Air Filtration Unit #3

About a dozen years ago, I decided to build a TV console to help de-clutter the various devices feeding our television. It wasn’t meant to be a super nice piece of furniture, mainly because I decided to build it mostly out of scraps of various species of wood I had on hand. Except for the top – that would be from a really nice piece of wenge I obtained years earlier for a project that never came to fruition. The basic design came from an article in a woodworking magazine:

Here’s a few photos from the build:

And the finished product (probably should have dusted the top before taking the photo):

So that’s the starting point for this latest air filter project. In an earlier post, I detailed how I built an end table filtration unit using an ultra quiet bathroom fan and a 12 x 12 near-HEPA filter. That worked out pretty well – we get a lot of wildfire smoke in central Oregon. In the bedroom, I’ve been using the first filtration unit, which is a stand-alone piece that doesn’t double as a piece of furniture. But, although it probably works better than the end table unit because of its larger filter (12 x 24), it’s kind of ugly. We’ve moved since I built the TV console and it now serves as an end of the bed … cabinet, table, whatever you call that sort of thing. A couple of months ago, I was staring at it (and I think I will just refer to it as a TV console) and thought that we really didn’t use the four baskets that sit on the lower shelf all that efficiently. And I looked at the ugly filter unit. What if I replaced two of those baskets with a fan & filter and installed a door? Yep, I’m doing it.

I’ve learned a bit from the first two filter projects (the ugly one and the much nicer end table) so installing the fan and filter in the TV console went a lot smoother. The challenges are two-fold. First, I had to figure out how to orient the fan so the exhaust port points in a direction away from the filter – doesn’t do any good to promote a circulation loop – and where I could easily breach the side panel of the console. The other units had four inch dust collection fittings installed to accept a hose. This one would just exhaust directly out the side with no hose. Second, I had to figure out how to mount a filter so it could be replaced easily. The first unit – with the bigger 12 x 2 filter – kind of failed that criterion as it requires removing several screws to get at the filter. The second unit – the end table – has the fan sitting horizontally with the filter resting on top in a custom frame. Very easy to change out by opening the louvered front door. The TV console couldn’t use either of those configurations. The depth of the console is less that 12 inches, so the fan had to be aligned vertically and the 12 x 12 filter had to be angled to fit. Took a little experimentation but I think I managed to nestle both inside the console nicely. The air is drawn from the right side where the two remaining baskets sit, and is exhausted through a port in the left side. There’s a screen covering the port. As with the end table unit, along with an on/off switch, there’s an electrical outlet for convenience. Not sure what we might plug in but it’s there.

There was actually a third challenge, one I couldn’t manage quite as well. Because the TV console was built with several species of wood, I tried to get them all to ‘blend’ by using a dark stain. Either black cherry or walnut, I forget. It worked out OK, not great. But now I was adding a front panel door of yet another species. And as I mentioned, I couldn’t remember the stain I used. The final result is also just OK. Given the bedroom is usually fairly dark , it’ll do.

The filter is easy to change. Two strips of wood are dado-ed to loosely accept the filter and I installed weatherstripping front and back to seal it in fairly snugly. A wooden dowel holds the filter against the rear weatherstripping and the door latch is set to seal the front weatherstripping against the filter frame. Just open the door, pull the dowel and slide the filter in or out. All the other avenues of air leakage are sealed as well, so essentially all the air drawn through the fan goes through the filter and out the exhaust port. A little might leak out around three sides of the door but not much.

The finished product:

Having the console down in the woodshop opened up the bedroom a bit, so I decided to place the finished piece against a wall until we need it. It’s easy enough to slide it over the the end of the bed when the air quality gets bad, as it inevitably will again next summer, and the summer after that.

Next up, a filtration unit for my neighbor. When the air was really bad this year, I quickly cobbled up a fan-filter for her to help alleviate headaches and such. Her unit will essentially be a copy of my end table piece, sized to fit.

One Veteran’s View of War

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

President Dwight Eisenhower, General of the Army (Ret), April, 1953

Nuclear Power and Climate Change

I’m a lifelong nuke. I joined the navy at 17, was trained in their naval nuclear power schools, served as a reactor operator on a ballistic missile submarine, and then had a career in the commercial nuclear power industry as an instrument technician and an electrical/I&C engineer. I count myself fairly well versed in most things nuclear (including nuclear weapons but considerably less so).

All through my career in the civilian world, I would often reply to someone asking what I did for a living by saying “I keep the world safe from the evils of nuclear power.” Which was not entirely facetious. My specialty as an engineer was preparing a type of safety analysis calculation which examined the efficacy of plant safety systems. In other words, I demonstrated that they would work (to a specific degree of certainty) when they were most needed. Or I demonstrated they wouldn’t (again, to a specific degree of certainty), in which case the plant would have to modify something in order to ‘pass’ my calculation. Earlier on as an instrument technician, I ensured that the safety systems were in proper working order. I wrote a blog post on that subject.

Many aspects of my career were unpleasant (particularly the navy part) but I really never had any doubts that nuclear power was a great technological achievement for the benefit of society. Now that scientists (virtually ALL scientists in relevant fields) have concluded quite authoritatively that we’re in the midst of human-caused rapid climate change, I see nuclear power not only as a great thing but vitally necessary. We need nuclear power electrical generation and we need a lot of it. I’m not alone in this opinion.

But wait, what about all those nasty bad things – radiation, nuclear waste, Chernobyl? Fukushima, for chrissakes!? How can nuclear power be not only good but necessary with all that?

The long answer follows but the short answer is: because all other forms of base-load power generation are worse and we need electricity or society will collapse. Conservation, wind, solar, geothermal, etc. are all good things – technologies we should embrace and expand – but none can come close to powering industry, which uses the bulk of electricity in industrialized countries. Until we develop fusion power, only nuclear, coal, oil, natural gas and hydro can supply sufficient electrical power to satisfy our industrial demands. Putting solar panels on our roofs and driving EVs isn’t going to get it done (note that your Tesla still needs to be charged and that electricity comes from power plants). Coal, oil and natural gas have brought us to the present dire situation with climate change and hydro is played out. We can build no more dams, or at least not many.

Great. So we’re all doomed to either a planet-wide climate crisis or radioactive poisoning. Well, no. I don’t know if climate change has progressed to the point of being unstoppable but it certainly will be if we continue on the same path. Some scientists say we’re there already but I’m not sure that stance has a strong consensus. But I can address the radioactive poisoning bit. The short answer to that is: none of those nasty bad things I mentioned earlier are really anything to get worked up about. They’re all solvable with today’s technology and some are not really problems anyway.

Lets take them one at a time.

Radiation. I’m sure you’ve all heard about how bananas are radioactive, so too are granite buildings, how a flight across the country exposes you to a higher dose than nuclear plant workers receive (on average), how living in Denver will too. Not sure why Denver is always the city that gets mentioned – it’s not all that high in elevation – but there you are. Maybe you’ve seen graphs and charts that show how little radiation gets emitted from nuclear power plants as compared to, say, cosmic rays. All that is true so why is it that these facts don’t seem to matter to people? Why doesn’t it sink in? Why do you keep eating bananas, traveling across country by air to visit the relatives during the holidays, keep working in granite buildings while dreaming of a nice retirement cabin on a lake in the Colorado Rockies? Yet you recoil in fear at the thought of living in the same state as a nuclear power plant. It’s irrational.

Radiation scares people more than it should. I hear that it’s because radiation is ‘invisible’ but so are other hazards. Can you tell if your food is contaminated by e-coli or salmonella? Can you smell or taste COVID-19? No, you can’t, at least not without equipment you’re unlikely to have at hand. Detecting radiation also requires specialized equipment but it is very, very easy to do so with simple, cheap instruments. You’ve seen the sci-fi movies where someone is holding a radiation detector which starts clicking like mad. OMG! We’re all going to die! That’s the message. It’s wrong. Detectors designed to measure low-level background radiation will happily click away no matter where you are on Earth. We can detect individual radioactive decay events. A single atom emitting radiation. You’ve heard it before – “The dose makes the poison.” Almost anything is deadly to humans if the dose is too high. Radiation is no exception. It’s around us all the time but you really only need to get concerned when the dose rate (the amount of radiation per time) exceeds a certain level, which varies depending on the type of radiation. Speaking of which, a gamma ray, an x-ray, a beta or alpha particle, are all the same no matter where it came from. The radiation associated with nuclear power plants is not somehow more deadly to humans. For the more technically astute, you may have raised an eyebrow at that statement. I’m not saying all gamma rays are the same. They aren’t. Higher energy gammas, for example, are more hazardous to biological processes. But a 1 Mev gamma from a ‘natural’ source is exactly the same as a 1 Mev gamma from a nuclear power plant.

Being easily detected, radiation is quite manageable. It’s a simple matter to monitor, segregate and isolate radioactive materials to lessen exposure risks. Far easier than other hazards, in fact. When a salmonella outbreak is discovered, do grocery stores check to see which bags of romaine lettuce are contaminated? No, because there’s no easy, cheap way to do that. So it all gets thrown away.

Nevertheless, most folks, even if they’ve just read what I wrote, will become alarmed if the local news reports a tritium leak from the neighborhood nuclear plant. They won’t bother to find out if it was a leak sufficient to cause a health hazard. And the news folks are in the business of scaring you so they won’t say anything to dispel your concerns. Nope. It’s radiation and all radiation is deadly.

Fact is, nuclear plants emit very little radiation outside their perimeters during normal operations. That which does escape is dwarfed by natural background radiation. We’ll discuss abnormal operations in a bit. When it comes to radiation from power plants, it’s not that from the plant that is of concern. Rather, it’s the nuclear waste the plant generates that needs to be discussed.

Nuclear waste. This topic engenders so many misconceptions, it’s hard to know where to start. Let’s break it down into three subtopics: radioactive half-life, amount of waste, long-term storage. Before discussing the first one, a nuclear physics refresher might be of benefit.

Radioactive half-life refers to the time (on average but when you have trillions of atoms, the average is essentially exact) it takes for one-half of a given amount of radioactive isotope to decay, to emit radiation of some form in a process that transforms the isotope into a different isotope.

An isotope is a subset of an element. Uranium, for example, has several known isotopes: U-234, U-235, U-236, etc. The number (e.g. 235) refers to the sum of the isotope’s neutrons and protons. All isotopes of a particular element have the same number of protons but they vary by the number of neutrons. So U-235 has the same number of protons as U-234 (92) but has one more neutron. All elements, from hydrogen (one proton) to oganesson (118 protons) have isotopes. [I had to look up oganesson on the latest chart of the nuclides] All elements have more than one isotope; some have many. Lead, if I counted correctly, has over forty isotopes. Physicists are continually discovering new elements and extending the periodic table. If you’re interested in the subject, check out this link: https://www-nds.iaea.org/relnsd/vcharthtml/VChartHTML.html or just search on ‘chart of the nuclides.’

Isotopes can be further divided into two groups: those that are stable and those that are radioactive. A stable isotope is one that has essentially an infinite half-life. A radioactive isotope is one that will emit some form of radiation and in the process transform into a different isotope, on a schedule according to its half-life. It is the latter group that concerns us here. Some half lives are quite short. Oganesson 294 (Og-294) has a half-life of 5.8E-4 seconds. That’s 0.00058 seconds – it doesn’t hang around very long. U-235 is quite long-lived with a half-life of 2.22E16 seconds, or a little over 700 million years. So if you had a gram of U-235 in your hand, in 700 million years you’d now have half a gram. The other half would be something else, probably mostly lead. In other words, U-235 is not exactly stable but it’s pretty close. That chunk of uranium in your hand just isn’t very radioactive – you could hold onto it for a long time without any noticeable health effects.

The U-235 decay process – termed the ‘decay chain’ – doesn’t go directly from U-235 to Pb-207. Rather, the decay chain involves several steps, each with its own half life and therefore, each with an associated level of radioactivity. In the case of U-235:Pb-207, there is an additional 34,000 years worth of half-life along the chain.

So what’s the point? If you read a news article about nuclear waste and it stated that some of the radioactive material had a half-life of 700 million years, what would your reaction be? If you’re like many people, you’d think “No way! We can’t keep waste safe for that long!” and might jump on the anti-nuke bandwagon just over that. But consider, we just reasoned that U-235 is almost stable, effectively non-radioactive. So why would you worry about burying it in a nuclear waste repository anyway? You could just bury it in your backyard for all the harm it would do. Or maybe you had a chunk of that Og-294. Would you worry about properly disposing it? Of course not. With its half-life, before you could even load it on a truck bound for Yucca Mountain, it would be essentially gone, decayed away (Disclaimer: I don’t know the decay chain for Og-294, so I don’t know the half lives of the downstream isotopes. Maybe nobody does because it just got discovered. But my point stands).

Of course, U-235 and Og-294 are not the components of nuclear waste – and we’re mainly talking spent nuclear fuel here – that need to get buried in Yucca Mountain. There are other far more harmful elements with half-lives somewhere between 700 million years and 0.00058 seconds. I used those two to illustrate a concept, which is that we really only need to consider medium-long half-lives, those in the hundreds or thousands of years. All of the short-lived isotopes will have mostly decayed away to stable isotopes while the spent nuclear fuel is still stored at the nuclear plant, and the longer ones aren’t much of a health hazard anyway.

Our second sub-topic is the amount of waste. How much spent nuclear fuel are we dealing with? I mentioned the old adage about dose making the poison, so it stands to reason that if we bury tons of waste in every local landfill, we’ll have a problem, right? We don’t have that much. In fact, very little. The volume of spent nuclear fuel generated in the US since the beginning of nuclear power plants would fit in one football field at a depth of ten feet (Americans demand their measurements be related to football fields). All of the fuel from all of the power plants for all of the years – one football field. Of course, burying nuclear waste in a football field-sized repository isn’t good engineering so we’d require something a bit bigger, practically speaking. A repository the size of, say, Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Not the whole mountain – just part of it. Wrap your head around that. Or better yet, go to Google Maps, find Yucca Mountain (just north of Las Vegas), zoom in to see the mountain (more like a big hill) and then zoom out to the whole US. That’s the scale we’re talking about to store every bit of spent fuel ever generated in this country. It’s really not an issue. If you’re enthusiastic, now look up how much coal ash is generated in this country. Coal ash is radioactive, by the way.

The third sub-topic is long term storage. Recalling the half-life discussion, it’s clear a nuclear waste repository, such as Yucca Mountain, requires a stable geologic environment on the order of maybe a few tens of thousand years, well within the realm of current geologic knowledge. We might not need even that long – there’s quite a bit of geologic evidence and research relating to heavy isotope migration that strongly suggests that even if the spent fuel storage containers ‘leaked’, the dangerous isotopes aren’t going very far, maybe tens of meters. Finally, repositories such as Yucca Mountain are not ‘bury it and forget it’ installations. There’s no reason why we can’t periodically check up on things – the spent fuel would not actually be buried. More like securely stored with provisions for access. Spent nuclear fuel is a valuable commodity anyway – it can be used in breeder reactors after some reprocessing – so we’d probably be hauling it out again before too long anyway. So don’t pay attention to the folks who scream about million year half-lives.

If you’re up for another Google Maps exercise, find your local nuclear power plant – doesn’t matter which. If you zoom in, somewhere on the site you’ll find a parking lot-sized area that appears to be somewhat segregated from the rest of the plant that seems to contain a bunch of circular objects. You’re looking at the ISFSI – the Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation. Because of the delay in opening Yucca Mountain, all US nuclear plants have had to devise methods to store spent fuel onsite. Those circular objects are actually cylinders of concrete and steel – casks – that hold several spent fuel assemblies each. Note that the fuel is not transferred into the casks right away after being removed from the reactor but rather sits in the plant’s spent fuel pool for a number of years while the short to medium-short isotopes decay and the assembly ‘cools.’ Once cooled, the spent fuel assemblies are easily encapsulated in the casks, which are then welded shut. The external radiation from the fuel isn’t all that high because it’s shielded by the cask. Engineers and technicians can safely approach the cask to do whatever is needed in terms of monitoring cask condition. It is these casks that will be ‘buried’ at Yucca Mountain when it finally becomes operational. You can also see that the idea of casks ‘leaking’ is not realistic – they’re composed of metal and concrete and the spent fuel itself is entirely metallic.

Anti-nuke advocates sometimes toss out figures on how much waste is generated by nuclear power plants but they usually lump in all the low level radioactive material to get a bigger, more scary number. They’re including waste such as rags, used anti-contamination clothing and other stuff that really could be buried in the local landfill if people weren’t so paranoid about radiation but has to be segregated because of NRC regulations. Note that I’m not dissing the regulations – they’re a good thing but to understand the issue of nuclear waste, it’s important to understand there’s a lot of regulatory overkill. Focus on the real issue: spent nuclear fuel. For further info: https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/nuclear-fuel-cycle/nuclear-wastes/radioactive-waste-management.aspx

OK, but that’s radiation from nuclear power plants that aren’t currently melting down or from spent fuel. What about Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island? Don’t those accidents prove that nuclear power is not safe? How can we be safe knowing the local plant might melt down and emit far greater amounts of radiation? While there have been other, less known nuclear incidents, let’s very briefly examine those three infamous nuclear accidents. With all, the causes and lessons are quite complex but an overview is easily at hand. For those who want the whole, detailed picture of each event, the information is available online.

Three Mile Island. I worked there as a technician, just after the Unit 2 meltdown had occurred in 1979. Talk about a weird workplace! TMI was an accident that had several causes. There were equipment failures (stuck relief valve), procedural failures (cooling valves erroneously locked shut), training failures (operators not believing their instruments), bad design (the control alarm systems inundated the operators and then fell hours behind in recording significant events), insufficient understanding of some aspects of pressurized water reactors (experts did not anticipate a hydrogen bubble) and industry and regulation failures (another plant with a similar relief valve had issues but that wasn’t communicated to the other utilities that operated the same type of plant and the NRC had no regulatory mechanism to compel them to do so). In a nutshell, a relief valve stuck open, much of the water in the core was expelled, a key automatic safety system had been disabled, a hydrogen bubble formed in the core which caused anomalous readings on some control room instruments, the operators did not believe their instruments so they shut down the emergency water supply to the core. The core became uncovered and with safety systems compromised, it partially melted.

Eventually, over days, reactor experts figured out what had happened and efforts to supply water to the core were successful. But not before a significant portion of the core had melted and not before some very anxious hours wondering if the hydrogen in the vessel would explode, as hydrogen has a propensity to do.

What were the immediate ramifications? Well, the reactor was destroyed of course and the effort to relieve the reactor building (the containment) of dangerous conditions mandated venting some radioactive gas to the atmosphere. Radioactive water was released into the auxiliary building but not beyond that. Two things didn’t happen. First and most importantly, the primary defense against an unacceptable release of radioactivity to the public did not fail. The containment building held. Inside the containment, it was radioactive hell. Outside, not so much. And by ‘outside’ I mean immediately adjacent to the exterior of the building. It was still safe for workers outside to do what they needed to do. Secondly, no significant radioactive material or radiation escaped the plant boundary. Yes, there was some venting and the radiation level at the plant boundary fence rose, but never to a level remotely dangerous to the public. I know there are scare stories of radioactive cow milk and increased cancer rates but they’re bullshit. Utter (udder?) bullshit.

Long-term, the ramifications of the TMI accident, other than the utility going bankrupt and nuclear construction across the country stalling, were enormously positive. The industry and the NRC responded in several significant ways: plant operating procedures were modified, existing equipment was upgraded, new equipment was installed, a whole industry watchdog came into being, the NRC became more assertive with regard to plant safety. I personally built half a career on installing extensive modifications to several nuclear plants in the country. It was a veritable boom time for workers like me. You know those safety analysis calculations I mentioned? That was part of it. World-wide, the nuclear power industry is much more safety conscious and much better equipped to handle accidents because of the lessons learned from TMI.

Chernobyl. No discussion of the accident at Chernobyl 4 can be valid if the political situation is ignored. Chernobyl is located not too far from Kiev in the Ukraine – at the time a republic of the USSR – and was tightly controlled by the Soviet Union. It has been thirty years since the collapse of that regime so maybe people have forgotten how dysfunctional it was. With regards to what we’re discussing here, the USSR designed, built and operated some very inferior nuclear power plants. Safety systems were minimal and unreliable; the plant operators were cowed into compliance even when they knew things were not right. The basic design of the four Chernobyl units – the RBMK reactor – is notoriously unstable. Chernobyl Unit 4 was as unlike a western nuclear power plant as you could imagine and still be an electric generating station.

I am not nearly as familiar with the events surrounding the Chernobyl disaster as I am with TMI, or as with Fukushima. That’s largely due to the secrecy imposed in the aftermath by the Soviets, which was not relaxed all that much by Yeltsin’s Russia after the USSR’s demise. And good luck getting anything out of Putin. I wouldn’t be surprised if officials of the now independent Ukraine aren’t privy to the details. I did find the HBO show Chernobyl to be illuminating, however. Worth a view.

Briefly, for whatever reason, the agencies responsible for nuclear plant operations in the USSR ordered a test to be performed at the Unit 4 reactor which would demonstrate whether the latent heat of the reactor after an emergency shutdown could supply the turbine with enough steam to power the reactor coolant pumps until backup generators could come online. It was ill-advised because it required disabling safety systems designed to shut the plant down when key plant parameters were exceeded. It also involved operating the plant in a manner outside its design limits. The reactor responded badly to the test, power increased at a rate far beyond limits and entered an operating region that was uncontrollable. A steam explosion occurred due to the excessive power level and the reactor essentially blew its top. A fire ensued. The fire is key because the RBMK used graphite as part of its core design and the graphite caught fire, resulting in an inferno that was extremely difficult to put out. The heat plume from the raging fire sent highly radioactive material into the atmosphere where it was carried by winds to neighboring regions.

But bad as it was, it wasn’t as bad as some nuclear doom-sayers said it would be. Many people died trying control the fire and plenty more died in the local region due to radiation poisoning, cancers. Certainly, this was the worst nuclear disaster we have experienced. However, predictions of enormous swaths of land uninhabitable for centuries have not borne out. The area surrounding Chernobyl is still abnormally radioactive but wildlife is flourishing. It isn’t the post-nuclear wasteland many predicted. The Ukraine, including Kiev, are fine and countries further away that were in the path of the plume have no significant residual contamination. I should mention that the other three units at Chernobyl eventually resumed operation. They probably shouldn’t have.

Fukushima. Fukushima teaches a lesson and that lesson is that TMI already taught the lesson. Ignore it at your peril. The Japanese nuclear regulatory agencies were lax in their oversight and failed to insist the plants adopt newly-developed safety measures, as is routinely done in the US.

The six-unit Fukushima Daiichi plant, located about 250 km from Tokyo on the Pacific coast, was inundated by a tsunami generated by a large earthquake centered offshore which caused massive damage to the country. The plant’s seawall was inadequate to hold back the rising water which subsequently flooded most of the plant, including vital safety equipment. Units 1 – 4 were most affected, with the newer units 5 and 6 being better protected. Of the four affected units, 1 – 3 were operating; Unit 4 was shutdown for refueling. Units 1 – 3 each suffered substantial core meltdown.

The details are not as involved as at TMI, which had in my opinion more numerous sub-failures, but briefly the floodwaters disabled the emergency diesel generators, located at low elevation (i.e., below the level of the seawall). Without the diesels, the plant safety systems were left with only the emergency batteries, which were not designed to last very long. The four reactors eventually lost electric power and injection of core cooling water terminated. Without continual cooling water, the cores in 1 – 3 overheated and melted. The core for unit 4 had been removed to the spent fuel pool. There was some concern with the spent fuel pool conditions post-accident but they turned out to be unfounded.

Fukushima has become a major economic disaster not only for the utility that operated the plant but for Japan as a whole. Regulators and government officials shut down the entire Japanese nuclear industry in the aftermath and it still hasn’t fully recovered. Prior to Fukushima, the country relied on nuclear power for some 30% of its electricity, all of which had to be replaced by non-renewable power during the shutdown. In the years since, many of the reactors have either restarted or are gaining approval to do so. Meanwhile, the cleanup effort at the Fukushima plant and the Fukushima prefecture is ongoing and very, very expensive.

It’s not my intent to minimize the extent of the Fukushima disaster. It surely was the worst accident to occur with Western built reactors (Fukushima’s reactors were designed by General Electric, one of the four reactor suppliers in the US). The only points I will offer are: one, such failures are very rare and should be evaluated in context of the industry’s record as a whole, particularly in comparison to that of competing industries. An examination of the coal, gas and oil industries will quickly expose far greater environmental and economic damage, damage that includes worsening climate change. Moreover, far more people have died and are dying from fossil fuel use than can be attributed to radiation exposures. My second point is that the recovery from the disaster has been a bit of a disaster itself, mainly due to unreasonable fears of radioactive contamination preventing engineers from doing what needs to be done: use the Pacific Ocean as a heat sink and a source of dilution. Rather than build hundreds of storage tanks to hold the radioactive water used to cool the disabled cores, a pipeline could be constructed to carry the water far out to sea where it would mix with ocean currents. The resultant increase in ocean radioactivity would be extremely minimal due to the enormous dilution factor, and would be localized at that. Such is the state nuclear power today – even reasonable recovery and mitigation efforts are thwarted by ignorance.

Current Regulatory Environment. The USNRC has long set a good standard for safety and has in my estimation has properly directed efforts to learn from Fukushima as we did with TMI (Chernobyl was irrelevant – the RBMK reactor design and Soviet regulatory practices were so far afield from western reactors and regulations that no real lessons could be learned, other than to do what you can to keep nuclear technology from countries like the USSR). Not long after regulators and industry experts determined what exactly had gone wrong to allow the Fukushima accident to happen, the NRC developed a two-phase plan. Phase I was guidelines (some were mandatory actions) for the industry to use to determine if similar vulnerabilities existed at US plants. Phase II comprised regulations implemented to address the vulnerabilities with utilities having a certain period of time to make physical and procedural changes that would assure Fukushima-like accidents would not occur. Unfortunately, the NRC now has three Trump-appointed commissioners and they voted to shelve Phase II of the Fukushima effort.  How far Trump’s commissioners have degraded the NRC’s history of safety consciousness in favor of a ‘good for business’ regulatory atmosphere remains to be seen (think of the cozy relationship Boeing has/had to FAA regulators, resulting in the 737 Max 8 mess).

With a few exceptions (Davis Besse, Grand Gulf, Diablo Canyon), nuclear utility operators have always been very safety-conscious. They want nothing to do with a potential accident – it’s bad for business. Even those plants that have skirted too close to the safety line (such as the three I just listed) still operated well above Fukushima levels of safety compliance and have had increased regulatory scrutiny. Moreover, as mentioned above, after TMI an industry watchdog group – the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) – was created to monitor individual plant safety performance and to provide a vehicle for sharing important technical information between utilities. Recall that knowledge of a the faulty relief valve design was never shared with other plants, including TMI. INPO now has in place a repository of data regarding equipment and procedural issues available to all utilities. Indeed, plants are committed to inform INPO of any such issues as they come up. In terms of monitoring operations, all plants are subjected to periodic inspections by INPO, inspections that comprise audits of past operations as well as monitoring current operations.

My Stance. I no longer work in the nuclear industry and I derive no source of income from when I did. As the saying goes, I have no horse in this race. If every nuclear plant in this country was shutdown tomorrow, I would lose nothing. But I do still have a considerable amount of knowledge from my decades of work in the industry. So here’s what I think should be done:

  • Shutdown vulnerable plants. I’m not in favor of shutting down good nuclear plants before their design life expires but as they come up on that milestone, strict scrutiny and application of the latest data and protocols need to be employed to determine whether a license extension should be granted. For sure, if any existing GE designed BWR’s are still operating with Fukushima vulnerabilities, maybe we should pull the plug on them.
  • Accelerate construction of new generation reactors. Several good, improved designs are out there. The new Westinghouse reactors coming online as Units 3 & 4 of the Vogtle plant in Georgia are an example of a large-scale design but there are also a few small-reactor designs that have passed various regulatory approval stages and are eligible for preliminary licensing. Smaller plants are cheaper and have greater inherent safety with respect to major disasters (they are much less likely to suffer core meltdown). Smaller plants are easier to site, both from a local regulatory and public resistance stance as well as not needing as large a heat sink for cooling. And being new designs, they benefit from the latest technology and innovations.
  • Strengthen NRC independence (not sure how but certainly we need scientific experts not lobbyists). The NRC is already an independent agency (like the EPA) so is not under the president’s authority. As we have see with Trump, that doesn’t mean the president can’t set their agenda. We need the NRC to do their job, as they have done for most of the agency’s existence.

I don’t expect the long-anticipated nuclear renaissance will come about in my lifetime, if ever. What with the alarming increase in not only ignorance but vilification of science and scientific expertise in the last decade or so, I can’t imagine the country will accept large scale nuclear power as a solution to climate change. Indeed, many progressive elements in the country who are working to stem the climate crisis still can’t seem to get past their long-held, irrational fears of radiation and radioactive waste. And if Trump gets elected again, all bets are off.

Futurespeak, and Some Other Topic

Lately I’ve been reading – in some cases rereading – classic science fiction novels. BookBub, a website that notifies you of one-day sales on eBooks, often has one of them in the daily listing so I link over to Barnes & Noble and download it to my Nook for a pittance, like $1.99. Some are free but those tend to be B-listers you’ve never heard of.

  • By the way, I love my Nook. With failing eyesight, having an ereader that allows you to crank up the font size to whatever you like is a fabulous thing.

Classic novels are characterized by several things I guess but obviously one of them is that they’re old. They were written decades ago. As such, the authors necessarily wrote from the perspective of the era they were living in – the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, whatever. With science fiction, that also meant foreseeing the future from the perspective of their particular present time, and as we all know, predictions of the future are pretty loose and evolve as the ‘present’ moves forward. Maybe movies teach us that better with perhaps Blade Runner, made in 1982 and set in Los Angeles 2019, being a prime example of a future prediction that wasn’t quite on point. With novels, I go with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949. As we all can now attest, the events of that dystopian future took place not in 1984 but a bit later in 2016 with the election of the Mango Mussolini and subsequent demise of the last remaining rational Republicans.

But this post is actually a rant. I’m not here to expound on the greatness of classic sci-fi novels. I’m here to complain about an aspect of the novels that often bothers me, and sometimes makes the book unreadable. It’s futurespeak. That might not be the correct term and I certainly didn’t coin it. Futurespeak is what it literally sounds like – speaking in the future. In other words, the language, idioms and peculiar syntax that future people speak, or at least how the author imagines they might speak. As a concept, futurespeak is not only good but inevitable. Consider pastspeak – how folks spoke in the past. It’s said that an English-speaking person transported back in time a couple of hundred years to England would have trouble understanding the locals despite their speaking ‘English.’ Language evolves, and fairly quickly I’d say. Consider also old movies, maybe a 1940’s gangster flick. The slang used by the characters is often entirely out of use today, and I’d suspect that a lot of young people might not even know what some of it meant. And that’s just half a decade or so.

So when a science-fiction writer puts pen to paper on a novel set a few centuries or more in the future, it’s logical that the characters would be speaking a language quite unfamiliar to us today. But is that really what we want to read? I say no, at least not that much. Take Samuel R. Delany’s classic Dhalgren. Acclaimed as one of the great novels of our time, it leans heavily on futurespeak. I’m not sure how far in the future it’s set but the characters use a whole lot of unfamiliar words, slang, idioms. It’s sometimes hard to parse. Mind you, Dhalgren is one of those books I’d read before – maybe on the submarine – and I recall thinking highly of it, so clearly I haven’t always had this aversion to futurespeak.

Probably most people reading this post (clarification: no one reads these posts) will think my issue with futurespeak is at best trivial and at worst, a sign that I’m embracing ignorance. Frankly, I lean towards the latter; as I grow older, I feel less inclined to put in much effort to read books. My life has been one of reading difficult things, albeit mostly technical stuff involved with three disparate degree programs and a career as an engineer/technician. But I have read a lot of the heady, classic books. I just don’t want to anymore. Instead, I’d like authors to concentrate on the plot, character development, suspense and the like and not force me to learn a new language. After all, if I wanted to read War and Peace (I don’t want to), I really think I’d like the English translation over the original Russian and French, even though those languages are what the characters would have spoken.

Some futurespeak is OK – I’m currently reading Across a Billion Years, by Robert Silverberg, which is set a few centuries in the future and employs a moderate amount of unfamiliar slang and other futurespeak, certainly less than the characters would probably actually speak given the time. So I’m not totally ignorant.

Oh, and the ‘other topic’ this post’s title alludes to? I’ve actually already touched on it: my aversion to challenging reads. Didn’t used to be that way but I now really only like easy reading. Probably a sign a failing mental acuity. Sigh.

July 4, 2021

I’m not a big Independence Day, patriotic, flag-waving kind of guy and July 4th 2021 is really no different. But this year I put up an American flag on the front porch. I wouldn’t even have a suitable flag to display were it not for the three that my wife and I have from various relatives dying. Today’s flag was that which was presented to my mother on the death of my father, a career Army man.

Why this year? Not long ago, someone on the local Nextdoor internet site crowed that he walked around and could not find a single house displaying a US flag and a Biden campaign sign, clearly suggesting that liberals are unAmerican. That guy clearly is a nazi Trump supporter and fuck him. But also fuck the Republican Party as a whole for co-opting the flag as their own. Liberals need to reclaim their national symbol.

So the flag went up but at the same time, I moved our bleeding-heart liberal ‘welcome to all neighbors’ sign to a spot just beneath. Nearby on the other side of the house, our BLM sign continues to proclaim similar lefty sentiments. No Biden sign, although we still have it from last year’s campaign season.

Liberals – remember, I’m one – as a group tend to point out a lot of things wrong with this country, more so than do conservatives anyway. Racial injustice, income equality, warmongering, the 2nd Amendment, crappy health care system, and so on. Liberals tend not to extol the country’s virtues as many conservatives are quick to do, although their idea of ‘virtues’ often seem rooted in the 1950’s. You know, the good ol’ days of Eisenhower and McCarthy, colored people drinking fountains, Hollywood blacklisting. Conservatives also like to use any excuse to praise the military, all the time, something that aggravates this veteran to no end. As Jim Wright of Stonekettle Station – a combat veteran who you need to follow – recently expressed, July 4th is not ‘Military Day’ and there’s no need to thank the veterans; it’s a day to celebrate ALL of America. Couldn’t agree more.

So where does that leave folks who are mostly OK with the USA but don’t want to stick their heads in the sand when it comes to all our national societal failures? It’s a difficult question, particularly if you’re not terribly up on the state of the world as a whole as a way of comparison. This blog is normally almost entirely my opinions and words but here’s one guy’s take on America that strikes a balance on Independence Day, I think. Jeff is a Marine Iraq war veteran posting on his page Unprecedented Mediocrity:

Without exception, reservation, or qualification, I will always be proud of the United States of America. That’s not to say that [there have not been] some great moral evils in our past. How this great nation could simultaneously enshrine the notion that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator certain inalienable rights while simultaneously making other men property of those men is beyond me.

Yes, the ramifications of that injustice persist today as you cannot have two families walk down those very opposite paths and wind up at the same destination. With each generation, we are getting closer to merging those two timelines. I don’t know if it will happen in my lifetime, but I can either commit myself to pulling them closer together or pushing them further apart. As [for me] and my household, I will commit my days to pulling them together.

Manifest Destiny led to some pretty terrible atrocities against the native people and friends, we’ve had airplanes longer than women have had the right to vote in this country. Despite acts of inexplicable gallantry, men of color could not command white men in what we call the greatest generation.

My mom went to segregated schools and as such, it was not that far back in history, one generation, where black and white kids couldn’t go to the same schools. America has gotten much wrong but that is only because our nation is infested with humans and we are [fallible] fallen creatures. Which brings me to my point.

I will always be proud of America because we have always shown that we are willing to self correct. Let’s face it, just 60 to 75 years ago, humans conquered other humans and did terrible things to one another on an unprecedented scale. That’s humanity’s story, not the singular story of the United States.

I’ve [traveled] the world in both war and peace and I’m here to tell you, the rest of those people outside our borders are not exactly acing the humanity test either. Not even you Canada, you’re close, but you still got that jacked up bacon thing that frequently pisses me off.

Friends, the world is not getting it right and neither are we. However, we are self correcting. Slowly and painfully, we are riding that long [arc] of the moral universe that bends toward justice. We fight and argue with each other and that’s largely because we liked each other a lot more before we knew what our countrymen felt about every single topic on the internet. January 6th was a travesty, but I’m here to tell you that if it were any other country, if our democratic institutions were just a bit weaker, our elected government would have fallen.

We have a lot of self correcting to go and I’m not foolish enough to think that I’ll see perfect in my lifetime, so I’ll guess I’ll have to settle for ‘Merica, better than the rest of the world. Because sooner or later, we self correct. Granted, not always as [quickly corrected as] that prohibition on alcohol thing, but sooner or later, we get there.

That’s why I am now and always will be proud of the United States of America. To all my friends judging from other nations, I leave you with a July 4th, screw you buddy your country can’t human any better than we can. Now, if you will excuse me I have to go watch my fellow Americans start an insane amount of wildfires today as a result of ignorant firework usage. We [are] trying to human better, we really are, but ‘Merica!

Agree with Jeff or not, he makes more sense than most. Perhaps he has more faith in our ‘self-correcting’ than warranted but it’s an optimistic sentiment. Perhaps you think certain other countries *are* doing human better. Maybe. Surely not many.

Here’s to leaving a better America – and world – to our (someone else’s) children. Here’s to self-correcting.

A Small Thing

At last night’s local Elks baseball game, I watched a pop foul fly into the stands behind home plate. There, two boys – one older, maybe 13 or 14, and the other much younger – scrambled after the ball. The older kid won the race, proudly holding up his prize. As the victor turned to rejoin his seatmates with a spring in his step, the younger boy walked slowly back towards his parents, head down, dejected. A baseball glove in his hand, empty.

I saw then that the older boy had also noticed his vanquished rival, the way he walked, the disappointment. Older boy, who had already sat and displayed the ball to his friends, got up and trotted down to where the younger kid sat – and gave him the ball.

Small town baseball, an American tradition. We have season tickets and go to most games. The play on the field is not always stellar but it’s real. Off the field, in the stands? Well, sometimes you’ll see things there, too. Small things, but no less real.

Finding Your Path

If I were asked to name my favorite car that I’ve owned over the years, I’d probably first default to the Z. A 1971 Datsun 240Z bought in Hawaii while in the navy and sold some seven years later. I virtually rebuilt the car, including an engine rebuild, a transmission overhaul and a new paint job that I sprayed myself in my garage (big mistake). Numerous performance upgrades too, as well as exterior improvements (front air dam, rear spoiler, rear window louvers). It was truly ‘my’ car and I shouldn’t have sold it when I did. At the time (1985), I was living in Charlotte, NC with plans to take a new job in Southern California and I had recently bought another car – a new Audi GT Coupe. Transporting two vehicles across the country seemed unreasonable so the Z had to go. A local radio talk show guy bought it – said he wanted it for his teenage daughter. Given the car’s performance characteristics, I told him that was a bad idea but he bought it anyway. I wonder how long the car survived.

But was the Z really my favorite car? True, I had a lot of history in the short time I owned it, and as mentioned, I spent a lot of time working on it. Moreover, an early model 240Z was simply a great car. But is seven years enough time for the Z to retain its top spot? Or is there another vehicle that really is my favorite?

In all, including those jointly owned with my wife, I’ve had fifteen cars and trucks.

  • 1967 Chevy Chevelle with a 283 V-8.
  • 1972 Chevy Vega GT Kammback
  • 1971 Datsun 240Z
  • 1985 Audi Coupe GT with a 5 cylinder engine
  • 1985 Nissan Sentra wagon
  • 1989 Toyota SR5 pickup
  • 1992 Audi 90
  • 1967 Dodge Coronet R/T with a 440 magnum engine, a beast
  • 1967 Chrysler 300 convertible with a 440 engine, a battleship-sized car
  • 1972 Datsun 510 2 door, a little hot rod
  • 1996 Honda Civic
  • 1998 Nissan Pathfinder 4WD
  • 2004 Acura TSX
  • 2008 Toyota Corolla
  • 2014 Subaru BRZ

Looking at the list, a few stand out. Besides the 240Z, the TSX was a great car; the R/T was my only foray into the ’60s muscle car scene; the 510 was a blast; the Toyota pickup was solid, as is the Corolla. With maybe the exception of the Audi 90 (big disappointment), all were great cars. My first – the Chevelle – took me and my buddies to a lot of ball games in San Francisco and Oakland while in the navy. I went to see Willie Mays and Reggie Jackson in that car! The Audi Coupe was my first new car and I don’t regret buying it even if it prompted me to sell the Z. The BRZ – which we call Blue – is my current ‘fun’ car. A joint design between Toyota and Subaru, the BRZ is a joy to drive, although it does get put into hibernation during winter here in Bend. Blue don’t do snow and ice.

Have I left one out? Sure have. The vehicle I’ve had the longest and which has taken us so many places we otherwise couldn’t go:

The Pathfinder

A new 1998 Nissan Pathfinder, 4WD with manual transmission and low range transfer case. At the time, Nancy was in Atlanta starting her new career while I finished up my job at the San Onofre nuclear plant, having also recently completed a degree in geology, which stoked my desire to explore the desert. Nancy liked the desert too and we wanted a vehicle that would take us off-road into the Mojave but would also travel the highways without too much pain. After all, we’d be traveling cross-country from Atlanta to get to our preferred stomping grounds. So dedicated off-road vehicles were out and because we had a limited budget, high-end vehicles like the Range Rover were not an option. In 1998 – as now, surprisingly – there were few choices if you wanted an affordable, reliable, capable 4WD vehicle that would also behave itself on asphalt. Pretty much just the Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota’s 4Runner in 1998. Maybe also the Mitsubishi Montero and Isuzu Trooper. Jeep Wrangler’s were (are) more capable but suffer(ed) from reliability problems and are too small. Other American models, such as the Dodge Durango, I also considered unreliable.

Searching for the right one took some time, mainly because a manual transmission was a must and those were fairly scarce. Being in Orange County helped as there are a lot of car dealerships, so I eventually found the maroon beauty you see in the photo. Bought new, it now has over 230,000 miles on it and has traversed the country several times, including a round-the-nation run in its first year: California-Atlanta-New York-Montana-Utah-California. 230,000 is actually not that many miles for a now twenty three year old vehicle, which reflects its long history as our ‘road trip’ car. Over the years, it has sat in the driveway many times for months on end, waiting to be called into action.

I’ll point out right now that the 1998 version of the Pathfinder bears no resemblance to the bloated pigs Nissan is foisting off on the market today. I would not consider buying a new Pathfinder today. Back in 1998, the Pathfinder was very capable: pretty good ground clearance, an excellent transmission and relatively little extra weight (still heavy though). It was built to go off-road. Moreover, because Nissan makes quality vehicles – it is very, very reliable. Really, the only problem that left us on the side of the road was a failed distributor in the first year (warranty fix). The alternator went out after ten years but gave us enough warning to drive a hundred miles to a dealer. Other than that, routine stuff only.

On the negative side, the Pathfinder does have a few faults. First and foremost is abysmal gas mileage. On a good day with a tailwind, it’ll get 17 mpg, usually less. You can buy a Corvette that does better than that. Mind you, you’d think after two decades manufacturers would be able to improve on that. Nope – the likely replacement – a new Toyota 4Runner similarly equipped does little better. The Pathfinder doesn’t have a huge, powerful engine that might excuse its gas hog nature. In fact, it’s a relatively small 3.3 liter V6 with not a lot of horsepower. That would be the second fault – it struggles to get over mountains when loaded. And when I say struggles, I mean you’re sometimes driving in the slow lane with the 18 wheelers. Fair amount of torque but not horsepower. It’s adequate though. Finally, as is the case with all similar vehicles, the Pathfinder gets squirrely at speed when there’s wind. In fact, I really don’t like driving it over 65 mph even without wind. So high speed runs across Montana or Texas are out.

Over the years, Nancy and I have teamed up well off-roading in the Pathfinder. Both of us know how to handle the vehicle and on treacherous paths, we have a good system of one person getting out and guiding while the other drives. We’ve both taken the vehicle deep off-road alone as well and Nancy has spent some time camping with it (I don’t prefer camping due to a bad back). Although Death Valley NP is where we’ve most off-roaded, the Pathfinder has found itself on rocks and dirt in many states. Canada too, on a Sierra Club outing. It’s safe to say that the Pathfinder has shown us ‘the path’, the places where we like to go. Places where lesser vehicles can’t go. Places where other people aren’t around. I can’t even begin to catalog all the trips but here’s a few (OK, quite a few) photos of the Pathfinder in the wild:

Death Valley National Park

While Death Valley is the Pathfinder’s ‘home away from home’, it’s quite happy in other locales as well.

White Mountains, California

Various Places

Georgia

The Pathfinder mainly served as our ticket to western adventures, often sitting idle in between road trips while we lived in Georgia. But it did get out a bit. Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos of our Southeastern adventures, which included some forays deep into ‘Deliverance’ territory. The North Georgia mountains aren’t the equal of what you find out west but there’s adventures to be had. I just didn’t take any photos which showed the Pathfinder. Nor do I have any of the most excellent trip we took to Maine and New Brunswick as part of a Sierra Club outing, although if you’re looking for puffin photos, I’ve got ’em!

Oregon

With our move to Oregon, the Pathfinder gets a lot more work, even if Death Valley is a whole lot closer now. Central Oregon in particular is an outdoor paradise with the high Cascade Range virtually in our backyard and the high desert just outside town to the east. And we’ve yet to explore but a fraction within a day’s drive. The Pathfinder is truly at home here.

Changes

Over the years, we’ve not modified the Pathfinder in terms of mechanical or performance-related things. No suspension lifts, rock shields or engine improvements. The wheels are still OEM. We have done a few things to improve the carrying capacity and fuel range. Specifically, the SURCO roof rack has been the biggest addition. While adequate, the Pathfinder’s interior space is not huge – it’s not a big SUV. So a roof rack was essential. We originally tried to get away with a big roof-top storage bag but that wasn’t great. Later on, a specially sized gas container carrier was mounted, one I made myself. That added 7.5 gallons of fuel. As it was made out of wood, it didn’t last long but I knew that when I built it. The last trip to Death Valley involved just the three containers without the carrier – we just strapped them to the roof rack securely. Along with fuel and various big items like camp tables, the roof rack holds the second spare wheel we bought several years ago. Having the ability to suffer two flat tires without becoming stranded really adds to your confidence going out on some of the more remote, challenging roads.

We also bought a side canopy that attaches to the roof rack – great for Mojave desert trips. And after moving to Oregon, we bought a couple pair of kayak carriers, which require removing the roof rack. You can see all these additions and iterations in the various photos but here’s a few showing the roof rack install and the gas carrier.

Moving On

We’re now seriously considering retiring the old girl. Sure, the Pathfinder is still in good shape – lots of body dings but no real mechanical issues – but 230,000 miles is a lot a ‘roads less traveled’ given where we like to travel. Getting stranded deep in Death Valley National Park’s back country is not optimal, especially given our more limited capability of hiking out. We’ve also been considering a trailer and that 3.3 liter engine just won’t hack the load, I think. Mind you, it’s been three years since we sort of decided to get a newer vehicle and still there’s the Pathfinder parked out back. The pandemic has something to do with that.

Puffins

I promised puffin pictures. The first one is an Icelandic puffin while the remaining two photos are from New Brunswick. Given how puffins operate, that Iceland puffin could well be from the same family as the Canadian ones.

Note: All images are mine but many have been greatly enhanced by @nancyfloydartist.

Timing

I’m interested in how things work, how humans interact with themselves and machines, how humans design stuff. How nature works intrigues me less, although that can be fascinating too. Observation of human-created environment chews up a lot of my time, although frankly, my powers of observation can fail miserably at times. That’s another conversation.

Perhaps there is no better arena for observation than our roads and highways. Here, humans mix it up with each other in a semi-ordered/ordained fashion using machines and infrastructure. It’s also an environment where, as a driver, you’re acutely aware of what other people around you are doing. Or at least you should be. So it’s no wonder that driving habits provide many insights into how humans get along with each other.

My thoughts along these lines started recently as I came to a four-way stop. Each of the other directions already had a car stopped, waiting. As I was the last one there, custom dictated that I would go through the intersection last. It’s a good rule but it’s often not efficient. With heavy traffic, having one car cross the intersection at a time is a bit daft and I see it happen a lot. Better to have the opposing cars cross together, with the left turners working their way across in the usual order. So, my thought was that as I came to the intersection, if the car opposite me moved first, I should immediately go too, even if I was going ‘out of order’. It wouldn’t hold up the cross-traffic cars – they had to wait for the one car anyway. It would be more efficient. The problem would be that the other drivers might not see it that way and would not love me for it. But it got me thinking about how we drive and how we can do it more efficiently. Later, another situation put that together with a related concept – timing. Timing promotes – or can destroy – efficiency.

Question: You’re stopped at an intersection intending to make a right turn. You have a stop sign, the cross-traffic does not. Hence you must yield and wait for an opening. A gap in traffic appears and you anticipate moving out. When do you start to move? When do you release pressure on the brake pedal and press down on the accelerator?

It’s a question of efficiency and awareness of your car’s response characteristics. It’s a question of timing. If you answered the question by saying you’d wait until that last car had completely gone by before releasing the brake pedal, you’re not doing it right.

Consider. It takes a finite amount of time to move your foot from the brake to the accelerator. It takes a finite amount of time before the car actually moves forward significantly (granted, most cars with an automatic transmission will creep forward after the brake is released but not very quickly). In that time, the car that passed by, which is moving at the speed of traffic, will have traveled a good distance down the road before your car even nudges forward, much less enters the traffic lane. You will thus need a considerable gap to safely make that right turn.

Efficiency suggests that you can do better. It’s all about the timing. Specifically, you should start the turning process well before the car passes by. Release the brake just before it gets to you and press the accelerator just as the rear end of the car is in front of you. Your car will take some time to speed up and move into the lane, so there’s little chance you’ll collide. You’ll end up with a not-very-large gap between you and the other car and the drivers waiting behind you at the intersection will love you for it. Efficient. And safe. With the other car already at speed, if for some reason that driver suddenly decided to stop right when you started your turn, there’s still little chance of a collision. Cars don’t stop instantaneously so it will be past you anyway and you will have plenty of time to back off or even abort the turn.

Two others:

When stopped in your lane to make a left turn across opposing traffic, you will also need to wait for a gap. In this case, it’s a little more serious because if you screw up badly, you’ll get broadsided. Your passenger in particular will not love you for that. But you can nevertheless use the concept of efficient timing. The first thing you will need to have done is not stop so far along the lane that you have to make a sharp left turn. Stop several meters before that point. This will do two things: it will allow you to make a gentler turn and more importantly it will allow you to start your acceleration into the turn with your wheels pointed forward, i.e., not immediately into the opposing traffic lane. (By the way, not turning your wheels while you wait is basic safe driving. You don’t want to get rear-ended into opposing traffic.) With your car already having gained a little forward momentum, you will need a smaller gap to turn and get across the lane safely. It takes very little time for a moving car to cross one lane of traffic. Hence, you will improve traffic flow. The drivers behind you will love you. And if your car is an old clunker, that initial forward movement will allow the engine a chance to stumble before you commit to the turn.

A final example, one not involving potential collision situations. In my town, we have a lot of roundabouts, traffic circles. They help with efficient traffic flow. As a matter of courtesy (and state law, I believe), to help the roundabout operate efficiently, you must put on your right turn signal before exiting. That allows the driver entering the circle at that point to anticipate a gap. So when do you actually reach for the turn signal lever? Right before your exit? No. The process of activating the turn signal involves, again, a finite amount of time. Even if you have your hand ready on the lever, the electrical relay that operates the blinker takes time to do its thing. And there isn’t a lot of time – you’re typically not in a roundabout but for a few seconds. If you wait too long, the driver in that car waiting to see if you’re exiting won’t see your blinker until too late. She’ll first see your car actually starting to exit and will not love you for it, potentially missing the gap. Instead, activate your signal as you pass by the exit before the one you intend to use. The blinker won’t blink in time to confuse anyone about that earlier exit point but will indicate your actual intention in time to be useful, and courteous. Everyone in town will love you.

Timing. Efficiency. These are concepts we can all love if handled properly, especially on the roadways.

Project: Air Filtration Unit

Years ago, I built a portable air filter to help with allergens in the house. It isn’t much to look at but it moves a lot of air. Basically a 1 ft x 1 ft x 2 ft box, it has an ultra-quiet bathroom exhaust fan inside that draws air through a standard home air filter in the front and pumps it out through a 4 inch port on the side. From there I can attach a dust collection hose to pipe the air to the other side of the room to promote circulation. Other than the on-off switch, that’s it. And the unit has worked well – it’s still quiet and based on how quickly the filter dirties up, it’s effective. Pretty ugly though – because I made it out of scrap wood, it needed to be painted instead of a nice wood finish. Not sure I chose a good color.

I decided to build another one but this time, it would be more of a piece of furniture and better looking. More of a woodworking project. After considering our needs, we decided the air filter could be a sofa end table. The current table is too small and too low. I’ll cut the suspense and show the final result now.

Same basic setup: an ultra-quiet fan drawing air through a standard filter and piping out through a 4″ port. This time though, the filter would be wholly inside the cabinet, smaller (12″ x 12″), and would draw air in through a louvered door. After playing around with fan orientation, I settled on having the filter on top with the fan mounted horizontally. That setup would allow room above the fan/filter for two narrow drawers. Additionally, because it is meant to be an end table, along with an on-off switch, I installed an electrical outlet to accommodate a tabletop lamp.

I like to use the wood I have on hand for projects if I can and I had a sufficient quantity of white oak, so that’s what I chose. For the side panels, which are 1/4″ plywood, I bought some white oak veneer. I had not used veneer before so that was new.

Mistakes were made. The biggest being a failure to properly account for the four vertical posts when I did the top piece, which was made from the best, most attractive cut of wood. The top turned out to be too small so I had to use other pieces to make a bigger one. The first top piece ended up being cut down for use as the two drawer fronts. The next biggest mistake was a goof in installing the door. The louvers ‘point’ up instead of down. That’s not so bad – it may even be beneficial in terms of drawing air from the room rather than the floor. But it wasn’t what I had intended.

Here’s the new top. I failed to take a photo of the original.

And some miscellaneous build photos.

One final note. This summer, Oregon had horrendous wildfires, as did Washington and California. The air quality in my town reached and stayed at ‘extremely unhealthy’ levels for a long while. Because I use near HEPA filters in my units and the house’s FAU (forced air unit), they’re effective at capturing smoke particles. So along with the FAU and my first portable unit, I pressed this new one temporarily into service before the cabinet was complete.

Some truths*

* As I see them.

  • There is no god. Not yours, not his, not hers. People would do better coming to grips with that fact and live their one life as best they can. Mostly, religious people need to stop screwing things up for the rest of us just because we don’t believe in your particular flavor of god. Be kind to one another. That’s the only rule that counts.
  • There are too many people on this planet. Overpopulation is the root cause of virtually all the really bad things that have happened and are happening to humans. Wars, famine, plagues, pollution, religion. I do not automatically think it a ‘blessing’ when people have children. We could use more child-less couples. Or adoptions.
  • Evidence-based decisions are the only way to decide policy. And by evidence-based, I mean supported by peer-reviewed, testable science. Sure, we don’t know how everything works, but we know a hell of a lot more than that moron you follow on Facebook or Twitter does. For example:
  • Vaccines are safe and they save people from horrible diseases and death. The body of evidence for this is so fucking huge that it’s mind-boggling that people believe otherwise.
  • GMOs are safe and provide enormous value towards supplying the world with nutritional food. Yes, there are issues with seed patents and corporate greed but the actual product is very beneficial.
  • Nuclear power is safe and is the only base-load generation technology we currently have that will make a dent in climate change. Yes, I know about Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. In fact, I know a hell of a lot more about those disasters than you probably do. They were bad but not as bad as what literally every other base-load power generation technology has wrought. If you don’t know what base-load means, find out. It’s important.
  • Speaking of human-caused climate change, yeah, it’s real. It’s happening and it’s not the same thing as what happened on Earth 12,000 years ago, or whenever. Human civilization has spread across the entire world and it really isn’t going to be a good thing when the various farm belts that feed the population go too dry, or too wet, or too cold. It’s already happening and future generations will be left with a far less sustainable planet if we don’t stop doing what we’re doing now. We have options.

That’s it. There are more truths out there of course but these are some of the important, pressing truths.

Oh, yeah, we landed men on the moon. It happened.