Monday, March 26, 2007

What A Horse!

Dressage is something we don't know enough about in the US, though it's been an Olympic sport since 1912. It is the training of a horse and rider for show performance to the highest possible level, emphasizing athleticism, precision, style, grace, and the horse's sheer love of showing off. So, from the 2006 World Equestrian Games in Aachen, here is Blue Hors Matine and her -- I won't say rider, I'll say partner -- Andreas Helgstrand in the Grand Prix Freestyle finals.

Dressage is sometimes called horse ballet. But I never thought I'd see a horse dancing disco. Enjoy.

[h/t Andrew Sullivan]

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Coming Hydrogen Economy

Ain't gonna happen.

Here's a fascinating article by engineer Robert Zubrin from the journal The New Atlantis that explains in detail why the vision of cheap, efficient, clean hydrogen-driven cars humming down our highways is a pipe dream at best, a hoax and swindle at worst. And, as Zubrin says, "Incredibly, the Bush administration swallowed it, hook, line, and sinker."

The crux of the matter is that while hydrogen can be used as a fuel, it is not an energy source like petroleum. Burning petroleum returns so much more energy than it takes to extract that it's basically free energy. Technically I suppose oil could be seen as millions of years of sunlight from eons past stored in the earth for us to find, and in chemistry the energy scales always balance. But on any human scale it's just free energy waiting for us to find it.

But there's no natural source of pure hydrogen on earth. It has to made, and any known process consumes much more energy than you get back when you use it as fuel. So it's hopelessly wasteful compared to oil in energy terms, and then there's the practical problem of distribution. Hydrogen is dangerous stuff, as some zeppelin passengers found out in 1937. Accordingly, the economics of any conceivable hydrogen fuel system quickly becomes ludicrous. Would you want to pay $1,000,000 for an inefficient car that was likely to go up like the Hindenburg at the first fender-bender?

We do desperately need to find a solution to our energy problem. But hydrogen isn't it.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Rachmaninoff = Big Hands

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the concert hall . . .

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Scenes from New Orleans

Broadmoor is a residential area in the heart of New Orleans, just a few miles up Napoleon Ave from where I live. It's one of the lowest lying areas of the city, so it was very severely flooded after Katrina struck and the levees failed. The residents are fiercely loyal to their neighborhood, though, and are absolutely determined to recover. "Broadmoor Lives!!" is a sign you see all over.

The predominant style of architecture is not what most think of as "classic New Orleans." Broadmoor was developed mainly in the 1920s, and most houses were built in the Bungalow style, which originated in California around 1910 and became widely popular throughout the country. The Bungalow style emphasized simplicity and comfort, houses that were easy to live in, and was well suited to mild climates like Los Angeles or New Orleans. (The house I grew up in, in Berkeley, CA, was classic Bungalow.)

The original developers were not unmindful of the flooding threat, however, and raised Bungalow houses were common, with a half-floor giving an extra two or three feet of elevation above street level. Since Katrina, some homeowners have taken the "raised" aspect to new heights, determined, like this fellow, that their homes will never, ever flood again:

(As always, you can click on the photo for a better view.) A typical Bungalow house is fairly modest in size, but this one is substantial and clearly worth going to great lengths to save. The bottom of the exterior, where the light colored stucco breaks off, would have been sitting directly on the ground, originally; it's now about twelve feet off the ground. The blue front door probably had three or four steps leading up to it; now it will probably have about fifteen. This example of drastic raising is pretty dramatic, but it's not the only one I've seen, far from it. It's quite a project. You have to cut all the utilities, separate the house from its foundation, and jack it up inch by inch, adding structures of wood pilings to hold it up. Then, with the house hovering over your head, you pour a new foundation and whatever support pillars are needed, eventually removing the pilings very carefully! Finally you build new access stairs, reconnect the utilities, enclose the lower area, and stucco it to match the original.

It's a huge job, but you can be very sure that this house will never flood again.

To illustrate the scale of the task, note this guy working near the front corner pilings: