Monthly Archives: July 2007

Something to watch?

Today I have four suggestions for things you might be interested in watching. First is the hilarious French comedy Le Dîner de cons (The Dinner Game). Each week Pierre and his friends invite the strangest (or stupidest) guests they can find to dinner and compete to see who can find the best guest but one of Pierre’s guests turns out to be more than he bargained for.

Second is the made for TV movie Atomic Twister. This cheesy and incredibly inaccurate action/drama movie depicts a nuclear power plant which gets hit by a tornado — twice in one day. It details the struggles faced by the power plant team to keep the plant from “going bang” and destroying western Tennessee. Meanwhile the deputy neighbor with a bad childhood tornado experience must save one of the children next door, his estranged girlfriend (and boss’s daughter) and the power plant all in one day. If you watch this during primetime you’ll be sorely disappointed but it’s one of those movies that’s a great late late night flick (and in that way similar to The Final Countdown). This was originally for USA network I think (and not yet on DVD) but was playing several times on the SciFi channel last weekend.

Third is a summer atartup TV series on the USA network called Burn Notice. This series is about a spy who has been blacklisted, cut off and back in Miami under FBI surveillance. While he trys to figure out what happened and why he’s been cut off he has to help all his friends, family and neighbors solve problems (getting set up for crimes, children kidnapped, etc.) and make a little money. Something of a cross between MacGyver’s ingenuity (with more violence) and a spy’s slickness and witty remarks it makes for a fun watch.

Finally, I have not seen the documentary Helvetica yet but it look quite interesting and has had many good reviews. This documentary marks the 50th anniversary of the Helvetica typeface by exploring the role of fonts in our lives. Interesting indeed.

A bit about copyright

Copyright was in the news again recently. Researcher Rufus Pollock has written a new paper in which he both qualitatively and quantitatively makes a case for limited length copyright being a better incentive than perpetual (or lengthy) copyright for the creation of new works (the goal of copyright). If you don’t want to read the full paper a review of it is available from ars technica. Pollock has also written in the past about the value of the public domain. Though his most recent paper is not as strong as other critics of current intellectual property policies (see Boldrin and Levine who suggest it provides no incentive and that it be abolished altogether) it provides an important (and perhaps more reasonable point to start discussing the purpose, success and benefit of intellectual property to society.

There’s more than Chernobyl and Three Mile Island

One of the classes I teach at the University of Minnesota is a course on Technology and Public Ethics. In this class we attempt to uncover some of the social and ethical issues surrounding technology. In some cases technology is a solution to a social dilemma and in other cases it creates or contributes to the dilemma. One topic we look at is the production, transmission and consumption of energy. In the study of society and ethics cut and dried answers are few and far between, such is the case for nuclear power.

While nuclear power has traditionally been viewed with disdain because of a lack of understanding about how it works, the dangers involved and the question of nuclear waste it is again being discussed as a power production option as we become more concerned with the causes and effects of global warming, specifically carbon emissions such as those from traditional power generation sources. In the end nuclear power may provide an important supplement to renewable energy sources in combating the problem of carbon emissions. Before arriving at a conclusion like that it would be important to understand concerns surrounding nuclear power. For the most part these center on the potential for disasters and nuclear waste. While many people have heard of the Three Mile Island incident in the United States and the Chernobyl incident in the Ukraine (see this posting) these are certainly not the only incidents on record.

Two incidents that took place much earlier in the history of nuclear reactors were the Windscale (U.K.) and SL-1 (U.S.) incidents. Thanks to the web you can read about these incidents from several sources:

In addition to these reactor incidents there have been many incidents or close calls in research laboratories which, while they do not generally pose a significant threat to the general public, are dangerous for those in the immediate vicinity.

There is also the question of what to do with nuclear waste. One might argue that a sound policy is the reprocessing of nuclear waste into less harmful and more useful/reusable isotopes and while this has been met with success in Europe it is not currently policy or procedure in the United States where indefinite storage is used. The current plan is for waste to be housed deep underground at Department of Energy storage facilities (Yucca Mountain and WIPP). One of the challenges posed by this plan is a desire to warn future generations of the potential hazards in these locations when all current languages might be lost. This article explains some of the proposed solutions for just this problem.

Handy tool for sheetmetal cutting

Yesterday I was introduced to the TurboShear by Malco which is one of the greatest innovations I’ve seen in sheetmetal work. Instead of using a hand or electric shear for cutting the metal this devices chucks into your cordless drill and allows much more precise cutting (such as square corners) than electric shears and is much faster than hand shears. Shears also work well for cutting vinyl, steel mesh and other similar materials. Malco also makes a heavy duty and fiber cement board version of the product though for basic sheetmetal work such as HVAC ducting the standard TS1 seems to do the trick just fine.

Argh… More Power

You can find quite an interesting selection of videos on YouTube. Today we’re going to watch electricity in action. No, not doing useful things around the house but lots of electricity going awry. Here is a high voltage power line arcing for a while before it arcs to another phase and blows a fuse. Here is a similar video showing night time arcing at a substation. Finally, here is a substation where the arcing got bad enough to superheat the transformer oil, vaporize it and explode it.