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Science and nature Web/Tech

Going solar at home

I just had a conversation with a friend’s mom and her partner about their neighbour’s solar panel installation. He neighbours installed 3 large panels and it cost them about R30 000. The panels apparently supply enough power to cover their home’s requirements.

It got me thinking about something similar for our house. It’s a lot of money but when you consider increasing prices (28% increase in the near future), constrained supply and blackouts like the one that affected some areas for days recently, it might be worth that cost in the medium term.

I believe the Eskom website contains information about options, rebates and so on. The prospect of not being reliant on the grid is very appealing and if it’s possible to largely disconnect from the grid and run off the panels, your savings in electricity payments could pay it off relatively soon. I have heard a realistic time frame to make your money back is about 6 years or so.

Whatever the details, solar panels are starting to make a lot of sense!

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Science and nature Travel and places

The rain in Joburg falls mainly on the plain

We had quite a storm yesterday evening. The storm started while I was still at my office and I shot this video shortly before I left for home. What passes for my creative thought that went into the video is that I wanted to experience the growing storm through the rain on my large office windows.

The Rain from Paul Jacobson on Vimeo.

It wasn’t long before the storm became pretty intense with reports of main roads and highways being flooded, cars getting stuck on roads with rain water rising up to car windows.


The rain got so intense I was just seeing reports on Twitter about debris in the roads and fairly high level roads being under water. We were supposed to go to my mother in law for supper but our routes would have either taken us over rivers or along congested and flooded roads. We wound up changing our plans at the last minute and remained home (at which point the rain stopped!). I just didn’t relish the thought of becoming a news item with our two small children.

It looks like there is rain forecast for Johannesburg at least for the weekend so lots more rain is on the way.

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Mindsets Science and nature Useful stuff Web/Tech

A day with smart glass envisioned by Corning

This Corning concept video displays a possible technological future to the Microsoft series not too long ago. Its a world I could be very comfortable in where devices made from smart, tough glass take our current ability to engage with our world and each other even further.

The great this about all these glass panels is that we have the benefit of feeling like we are still in our world while retaining our personal work and communication spaces. The bus stop example is a great one. Even this shelter in the city is clear and provides panels for passengers to use for quick communications.

Take a look at this Microsoft montage while you are at it. It is derived from a couple thematic concept videos Microsoft published a little while ago showing possibilities for different industries and lifestyles. Similar concepts, just different interfaces:

We’re living in an exciting technological age right now and if these concepts become reality in the coming years, our children will have lifestyles that would make Star Trek visions look primitive (leaving aside warp space travel and transporters …).

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Science and nature

Facts about Japanese nuclear reactors

News reports about the after effects of the Japanese earthquakes and tsunami, particularly the damage done to and efforts to contain the nuclear reactor at Fukushima are everywhere. Many people are panicking that they will be irradiated, die or start to glow an unpleasant green colour. Facts about what is going on are really important and I came across an MIT blog helpfully titled the “MIT NSE Nuclear Information Hub” which contains facts about the science of much of what is being reported and what isn’t. One good starting point is a modified version of a post published by Dr Josef Oehmen which Dr Oehmen transferred to MIT’s Nuclear Science and Engineering Department to review and edit (the original post was titled “Why I am not worried about Japan’s nuclear reactors“). By way of background here (when it comes to publishing correct facts, credibility is critical):

I am a mechanical engineer and research scientist at MIT. I am not a nuclear engineer or scientist, or affiliated with Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT, so please feel free to question my competence. The text is based on an email that I send to family and friends in Japan the night of March 12. It was posted on this blog by my cousin Jason, went viral and has been equally popular with people who hate it and love it ever since. It aimed at explaining the events surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi-1 reactor. Great lengths of the text are dedicated to explaining how the reactor works, what the different types of radiation sources are, and what safety features have been implemented. I then continue to describe how these safety features were operated to secure the reactor. To the extent that I could, I have verified this information with experts in the field, while the responsibility for any errors remains with me. The version on mitnse.com is the most accurate, and as you can tell in many parts different to the version that appeared here on Jason’s blog. This post is not keeping track of or explaining events after Mar 12. Events kept developing, and many people keep sharing their discovery with me that one is always smarter after the fact.

The edited post is fairly detailed but written in plain language. It is a fascinating read and explains how the Fukushima reactor was designed with multiple catastrophes in mind (although the magnitude of the catastrophe which befell Fukushima was beyond the engineers’ expectations).

One of the important paragraphs in the post is this one:

It is worth mentioning at this point that the nuclear fuel in a reactor can never cause a nuclear explosion like a nuclear bomb. At Chernobyl, the explosion was caused by excessive pressure buildup, hydrogen explosion and rupture of all structures, propelling molten core material into the environment. Note that Chernobyl did not have a containment structure as a barrier to the environment. Why that did not and will not happen in Japan, is discussed further below.

The MIT NSE blog is a tremendously valuable resource and gives some helpful perspective on the drama unfolding in Japan.


Image credit: fukushima damage left, unit 3, right, unit 4 by Derek Visser, licensed CC BY SA 2.0

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Film Mindsets Science and nature Useful stuff Web/Tech

If this were science fiction …

I’m still trying to get my head around the fact that is 2010 tomorrow. I realised that according to some popular science fiction stories, we should have ships somewhere in orbit around Jupiter by now.

Science fiction stories like 2010 are curious stories. 2010 was set in the context of tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. The movie features the famous HAL 9000 artificial intelligence and pseudo-villain of the story. In our time we have barely left Earth, might be returning to the Moon some day and Mars looks like a destination we might reach in a few more decades.

When it comes to our technology, we don’t really have AI in our daily life but who knows what the military is playing with. We could have a HAL 9000-SkyNet slowly waking up. Then again, we might be a few more innovations away from Google’s various services meshing together and becoming self-aware. That is probably just bad science fiction but the year ahead doesn’t seem to be as advanced as science fiction would have it in some respects and yet, in other respects we seem to have even more advanced technology.

I guess that is the problem with science fiction that is set in the near future. More often than not we get to that point in time and still don’t have flying cars, hoverboards or super smart, connected data networks.

Oh, wait …