Minutiae
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"Chuck Norris doesn't read books; he stares them down until he gets the information he wants out of them."
- ChuckNorrisFactsdotcom

Sunday, April 10, 2005
Bekki, should we be worried that you came out a priest and I came out a monk?

Monk
You scored 72 Holy, 52 Tactful, 87 Natural, and 45 Arcane!

Awkward at low levels, an unstoppable juggernaught at high levels, you
are the monk. I think an honest attempt was made to make the kind of
monks you always see in those awesome movies from China, but really,
they came up with something pretty weird here. You are so in tune with
the natural harmonies of this world that you can destroy *anything*...
sure, you can hit for subdual damage, but where's the fun in that? At
the end of the battle the fighter wipes his sword clean of blood and
resheaths it feeling pretty hard-core... until he looks over at you and
sees you standing in a pile of maimed and unconscious bodies,
completely unarmed, and entriely placid-faced... Fighter: "Well fought,
Brother Learned Fist! Ha ha!" *said ill-at-ease* Monk: "There, in the
trees... a baby morning dove just took it's first flight while I was
disembowleing this ogre with my quivering-toenail... so beautiful... or
did you not notice?" Your main function in the party is to keep things
a little awkward for everyone else.



My test tracked 4 variables How you compared to other people your age and gender:
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You scored higher than 87% on Godliness
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You scored higher than 52% on Tact
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You scored higher than 87% on Harmony
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You scored higher than 56% on Arcane
Link: The Which D & D Class am I Test written by effataigus on OkCupid Free Online Dating

posted by Rachel 4/10/2005
. . .
USS Clueless had several
articles a while ago that addressed a whole slew of misconceptions regarding oil and energy. I was prompted to go find them again by all the hooey being spewed about peak oil. (Note: I'm not saying that there's no risk or that talking and thinking about it is a waste of time. I am saying that freaking out about it at this point is extremely premature.)
"In terms of really large future sources of energy, I know of only four even theoretically, and none of them are practical now.

The first is called a "core tap". It's sort of like an artificially-created source of geothermal energy. You drill a hole somewhere between 10 and 30 kilometers deep, down to where a substantial amount of heat from the mantle becomes available, and then inject water into it and use the resulting steam to drive a turbine. Unlike geothermal, which relies on existing vulcanism, a core tap could be placed anywhere that the crust of the earth is acceptably thin, which on continents mainly means away from mountain ranges. The site also has to have access to a substantial source of non-salty water. Beyond the simple problem of drilling that deep, there are other technical issues involved, like making it so that the entire hole you've drilled can hold the resulting massive steam pressure without rupturing.

There is also the solar satellite. It's basically a big mirror in geostationary orbit, which uses the light of the sun to generate electricity which is converted to microwaves and beamed down to a fixed reception station on the ground. Because it's in freefall the structure can be amazingly flimsy, but it's also got to be huge and even with a flimsy structure it's going to involve a huge amount of mass. The most likely generation process is to focus the light on a boiler that runs a standard turbine, but the combination of actually putting something that big (more mass than everything the human race has ever orbited combined) and keeping it working (it will need a permanent staff) plus the problem of actually getting the energy down to earth is nontrivial. It won't be practical for decades.

Another is fusion, but I'm skeptical as to whether it will ever be possible to make that work with a capital cost per megawatt of capacity that's even remotely reasonable. Every existing proposal for fusion, not just tokamaks, involve truly amazing amounts of high tech equipment. Though the likelihood is that the power yield from these kinds of plants will likely be similar to existing coal or fission plants (assuming they can ever make them work at all), the equipment cost to make one may be stunning. Tokamaks involve mammoth cryogenically cooled magnets and world-class vacuum pumps, among other things. Laser or particle beam implosion requires a large number of very high power lasers or non-trivial particle accelerators (and world-class vacuum pumps). It's hard to see how such a plant could be built at any kind of reasonable price, not to mention how one avoids immense operating and repair costs. Acceptable MTTF's in a research facility won't cut it in an operational environment. Even assuming free fuel, the amortized capital cost and ongoing operating cost may well make the power generated unfeasibly expensive. I'm not willing to pay $10 per kilowatt-hour for electricity; the seven cents per KwH I'm paying now is already among the highest rates in the US.

The fourth and last future source I can envision is direct conversion of mass to energy, and some of my younger readers may live to see it. With the work in cosmology going on now, they're getting near to actually having an explanation of exactly what mass truly is and how the interconversion of mass and energy actually happens. It's more complicated than just particles appearing and disappearing. The energy released by fission and fusion doesn't come from a change in the number of particles; rather, the hadrons are changing weight, and the energy release comes from that. The reason that fusing hydrogen into helium releases energy is that the protons and neutrons in helium weigh slightly less than the ones in protium and deuterium, and the excess mass is released as energy (which is why the Sun shines). We know that's true, but no one knows why. No one can explain why it is that the hadrons in iron weigh less than for any other element, so that below that fusion releases energy and above that fission does. Why iron, instead of cobalt or carbon or gold? Why isn't it a single slope curve, so that fusion of everything would release energy and fission would always consume it? No one knows.

Once the theoreticians actually figure that out, it may turn out that there are ways totally unsuspected by us now to convert mass into energy that don't involve elaborate silliness like plasmas and toroidal magnetic fields and fissionable materials. What I'm talking about is a theory at the level of subatomic physics as comprehensive and important as quantum mechanics was at the level of atoms.

Our nuclear technology now is about like 19th century chemistry: we have a lot of recipes but we don't really know why they work. It took quantum theory to tell the chemists what they actually were doing, and once they had it they began to produce miracles that made 19th century chemistry look lame. Quantum mechanics also taught us how to make field effect transistors to replace vacuum tubes; a completely different approach to the same result which was vastly smaller, far more reliable, and far more efficient, dropping size and power and manufacturing costs by something like 10 orders of magnitude. Once the nuclear engineers have an equivalent theory and actually know what they're doing, they will almost certainly make all existing nuclear technology totally obsolete, and they may well figure out a straightforward way to produce energy directly from any mass. For example, it might become possible to create a system which took ordinary hydrogen, crashed the electrons into the protons to produce neutrons, and then annihilated the neutrons to produce quite large amounts of energy leaving behind only an ash of neutrinos (or antineutrinos; I can never remember which). Or it might turn out that there's an easy way to directly convert matter into antimatter, which is then a twofer in terms of energy production.

I'm not sure I actually want us to learn to do that kind of thing that efficiently. It also opens up the possibility of weapons which would make an H-bomb look like a firecracker. Once you've got direct conversion, you might conceivably be able to build weapons that could destroy planets. I'm worried enough about Saddam developing 15 kiloton fission bombs. What if some lunatic creates the first multigigaton weapon?

Regardless, of the four I actually think core taps are the most feasible. The problem is nontrivial, but it's also reasonably straightforward and doesn't require any breakthrough in theory (though it might require advances in materials science or laser technology). The process of digging the hole might well be slow but it might not be as expensive as all that, especially if it gets dug with a high power laser instead of a physical drill.

In the mean time, we're not going to substantially decrease our consumption of petroleum by converting waste animal fat into diesel fuel, or putting a million gerbils on treadmills, or by capturing the air turbulence caused by migrating birds, or using the light from fireflies, or anything like that. Irrespective of whether they can be made to work, they just won't generate enough energy to make any difference in terms of actually significantly reducing the amount of petroleum we consume, which is where this entire discussion started. Remember, the original question was whether we could send a message to our Arab friends by reducing the amount of their oil we buy. We would not only need truly substantial amounts of alternate energy, we also would need it soon and cheap.

If nifty obscure new energy source du jour can't reasonably produce at least twice as much power as Grand Coulee Dam, it isn't going to make any difference."
Considering his knowledge base and predictions track record, I'm far more inclined to listen to USS Clueless than most traditional authorities.

posted by Rachel 4/10/2005
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