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January 23, 2005

Pictures from the edge

I haven't posted many pictures lately, so here is a picture of the skating last night and another of the driving conditions this afternoon during the snowstorm.

What, me procrastinate?

The snowstorm today left me at home all day on a Sunday, which is exceedingly rare. Even more rare, I had all day yesterday to do errands and some shopping, so I've got most of the day-to-day life things like laundry and groceries well under control at the moment.

In light of that, it's astonishing how many things I found to do today to keep me from the couple of things I really should have done on this snow day. I like to think that all of the things I did were useful and not wasteful of my time, but I was never truly in danger of really getting down to work. I obviously need to spend more time at home. Or maybe not.

The next environmental crisis?

I didn't know until recently that there is a global shortage that may be more urgent than oil: Helium. It seems that awareness of the issue (at least among my peers) is fairly low, but a quick google search shows that it is real.

Why is helium a global shortage? Because Helium gas is so light, it simply floats to the top of the atmosphere and eventually leaks away into space. Hydrogen gas is certainly lighter than helium, yet we are not worried about running out of hydrogen, but there is a vast amount of hydrogen locked up in many other chemicals on earth - including water. There are no substantial chemical reactions that trap or recycle atmospheric helium.

Not only does helium escape from earth, but the supply of helium on earth is quite finite and irreplaceable. According to a Wired article

Nearly all of the world's helium supply is found within a 250-mile radius of Amarillo, Texas (the Helium Capital of the World). A byproduct of billions of years of decay, helium is distilled from natural gas that has accumulated in the presence of radioactive uranium and thorium deposits. If it's not extracted during the natural gas refining process, helium simply soars off when the gas is burned, unrecoverable.

It turns out that helium makes up between 0.1 and 0.8 percent of natural gas pockets, with 0.3 percent sometimes cited as the threshold to make recovery of the gas viable.

So, why is helium so important? For starters, it's what we use in party balloons, but that is a fairly frivolous application. Helium is a useful industrial chemical, particulary for certain types of welding, leak detection, deep-sea diving, and most importantly, cooling sensitive electronic equipment. Liquid helium has the lowest melting point of any element at 4.2 K or -268.9 C, which makes it an excellent very low-temperature refrigerant. For instance, it is essential for the operation of superconducting magnets, which are a key component of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) equipment.

A little further on the horizon is the potential for one particular isotope of helium to become fuel for a form of nuclear fusion that has essentially no radioactive waste products. This type of fusion, while still a long way from being practical, could eventually be useful not only for power generation, but also in rocket motors that would make interplanetary transportation far more practical and time-efficient.

So what can we do about it? Not much, really, except perhaps raise awareness of the issue, and discourage the use of helium-filled party balloons.

More resources:

January 21, 2005

Blog update

Several people have mentioned to me that my blog is kind of stale lately. It's not that I've been too busy or that I haven't thought of things to write about. I guess I don't have a good reason, other than just not in the right place at the right time to translate blog thoughts into blog posts. Well, no work and no big commitments this weekend. So, my previous post notwithstanding, I may post a few things here in rapid succession over the next few days. Or I might not.

Hi mom and dad. Hope you're enjoying golf and sailing. It's -18 C tonight with windchill pushing -30 later on, I'm told.

Laziness: is it just me?

For some reason I feel like I should be able to reward myself with a night off this evening. I worked a normal day at the office, and it's Friday, so why not? On the other hand, when I think about it, there are many important things that I could and should do.

For instance, I have a short report I need to write, some reading to do, and I've really been meaning to do some journal writing (we're still not worked up to talking about a certain thesis waiting to be written). I take plenty of time of time to relax - so far in the last week I watched at least three movies, another 2 or 3 hours of television, spent an evening chatting with a friend, and half a day baking cookies and cheesecake. Yet, I still find it difficult to discipline myself to do something productive this evening. I want to blame it on the culture we live in - it seems everywhere I look people are taking a nap, watching tv, going to a movie, hanging out with friends - and I'm doing it too. Perhaps I'm just lazy. I need more discipline. Or humility. Probably both.

January 04, 2005

Time Management

Last year I came up with a small saying that I've felt is very insightful for me: "It's better to make a good decision quickly, than take a long time to make the best decision possible." I always knew that the kernel of the idea wasn't mine originally, but suggested by some books and/or articles that I had read around that time. Today, I found a quote that expresses almost exactly the same concept, attributed to General George Patton:

A good plan, violently executed today, is better than a perfect plan tomorrow.

January 03, 2005

Two Degrees of Separation

You may have heard of the idea of six degrees of separation - if a friend of a friend is one degree of separation, then everybody on earth is probably separated by no more than six degrees. I am only two degrees from many people who were directly affected by the tsunami in Asia. My parents teach at a college in Qatar in the Middle East. While they came home for Christmas, some colleagues vacationed in Thailand. Here is a picture they took while driving the morning of the tsunami. Fortunately, their driver found a safe alternate route.