Apohele

I learned a new word—Apohele. You say AH-POE-HAY-LAY, and would it surprise you that it is from Hawaiian? It means “orbit” and is an unofficial name for a group of asteroids that are also called  Atiras.

Atira is more official because it has generally been the custom in astronomy to name similar objects after the first of those objects to be spotted and recognized. The first in the class was asteroid 163693 found in 2003. The newest member of the class is 2019 LF6. This recently-found asteroid is about a kilometer across and travels around the Sun in 151 days, the shortest “year” of any non-planet object. Mercury’s year is 88 days while Venus’ is 225 days. (Check out the graphic below.)

There are about twenty such Apohele known. All of them orbit the Sun within the Earth’s orbit, which makes them unusual. Orbits are elliptical so they have a far point (aphelion) and a near point (perihelion). Apohele have aphelions less than Earth’s perihelion.

NEAs or Near Earth Asteroids are broken into three other groups: Amors, Apollos, and Atens. Amors are outside of Earth’s solar path but within Mars’ orbit. Apollos and Atens cross the Earth’s orbit but vary in orbital size. To get technical, Apollos have a semi-major axis larger than Earth’s, and Atens have a semi-major axis smaller than Earth’s. (You might remember such things from high school math.) All are names from mythology—Atira is a Pawnee goddess.

So which one do you like better: Atira or Apohele?

2019lf6_orbit_mar82020

Real People. Not Actors.

Chevy ran a pickup ad during the All-Star Game last night that featured a bunch of jamokes checkin’ out the latest cool ride. They oohed and aahed over a cheesy electric tailgate and then a bunch of rocks fell from the sky and landed in the cargo bed.

And then we are informed that these are “real people” and “not actors.”

Well I say they are a bunch of scabs. They didn’t do that shit for free, they got some kind of renumeration, even if it is just “I’m on TV” bragging rights. So since they aren’t actors that means the company brought in scabs to film the commercial. Actors are real. They have unions and everything.

Either that or the company is a bunch of cheap motherfuckers who don’t have the decency to pay people who do work for them. Actors are hired. They don’t just show up.

Yeah, like I want to buy products from that outfit.

In troubled times it is worth remembering that “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.”

Energy- intensive

I recently finished Vaclav Smil’s Energy and Civilization: a history from MIT Press.

It is not light summer reading. In fact, the book requires a good deal of concentration as it is information dense, quantitative in nature, and grand in scope.

smil cover

In short, it is energy-intensive.

But that is to be expected. It’s a big story with a lot of actors and a timeline of millenia. It is history, for sure, but not the usual stuff of battles and leaders, or prophets and zealots. It is more incremental and focuses on technological changes, everything from the moldboard plow to the integrated circuit.

And he puts numbers on everything. (Be sure to brush up on metric units!) I like that. If you can measure something, or at least work up a reasonable estimate, then why not do it? It beats just talking. Sometimes numbers aren’t revealing, but most of the time they are, so it is just intellectual laziness not to whip out the slide rule and report results. Smil is careful to explain the assumptions behind the numbers and to describe their uncertainties. That is essential to a good discussion.

Energy and Civilization won’t make Oprah’s list but it will enrich your view of the world. Smil shows us the energy costs of living the way we do and he asks us if we should continue to do so. I think that’s an important question regardless of the answer.

Libra

Facebook wants to get in on the currency business. They are creating a new form of digital payment called Libra and calling it a cryptocurrency. It isn’t really, but it relies on the same technology, the blockchain. A blockchain is a software product—a bunch of computer code that enables a task. In this case the creation and maintenance of a ledger, or record-keeping system.

Blockchains are appealing because they rely on a distributed network of nodes and users. They are decentralized and thus theoretically more secure and more robust than any one particular data location. At least that’s what the computer geniuses say, and I’m not here to argue with them.

The Libra blockchain will be run by a non-profit composed of a lot of fancy folks. Here’s a nice graphic about it:

Libra-Association-Founding-Partners

The wiggly-wavey thing is the symbol for Libra currency. Users of Libra will get a sort of PayPal on steroids. They will have a digital wallet and they can pay for things (and/or receive payment) wherever they have access to the wallet, be it on a computer or smartphone. If you have an internet connection you have a payment system. Libra’s goal is to be worldwide. You buy Libra with your local currency and get an equivalent amount of digital money, and since it is digital it can be moved around and transacted more readily than ordinary currency. And you avoid the payment of transaction fees like with credit cards (there are fees, just vanishingly small to the ordinary user).

You can’t make money with Libra. It is just a platform, and you can’t earn interest on your deposits in your digital wallet. But the whole thing is a money-making strategy for its investors. You got an extra ten million bucks? You can be one, too. People who invest ten million US dollars expect a return. And the Libra Investment Token will give them that. The more people who use Libra the more these investors will make, kind of like the old-fashioned pyramid schemes.

Libra is not a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin because Bitcoin derives its value from the underlying blockchain technology itself. People crunch numbers with computers to support the blockchain cryptography and they get paid in Bitcoin. Libra is more like a traditional investment. The Libra Association will invest in fiat currencies, government bonds, and other securities to guarantee a stable value for Libra. In that sense it is more like an ETF than a cryptocurrency. Due to the volatility of things like Bitcoin a market has emerged for what are known as stablecoins which are tied to real-world assets like commodities. Libra is closer to that.

Users of Libra coin gain access and convenience. For people who don’t use banks, this could be a real boon. Libra Investment Token holders will get rich, very rich, even if only a small percentage of Facebook’s user base of over two billion people participate.

And what does Facebook get out of all this? You won’t need a Facebook account to use Libra, and Facebook’s digital wallet, called Calibra, won’t require one either. Mark Zuckerberg will tell you it is about serving the under-served in the world financial marketplace, which is all very nice, but ultimately this is a for-profit company.

A digital platform is a digital platform. If people use it, you can use that platform to sell other products and services. I assume Facebook’s leap into new forms of currency is another version of their current business model.

Software is famous for bugs. And also for being marketed well before it is bug-free. Just look at the Boeing 737-MAX tragedies to see the consequences of that. I’m not going to put my money in a Libra coin/Calibra wallet just yet, but I won’t be surprised if we all have something like that in the very near future.

Got Gas?

When you think about the amount of energy it takes to produce our food you could say we are actually just eating petroleum. Intensive agriculture requires a lot of fossil fuels especially when you include the packaging and shipping. I know that we actually eat the corn, wheat, apples, or blueberries, or stuff made from them, but you can’t have any of that without oil and gas.

The gas is methane. It is the cheapest and most abundant fuel source. And it burns the cleanest. The US, because of fracking, has so much natural gas (methane) that it just burns it (flaring) instead of processing and shipping it.

Now a company wants to make food from methane. They are called Calysta and they have backing from no less than BP, one of the world’s energy giants. This food is not for human consumption, at least not directly. The stuff, called FeedKind, is for aquaculture (fish farms) and other livestock. They even imagine it going to pets! These days pets get top-of-the-line stuff, no more Alpo and table scraps, so I’m not sure that will fly. Maybe pet owners on a budget.

These guys use bacteria to ferment a mixture of gases—the methane of course, along with oxygen and nitrogen—which produces a goop that they dry and make into pellets. Most people find that repulsive, but I think it is fascinating. Think of the benefit: production of edible protein without using farmland!

This is from the company website:

CalystaProteinManufacturingProcess

 

It takes a lot of energy to do this, but it takes a lot of energy to produce your morning cup of coffee. Some time in the future, when only rich people will be able to eat wild-caught salmon, the rest of us will be grubbing down on fat fillets from tank-raised gas-fed GMO beasts.

Yummy!

Pig in a Poke

China is the largest producer of pork in the world. They slaughter over 600 million hogs annually and currently have a herd of over 400 million. Add those two together and you get a billion.

So it is a big deal that there have been outbreaks of African Swine Fever:

map1_2018_11_16.jpg

The disease has spread to neighboring countries like Vietnam and Laos. Herd culls are taking place all over Southeast Asia.

In the US we market over 100 million hogs per year and about one-fourth of that is exported. That’s a lot of food. You’d think a big agricultural disaster like losing tons of meat in a nation’s food supply would make a bigger impact. Maybe it is. After all, this is China, and we can’t be too sure about the information coming out of there.

Back in the States the only talk I see is about US producers perhaps taking advantage of the pork shortage. No one talks about all this lost energy—all this sad, preventable waste. Or about whether people will suffer because of it.

It is nice to have surpluses. You can’t have a civilization unless you over-produce basic commodities. In olden times, famine, plague, and pestilence could destroy a civilization. In today’s world a virus ravages millions of pounds of nutritionally-dense food and we get nothing more than a “market correction.”

At least I hope so. African Swine Fever makes for a great doomsday scenario. It spreads across the globe, mutates, and wipes out all of our livestock! Veganism conquers the world overnight.  I watched a lot of dystopian sci-fi flicks in the 70s: Silent Running, Rollerball, Soylent Green, Omega Man, Planet of the Apes, Logan’s Run, Westworld, The Andromeda Strain, etc.

Perhaps that wasn’t healthy for a growing boy.

HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY!!

Big Trucks

I’m goin’ out on the highway

listen to them big trucks whi-ine

White Freightliner

Won’t you steal away my mind

–Townes Van Zandt (“White Freightliner Blues”)

Freightliner is an Oregon company now owned by Daimler Trucks. You’ve seen the tractors out there alongside the Kenworths, Macks, Peterbilts, and such, hauling trailers up and down the interstates. This is big business: $700 billion in 2017, almost 80% of the nation’s freight value. In physical terms that’s almost 11 billion tons of cargo or 70% of the domestic market.

We are all dependent on these machines. The industry likes to say if you got it, a trucker brought it. And they are right.

But that “big truck whine” might sound quite a bit different these days. Freightliner has a line of natural gas-powered haulers, for example, and they are also introducing two all-electric models, the eCascadia and the eM2 106. That guy with the space company gets all the hype, but he’s not, by any means, the only player in the market.

Obviously there are significant limitations. Electric heavy-duty rigs can only do short hauls of a few hundred miles. But according to the Bureau of Transportation Studies:

Approximately 50 percent of the weight and 37 percent of the value of goods were moved less than 100 miles between origin and destination in 2015. 

So there is a need for this kind of vehicle. In an increasingly urbanized society, reducing noise and pollution in densely-populated areas will improve the quality of life for the citizenry. The exciting thing is it that this isn’t some wannabe technology, there are actual deliveries happening. Costs will have to come down, of course, but I expect we’ll see electric semis operating in an around cities within the next few years.

The diesel engine is a marvelous invention and one that dominates our transportation sector, and for good reason. Diesels can be twice as efficient as ordinary gasoline automotive motors and are unsurpassed in torque, pulling power, and longevity. And they are becoming increasingly cleaner while maintaining a fuel flexibility that gas engines can’t match.

But EVs are here to stay and demand for them will continue to increase. Done right, the shifting of some of our transport needs to electricity can result in a net overall reduction of chemical pollutants. A natural gas-fired power plant can produce electrical energy for consumption with great efficiency and with significantly reduced emissions. Add in solar, hydro, and even nuclear and the percentage of “clean” power in the grid can continue to increase. We all benefit from that.

I wonder if Townes Van Zandt would still stand out on the highway, though. That Freightliner e-whine is probably more like music to my ears than to his!