29 July 2007
SETI League
PriUPS Project

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Preventing Day Ruination

There are any number of things that can ruin your day.  Picking two, neither at random nor in any particular order, are:

  • Getting a speeding ticket from a cop operating a radar trap

  • Being vaporized by a nuclear explosion caused by a terrorist atomic weapon

Yes, I know what you're thinking.  If you get the speeding ticket first, and are later vaporized, you won't have to pay the ticket.  True, but very improbable.  Most likely you will get the ticket and other people will be vaporized, and many people's days will be ruined, not yours alone.

Percolating for years in my alleged brain have been potential ways of preventing either sort of day ruination.  The first was something that occurred to me about a decade ago, and I never bothered to patent it or do anything with it.  I still haven't seen anyone make use of the idea, but I can't believe that it isn't being worked on somewhere.  The second is more recent, and wouldn't have been as practical a decade ago.  I don't remember the date, but presumably it was post 9/11.  Both involve one of my favorite utilities, the Global Positioning System.  Both are, I think, practical.  The first is a project for a manufacturer or even a motivated individual.  The second will require a lot of work on the part of the government.  I hope they're up to the challenge.

Avoiding Speeding Tickets

One reason this hasn't been in my mind recently is that I've stopped speeding.  Not that I ever was a real leadfoot; the bumper sticker "Warning - I drive like you do" was essentially true.  But since I got my Prius and developed a good-gas-mileage obsession I keep to the limit.  However, I've observed that you still drive like you do.  So you need protection.  Radar speed traps work by bouncing a microwave signal off your vehicle and measuring the return frequency, which is proportional to your speed.  In order to receive the return signal, your vehicle must be "illuminated" by the direct signal, which will always be stronger than the return.  This means that a radar receiver in your car can detect the police radar before the radar gun itself hears the reflection, often in enough time for you to slow down (if you're you) or to ignore it (if you're me).

A problem with this simple scenario is that there are many other sources of "radar" signals.  Microwave intrusion alarms, traffic counters affixed to highway lighting, and other "incidental radiators" all trigger your radar detector.  If there are a number of these on your route, your detector will beep so often that you will tend to ignore it, which will lead you astray when you encounter a true radar trap.  This is especially the case if your brain is in commuting-haze mode.  Although radar detector manufacturers claim that their detectors avoid "false alarms," the fact is that they can do so with only limited success.  The "City/Highway" switch, for example, reduces the sensitivity of the detector so that you are less likely to detect burglar alarms.  But it also reduces sensitivity to a real trap.

My idea is to add a GPS receiver to the radar detector.  That and a microcomputer that would "profile" the radar environment of your trip.  Of course the first time you're in an area there would be no profile, and the radar detector would beep just as it would without the GPS.  But when you travel the same route a second or additional times, the GPS/microcomputer would have identified fixed signals.  If it always receives a signal as it passes a particular point, it could measure the strength and frequency of that signal, and unless either changes on a subsequent trip, it would not beep, because the signal is a false alarm.  What if a cop knows about the spot and decides to set up a trap?  No problem!  The signal strength and frequency of the police radar signal is likely to be very different, and an alert will be issued.  If a new signal subsequently is detected on a familiar route, it most likely is a speed trap and a beep will issue forth.    There are obvious enhancements and subtleties to this profiling strategy.  Perhaps I'll expatiate on this idea at greater length in a future blogitem, but I'd like to move on to my second subject. 

Avoiding Vaporization

One of the legitimate functions of government, even the USDUC, is protecting us from atomic and radiation weapons wielded by terrorists.  As a good citizen, if you were to see a pile of suspicious radioactive material, you would certainly call up the government and tell them where it is.  The two problems with this are that you can't actually see radiation, and, if you're like me, you often don't know where you are.  Radioactive material may be hard to recognize, especially if it's in a box or otherwise hidden.  Add to this the fact that "special nuclear material" the stuff atomic bombs is made from isn't all that radioactive.  (If it were, there would be difficulty in "assembling" the weapon and you wouldn't get as big an explosion.)  On the other hand, the material used to make a "dirty bomb" can be very radioactive indeed, and easily detectable if not well shielded.  How can GPS help us find any of this stuff?

With a little help from us.  We all carry electronic gadgets with us.  When I originally had this notion, I was thinking "iPod," but in the subsequent years and with the implementation of GPS or other location technology in almost all cell phones, I think they are a better, if not necessarily exclusive, vehicle for the Citizens Radiation Auxiliary Patrol scheme.  You should be ahead of me by now:  You think I'm going to suggest putting Geiger counters in our cell phones and having them call home when they detect something.  You couldn't have said it better yourself!  That's exactly what I'm suggesting.  Well, not exactly exactly, but very close to exactly.

As I mentioned, there are two hazards:  Atomic bombs made with slightly radioactive material, such as highly enriched uranium or plutonium, and "dirty bombs" which are conventional explosives designed to disperse highly radioactive material over an area.  What is called "radiation" in the lay press is actually a number of different phenomena.  There's actual "radiation" gamma rays and x-rays, which are high energy, damaging photons, but theoretically akin to ordinary light.  There are also alpha and beta "rays" which are actually subatomic particles.  Both are easy to shield and therefore hard to detect.  Neutrons are also emitted, and are also somewhat difficult to detect, but because they have no charge (the "neut" part) they are harder to shield.  The point of all this is that you can tell a lot about a radioactive source from the characteristics of the radiation.  Unfortunately, it requires specialized equipment that is more a candidate to be carried in a truck than in a cell phone.

Which is why I suggest that this should be a government project.  Detection efficiency, especially at low levels of radiation, is dependent on the technological characteristics of the sensor(s) as well as their size.  Just as a larger telescope can pick out farther and dimmer stars, so can a larger detector find more attenuated or distant sources of radiation.  The challenge for the CRAP coordinators is to come up with a small and cheap detector so that an individual could carry one with him at all times.  It would have to be "slim" and fashionable, and/or integrated with a cell phone he already carries.  As difficult as this may seem, it is not impossible.  In 2004, NIST built an atomic clock whose "inner workings are about the size of a grain of rice."  When you need to make millions of something and have as an incentive the avoidance of personal vaporization, I say it can be done.  The necessarily small size of the detectors is compensated for by their quantity (millions) and ubiquity.

For the rest of the scheme, well, you just go about your business.  If your government-enhanced cell phone detects high radiation levels, or the signature of special nuclear materials, it will phone the authorities immediately.  Otherwise, it will keep a record of the radiation levels in your travels and transfer this to the CRAP computers once a day or whenever convenient.  The computers, in turn, will build a statistical picture of radiation levels and may also put together a pattern that a single detection wouldn't recognize. 

Synergy and Paranoia

There's one-way synergy between the two ideas.  While it's unlikely you will get a speeding ticket while you're on the hoof, it would not be as surprising to find radioactive materials being transported by vehicle.  By combining the radiation and radar detector and even a tiny camera, you could issue an alert, complete with photograph.  The vehicle could be intercepted in minutes.

Of course, with full implementation it means that whether you're walking or driving, the CRAP computers will also have a record of where you've been every minute of the day.  They'd have to "promise" not to use this information for anything but fighting terrorists, which would require a special "law."

Privacy or vaporization?  Just another dilemma for the 21st Century.

NP:  "Out of This World" - Marillion

Richard Factor

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