A Hopefully Happy New Year
The end of a rather tumultuous year is nearly upon us, and it seems 2021 has one last thing up its sleeve pandemic-wise. I'm sure many of you will appreciate the severity of the phrase "1.5 day doubling time" when it comes to Omicron, and join me in hoping there's something else that mitigates that effect.
As a result of the double-header of Christmas and New Year, there'll be a three-week gap until the next issue of Tales so I can take some proper time off from everything and maybe go build a scale model of a pumped hydroelectric plant or something.
Still, as we turn to see in what is hopefully a better year, I hope you're all doing as well as you can - look after yourselves and those around you, relish in the good things we've all accomplished this year, and I'll see you all in 2022!
Just How Far Can You Go On Four Bogies?
There's exciting news in the world of trains - well, as exciting as it gets with trains, anyway - with the opening of a new railway line in Laos that, in theory, connects two previously-unconnected sets of railway networks, spanning from Western Europe to South-East Asia.
And with this momentous event, what is one to do, but to work out the new longest route possible purely by train? After a rather widely-circulated but impossible route was made popular, Jon took it upon himself to sit down and work out what a possible one might actually look like.
What counts as a train? How much walking is allowed? What routes do we consider in the time of COVID, when most borders are closed? How many different track gauges can you have? These questions and more are answered in a wonderfully impressive display of railway geography.
Melting Nuclear Waste On Purpose
Ever wondered what they do with old nuclear waste? Well, they either stick it into big barrels or melt it into glass and then bury it deep underground. But if you're wondering how they melt it into glass, or what exactly the whole disposal process is like, then this is the article for you.
What it takes to melt nuclear waste and bury it underground, and why you'd do so, are among the questions answered by Tom Kocialski, someone who has spent a lifetime dealing with nuclear waste and improving how it's disposed of, in a wonderful (and not too long) read that goes into all the things you never really think about.
The Flooding Is Coming From Inside The House
Sea level rise is often represented as some grand fight against the rising ocean tides - giant sea walls ringing major cities to save them from being submerged. That does mostly work where you've got the right kind of soil, but as any civil engineer will tell you, the soil is often your enemy.
See, as the sea rises, so does the groundwater. And a rising water table comes for basements first, and then sewer systems, foundations, and reclaimed land in general. As the article discusses at length, we're quite unprepared for the consequences of both a rising and a more salty water table - it's not something you can just solve with a big wall and some pumps.
Florida is particularly at risk due to their ground being incredibly porous, with some drinking water supplies already being threatened, but anywhere close to the ocean is going to potentially see issues. The greatest irony is, of course, the other side of this problem - water tables falling further and further down and places running out of water - is going to happen everywhere else. Hopefully we can... find a solution to both, eh?
It Seems Phones Put Airplanes Into Airplane Mode
5G. Nobody really knows what it is, the spectrum is a bit of a mess, and it seems there's more issues with it every day in terms of interference. Well, you can add aircraft landing systems to that list, as it turns out 5G interferes with radar altimeters.
Radar altimeters bounce radio waves off the ground below a plane in order to very accurately measure the distance to the ground - which is, believe it or not, a very important piece of data when you're trying to land a plane, and doubly so when conditions are bad enough that you can't see the ground.
Without that ability, you're going to see a lot more flight delays in affected areas when the weather is bad, and pilots need the readouts rather than just looking out the window. There is a potential fix - adding band filters to the altimeters to filter out the 5G signals - but with the speed the aviation industry moves, it could be many years before that reaches most aircraft.
Cloud Seeding Is Still A Thing, Apparently
Cloud seeding - spraying tiny particles into the air to try and modify the weather by triggering rain and clearing the skies - is more of a fun, weird theory from the 1960s than actual science. There's no real statistical proof it works because, well, it's hard to predict the weather and know what it would have done instead.
That's not dissuaded China, though, who have been using it for decades and did so once again for their centenary celebration. Most famously, they used it to try and clear the skies for the 2008 Bejing Olympics (along with the arguably far more effective, if not harsh, method of closing all the factories nearby) - and apparently they're happy enough to keep going.
Does it work? Maybe. Is weather modification a thing we need to research? Very much yes, though the geoengineering parts of the industry want to create clouds using "cloud spraying" rather than clearing them, as more cloud cover means, at a very crude level, less global warming. No sign of a giant floating weather-controlling space station yet, though.
In Space, No One Can Hear Your Eyeballs Squish
Sometimes it feels like astronauts aren't entirely honest about the rigours of living in space. and add "your eyes fill with fluid and degrade your eyesight" to that list. Merely six months in microgravity reduced one astronaut's vision from 20/20 to 20/100.
Fortunately, though, before we send some folks into space for much longer to go see Mars, it seems we may have a solution, which seems rather like a sleeping bag with a vacuum cleaner attached. It draws the fluid down from your head at night while you're sleeping - like gravity does here on Earth. Lovely.
To Boldly Simulate Where A Lot Of People Have Before
While a lot of people watched the Space Shuttles glide into retirement, safely preserved at museums across the US, a lot of other artifacts from the Shuttle era were either sold off or sat in storage gathering dust - including the flight simulator the astronauts trained on, which has sat in storage at Texas A&M since 2011.
Now, however, it seems there might be a new lease of life for the simulator, after the Lone Star Flight Museum made space for it and it was shipped there. One-off simulators, though, are not exactly the sort of thing you can just pop in a room and turn on - it needs a lot of restoration.
The computer complex that was needed to run it is now obsolete and can't be replicated, so it will never function again without a ground-up suite of new software and hardware. Instead, they've cleaned it up, replaced the thousands of tiny incandescent bulbs with LEDs, and generally tried to make it a good visitor experience. There's still a bit more funding required to finish it off (you can donate here), but hopefully they'll have it ready to see next year!
Tasmania's Giant Box Is Always Watching
It's always important to log and preserve data for future generations - hoping they can learn something we didn't, or at least understand the context we were operating in. And one of the newest archival efforts is a giant, imposing steel box on the coast of Tasmania.
Dubbed "Earth's Black Box", it's designed to be built on an incredibly stable bit of granite, out of thick, solid steel, and be powered by solar panels on the roof. It will log both climate data and news headlines from around the world, keeping a continuous record of what goes on outside its solid walls.
Only two obstacles - it hasn't got planning permission yet, and they haven't figured out a way to let future generations easily read all of the data off of the mass of electronic hard drives in there. No small obstacles, but I'm a big of archival projects, so I hope they can overcome both of them.
Power From Fire
Low Tech Magazine - a site which is, by the way, run on batteries charged by solar power, so if it's offline wait for the sun to come up in Barcelona - writes about the growing trend of generating power not just from the sun, but from stoves and fire, as well.
Thermoelectric generators are nothing new - the Seebeck effect was discovered in 1794, and the Peltier junction in 1834 - but they're not very efficient, so they've generally taken a back seat to other methods of electrical generation. In places where you're already burning fuels to heat a home or cook food, though, there's wasted heat energy just lying around, so why not try to turn some of it into power?
You won't be running a car off this any time soon - you can barely charge a phone from a standard campfire - but recovering otherwise-wasted energy is nearly always a good idea, as long as it's not incredibly expensive to do so.
We All Gain Wisdom From Watching Birds
Wisdom, the oldest banded wild bird we know about, is still going strong and returned to her nesting site at Midway Atoll, a mere 70 years old - and she was right on schedule, only a day earlier than last year.
Wisdom is a Mōlī - a Laysan albatross - and has lived through a very large chunk of history, including the entire space race, the cold war, and the atoll her species rely on going from military airfield to protected nature reserve.
It's strange to think of a time before we banded and tracked birds, and didn't track their migration patterns , but now over 275,000 albatrosses have been banded at this one site alone - and somewhere north of 65 million birds have been banded worldwide. Now all we need to do is to stop destroying the habitats they rely on.
Good News, Everyone, Finland Is Still Doing Their Thing
Finland is a place where you often have to make your own fun, it seems, and a particularly good example popped up recently - take one frozen lake, one island (with sauna, of course) in the middle of it, and some saws, and bam, you have the world's first ice carousel around an island.
The full YouTube video shows off some of the creation, as well as the many wonderful things you can do on a rotating ice carousel. I'm not going to encourage you to go run to your nearest frozen lake quite yet, but it does look quite fun... provided the ice is thick enough!