Sunday, May 20, 2012

Why Australia Is Better

Australians love to travel overseas.  Being an island, you can't travel outside Australia without going overseas, so that works out quite well.

Anyhow, the reason Australians love to travel overseas to foreign countries is that it reaffirms to them how much better Australia is compared to everywhere else.  Oh, sure, there are some advantages to be found in foreign countries such as Europe, America and Bali.  The shopping is usually better in every other country that I've ever been to.  But the internet is quickly doing away with Australia's retail backwardness.

Some readers are concerned that I have been critical of Australia in past posts.  Not so: I am merely enjoying the full extent of the humor that this odd place provides.  But to assuage my many critics, here are just a few of the things that make Australia better than that dodgy place you've chosen to live.

Benefits of Australia:
1.  Space.  Consider, 0.3% of the world's population getting 4% of the world.  Just under 23 million Australians share 3 million square miles.  That's nearly the same population as Southern California, but in an area 53 times as big.  We've got lots of elbow room!  (Granted, large portions of it are uninhabitable crocodile-infested outback and the rest is covered in spiders, but I'm just saying, in theory we have that much space.)

2.  Freedom.  Starting your own business is relatively easy in Australia.  Given the red tape, paperwork, restrictions, multiple layers of bureaucracy to wade through (city, county, state and federal) one encounters in the US, it's  a miracle that any new businesses ever get going there at all.  But in Australia, any reasonable person can set up a corporation, file the paperwork, and start an empire.  This simplicity makes up for Australians being in other ways some of the most over-governed people on the planet with way more laws than are actually necessary.  There is a widespread, unconscious belief that government holds the solution to every problem.  Which, of course, is complete bollocks.  There is also a long heritage of the authorities regarding the populace as dangerous children in need of firm guidance, constant policing, and being unworthy of the least degree of trust.  Other than that, you are pretty much free here to do as you please.

3.  Health Care.  Employers aren't saddled with the bizarre and onerously expensive tradition (as in the USA) of being responsible for providing health insurance.  Here, everyone automatically  has basic health coverage provided by the government and it ends up being a lot cheaper for everyone, the taxpayers included, in the long and short run.

4.  One Tax Return.  In the USA you have to file in your state of residence AND with the feds.  State, county and city governments all have taxation authority, and this leads to nonsensical confusion, duplication, stupidity, and waste.  In Australia, local councils (cities and shires) can't levy taxes except for property rates which pays for garbage collection, fire brigades, libraries and other local services.  On the down side, local councils can sometimes be rather silly.  Take for example, the Shire of Cue, Western Australia.  When there are less than 300 people living in an area bigger than Connecticut, there isn't a large pool of talent from which to draw your leaders.  Then again, some would argue that on the balance this is a good thing.  For the entertainment value at least.

5.  Vast Wealth.  For example one company, Fortescue Metals Group (ASX:FMG) owns an estimated 12 billion tons of iron ore, most of which is currently underneath Western Australia.  At the current price (depressed by jittery markets) of about $130 per tonne, that means this one company is theoretically worth an absolute minimum of $1,500,000,000,000 dollars.  That's $1.5 TRILLION!!!!!!  My calculator values the company at something like $560 per share.  It is currently trading below $5 per share.  (NOTE: this is NOT financial advice.  I am NOT licensed to give financial advice.  Do NOT run out and buy stock in  FMG.  At least not until I've had a chance to load up my portfolio some more.)

6.  Lamb.  Most Americans don't like lamb, and for good reason.  American lamb is terrible!  But Australian lamb is one of the best things anywhere.  It's the sort of experience that can make a would-be vegetarian say, "What was I thinking?"  Broiled on the BBQ, slow-roasted, or just whack it in the slow-cooker in the morning before leaving the house.  A bit of rosemary and garlic, or just on its own, lamb is lean, tender, flavorful but never gamey.  The rest of the world could sink into an economic and ecological abyss (which will probably be Greece's fault), but Australia would still be able to feed and clothe itself in rather fine style.

7.  Tim Minchin.  Born and raised in Perth, Western Australia, Tim Minchin is a classically-trained pianist (among the best performers I've ever seen on the keys), a truly gifted songwriter, hilarious musical-comedy entertainer, social commentator, and Skeptic.  Check him out on youtube.

And that's why Australia is better than where you live.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Travel Advisory Warning

If you plan to travel to Western Australia at any point, then there are some safety issues you should be aware of.

Obviously, in the water we're talking sharks, crocodiles, stonefish, jellyfish, and surfers.  On land, there are wombats, mosquitos, various deadly spiders and snakes, scorpions, centipedes, and Aussie psychopaths.  On the roads, there are kangaroos at night, "hoons," cops with speed cameras, and yet more Aussie psychopaths. There are also tourists like yourself driving on the wrong side of the road.  Be sure to avoid them whenever you can.

Nothing new here, obviously.  The same information is available on any reputable travel agent's web site. But there's one safety issue that they don't tell you about.  There is a danger that visitors will almost certainly encounter, and probably the last thing they would ever expect to come face-to-face with.

Un-sliced hamburger buns.

That's right! It is a known fact that it is not possible to slice a hamburger bun without threat of serious injury to your person.  The trick is to cut all the way through the soft bread and then stop just as the razor-sharp serrated knife comes in contact with the palm of your hand.  If you can actually do this without drawing blood, then you are probably a woman.

In the USA, it is virtually impossible to purchase a hamburger bun that is not already pre-sliced for your picnic, camping, or entertaining convenience.  Bakers of hamburger buns in America have discovered through decades of market testing that users of hamburger buns almost always want them to be sliced in half horizontally to facilitate the placing of a beef patty and various toppings between the halves.  Brands of hamburger buns that were slow to adopt this innovation in the slicing department were shunned, ridiculed and sued by consumers of hamburger buns until their stock price plunged and the company went out of business.  By this process of Darwinian improvement, we now have both the convenience and the SAFETY of hamburger buns that come already sliced right from the store.

But not in Western Australia.  No - it's actually hard to find even one brand of hamburger bun here that is pre-sliced in the package.  Bakeries here assume that customers want the OPTION of slicing their own buns (and their hands in the process), or perhaps they think some people prefer to place the meat and toppings under, over or next to a completely intact bun.

The chief mechanisms for product improvement (specifically: consumer outrage, lawsuits and ridicule) that work so well in the USA seem to be absent in Western Australia.  Probably because for many products there is just one brand available.  One choice, take it or leave it.  And, Western Australians despise nothing so much as a complainer, whom they call whingers.  As in, "You're a whinger.  Stop your whinging, you whinger!"

Rather than complaining, they'd probably tell you to just click on the picture below and buy this safe and handy bagel slicer which, with some ingenuity, can be modified to work on hamburger buns as well:

Of course, another theory is that Western Australians really enjoy danger.  They live here, after all.  Some of them even by choice.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Fumigation of Diesel Engines

This refers to the practice of allowing a small amount of combustible gas (LPG, CNG, natural gas, etc.) into the air intake of a diesel engine for the purpose of increasing engine output or otherwise improving performance.  In a sense, it’s like adding a nitro kit to a race car, giving a quick jolt of extra power when it’s needed.

It can be as simple as what some truck drivers have been doing for many decades now: keeping a BBQ gas bottle in the cab with them, with a rubber hose trailing under the hood and into the air intake.  When they need a little extra oomph to get up a steep grade, they crack open the valve just a bit.  There are also conversion kits available in a variety of price ranges that can be purchased on the internet, with all that that implies.

Proponents also claim that in addition to increased engine output, fumigation reduces pollutants in the exhaust.  The questions are these:  Does it work?  Does it harm the engine?  Is it cost-effective? And finally, Why don’t manufacturers already supply equipment designed to use this technique?

Does It Work?

Anecdotally, truckies that use fumigation insist that it works.  I can certainly see no reason why adding extra fuel to the charge in a combustion cylinder would not result in an increase in pressure and temperature.  It makes sense.  Higher cylinder pressure translates directly into greater force on the piston and therefore torque on the driveshaft.

It is also conceivable that higher combustion temperatures might result in the fuel being burned more completely, leading to lower hydrocarbon emissions and less soot particulates in the exhaust.   On the other hand, higher temperatures will also undoubtedly lead to more nitrogen oxides (NOx) pollutants in the exhaust.

Test reports I’ve read aren’t as clear as the theory, and show that it is a mixed bag.  Under some conditions, exhaust quality is improved across the board, while in others, it is unchanged or even worse.  Under ideal and controlled conditions, the hydrocarbon and particulates can be reduced with only a minimal increase in NOx.  But that result was mainly found on engines for which there was a lot of room for improvement to begin with. 

Does It Harm Engines?

Short answer, yes.  Yes, it most definitely does.  Higher torque and higher combustion temperatures means that pressure in the combustion chamber was, in a word, higher.  That places additional strain on the cylinder head, walls, piston connecting rod, bearings, crankshaft, and on all the bolts holding the engine together.  Diesel mechanics have reported to me seeing stretched head bolts, bent con rods, wiped and scored main bearings, snapped crankshafts, holes burned through pistons, and burnt valve seats.  In other words, over-fumigating a diesel engine will wreck it more thoroughly than almost anything else you could do on purpose. 

The tricky part is that it doesn’t always wreck the engine, and not always right away.  A diesel engine is designed to produce a certain amount of torque, and so its components are designed to withstand a certain maximum stress, plus a margin for safety.  Many older engines were over-built, to be on the safe side.  It didn’t matter if they ended up being much heavier as a result.  But newer engines are more optimized.  Besides being cleaner-burning with lower emissions, they are also lighter weight, which improves the fuel consumption and performance.  But it also means that components are exactly as strong as they need to be, and not much more.  Forcing the engine to produce more torque than it was designed for is really asking for trouble.

Is it cost-effective?

Truckies that use fumigation very moderately (so as not to blow up their engines) say that the gas (LPG, CNG etc) replaces some of the diesel fuel that the engine consumes.  And since gas is cheaper per MJ (energy unit) than diesel fuel, they end up saving a few dollars per trip.  I would point out that they are probably running older equipment that leaves a lot of room for improvement in the efficiency department.  In any case, I hope they are putting that money aside in an interest-bearing account for when they need to buy a new engine.   Knowing truckies, I’d say this is unlikely.

Why Don't Manufacturers Do This?

Since modern, advanced technology diesel engines are designed for optimum performance, efficiency and low emissions, they don’t need extra bits.  They are already fairly clean-burning, and are producing about as much torque as they can without blowing up.  To get more torque, an operator should select a larger engine.  After-market fumigation systems, aside from definitely voiding the warranty, will risk ruining a perfectly good engine.

The Crackpot Zone

"Do thou something stupid for Mine
Ignoring all of the above, some operators out there say, “What if you didn’t even need to BUY the gas?  What if you could generate the gas for free as you drive and save fuel, increase torque, etc etc?”  The idea is to use electrical current from the alternator, pass it through a water cell, and produce hydrogen gas that is then sucked into the air intake. 

One hustler actually told me that God told him to create this product.  Really?  God said that?  Well, I know God, and He’s a real kidder.  He was just winding you up, mate, having a go at you for being so ignorant about science!  He’s up there on His cloud laughing his beard off at you right now.

I did the calculations on this a couple of years ago, and followed it up by analysing test data from a prototype hydrogen gas generator. If your alternator produces 10 amps at 13.5 volts, and if your electrolysis cell is far, far more advanced than just a water bottle with a couple of wires stuck in it (most internet offerings are exactly this) with anything close to optimum gas production, then those 10 amps are going to produce something like 10 g/h of H2 gas. 


But most likely the “gas cell” will not be producing anything measureable.  Sure, you will see a few gas bubbles forming on the wires, but they will not represent anything close to the amount of gas needed to make any difference whatsoever.

A diesel engine consuming something like 12 liters of fuel per hour is using around 10 kg or 10,000 grams of fuel per hour.  Ten grams (or less!) of gas is not going to be even measurable in terms of engine output.  Any effect will be purely “placebo effect.”  Drivers will convince themselves that it’s making a difference because they don’t want to admit they’ve been scammed.  And to prove that they are not victims of a con, they will email me all kinds of anecdotal evidence that the idea works. 


Saturday, May 5, 2012

Great Expectations

The year was 1985.  I was a couple of years out of high school, I didn't have much money, and I needed a new watch.  Fortunately for me, I also happened to be in Switzerland at the time.

So in the checkout line at a grocery store, I picked up an inoffensive-looking plastic watch from one of those displays that preys on impulse-buyers like myself and handed over the amount shown on the price tag.  It was twenty Swiss francs, the equivalent of about ten US dollars at the time.

It became virtually the only watch I owned and wore for the next fifteen years.  The other day, now 2012, I put a new battery in it and fitted a new black leather strap so I could start wearing it again.  For old time's sake I suppose.

I didn't have great expectations of it at the start, but I gradually came to appreciate the extraordinary quality and durability of this uncommon timepiece. It's 27 years old and works perfectly. Today I simply can't believe they were able to sell me this watch for next to nothing.  Sure, it looks like just another a mass-market plastic throw-away watch, but how many watches do you own that say this on the back?

It says "PAT PEND MONDAINE WATCH LTD Z√úRICH."  Mondaine normally makes the sort of high-end timepieces worn only by those individuals who are extremely committed to being on time for stuff.

Of the many watches I am lucky enough to own, this one if not the most attractive is the most special.  It has seen me through most of the defining events in my life.  It got me to most of my classes on time when I did four years of Physics at Arizona State University.  I say "most" because once I was 20 minutes late for class after a physics lab involving alpha particles and magnetic fields.  My watch seemed to be working normally, but was 20 minutes behind when it usually gains or loses no more than 0.5 second per day.  So what happened?

Did I accidentally discover a time portal into the very near future involving alpha particles and magnets?  The actual explanation is much more boring.  Checking my lab notes, I found that the magnetic field I was working with had been switched on for a total of exactly 20 minutes.  I hypothesized that the strong field had caused this watch to temporarily cease keeping time, and a subsequent experiment confirmed this to be the case.

After graduation, this watch accompanied me to various jobs, and eventually back to university for a Master's Degree.  I was also wearing this watch from 3 AM to 3 PM on the Sunday that my son arrived, the most traumatizing twelve hours of my life. Because this timepiece has far exceeded my expectations, it makes me very happy.  And there's the trap.

Are you waiting for something external to make you happy?  Real happiness either comes from within or not at all.  It is expectation that creates my unresolveable tension between the present situation that I can't change and what I ASSUMED being a father was going to mean.  That tension, which is a form of stress, saps a person of energy, strength, health and new ideas. And it is entirely a product of thought, not of anything real.

Is it possible to change the way I have been conditioned to think, and thus make the unendurable tension vanish? Is it possible to let go of judgement and expectation, and simply allow things to be as they are?  The pain in my heart is "bad" because I assume it isn't supposed to be there.  Couldn't I just accept it, instead of slowly killing myself through resistance to it?

It's only the little voice inside that holds me back.  It tries to tell me how others will judge me if I appear unstressed, unconcerned at a truly disgraceful situation.  Few people would justify a mother intentionally taking a child 6000 miles away from a loving, caring father.  Most people would be absolutely outraged to know that the child was influenced and encouraged to have no contact with his father.  By that standard, I should be in a continual state of outrage 24/7.

And I easily could be.  I would also be dead within 6 months from the stress.

Think of me then what you will, but I am changing my expectations of what fatherhood means.  I'm just here, he's just there, and whatever happens, happens.  I've done everything I can do. I have grieved the loss of my fathering life.  It is time for me to move on.

It's good to know exactly what time it is, isn't it.