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The Engineer's Notebook

The Engineer's Notebook is a shared blog for entries that don't fit into a specific CR4 blog. Topics may range from grammar to physics and could be research or or an individual's thoughts - like you'd jot down in a well-used notebook.

World's Biggest (Sort of) Sailboat

Posted September 30, 2015 10:31 AM by HUSH
Pathfinder Tags: richest sailboat SHIP yacht

I have a friend that believes in the theory of two extra paychecks each year. Hypothetically, most people budget to pay their expenses from their minimum monthly income (two checks), so when the rare third monthly paycheck arrives--and its funds aren't committed to anything--it's a bonus. Free money. Collect $200 when you pass Go.

So what do you do with that extra money? Or, to segue into the topic of this blog, what do you do with all those extra millions of rubles if you are Russian billionaire Andrey Melnichenko? He made his fortune by banking, mining coal, producing fertilizer, building a power plant and exporting pipelines. He may only be the 97th richest person in the world and ninth richest in Russia (net worth $8.8 billion USD), but Melnichenko knows opulence like few others.

In 2004 he commissioned the construction of his first supership, which would eventually be called Motor Yacht A for his first initial and so it would be listed first in vessel registers. Motor Yacht A is powered by twin MAN RK280 diesel engines--at the time were the most powerful diesel engines available--that supply 12,000 hp. The fuel reservoir is 200,000 U.S. gallons and provides a 7,500 mile range. It takes 37 crew to cruise the Motor Yacht A. The exterior features a reverse bow to reduce wake and a thinning beam that seems similar to U.S. Navy stealth warships. Features of the ship include more than 25,000 ft.² of living space, a helipad, three swimming pools, a dance club, and seven sleeping quarters. Bomb-proof glass, 40 CCTV cameras, biometric access and an escape pod ensure guest safety. The owner's quarters contain 2,500 ft.² of living space, about the size of an average American home. Estimates place the construction cost at $250-300 million dollars. Here's a more illustrative gallery of Motor Yacht A's extravagance.

Presumably bored with Motor Yacht A, Melnichenko has now commissioned Sailing Yacht A. Since it's still under construction, many of the design specs are still speculative. Yet it's hard to keep a 468-foot-long yacht under total secrecy. Technically the boat is a sail-assisted motor yacht, as even with three masts the sails won't create enough drag or lift to propel the ship. The masts are the tallest and most highly-loaded freestanding composite structures ever and can accommodate loads of more than 40 MN. When sails are deployed they will cover 48,500 ft.² and fiber-optics will deliver real-time data about sail performance. Two MTU 3,600 kW diesel engines and two 4,300 kW electric motors deliver power to two adjustable-pitch propellers. Everything on the ship will be controlled from customized touchscreens.

Believe it or not, Sailing Yacht A will also be relatively sustainable. High ratios of carbon fiber and other advanced materials help keep the weight down. Melnichenko plans to license some of the innovative technologies to help recoup research, development and building costs-and estimated $450 million. Many of the features of Motor Yacht A reappear in Sailing Yacht A, such as pools, a helipad, a dance club, and extensive security. Just like a modern sloop, Sailing Yacht A also includes a keel, but this keel has a 1.8 ton piece of glass so travelers can climb into the keel and watch the ocean. And here's a gallery of this massive motor-sailor.

To really put this in perspective, this is someone's toy. The Melnichenkos will likely spend just a few weeks aboard this ship every year. Meanwhile the common people are crowding 5,000+ people on cruise ships. At least they're keeping the sailing industry running downwind.

10 comments; last comment on 10/03/2015
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Biodynamic Wine: More than Organic

Posted September 24, 2015 8:00 AM by BestInShow
Pathfinder Tags: agriculture biodynamic organic wine

My earlier CR4 blogs discussed non-chemical-based lawn-care practices, so you won't be surprised to see another entry along the general line of organic horticultural practices. While traveling around Provence last summer I saw quite a few vineyards labeled "biologique," "biodynamique" or simply just "bio." I assumed these terms were the French equivalent of "organic," but I did wonder if I'd misunderstood "biodynamique," a term I'd never encountered.

After I returned home, I did the logical thing and searched the Internet for "biodynamic." And I discovered that not only was my guess wrong, biodynamic agriculture predates our contemporary understanding of organic agriculture. The practice of biodynamics is precise, complicated, and controversial.

Organic vs biodynamic agriculture

First, a caveat. The legal definitions for "certified organic" products vary from country to country. No national government certifies a "biodynamic" designation; Demeter International, a network of national biodynamic certifiers, does so. "Sustainable" has no legal meaning, so I'll say no more about it here.

Organic and biodynamic agriculture share a number of practices: avoidance of synthetic chemicals for fertilization and pest control, no genetically-modified (GMO) seed, and use of techniques that preserve the integrity of the soil content and structure. For biodynamic practitioners, though, this is not an agricultural system but a philosophy of agriculture first espoused by anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner - the same Steiner who developed the Waldorf approach to education. His eight lectures, Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture, are the bible of biodynamic farming. Like organic farmers, their biodynamic counterparts treat their farms as living systems.

Unlike organic farmers, though, biodynamicists maintain their living systems following the minutely specific regimen Steiner prescribes. Only manual plowing is allowed. An affinities calendar, based on lunar cycles and the Zodiac, dictates when different farming activities take place (see link at end of post). Fields and crops receive preparations that increase soil nutrients and improve soil structure, among other effects. The procedures for making these preparations sound bizarre. For example, to make horn manure, the farmer stuffs cow horns with fresh cow manure, buries the horns in the fall, unearths them in the spring, and distributes the stuff over fields in the spring. This brief paragraph doesn't begin to scratch the surface of the biodynamic soil. This avowedly non-scientific approach to agronomy attracts much criticism, even though many of the practices are similar to those used in organic farming.

Is biodynamic better than organic?

Given the similarities between these two farming methods, why opt for the more labor-intensive biodynamic approach? Is it less expensive? Is it better for the soil? Does biodynamically-grown food taste better?

The small body of peer-reviewed research focuses on soil quality and crop yields. J.P. Reganold of Washington State University's Dept. of Crop and Soil Science, conducted a handful of studies between 1993-2002 comparing the effects of organic and biodynamic methods on soil biological communities. The results consistently indicated that both biodynamic and organic methods result in higher-quality soils, with better structure and organic matter, but neither was superior to the other. Results from a 21-year-long Swiss study led by Paul Mader confirmed that both biodynamic and organic methods greatly improve soils. Crop yields were 21% lower than conventional farming, but the researchers concluded that the ecological benefits outweighed the lower yields.

These studies didn't address subjective or qualitative questions such as the flavor of crops grown organically/biodynamically. A small but growing number of winemakers have embraced biodynamic methods, and they believe that wines produced from biodynamic grapes absorb the characteristics of the terroir - the qualities imparted by the place the vines grow - much better than non-biodynamic grapes. According to the Wine Folly website: no. According to Australian research published earlier this year: yes.

In the 2010-2014 wines, ORG [organic] and in particular BD [biodynamic] wines, were consistently described as being more rich, textural, complex and vibrant than LCON [low-input conventional] and HCON [high-input conventional] wines. These findings support anecdotal evidence from winemakers who have used this language as a reason why they have chosen to make wine from organically and/or biodynamically managed fruit.

A plus for wine made from biodynamic grapes is the lack of added sulfites. This plus can be a minus if vintners want to ship wines, since sulfites are preservatives.

The future for biodynamic agriculture

Interest in biodynamic agriculture is increasing. Demeter International reports that in June of 2015 close to 5,000 farms worldwide have earned its certification, doubling the number reported in 1997. Wine grape growers and vintners were among early adopters of biodynamic practices; vineyards are particularly well-suited to the Steiner regimen. For now I'll leave as an exercise for my readers the decision about whether biodynamic wine, or indeed any certified biodynamic agricultural product, has superior qualities. I need another trip to France to make my own first-hand determination.

Image credits

Demeter USA

Livesprings Farm

Caveau de la Tour


5 comments; last comment on 09/28/2015
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2038: Y2K 2.0?

Posted July 06, 2015 9:03 AM by Jonathan Fuller
Pathfinder Tags: 2038 problem date bug Y2K

Who could forget Y2K? I have fond memories of counting down to midnight on January 1, 2000 prepared to witness planes fall from the sky and neighbors rushing to their cars to initiate bank runs as computer systems reverted back to William McKinley's presidency. Little chaos actually occurred, of course, even in non-remediated computer systems. In the present day, though, worrywarts have set their sights on 2038, the latest date bug for which we're all currently unprepared.

Since the dawn of widespread computer systems date bugs have occurred for various reasons. Systems crashed on January 4, 1975 because that date overflowed the 12-bit time field in certain operating systems. The less-publicized Y2K+10 problem was due to a variance in the way hexadecimal and binary-coded decimal (BCD) represent numbers. In short, BCD systems mistakenly read hexadecimal encoding as "2016" rather than 2010, deactivating 20 million German bank cards but not much else. And the original Y2K was an issue because early time systems represented years as two digits rather than four, so unmodified computers would represent 2000 as 1900.

Y2038 is pretty similar to the 1975 incident in that it's essentially an overflow problem for Unix or Unix-like systems. These systems encode dates as a 32-bit integer, time_t, representing the number of seconds since the Unix epoch, 00:00:00 Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) on January 1, 1970. In the constantly incrementing binary integer, the first digit has always been 0, representing a future date post-1970. But the integer will wrap at 3:14:07 UTC on January 19, 2038. At this point, it will be a 1 (indicating a "past", or pre-1970, date) followed by a string of 31 zeroes, leading systems to encode a date of December 13, 1901.

Early programmers used 32-bit Unix coding because they didn't have the luxury of using fast, cheap memory and processors like the ones we run into today. A number of modern data structures still use 32-bit embedded time representations, however. File systems, databases, older COBOL systems, manufacturing equipment, and certain medical devices are all at risk of failure if not corrected.

Because this problem has been recognized and defined a good 23 years before its critical failure point, some researchers believe that some future technology might be able to bypass the situation altogether without any scrambling to modify today's systems. It's also reasonable to assume that at least some existing systems will be updated, and that fixes could become sticky. Remapping time_t to a 64-bit integer is simple enough, but persistent data migration could be time-consuming and costly. And if file system data is incorporated into remote networks, techs must update time values across all points of the system at once.

We don't know exactly what'll happen in January 2038. Long-lived embedded systems with future planning and forecasting cycles might cause minor infrastructure difficulties if not upgraded. Twenty years from now might therefore be a great time to get into IT consulting, yet as the old IT adage goes: if the job gets done and done well, no one will notice anyway.

Image credit: John Swindells / CC BY-SA 2.0

2 comments; last comment on 07/08/2015
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Speaking of Social Robots...

Posted June 18, 2015 12:00 AM by Jonathan Fuller

The fact that we humans have a predilection for sociable robots is pretty well mirrored in our science fiction creations. Rosie's smart-aleck comments on The Jetsons, Asimov's positronic robot brains, A.I.'s robotic version of Pinocchio--all of these point to our fantasies about humanistic robots that can think, feel, and act like us.

Social robots are far from ubiquitous in the US and Europe, where the extent of our everyday interactions with robotics ends with the occasional Roomba. But in Japan, where culture dictates that inanimate objects have spirit and personality, they're rapidly becoming commonplace. If the spread of social robots is indeed inevitable, what effect will they have on our own social expectations?

Robots that imitate speech and other human behaviors have been around for decades. My generation and those before it may recall Tamogatchis, the pocket-sized digital pets that "grow" when nurtured by their owners; and Furbies, fuzzy domestic robots programmed to "learn" English over time. While these toys provided a bit of youthful amazement through clever programming and simulation, they ultimately didn't carry much practical value.

Today's robots are considerably more useful. One of the Japanese robots, Paro, is fashioned after a baby harp seal and has been sold commercially since 2004. Paro is a therapeutic robot for use in nursing homes, mental health facilities, and hospitals to calm patients--essentially a robotic version of an animal-assisted therapy pet. As such, it's designed to be as cute as possible and responds to gentle stroking using tactile sensors. Paro can also simulate emotions, respond to specific sounds, and learn a patient's name.

A second robot, Pepper, is a little creepier and more advanced. About the size of a six-year-old, he's equipped with a 3D camera that can sense activity within a 10 ft range. Pepper's camera and other sensors allow him to read nonverbal social cues in order to detect emotions, granting him something like artificial empathy. While he's not as glamorous as controlled humanistic robots like Geminoid F, Pepper is the closest we've come to developing a robot that serves as a reliable companion by both semi-intelligently conversing and simulating understanding.

Pepper's been a fixture in many SoftBank Mobile stores in Japan as a greeter and passive salesperson. (It's no coincidence that Tokyo-based SoftBank owns Pepper's manufacturer, French company Aldebaran Robotics.) And he's been on sale commercially since February of this year for the astonishingly low price of 198,000 yen, or around $1,600.

Social robots have their detractors, such as Sherry Turkle, a psychology professor and head of MIT's Initiative on Technology and Self. Turkle has voiced concerns over the shallowness of robotic interaction, citing social robots as the latest in a string of technologies--including texting and social networking--that clean up messy and unpredictable human relationships to the degree that Her becomes reality sooner than we'd anticipated. (She also has a pretty interesting TED talk about how technology shapes our psychology and emotions.) Turkle's underlying thesis is that as we increasingly lean on technology for social stimulation, the less we expect from (or even want to be with) each other.

While Paro's doing well in therapeutic applications and Pepper's influence is growing, they give off the unsettling vibe of being not-quite-alive. And, as the video above shows, Pepper's conversation skills still lead to dodged questions and dead ends that would render it DOA in a Turing test. Now that I think of it, these traits might catapult him into a new career as a robot politician...

Image credit: Jennifer / CC BY-SA 2.0

4 comments; last comment on 06/27/2015
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The Hyperloop Lives

Posted June 09, 2015 2:34 PM by HUSH

If you ever compose a blog for CR4, prepare to be told you're wrong. It has happened to me dozens of times and it's somewhat of an 'earned stripe.' Well by now, I've been writing on CR4 long enough to witness myself become wrong.

In July 2013, when Elon Musk publically debuted his idea for the Hyperloop, I believed that the Hyperloop was innovative and exciting, but that red tape and the wild price would prevent it from usurping high-speed rail, or ever being realized. Musk had retasked some engineers at SpaceX and Tesla to work on his Hyperloop concept. He then debuted the open-source project with a lengthy white paper and invited other entrepreneurs to improve the Hyperloop design, since Musk was too busy to pursue the project himself.

Even today it is easy to see why I was so pessimistic at the time. A full-scale Los Angeles to San Francisco Hyperloop would cost $7.5 billion, according to Musk. A UC Berkeley professor estimated the real expense to be more like $100 billion. It would be built completely from conjectural technology, and though several independent engineering firms said that the concept was feasible, it needed work. Also, the rider experience could be distressing, as people are subjected to 800 mph in sealed, claustrophobia-inducing metal capsules.

But the invitation from Musk was all it took for several startups to jump onto the Hyperloop bandwagon, and the most successful is Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, which is building a five-mile-long test track in California for $100 million. HTT enlisted the help of over 100 engineers around the U.S. who participated remotely for stock rather than salary. HTT won't go so far as to say its five-mile-long track is a prototype, as it won't have the speed or distance of a true Hyperloop (though those specs have yet to be released). Rather, it will be used to test Hyperloop concepts. HTT expects this sub-Hyperloop to be opened by 2017 with public ridership by 2018.

A few of the areas under scrutiny? Capsule design is one of them. Engineers discovered that the capsules featured in Musk's original design weren't feasible. HTT sees a future where each capsule is unique-some are first class, some can transport a car or cargo, some are slower for anxious or ill riders. HTT has also put four-foot-diameter wheels on the trains to help cornering. It is also important to see how the Hyperloop responds to seismic activity, as the loop needs to remain smooth and sealed for its entire length. Eventually HTT wants to bring sub-Hyperloops to most metro areas, at first linking cities and then establishing intra-city networks.

Of course because one is never enough, Musk is still planning on building his own prototype Hyperloop in Texas. I'm surprised the Hyperloop is making such ambitious progress, but it still seems far off from being a practical solution. I'd love to see it built, but it's more likely to end up like other atmosphere railways-an abandoned tunnel 100 years from now--than as a disruptive technology.

7 comments; last comment on 08/23/2015
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Golf Courses: Less Green is Greener

Posted June 08, 2015 11:39 AM by BestInShow

Do golf courses eat up more than their share of scarce resources, especially water? Of the approximately 35,000 golf courses worldwide, fewer than 250 are true links courses, which require less water. The remainder consists of an estimated (2003) 1.2 million acres of irrigated turfgrass.

The United States Golf Association (USGA) and many of its member courses are working to make sustainability a reality. Charlotte News-Observer columnist Luke DeCock quoted USGA executive Mike Davis on factors affecting the game of golf's sustainability: "All of us who care about the game, we talk about the time it takes, the dwindling participation levels from junior golfers, we talk about the cost of the game. At the USGA we would say the biggest threat, the biggest threat to the game long term, is water." Pinehurst Course #2, host of both the 2014 U.S. Open and the U.S. Women's Open, is a standout example of the move towards smarter water usage for golf courses.

A bit of Pinehurst history

Founded in 1895 by Boston soda-fountain magnate James Walker Tufts, the village of Pinehurst , N.C., opened its first golf course in 1901. The legendary golf course designer Donald Ross laid out Pinehurst's second and most famous course, the eponymous No. 2, which opened for 18-hole play in 1907. Ross said of Pinehurst No. 2 that it was "the fairest test of championship golf that I have ever designed," quite a statement considering Ross's legacy of more than 400 courses. For 2013-2014, Golf magazine experts voted No. 2 the 16th-best in the world. And Pinehurst No. 2 has hosted more single golf tournaments than any other course in the U.S. Clearly, this is a legendary golf course.

So why tamper with success?

Restoration of No. 2 to the spirit of Ross's original design kicked off in 2010 and was completed in time for the 2014 championships. Over time, the course had evolved away from Ross's original design, with more turf and more groomed "rough." So one compelling reason to renovate No. 2 was simply to return the course to the design Ross intended.

According to DeCock, one reason Ross's rough consisted of sand and local plants - some might call them weeds -- was due to the lack of modern irrigation technology. The designer also and perhaps more importantly wanted the course to reflect the local topology, more along the lines of courses in his native Scotland. The very rough "rough" was essential to his vision for the course, part of giving golfers strategic choices on each hole.

Today, golf course managers, supported and encouraged by the USGA, are implementing management methods that reduce water use. For No. 2, the renovations included ripping out 40 acres of grass, including existing rough, and replacing it with the scrub brush and wire grass that grow naturally in Pinehurst's sandy Piedmont soil. A smaller, more centralized irrigation system is used sparingly. The result? Water use in 2014 is down 73% from 2009.

Do golfers like the changes?

Let's let golfers speak for themselves. First a couple of skilled amateurs:

I give everyone involved with the renovation of Pinehurst No. 2 a lot of credit: They took a top 10 public course in the country--one of the most unique golf experiences in the world--and by going back to the way it used to be, they made it better. Matt Ginella writing in Golf Digest, April 2, 2011.

… Pinehurst's sandy soil is its ultimate trump card over virtually every inland course in America. Reinstating the course's natural sandy qualities, rather than burying them beneath acres of Bermuda rough, was a key objective to Coore & Crenshaw's successful restoration project. Given that about 85% of the world's top twenty-five courses are built on sand, overstating its virtues is impossible. Posted by Graylin Loomis in his golf blog, 2014

And now, the pros weigh in, from a USA Today article prior to the 2014 US Open.

The redesign at Pinehurst was sensational, I think incorporating the native areas was just so well done … With no rough around the greens, the repellent greens, touch and chipping and the ability to salvage par is going to be critical. Phil Mickelson

It is everything that you have seen in the worst kept lawn you've ever seen in your life. It is dandelions growing up 12 to 15 inches, it is low‑growing weeds, and in some cases it's actually difficult to find the golf ball …It's a different type of rough and a different type of penalty. …I think it's going to be a hell of a test. Curtis Strange

Sounds like Pinehurst No.2 is once again the "fairest test" Donald Ross intended. This successful restoration/redesign should assure other golf course designers and managers that moving away from Augusta National-type manicured courses won't negatively impact golfers' enjoyment of the game.

Image credits

Pinehurst sign: Wikipedia

Hole 9, Pinehurst No. 2, before (top) and after (bottom). Copyrighted Illustration used courtesy Pinehurst Media


3 comments; last comment on 06/10/2015
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