Friday, November 16, 2012

Grokking the Hyperloop

I've made no secret of my "man-crush" on Elon Musk. As a former mechanical engineer, I view his engineering track record as nothing short of astonishing. From developing the best car in world to the first entirely non-government space rockets, Elon has set the bar for aspiring engineers. His latest brainstorm is on a new mode of transportation, which he refers to as the "hyperloop". There has been a lot of speculation about what the idea is, but most have settled on some form of train in a tube. I have my own pet theory though that I just had to publish before Elon sets us straight.

My thinking is a fairly natural extension of the electric car. I've already been advocating that to solve transportation issues we need to seriously consider redesigning how highways operate. I've had significant doubts regarding the viability of public transportation in a country like the United States. Public transportation is certainly the best solution for dense urban environments, but it quickly falls down as density declines. With hundreds of billions on the line for high speed trains, I can't help wonder if there is a better, more technology advanced solution.

I've modeled traffic some in the past and can now clearly show how with a mixed global and local optimization solution we could eliminate traffic on highways, ensuring the maximum throughput safely at all times. Taking these ideas a little further we approach my thoughts on the hyperloop. One of the main issues with electric cars is highway driving. It's both the place of least efficient driving and longest duration. What if to address the range issue with electric cars we just brought power to highways? While we're at it, why don't we get rid of rolling friction and deliver that power through rails? Similar to how those trucks used to service railroads can drop down wheels for travel on rails, we could have cars that deploy wheels on these new powered highway tracks. You could still have all the braking and accelerating benefits of rubber tires since you can just drop down and use them anytime they are needed.

Taking this one step further for long direct routes, these rail highways could be enclosed in a tube where the air is forced along at the global travel speed. Now we've eliminated both air drag and the rolling friction. This would allow electric cars to travel at much higher speeds all the while maintaining the efficiency of mass transportation. Now slap solar panels on top of the hyperloop and you have a completely self sufficient, rapid mode of transportation. I do have concerns with getting to the speeds Elon is after (faster than a jet), but I do think the overall simplicity and convenience would be time savings enough. Below is a crude sketch of my concept idea. Now we'll just have to see what Elon comes up with.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Greatest hits

I've been a reminiscing a bit tonight. I didn't do so good in keeping up with this blog, but with nobody really reading it, there didn't seem to be much point. Yet it still captures a good part of the journey that I've been on for the last eight years plus.

This weekend I hope to finally turn the switch on an idea that has essentially taken a decade to evolve. What started out as a mission to help create the global mind has now become a mission to create a viable third political party in the United States. I honestly don't know anymore if I'm just crazy or if this really is actually a brilliant idea. None of my friends have been (so far) ready to call me crazy, but there has also been a fare share of skepticism.

These questions have only helped further refine what the Foundation Party is all about, but at the same time it makes me wonder if this will ever really take off in the way that my mind seems to imagine it to. All I know is that I simply can't wait any longer. As I look back at all that I've thought through and all that has happened and needs to happen the world, I've finally reached the point where I'm ready to go all in.

It's a gamble for sure. I'm now a father times two and with a wife raising our children I can ill afford screwing things up royally. At the same time, I think I'll simply lose it if I don't at least give this all a shot.

So here it goes. Here goes a revolution. Let it fail or let it succeed, just let me find some kind of path for doing what it is that I truly feel that I'm meant to do. I once read a Quaker story about how if a feeling is just fleeting, it is nothing more than an impulse. Yet if there is something persistent, something that simply won't go away, but rather grows ever stronger. It is divine. Not in any strictly biblical sense, but rather something part of the wonder and awe in the universe. That is ultimately how I feel about the Foundation Party.

It's not longer just a concept, but rather an obsession. Something that is both so real in my mind and yet so unreal in the real world. Does that make it impossible? Perhaps, but I guess I'm tired of the question. In a few more weeks I think I'll have my answer.

Wish me luck. And if you actually get what I'm talking about, please, please help me.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

What is the climate fight really about?

A couple of recent news stories on climate change highlight the growing influence of opinion over reason at time when the depth of scientific knowledge grows ever faster. The first story covered the completion of a huge study of global temperatures and CO2 levels over the last 20,000 years. I've actually looked at the 420K years of data from Antarctica in some detail  and know just how clear a correlation exists between temperature and CO2.

The big remaining question has been: which is causing which and how significant is the impact? What's amazing about this new global study is how clear the rise in CO2 precedes the rise in temperature (see charts below), basically providing irrefutable evidence of the direction and significance of causation. Not only that, they are able to show how a rise of around 30ppm kicked off a whole feedback loop of climate change and CO2 releases that brought an end to the last ice-age. Over the entire 20,000 year period CO2 levels rose just over 100ppm. To put this into perspective, mankind has raised CO2 levels 100ppm in just 100 years! I don't think it takes a scientist to find this alarming especially since these levels are also 30% higher and increasing 200 times faster than at any time in the last 650,000 years. While I don't think it should be necessary to conjure up doomsday scenarios resulting from such changes, I think it is pretty naive to dismiss catastrophic consequences for what we are doing to change the atmospheric composition.

Source: BBC News

So, why is Antarctica different? According to another story on the paper its temperatures rose more quickly due to a change in ocean currents that used to carry heat away from the region.  For years skeptics have tried to use the inconclusive correlations found in the Antarctic ice cores to claim that the CO2 effects are grossly overstated, but this new study really, truly should put an end to that argument...right?

Apparently not. The second article is a story from just a few days later about a letter sent by 49 former NASA folks, several with high profile titles, criticizing the agency for its "stance" on global warming. It seems crazy to me that 49 people, that are not climate scientists are somehow representative of the other 23,000 current employees, much less former employees. This 0.2% of NASA is simply part of the 3% of all scientists that choose to ignore evidence like that of the first article. How is this balanced reporting?

As a scientist, I take it kind of personally that this get's any attention at all. It's been frustrating to watch how such a small number of people have eroded what should have been settled years ago. As a result, instead of moving on to what we actually do about CO2 and climate change, we've gone back to basically arguing whether the earth is flat or round. What is more is that I don't even understand why they are fighting it so fiercely. Why should we ignore so much evidence when there are so many other positives for having a carbon neutral economy and zero negatives? Energy independence, less pollution, no more oil spills, no more trapped or killed coal miners, and a whole new wave of innovation and technology are just a few examples from our potential future that this 3% is leading a charge against. Why?

I think the real fear these folks have is about the upfront cost and their own uncertainty about how changing the status quo would play out. Even though we don't really know what the total upfront cost will be, the reality is that it is not a cost, but rather an investment. The only fear then should be that it will take much longer to recoup the investment and reap the rewards. As the father of a son, with another on the way, I'm far less concerned with when the investment is paid back as I am with being certain that there is a better future for them.

Those that know me are already aware how strongly I feel about the way to handle problems as a society. I'm afraid that we've become too hypersensitive to "everyone has the right to their own opinion" and "we must allow for balanced reporting". These aren't opinions, these are facts and it isn't balanced when 3% is put on the same level as 97%.  I don't feel like I should have to apologize or yield on an issue that I know to be scientifically correct and yet that is just what has been happening in policy debates today. We've given ourselves over to a world based on opinions instead of one based on reality.

Climate change is only one of many realities we are ignoring. Sustainability on every level of society is at a risk and I think most people feel this and as a result, feel less optimistic about the future. Yet again, in reality, we have all the skills and tools in front of us to fix our problems. All it takes is a little courage and vision to bring it about.