six candidates before primary day. It looks like they held an election and nobody came.

Even though my guy hasn't won many delegates, he stayed in. I can still vote for someone whose record doesn't disguise his positions, who speaks plainly, doesn't pander, and has the least number of skeletons in his closet. I hope you vote for him, too: Ron Paul.

Steve Erbach

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Fuzzy math skewered!

"Dedicated to Peacefully Disarming Fuzzy Math", the web site called Weapons of Math Destruction Comics was founded in 2006. The site posts a new anti-Fuzzy-Math comic every week. Just the thing for reminding us that professional educators (ahem!) are only in business because of huge public subsidies for compulsory matriculation.

Here's the latest (6-Feb-2008) comic:

Monday, February 04, 2008

Not quite like the Battle of Stirling Bridge

Several Israeli soldiers were suspended for being politically incorrect in the presence of Palestinian shepherds. The form their incorrectness took was mooning. The incorrectness was decried by an Arab-Israeli member of the Israeli parliament, Ahmed Tibi:"The soldiers frustrated with the failure of the Lebanon war could finally make a victory sign by showing their posteriors to unarmed Palestinians."

Somehow this doesn't move me. Perhaps I'm anti-Arab. My first thought, however, was that soldiers are trained to kill their enemies. Palestinians haven't exactly been friendly to the Israelis over the decades. Mooning seems like a quite non-violent way of showing disapprobation.

But now, I suppose, the Israeli army is reduced to performing cop-on-the-beat type functions and it just isn't nice to show any sign of disrespect.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

It's coming, I'm telling you

This may seem like a joke – and the Smoking Gun article claims that it'll be "dead on arrival" – but you're going to see more and more of these attempts to control how we eat:
Mississippi Pols Seek To Ban Fats

New bill would make it illegal for restaurants to serve the obese

FEBRUARY 1--Mississippi legislators this week introduced a bill that would make it illegal for state-licensed restaurants to serve obese patrons. Bill No. 282, a copy of which you'll find below, is the brainchild of three members of the state's House of Representatives, Republicans W. T. Mayhall, Jr. and John Read, and Democrat Bobby Shows. The bill, which is likely dead on arrival, proposes that the state's Department of Health establish weight criteria after consultation with Mississippi's Council on Obesity. It does not detail what penalties an eatery would face if its grub was served to someone with an excessive body mass index.

The bill (a copy is available at The Smoking Gun) directs the state health department to draw up "criteria for determining whether a person is obese", and the affected restaurants will be required to use these yet-to-be-established criteria in refusing to serve those it is forbidden to serve.

I fantasized about those criteria. Might there be face-saving loopholes for a fat guy like me that unwittingly walks into one of those Mississippi restaurants to purchase a meal? I mean, might I be permitted to have some celery sticks so that, to the other diners, it looks like I actually ate before packing up and leaving? Not that I'd leave a tip...

Will there be some sort of sliding caloric scale for what may be served to the marginally or somewhat obese? Might a slice of cheesecake be allowed to someone with a body mass index that's only 10% over the state norm?

Do you think that the proprietor or the waitress will brandish one of those pinchy things that are used to determine BMI and use it on everyone they suspect might be obese?

If you're one of those who think that these sorts of regulations are really for my own good, then I must part ways with you, dear reader. If you understand what I mean, no explanation is needed. If you don't understand, no explanation is possible.

Another twist to Universal Health Care

This story today got me to thinking about an aspect of the imminent Universal Health Care I hadn't considered before:
Clinton health plan may mean tapping pay

By CHARLES BABINGTON, Associated Press Writer Sun Feb 3, 11:40 AM ET

WASHINGTON - Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton said Sunday she might be willing to garnish the wages of workers who refuse to buy health insurance to achieve coverage for all Americans.

The New York senator has criticized presidential rival Barack Obama for pushing a health plan that would not require universal coverage. Clinton has not always specified the enforcement measures she would embrace, but when pressed on ABC's "This Week," she said: "I think there are a number of mechanisms" that are possible, including "going after people's wages, automatic enrollment."

Clinton said such measures would apply only to workers who can afford health coverage but refuse to buy it, which puts undue pressure on hospitals and emergency rooms. With her proposals for subsidies, she said, "it will be affordable for everyone."

The true, compulsory nature of UHC is revealed in this quote from Mrs. Clinton. That is, it could very well be that UHC insurance will be yet another payroll deduction like Medicare and Social Security. That is, if you don't pay the UHC premiums you'll be subject to the full weight and force of the federal government's compliance mechanisms.

But there's a saving grace, thank goodness! Lucky for us that the federal government considers our individual feelings and sensibilities so thoroughly. We won't have to sweat paying the UHC premiums because they'll be automatically deducted from our paychecks! Whew! I was worried there for a minute!