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Boeing comes up with two innovations to make its 777X a real winner

777X-wingtipsWith its rival’s A350 well on the way, Boeing wants to secure its stake in the profitable twin engine long-haul sector.  It has updated its 777 at the Dubai air show by unveiling the 777X.  The new plane secured a record order of 224 aircraft from Middle East airlines, taking its order book to nearly $100bn.  The new plane borrows from the technology of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, including composite carbon fibre construction for its new wing.  At 223 feet, the longest for a twin-engined plane, it is too big for many airports.  Innovation number one is to borrow from carrier-borne aircraft and have a wing that folds on landing.  The wingtips fold 10 feet before it docks at the gate.

The second innovation incorporates holes in the tailplane to improve airflow across it and reduce turbulence and therefore drag.  This increases the plane’s fuel efficiency, as do its GE9X engines with fans of 132 inches, even larger than those in the 777’s GE90 engines, previously the largest.  This enables the engines able to deliver the power of the GE90, but with much less fuel.

Great innovations, and what drives them is competition.  If either Airbus or Boeing had the sky to themselves, we wouldn’t see new ideas coming on stream at the rate they do.  Each wants to outsell the other, with big bucks at stake whenever they come up with a winner.

Saturn’s two most charismatic moons, Titan and Enceladus, photographed together against the ring system

titan-enceladusI love it that we can take photographs of things like this.  As a boy I used to look through my homemade telescope at Saturn.  On clear nights I could see the rings, and Titan.  Sometimes I thought I could make out the faint light of maybe another two.  Titan was discovered by Chrstopher Huyghens in 1655, and Enceladus by William Herschel in 1789.  They are charismatic for different reasons.  Titan is the solar system’s second largest satellite, being larger than the planet Mercury.  Its dense, opaque atmosphere long hid its surface, but we knew it was rich in hydrocarbons, and speculated on methane lakes and geysers of ammonia mixed with water.  The Cassini-Huygens lander mission of 2004 showed us surface topography with inlets and outcrops.  Titan is the larger, faint, distant moon in the photo.

Enceladus, like Jupier’s Europa, is believed to have large quantities of subsurface water, with cryovolcanoes shooting huge geysers into space.  Some falls back, while others add to the ice particles in Saturn’s rings.  We know that Enceladus is geologically active, and believe that tidal heating of the interior is behind this.  It all makes Enceladus quite a reasonable bet for the discovery of alien life, and future missions will undoubtedly explore this.  Some of the most exciting pictures of the future will be from probes sent into the subsurface waters with lights and cameras to see what swims in those seas.  Until then, sit back and enjoy the present view.  You can just about make out some of the characteristic tiger striping on smaller Enceladus in the foreground of the shot.  Cassini was about 1m km distant from it when this image was taken.

Should we re-equip Mars with an atmosphere? NASA’s Maven might start the debate

mavenThis is not a question that requires an immediate answer, but it will come up as a future debate.  NASA’s latest Mars mission, Maven, is designed to orbit the red planet and help explain the processes that removed the original atmosphere.  We know Mars had one because we can find traces of it in meteorites that originated from there long ago.  We also see clear evidence that Mars once had abundant water, and that implied an atmosphere to retain it.  Without it liquid water would now rapidly disappear.  Mars is smaller and has a weaker gravity than Earth, so escape velocity for gas molecules is lower.  It has negligible or no magnetic field to protect it from the solar wind, which may have eroded the atmosphere over time.  Maven will measure the current rate of loss and extrapolate backwards to learn the possible timescale of atmospheric depletion.

Then comes the question of whether we do anything about it.  The process of changing planetary habitats to render them more suitable for Earth life-forms is known as ‘terraforming,’ and it is assumed that engineers of the future might develop appropriate technologies.  This assumes no current life on Mars, though there may be records of extinct life-forms.  Earth microbes might be genetically engineered to thrive in the Martian environment and to reproduce en masse and release some of the gases locked into the Martian surface.  It has also been suggested that asteroids of ice might be diverted to bombard the now-arid planet with fresh supplies of water.  Ethical issues will undoubtedly be raised by some environmentalists, especially the ones who regard human beings as a form of pollution, and would really like to see the universe altered by humans as little as possible.  On the other side will be those of the ‘can do’ attitude who want to see humans settle on other planets.  My own view is that I would like to see us do it.  Since I am unlikely to be around then, I might feature it in a science fiction story for young adults instead…

Turning the electric motorcycle into a must-have style icon with the E-Flyer

e-flyer bikeIt’s retro, it’s sweepingly stylish, eye-wideningly expensive and, appropriately enough, it’s supplied by Icon.  Set to become an instant style icon, it’s the E-Flyer, and only 50 of them are to be made.  The back wheel is driven by a 3,500 watt DC motor powered by a 52 volt, 12.5 ampere hour battery pack.  It uses 750 watts for pedal-assisted 20 mph “street legal” riding, but in its “race” mode all 3,500 watts take it up to 35 mph, more than enough to get you a ticket in most states.  Charging time is 2 hours, and range is claimed at 35 miles, though critics put it closer to 30 miles.  Its appeal is with its style and attention to detail.

“It starts with hydroformed aluminum frame coated in Icon’s Rocky Mountain Gray Powder Coat, along with a billet aluminum front fork and a smattering of brushed stainless steel, nickel, and brass accents. Avid disc brakes keep things in check up front, while a Brooks saddle keeps your bottom cosseted in hand-stitched leather.”

The huge headlight and the curved handlebars take us back to the racing bikes that graced the first decades of the Twentieth Century.  The looks could be called “classic.”  It’s a great boys’ toy, but the boys had better have big piggy-banks because it comes in at $4,995.  They had better be reasonably strong boys, too, to haul its 57 pounds around.  I don’t think it would have been fast enough for James Dean to ride, but it’s the sort of thing he might have been photographed alongside.  No, I’m not going to get one because I’ve never been into motorbikes, but I am impressed.  I think the appropriate word is “Wow!”

An intriguing list of things the rich are alleged to do every day

rich&poorI read a list (via Dave Ramsay) of daily actions that separate ‘the rich’ from ‘the poor.’  It’s an intriguing list from RichHabits.net, but there are questions about it first.  I wonder what counts as ‘rich’ and ‘poor.’  Is this the top decile of income versus bottom decile?  Or does it include property?  I also want to know how some of the information is arrived at.  Have there been surveys that show that “6% of the wealthy say what’s on their mind vs. 69% for poor?”  I am not challenging the information, only wondering how it was arrived at.

These quibbles aside, it’s undoubtedly interesting and raises the question of whether these are habits that rich people get into, or whether these are habits that tend to help people get rich.  A large proportion relate to education and reading, perhaps telling us that educated people who read will, on average, become wealthier than those who do not.  A proportion relate to determination and time horizon, the ability to defer short-term gratification for long-term goals.  Again, this is about character, and suggests that some character traits are more likely than others to bring wealth.

Educated people are more likely to exercise and to eat sensibly, so the fact that rich people do this links education and wealth yet again.  Educated people are less likely to find satisfaction in mindless TV shows, and therefore probably less likely to watch TV.  Again, it might be that these habits are ones people tend to adopt as they grow older, and that older people are generally wealthier than young ones.

As for the rich waking up 3 hours before work, this could simply tell us that they are in better-paid jobs and can afford a commute from the nicer areas they live in.  I have no idea why the rich should make happy birthday calls so much more than their poorer counterparts, though it might be down to middle class manners.  I reproduce the full list below, and note that I share nearly all of the habits of the wealthy.  I believe I still shared most of them when I struggled to pay the bills.


1. 70% of wealthy eat less than 300 junk food calories per day. 97% of poor people eat more than 300 junk food calories per day. 23% of wealthy gamble. 52% of poor people gamble.

2. 80% of wealthy are focused on accomplishing some single goal. Only 12% of the poor do this.

3. 76% of wealthy exercise aerobically 4 days a week. 23% of poor do this.

4. 63% of wealthy listen to audio books during commute to work vs. 5% for poor people.

5. 81% of wealthy maintain a to-do list vs. 19% for poor.

6. 63% of wealthy parents make their children read 2 or more non-fiction books a month vs. 3% for poor.

7. 70% of wealthy parents make their children volunteer 10 hours or more a month vs. 3% for poor.

8. 80% of wealthy make hbd calls vs. 11% of poor

9. 67% of wealthy write down their goals vs. 17% for poor

10. 88% of wealthy read 30 minutes or more each day for education or career reasons vs 2% for poor.

11. 6% of wealthy say what’s on their mind vs. 69% for poor.

12. 79% of wealthy network 5 hours or more each month vs. 16% for poor.

13. 67% of wealthy watch 1 hour or less of TV. every day vs. 23% for poor

14. 6% of wealthy watch reality TV vs. 78% for poor.

15. 44% of wealthy wake up 3 hours before work starts vs.3% for poor.

16. 74% of wealthy teach good daily success habits to their children vs. 1% for poor.

17. 84% of wealthy believe good habits create opportunity luck vs. 4% for poor.

18. 76% of wealthy believe bad habits create detrimental luck vs. 9% for poor.

19. 86% of wealthy believe in life-long educational self-improvement vs. 5% for poor.

20. 86% of wealthy love to read vs. 26% for poor.

A novel move towards a hydrogen economy by using solar power to produce it efficiently

electrolyseThe hydrogen economy is a worthy dream, given that it could provide an abundant source of non-polluting renewable energy.  There are some roadblocks on the way to it, though.  One is that it’s much cheaper to produce hydrogen from gas than it is from water.  Gas is a fossil fuel, it is not renewable, and the process is not non-polluting.  That’s fine for now because gas is cheap and plentiful, thanks to fracking, and the pollution is far less than from coal.  The hope is though, that we can produce our hydrogen in future by splitting water, which is not a fossil fuel, is in abundant supply, and can be done in a non-polluting way.  The trick might be to use solar cells to generate electricity, and use that electricity to split water.  But it has to become more efficient.  The problem is that the silicon in the solar cell that produces the oxygen half of electrolysis corrodes within hours.  Now MIT Technology Review reports that Stanford scientists have found that by coating the silicon with a layer of zinc only two-billionth of a metre thick, they can make it last for days, and possibly much longer.  Furthermore, the process is an order of magnitude faster than that achieved by other durable coatings such as metal oxides.  The holy grail is not here yet, but it might just have moved close enough for us to make out its outline.  Efficient and durable solar cells combine electricity production with electrolysis to split water, and we use the hydrogen to power our engines while emitting only water.  Until then there’s plentiful gas and solar electricity is steadily becoming cheaper.  It looks very much as if our energy needs can be met for at least a century, after which there’ll no doubt be new ideas developed.

More UK students choose US universities, but the numbers could be much higher

hillsdaleRecent figures show that a record 9,500 UK students went to the US to study in the current academic year.  This represents a 5 percent increase from last year, but the total has only risen by about 1,000 in a decade.  By contrast some 16,000 US students came to the UK in the current year.  Universities Minister David Willetts has called for more UK students to do the same.  Part of the recent increase is probably down to the increased university fees in the UK, plus the fact that many US institutions offer generous scholarships to students from overseas.  In some cases a bright student can hope to win a “full ride” with all fees paid for the entire course.  Most UK students are apparently choosing places like New York, Harvard, Los Angeles and Northwestern, among others.

Mr Willetts also called for more UK universities to follow the lead of the US by offering broad liberal arts degrees in which students assemble a range of courses from the humanities and the social and biological sciences before specializing later.  They do provide a more rounded education.  For four years I was Professor of Philosophy at Hillsdale, a place specializing in just that kind of first degree.  There was no research arm; it was a place dedicated to teaching students for their undergraduate degree.  I formed a high opinion of US university education.  It was less specialized, and no doubt a UK graduate in any subject would take it to a higher standard, but on a very narrow base by comparison.  I am very much in favour of more UK students applying for places in US institutions.  It gives them more choices, and it gives the UK universities more competition.  And it has the added advantage of giving UK students insights into a wider world beyond their shores, and international experience and contacts that will stand them in good stead later in life.

A scooter you can carry on your back when you’re not riding it

scooter1scooter2It’s a clever idea from Brazil-based designer Gustavo Brenck, although this is not yet in production, but developed as a DIY designer project.  The concept of his ‘Gig pack’ is clever: you need a backpack to keep your stuff in, so why not make one that doubles as a scooter?  It’s made of aluminium, with the rear part of the scooter folded into the nylon backpack, and the handlebars, upright and front wheel sitting snugly outside the back of it.  You unzip the pack, fasten front and back wheels and secure the straps.  Your goodies are safely retained in the backpack that now rides behind the front of the scooter.  It will carry up to 90 kilos, and has big rubber wheels to give it a comfortable ride.  It solves the problem of how to get around the traffic, and yet be able to take it into an office, shop or a coffee bar when you need to leave the pavement.  It won’t get stolen while it’s on your back, and is easily carried onto a train, tube or bus if you need to.  It’s clever, it does the job, and it looks awesomely cool…

The Harry Potter invisibility cloak just took another small step forwards

SNC121112_cloak_640.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-large.jpgMany of us dreamed as children of being able to make ourselves invisible.  We saw the movie about “The Invisible Man” and we looked at the jar of ‘vanishing cream’ on the dressing table.  Later children read Harry Potter or saw the movie.  Then in 2006 scientists demonstrated a small working model that hid a copper cylinder from microwaves.  The trick was a thin coating of metamaterials engineered for the purpose.  The problem was that it only worked for narrow bandwidths, and actually made objects more prominent at other wavelengths.  This applies to all so-called ‘passive’ cloaks.  They end up scattering more waves than are emitted by the object they are trying to hide.  You are adding matter, and that matter responds to electromagnetic signals.

The new approach, described in Physical Review Letters, pioneers an ‘active’ invisibility cloak using an ultrathin system that uses amplifiers to coat the surface of the object in an electric current.  The result is a cloak that can hide objects over a ‘broadband’ range of frequencies.  It uses energy (hence ‘active’), but achieves an invisibility over a spectrum range “an order of magnitude broader” than passive cloaks achieve.  We’re not there yet, but it’s a promising new approach.  The day will come when we’ll be able to switch it on and slip unseen out of tedious meetings….

Using efficient cleaning machines to deal with the problem of dust on solar panels

solar panelsThere’s an interesting story by Kevin Bullis in MIT Technology Review.  It’s about the purchase by solar company SunPower of a company that makes machines to clean solar panels.  The point is that some of the best places for constant sunshine are deserts, where dust can impair the panels’ efficiency, but where water is not plentiful.  The company SunPower has bought, Greenbiotics, has technology to help counter this.  They have panel cleaning machines that use 90 percent less water than handwashing takes, just half a cup per panel.  What might also be useful are dust-repellent coatings and panels less vulnerable to heat damage.

I’m pretty convinced that solar, by which I mean photo-voltaic, power is the next wave after fracking.  The cost is coming down year by year on a graph that’s going to intersect with more traditional power sources very soon.  Our cars and engines will be powered by gas from fracking for some years, with solar gradually stepping alongside as a major energy source.  It’s interesting to see SunPower make a move that could make those few percentage points that separate success and profit from failure and loss.

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