Nuclear Energy: Waste Disposal Problem

Fred mildly disagreed with my position on nuclear energy. I admit that I was too “SciFi” in my blog. The point was that all nuclear energy problems are self-imposed and merely cost functions. Nuclear waste, theoretically, can be reused to generate more nuclear energy. But they can also be used as highly destructive weapons. For fear of the misuse, we self-regulate ourselves to forbid the better solutions. Given that, the rest is basically about cost.

I happened to meet someone who has been studying nuclear waste disposal for several decades. He told me the current method is to put the spent rod in a cylinder filled with self-sealing material and bury it several hundred meters under-ground at a geo-stable site. International treaties have forbidden deep-sea disposal methods. There has also been a ban on “nuclear waste export”, supposedly stopping rich countries from using poor ones as their cheap dump sites.

“Why can’t we just shoot them to the sun?” I asked naively. “There are two problems,” he answered. “If the rocket explodes mid-air, it simply becomes a nuclear bomb. Secondly, it costs more to shoot them out than burying them deep.” We then, intoxicated by strong drinks, engaged in a long conversation on how to deliver nuclear waste into space safely, and cheaply. (“What if we float the waste up in a giant balloon, then ignite the rocket to finish the second leg of the journey?” “Hmm, someone could shoot it down.”)

The disposal methodology is an over-constrained problem and therefore has no good solution. We need to come back and relax the original constraints and allow the reuse of nuclear waste. If that can be done successfully, there will be no toxic waste that comes out of those plants. Cheap energy, no environmental impact, everyone’s happy.

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To Tip or not to Tip…

When presented with the bill in a recent dining event, I was surprised to see a “20% service charge” as part of it. “What’s this?”, I asked the waiter.

“It’s the service charge.” “Like the tips?” “Yes, we split them among all service staff.” I am kind of annoyed. Mandatory tips is not American except for special occasions such as large group.

Clearly, after the Seattle minimal wage hike, from about $10 to $15, customers stopped giving tips. Those service staff, supposedly, got a 50% raise. “After all the deductions, I got less than old minimal wages,” said the waiter. What I gathered is that the service staff actually experienced a reduction of income after the minimal wage hike. I cannot fathom this was the objective for the socialist city councilwoman.

Since the tips are included in the bill, I left no extra. This is pretty much the same as in many Asian countries. You paid exactly what’s billed, no more, no less. As I left the restaurant, I couldn’t help thinking that waiter is probably earning about the same income as before the minimal wage hike.

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Pirating Music

When I lived in China in the early 2000s, there was this ritual to visit the DVD stores that cater nearly exclusively to the expat community. They were like DVD rental places with an extremely excellent collection. Prominently featured were the new releases, sometimes titles that were still in theaters. Each disc was about 8 RMBs (about a dollar then) and customers carried them out in bags.

My favorites were the TV series: Friends, 24, Grey’s Anatomy, etc. They sold the entire season’s episode in 8 to 12 discs. I would binge watche the whole season: no waiting, no commercials, no sleep.

We, the expats, had no choice. These were the only way we could watch those titles. Hollywood refused to release them in China.

I would buy music CDs from the same stores. Unlike DVDs, I could never tell if they were bootlegged or not (I had my suspicions, but no proof.) Music CDs were of the exact quality, in terms of appearance, packaging, inserts, etc., as real copyrighted ones. It is possible, albeit highly unlikely, that they were legit. I was quite convinced that no one in the world could, by inspection, be certain. If they were bootlegs, they did it perfectly.

Like everyone else, I would put the CD into my computer and rip the songs into MP3s and listen via my iPod. The disc would be thrown into a box and pretty much forgotten.

As I read How the Music Got Free by Stephen Witt, I reflected on my experience and realized that I was part of a much bigger MP3 revolution. I blogged about the RIAA law suits, witnessed the rise and fall of Napster, and used Oink. I was there when BitTorrent took over the world (there was a parallel FTP project, quickly taken over by the Torrent protocol). I saw the DVD stores going out of business, not because of legality, but because customers stopped buying physical media. Instead, they downloaded.

Kids stopped buying CDs long ago. They streamed, on their cell phones or laptop. They rarely pay for music (but do occasionally from iTunes store). 99% of their internet activities (games, music, video, social media, chatting) are free. Advertisement now sustains the media industry, or whatever is left of it.

And I was part of the generation that witnessed the transition.

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Day trip to Xi’An (from Beijing)

You have a spare day while you are in Beijing. You are in the mood for an excursion that is a bit adventurous. Think Xi’An, the city that is a couple of thousand years older than Beijing, home to the Terra-cotta Warriors, and famous for its lamb noodles.

You’re game? This is how to do it.

Check out of your hotel the day before your planned trip and book the over-night sleeper train to Xi’An. You embark from Beijing West station (北京西站). The fare is around RMB400 (per person, about US$60) for the “soft bed cabin” which take 4 people. If you like a bit more pampering, there is a “deluxe cabin” that is not listed for sale. It is a 2-bed cabin, with attached private bathroom, that is nearly twice the price. The train arrives in Xi’An early the next morning, around 8am.

Someone should arrange a tour guide and a car/driver there for you beforehand. Since this is a tourist city, they are quite reasonable. The tour guide costs about RMB400 and the car/driver about RMB800. So this is about US$200.

To come back, there are two options: the same sleeper train takes about 12 hours. You would embark around 7pm and arrive Beijing around 7am. Or you can take one of the high-speed trains which takes about 6 hours. They depart hourly from 4pm and cost about RMB800 (US$120).

This itinerary requires no luggage other than light toiletries, and is quite affordable. For two people, including the tour-guide, it costs between US$400 and US$600, plus foods, drinks, and souvenirs.

All that for a whole day in one of the oldest cities in the world.

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Mobile Payment

It is like the Internet frenzy all over again, all those companies chasing eye-balls by pouring tons of money into the venture. Who is going to pay for all the the infra-structure, R&D, marketing, and the rewards? During the Bubble, it was all about advertisement. For China, banking!

The mobile payment system in China is mature and sophisticated. Integrated with the chatting software, people can transfer funds to whomever with a fluidic swipe on their mobiles. Comes next month’s Chinese New Year, the “Fight for the Red Envelope” (搶紅包) game will generate billions within days.

Chinese traditionally give cash for any gifting occasion. Every kid has been trained to spot the red envelope which has long become the symbol for gift or bonus money. No occasion sees more red enveloping than the Chinese New Year festival. Companies, celebrities, and, of course, family members, offer a variety of red envelopes: plain old money, iPhones, deep discounted Groupons, gift cards, etc. The internet gave this tradition a couple of twists: the red envelope is now virtualized, the giver/receiver transaction happens on their respective mobiles, via the popular chat software WeChat. Secondly, the giver can set up a game to give a number of red envelopes to a group of people as the prizes for a competition. Whoever claims the envelopes first keeps them. It becomes a frenzy! Usually, the giver sends out a teaser chat: watch out in this forum for goodies. Then he or she send out the virtual red envelopes. All of the sudden, the chat room explodes with activities. Then the next round comes.

During the special TV show for the Chinese New Year last year, the emcee announced the next “red envelope” from the sponsor. People were glued to the TV, waited for the announcement, and fought to be one of the lucky winners. Same at the family level: grandpa will make 10 red envelopes of descending values for his 10 grandkids. Friends do the same and play the “pay it forward” game. Needless to say, billions of RMB changed hands.

PayPal, step aside.

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Switching to Mac

This MacBook Pro arrived. First time in my life, my primary computer became a Mac.

For decades, there has been this teasing back-and-forth among us PC people and them Mac guys. The verbal jousting and teasing aside, I have always been a secret admirer for Mac. My choice of siding with the WinTel empire was based on a very practical reason: Microsoft Office. All Office software were several versions behind. I needed to get my work done efficiently and therefore would settle for the platform. Truth is, I have always been a Unix guy and the MacOS’s BSD base has always been a lure for me.

How time has changed! I can do my Excel and Outlook on Mac not much differently than Windows. This took care of 90% of the issues. Most other things I do are on the Internet. All I have to switch to is Safari. When I brought up the terminal window and found my fingers still remembering the good old Unix commands, my conversion was completed (emacs!).

First was the getting used to of the Mac keyboard: the “flower” key instead Windows. Pretty much everything I was used to on the Windows side has a Mac equivalent, just that they are slightly different and I would need to Google to find out “how to do xxx on a Mac.”

The built-in “Spaces” was such a delight. I never understood why Windows did not implement virtual desktop. I was using Rooms in the early 90s and have been missing it ever since. The lack of true “delete” key is annoying, so I bought an external keyboard.

Next was the practicing and getting used to of the “gestures”: multiple fingers going this and that way instead of using mouse and buttons that and this way. I got used to two-finger scrolling quite quickly.

Ever since the NeXT days, Steve Jobs insisted making the better computers even at the price of customer needing to change behavior. For some reasons, I hated the transition from Windows 95, to newer versions. For Mac, I was willing to learn new tricks. I felt the new tricks were really better ways, instead of just different ones. This is probably the magic of Apple.

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3 Days in Paradise

Imagine a camp site fire pit, where you gather up to tell stories and watch ambers glows warmly and spewing smokes up to the sky. Now imagine that pit 10 times the size of a football field.

On our way from the highway, I saw a red glow on the near horizon. “What’s that? Wild fire?” “No,” our local friend said. “That’s the volcano that I am taking you to.” I was dumbfounded. About 15 minutes later, we pulled into the Kilauea Outlook at Volcano National Park and I was staring at that biggest campfire a couple of miles away. This is clearly not a volcano that buried ancient cities or St. Helen that blew up her top. This is a real erupting volcano as mild as the warmth of the campfire. It is really best, as our friend said, to come here after dark.

Hawaiian volcanoes, though live, are not violent. The lava flow may destroy properties, but rarely kill. Hawaiian think of volcanoes as blessings that give new land and, thus, new lives. This Kilauea volcano has been very active and producing impressive lava flow which inspired many photographers.

And the stars! I saw all of the Orion, not just the belt. I saw milky way and the whole sky full of stars. I didn’t remember so many stars since my country-side childhood years. Stars were such a treat for this Seattle city dweller who would be lucky to see the moon.

Yes, I am in Hawaii. Ah…

Next morning, 6:30am, the parking lot was already full. We joined the small crowd waiting, at the trailhead of Pololu Valley, for the sunrise. The earth woke up with this breathtaking light-show which was also the starting gun for the mile-long hike. The destination was a black sand beach at the mouth of a serene creak. The lush meadow lured you to roam, linger, lie down, and think retirement. Then, inevitably, we started the hike-up, about 1000 feet back up. The morning cool was long replaced by the sweat producing tropical sun. At the top, we were rewarded by the gentle sea breeze and the expanse of the ocean view, now in full brightness.

Waipio Valley is the southern tip of the Pu’u O Umi Reserve, as Pololu Valley the northern tip. It was interesting that these two are apart, as crow’s flight, for about just 2 miles, but the crossing, on foot, involves probably a whole day’s vigorous hike up and down several valleys. In the old days, natives probably simply row over in canoes.

What’s a Hawaiian vacation without an ocean-side meal? The secret, guided by a local, is to get food-truck BBQ, another food-truck fish-and-chip, a nice cup of shaved ice, and picnic at Spencer Beach. After the feast and a bit lazing around, we jumped into the ocean and snorkeled around to work out the lunch.

As Canoe House table was not yet ready, we waited at the pool bar of Mauna Lani Hotel. What a gem! Delicious foods came inside Chinese bamboo steamers, to keep warm and, I guess, covered. The obligatory Mai Tai did not come with a little umbrella, thank god, and was strongly mixed with good rums. The best part of this place was the sunset. Gorgeous colors contrasted with the Tiki torches. We hang and chilled for hours.

Poké seemed to be in rave these day. One of the neighbors was a fisherman. Whenever he had a good catch, the family made Poké (Ahi with Avocado on top of home-fried nacho chips) and sold them from the garage-top patio. Cheap, fresh, delicious, and friendly. It pretty much became a day-long spontaneous block party.

Big Island is a very different Hawaii than Oahu and Maui, where tourism dominates pretty much everything. Here you interact with local residents. Since everyone is pretty much an immigrant, there are lots of stories and genuine friendliness. Jack Tottle is a renown Bluegrass musician. (“What’s the exact definition of Bluegrass? Jack.” “According to Louis Armstrong, if you need definition, then you wouldn’t know what’s Jazz. That goes with Bluegrass as well.”) He is now a retired plantation owner. (“I believe you would be called a ‘gentleman farmer.’ Right?” “Yes, I own a farm but I don’t farm.”) His multi-acre plantation has hundreds of Macadamia nut trees. We walked up to one such tree and picked a cracked nut off. To eat, we must walked back to the house and use a vise to crack it open. That’s when I notice a bucket of nuts next to the nut cracker. Jack’s wife was busy dividing up a bunch of just ripe banana, harvested a couple of days ago. Knowing where we grew up, she insisted showing us the Star-fruit tree. When we left, the trunk was full of citric, at least 10 pounds of banana, and another 15 pounds of Star-fruits. That’s after we begged off the Papaya, lemons, and nuts.

This island has the balance of touristy pampering and natural beauty. It is a serious consideration for a vacation home, obviously a dream waiting for the winning lottery ticket.

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Intimacy with the Asphalt

“Oh, sh*t!” There was a loud scream from my right. A blink later, that same screamer was talking to me, concerned probably more for himself getting into trouble than my health, “Sir, are you alright?” I found myself half sitting on the ground, hands supporting the upper body. I could feel the gravel under my butts. As I struggled to get up, I got upset.

“Guy! This is not OK. Why were you riding on the sidewalk?” I yelled at him. He apologized profusely and I waved him away. My brain re-generated the memory as I walked toward the restaurant for my dinner date.

The bus stopped at its usual place and I got off as I have done everyday for years. There is a tree on the curb about three feet from the bus door right in front of me. Everyone crowded at the front door to get on the bus. There was no one at this back exit door. This bike rider must have been trailing the bus. When it stopped, he made a strategic decision to pass from the right. The left side has a risk of a blind spot right in front of the bus and had more car traffic, given this is the peak hour. He must had seen that gap between the bus and tree as considered it a short-cut lane and went for it. He did not know that the back door was just opening and a passenger, me, was about to get off. Most importantly, he did not consider that he would have been on that passenger’s blind side.

What happened next was governed by the laws of cosmos probability: collections of atoms came to the same location and the same time. Some of those atoms in me got re-arranged. That was not a pleasant process. I figured it will take several days for the swollen bump to go away and probably a couple of weeks for the bruises to disappear.

I could have said the incident changed my perspective of life, as if it was a trauma. It did not and was not. Kid told me that this kind of things, a pedestrian colliding with a bicycle, happen a lot. I get that accidents happen and, most of the time, there is nothing anyone could have done. But this is not one of them. This was an error in judgment: the biker should not have passed from the right sidewalk. He should not have chosen a lane with no room to maneuver. And he should have slowed down. Yes, I should have glanced my blindside before I got off.

I took two days off from my work-out routine. There was just a bit sore here and there two days later. In three weeks, the left wrist was tender and the bump on the right calf won’t go away. I massaged the calf while I watch TV. I was lucky, comparatively speaking. So no complaints and life goes on.

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Steeplechase Race

James Madison, president #4 for the US, lived at Montpelier, VA. It was a fine estate — rolling meadow, probably over a hundred acres. And there is an annual horse racing early November: Montpelier Hunt Races.

Fall, on the US east coast, is like sitting in the family room after a nice dinner of a good day. The exuberance of spring and abundance of summer were over. Earth and people are now just waiting for the regeneratiive winter to come. There is a slight sadness hanging in the air that another year is over. Where are the winter gears: the ear muff, the mittens, the scarves, the boots, and, of course, ski gears?

The leaves screamed with their colors. The grass stubbornly kept their green. The sky was gloomy that day, also drizzling steadily. This was the day that east coast maximized visual effects. The drive from Dulles Airport to Charlottesville, VA, was pleasant. Even the windshield wiper was adding to the relaxing effect.

The Montpelier area, my destination, was simply beautiful with a mist in the air. I guess they are plantations that I drove through. The owners, generations of them, proudly put up a name, instead of an address, for the properties. Short fences exist to keep livestock in, instead of human beings out. Impressive houses dotted the landscape, with lazy cattle grazing as if that is the only purpose of the land. I was actually glad that no one has put up holiday lights yet. That would have spoiled the ambient.

It is a steeplechase race, that horses need to clear hurdles during the race. The track does not have grand stand. We stayed in the tents that lined up along the track in the infield. There were long waits between thunderous horses rushed by. No matter, people paused their eating, drinking, or chatting for the short excitements and resume whatever they were doing. A bit drizzle bothered no one.

I fantasized living on the east coast on my way back to Seattle. Only if they have more days like this…

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On Nuclear Energy

President Obama formally rejected the Keystone pipeline project, a controversy among Canada, the US economy, energy independence, and environment. No wonder he waited till the last year of his presidential terms to make up his mind. The viable alternative, however, was not even mentioned. Yes, nuclear energy.

Other than the Fukushima scare, what are the downside of nuclear energy? It is, relatively, cheap, it is renewable, it has zero carbon footprint. Yes, if it goes terribly wrong, it kills the neighbors. That happened very infrequently. (Three Miles Island did not kill. Chernobyl and Fukushima did.) Seriously, more people died from flu than nuclear power-plant accidents, by a long shot.

There is really no viable alternatives. We can continue to burn fossil. That’s the way for the decades to come. We can explore solar, wind, geothermal, waves, bio-fuel, and whatever. They won’t amount to a fraction of what fossil can produce.

Do you realize that the fresh water crisis is fully solvable if there are sufficient energy? Yes, desalization is an energy intensive process. California needs only one decent size nuclear power plant to solve its current water problem. And we can try to do fusion power plants. In case of disasters, such plant will emit lots of vapors and none will be radioactive or harming any lifeforms on earth.

It behooves me to observe the scare of nuclear energy. It is inevitable. Get on with it already.

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