A Little Bit Of Time Off
I'll be in a fire lookout tower in Wyoming next week, so Tales will be taking a week off, and returning the following week with the finest stories from two whole weeks of infrastructure news.
It's in Wyoming, though, and so I have to tell you my favourite Wyoming fact: there are only two escalators in the entire state. Obviously, Wyoming is pretty sparsely populated - it is the least populated US state, despite being nowhere near the smallest - but this fact is the thing that really underlines it for me.
Climate Change Is Here, But There's Still Hope
While I try to avoid particularly depressing news in this newsletter, there is no hiding from this week's IPCC report into global warming - that states, as many of us knew, that a significant portion of global warming is already "locked in", and that considerably more is on the way if we don't do something this decade.
Tackling global warming is probably one of the greatest infrastructural challenges of this century, and has to be a war fought on multiple fronts - emissions reduction, adapting buildings to more extreme climates, and attempting geo-engineering to undo emissions that are already out there.
What I do want to underline, though, is that we are more than capable of rising to the challenge. If you were around in the 90s, you surely remember the hole in the ozone layer - well, thanks to global cooperation, that's now healing. In fact, existing climate change action has already reduced the worst-case scenario from a truly apocalyptic 4.5 degrees of warming to a slightly apocalyptic 2.5. There's a long way to go, and new solutions to find, but don't think that we're all doomed quite yet.
Fixing This One Is A Tall Order
My home country of the UK is not a particularly mountainous place - yes, it's blessed with beautiful rolling hills, and some parts have some lovely mountain ranges (looking at you, Lake District and the Scottish Highlands), but a lot of it is very flat. And so, if you want to build a transmission tower, you build something very, very tall - 300 metres, or approximately 100 stories tall.
Of course, when you build something that big you really want to get your money's worth, so you pump five hundred kilowatts of radio power into it so the signal reaches a large part of Yorkshire. Now, radio energy is a strange beast, but as someone who's caused his speakers to be very unhappy using only fifty watts out of a nearby antenna, I am terrified of that amount.
And, it turns out, with good reason - because some maintenance on the tower this week appears to have caused a fire that's taken out the transmission equipment for at least two weeks, if not longer. No word yet quite how this happened - they ruled out "criminal activity" - but I can think of several ways that misplacing a hundred kilowatts or so could start a fire.
Maybe We Should Build Actual Fast Trains First
The Hyperloop people are back again, this time in Europe, talking about how we can get super-high-speed travel between various European city centres and ditch the array of cheap, polluting short-haul flights that currently ply the skies over the continent.
Look, I do love high-speed trains, and I would love to see an amazing high-speed network between all the various cities replace a lot of those flights, but maybe we should try building a normal high-speed railway network first, since they're already really fast, and the problems Europe currently has like "agreeing on the power voltage" and "agreeing on signalling systems" are probably a bit easier to solve than building giant tubes everywhere.
Though, I do like how science-fiction these renderings look. I'm always a sucker for really shiny minimalist-future stuff.
A Mound To Nowhere
Picture the scene - you're in charge of revitalising a nice, but slightly low-on-foot-traffic area of London. The obvious idea would be to pedestrianise the famous shopping street right in the middle of it like everyone has been asking for, but no, you have a better idea - build a giant, artifical hill next to a park.
Yup, that's the Marble Arch Mound, and it's going about as well as you'd expect. Looking like a low-polygon Playstation 1 game met a Deep Dream AI image generator, its ugly exterior towers over the nearby park, the view mostly blocked by trees and buildings. Unsurprisingly, people are starting to resign from the project after it turns out it was a bad idea all along.
I'm the biggest fan of weird, large-scale public art you can probably find, but this is not how you do it, people. Give me the six million pounds this thing cost and we can get at least a few permanent giant sculptures out of it, or maybe even a nice weird cavernous building designed to interact with annual sun positions, or something.
Hydrogen Really Isn't That Bad After All
There was once a time when airships were definitely The Future - they were going to ply the skies over cities, moor to the Empire State Building, and solve a lot of our cargo problems. Then - well, then, the Hindenburg happened.
As this article argues, the worst fallout from that wasn't the tarnishing of airships overall - it was the forced move to helium, which works as a lifting gas, but is way, way more expensive than hydrogen - about 70 times as expensive, in fact. This price difference led to a rather lacklustre set of airship designs that were trying to preserve their helium at all costs, and this may even have led to several airship losses, as the captains were unwilling to release their expensive helium to descend out of a storm.
Is it time to bring back hydrogen? We do fill airplanes with incredibly volatile fuel all the time, so flying round a large amount of combustible material in the sky is just a thing we do already, with modern safety procedures being the thing that makes it possible. I'm pretty convinced - especially given that pure hydrogen is not flammable (you need 25% normal air in there plus a spark for it to start going off).
Six Rotors Is Clearly Better Than Two
The Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, has been a roaring success, already doing work way outside its original mission brief and defying the (admittedly few) critics who were a little doubtful about strapping an experimental helicopter to the bottom of the Perseverance rover for its trip to Mars.
Now, though, there's some serious thought being given to a dedicated helicopter mission, with a much larger vehicle (one that rates its very own rocket to Mars), proper science payloads on-board, and some really interesting potential mission profiles.
Honestly, I say "go for it", though my perspective on Mars rovers is that we should just send way more of them overall to make up for the failure rate of getting them on the planet. Talking of getting them on the planet, though, I do wonder how they'd land this one - given the previous rovers had a little hovering "skycrane", I love the irony of carefully landing a thing that fly with another flying thing.
Oh! Look! Venus!
The Solar Orbiter spacecraft is currently doing a series of gravity assists as it attempts to get closer to the Sun's poles (fun fact, it takes more energy to get close to the Sun than it does to escape the solar system!), and sent back some lovely images of its flypast.
Venus is still surprisingly unexplored, and it's rare to get imagery so close to it, even if it's not particularly high-resolution or aimed at the planet (remember, this is a solar probe that just happened to be in the neighbourhood).
NASA's Parker Solar Probe is set to go even closer to the sun, but getting down there is so hard it's currently in year three of seven, slowing down its orbit bit by bit via planet slingshots. That doesn't have a Sun-facing camera, though, as it's going so close. I do wonder when the cost per kilogram of space launches will come down enough that we can just start strapping extra cameras to everything.
What Is This, A Manor House For Bats?
Bats are a very important part of many ecosystems - and unfortunately, one of the biggest victims of modern urban development. However, they are happy to adapt and live with the times if they still have a place to roost - a bat box is a nice thing you can do for them on your own property!
What if your property is a 15th century English manor house, though? And you've been redoing the roof with some snazzy new tiles, and it turns out those tiles are so slippery the bats can no longer get into their roosts?
Well, if you're the National Trust, you specifically go out and research and apply a coating to those roof tiles so they're far less slippery, the bats can climb up and down them (yes, there's a video!), and everyone is happy.
Roll Me Out, This Bath Is Too Private
When I heard the phrase "roll-out bathtub", I wasn't quite sure what it meant. An easy way to get in and out of the bath for people with limited mobility? Maybe a feature of an old manor house where the bath could be filled and prepped in a separate room?
No, no, it's an actual bath in a Swiss hotel that is on tracks that go from the bathroom, through the window and to a little outside perch. Now I've seen it, I do sort of want one, though maybe with a bit more track, and a little table outside I can put some tea on.