Commuter traffic

So, I didn’t really plan on writing anything outside of writing, reading and my personal projects on this blog, but I got a (bit) pissed about this particular matter, so I just decided to go along with it.

The ministry of traffic and transport here in Finland decided to end commuter train traffic from the little town of Inkoo to Helsinki earlier this year. There is an existing railroad track that goes through the town, and traffic will continue along the route, they just won’t stop at that station any more after the decision goes through. And, to be more precise, the decision’s pretty much final.

Also, this month an international decision to combat carbon emissions and global warming was made in Paris. A whole fifth of Finland’s carbon dioxide emissions comes cfrom transport and traffic and about a half of that from private transportation – cars. This is not that much when you consider the fact that in reality Finland is a country of long distances: sparsely populated with towns and cities quite far apart.

Many people from Inkoo travel to the capital (Helsinki, if someone didn’t know) to work every day. After the train connection is terminated most of them will have to use cars to make the trip. Buses in Finland are pretty slow (I say this from personal experience – the 45-minute trip from my home village to the nearest town takes over an hour with a bus and my work trip would take at least three times as long with a bus as it does now with a local commuter train) and some of the equipment is ancient.

The decision to terminate the train link has been strongly personated by the minister of traffic and transportation, Anne Berner ( a wealthy business owner/millionaire who as a minister gets taxi service paid by state). Obviously she doesn’t use public transport so I understand if she doesn’t see the need for trains or buses or somesuch.

I would think, however, that in light of the recent decisions made in Paris the electric commuter trains (especially the threatened Y-line through Inkoo) would be supported by the decision-makers. Obviously the common folk would support the line.

After the decision by the ministry was voiced in August (I think? Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong…) there were several opinion texts in the biggest newspaper in Finland. One of them quoted a 16-year-old girl who had just started a school in Helsinki trusting she could travel from her home in Inkoo to Helsinki with a train every day. Schools in Helsinki are considered rather prestigious (whether there’s a reason to that I cannot attest for as I went to school over 300kms away) and she obviously wants to attend a good school to get to a good university slightly easier (this point is kinda true because schools in Helsinki have a wider curriculum than for example my little school in the countryside).

Anyway, the opinion writer told the public that the girl had been freaking out and crying in the train while speaking on the phone because after hearing the decision she thought she’d made a huge mistake and would have to quit the school just because she couldn’t commute anymore. I doubt she is the only one.

Finland has a lot of train track laid down and several stations along them where trains no longer stop due to imagined savings. I have no definite numbers, but I could imagine that if a train did stop in all the abandoned stations we as a nation could cut back on our carbon dioxide emissions.

Where commercial traffic is concerned I was on the other hand rather worried when I read a news article where one of the commenters thought Finland didn’t need any domestic heavy traffic. I think he thought we could replace all freight trucks and rigs and whatever they are called by electric cars or trucks or train transport.

With distances as great as we have in Finland that is totally surreal. I know several truck drivers in my personal life or trough my employment, and should everything be operated through train or electric trucks no one would – literally – eat in this country.

To think someone really thinks that way this time and age is jarring. I cannot wrap my head around that kind of stupid (and trust me, at work I meet insanely stupid people every day). It’s just like… what on EARTH did I just read?!

I care for the environment enough to not own a car (my husband has one and he’s the only one of us who has a driver’s license) and either walk or commute wherever I go. I only buy domestic food whenever I can. I turn off the lights when I leave the room – or sit in near darkness most of the time: TV and/or computer screen produce more than enough light to get around. I dream of a house that doesn’t need to be heated with electricity and where even water is heated without electric power – like the one my parents live in. I know people who grow and butcher their own meat (and I wish I was one of them). I think leather and fur (& linen & cotton) are a more ecological choice than synthetic fabric and I’m not ashamed.

To consider that we as a race should take time to save our planet and that the decision-makers still decide against it… no matter what they promise in international convetions… That just makes me sick to my stomach.

Please just try to be more sensible than those who spend our money for us. Do that one little thing for Planet Earth.

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Possible targets pt. 1

I’ve yet a few more promising star systems to research, but let’s split the post in two. So, without further ado…

Alpha Centauri

  • 4,37 light years away
  • three star system, Alpha Centauri A and B and Proxima Centauri
    • Alpha Centauri A has 110% mass and 151,9% luminosity of the Sun, yellow in color
    • B has 90,7% mass and 44,5% luminosity, orange in color
    • Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf
  • Slightly older than the Sun, 4,5-7 billion years
  • planets:
    • Alpha Centauri B has one planet, 20,4 day orbit time; too close for life. Possibility of other planets in the habitable zone (0,5-0,9 AU)

Barnard’s Star

  • 6 light years away
  • low-mass red dwarf
  • 7-12 billion years old
  • 0,14 solar mass, 15-20% of the Sun’s radius
  • planets in the habitable zone would be very close to the star and suffer from solar flares etc.

Sirius

  • 6 light years away
  • consists of Sirius A and B
    • A is about twice the size of the Sun
    • B is a white dwarf
  • 2-300 million years old
  • orbit each other in 50,1 years
  • no confirmed planets

Epsilon Eridani

  • 10,5 light years away
  • at least one giant planet in orbit, 2 asteroid belts. May have another planet within a dust belt
  • 82% of the Sun’s mass, 74% of the Sun’s radius, 34% luminosity
  • presence of a large planet at a close proximity to the star makes finding a planet in the habitable zone (0,5-1,4 AU) unlikely

Tau Ceti

  • 78% of the Sun’s mass, 79,5% radius, 55% luminosity
  • planets:
    • possibly five in orbit, all larger than Earth
    • orbit periods 14-640 days
    • two of those in the habitable zone
    • debris risk about ten times greater than in our solar system, makes life unlikely in the system

Propulsion

So, a few words on my propulsion research.

I don’t really think this is everything possible said on the subject, likely I’m only glancing at the tip of the iceberg. However, I really doubt I should ever go into too much detail on mechanics and mathematics behind the actual function of whatever propulsion method I choose to use (the really nitpicky technical details are something I quite often just glace through when reading Sci-Fi) ’cause not that many people would understand them or appreciate them.

You know, all that stuff is just a bit heavy on the brain. And I’m sure not just my brain. Boring people to death with technical details is not really what I’m after with this story, although I think I should drop the occasional line about the matter that would actually be true and/or plausible.

So, on to the possible means of moving through space!

Nuclear fission

Ion engine

With this engine, electric power is used to create charged particles of the fuel. The fuel used would usually be Xenon. The charged particles are then accelerated to extremely high velocities.

It’s a rather low force solution, but possible speed is only limited by the power available. What would be used to supply that power is bit of a mystery to me at this point.

The down-side of this solution is that it’s only suitable for interplanetary travel. Perhaps it is suitable for use in some of the smaller spacecraft used after human race has conquered far away systems. Not to be used in my interstellar (intergalactic?) ship.

Fission-electric

This is a very long-lasting engine type at low thrust.

However, it is limited to deep-space operations as it would not be able to leave atmosphere. It would stay in-orbit and landing to planetary surface should be done with smaller, higher-thrust vessels.

Also, it’s not suitable for interstellar travel.

Fission-fragment

Creates high-speed jets of nuclear fragment ejected at about 12000 km/s. In order to reach maximum velocity the reaction mass should consist of fission products.

This type uses a lot of fuel and therefore isn’t all that cost-effective for any long journey (the fuel I assume would take quite some room).

Nuclear pulse

Driven forward by series of nuclear explosions.With fusion-antimatter catalyst this one could reach 10% of the speed of light. If instead a pure matter-antimatter annihilation rockets were used, this could theoretically achieve 50-80% of the speed of light.

The problem with this system would be slowing down: either about 50% of the fuel would need to be saved for slowing down or alternate solutions need to be used. For this purpose, a magnetic sail has been proposed.

Project Daedalus from 1970s took the idea a bit further. The plan was to use externally triggered inertial confinement fusion. What this means is that fusion explosions are produces via compressing fusion fuel pellets with electron beams. Also laser, ion beams, neutral particle beams and hyperkinetic projectiles have been suggested in place of electron beams.

Nuclear fusion rockets

Can reach up to 10% of the speed of light. With enough fusion stages could reach close to the speed of light.

Antimatter rockets

If energy resources and efficient production methods to make antimatter in quantities needed are found and the antimatter could be stored safely, this propulsion method could theoretically reach speeds of several tens of percents of that of light.

So, the problem really is that 1) we don’t have the energy resources to make enough antimatter, 2) we can’t do it efficiently currently even if we had the energy and 3) we don’t know how to store it.

Then there’s the fact that at the annihilation of antimatter quite a bit of energy is lost to gamma radiation and neutrinos. Just because of the radiation some sort of shielding methods would be needed to protect passengers and cargo.

As far as I gather this would still be a better choice (if we forget the radiation) as about 40% of mc² would be available. With nuclear fusion it’s only 1%. If the loss of fuel to radiation and neutrinos could be prevented the number could be higher.

Speculated methods

Just a list. Might revise to expand on these later.

  • quark matter
  • Hawking radiation rockets
  • faster-than-light travel
  • Alcubierre drive

So, there are quite a few choices. I can’t lie and say I’d understand much of what I’ve read on the matter and therefore decided to focus on the parts I’m actually sure I got (or think I understood, whichever is closer).

Should have paid more attention in my physiscs classes…

 

Why I started writing

I’ve always had an active imagination, maybe due exactly to the fact I was read to and read a lot.

Ever since we started doing writing excersises in school, freeform, I’ve written fictional stories. As far as I recall, I never had quite enough time to finish these little stories (4-5 pages in a kid’s handwriting), but I think there was one or two I did finish.

Habitually, these were among the stories the teacher wanted to read aloud for the class, which was an awful experience. I liked to write the stories but I hated the attention. (And read aloud it all sounded like a steaming pile of crap.)

It might have been seventh grade when I started writing my (then) magnum opus, and when we finally had the chance to write a freeform essay later that year I wrote a 12-page short story related to that universe. I liked it and counted it among the finest pieces I’d written so far. The teacher we had then hated it and made some rather rude remarks in front of the whole class.

Needless to say, after that I made sure none of my works got read in public again, and it worked quite well. Then, we had this class where the teacher wanted us to write articles for the local paper (read by 3-4000 people or so)  and she suggested I take part.

Luckily, it was nothing like writing short stories and so a friend of mine and me did a large two-page spread about fantasy. I’ve no longer the paper, which is probably for the best as from what I recall it was teensy and humiliating to read, though at the time we were rather proud of ourselves. We got a pretty diploma for that and that friend went on to study journalism.

All the while my head kept producing all these great (or not-so-great) ideas I just had to put to paper. My magnum opus reached at it’s peak 180 or so pages, all still stashed on my hard-drive and printed out in all its crappy glory. It is really not a prime piece of literature, but it really is what I spent my youth on… and maybe some day I’ll pick it up, edit it (a lot) and see if I could finish it. It has some pretty sound ideas deep under all the preposterous crap, even if it was written by a teenager.

During the years I noticed it’s really easy to start writing a story, but really very very hard to finish one, even when I know exactly how I’d want it to end. I still know how I’d like to finish my magnum opus, and some instinct tells me I could really finish it if I could wade through all that teenage angst put on paper and cut out the unnecessities. And really flesh out my silly characters.

When I finally graduated all them schools one has to go to these days to get employed my writing time dimished. I’ve never after high school written as much as I did during those few years.

It was years ago when my friend showed me a site for fanfiction writers. She was really into it and read a lot (even some stories so shitty I couldn’t get past the first chapter – some are just written bad and some writers have never heard of spell-check or grammar). I read some too, ideas springing to my mind, and couple years ago decided it was finally a time to actually finish something I start.

If only life was ever so easy. I wrote that story for about year and a half, updating pretty regularly. Then, last spring, I got severe pains to my right hand from my work. Turns out heavy manual labor wasn’t really my thing no matter how much I liked it.

The doctors told me the bones in my wrist and palm were in danger of pulverizing; that I had chronic tendonitis; that the tendon that goes from wrist to elbow is split permanently in the middle. The hand surgeon that consulted my case told me she’d ever only seen cases as bad on professional gymnasts. During the six first months after my diagnosis I could write nothing by hand and only a sentence or two with a computer.

Last month I finally got a clear bill of health as far as my bones are concerned. The tendonitis has left me with some trouble moving my hand and fingers – it gives me pain if I try to do certain things or do something for too long. I can no longer carry anything heavy with my right hand without fearing I’ll drop it any moment.

Luckily, the readers of my fic have been very patient with me. (Try and write a story while only being able to do it two sentences at a time and having to erase 500-1000 words every now and then when you realise it’s complete bullshit). Still gonna get there – there’s nothing I hate more than stories I like going forever unfinished. I’m not going to be that person.

When I’m done with my fic I think I’ll start sketching this story I’ve mentioned here previously. My own little space odyssey. It may take me a very long while, but not writing has never been an option. I’m sure you know the feeling.

Reading

I’ve seen a lot of discussion lately about how younger generations read less and less. A few weeks ago a large local newspaper had an opinion text written by a 15-year-old girl about how reading is considered “lame” among her peers and people reading books are geeks or nerds.

That made me quite sad. When I was her age, years ago, I read every chance I got. The man who used to drive a bus and worked at the local library once told my aunt he was sure I’d read half the library. I wish, really. For such a small place, that library was (and is) awesome.

Ever since I learned to read when I was six years old I’ve read a lot. My mother would read me a bedtime story every night until I was competent enough a reader to read myself (and of course, she or my father would read to me otherwise as well, but not every day). After I learned to read all by myself, my mother had to remind me to actually start sleeping and not read the whole night.

I had dozens of children’s books and compilations of fairy tales – which my mother has all kept, waiting for me to have children of my own. Perhaps in time I will fill that collection with books of today (although I can tell you from watching my nephews and niece and their books that those are not so great as the books of my own childhood – rose-tinted glasses?).

I used to correct my dad’s reading (he has a very strong accent and says some words funny because of it), but that never took away from the fact I enjoyed those little moments with my parents; me in my nighties and them reading aloud with me until I went to sleep. I have a very strong recollection of my dad reading me a Nancy Drew -book – that must have been when I was already in school – and me telling him over and over that the word was kid-napping, not whatever it was he said.

That time has left me with an unquenchable love for books; I love to read them, to handle them, to share their words of wisdom. And I cannot deny enjoying buying them – perhaps a bit too much at times (468 and counting).

It is no wonder then, that I worry the kids of today won’t get to enjoy the same experiences I so cherish: the sound of your parent reading, the feel of the pages, the build-up of a good story. I hope, though, that the electronic world of today will not too much distance the younger generations from the enjoyment that is the written word.

And just after my worry was starting to peak (despite the words of encouragement of that 15-year-old who loved to read), the paper had another news story about reading. More and more grown-ups had started to visit one local library to get coaching (or tutoring, the article is not in English and I’m translating on the run) on reading. There is one librarian who speaks with the people interested and suggests them books they might like to read. Both sit down and talk about what the other person liked to read and what not. Then the librarian gives suggestions and when they meet again the tutored tells her whether they liked them or not or whether they left them unfinished and gets more suggestions.

A wonderful idea I wished was used more. I love to recommend books I’ve read (and loaning them out, though I try to cut back on that because getting them back can be a hassle – thanks a lot to the person who stole my Dark Tower books). My husband is yet to pick up a single book I’ve recommended, but then, he has trouble concentrating and my taste for smart reading and long literary experience tend to produce some heavy-to-read suggestions. My parents love their Christmas present books though (crime for dad, romance/drama for mom). Last year I bought my mom the Anthony Doerr book that was just then translated to Finnish – mom loved it, dad hated it (but hey, that was why I gave dad a Jo Nesbø).

I think part of the worry is publishers lobbying for traditional books. Much of writing and publishing has transferred over to the internet (and books are even shared illegally as torrent files!). I bet it’s quite hard to try and keep the book market afloat with so much free written material of all kinds that can be found online. And quite a percent of it is actually pretty good (or in some cases better than many actual books I’ve read)!

It might not be then, that popularity of reading is on the decline, it might just be the popularity of the traditional media. I of course see that as a bit problematic, because I love the smell and feel of an actual book. It is not the end of the world, though.

Do you like to read? What is your favorite book? Do you feel the popularity of books and/or reading is declining (and why)? Please, do tell.

 

Space travel research pt. 1

So, thus far what I’ve found out is that we aren’t likely to travel interstellar distances for at least a hundred years yet. There are a few factors leading to this, mainly distance, power supply and interstellar matter.

Distance

One AU is the distance between Sun and the Earth, that is 150 million kilometers. One light year is 63,241 AU. One light years is the distance light travels in one year (and the speed is 300 000 km/s). The distance to the closest star to us, Proxima Centauri, is 268,332 Astronomical Units (AU), or 4,3 light years.

Wherever my heroes and heroines are headed, the way is long and fraught with peril.

Power supply

The amount of energy the ship would need to move and to stop is another huge issue. There are already some technologies that could carry us to the stars, but none of them is at the moment very fast.

I’ll do another post on this subject later. There is a lot more to propulsion and spacecraft “engines” than I ever thought possible. If only I could understand the math behind some of this stuff, but alas, I can’t.

Humps on the road

The third issue is interstellar matter: dust and other small objects that would be colliding with our spacecraft. Because of the high speeds we would need the particles would hit us very hard and could be potentially very dangerous.

The craft ought to have some form of protection from these particles. Need to delve deeper into the matter to find out what can be done to it. Maybe I’ll have to go through the traditional sci-fi routes of ignoring or installing “force-shields” of some sort.

Encouragement

There are several stars not too far from our solar system that have planet or planets close enough to the main star to be able to support life. The furthest potential star thus far, Vega, is about 25 light years away, but that is not unreachable if other issues are solved first.

To be quite honest, the more I learn by reading on the subject, the more I want to know. It’s no news that the space is huge, but boy, are there a lot of things that need to be taken into consideration I had never thought of!

The research phase might be a long one, but hey, at least I’ll be learning something new every day. Space is really an untold adventure, and I feel that when I can grasp the basic principles of distance and space-travel I’m on to a great start. Obviously, when my ship will evetually land, I really need a refresher course on exoplanets (and god knows what else).

What is required to travel to outer space?

This is pretty much the first question I’ll need to answer to transfer my human subjects realistically to my own galaxy far far away.

Obviously, the ship will require a power source capable of moving a massive ship for a very long distance at a very high speed. Do I want to have my humans live through several generations during the ship, should I go for stasis solution or wormhole travel?

I know they’d need to have some sort of vegetable garden – or several – within the ship. Should I also take chicken aboard – a source of protein and doesn’t require as much food as larger livestock. The chicken would also provide a natural fertilizer to use in the gardens. In that respect, perhaps a few pigs or goats might be a good investment also, although then you’d need to invest also in room available. And, especially if travel takes many generations, breeding the animals.

Of course, the ship will have to have room for a large number of people. It will need cooking facilities, communal space for rest and recreation, a gym… And one of the most important things, control room. Maybe I should draw myself some maps of what it could be like? I need to have a clear impression on where they’re going, what are they likely to see on the way, etc.

There is also the need for personnel. A captain, control room staff, engineers for maintenance, computer techs, all sort of managerial staff to handle the day-to-day life of the ship (food use, waste management…), doctors, people to work the gardens, with the possible animals, cooking, if I’m going for the generation travel, teachers are of vital importance… A ton of tasks, so no one should really be unemployed.

If we go for the stasis solution, most of the points above would be moot. I doubt I’d go for stasis, because it kind of removes the “journey” part of the journey story. ‘They went to stasis and woke up a week before they found a good planet.’  Stasis would, however, make this last part very interesting.

How do we choose who goes and who stays? The best and brightest of their fields? An even mix of all cultures and beliefs, all chosen for their abilities to colonize new worlds. This should really give a good chance to explore human psyche and behavior in writing. It’ll also pose a great challenge to create so many individuals and trying to act as they would as representatives of different cultures.

That leads to the next question: how soon in the future am I setting their departure date? If they depart a hundred years from now, world might be drastically different.

In any case, I will have to do some research in many cultures should I go for the multicultural approach, just to avoid stereotypes.

Lets see what happens to the preliminary listing I just presented when I put a bit of study time into some of these questions. I fear this will just be the tip of the iceberg: there is a great deal I don’t know in the field of mechanics and technology, and I don’t really want to make huge mistakes. Glossing over in broad terms isn’t always the way to go, it just sometime points ever clearer towards a lack of knowledge in an area.

Next, I think, I need a list on subjects to refresh my knowledge on. I might do a post about useful research material and some pointers I got from that.