XKCD Phone

I’ve been amused over the years by the curious, and ever more imaginative, evolution of the XKCD Phone – all the way from a “clear screen” via a screen that “goes all the way through” to a “stained-glass display”! There are just so many brilliant innovations I think we should view the whole range. Enjoy!

XKCD Phone 1 (May 2014)
Features I especially like: side-facing camera

XKCD Phone 2 (December 2014)
Features I especially like: dog noticer; coin slot; bug drawer

XKCD Phone 3 (July 2015)
Features I especially like: magnetic stripe; fingerprint randomiser; licensed to perform wedding ceremonies and does so at random

XKCD Phone 4 (July 2016)
Features I especially like: voice intergration Siri, Cortana, Google Now and Alexa respond simultataneously; new BrightGlo™ display incorporates genetically spliced jellyfish protein; Gregorian/Julian calendar switch; exposed ductwork

XKCD Phone 5 (March 2017)
Features I especially like: Supercuts partnership: trims hair fed into charging port; stained-glass display; background task automatically catches and eats Pokémon

I reckon we should expect the XKCD Phone 6 somewhere around the end of this year, maybe even in time for Christmas, and with innovations we can’t even begin to guess!

The XKCD webcomic is the creation, and copyright, of Randall Munroe.

Fukushima Latest

Thursday’s Guardian ran another article on the clean-up of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear site following the tsunami six years ago today. They point out, quite correctly, that two robots have now failed in trying to investigate the inside of the Reactor 2 containment vessel. I don’t see why this is such a surprise to everyone, or why quite so much recrimination continues.

Let’s be clear, again, once and for all. The containment at Fukushima did its job. It contained the reactor cores (admittedly only just) under stresses (earthquake and tsunami) way beyond its design specification.

What failed were the cooling systems. And they failed because of major shortcomings in the risk analysis, and therefore the placement and design, of the plant.

Yes, there was a radiation leak – small in comparison to Chernobyl – as a result of fractures in the buildings surrounding the containment vessels. And yes, this is a disaster for the 160,000 people who were evacuated – the disaster is their displacement and, medically, the psychological effects, rather than the risks due to the actual radiation encountered in the time between the leaks and their evacuation.

The tsunami killed around 19,000 people. The radiation, as far as I am aware, has caused zero direct deaths (although a handful have died in accidents during the clean-up operation).

Of course the clean-up is going to take a very long time and be hugely expensive. The radiation level inside the containment vessels is going to be incredibly high – high enough to kill a human within minutes. So without robots there is no way to find out what actually is happening inside; and they will succumb to high radiation levels and blocks in their access routes. And yes there is a huge quantity of contaminated groundwater to contend with. Why would we expect otherwise?

The current estimate is that the clean-up will take 30-40 years and cost $189bn, although many believe this a significant underestimate in both time and money. On that basis one has to ask whether the clean-up should continue, or whether the whole plant should be permanently encased as has been done recently at Chernobyl – but I’ve seen no-one even mentioning this as a possibility. I’d be interested to see some analysis of the possibilities.

Ten Things

A slightly eccentric mix for this month’s Ten Things

Ten Desert Island Discs

[Yes, I know the radio programme Desert Island Discs asks only for eight records, but this is Ten Things, OK?]

  1. Monteverdi, 1610 Vespers
  2. Bach, Christmas Oratorio
  3. Yes, Close to the Edge
  4. Pink Floyd, Wish You were Here
  5. Beatles, Let It Be
  6. Handel, Messiah
  7. Granados, Piano Works
  8. William Byrd, The Battle
  9. Caravan, In the Land of Grey and Pink
  10. Moody Blues, Octave

Word: Quidnunc

Quidnunc

A person who constantly asks ‘What now?’.
An inquisitive or nosy person.
A gossipmonger.

As one might expect the word is derived from the Latin quid nunc, what now (quid = what, nunc = now).

The OED gives the first English usage in 1709.

Better Nuclear Power

A week ago IFLScience published a very long, and fully referenced, article on a forgotten nuclear power technology which is much more efficient and robust than the current Light Water Reactors (LWR). It is actually a breeder reactor (but one which doesn’t produce weaponable products) called a Molten Salt Reactor (MSR).

As usual what follows is a few extracts by way of the TL;DR summary.

According to the article MSR are not just a better nuclear technology but also beat most other power sources (including most renewables) into a cocked hat.

Today’s cheap, bountiful supplies make it hard to see humanity’s looming energy crisis … Fossil fuels could quench the planet’s deep thirst for energy, but they’d be a temporary fix at best … renewable energy sources like wind and solar, though key parts of a solution, are not silver bullets … Nuclear reactors, on the other hand, fit the bill: They’re dense, reliable, emit no carbon, and – contrary to bitter popular sentiment – are among the safest energy sources on earth. Today, they supply about 20% of America’s energy.

The good news is that a proven solution is at hand – if we want it badly enough.

Called a molten-salt reactor [it] forgoes solid nuclear fuel for a liquid one … in theory, molten-salt reactors can never melt down … It’s reliable, it’s clean, it basically does everything fossil fuel does today … [and produces] energy without emitting carbon … What’s more, feeding a molten-salt reactor a radioactive waste from mining, called thorium (which is three to four times more abundant than uranium), can “breed” as much nuclear fuel as it burns up.

MSR were developed in the early days of the Cold War and the technology was proven in pilot production. However they were never pursued because (a) they didn’t produce weapons grade materials and (b) “not invented here”.

The article follows with a brief analysis of the safety of nuclear energy compared with traditional power generation, and a very brief summary of how nuclear physics works. Followed by an explanation of how MSRs using thorium can “breed” and then use uranium 233 but not weaponable plutonium.

The concept of the breeder reactor was fairly straightforward. It would dramatically increase the chances for fission, boost the flow of neutrons, and breed more fissile fuel from a “fertile” material than the reactor burned up. Breeding U-238 into Pu-239 created an excess of plutonium. Meanwhile, breeding thorium into U-233 broke even, burning up just as much fuel as it made. The choice of fuel makes all the difference. The plutonium fuel cycle is a great way to make weapons. Meanwhile, the thorium fuel cycle can produce almost limitless energy. A fluid-fuelled design [would] eliminate the considerable difficulty of fabricating solid fuelled elements … Liquid fuel also made it easy to remove both useful fission products – for example, for medical procedures, and those that poison nuclear chain reactions.

OK, so what’s the downside? Basically, apart from the proof-of-concept pilot, the technology hasn’t been developed fully. But it could be developed, and probably relatively easily, probably as the Liquid-Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR). And the article lists (some of) the advantages of LFTR:

  • Fuel burn-up is extraordinarily high. LFTRs could fission about 99% of their U-233 liquid fuel, compared to a few percent for solid fuel.
  • It’s easy to clean up. Solid fuels build up fission products, or new elements generated by the splitting of atoms, which poison fission reactions and often end up being treated as waste. Liquid fuels, meanwhile, can be processed “online” – and the fission products continuously removed, refined, and sold.
  • There’s less waste and it’s shorter-lived. For the above reasons, hundreds of times less radioactive waste is left over from LFTR operation compared to LWRs. And what remains requires burial for about 300 years, as opposed to 10,000 years.
  • LFTRs operate under safe, normal pressure. All commercial reactors compress water coolant to extreme pressures – upwards of 150 times that found at Earth’s surface. One small breach can lead to a catastrophic explosion. If a LFTR pipe breaks, however, molten salt will only spill on the ground and freeze.
  • Environmental contamination is far less likely. LWRs can release gases, fuel, and fission products into the air and water. Molten salt freezes and traps most contaminants.
  • LFTRs can be made small and modular. LWRs require giant, reinforced-concrete containment vessels that scale with their operating pressure. LFTRs require small containment structures, so they could be made small – possibly to a size that’d fit [on a truck].
  • They should be much cheaper and faster to build. LFTRs don’t require many of the expensive safeguards that LWRs do. Their potential to be modular could also lead to mass manufacture of parts and reduced cost.
  • LFTR is immune to meltdowns. Molten salt that overheats will expand, slowing down fission.
  • The design is “walk-away safe.” No nuclear power plant today can claim this. LWRs require backup power systems to cool solid fuel at all times. If power is knocked out to a LFTR, a freeze plug melts and lets the molten salt fall into underground containment units, where it freezes and stops fission.
  • Electricity output is better. LFTRs are so hot, operating at roughly [1000°C] they can use more advanced heat-to-electricity conversion technologies.
  • The excess heat is very useful. It could boil and desalinate ocean water into drinking water, help generate hydrogen for fuel cells, break down organic waste into biofuels, and power industrial processes.
  • The “kindling” to start a LFTR is flexible. Burning up old nuclear weapons material is possible, since fissile U-233, U-235, or Pu-239 can be used to start the reactor.

So if thorium reactors are so great, what’s the holdup?

It basically boils down to … The science is easy. The engineering is hard … [which] is true in many, many advanced systems, nuclear and nonnuclear for that matter, where the scientists’ proof of concept is everything to them … To the engineer, getting it to the commercial-viability stage is their goal. And those are two very different hills to climb.

So there is still a long road ahead, but given the apparent advantages isn’t this a technology we should be pursuing? Yes, India and China are already doing so.

Your Monthly Links

They’re off! … On the quest for this month’s links to items you really didn’t want to miss the first time.

Science & Medicine

Many statistics are lies compounded by misleading graphics. Here’s a quick guide to spotting lies in visuals.

Queueing is quite complex, both psychologically and mathematically, so no wonder there are old wives tales about how to queue. But many are wrong, and the right answers are non-intuitive. The Guardian gives us some clues.

We don’t normally think of Winston Churchill as a scientist, but he certainly had a passionate interest in, and knowledge of, the science of his day, even down to writing with great foresight about astrobiology and extra-terrestrial life.

Black chickens. Not just black feathers, but black all the way through: meat, bones and organs. No wonder they’re a special, and expensive, breed. It just seems wrong that so many are bred purely for divination.

Social Sciences & Business

In 1944 the CIA wrote a manual on how dissidents can surreptitiously sabotage an organisation’s productivity and gradually undermine it. Now it has been declassified and released.

Language

So who was Gordon Bennett? The BBC looks at a few of the people behind famous phrases.

Writers, improve your text. Here are a number of filler words and phrases which are superfluous and serve only to bulk out your word count.

Polari is a British slang dating back to at least the 19th century. Used by a number of tightly knit cultures it is perhaps best known for its use by sex workers and the gay subculture. As you might guess the Bible in Polari is quite a hoot; here’s my blog post about it.

Art & Literature

Book blogger Karen Langley has rediscovered Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy. Here’s her blog post about it.

History

Construction of London’s Crossrail has unearthed a vast amount of archaeology. Here are two very different reports on the same Clerkenwell site which includes a completely lost river and a curious pair of plague victims: the first report is from IanVisits and the second from the Guardian.

London

Apart from the above item on Crossrail archaeology there is only one snippet on London this month …

Canals are well known for carrying water not electricity, but IanVisits, again, brings the story of how the Regent’s Canal ended up safely carrying both.

Lifestyle

Life is stressful. Things are continually conspiring against us. We all know that if we get too stressed we get sick. So it’s useful to have a list of major life stressors, with their relative values, so you can work out your likelihood of a stress-related illness.

Unsurprisingly the second most highly-rated stress is divorce. Here are four behaviours which appear to be the most reliable predictors of divorce.

Finally in this section is our favourite zen master talking about immigration and tribalism. It’s a perspective worth reading.

Food & Drink

And finally, finally … Garlic. Whether you love it or hate it trying to supress the resulting odour is far from obvious.

Be good until next month!

Book of Gloria

I posted about this on Facebook earlier, but it’s so brilliant I have to say more here.

Earlier today on the intertubes I came across the Bible in Polari. Those who know Polari, or are old enough to remember Julian and Sandy from the radio show Round the Horne, will guess how much of a hoot it is. Here, for example, are the first five verses of Genesis …

1 In the beginning Gloria created the heaven and the earth.
2 And the earth was nanti form, and void; and munge was upon the eke of the deep. And the Fairy of Gloria trolled upon the eke of the aquas.
3 And Gloria cackled, Let there be sparkle: and there was sparkle.
4 And Gloria vardad the sparkle, that it was bona: and Gloria medzered the sparkle from the munge.
5 And Gloria screeched the sparkle journo, and the munge she screeched nochy. And the bijou nochy and the morning were the first journo.

And here, the Immaculate Conception from Luke 1:26-35 …

26 And in the seyth month the fairy Gabriel was laued from Gloria unto a smoke of Galilee, named Nazareth,
27 To a nanti charver espoused to a homie whose name was Josephine, of the lattie of Davina; and the nanti charver‘s name was Mary.
28 And the fairy trolled in unto her, and cackled, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Duchess is with thee: fabed art thou among palones.
29 And when she vardad her, she was troubled at her cackling, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.
30 And the fairy cackled unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with Gloria.
31 And, varda, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and parker forth a homie chavvie, and shalt screech her name Josie.
32 She shall be dowry, and shall be screeched the homie chavvie of the Highest: and the Duchess Gloria shall parker unto her the throne of her Auntie Davina:
33 And she shall reign over the lattie of Jacob for ever; and of her kingdom there shall be no end.
34 Then cackled Mary unto the fairy, How shall this be, vardaing I know not a homie?
35 And the fairy answered and cackled unto her, The Fantabulosa Fairy shall troll upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that fabulosa fakement which shall be born of thee shall be screeched the homie chavvie of Gloria.

Brilliant isn’t it?!

Incidentally it’s worth downloading the PDF version, even though it is big, as it contains some wonderfully captioned “old style” images (“Gethsemane had always been a notorious cruising ground”) and a huge dictionary of Polari.

What I find interesting is how much Polari has passed into modern parlance (possibly as some was stolen from existing dialect like Cockney and entered the modern English from there). Just in writing this I’ve noticed acdc, troll, barney, butch, drag … the list goes on!

This is what I find so entrancing about language: not just the fun but the interplay between language, dialect, argot and idiolect. And I love it when something in one form is translated into another, but remains amusingly intelligible to speakers of the original – as here and as with the Pidgin of Papua New Guinea for Prince Charles: nambawan pikinini bilong Mises Kwin.

Just excellent!