Archive for the ‘Misc’ Category

A moonshine still

I’m not sure what it is about June that requires so much hard alcohol. But in addition to National Moonshine Day (the first Thursday of the month), we can also look forward to World Gin Day (June 9), National Bourbon Day (June 14), and National Martini Day (June 19). In any case, we start with the hardest and most notorious of these—moonshine, which is a high-proof alcoholic beverage distilled mainly from corn mash. That sounds innocent enough, I suppose, but moonshine is typically associated with illicit production (most notably during Prohibition), and until 2010, moonshine was entirely illegal in the United States. Now it can be distilled legally with a proper license, and indeed, brands like Midnight Moon can be found wherever spirits are sold. It can also—under just the right circumstances—be used to fuel a car. But how you obtain your moonshine and what you do with it is none of my business.

Image credit: By Brian Stansberry [CC BY 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

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A radio telescope

The real-life quest to find E.T.

As a card-carrying, Star Trek-watching computer geek, I have naturally known about a project called SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, for as long as I can remember. I’ve noticed countless SETI references in movies, TV shows, books, newspapers, and magazines. It’s old news, one of those things everyone has at least a basic understanding of, however little knowledge they may have of the specifics, right? Well, as my wife pointed out to me, SETI is the type of thing that simply wouldn’t impinge on the awareness of a great many intelligent, educated people, having been automatically and unconsciously filtered out by the same sort of mechanism that keeps us all from being overwhelmed by the tragedies of the daily news. And yet, whatever opinions you may have (or come to have) about this rather controversial project, I think it’s something fascinating enough—for so many reasons—that it should be part of everyone’s cultural lexicon.

A Needle in a Galaxy of Haystacks

First, the short version. SETI is a cooperative effort by a great many astronomers, engineers, mathematicians, and other scientists to find evidence of the existence of intelligent life in outer space. Their best-known tactic is using powerful radio telescopes, pointed at very specific regions of space, to listen for any radio signal that stands out from all the background noise and exhibits non-random patterns that may suggest an intelligent source. They’ve been at this for decades, and as yet have found no reliable evidence of what they’re looking for. But then, space, as Douglas Adams pointed out, is really big. If there is anyone out there, it’s bound to take some time to find them.

But isn’t that whole belief-in-aliens thing beneath the dignity of respectable scientists? What would drive people to spend their careers—and millions of dollars—on such a quixotic project? The why and how constitute a longer story.

The idea for SETI goes back to the early 1960s, when an astronomer named Frank Drake devised a mathematical way to estimate how many other intelligent civilizations there may be in our galaxy with whom we could conceivably communicate. The Drake Equation basically says that if you take the number of stars in the galaxy (hundreds of billions) and estimate the fraction of those that could have a planet circling them with the conditions necessary to support life, the fraction of those on which intelligent life could plausibly exist, and the average amount of time a civilization could expect to survive, then you can predict the likely number of intelligent alien races we might actually be able to encounter. And that number is…heavily disputed. Because all the variables that comprise the Drake Equation are ultimately based on educated guesses, different people have calculated wildly different results. Initial estimates ranged from as low as 20 to as high as 50,000,000; more recent guesses put the maximum closer to 16 million. Still other scientists say the predicted number is far smaller than 1, despite the fact that we have at least anecdotal evidence of one somewhat intelligent civilization—namely, our own.

The privately funded, non-profit SETI Institute, founded in 1984, favors the more optimistic estimates. And Drake, by the way, who conducted the first SETI-like experiments in 1960, was chairman of the Institute’s Board of Trustees from 1984–2003 and currently serves as the director of SETI’s Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe,.

Needless to say, even if there are thousands of other planets inhabited by intelligent beings, they’re inconveniently far away, so going to visit them is pretty much out of the question. We could, however, at least discover whether they exist in various ways, such as listening for their radio broadcasts. Actually decoding or understanding an alien broadcast is entirely outside the scope of SETI; the point is simply to search for signals that could only have been generated artificially. To do this, astronomers use gigantic radio telescopes, such as the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, to scan millions of frequencies coming from the vicinity of some of the stars deemed most likely to support planets with life. All this data is crunched by computers—a truly gargantuan task, given the amount of data being gathered. So thanks to a project sponsored by the University of California, Berkeley, the general public can participate in the SETI program. Millions of ordinary home and office computers around the world run free software as part of the SETI@home project to help process data from the radio telescopes during the spare cycles when the computers are not being used to do ordinary work.

Can You Hear Me Now?

Of course, there are some difficulties with the whole notion of listening for radio broadcasts from space. What if an intelligent civilization doesn’t happen to use radio broadcasts? Or what if they do, but the broadcasts are just not powerful enough to reach us? As even the SETI Institute admits, if another planet many light-years away pointed radio telescopes at Earth similar to the ones we’re pointing at them, they’d probably pick up nothing—with only a few exceptions, the strongest radio signals generated on our planet are far too weak to be sorted out from background noise over that sort of distance. So what SETI is really listening for right now is signals far more powerful than we ourselves could generate—or, and this is a long shot to say the least—a directional signal aimed straight at Earth. In the future, the SETI Institute hopes to make use of receivers that are far more sensitive and thus, perhaps, capable of detecting fainter signals. (More recently, the Institute has also begun looking for optical signals in the form of brief flashes of light.)

Meanwhile, some scientists are highly critical of SETI on the grounds that it isn’t science in the strictest sense of the term. The scientific method requires that one form a hypothesis, make predictions based on that hypothesis, and then conduct tests to see whether the predictions are true or false, providing support or counterevidence for the hypothesis. But the hypothesis that there is intelligent life in outer space is not falsifiable—it can’t be disproved, even in theory. If SETI operated for centuries, it would only be able to listen to the tiniest portion of the observable universe, and even then, a lack of evidence would not be the same as proof of the nonexistence of intelligent life beyond our planet.

Given such a slim hope of success, why does anyone bother? For the same reason people play the lottery—the odds may be terrible, but the reward, if you happen to hit the jackpot, is huge.

If we do find out that we’re not alone in the universe, that’s bound to make a lot of people very unhappy. But some of us would be relieved to know there’s intelligent life somewhere.

Image credit: By Noodle snacks [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], from Wikimedia Commons

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May the Fourth Be with You

The Disney-owned Star Wars franchise, which has generated about 43 billion dollars in revenue as I write this—and will soon be releasing new blockbuster films every week if the current pace continues—is apparently in need of more free publicity. As luck would have it, the Jedi knights, ancient protectors of the galaxy, apparently also either had lisps or were fond of shockingly bad puns. And thus we celebrate all things Star Wars today, solely because it’s fun to say “May the fourth be with you.” I have a bad feeling about this.

Image credit: By Ігор Пєтков [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons

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At the end of December 2004, I was among the millions watching the endless hours of TV coverage of the Indian Ocean tsunami. As I watched the huge death toll rise by the hour, I remember thinking, naïvely, “How could so many people not have known what was coming?” After a bit of reflection, I had a worse thought: “How could they possibly have known?”

Living in the U.S., I’ve become accustomed to having instant information about everything. When something newsworthy occurs anywhere in the country, television crews materialize out of nowhere and broadcast the story to a nation of information junkies. And if the TV or radio isn’t on, I’m never far from a cell phone or a Web browser. If I think I feel an earthquake—not an uncommon occurrence here in San Francisco—I can check a Web site that tells me its strength and epicenter within minutes. The notion that something cataclysmic could be occurring without my knowledge, whether in my neighborhood or across the continent, is almost unfathomable.

And yet, when I fantasize about a dream vacation, the picture in my mind is invariably that of a tiny, picturesque island out in the middle of the ocean somewhere. Maybe I’m even in a bungalow built on stilts over the water. I’ve left all my gadgetry behind, and have nothing to worry about but finishing the next chapter of my book and maybe taking a quick swim before dinner. I’m not thinking about staying connected to the rest of the world; that’s what makes it a vacation. And that, tragically, is exactly the situation many tourists found themselves in when the tsunami struck. Of course, even locals with phones and televisions were not warned, because the existence of the tsunami was largely unknown before it hit.

Since then, while the governments of every coastal nation in the world have talked about the urgent need for a global tsunami warning system, I’ve been wondering exactly how that could happen. On the one hand, I want to know why it isn’t trivially easy (Don’t we have satellites?), and on the other hand, why it isn’t immediately dismissed as impossible (What about all those people on the remote islands without communication equipment?). Although I knew that a lot of money was being spent on sensors and radios, I didn’t understand just how this proposed system would work. So I decided to look into it.

Little Things Mean a Lot
Tsunamis usually begin with strong earthquakes, and there is already a global network of sensors that can adequately detect and measure seismic activity. But not all strong earthquakes that occur in the ocean produce tsunamis, and even when they do, seismic data gives few clues as to the direction or speed of the waves. So although some regional tsunami warning systems are based on seismic data alone, such systems are notorious for false positives. The only way to know for sure if a tsunami is coming is to observe the waves as they move. But perhaps “observe” is not the right word; tsunami waves appear quite small at the surface when far out at sea, even near a quake’s epicenter. With a height of sometimes as little as a few centimeters, they look like ordinary waves from a boat or plane. Only as they approach land do they swell to dangerous sizes. This characteristic makes detection a tricky business—requiring high-tech equipment and computerized analysis.

The first method used to supplement seismic data was taking readings from tide gauges. Although some tide gauges are quite sophisticated, many are simple mechanical devices that measures the height of a float protected from waves by an enclosure called a stilling well. Because tide measurements require a fixed point of reference, tide gauges are normally installed on or near a coast. Thus the data they provide is more useful for landmasses farther out from the tsunami’s starting point.

A more direct way of detecting tsunamis is to measure changes in pressure on the ocean floor. The Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART) program, already in use in the Pacific ocean, uses bottom-mounted sensors to detect changes in water pressure consistent with a tsunami. The sensors relay the information via sonar to a buoy floating on the ocean’s surface; the buoy, in turn, transmits the data to a satellite, which relays it to ground-based stations for processing. DART greatly increases both the speed and accuracy of tsunami warnings, but the sensors and buoys are prone to failure and must be serviced or replaced frequently. And there are at present far too few of them in place to monitor all the world’s oceans.

Although tsunamis out at sea are not visible to the naked eye, radar satellites, if they happen to be pointed in the right place at the right time, can detect them. The problem with satellites, apart from knowing where and when to look, is that the data they produce must be processed back on Earth; the time required—currently several hours—is generally too long to be of use for warnings. Future generations of satellites, however, may overcome these limitations.

The Challenge of the Last Mile
But even if and when the world’s oceans are populated with perfectly functioning tsunami sensors, the truly phenomenal challenge will be getting the information from the scientists who operate the equipment to the people living in the coastal areas where the tsunamis will hit. For one thing, tsunamis move incredibly fast—up to 1,000 km/h (about 600 mph). So land areas must be at least a few hundred kilometers away from a quake’s epicenter to have even a small chance of receiving a warning in time. Once the warning does come, the nation must have the infrastructure to relay it rapidly to coastal areas at any hour of the day or night. Although telephones, television, radio, and the internet can be used for such purposes, residents need something that can wake them in the middle of the night—such as a siren—to be assured of having maximum time to react. While such warning systems may be feasible in densely populated coastal towns, it’s inconceivable that every remote beach in the world is ever going to have a tsunami alarm.

Then, of course, there’s the little matter of preparedness. If someone told me right now that a tsunami was going to hit my house in 15 minutes, I wouldn’t know what to do—where to go, what to take with me, how to be as safe as possible. Every child attending school in California learns what to do in the event of an earthquake, but not, in general, how to cope with sudden giant waves. This is all the more true in many other parts of the world. No matter how great the technology is, there’s no substitute for education.

All that to say: if the world’s leaders keep their promises, spend enough money, and encounter no significant technological barriers, global tsunami detection could very well be a reality in a few years. Will we then—or ever—have the ability to effectively warn everyone of an impending wave? Absolutely not. But with diligent attention to education and civil preparedness, we can certainly hope to reduce the risks dramatically.

I learned long after the fact that some friends of mine had been very close to some of the tsunami zones when the waves hit, but all of them returned safely. This made the tragedy seem more personal, and the need for a warning system more urgent. Even knowing what I know now, I still long for that idyllic island getaway. I may, however, pack a cell phone on my dream vacation—just in case. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Tsunami Warning Systems…

Soon after this article was posted, I received messages from two different readers pointing out that Robert Cringely has been talking about tsunami warning systems in his blog—see Wave of Change (December 30, 2004) and the second half of Help Me Help You (January 14, 2005). Cringely is an advocate of the Open Tsunami Alert System (OTAS), which seeks to automate the process of using seismic data to relay tsunami warnings to affected areas using the Internet, SMS text messages, and other means. OTAS will unquestionably be cheaper and more efficient to implement than the large-scale, government-funded projects I discussed above. On the other hand, it is (by its own admission) only a partial solution—the seismic data alone is notoriously unreliable, and the system does not address the needs of folks in areas without cell phones or Internet access (yes, there still are some!).

To learn more about tsunami warning systems, see:

News articles about tsunami warning systems:

Other pertinent sites include:

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An Ice Hotel

When I first heard about an “ice hotel,” I thought it must be a joke. I’ve heard of igloos, of course, but that’s not really the image that comes to mind when I think hotel. Sure, there was the Bad Guy’s ice lair in the James Bond film “Die Another Day,” but that’s just fantasy, right? The thought that someone might really construct an entire hotel out of ice, rent rooms, and then repeat the process each year was almost too wacky to believe. Believe it—not only does it happen, it has now become the trendiest way to spend a winter vacation.

They’ve Got It Down Cold
The first ice hotel was built in 1989 in a village called Jukkasjärvi in northern Lapland, Sweden. That first year it was a modest, 60-square-meter igloo; this year, the structure measures over 4,000 square meters and has 85 rooms. Construction begins each year in October, and the hotel is open for guests from December through April (weather permitting). By summer the hotel has melted, but plans are already underway for next year’s bigger, better ice structure.

Ice hotels are built, naturally, entirely out of frozen water in the form of ice blocks and hard-packed snow. In some cases, blocks of ice are sawed from a river; for other parts of the building snow is compressed into wooden forms to create building blocks. The guest rooms contain beds made of a block of ice and topped with a foam mattress. You sleep in high-tech mummy-style sleeping bags covered with animal pelts; although the air temperature in the room is below freezing, your body remains toasty warm. If nature calls in the middle of the night, you can head to an adjoining heated building with conventional facilities. Outhouses would not be much fun, as the exterior temperature frequently reaches –40°.

Put It on Ice
But a classy hotel is much more than a place to sleep, and at the prices of these rooms, you’d better get much more than a sleeping bag. Although the design changes from year to year, Sweden’s Icehotel invariably includes an ice bar for vodka-based drinks (beer would freeze); even the glasses and plates are made of ice. There’s also an ice chapel for “white” weddings, an ice cinema, an ice sauna (I have yet to figure that one out), ice art galleries, and even—I am not making this up—a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre built of ice. Most guests stay only one night in an ice room; ordinary heated hotel rooms are available nearby for longer stays. Even so, the hotel has a waiting list several years long.

Sweden’s Icehotel was the first, but imitators are appearing all across the Arctic Circle. In Kangerlussuaq, Greenland you can find the more modest Hotel Igloo Village, with six adjoining igloos (four of which serve as guest rooms). If you want the igloo experience in Greenland during the summer, you can also stay at the Hotel Arctic in the town of Ilulissat, where guests enjoy all the comforts of home in melt-proof aluminum igloos. For the past five years, Québec has had its own Ice Hotel, modeled on the original Swedish Icehotel and rivaling it in size and luxury.

In 2004, the United States saw its first ice hotel—the Aurora Ice Hotel at the Chena Hot Springs Resort in Fairbanks, Alaska. During its construction, state officials cited the hotel’s owner for fire code violations and did not permit the building to open until smoke detectors and fire extinguishers had been installed in each room. (I’m not kidding. Only in America.) Although the initial structure melted in the spring of 2004, it was rebuilt for the 2005 season, this time inside a larger, refrigerated structure—with the goal of keeping it frozen and habitable year-round.

As far as I know, I’m not personally acquainted with anyone who has stayed at an ice hotel. I rather suspect—marketing hype and high prices notwithstanding—that it would be a decidedly uncomfortable experience. But then, many uncomfortable experiences are worth having, and it’s not every night you get to drink vodka out of an ice glass while watching the Northern Lights, and then sleep on a slab of ice. Sign me up! —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Ice Hotels…

To learn more about ice hotels in various parts of the world, follow these links.




For information about the ice hotel in Fairbanks, Alaska, see Aurora Ice Hotel at Chena Hot Springs Resort.

cover art

The ice hotel in Die Another Day, while based on the Icehotel in Sweden, was really made out of plastic. Ice doesn’t hold up well under hot studio lights.

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