Archive for April, 2009

How People Will Be Saved In A Future "9/11"

Posted by on Sunday, 19 April, 2009

Highrize Lifeboat.
Drawing by me.

Stephen Hawkings
I said that I would describe our system for extracting people from a damaged high rise building, but, first: Stephen Hawkings.

Dr. Hawkings, according to the wire services, has been taken to the hospital in very bad shape. This is really awful news. Dr. Hawkings is one of a handful of people who have qualities that truly surpass belief. As a very young man, and at the start of his career as a theoretical physicist, Hawkings developed symptoms of “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” which disabled him to the point that he needed a specially designed console that, word-by-word, articulated for him with an artificial voice.  Working, almost entirely within his head, and without the ability to scribble a single equation, turn a dial, or flip a page, Dr. Hawkings became one of the very most important and revered scientific thinkers of his age.  Among the things for which he is best known: our understanding of Black Holes and our modern understanding of the Big Bang (Inflation)  .

This is certainly not a eulogy. On the contrary, I just want to wish him a speedy and complete recovery. We’re in no mood to lose a guy like you, Dr. Hawkings. PLEASE. Get better. You are very much needed, appreciated, and admired.

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Image from MorgueFile


When the World Trade Center towers were hit on 9/11/2001, we learned some excruciating lessons about getting people out of a burning and structurally damaged high rise. We learned that the fire stairs that are, theoretically, available to evacuate people, can fail in many ways as they fill with smoke, become blocked by disabled individuals trying to make their way down or by people assisting them. The stairs can also collapse or be blocked by rubble. And the doors to the stairwells can disappear into the flames, fumes, and confusion. Even when the fire stairs do remain intact, they don’t work well when emergency crews with bulky equipment are trying to struggle UP the stairs against a flow of panicked building occupants who are fleeing DOWN.

The 9/11 disaster at the World Trade Center won’t be the last one in a high rise structure. Possibly (though I hope with all my heart I’m wrong) not even the last terrorist attack.

Let me describe our proposed solution, the
Highrize Lifeboat. As always, comments are appreciated or, at least, tolerated.


Our “Lifeboat” (see illustration at top) has a cabin that can carry approximately 10 people from an upper floor to the ground or can carry rescue personnel and equipment from the ground to an upper floor.  It is operated by a cable from the roof since the rails of an exterior elevator could twist or be blocked by debris. That’s why elevators aren’t used during a fire.

The Lifeboat is controlled by trained rescue personnel with a wireless remote control console. This allows them to board it and bring themselves and their equipment to the impacted area as well as remove victims FROM the area.


The “High Rise Lifeboat” moves vertically, rolling over the surfaces of the exterior wall on its roller/tires.   Obstacles such as cornices or protruding beams are “hurdled” by thrusters (actuators) in the roller/tire assembly. The thrusters push off like a mountain climber would while rappelling down a mountain face, kicking out with his/her legs to swing out and past obstacles during the descent.


Moving the cabin vertically along the face of a building that has suffered severe damage can be tricky. First of all, a suspended cabin without a rail system can be unsteady as people and things move around. So the cable mount has load sensors and a way to adjust its point of contact, thus keeping the cabin properly vertical.

Also, there may be thermal updrafts from the heat of a fire and debris can rain down. These are, obviously, horrendous circumstances. So how do you keep the cabin stable so that it doesn’t spin uncontrollably? A ducted fan forces the Lifeboat against a set of roller/tires (each side) which “ride” the wall of the building. This stabilizes it during its journey.


Sensors and cameras warn of obstacles that would impede vertical travel. Where necessary, the wheels can “steer” around an obstruction (within the limits of its cable suspension) . This, in combination with the “Rappel Kick” maneuver described above, gives the Hirize Lifeboat a good set of obstacle avoidance tricks.


Rescue “docking” is achieved when the roller/tires “retract” (the cabin slides itself along the horizontal strut on which the rollers are mounted, thus allowing the cabin to come into contact with the wall surface). The horizontal pressure of the fans holds the cabin in place for safe boarding operations.

The proposed system could also have a role  in building maintenance. Window washing and such.

Anyway, that’s the idea. Never did a thing with it. It’s in the public domain. Maybe someone’ll read this and think it has some merit. You never know.

A Smartphone Explosion Could Impact Science

Posted by on Sunday, 12 April, 2009


The future of computing is in your pants (pockets). Or your bag. Anywhere, actually, but your desktop. “Smartphones”, once geeky, are now “cool”, having been blessed by Apple and the iPhone. Generally, smartphones offer computer-ish functionality combined with highly integrated mobile phones. And they’re finding ways to distinguish themselves by incorporating hardware such as accelerometers to adjust the orientation of the display, touch screens (becoming standard),  GPS, high resolution cameras, WIFI, Bluetooth, removable storage, swappable batteries, fold-out keyboards, RFID scanners and you-name-its. With all that stuff on board, you wouldn’t think a bird could easily fly off with one of these devices. But they are both light and, often, lovely to behold.

As the current smartphone champ, the Iphone, to many, represents the future of ultra mobile computing. Small, elegant, and engaging, it is fun to use. But the race for dominance is just beginning. Five major competing systems are aiming at Apple’s iPhone which presents a moving target as it carefully evolves its own product line. At present,  the iPhone, though quite terrific, offers only a “soft” (simulated) keyboard, relies on the AT&T network (good but, arguably, not best), has some significant battery limitations (most Smartphones do, actually), and that very nice glass screen behaves as you might expect it to when it collides with something hard.

Google’s Android has the biggest/goodest company in the world behind it though it is still anchored to T-mobile’s come-from-behind network which, in the US, isn’t necessarly an advantage though it’s strong in Europe. Its first phone, G1, was well reviewed and several more phones are likely to be released this year. Android, with Google behind it, may find acceptance in other devices such as “net computers” and desk top boxes. And Google’s committment to cloud computing in which Google, itself, supplies the processing power from its remote computing “clouds” sounds like the perfect match for the limitations of an elegant but tiny cell phone. There are many who think it is Google which will, ultimately, displace Apple in the mobile world.

The Blackberry Storm was released this year and was initially seen as a possible iPhone crusher. But, the usually competent Research in Motion, may have rushed a bit and the implementation, while full of promise had flaws. A new “Storm 2” is expected later this year and the software for the current version is being updated to address some of the original imperfections.

Microsoft’s Windows Mobile, which doesn’t get the credit it deserves (my opinion) for pioneering so MANY of the ideas that current smart phones now use, is seen as SO pre-iPhone. And Microsoft is working on Windows Mobile 6.5, its newest weapon. I should note that with a little ingenuity, even the current version of Windows Mobile is perfectly capable of supporting a darn nice phone as evidenced by the omnia.

And pesky Palm, instead of going away gracefully, has returned with the Palm Pre which is at the “reviewers love this thing” stage. Often, this presages the, “What were they THINKING?” stage but that won’t be possible till it really gets into the hands of the pesky populace.

Finally, there’s Symbian which I was going to describe as “a proprietary operating system which was commonly used on advanced phones until the era of the smartphone,” but I see that Nokia has completed its purchase of Symbian and, as a part of its strategy, has opened Symbian to Linux developers. Symbian, with Nokia’s help, has the potential to surprise.

And if you think I’ve lost my way, I have not. I AM back to science. Very much so. Science is a product of the human brain – the human brain and all its trappings which now include the many computers upon which we rely. Try to imagine astrophysics or biochemistry without the digital mishmash of acquisition systems, controllers, analyzers, displays, and whatnot. Barely possible. 

Because computer-ish phones are already such a commonplace – so familiar, so small, and so cute, it’s easy to mispercieve the importance of this development of TRULY personal computing and its affect on science as well as on us. They, these pocket things, will, no doubt, BECOME our newspapers, our entertainment, our new friends and helpers (in countless ways), turning us into citizen reporters, capable, if amateur, creative geniuses, and, perhaps, citizen legislators as well. Maybe, even, the eyes and ears of the police. Just imagine what they will do for the scientist in the field. Or in the lab.

But, maybe I am making too much of all this.

After all. They’re just phones.


Chronic pain is so very common. Often, it’s disabling and, much too often, nothing seems to really help. This work at Children’s Hospital, Boston, could do much good if it makes it to the clinic. 

Why We SHOULD Arm Our Ships Against Pirates

Posted by on Sunday, 12 April, 2009

Credit to for source images (combined here)


This being my blog, I get to have an occasional rant even if the link to science/technology is imperceptible. Today: Pirates. And no apologies for the topic.

As you surely know, modern day pirates are adding to the tension between “old ways” and “new ways” that has been boiling for some time. Most of the briggands are currently from the “horn” of Africa. The captain of the Maersk Alabama, recently held hostage on a capsule lifeboat, was reported released a few minutes ago after an intense standoff between the pirates and the US Navy.

Great news.
However, after a weekend of profound concern, it is troubling to me, MISTER ScienceAintSoBad, that all solutions are being considered to this problem EXCEPT the obvious one.

The long-term (and, perhaps, elusive) solution is, indeed, to end the desperation of those who would risk their lives attacking modern vessel. But in the short-term, shouldn’t these ships be armed and armored?
Shouldn’t the points of vulnerability such as the wheelhouse have heavy armor or other kinds of protection which can be deployed against the bullets and small explosives that the crews are likely to encounter? Shouldn’t these ships carry weapons and individuals trained in their use?

The principle arguments against these measures seem to be:
1. Much higher insurance costs for the shippers. BUT the long-term costs including the costs that have to be born by the crews and families of these ships need to be considered. Perhaps some private or public leadership here.
2. Complex laws governing arms in each port. Again. This can be sorted out with some determined leadership.
3. Some cargoes are flammable or explosive. But wouldn’t that be a great reason to raise the risk to would-be pirates of using our ships for target practice?
4. And this one I really love: we don’t want to start an arms race. We don’t want to start an arms race between the guys who have the big guns (that would be us) and the guys who can’t afford them? WHO’S side are we on?

My rant is over. I will return to science and technology.

Earthquake Prediction Riddle Solved

Posted by on Wednesday, 8 April, 2009

EARTHQUAKE in central Italy.

The quake in Italy killed over 200. More than a thousand injured. There was a lot of economic disruption and property damage. You can understand the terror if you’ve lived through such a thing; otherwise, you simply can not. Terrible suffering and misery. And, reportedly, the Prime Minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, in a Bush-esque moment, suggested that the thousands of survivors of the quake would do well to conduct themselves as though on a “camping weekend”. This is more heartless than he intended, I think.

A local scientist claims that he predicted the quake and was then muzzled by authorities. At any moment, of course, many people are predicting many things. Sometimes this is because they’re smart. More often it is because they’re drunk. So there’s always SOMEONE to say “told ya!” after an unexpected event.

That local scientist was probably both serious and sober but this does remind us of a previous discussion in Science Ain’t So Bad about what science is and how its propositions get validated. Since, however, the focus here is on earthquakes, I’ll shake that thought off and continue the original discussion of earthquakes.

The basic science of earthquakes (link) has advanced in this century but the excitation (the quake itself) IS a bit on the unpredictable side. In fact, there is no reliable way (except, arguably, that local scientist’s technique) to know. Could be big. Could be small. Could be next year.

But if you DO want to predict a quake, you need to look at the system, both the quake, itself, and the objects shaken such as buildings and bridges. Since we can’t nail the quake, we need to concentrate on the things that get shook. THIS we know something about. Numerous construction methods have been tested recently on giant shaker tables and some have shown considerable promise. A group at the University of Nevada just simulated a truly huge quake (twice as strong as a magnitude 7.6), against a full scale house constructed of straw bales and, thus, practical for many parts of the world that can’t afford expensive solutions. The straw bale house (details) did great. No report on the dishes.

By the way, I did write, a while back, about my team’s Sonic Beacon (patent pending) which is designed to rescue people from the rubble of collapsed structures. That post, should you be curious, is called The Work Goes On .


In an earlier post, Risky Chimp Behavior, I discussed a recent attack by a seemingly very domesticated chimpanzee. This attack was one of several that highlights the ungodly power that chimps appear to have. What is the source of this phenomenal strength? Details.


Gene therapy is starting to make a difference. This is real: [Skipping The Surgery]


In a comment , Alan Wild wonders about orbiting solar collectors.

Peter Glaser (MIT) promoted this idea in the sixties. He even owns a patent on this technology. It’s a legitimate idea but Glaser was probably “before his time”. To work, ultra efficient solar panels would be required (to reduce the area and, thus, the number of missions to deploy the thing) and lots more needs to be understood about the practical effects of microwave transmission of an intense energy beam through the atmosphere. I believe that some simple lab experiments have demonstrated “proof of concept”. Who or what would get fried by the beam? We don’t know.

New Science Ain’t So Bad products: Click to View

Planes and Boats and Us Too

Posted by on Friday, 3 April, 2009

Bill Groves working his engineering magic


We hear from people (mostly relatives and friends) who want to try out our LectricLifter (US patent numb 7517221) to raise their electric outlets up conveniently. Only one request, so far, to protect puppies and such from electric shock (though that’s from a store). ‘Course it would help if we had some. And it would help even more if we got them approved and started marketing our inventions. In fact, three months have evaporated while we’ve been trying to figure out the best way to make the first set (called “pre-manufacturing prototypes” in case you wondered).

In our own defense, this delay is partially because we don’t have a budget for extruded plastic parts and custom circuit boards which forces us to spend extra time being ingenious. For example, we couldn’t justify the money for a custom housing. Instead, we went to a fence manufacturer and bought plastic fence posts of about the right size. You can see how it looks below with the “rotatable plug” poking through. Of course another reason for the delay is that we haven’t been on fire to get this thing to market in the middle of a recession. But with the economy (maybe) beginning to pull out of its dive, we’ve been running out of excuses so Bill Groves, one of the engineers on our team, (plug for Bill: [email protected] to get a quote on electronic or electromechanical projects) took over the work and things began to jell.

We spent lots of time “cad-ing up” the method of holding that plug in place. We tried several approaches till we could agree on a good way. Now we’re working our way through other details: wiring techniques, fastening methods for the cord management knobs, and so on. It shouldn’t be long now till we have enough prototypes to do some “sanity checks”, show them to retailers, and get safety approvals.Meanwhile, we have two more products that’re stuck in the patent office and STILL haven’t budged. Maybe the USPTO needs a stimulus.


As I’ve mentioned previously, the transformation of energy sources is now underway in a serious way worldwide. My sister, Adele C Schwartz, who writes about and has considerable knowledge about aviation and airports, says her industry is already working on the shift to biofuels which, she says, is “huge”. According to Adele, the motivation is that already ” .. some countries in Europe are penalizing airlines for emissions, even though commercial aircraft are just a tiny part of the problem.”. “Air New Zealand,” she says, “has done some successful test flights recently using part jatropha and part kerosene. A lot of different mixes are being tested, and all the reports I’ve seen are positive for all of them.”

And an NOAA study says that ocean going vessels produce as much polution in a year as ALL THE CARS IN THE WORLD do in six months. The shipping companies, like the airlines, seem to understand that change is inevitable. Sooner rather than later.

I’ll continue to expand coverage of developments related to energy.


Erin ( New England Cockapoos, her link), breeder to the stars AND breeder of our own Bella Luna, reminds us that it isn’t just stores that want the pet protecting version. She needs the LectricLifter too and quick. Before June.

Workin’ on it, Erin.