Crumb Trail
     an impermanent travelogue
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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

37 measures up.

"The people, in exercising their initiative power, were free to enact Measure 37 in furtherance of policy objectives such as compensating landowners for a diminution in property value resulting from certain land use regulations or otherwise relieving landowners from some of the financial burden of certain land use regulations," Oregon's high court wrote last week. "Neither policy is irrational; no one seriously can assert that Measure 37 is not reasonably related to those policy objectives.

"And, that determination is the only one that this court is empowered to make. Whether Measure 37 as a policy choice is wise or foolish, farsighted or blind, is beyond this court's purview. Our only function in any case involving a constitutional challenge to an initiative measure is to ensure that the measure does not contravene any pertinent, applicable constitutional provisions. Here, we conclude that no such provisions have been contravened."

So said the court. The editorial editorialized.
The measure does not prevent governments from "preserving" attractive scenery, wildlife habitat and the like. It merely prevents governments from shuffling the costs of those noble undertakings onto others. If a local Oregon town or county wants to bar the owners of a hilltop farm from selling off part of their property for a subdivision -- in order to maintain the "pretty view" for all the neighbors -- the municipality can either buy the land, or pay the land owner the amount he or she loses by not being allowed to use the property as the owner sees fit.

This is well in keeping with the letter and intent of the federal Fifth Amendment, which requires "just compensation" for any property taken for "public use."

Self-styled "preservationists" moan this will limit their ability to "preserve" all kinds of stuff which they either do not choose or cannot afford to actually buy.

Yes, and laws against bank robbery make it harder for gunmen to accrue the capital they need to live the Life of Riley.

We need to refocus preservation efforts on sensible measures consistent with a self-ruled society. We got side tracked for a few decades on cheap and easy solutions that trampled liberty and degraded society because power had been seized by poorly educated shallow thinkers who failed to grasp the harm they were doing with their unthinking zealotry.

We also need to realize that zealotry is not a sign of deep concern so much as an indicator of laziness, and in a real sense a lack of deep concern. Those who examine our problems and desires more closely easily see that the prescriptions of the zealous are thoughtless and will make matters worse; different and worse.

This isn't over. The zealots will not suddenly become wise and caring. Hopefully this example will be discussed widely so that a larger number can grapple with the implications and do the difficult work of reconciling our conflicting desires in a just way.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

It's a dead common trope in SF to have biofactories that produce all sorts of wonders, but it is still an infant science despite being quite ancient. Beer, woad, and a variety of cultured foods have been around for along time. Progress seems to be accelerating.

The new strain of algae, known as C. reinhardtii, has truncated chlorophyll antennae within the chloroplasts of the cells, which serves to increase the organism's energy efficiency. In addition, it makes the algae a lighter shade of green, which in turn allows more sunlight deeper into an algal culture and therefore allows more cells to photosynthesize.

"An increase in solar conversion efficiency to 10 percent ... is thought to be enough to make the mass culture of algae viable," . . .

Currently, the algae cells cycle between photosynthesis and hydrogen production because the hydrogenase enzyme which makes the hydrogen can’t function in the presence of oxygen. Researchers hope to further boost hydrogen production by using genetic engineering to close up pores that oxygen seeps through.

Melis got involved in this research when he and Michael Seibert, a scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, figured out how to get hydrogen out of green algae by restricting sulfur from their diet. The plant cells flicked a long-dormant genetic switch to produce hydrogen instead of carbon dioxide. But the quantities of hydrogen they produced were nowhere near enough to scale up the process commercially and profitably.

"When we discovered the sulfur switch, we increased hydrogen production by a factor of 100,000," says Seibert. "But to make it a commercial technology, we still had to increase the efficiency of the process by another factor of 100."

Melis’ truncated antennae mutants are a big step in that direction. Now Seibert and others (including James Lee at Oak Ridge National Laboratories and J. Craig Venter at the Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland) are trying to adjust the hydrogen-producing pathway so that it can produce hydrogen 100 percent of the time.

This is important I think since the key limitation of biofuels at present is that they are based on a 1% efficient process, which is about the median for plants. 99% of the solar energy that falls on them isn't used. But 10% efficiency rivals a low end solar cell.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Hot-rock mining.

Two or more wells are drilled into hot bedrock, and the intervening bedrock is fractured with hydraulic blasts. Brine is then pumped into one or more injection wells, and it flows through the rock to one or more production wells, heating up as it travels. When the salty water reaches the surface of a production well, its heat is bled off to produce power or to be used for area heating, then returned to the injection wells.

Despite its simplicity, this concept has failed several times. In the 1970s, a pioneering project initiated by Los Alamos National Laboratory demonstrated that one could fracture rock and circulate brine to extract heat. But that project could never get enough brine in -- and therefore enough heat out -- to make the process competitive with conventional power plants burning fossil fuels such as coal or natural gas.

Gunnar Grecksch, a geophysicist and hot-rock fracturing expert at the Leibniz Institute for Applied Geosciences in Hanover, Germany, says follow-on efforts in the U.K. and Japan failed for the same reason: the fracturing of the rocks was never sufficient. "Flow resistance is still the key problem," he says. "In none of these projects were the flow rates in the range you need for a commercial system." . . .

The key to its success to date has been painstaking geological analysis, which ensures they position their wells to hit the right rocks. In 1997, after ten years of work, the project demonstrated impressive flow rates, moving brine heated to 140 degrees Centigrade at a rate of 25 liters per second and a depth of 3.6 kilometers. And the resistance was less than half that encountered at Los Alamos.

That positive result emboldened the project's leaders to push their wells deeper, into 200-degree Centigrade granite five kilometers deep -- and last fall they finally turned on the taps. Daniel Fritsch, project coordinator, says the system "could probably do 40 to 50 liters per second" with the addition of pumps that will be installed in the wells this summer -- another kind of technological challenge given the punishing temperatures involved, which few pumps are capable of withstanding. Then the plan is to build a pilot electrical plant by early 2007 to generate 1.5 megawatts, about the same output as one of today's towering wind turbines. But the hot-rock plant won't go idle every time the wind dies down, and should produce about three times more energy per year.

Fritsch says that to cover the cost of its equipment and to generate a profit, however, the project should produce closer to five megawatts. To produce more power, however, they must more than double the flow rate, to around 100 liters/second, which could be a challenge due to the large amount of shaking their blasts cause on the surface. Lawsuits from some disgruntled citizens claiming property damage have limited Fritsch's willingness to use stronger hydraulic blasts. To many local people, though, it seems like much ado about nothing. Local journalist Bernard Stéphan, who lives two kilometers from the project's ground zero, says his home has not been affected by the blasts. And Soultz-sous-Fôrets mayor Alfred Schmitt says "There is no problem."

Nevertheless, instead of using stronger hydraulic blasts to open the rocks further, Fritsch plans to complement the blasting with a new method: pouring acid in the wells. The idea is to dissolve salt deposits in the fractures immediately surrounding the wells. Fritsch says that tests in Italy with acid have improved the functioning of some geothermal wells by a factor of 10.

I wonder what the energy return on energy invested, including embodied energy, might be? It's in France where we couldn't find out even if everyone tried to help since everything is skewed beyond comprehension. Actually, that's always true, but less so elsewhere.


In a quantum computation sort of way.

Using an optical-based quantum computer, a research team led by physicist Paul Kwiat has presented the first demonstration of "counterfactual computation," inferring information about an answer, even though the computer did not run. . .

Sometimes called interaction-free measurement, quantum interrogation is a technique that makes use of wave-particle duality (in this case, of photons) to search a region of space without actually entering that region of space.

Utilizing two coupled optical interferometers, nested within a third, Kwiat's team succeeded in counterfactually searching a four-element database using Grover's quantum search algorithm. "By placing our photon in a quantum superposition of running and not running the search algorithm, we obtained information about the answer even when the photon did not run the search algorithm," said graduate student Onur Hosten, lead author of the Nature paper. "We also showed theoretically how to obtain the answer without ever running the algorithm, by using a 'chained Zeno' effect."

Through clever use of beam splitters and both constructive and destructive interference, the researchers can put each photon in a superposition of taking two paths. Although a photon can occupy multiple places simultaneously, it can only make an actual appearance at one location. Its presence defines its path, and that can, in a very strange way, negate the need for the search algorithm to run.

"In a sense, it is the possibility that the algorithm could run which prevents the algorithm from running . . .


Some problems require your attention.

The neurohormone ghrelin, best known for its role in appetite and energy metabolism, also influences learning and memory, according to a new study in Nature Neuroscience. Specifically, Sabrina Diano of Yale University School of Medicine and her colleagues found that high levels of ghrelin in rodents can alter hippocampal morphology and improve performance on memory and learning tasks. This pattern may have provided an evolutionary advantage, the authors speculate, by boosting memory skills during food searches when animals are hungry. . .

Learning and memory may be enhanced by high levels of ghrelin during food deprivation because animals need increased cognitive skills to track down food sources, Diano told The Scientist.

However, Steiner cautioned that the researchers injected a concentration of ghrelin that’s several orders of magnitude above what would be found in the bloodstream, which means that normal fluctuations in ghrelin due to food deprivation may have nothing to do with learning or memory.

Ghrelin is also produced in the brain, suggesting that differences seen in ghrelin knockouts may be due to disrupted ghrelin expression there, rather than in the stomach, Christian Broberger of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, also not a co-author, told The Scientist in an Email.

It’s also a bit surprising that ghrelin would have positive effects on learning and memory, according to David E. Cummings of the University of Washington, because the hormone insulin has also been shown to improve learning and memory, and ghrelin and insulin usually have opposite effects.

Even if ghrelin fluctuations do not normally influence memory, Steiner said, high doses of ghrelin or an analog could still make good candidates for treatment of age-related memory problems. “I’m more enthusiastic about the pharmacologic and pharmacotherapeutic implications of the study than I am about whether or not the physiological arguments that they developed are true.”

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

We don't always believe what our eyes tell us.

Computer-generated vision has shown that viewing a scene with two eyes, or walking around it, provides enough information to calculate its 3D structure. To find out how far away things are by this method, however, requires knowledge of the separation of the eyes or the distance walked. There is good evidence that the human visual system uses both these pieces of information when making judgments of 3D size, shape, and distance.

In the new work, performed at the University of Oxford, Dr. Andrew Glennerster and colleagues use an immersive virtual-reality display to show that the human visual system cannot be carrying out the same type of 3D reconstruction that is used in computer vision. People experiencing the virtual-reality display failed to notice when the virtual scene around them quadrupled in size as they walked around, and, as a result, they made gross errors in judging the size of objects. Intriguingly, these results imply that observers are more willing to adjust their estimate of the separation between the eyes or the distance walked than to accept that the scene around them has changed in size. More broadly, these findings mark a significant shift in the debate about the way in which the brain forms a stable representation of the world--that is, the world as it is perceived to exist independent of head and eye movements.

If things appeared to quadruple in size as I walked around I'd lay down and rest, assuming that my systems were out of whack since things like that don't happen. Often.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Pulsed terawatt lasers create some surprising effects when shone through the air—including the channeling of light.

The fact that the Kerr effect can transform a high-power infrared laser into a remote source of white light opens the door to a number of exciting applications. For example, the tendency for some of the light to be reflected backward suggests that we could create an artificial "guide star" for use in adjusting astronomical telescopes equipped with adaptive optics. But there are other nonlinear optical effects of the Teramobile laser that can be exploited as well. One is something called multiphoton fluorescence.

In normal fluorescence, a substance, say the phosphor powder that coats the inside of a fluorescent lamp, absorbs high-energy photons (typically in the ultraviolet) and releases lower-energy photons (having, usually, visible-light wavelengths). In multiphoton fluorescence, two or more low-energy photons are absorbed simultaneously, raising an electron's energy level enough to allow a single high-energy photon to be given off when the electron returns to its original state. But because the chance of an atom absorbing two photons at once is quite low, light of very high intensity (that is, containing a very large number of photons) is needed. The pulsed Teramobile laser provides just such light, which proves a great boon for remotely sensing certain compounds using the phenomenon of multiphoton fluorescence.

In a 2002 experiment, my colleagues and I showed that the Teramobile beam and detection apparatus could sense biological aerosols at a distance. The motivation was to be able to map a cloud, say, of bacteria (perhaps given off during some industrial mishap or even a biological attack) and to identify potentially pathogenic agents among the various background atmospheric aerosols, among which may be more mundane organic particles such as soot or pollen.

Our test used water droplets sized to mimic bacteria and laced with the compound riboflavin, which fluoresces at visible wavelengths when it absorbs two infrared photons, producing a characteristic spectrum in the backscattered light. The experiment, carried out on a cloud located about 45 meters from the Teramobile laser, showed that it was easy to distinguish such a plume from a cloud of pure water droplets. With refinement, this technique could, potentially, be quite sensitive. We calculated that a laser tuned to excite two-photon fluorescence in the amino acid tryptophan would boost sensitivity by a factor of 10, allowing concentrations of as little as 10 bacteria per cubic centimeter to be detected 4 kilometers away. Although lidar systems based on normal fluorescence could also be used to probe for biological agents, the laser employed would have to operate at a shorter wavelength and thus be more prone to attenuation, limiting the distance over which it could function effectively.

The ability of laser filaments to deliver high-intensity light at substantial distances also opens the door to other very interesting applications. For example, it becomes possible to conduct elemental analyses of the surfaces of metals, plastics, minerals or liquids from an appreciable distance, using a variation of a technique called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy. For that, a powerful laser is focused on the material of interest, causing some of it to be transformed into plasma. The emission spectrum of the glowing plasma can then be analyzed, revealing the nature of the substrate, with a detection limit that can be as little as a few parts per million for some elements. This method is currently used for such applications as the identification of highly radioactive nuclear waste and for monitoring the composition of molten alloys, because the tests can be performed without having to touch the sample. Imagine being able to do such probing from a large distance away! Normally, diffraction limits the intensity of light that can be focused on a remote target. But laser filaments can deliver intensities that are higher than the ablation threshold of many types of materials, at distances of hundreds of meters or even kilometers.

Another application under investigation may prove more spectacular yet—the control of lightning strikes. Lightning has always fascinated people, in part because of its unpredictable nature and destructive power—qualities that make these electrical discharges very difficult to study. Investigators from Electricité de France and CEA partially overcame those obstacles in the 1970s, when they developed a technique to trigger lightning on command using small rockets trailing thin wires. If shot upward at the right moment, the rockets and the wires they unspooled behind them served to initiate and channel the flow of electric current.

This is the death ray to go with the cloaking device mentioned below.


New transparent material created by entanglement.

Researchers from Imperial College London and the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland, have pioneered the technique which could be used to see through rubble at earthquake sites, or look at parts of the body obscured by bone.

The effect is based on the development of a new material that exploits the way atoms in matter move, to make them interact with a laser beam in an entirely new way.

The work is based on a breakthrough which contradicts Einstein's theory that in order for a laser to work, the light-amplifying material it contains, usually a crystal or glass, must be brought to a state known as 'population inversion'. This refers to the condition of the atoms within the material, which must be excited with enough energy to make them emit rather than absorb light.

Quantum physicists, however, have long predicted that by interfering with the wave-patterns of atoms, light could be amplified without population inversion. This has previously been demonstrated in the atoms of gases but has not before been shown in solids.

In order to make this breakthrough, the team created specially patterned crystals only a few billionths of a metre in length that behaved like 'artificial atoms'. When light was shone into the crystals, it became entangled with the crystals at a molecular level rather than being absorbed, causing the material to become transparent. . .

The team also discovered that as light passes through this new material, it slows right down and could potentially be completely stopped and stored.

hmmm, there's a cloaking device in there somewhere.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

I don't think that this is definitive - that they really grok terra preta - but it's what we have so far.

Lehmann, who studies bio-char and is the first author of the 2003 book "Amazonian Dark Earths: Origin, Properties, Management," the first comprehensive overview of the black soil, said that the super-fertile soil was produced thousands of years ago by indigenous populations using slash-and-char methods instead of slash-and-burn. Terra preta was studied for the first time in 1874 by Cornell Professor Charles Hartt.

Whereas slash-and-burn methods use open fires to reduce biomass to ash, slash-and-char uses low-intensity smoldering fires covered with dirt and straw, for example, which partially exclude oxygen.

Slash-and-burn, which is commonly used in many parts of the world to prepare fields for crops, releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Slash-and-char, on the other hand, actually reduces greenhouse gases, Lehmann said, by sequestering huge amounts of carbon for thousands of years and substantially reducing methane and nitrous oxide emissions from soils.

"The result is that about 50 percent of the biomass carbon is retained," Lehmann said. "By sequestering huge amounts of carbon, this technique constitutes a much longer and significant sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide than most other sequestration options, making it a powerful tool for long-term mitigation of climate change. In fact we have calculated that up to 12 percent of the carbon emissions produced by human activity could be offset annually if slash-and-burn were replaced by slash-and-char."

In addition, many biofuel production methods, such as generating bioenergy from agricultural, fish and forestry waste, produce bio-char as a byproduct. "The global importance of a bio-char sequestration as a byproduct of the conversion of biomass to bio-fuels is difficult to predict but is potentially very large," he added.

Applying the knowledge of terra preta to contemporary soil management also can reduce environmental pollution by decreasing the amount of fertilizer needed, because the bio-char helps retain nitrogen in the soil as well as higher levels of plant-available phosphorus, calcium, sulfur and organic matter. The black soil also does not get depleted, as do other soils, after repeated use.

"In other words, producing and applying bio-char to soil would not only dramatically improve soil and increase crop production, but also could provide a novel approach to establishing a significant, long-term sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide," said Lehmann. He noted that what is being learned from terra preta also can help farmers prevent agricultural runoff, promote sustained fertility and reduce input costs.

The char isn't all there is to terra preta, there's a microbial component too that is poorly understood. Still, the concept is valid: intentionally creating char sequesters carbon since it won't decompose and return to the atmosphere quickly. But it will enhance soil by providing a medium for soil chemistry, and improving tilth and water management: it drains when too wet but retains moisture.

Also see Science Brief gives a brief introduction to Terra Preta research at Cornell.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Good News!

Using tests conducted with transgenic mouse models of AD, the investigators have demonstrated that bone marrow-derived microglia infiltrate amyloid plaques and succeed in destroying them most efficiently. These newly-recruited immune cells are specifically attracted by the amyloid proteins that are the most toxic to nerve cells. . .

According to Dr. Rivest, anti-inflammatory drugs should not be administered in cases of Alzheimer's disease, as they interfere with this natural defence mechanism. On the contrary, he adds, a way must be found to stimulate the recruitment of a greater number of bone marrow-derived microglia. . .

Dr. Serge Rivest's team also had recourse to genetic engineering, in order to manufacture microglia that can anchor themselves more solidly to plaques and that are equipped with enzymes with more efficient plaque-destroying capability.

"Stem cells should be harvested from the patients themselves, thus limiting the risks of both rejection and adverse effects," says Dr. Rivest. "While this cellular therapy will not prevent Alzheimer's, by curbing plaque development, we believe that it will help patients prolong their autonomy and cognitive capacity. We believe that this is new and powerful weapon in the fight to conquer Alzheimer's."

Don, a friend's father, has AD. His memory is stuck in his youth, the WWII years. He can, and will, talk your ears off about those days and spends his days listening to really good swing music such as he loved in those days. He was a pilot in the war and has good stories. That and the music make him fun to be with for a while so long as I don't get too squicked out about the fact that he thinks that we just met or that I have never heard those stories before, and that he can't remember my name. He knows something is wrong, but he can't put his finger on what it is. Telling him doesn't help, it doesn't stick. His elder son became a pilot too, and retired after 20 years to Australia where he is a semi-geeky computer hacker. The younger son was a semi-pro baseball player and now a small beer cattle rancher.

Old Macintosh, the fellow that used to run a small feedlot in Frazier valley not too far from here, has it too. His stories are all about the feed business back in the day, and his patent methods for making money in the biz. He talks your ears off too but the stories are about mean spirited money grubbing, ways to swindle other people and "double your money". He says that after a pause, with great gravity, as if it was a profound truth. His son runs a "home finance" company, one of those outfits that charges 25% interest on loans to dirt poor people who happen to have an asset, such as a home, that can be seized if they default.

It's just anecdotes, but it seems to me that AD exposes you mind in ways you would never dream of revealing to all and sundry. Sometimes this is harmless enough, such as Don's joy in his youthful adventures and the wonderful sound track that accompanied his exploits, and sometimes it illuminates dark things that we know exist but prefer not to look at or think about too much.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

There's never one around when you need one.

Mazda said the RX-8 Hydrogen RE, based on its popular RX-8 sports car, gets around these problems by running on gasoline in the absence of a hydrogen fueling station, and using existing engine parts and production facilities to lower costs.

The car is powered by Mazda's iconic rotary engine and can switch between hydrogen and gasoline fuel with the flick of a switch. It can cruise for a maximum 62 miles on hydrogen and 341 miles on gasoline it said.

Fuel cell cars, meanwhile, use hydrogen to first generate electricity through a fuel cell stack for power, and require an electric motor.

A rotary engine is suitable for hydrogen fuel because the separate chambers for fuel intake, combustion and exhaust significantly reduce the danger of the fuel's backfiring compared with a conventional engine. . .

Japan has 13 state-owned hydrogen fueling stations, while energy-related companies such as Idemitsu and Iwatani also own their own fueling facilities.

Ford Motor Co. owns a controlling interest in Mazda.

They need to get the range up to about 150 miles or so. Electric cars have trouble with range too. People need to stop every 2 or 3 hours since the seat cushions will only hold so much.


Faster evolution.

During photosynthesis, plants and some bacteria convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into usable chemical energy. Scientists have long known that this process relies on the enzyme rubulose 1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase, also called RuBisCO. While RuBisCO is the most abundant enzyme in the world, it is also one of the least efficient. As Dr. Matsu-mura says, "All life pretty much depends on the function on this enzyme. It actually has had billions of years to improve, but remains about a thousand times slower than most other enzymes. Plants have to make tons of it just to stay alive." . .

For decades, scientists have struggled to engineer a variant of the enzyme that would more quickly convert carbon dioxide. Their attempts primarily focused on mutating specific amino acids within RuBisCO, and then seeing if the change affected carbon dioxide conver-sion. Because of RuBisCO's structural complexity, the mutations did not have the desired outcome.

For their own study, Dr. Matsumura and his colleagues decided to use a process called "di-rected evolution" which involved isolating and randomly mutating genes, and then inserting the mutated genes into bacteria (in this case Escherichia coli, or E. coli). They then screened the resulting mutant proteins for the fastest and most efficient enzymes. "We decided to do what nature does, but at a much faster pace." Dr. Matsumura says. "Essentially we're using evolu-tion as a tool to engineer the protein."

Because E. coli does not normally participate in photosynthesis or carbon dioxide conversion, it does not usually carry the RuBisCO enzyme. In this study, Matsumura's team added the genes encoding RuBisCO and a helper enzyme to E. coli, enabling it to change carbon dioxide into con-sumable energy. The scientists withheld other nutrients from this genetically modified organism so that it would need RuBisCO and carbon dioxide to survive under these stringent conditions.

They then randomly mutated the RuBisCO gene, and added these mutant genes to the modified E. coli. The fastest growing strains carried mutated RuBisCO genes that produced a larger quantity of the enzyme, leading to faster assimilation of carbon dioxide gas. "These mutations caused a 500 percent increase in RuBisCO expression" Dr. Matsumura says.

The spin is that plants using more CO2 will affect climate, but this seems silly since there are always other limits to growth. More realistically, it may help selected crops grow and yield.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Flexible ballistic protection.

Skiwear company Spyder, based in Colorado, US, developed racing suits incorporating d3o along the shins and forearms and offered members of the US and Canadian Olympic alpine ski teams the chance to try them out several months ago. "Now they love it and won't ski without it," . . .

The resulting material exhibits a material property called "strain rate sensitivity". Under normal conditions the molecules within the material are weakly bound and can move past each with ease, making the material flexible. But the shock of sudden deformation causes the chemical bonds to strengthen and the moving molecules to lock, turning the material into a more solid, protective shield.

In laboratory testing, d3o-guards provided as much protection as most conventional protective materials, its makers claim. But Phil Green, research director at d3o Labs, says it is difficult to precisely measure the material's properties because the hardening effect only last as long as the impact itself. . .

Another potential application may be sound-proofing. The propagation of sound waves should generate a similar strain to an impact . . .

Sort of like a lens that darkens as light intensity increases . . . but spookier.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

More tweaking seems required. [via Biopolitical]

Agri-Environment Schemes (AES) in Europe appear to be largely ineffective as policy instruments. Research in five European countries has shown that common species of birds, insects and plants do not benefit very much from this kind of nature management and rare species benefit much less. There are virtually no benefits for threatened species (listed in the Red Data Books). These conclusions were drawn by researchers from six European research institutions during a conference on 30 and 31 January at Wageningen University. They proposed that much clearer and more measurable goals should be established in the future and that the policy should focus more on the protection of specific species.
AES were invented as part of the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to continue subsidizing agriculture while relieving some of the trade distortion and unintended consequences (butter mountains) of subsidies tied to production. The broad idea was to pay farmers for environmental stewardship on their own lands to supplement the incomes they could earn growing crops. But how is it measured? What is good environmental stewardship?

It is not, as these researchers argue, merely biodiversity and so cannot be usefully improved by more precise definition of target species. If you pay someone to promote those species they may do so, if possible, but they will still not do what is needed for good stewardship. Ever more precise regulation will not result in proper stewardship unless it is continued to the absurd extreme of assigning a fully competent regulator to each farm. Then what's the farmer for? The regulator should in that case simply replace the farmer as the head of the business and make all operational decisions.

European agriculture got into trouble because of subsidies and regulations. The solution isn't more and better controls, it is more freedom and responsibility. That will clarify the task for the farmer and engage his skills and intelligence for the unique task of making his property flourish. Though some will fail others will succeed and the aggregate performance of the agricultural sector will improve.

But will the environment improve? Not necessarily. The farmer is not paid for that work since there are no markets for environmental services. If politicians and bureaucrats want to help they can work to establish such markets.

Easier said than done.


Stop them before they do math again!

The huge profits reported by oil and gas companies would turn into losses if the social costs of their greenhouse gas emissions were taken into account.

That is the conclusion of research by the New Economics Foundation (Nef).

Nef found that the £10bn-plus profits just reported by Shell and BP are dwarfed by costs of emissions associated with their products.

Gee, you mean all those people who used the oil and gas don't share any responsibility and so shouldn't have to pay any of those social costs? That's dumb. But wait! What are the social costs of not having oil and gas? It seems that would be an even larger number given that the world's cities were knee deep in dung and breathing dung dust all summer before oil and gas became the dominant sources of power. The health issues alone would be a huge number. And what about coal?
A report prepared for Defra and the Treasury estimates that each tonne of carbon dioxide emitted costs about £20 ($35) in environmental damage.

"Combining the emissions that stem from BP's direct activities and the sale of its products leads to 1,458m tonnes of CO2-equivalent entering the atmosphere, with a damage bill of £29bn ($51bn)," writes Andrew Simms.

"Subtracting that from the £11bn ($19bn) annual profit it has just reported puts it £18bn ($31bn) in the red; effectively bankrupt.

"The same calculation puts Shell £4.5bn ($8bn) in the red, even as it reports an annual profit of £13bn ($23bn)."

They are obviously brain dead. Had the oil and gas not been used even more carbon would have been emitted from the use of less energy rich fuels such as coal and wood. Moving up the hydrogen ladder to gas was a cornerstone of the UK plan to reduce CO2 emissions before they discovered that the price of gas could rise.

It's a shame that environmentalism seems to attract such stupid people since their statements make it seem as if environmentalism is stupid, too stupid to have any sensible speakers who make rational assertions. This is false. There are lots of smart and sensible environmentalists, they just aren't newsworthy by the degraded standards of the main stream media, especially the beeb.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Interesting rant against environmentally conscious "green" houses.

These houses aren't just ridiculous; they're monuments to sanctimony. If architecture is frozen music, these places are congealed piety, demonstrating with embarrassing concreteness the glaring hypocrisy of upper-class environmentalism. The sad thing is that, by pouring so much money into ostentatious eco-design, the people who built homes like this have purchased status at the cost of doing some real environmental good.
Empty gestures are all there is to much of current environmentalism: pious feel-good actions and policies displace effective environmentalism but can be easily sold by enviro-hustlers, politicians and grifters of all sorts; please donate now.

With many other issues we have developed some immunity, some sales resistance, and are able to do wiser consuming. That hasn't happened yet with environmentalism, it's still a wild-west free-for-all, the eco-bubble. This too shall pass.


I'm worried about the UK. They seem to be sliding into another period of insanity, something similar to the pre-Thatcher "English-disease" period when the country flirted with collapse due to political excess. Consider this brief beeb comment.

Sweden says it aims to completely wean itself off oil within 15 years - without building new nuclear plants.
The beeb doesn't like nuclear plants and tries to counter their rising status as people more honestly face the implications of CO2 increases and rising natural gas prices. It's nukes or coal for the UK. . . or continued fantasies about wind farms and biomass etc. that don't pencil out.

So how is Sweden going to do it?

The Scandinavian country, which was hard hit by oil price rises in the 1970s, now gets the majority of its electricity from nuclear and hydroelectric power.
It's one of the few European countries to have reduced its emissions over the past couple of decades, and it did it by building nukes then, and so doesn't have so much need now. Wouldn't it be nice if more industrialized countries had done that in the 70s and 80s?


But they work well.

[Nike] has teamed up with contact lens maker Bausch and Lomb to create performance-enhancing contact lenses called MaxSight. They're a tinted version of daily disposal lenses for athletes that reduce glare and improve visual acuity.

They block nearly all the sun's damaging UVA and UVB rays just like sunglasses, but their optics can also give athletic performance a boost.

"I think they're spectacular," says optometrist David McBride, who sells Maxsight at his clinic in Portland. He wears the grey-green version to improve his golf game, and estimates he has fit a dozen of his patients with MaxSight, most of whom have never worn contact lenses before. "I expect they will become very popular come spring."

The lenses come in amber for sports like baseball and tennis where the wearer must separate fast moving objects from the background, and grey-green for sports like golf, where the background environment is what’s visually important. Both colors filter out a significant amount of overall light, but they also sharpen and improve contrast, so they have a brightening effect, says Alan Reichow, who invented the lenses and is a sports vision consultant for Nike.

The amber lenses also turn the wearer's eye's an unsettling shade of red. But when Nike asked players if they'd like to create a version that created less of an evil eye, the answer was an overwhelming "no."

I think I'd like the grey-green ones for my work.


There are cold specialists as well as warm specialists.

The study was undertaken at the Niwot Ridge Long Term Ecological Research site west of Boulder. The site is home to one of several dozen so-called AmeriFlux installations on the continent that measure CO2 activity. The Niwot Ridge AmeriFlux site features five towers studded with climate instruments that are funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

The researchers used the 100-foot-high towers -- which were erected at 10,000 feet in a forest of lodgepole pine, sub-alpine fir and Englemann spruce adjacent to CU-Boulder's Mountain Research Station -- to measure CO2, water and energy exchanges between the biosphere and atmosphere, said Monson. They used the instruments to zero in on the subtle, swirling winds drifting over the rugged terrain and took millions of individual CO2 data readings from 1998 to 2004.

"The deeper the snowpack, the more CO2 we observed leaving the forest," he said. "This forced us to look at the wintertime period more closely than before."

The researchers discovered a unique collection of microbes under the snow soils with life spans of only hours to days thriving at temperatures hovering around zero, Monson said. They used DNA fingerprinting techniques to show the winter microbe community was very different genetically from the summer microbe community.

It seems that if microbes adapt and differentiate for winter and summer life cycles that they can, and in time will, adapt to the new conditions. Trees take far longer to adapt. It isn't clear how this will affect them. Reduced winter soil temperatures and reduced late spring moisture might be something the can cope with unchanged, but it seems it would create an opportunity for genetic drift.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Another one, or three, bites the dust.

Despite findings being announced this week that a low-fat diet introduced in the middle-age years didn't reduce the risk of breast cancer, heart disease, stroke or colon cancer, one of the researchers says people still need to focus on the types of fat they eat. The national diet study of almost 50,000 healthy postmenopausal women was part of the massive Women's Health Initiative (WHI) study.

The hypothesis that low-fat diets could help reduce the risk of certain diseases had been assumed, but never tested. . .

Nationally, the WHI enrolled 157,000 women between 50 and 79 years old at 40 clinical centers, making it the largest clinical trial ever undertaken in the United States. . . Women were 50 to 79 years old when the study began and were followed for an average of 8.1 years.

Ok, so low fat doesn't help women 50-79 years old avoid breast cancer, heart disease, stroke or colon cancer. But there are still ways to dis fat. In addition to parsing the type of fat, it's possible that these women might have been more healthy had they started fat consciousness earlier in life.
Vitolins said one explanation for the results is that the low-fat diet was designed to reduce total fat and didn't make a distinction between good fats, such as those found in nuts, fish, and vegetables oils, and bad fats, such as the saturated fat in meats and the trans fat used in baked goods and potato chips.

"The study was testing the belief that lowering total fat would reduce the risk of cancer," said Vitolins. "Since the study began, we've learned a lot more about how the types of fats we consume make a difference." . .

"Our diets start when we are born and it makes sense that what you eat over a lifetime will make a difference," she said.

Make a difference. That seems likely, but will it make a measurable difference or is it like the untested belief that was disproved with this study?

There have been animal tests done that show that dietary fat amount and type matters, but the tests are usually amateurish in spite of being done by scientists because they often don't distinguish one type of fat from another or know what foods contain what. Consider the statement above: "good fats, such as those found in nuts, fish, and vegetables oils, and bad fats, such as the saturated fat in meats. . ." Some vegetable oils are full of nasty fats and some meats are full of good fats. Some fish have insignificant amounts of good fats and others give you a dose of heavy metals along with those good fats.

What matters is what the animal ate. If it ate junk food - nasty vegetable oils and grain starches - it will have junk food flesh. This is true for both fish and meat but the fish also have the toxic chemical problem from polluted water.

Maybe if enough studies show that the current advice is worthless the advice will improve? Maybe they will get to the point where they actually give good advice? Nah, never happen.


They aren't precisely eating disorders but seem related. Seen from a distance they are somewhat humorous - like the situation in Mughal India where the Moslem wouldn't eat pork products and the Hindu wouldn't eat cattle products - but they can be deadly serious to those who have a fetish. In recent times Europe has been ground zero both for food supply contamination episodes and food fetishes. One seems to inspire the other. It's getting technical.

In the wake of successive outbreaks of food-borne disease in the past decade (think mad cow disease, E.coli, salmonella, etc) and the current fear over the possible spread of avian flu, public demand for tighter safeguards on the entire food production chain has never been greater.

"The certification of the origin of food products is a vital issue for Europe in the ongoing discussions with the World Trade Organisation," explains Michel Debord, project coordinator. "Americans in particular prefer to certify the quality of a product according to its brand and attach no real importance to its origin. European consumers, by contrast, want to know where the food that they eat has come from."

The concept behind GeoTraceAgri is to take advantage of advances in information and communication technology, satellite imaging and mapping to enable clear and precise tracking of food products that are accessible in real-time to relevant parties.

"The ultimate goal of GeoTraceAgri was to develop indicators of geotraceability that enable users to locate precisely the origin of agricultural products," he says. "The advantage of this type of system is that the geographical certification is objective and verifiable, and can be viewed on the Internet using secure geoportals that have been specifically developed for this purpose."

Europeans have always been obsessed with geography and national origin - French wine, Danish ham, Swiss chocolate etc. Most Americans don't seem to have that geographic obsession (some do!) - perhaps because they are less mired in the old blood and soil reality of Europe - but can be as adamant about brand labels as Europeans are about geographic labels.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Things don't add up, we emit more gunk than can be found in the air or can be accounted for by known sinks. We found some.

New research on Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba), a shrimp-like animal at the heart of the Southern Ocean food chain, reveals behaviour that shows that they absorb and transfer more carbon from the Earth's surface than was previously understood. The results are published this week in the journal Current Biology.

Scientists from British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and Scarborough Centre of Coastal Studies at the University of Hull discovered that rather than doing so once per 24 hours, Antarctic krill 'parachute' from the ocean surface to deeper layers several times during the night. In the process they inject more carbon into the deep sea when they excrete their waste than had previously been understood.

Lead Author Dr Geraint Tarling from BAS says, "We've known for a long time that krill are the main food source for whales, penguins and seals, but we had no idea that their tactics to avoid being eaten could have such added benefits to the environment. By parachuting down they transport carbon which sinks ultimately to the ocean floor – an amount equivalent to the annual emissions of 35 million cars – and this makes these tiny animals much more important than we thought."

Krill feed on phytoplankton near the ocean surface at night but sink deeper in the water column during the day to hide from predators. By knowing how these animals behave, we can understand better the contribution they make to removing carbon from the Earth's atmosphere and upper ocean.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Been there, got the T-shirt, wore it out. [via Structure+Strangeness]

There was this one time . . . ah, nevermind, that's not what this blog is for.


Many of today's problems are a consequence of politicized confusion in the past few decades. Politics is far more short sighted than even private business interests widely criticized for "living by quarters", as well as far dumber since it is driven by the requirements of the next election. Only immediate issues are of interest and policies must appeal to majorities.

Energy and climate problems - same thing really - are in part a result of a confusion of nuclear bombs with nuclear energy. While the air grew increasingly foul and a world starved for energy sputtered and wheezed, nuclear confusion prevented progress . . . except in China.

While experts in the United States and Europe talk about reviving plans for nuclear power, China, as in so many other fields, is racing ahead. The so-called pebblebed technology behind the Beijing test plant originated in Germany more than three decades ago, and the U.S. nuclear-power industry also pursued it. But when public opposition to nuclear energy forced those countries to curtail nuclear research in the 1980s, Beijing took over. . .

All reactors, including the pebblebed, use uranium fuel to produce heat that is used to turn electrical turbines. In conventional so-called light-water reactors, the heat is generated by thousands of fixed metallic rods, which require elaborate cooling systems to keep them from overheating and backup cooling systems in case the primary ones fail. Furthermore, a conventional reactor must be housed in a concrete containment vessel to mitigate damage in case it overheats. In the pebblebed reactor,thousands of tennis-ball-size spheres coated in layers of silicon carbide, ceramic material and graphite each contain thousands of granules of the fuel, uranium dioxide. Because the pebbles dissipate heat so efficiently, say the designers, the fuel inside them couldn't possibly get hot enough to penetrate the graphite casing. The pebble-bed reactor, in fact, doesn't even have a containment vessel. Another advantage of pebblebeds is that it's easier to make small plants and put them up quickly, which lends itself to China's plan of spreading plants around the hinterlands. Extracting fuel from pebblebed reactors to use for weapons would be difficult and expensive. . .

. . . a growing domestic environmental movement could slow its nuclear-energy strategy. Twenty years after the disaster at Chernobyl and nearly 30 years since the Three Mile Island incident, leaders such as British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Australian Prime Minister John Howard and U.S. President George W. Bush have only recently begun to suggest the possibility of re-examining nuclear energy.

It is a mistake to equate any environmental movement with environmentalism, or assume that those in an environmental movement are environmentalists. It is usually not so, they are merely a political group with very little real environmental knowledge or concern. They exploit the natural environmental consciousness of society to gain power, and have been on balance one of the greatest environmental threats. It isn't useful to cite a regulation or two in defense of these environmental vandals, it is necessary to consider the whole spectrum of environmental concerns in socio-economic context. They are the problem, not the solution.


Mistaken solidarity

The question is whether . . . the environmental movement as a whole will be willing to abandon knee-jerk opposition to nuclear plants. Though there are good reasons to support them, rather than oppose them, on environmental grounds, I fear that too many environmentalists who, like Zachary, cut their teeth on antinuclear activism will be less willing to respond to changed circumstances with changed attitudes. Social movements are often more about beliefs than about reality, and ever since Tom Hayden et al. organized the antinuclear movement as a way of preserving some of the anti-Vietnam-war movement's infrastructure, it's been as much a political movement as an environmental one.

Will we be able to turn our back on outdated beliefs . . .?

Politics has been the bane of the environment for decades. It isn't just nukes and energy policy that have been ruined by politicized pseudo-environmentalists. Those who actually care about the environment would do well to investigate that sordid history and make an intellectually honest attempt to sort the political dogma from useful environmental concern.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Free thinker. [via A&L Daily]

The great virtue of a free market is that it enables people who hate each other, or who are from vastly different religious or ethnic backgrounds, to cooperate economically. Government intervention can’t do that. Politics exacerbates and magnifies differences.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

An early techno-critic.

The sole use of watches however, is to tell us what o'clock it is, and to hinder us from breaking any engagement, or suffering any other inconveniency by our ignorance in that particular point. But the person so nice with regard to this machine, will not always be found either more scrupulously punctual than other men, or more anxiously concerned upon any other account, to know precisely what time of day it is. What interests him is not so much the attainment of this piece of knowledge, as the perfection of the machine which serves to attain it.

How many people ruin themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility? What pleases these lovers of toys is not so much the utility, as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it. All their pockets are stuffed with little conveniencies. They contrive new pockets, unknown in the clothes of other people, in order to carry a greater number.

The trouble with anthropology and economics is that they meet only at an intersection, and then proceed, without a second thought or a fare thee well, in different directions. So it's charming when we may suggest, however dubiously, that this was not always so, that a founding economist saw us whole.


Philip Small has been doing a loose series of posts at Transect Points dealing with some of the nitty-gritty aspects of modern agriculutre, beginning with German science workshop news critical of precision agriculture performance and Science and nitrogen use efficiency and continuing through Precise common sense II. I have a couple of posts-in-progress that refer to them - and may finish them in future - but you can profit from just reading them now.

I found the most recent posts which investigated the net benefits of precision agriculture useful. Bottom line: it depends.

The technology is not affordable if there is little variability in the soil, or if a crop (corn, soybeans) does not respond as well to in-season management.

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