Saturday, March 19, 2011

Silent Armageddon

There a many lessons to learn from the nuclear catastrophe in Japan: Everything breaks; people are only human; heroes exist; radiation is analogous to poop; and reactors need active attention to stay safe. I think we knew the last one, but it is worth some further reflection.

How long will our technically-competent society last? Maybe thousands of years? If our technical society fails in the next, oh, ten thousand years, hundreds (thousands?) of nuclear power plants can turn into Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi. Without a constant flow of cooling water, even the spent fuel rods can explode and spread their radiation into the surrounding regions.

I believe that this society needs nuclear power. But we also need to come up with a solution for storing nuclear waste in a way that does not require active systems to maintain its quiesence

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Distribution of wealth in the US

How many people hold half of the wealth in the US?

This is a little difficult to extract from a simple Google search. But I found out these interesting things:

  • From this, I calculate that half of the total wealth in the US is held by approximately the top 5% of the people in 2007, and approximately the top 6% in 1992.

  • Other interesting findings: The Gini Coefficient, which is a measure of the statistical dispersion of the population distribution of a system: a value of 0 means a completely equal distribution; a value of 1 means the maximally unequal distribution. The US (according to this Wikipedia article) has a Gini of 46.8 in 2009 (up from 36.8 in 1968). Some have estimated the Gini coefficient in the US to be as high as 0.82.

  • Another fine article, with more charts and graphs, can be found here. I need to study this detailed article!
It is worth repeating:

Half of the wealth in the United States is held by the richest 5% of the people.

In other words,
15.6 million people have half the wealth of the US, and
292.6 million people hold the other half of the wealth.

And, as I expected, the relative wealth of the richest people in the US is increasing.

Engineering Open House at University of Illinois, March 11, 2011

I offer my thoughts on the EOH at UIUC yesterday. Overall, it was a great day!

First off, the bus service from lot E-14 (at the basketball arena) was poorly executed. We waited 20 minutes for the coach that was supposed to come at most every 10 minutes. That was not so bad except (a) the people were getting pretty grumpy, and (b) when the bus arrived, the driver was a real prick. He kept whining about how there could only be one person per seat, "Federal law! I'm the one who goes to jail!" Sheese! By the end of the day, there were two coaches running, which I'm sure solved the problem. Also, the promised "tour guide" during the short trip to the engineering area had very little to say.

That's essentially all the bad news.

They couldn't have asked for nicer weather! There were several no-so-smart girls in sockless sandals. One poor girl had toes about the color of her toenail polish. But that's what kids do when Mom (or Dad) is not there to dress them.

The exhibits were awesome. In hindsight, the most impressive part may have been that there was not a faculty member to be seen anywhere! Get too close to a display and a student would ask, "Do you want to hear about my project?" Love it!

Our two favorite displays were the UIUC Formula car entry, outside of the Mechanical Engineering building (picture here)

And the Ford corporate display, featuring a 1998 ME graduate who is now an engineer at Ford in Dearborn, MI. What a nice fellow!

There was a great session with one of the Deans of the Engineering College, Michael C. Hirschi. He answered all kinds of questions with insight and patience. Of course, he was a bit distracted at first when Northwestern was about to beat Ohio State. (But, unfortunately for the State of Illinois sports enthusiast and Buckeye haters, Ohio State pulled it out in OT.) I was particularly impressed with the questions Sterling asked about the student-run clubs and the answers he gave.

Another high point was the demo staged by the UIUC fire department (or was it the Fire Protection Department at UIUC?) They had set up some boxes in the quad about the size of a small dorm room (8x8x8), furnished with dorm-like furnishings. One end of the box, facing the crowd, was open. They lit a small fire in a trash can in the mocked-up room and started a timer. Within 5 seconds, the smoke alarm started beeping--"This is your warning to get out!" said the emcee. Within a few more seconds, the fire was visible, and smoke was starting to fill the "room". At about the one minute mark, they stated that the ceiling temperature was 180F and the floor temp was still the ambient 50F--still clear to crawl out safely. One minute later, the room was actually engulfed in flames! Somewhere in that minute, the smoke detector melted and stopped beeping. They always say that you don't have much time to react to a fire in your home. This was incredibly vivid proof of that.

Finally, let me say that I love driving to Champaign/Urbana! The country road are so peaceful and pretty. I especially like the sunsets!