What Could *Possibly* Go Wrong?
Posted on June 21st, 2011 at 1:24 pm by Steve

So, rising floodwaters in Nebraska have completely surrounded two nuclear power plants. But, hey, don’t worry! The plant at Fort Calhoun Station (a full 19 miles from Omaha – stay put, Warren Buffet!) has been in “cold shutdown” since April. The plant’s managers decided not to restart the nuclear chain reaction, given the impending floods.

Of course, they did have a “small fire” that…well, actually, it only knocked out the cooling water pumps in the “spent fuel” storage pool for 90 minutes, during which time the temperature in the pool rose “a few degrees.” But, hey, at that rate of temperature increase, it would’ve taken days (well, 88 hours) for the water in the pool to start boiling away. What happens then? The fuel melts… it oxidizes… it can catch fire and spread radioactive materials over a large area.

But, don’t panic! How could a nuclear plant possibly lose all of its power? I mean, they have grid power and backup generators, right? How could the grid connection fail? (Certainly not due to a massive regional flood!) How could the diesel generators fail? (Certainly not due to being submerged by the aforementioned flood!) After all, the operators of Fort Calhoun have planned ahead! They installed a giant rubber innertube around the plant to hold back the waters:

[Plant spokesman] Gates said an Aqua Dam currently protects the switchyard and substation at Fort Calhoun, tall enough to withstand floodwaters at a 1,010 elevation (the river level is currently at an elevation of 1,005 feet, 7 inches).

[Source: OPPD: Nuclear station “safe and will continue to be safe”, The Washington County Pilot-Tribune and Enterprise, June 17, 2011]

How could the river rise another four feet, five inches? I mean, it’s not like the levees and dams upstream are stressed and starting to breach? It’s not like it might rain any more than it already has…

Perhaps the most significant impact of the [June 20] storm was the large area of 1 – 4 inches of rain it dropped on Nebraska and South Dakota. This rain will run off into the Missouri River, further aggravating the flooding that has breached two levees and overtopped two other levees in the past week. The large, slow-moving low pressure system responsible for the rains and severe weather will bring additional heavy rains of 1 – 3 inches over portions of the Missouri River watershed today [June 21], and will touch off a new round of severe weather today and Wednesday as the storm progresses slowly eastwards.

[Source: Jeff Masters, Ph.D., founder and chief meteorologist of the Weather Underground, Inc.]

Well, the good thing is that nuclear plants in the United States are designed with extremely conservative assumptions, so there’s a very high margin of safety! Oh, and also… even for plants that were built 37 years ago, like the Cooper Nuclear Station, just downstream from Fort Calhoun (and also inundated with floodwaters), they’re subject to constant inspections and tough regulations!

Failed cables. Busted seals. Broken nozzles, clogged screens, cracked concrete, dented containers, corroded metals and rusty underground pipes — all of these and thousands of other problems linked to aging were uncovered in the AP’s yearlong investigation. And all of them could escalate dangers in the event of an accident.

Yet despite the many problems linked to aging, not a single official body in government or industry has studied the overall frequency and potential impact on safety of such breakdowns in recent years, even as the NRC has extended the licenses of dozens of reactors.


Records show a recurring pattern: Reactor parts or systems fall out of compliance with the rules. Studies are conducted by the industry and government, and all agree that existing standards are “unnecessarily conservative.”

Regulations are loosened, and the reactors are back in compliance.

[Source: “U.S. nuke regulators weaken safety rules,” by the Associated Press, June 20, 2011]

As Harry Shearer says, “Safe! Clean! Too cheap to meter! Our friend, the atom.”

Tracking Michael
Posted on October 1st, 2010 at 3:04 am by dr.hoo

Sifting through a bunch of data viz projects for a project I’m working on. Came across this one that is like no other I’ve seen yet.

On May 4th, 2007, we asked internet users to help isolate Michael Jackson’s white glove in all 10,060 frames of his nationally televised landmark performance of Billy Jean. 72 hours later 125,000 gloves had been located. wgt_data_v1.txt (listed below) is the culmination of data collected. It is released here for all to download and use as an input into any digital system. Just as the data was gathered collectively it is our hope that it will be visualized collectively. Please email links to your apps, video, source code, and/or screen shots to evan[at]eyebeam[dot]org. Work will be exhibited in an online gallery and depending on popularity and interest potentially in a forthcoming physical gallery exhibition as well. Huge thanks to everyone that contributed to the data collection.

Be sure and watch the video to see some of the crazy and not so crazy uses for all that tracking data.

Augmented City 3D
Posted on September 28th, 2010 at 3:14 pm by dr.hoo

Another cool AR simulation from Keiichi Matsuda: Augmented City 3D. Lots of cool motion tracking.

More on his site here.

via io9

“I Watched the Sun Set, Listening to the Colors Change…”
Posted on September 20th, 2010 at 4:08 pm by Steve

Austin Seraphin (who is nearly blind) describes the revelation of using an iPhone with Voice Over functionality:

I spent ten minutes looking at my pumpkin plants, with their leaves of green and lemon-ginger. I then roamed my yard, and saw a blue flower. I then found the brown shed, and returned to the gray house. My mind felt blown. I watched the sun set, listening to the colors change as the sky darkened.

It’s inspiring that the Apple engineers and developers are working hard to make their devices and software accessible to the widest possible number of people.

Knobs and Dials – Yummy!!!!
Posted on September 6th, 2010 at 1:43 pm by dr.hoo

You know how dun like dem knobs and dials. Dark Roasted Blend has an awesome collection of the,

Including this virtual cockpit of the Space Shuttle:

Authority, Control, and Trust in Human-Machine Systems
Posted on May 13th, 2010 at 1:58 pm by Steve

Automated systems in aircraft reduce some risks at the cost of increasing other risks. Incorrect or inconsistent applications of automation to complex human-machine systems can have unexpected and even deadly consequences.

NASA Ames Research facility has done a lot of thinking about the proper ways to design these systems. Dr. Charles Billings, in particular, has published a number of excellent papers on the subject. Here’s an excerpt from his 1995 paper, “Human-Centered Aviation Automation: Principles and Guidelines”, where he asks (and answers) a fundamental design question:

If the human operator cannot effectively oversee and retain management authority over his tools, he has lost authority over the entire operation. Will this be a tenable situation?

I believe it comes down to a matter of trust. Will we provide pilots with full authority, train them carefully, and trust them to do “the right thing”, whatever it is in particular circumstances? Or will we circumscribe pilot authority by making it impossible to damage the airplane, and in the process perhaps make it impossible to use its ultimate capabilities if they really need them…? My bias, based on a number of cases in which pilots have been able to recover from extreme emergencies, and other cases in which they did not recover but could have had they used all available resources, is that command authority should be limited only for the most compelling reasons, and only after extensive consultation with both test and line pilots or controllers at “the sharp end” of the system.

Boeing and Airbus, the world’s largest manufacturers of transport aircraft, seem to draw the “compelling reasons” line in different places. Under the Airbus computers’ “Normal Law” operating mode, the pilots cannot command inputs that would cause the airplane to enter an dangerous condition (for instance: they cannot stall the plane by increasing the angle of attack without adding thrust; the computer will prevent a stall from happening). Whereas Boeing’s approach is to make dangerous conditions increasingly difficult to cause (for instance: the Boeing’s control column will provide increased resistance against a pilot who is about to stall the airplane, making it physically more difficult for the pilot to cause this condition, but still allowing the possibility).

This continues to be an area of active study and discussion throughout the aviation community, and it has broader application as we interact more often with complex machine-controlled systems. Many pilots decry the apparent loss of airmanship due to the increase in cockpit automation.

It Even Does Black & White
Posted on January 27th, 2010 at 4:17 pm by josh-wah

Just when you thought CRT monitors were dead….

LG’s new retro TV. Includes B&W and Sepia modes, rabbit ears, and knobs for adjusting channels.

“We are born alone, we die alone, and we use the Internet alone”
Posted on January 26th, 2010 at 1:08 am by Steve

Christine Smallwood, writing at the Baffler blog, examines the question, “What Does the Internet Look Like?” It’s a long way from the question to the answer, and the journey is well worth it.

After noting that many visions of the Internet rely on images of connectedness, she explores the essentially solitary nature of the Internet search:

We are born alone, we die alone, and we use the Internet alone. You may gather round the screen with friends to watch a video clip (turning the Internet into a television), or hang out while you play music on Pandora (turning the Internet into a radio), or post to your blog, or “comment” on someone else’s blog (turning the Internet into a roundtable, or a bathroom wall, depending). But these are subsidiary Internet uses. The essence of the Internet, the thing it does that nothing else can do, its Internet-ness, is the search. Comedian Dave Chappelle captured this with the skit “If the Internet Were a Real Place,” in which he loitered in a seedy mall like a modern Odysseus, ransacking CD stores, ducking into curtained rooms to indulge various temptations, and running away from spammers. Wandering around the Internet, the thing we are always searching for is the door—the exit ramp off the superhighway, the way home. But it’s hard to find. How do you know when you’re done doing nothing?

Please, read the whole thing.

(h/t to Dr. Hoo for noting that Thomas Frank is one again producing The Baffler in print!)

Kicking the Digital Bucket
Posted on January 20th, 2010 at 1:09 pm by dr.hoo

Last year I became one of the millions to join the Borg of the social network known as Facebook. I had been apprehensive about joining (why would I want to spend more time online?) I have come to enjoy the ability to stay abreast of what my friends are up to (or at least what they are bragging or complaining about).

But as FB has worked itself into my life I have also come to wonder if it really is beneficial to me in the end. Do I really need to maintain relationships with so many folks I barely know? Do I really want to be publishing my life to friends of friends of friends?

Well, there’s a new solution called the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine which helps you “commit” the deed and get back to your real life in meat-space.

CES circa 1983
Posted on January 11th, 2010 at 2:54 pm by dr.hoo

With all the news chatter on the recent CES in vegas, here’s a look at some of the hottest technologies from 1983

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