Tuesday, September 30, 2008

On Global Warming

These days I find myself worrying a lot about matters of global importance. Climate change for instance, I feel is too important an issue to be left to scientists and politicians. All that you see on the TV and hear on the news about global warming is what the politicians want you to see and hear. And the solutions that they promote may not exactly solve the problem. So, what is required here is a dry, scientific analysis of the situation.

Let us understand the phenomenon of global warming. In a nutshell, there is a layer of various gases around the earth called the "atmosphere". Carbon-dioxide is an important component of this "atmosphere" because it traps the heat from the sunlight and keeps the planet warm. But having too much Carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere is no good, because then the planet would get too hot. Consequently, the polar ice-caps and glaciers would melt, causing the sea levels to rise. This means some of the coastal places and islands would submerge in water. And polar bears would die.

This is exactly what is happening in the world today. Due to some reason, the sunlight trapped in the atmosphere is not able to escape back into space. And that is causing a lot of worry.

First, let us get a few basic things straight.
More Carbon-dioxide is bad.
Furry animals are good. We want more of those.
More water is bad.
Trees are good.
Heat is bad. We don't want any more warmth.
More land can be good or bad, depending on which side of the Norwegian Sea we are talking about.

All that remains now is to tie up the equation neatly.

The amount of carbon present in the world is more or less constant. The forms in which it is present vary greatly over time. Till a hundred years back, there was a lot of carbon trapped in the soil in the form of coal and petroleum. But over the years, it has been dug out and burnt up, and as a result it has been converted to gaseous form. It is this gaseous form which is harmful to the planet. As long as the carbon is in liquid or solid state, all is fine. But when more and more carbon is released into the atmosphere from the soil, it starts to be a nuisance.

A good plan to cool down the planet should also deal with the problem of carbon sequestration; that is conversion and storage of carbon dioxide in liquid or solid form, thus driving down the CO2 level in the atmosphere. So anything that converts the gaseous CO2 into liquid or solid form is good. Oceans, for instance. Carbon dioxide dissolves in the ocean water to form carbonic acid. Thus oceans help to clean up the atmosphere by condensing the carbon into a liquid form. Carbon dioxide reacts with calcium oxide to form limestone deposits. Amines react with carbon dioxide to form solid ammonium salt crystals. Trees use up CO2 to make chlorophyll in a process called photosynthesis.

Fact #1. Forests are good carbon sinks. They store carbon in a solid form (trees). But trees themselves are carbon neutral. That is to say, they do NOT actively clean up the atmosphere. Whatever CO2 they use up in photosynthesis, they return to the atmosphere by means of respiration, anaerobic decomposition and forest fires. So, a tree is just about as effective at cooling down the earth as furniture made from it, because both are merely carbon sinks. Human beings too are carbon sinks. A 100 kg man is equivalent to 66 kg of sequestered CO2. So having more human beings on the planet would mean lesser equivalent CO2 in the atmosphere. (But the disadvantages of having more human beings far outweigh the benefits. So let us ignore that option for a while.) Decaying animals and plants emit methane and carbon dioxide, which contribute to global warming. So why don't we seal off dead organic matter in airtight concrete blocks and bury them in the bottom of the ocean where it won't trouble anyone. More carbon sinks.

So the idea is to have less carbon floating about in the air, which means fewer solar rays would be trapped. That would cool down the earth. There are other ways of cooling the earth, too. I was about to suggest attaching huge cooling fins to the earth, but in the interest of practical science, I won't.

Then there is all this hype about having more Green buildings. Though I am not entirely opposed to the idea, I do think that green is a rather tasteless colour for a building. I prefer lighter shades of grey or beige. But then that's just me.

Our problem is not drowning baby seals or submerging coastlines. Those are just the symptoms of the problem. The actual problem is that there is too much water in the world. Again, the extra water wasn't brought by aliens from outer space. Like carbon, it has always been present on the earth for millions of years. But what is worrying is that recently, it has started moving about. That is the real problem. Too much water let loose in the wrong places. That is to say, your real problem is not the children tripping over in the balcony or the foul smell in the house. It is the dead cow in your front yard. So we need to find a place to store the extra water drained by melting glaciers. In other words, where on earth can you hide a large glacier without anyone noticing it? Think... Water tables. There is water at atmospheric pressure under the ground in most places. It is known as the water table. But in deserts and arid regions, the water table is so low that even deep rooted plants cannot reach it. So there you are. Sweep the glaciers elegantly under the carpet. What's more, it fits like a jigsaw. Fill up the desert water tables with desalinated water. Use the melting glaciers to replenish the ground water in arid areas. Use it to make deserts more fertile. Use it to solve the portable water crisis of the third world. We'd have solved the global warming and drinking water crises of the third world in one fell swoop.

Place huge silica gel slabs in the middle of the desert, which soak up humidity from the atmosphere. Or just dip silica gel cubes in the ocean and throw them in the Sahara desert. If you store enough water to compensate for a glacier's melting and flowing into the Atlantic, it would be the algebraic equivalent of depositing a glacier in the middle of the desert. The net sea level therefore remains the same.

Fact #2. Methane is 72 times more effective than CO2 in trapping solar radiation. This means that one litre of methane will have the same effect on global warming as 72 litres of CO2.

A 1.8L petrol engine with a compression ratio of around 10 running at 3000 rpm will emit 90 litres of carbon-dioxide at a temperature of 900C, which is roughly equal to 54 grams of CO2 every minute. A cow releases 500 litres of methane into the atmosphere every day. That is an equivalent of 495 grams of methane at 1013Pa. Since methane is 72 times more effective than CO2 at trapping solar heat, a car would have to run for 660 minutes a day to match a cow. At 3000 rpm that would anywhere between 330 to 935 kilometres a day, depending on the gearing ratio and traffic density. And I am talking about the crudest of internal combustion engines - not the modern DOHC VTEC units with 5 valves per cylinder and twin spark plugs, with catalytic convertors attached to the exhaust - Those would produce even lesser CO2 than a butterfly breathing, and would be embarrassingly inferior to the average water buffalo in terms of greenhouse gas production.

(Are you even paying attention?!)

So, in what way is it fair to ask car owners to pay a green-tax and expect their vehicles to clear a Pollution-Under-Control test, and give tax concessions to farmers and livestock owners? Shouldn't cattle-owners be taxed 72 times more? Shouldn't cows and sheep pass flatulence-under-control tests? It is clear that we are ruled by a government which is more concerned about appearing to be environment-friendly than actually doing something about the climate situation, and doesn't want to lose favour with the large farmer vote-bank. So, we are required to pay taxes on motor vehicles. But if you really think about it, how can you stop a glacier melting by paying money to the government? How can you solve a climate change problem by throwing money at it? It's a bit like trying to stop the phone ringing by screaming at it.

Paying green-tax only makes the government richer. And the only question it will answer is what colour the leather seats in the MP's next premium car should be. It should stop.

Methane is more dangerous than Carbon-dioxide. It also reacts with steam to form methanol, which is a hygroscopic substance. That is to say, it absorbs water. So, methane from cows can be made into methanol, which can be used in place of silica gel in the deserts to soak up the extra water. So there is less methane in the atmosphere, less water in the north seas and more water in the deserts. Three birds with one stone. I am not talking about 2p savings here. I am talking about removing huge chunks off the carbon score-sheet. The kind that will set us back 5 to 10 years in the greenhouse timeline. Polar bears are good. Plastic is bad. Plainly, what we need are genetically engineered polar bears which eat plastic. That ties up the equation perfectly. That's the kind of innovation we want to see.

The problem essentially is that there is a thick layer of carbon-dioxide covering the earth which is trapping the solar radiation. What we really need is a... "hole"... in this carbon-dioxide layer through which heat can escape to outer space.


er....I think we can easily manage to do that. We have accomplished something similar before.

Fact #3. Melting icebergs DO NOT increase sea levels. Icebergs are chunks of ice floating in water. The reason why ice floats in water is because it is less dense than water. One litre of ice weighs less than one litre of water. So, when floating ice melts, its density increases and it occupies lesser volume. Water is densest at 4 degrees above zero. So, the sea levels would decrease as icebergs melt.


Thursday, September 25, 2008

The idiocy of our ways - Part I of many

The absolute last thing my caffeine addled mind needed to hear on a depressing Thursday morning was a pseudo-scientific tabloid article written by a two-bit Dutch researcher telling me not to use the car or light bulbs.

Now there is a point when a news item becomes less valuable than the paper it is printed on. Thanks to the cries of wolf by paranoid alarmists and attention seeking news channels, Global climate change and health warnings are rapidly becoming a shameful waste of recycled paper and ink.

We have endured two World wars, great economic depressions, millennium bugs, terrorist attacks, revolutions, floods, plagues and assassinations. The Mona Lisa was stolen, the Titanic sunk, the president of the United States of America was shot dead, trains were robbed, atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, volcanoes erupted and tsunamis struck and yet we survived.

Every day we are told about new ways in which we are going to die. We'd die of credit crunch in global markets, we'd be run over by melting glaciers, asteroids falling through the ozone hole. We are told that very soon space travel will be banned because we are littering Neptune's third satellite and polluting the outer rings of the solar system with our nuclear waste. We would also die of nuclear warfare brought upon each other by countries fighting for freedom, total world dominance and advertising space on the moon.

I have played football on muddy playgrounds in pouring rain, gone swimming in rivers, played with stray cats on the road, had motorcycle accidents, not worn a helmet, chewed on tin foil, climbed trees, fallen off walls, eaten sugar and butter, been out in the moonlight, been electrocuted, had contagious tropical diseases and not eaten fruits and green leafy vegetables...yet I don't remember having died.

But if today's edition of TOI were to be believed, if I leave the light bulb on, polar ice shelves would shrivel down, causing the entire north pole to be submerged in water, and Cairo being the northernmost remaining place on earth would be inhabited by refugee polar bears, which would then die of depression when they hear about the state of the global financial markets and rising crude oil prices, and the vanishing Brazilian rainforests would expose the Amazonian Tree Frog to harmful ultraviolet radiation which would burn cloud patterns on its skin, and this would push the dejected environmentalists to commit suicide by talking on cell phones while travelling above the city speed limit in cars without seat belts and sub-standard crumple zones, which would in turn leave the loggerhead sea turtle to fend for itself in a dangerous world fraught with life threatening, hazardous chemicals like coke, fried potatoes and cholesterol, and the lucky ones that escaped the gruesome death caused by eating Asian bird meat and passive smoking would quickly die due to a large black hole produced by a tubelight in a physics lab.

I don't remember a time when the world wasn't heading towards disaster. Every day there is a new evil that will end the world, killing us all. Every day there is something new to panic about. There is danger lurking in every household on every highway in every corner. Every day the same news channels find something new to keep us glued to the screens. If the world indeed was going to end because of a breakaway comet or because of magnetic cloud storms in the sun, just what the bloody hell are we supposed to do about it? Why do news channels keep haranguing about something that we can do nothing about? The world is going to end, so what can we do now? Finish dinner quickly? Lock the doors?

It's about as useful as the announcements made by the captain on a plane.

"We are now cruising at 690 knots at an altitude of 28,000 feet above mean sea level."
("What?! Did you say 690?! Jeez, that’s slow! I know birds that can fly faster than that! Step on it, man! Come on now...chop chop! And I'm gonna take a short nap now, okay? Wake me up when we reach 31,640 feet, will you? There is something rather important I have to do...")

That's not the only amusing thing, though. People who make doomsday predictions seem to do it in all earnest. They seem solemn and serious about it. Which if you think about it, is quite fair because a statement predicting the end of the world is usually not followed by sniggering. It is a statement of impending, inevitable doom. It is not funny or heroic. It is a grave declaration. And as declarations go, it is not open to debate or discussion. And that makes the situation a little tricky because there can be no dignified exit from it. If the world does not end on the said date, there is no way they can worm their way out of the ensuing embarrassment. The only way they can make a graceful exit from the situation is if the world really does end. And that's a shame really, because there would be no one left to appreciate the face-saving act. They never get to say "I told you so" to anyone.

And that makes it the most thankless job in the world.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Fury

There are things that make me want to grab the largest and sharpest axe I can find and bury it in the head of the first smug wannabe urban techie "specialist" self-righteous idiot that I come across.

What was that again, hair gel for your eyebrows? Taking personal grooming to a whole new level, are we? What dimension are you from? Do me a favour and die.

Man has travelled to space, built machines that recreate the birth of the Universe, explained gravitation and magnetism...yet look at the sort of things excite you: The latest mobile phone ring tones, a hundred pictures of tea cups, nostrils and office desks, all clicked at different times and with subtle variations of angle, bus schedules, mindless two-bit TV serials, this-or-that celebrity gossip. You disgust me. You, with your conditioner lotions and your iPods, your shop-to-earn $2.99 referrals, your pseudo-masculine plastic motorbikes and tupperware lunchboxes, earphones, cheesy handbags, office politics, streaked hair and plastic watches, you disgust me. All you plastic dolls with the same deadpan expression on your faces every day of the week, week after week, listlessly marching in a row towards the huge pyramid of slavery to the great monotonous drumbeat of obedience and prostrating under a God who is rumoured to be. All with the same mobile phones but each with a different ringtone that somehow makes you feel clever and special, and somehow gives you a unique place in the Universe and makes you irreplaceable. And how you smugly pat yourself on the back for it, you ignorant, misinformed, servile morons! Your slavish love for forwarded emails with pretty pictures of cute babies, furry animals and exotic places, glimpses of a life you've never had but you wish you had and know you can never have. You are pathetic. Pathetic. You are all the same. Sod off, you sleazy rat-faced scumbags. You, with your delusions of adequacy; I tell you, you can never be truly liberated until you have seen failure, starvation, neglect, filth and decay. Get out of your boxes, go out and see dying things. Rotting, foul smelling, gangrenous flesh. You don't become cool by having a goatee or wearing sunglasses, you shallow dunderheads. You will live a wretched life and you will grow old and die and decay and be eaten by worms, like everybody else. Be miserable, poor, damp and wretched. Die with an abject sense of failure and purposelessness. You will all inevitably perish one day, like a hundred million fruitflies, all rotting in a huge squishy pile of garbage, decaying in a squalid, organic soup of human waste.

Get on with it, get a real life, you wretched morons. Whatever. Just go away. You make me sick.

I feel I'm plastered onto the walls of a hexagonal pyramid, and when it rains, I'll flow down the stairs like synthetic oil and seep into the ground and never be seen or heard from again. I dont like where I'm coming from, but I like where I am going. This is madness, I swear!


Trembling fingers, utter madness.

No more caffiene. I promise.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Identify the bomb from among the following pictures.

Wrong, it’s the one in the second picture. So tell me, if I had to smuggle both of them into my office, which one would more likely be retained at the security desk in the suspicious-looking-items tray?

You can safely say that these are the average security guards in an average office complex in India. Do you know what the problem is with these guys? They probably think a bomb is a cylindrical tube with red, blue and yellow wires sticking out of it, garnished with a huge beeping, Casio style countdown timer, or a clock.

Really, how prepared is he to deal with a possible terrorist attack? Can he identify and disarm a bomb if he sees one? I am sure not. That raises the question; if they cannot do a thorough job why even bother doing it? Whom are they kidding? They look like a bunch of pathetic movie extras from the 70s, and can stop a terror attack as effectively as a couple of ducks can stop a hurricane.

Terrorists are usually trained on the rugged slopes of the Hindukush Mountains in the science of weaponry. These guys can assemble and take apart the most advanced explosive devices blindfolded. These bombs would then have been smuggled carefully across the border and meticulously assembled in carefully chosen old sheds where central intelligence with their trained sniffer dogs could not locate them. If such a terrorist really made his way to one of the fancy IT buildings armed with the latest in detonative charge technology with the intention of setting it off, guess who is going to stop him? A couple of high school drop-outs loitering around in the lobby in a ridiculous costume, cradling ancient weapons from the sepoy mutiny, a bunch of clueless morons who cannot tell an alarm clock from an RDX explosive device. A couple of guys suffering from a mid-life crisis and heavy obesity while sipping tea from a styrofoam cup and gossiping about the latest Vijay movie. Just how on earth are they going to deter a terrorist mastermind? You might as well have a scarecrow and a sack of potatoes at the gate.

The security rules for entry into IT office buildings were written by singularly the dumbest bunch of blockheaded cows you can ever see. You cannot carry an empty CD past the desk without signing a dozen forms and declarations, but they would let a kangaroo through if it was wearing a badge, with its face as much as drawn on it.

I'm the first to acknowledge the ability of utter stupidity in stumbling upon things that have been overlooked by meticulous scientific examination. History is fraught with examples. The Archimedes principle, Gravitation, Pluto, Radioactivity, America – all discovered by bumbling idiots who weren’t looking for them...So, it would hardly be surprising if a security guard accidentally discovered an explosive device in a bag. But more importantly, what happens next? What can he do with it, apart from holding it like he was holding a baby which had soiled its diapers? He can only report the “find” to the chief security guard. But even the chief security guard would appear like a Neanderthal man gawking at a mobile phone. Now, the cold, professional terrorist is not going to be terribly pleased with this. So, he will now open his jacket to reveal that he is armed to the teeth and will, after careful consideration, select a weapon from the vast array on his person. Finding themselves in a completely new situation, the other security guards would freeze in their tracks, unsure of what to do next. They will then start running helter-skelter like headless chicken because it’s the most natural thing to do in the situation. Also because they have no weapons to defend themselves with, let alone protect anyone.

What is needed in a situation like this is not some half-hearted attempt at "security". What you really need are modern techniques of bomb detection and disposal. Electromagnetic digital mapping sensors and metal detectors, remote operated bomb disposal robots, trained sniffer Alsatians, electronic jamming systems, surveillance cameras, radio control units, radars and satellite links. Explosive Ordnance Disposal experts with flame and fragmentation resistant Kevlar suits and carbon-fibre helmets. Legions of black cat commandoes with AK-47 assault rifles prowling around in the campus with their semi-automatic M4 carbines, grenade launchers and sub-machine guns. Tactically placed military snipers with range-finders and night-vision goggles. Howitzers, anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns. Helicopter gunships with air-to-surface missiles, and fighter jets armed with thermonuclear warheads.

Either that or nothing. You cannot have a security team that is “reasonably” effective against terrorists. It’s like wearing a life jacket that can reasonably prevent you from drowning – it just doesn’t work that way.

Bet u a hundred bucks you cant carry this into your office... (its an alarm clock, check it out on e-bay)


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Why I will not forget the 2008 Italian GP...

It was a sensational win in treacherous conditions for Sebastian Vettel and Scuderia Torro Rosso. But those who have been following F1 for a while will know that before the team became STR, it was known as Minardi. And it was not new to the F1 scene. In fact Minardi entered F1 in 1985, and the first Minardi racer was built as early as in 1979. F1 has, in recent days gone to deserts and Asian nightclubs. But till it was sold to Red Bull in 2005, Minardi was a relic from the past, a nostalgic reminder from a more civilised age. It was probably one of the last surviving traditional fixtures on the F1 calendar. It reminded you of Monza or Silverstone; worn down and unglamorous, but it made you feel at home. A bit like old wallpaper.

Not many would know that the first Minardi racer was evolved from a 1975 championship-winning Ferrari F1 car which was lent to them by the great Enzo Ferrari himself, or that it was a Lamborghini V12 that powered the Minardi in the 1992 season. But even a casual F1 fan would recognise some of the driving talent that Minardi has churned out over the years - Alessandro Nannini, Giancarlo Fisichella, Jarno Trulli, Fernando Alonso, Mark Webber, Jos "the boss" Verstappen (who over the years didn't entertain us as much with his driving skills as with spectacular crashes...)

Yet they never had the multimillion dollar corporate culture. They were a bunch of grease monkeys who assembled their car with worn out spanners in an old shed and went racing week after week. For 23 years they chased success, in vain. Always at the back of the grid. Always called the minnows. They never had the funding or the manpower that even the midfield teams enjoyed, yet they raced with passion and commitment. They did not care a toss about money or sponsorship. They were happy to just be there, just performing at the pinnacle of motor racing. Such was their motivation. Nuvolari would have nodded his head in appreciation. Ferrari did. In an age where drivers and teams fight in court over the points left over from the previous race and accuse each other of spying and foul play, Minardi were the among the last of the true racers.

Perhaps it was fitting that their first ever win came with Ferrari V8 power at Monza, the spiritual home of the Italian Ferrari fans, not far from their own HQ. This may never be achieved again. This may go down in history as Minardi's first and only win. Many years down the line, old Franz Tost may look up at the lone trophy in admiration, sitting alone in his drab Italian villa, and close his eyes to relive the glory and celebrations of that memorable September noon when Vettel sprayed champagne on the podium for the first ever time for Minardi, having beat all other cars on the grid, having led and won the race from pole position on pure merit. Its a moment that will be frozen in time.

Sebastian Vettel. He is not the first "raw, natural talent" seen in the past decade. Juan Pablo Montoya, Kimi Raikkonen, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso were all championship material, but were not exactly in the Senna/Schumacher/Gilles Villeneuve mould. It remains to be seen whether Vettel fulfils the promise.

I believe that Formula One should stick to the traditional circuits: Monza, Spa, Monaco, Silverstone, San Marino, Nurburgring, Montreal, Hockenheim and Interlagos. Maybe Estoril, too. The forest sections of Hockenheim and Nurburgring should be reopened. V12 engines and slick tyres should be allowed again. Michael Schumacher should drive for Ferrari and he should win all the races till the end of time. McLaren and Williams should fight it out for 2nd place. Lotus, Audi, Maserati, Tyrrell, Porsche and BRM should start racing again. And Minardi should win once in a while, even if the corporate prize money goes to Torro Rosso.

But none of these is the reason why I'll remember the Italian GP for a long time. Actually, it is because it was after a really long time that the German and Italian national anthems were played on the podium in succession