Thursday, December 10, 2009

Impôt de Carbone

While England is considering a personal cap-and-trade system, France just passed a national carbon tax. It is set at 17 euro per metric tonne, or $22.60 per normally spelled ton, which is fairly similar to the $20/t that's bandied about a lot in the US. "The tax will be introduced next year and will cover the use of oil, gas and coal," but not electricity, because 80% of Frances power comes from nuclear power plants.

There's always talk that the tax is more efficient than trading permits, but this one still gets complicated: it will apply to households as well as enterprises, but not to the heavy industries and power firms included in the EU's emissions trading scheme. (Okay, I guess that's because there's already a trading system in place that it has to operate with in parallel.)

"Critics say it is just a ploy to boost ailing state finances," but French President Sarkozy claims that all money gathered will be re-issued in the form of income tax refunds and other reductions, so that a "typical" household will see no change in finances.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

I'll have ham — hold the pig.

Fat Knowledge has written about PETA's competition to grow lab meat that doesn't use animals. Well, there has been some serious progress now. As reported in the Sphere, scientists in the Netherlands have used cells from a live pig to grow pork muscle tissue in a Petri dish. This fixes the usual vegetarian's ethical issue, plus a bonus on sustainability because the meat can be grown more efficiently in a lab than on an animal. Unfortunately, they don't know if it hold up to bacon or ribs, since
the scientists had to admit to reporters that they don't know if their creation is flavorsome, because laboratory regulations forbid them from tasting anything they create.
So who knows if it's just going to taste like spam from a lab, or if it will be a revolution in gastronomy.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Zero-G Water Experiments

Aboard the International Space Station, you can do some crazy things with water droplets.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Penetration of Solar Power without Storage

I'll preface this post by saying that it's a plug for my own research, but it's also published so (at least some people think) that I'm not making it up. Since the work is published in a journal, normally I wouldn't be able to just link to it, due to access limitations, as Fat Knowledge has lamented. However, some professor at a university in Texas has made it part of his course, so I'm going to direct you there for the whole article:

Solar Power without Storage
The idea is that while solar panels are expensive on their own, if you need to build a storage system to use their energy at night, they become even less affordable. Clearly, solar power can't provide all of our electricity needs if we skip the storage, but they can still help out in the daytime. In fact, in most parts of the country, the electrical demand is already highest when the sun is out, so solar can help with these peaks. The higher daytime demand is currently met by turning on "dispatchable" power sources that are (relatively) inexpensive to build, cost a lot to run, and can be turned on and off in very little time. The ones that run less frequently cost less to build (by design) but even more to run, since they won't be generating very much. In fact, the plants that run to fill the demand during the highest 30 or so hours of the year can cost 5-10 times as much (/kWh) as your typical coal or nuclear plant. (The reason that coal and nukes don't produce all the electricity is that these "baseload" plants can take half a week to start up and shut down, and could never respond to the daily variations of demand.)

My goal is to see how much solar capacity can be installed so that the panels mainly replace the dispatchable plants. Specifically, what is the maximum deployment that permits 95% of the annual output from PV to be utilized without reducing the output of the baseload plants? I used hourly solar intensity and electrical demand data from 32 regions across the country to accomplish this.

This map shows the regions and their possible penetration. Note that the share is in effect a measure of the correlation between electrical use and sunlight, and not of the amount of sunlight. Locations with large amounts of sunlight in times of low demand, such as noon in winter or anytime in the spring or fall, will have a lower possible deployment. In this sense, New England’s grey days in October and November help improve the matching because the clouds
reduce sunlight when the electricity use is lowest.

My total installed possible capacity in the 32 regions is 59 GW. These regions cumulatively consume 30% of America's electricity, so if panels are as effective in the rest of the country, the whole US could use 196 GW. This would reduce the energy currently provided by dispatchable power plants by 23% and would represent over 7% of the present total annual electrical load in the US. Although that share may not seem like a lot, it requires nearly 8 doublings from the 865MW of PV which was the installed base in the US in 2007, showing that in the near future, bringing down the cost of the panels is more important than worrying about the dark.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Personal Carbon Trading

Yesterday I saw Yael Parag from Oxford University present on a plan the UK is looking at for "personal carbon trading" (Oxford description here). The UK, like lots of cities and countries, has all these grand plans for 30% reduction in Greenhouse gases by 2030 and 80% by 2050, but no real plans to accomplish this, and minimal progress. This cap-and-trade type of idea might be able to accomplish the goals. Here is how I understand the plan from the talk:

The UK is generating some amount CO2 each year. Of this, 40% is directly used by individuals in the form of non-business transportation, home heating, and home electricity. The rest is used by commerce, industry, and agriculture for similar purposes, plus manufacturing.

The presenter mentioned, though I can't find any reference of this on the website, that the 60% would be auctioned out to all non-individual users.

More interestingly, the 40% would be distributed evenly among all people. Each person would then have some monthly (or yearly) balance of Carbon. Whenever people buy things that actually produce CO2 when used, they enter their Carbon card number, and their account is debited. An important point is that there wouldn't be that many of these transaction, since the only things counted would be
  • Gasoline/diesel
  • Monthly heating bill (gas/oil)
  • Monthly electric bill
  • Air travel
The carbon credits could of course be bought and sold, and I bet eBay would just be the beginning. I can see entire companies emerging to manage, loan, invest, and speculate on credits.

Although Fat Knowledge prefers taxes to permits (and in general I do too), there are a few points that speak in favor of CO2 credits.
  • Energy is a fairly inelastic commodity: that is, the demand is not especially affected by price. In summer 2008, gas prices rose something like 75% from the previous year, but vehicle miles traveled dropped just 5-10%.
  • People respond to social norms. Just like the California electricity users who cut back consumption to be closer to that of their neighbors, Britons may alter their behavior to use closer to what the average citizen uses, for social norm reasons as well as economic.
  • Caps are good for controlling things that should be, well, capped. Taxes are good for things that the government wants to discourage, but doesn't care if a specific amount are used. For instance, the high cigarette tax (in theory) reduces demand, but it doesn't limit the number sold. But if scientists say that the amount of CO2 generation shouldn't increase, it is difficult to estimate what tax level will accomplish this, whereas the cap dictates the amount and lets the demand set the price. And the amount of credits could slowly be ratcheted down to meet that level that the government/scientists believe is sustainable.
The system has the potential to work well. One concern I had was that people would chalk up all the driving they could as "business travel". But if the firms have to bid on carbon pounds, they might not want their employees using them up. And since many of the poor do not drive cars and live in smaller houses/apartments with smaller utility bills, they could earn extra income selling credits, making this a Progressive measure.

Nevertheless, I do have a few things I wonder about.
  • If firms bid on credits, why is air travel counted for personal consumption? Wouldn't that count twice? Or maybe the system is set up so that the airline industry can pass on the credit use to consumers, rather than the cost of auctioned credits.
  • Mass transit is not included (initially) to encourage use rather than cars, and because there is in general far more of these transactions a month, so it would be a pain to have to debit the carbon card every time. Would intercity buses and rail also be exempt, or would they pass on credit consumption like airlines?
  • For electricity, would we use the average CO2/kwh of the entire country, or the local company's portfolio? Would (in the US) hydro-happy Washington's electricity not debit much, but a lot of points would come out for a kWh in King Coal states like Kentucky and West Virginia? And if, as you can do, you pay a premium to guarantee that your electric company buys at least your amount of kWh from Wind or whatever, would that make your electricity free of credits?
  • Should credit allowance be based on the household? Or is the individual better? How should children be counted? Should you be able to merge accounts, so one family member isn't stuck somewhere unable to buy gas while the other has a surplus? And how much would this complicate divorces? (No, those carbon credits should go to me!)
The government still gets some revenue from the non-residential credits permit sales. But this would certainly be much more complicated than a tax. And would people trust the big bad government to have so much control of people? Would it be better if the system was administered by a big bad corporation? Any thoughts?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Losing Weight by Eating Less

The New York Times writes about a study on weight loss. The results: a diet soda is better than a treadmill. Researchers worked with several groups of people and monitored calories burned and weight loss, and found that lots of exercise did not reduce weight by much. The far-more-important factor was the amount of calories consumed.
“The message of our work is really simple,” although not agreeable to hear, Melanson said. “It all comes down to energy balance,” or, as you might have guessed, calories in and calories out. People “are only burning 200 or 300 calories” in a typical 30-minute exercise session, Melanson points out. “You replace that with one bottle of Gatorade.”
There was also an interesting point made about what form the calories you burn come from, depending on the level of exertion.
While high-intensity exercise demands mostly carbohydrate calories (since carbohydrates can quickly reach the bloodstream and, from there, laboring muscles), low-intensity exercise prompts the body to burn at least some stored fat... “Heart rates of between 105 and 134” beats per minute, Carey said, represent the fat-burning zone.
The article does go out to tell about all the other benefits exercise brings, so even if one doesn't lose weight, it's still healthy:
Most [subjects] became notably healthier, increasing their aerobic capacity, decreasing their blood pressure and resting heart rates, and, the authors write, achieving “an acute exercise-induced increase inpositive mo od,” leading the authors to conclude that, “significant and meaningful health benefits can be achieved even in the presence of lower than expected exercise-induced weight loss.”

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Birth Control Pills Might Alter Mate Selection

Yahoo News runs a story about some studies which may indicate that the birth control pill influence women's choice of mate. Researchers at the University of Sheffield in England predict that "offspring of pill users are more homozygous than expected, possibly related to impaired immune function and decreased perceived health and attractiveness." The idea is that women who are ovulating tend to be attracted to Manly Men, but women on the pill are hormonally in a state similar to perpetual pregnancy. Therefore, the claim goes, that women on the pill will be less likely to date the captain of the football team, and instead hook up with president of the role-playing club. It is important to note that the "impaired immune function", et cetera, of the predicted offspring are not a result of the woman actually taking the pill, but because of the 'less reproductively sound' mate she chose because the pill clouded her judgment.

Not everyone agrees, however. Dr. William Hurd of Case Medical Center is skeptical:
If you don't take into account society maybe we're all animals, but in social situations I don't think there are many women who change who they would mate with at different times of the month. It might change desires or perceptions but, gee whiz, that's a long stretch to changing who you would date, or even who you would go to dinner with.
Also, I may be wrong here, but I would think that many women taking the pill are doing it because they are already in a relationship (and therefore have chosen their "mate").

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Net Neutrality and Pirates

CNN reports that the FCC voted last week to begin studying new rules to protect an open internet. These "net neutrality" rules would limit the way internet service provides could limit access to the world's series of tubes. Specifically,

the proposal itself uses the FCC's open Internet principles as a foundation and would forbid network operators from restricting access to lawful Internet content, applications, and services. It would also require network providers to allow customers to attach non-harmful devices to the network.

Two additional principles were added, which would prevent network providers from discriminating against particular Internet content or applications, while at the same time allowing for reasonable network management. Internet access providers would also have to be transparent about the network management practices they implement.

What exactly is the problem the FCC is trying to address? Well, say for instance you got your internet from Time Warner Cable. Back in the day when people actually used AOL to search the internet, TWC might want you to use that service rather than Google or Yahoo. So they might make it hard for you to access From what I can understand, the original 2 principles the FCC considered prohibited the ISP from outright blocking the content, and the additional principle makes it so they can't slow down access to select sites either.

Seems like a good idea, no? Well John McCain, who is the nation's biggest beneficiary of Telco/ISP money (by far), has introduced the ironically named Internet Freedom Act of 2009 (because it keeps the internet "free from government interference"). Nevertheless, I think net neutrality has a good chance of passing (eventually). In fact, Verizon and Google have become unlikely bedfellows and issued a statement of support for net neutrality.

In the US, this issue is just taking off, and even so is taking a back seat in the public eye to health care reform. In Europe, however, it is a major issue. It is one of the main agendas of the Pirate Party, founded recently in Sweden, and now the country's 3rd largest political party. In fact, the party received enough votes in the 2009 European Parliament elections to get 1, maybe 2, seats in Parliament.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Monkeys with Skills Earn More than Senior Monkeys

Physorg (among others) has a story about a test involving groups of vervet monkeys. The group was in a room with a barrel of apples that none of them knew how to open. None of them, that is except for one low ranking female who wasn't getting much attention or income. (What is monkey income you ask? Getting groomed by other monkeys.) However, once this skilled junior would open the barrel and hand out apples, she suddenly became much more popular (and groomed). This proves that in the monkey world as well, girls like guys (or girls) who have skills (although not in this case nunchuku skills, bow hunting skills, computer hacking skills).

But it gets really interesting when the researchers introduce a second skilled monkey to the group. Suddenly Barrel-cracker #1 no longer has a monopoly on the apple market. The invisible monkey hand reacts to the adjusted supply and demand, and the additional apple-getter drives down the 'price' of apples, so now each of the skilled monkeys gets groomed some intermediate amount: more than a normal junior-rank monkey but more than if they were the only barrel-opener in the bunch.

It's interesting that such price reduction takes place even without language, showing how ubiquitous basic economic theory is.
A change in price - grooming for less long if there is another monkey that supplies apples - is only possible if a negotiation process takes place. Many economists assume that such negotiations can only take place if they are concluded with a contract. However, the vervet monkeys do not have the possibility to conclude such binding contracts and yet they still succeed in agreeing to a change in price for a service.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

One of the most clever XKCD comics I've seen recently (not that they're not all good):

Microsoft should take a cue from the industrial economist, Clarence Edwin Ayres, who said
A little inaccuracy saves a world of explanation."

Friday, October 2, 2009

Reverse Evolution?

The New York Times has an article questioning if evolution can run backwards.

The Belgian biologist Louis Dollo was the first scientist to ponder reverse evolution. “An organism never returns to its former state,” he declared in 1905, a statement later dubbed Dollo’s law.

To see if he was right, biologists have reconstructed evolutionary history. In 2003, for example, a team of scientists studied wings on stick insects. They found that the insects’ common ancestor had wings, but some of its descendants lost them. Later, some of those flightless insects evolved wings again.

Yet this study did not necessarily refute Dollo’s law. The stick insects may indeed have evolved a new set of wings, but it is not clear whether this change appeared as reverse evolution at the molecular level. Did the insects go back to the exact original biochemistry for building wings, or find a new route, essentially evolving new proteins?
What follows next is a fairly high-level summary of Dr Thornton's U of Oregon research on changing protein receptors. Basically, what he found was he could change forward "ancestral" proteins by altering a limited number of receptors. However, to change backward modern proteins, additional modifications needed to be made. He deduced that during evolution, in addition to specific changes to ancestral proteins that actually account their ability to do new things, there are also "silent" changes (that evolved by chance along with the significant changes) that don't actually affect the behavior of the modern ones. However, they do prevent the modern proteins from going back to the original function (unless they too are removed). Since the ancestral proteins can go forward with or without the silent changes, but the modern proteins only work in the ancestral form without the silent changes, reverse evolution is far less likely to occur.

In other words, if our kids start having tails, it's not because we are not going back to monkey-style tails, but rather whatever new configuration happens to be most beneficial to our survival. Sorry, Jonathan Coulton, but we're not De-Evolving.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Mass Transit fights to protect its information...

...from people making applications that would improve use of and increase ridership on trains.

Schedule Use
Second Avenue Sagas writes about how the MTA, New York City's mass transit authority, has been trying to force/scare people away from making unaffiliated applications. For instance, Chris Schoenfield "wrote an application with the Metro-North schedule data." However, the MTA
ordered him to cease selling the iPhone application. This charge rested on the claim that the MTA owns the copyright to the schedule data and that Schoenfeld’s use of the data violates that copyright.
Unfortunately for the MTA, the charge
has no basis in legal reality. As the Supreme Court held in the seminal case Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone Service, 499 U.S. 340 (1991), pure facts are not copyrightable, and train schedules have long fallen under this rubric of pure fact. The MTA can claim a copyright on the presentation of its train schedules, but the train schedule information itself falls under Feist.
I thought I had read (perhaps on Fat Knowledge?) about the Frankfurt train system (or some other German city) doing the same type of thing, but I can't find that story anywhere.

Use of Images
The MTA could come after me for putting this 7 in a purple circle on my blog without their permission. And it wouldn't even matter if I changed the color to green: judging by the case of a guy in San Francisco trying to poke fun at his own city's mass transit system, the MTA seems to think they own the rights to every letter contained in any color circle. Nevermind that (according to Wikipedia's legal department anyway) "text in a general typeface and simple geometric shapes are not protected by copyright."

There may be hope. The New York City Council has written a letter to the MTA urging them to open their scheduling data for application developers, and the Muni T-shirts are back on sale, but this is one big Copyfraud put on by the MTA.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Mapping the 7 Deadly Sins

Wired reports on series of maps that folks at Kansas State put together to show the distribution of the vices across America. While you may have qualms with their definitions of Gluttony or Sloth (and some Christian clergy are questioning the "science" behind it), it makes for an interesting look.

What I noticed right away was that many of the Devilish spots are simply the densely populated areas, and many of the Saintly regions are the "fly-over states" (well, the northern ones anyway). If I had the data, and was good at mapping software, I would make some sort of map that took into account population density. Instead, I just took a density map and made it alternate with the sinfulness map for each of the vices. (Please check the article first so you know how they define all their sins.)
  • Greed - This one is probably the best correlated with density, which makes sense because cities generally have more poor and really rich people than the countryside or suburbs.
  • Envy - Correlates pretty well with density, except that the Northeast gets off rather unscathed. And holy crap Pacific Northwest! Is everyone stealing each other's bikes, coffees, and chai teas?
  • Wrath - Surprisingly uncorrelated. I was especially surprised at the saintlyness of LA / San Diego and Illinois / Indiana / Ohio.
  • Sloth - This one doesn't really tell us much except that the western Montanas really like to go out and see shows.
  • Gluttony - The extreme concentrations and lack of saintlyness makes this map kinda suspect. Could San Antonio and Odessa, TX, a select portion of Appalachia, and greater greater Virginia Beach really have so many more fast food restaurants that the differences in the rest of the country don't merit a green-to-white gradient?
  • Lust - Another vice unrelated to density. The Deep South and Rapid City, SD have enough STD cases to mask any indication of metropolitan areas.
  • Pride - It would be very interesting if some other form of "state pride" or "proudness of being American" could be mapped.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Cash for Clunkers

One of the most talked about "green initiatives" passed so far this year has been the Cash for Clunkers program, aimed at getting people to trade in their old gas-guzzlers for more fuel efficient cars. There has been a lot of bashing that the efficiency-improvement requirements to get the cash incentive are too modest (22 mpg min. for new car, 4 mpg improvement for $3500 rebate, 10 mpg for $4500). However, according to the Freakonomics Blog, most people are upgrading more than the minimum.
The average vehicle being traded in gets about 15.8 miles per gallon (6.33 gallons per hundred miles), and the average new vehicle that replaces it gets about 25.4 m.p.g. (3.94 gallons/100 miles).
There is substantial fuel saving in this. As Fat Knowledge has pointed out (and Edward Glaeser agrees),
The jump from 10 to 20 m.p.g., for example, saves more gas than the one from 20 to 40 m.p.g. The move from 10 to 11 m.p.g. can save nearly as much as the leap from 33 to 50 m.p.g.
Mr Glaeser goes on to say that this is better than high-speed rail because the savings start immediately. But it reinforces our car dependent way of life. And as the Wall Street Journal points out, it's really expensive.
In a nutshell, getting older cars off the road and substituting them with more fuel-efficient models appears to cost about $365 for each ton of carbon-dioxide emissions that are saved. ... The government estimates of the cost of carbon emissions ... are in the neighborhood of $28 a ton. So, Mr. Knittel asks, could the program ever actually be cost-effective, environmentally-speaking? Sure—if all the clunkers had stayed on the road, racking up mileage and emissions year after year for 60 years each, then it actually makes sense.
Buying more fuel-efficient cars does "save money" for the drivers, but the bill only benefits people who can afford to drive. Since in general, people that drive to work are wealthier than those who take public transit, the Cash for Clunkers program, in general, does not help the people that need it most. One even greener rider for the bill that would help the less wealthy would be to allow the $4500 credit to be used for mass transit passes.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Sexual Predators

Many vocal conservatives get mad whenever sexual predators are given the least bit of leeway, so there are many laws passed that severely restrict the lives of the convicted. As NPR reports, Miami bans "sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of schools, parks, bus stops and anywhere that children congregate." So not only does this effectively make it impossible for released convicts from using public transportation, it also leave very few places in the city where they are legally allowed to reside. There is one increasingly popular option, though.
"They told me that I had to live up under the Julia Tuttle Causeway," says Barclay. "I said, 'How come I have to live under the Julia Tuttle Causeway?' They said, 'If you want to go home, this is where you got to go.' "

Barclay has a driver's license issued to him at the time of his release. His address is listed as Julia Tuttle Causeway.

Like many of the sex offenders on supervised release, Barclay is required to be here between 6 p.m. and 7 a.m. During the day, many of the felons leave for jobs or to visit their families.

Bill O'Reilly can rejoice that in Indiana, however, there's one less predator on the streets. One Mr Daniels was arrested during a "meet-up", thinking he was going to score big with three girls, only to find that all of them were undercover cops (who didn't know each other).

And maybe parents need to listen to the advice of an ex-pedophile to protect their children.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


I know that this blog is in no way a travel blog, but I just returned from a trip to Crete, and share some of my observations of that island.

Geography and Climate
Apart from some coastal plains that stretch not more than a mile inward, Crete is solid mountains. This makes for some pretty complicated road engineering to reach the little towns that seem flung throughout the hills.

Most communities are small, and spread across the island's many fields of olive trees and orange trees. Many of the coastal plains are full of greenhouses for tomatoes, cucumbers, and other veggies. The crop that "covers" the greatest part of the island is also one of the least noticeable: honey. Even in the rocky crags far above the habitat for trees, bees from apiaries seek out flowers from wild thyme and other high-altitude shrubs.

The soil is often rocky, but the farmers have one benefit from Crete: the weather is extraordinarily consistent. From December to March, it will rain about every second day. Otherwise, it is completely dry and for the most part sunny. Many farmers have cisterns that fill with water during the wet season.

Religious Buildings
In addition to churches and a few mosques and monasteries, two notable additions to religious structures in Crete are the ubiquitous chapels and shrines. The chapels are gathering places for 5-20 people, often in geographically interesting (i.e. cave) or remote (i.e. the top of an 860 m mountain) places. They're usually dedicated to a specific saint, and used just a couple times a year. Shrines look like miniature chapels and seem to be every couple km on every road on the whole island.
What is this? A center for ants? How can we be expected to teach children to learn how to read... if they can't even fit inside the building?


Given Crete incredible amount of sun, it comes at no surprise that some forms of solar power are used. While I didn't see a single PV panel, almost every building had solar water heating, either in the form of a big black tub on its roof, or the standard off-the-shelf heat pipe variety. It works so well that most places just have electric "backup" for hot water and rely mostly on the sun.

The other thing to notice in the left picture is all those metal rods sticking out of the roof. That's because this building isn't "finished". Oh sure, it's occupied and there's all that water infrastructure on the roof, but the owners are still "planning" to add another floor. The tax laws in Crete state that a building that is not "completed" is assessed at a lower value or subject to a lower rate (I'm not sure which). Either way, the taxes for an "unfinished" building are less. Therefore, it seemed like 3/4 of all 1-3 story residential buildings are "designed" to be one story higher, complete with extra-long reinforcing members, but then stopped for some reason "part way through".
One renewable electrical source being used is wind. I saw two wind farms on top of ridges and a third being built. The turbines probably have a pretty good capacity factor if the consistency of wind is anything like that for sun.

Ancient Crete
I stayed near ruins of the ancient city of Falasarna, built in 335 BC. The city had a fortified harbor, and the rest of the buildings were built up a steep hill and protected by a stone wall. These defenses held up for 300 years, but were no match for the Roman fleet that destroyed the city after it became a haven for pirates.

But even without the Romans, Falasarna would not have remained a thriving port forever. You may have noticed that there doesn't actually seem to be that much water around these buildings. That is probably due to a big earthquake that actually raised the land elevation 6 meters, bringing all the docking infrastructure high and dry. The left picture shows the long peninsula on which Falasarna was built. On the right, the dark lines on the distant cliff show the previous level of the water.
On the horizon in the left picture, you can just make out another land mass. This is the island Antikythera, home to 44 people. Apart from being the 2nd least populous district in Greece, the island is most famous for a sunken ship that was found nearby. Scientists found on this ship the Antikythera mechanism, that clock-like device that kept track of planetary movement
The device is remarkable for the level of miniaturization and for the complexity of its parts, which is comparable to that of 18th century clocks. It has over 30 gears. When a date was entered via a crank (now lost), the mechanism calculated the position of the Sun, Moon, or other astronomical information such as the location of other planets. Since the purpose was to position astronomical bodies with respect to the celestial sphere, with reference to the observer's position on the surface of the earth, the device was based on the geocentric model.
As Wikipedia says, the mechanism is many centuries ahead of its time. Therefore, many people, such as Erich von Daniken, have claimed that it's proof of alien interactions.

The device was clearly a navigational instrument used in alien spaceships, which "tells us how little we know about the wisdom which the gods whispered into the ears of their darlings".

Friday, July 31, 2009

Using White to Decrease the Red

As anyone who has stepped barefoot on a sunny day from a concrete surface to a slate one knows, dark colors get really hot. Since white surfaces reflect more of the sunlight's energy, using light-colored roofs can reduce air conditioning needs and expenses. How much? 20% in hot, sunny weather, says an article in the New York Times. Cumulatively, this could have a big effect.
Turning all of the world’s roofs “light” over the next 20 years could save the equivalent of 24 billion metric tons in carbon dioxide emissions. “That is what the whole world emitted last year,” Mr. Rosenfeld said. “So, in a sense, it’s like turning off the world for a year.”
What about locations where there's little AC load, and you want the sun's heat in the winter? For one, there's far less sunlight in winter (that's why it's winter), so the unhelpful 'loss of solar gain' in the winter is less than the beneficial loss in the summer. Even so, having light roofs in Sweden or Alaska is probably not a good idea.
The extra heating costs may outweigh the air-conditioning savings in cities like Detroit or Minneapolis. But for most types of construction, they say, light roofs yield significant net benefits as far north as New York or Chicago. Although those cities have cold winters, they are heat islands in the summer, with hundreds of thousands of square feet of roof surface absorbing energy.
By the bye, I will be on vacation next week, so a little break from posts.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Baryonyx Plans Big Wind Project

There may be a new Texas superpower in the world of wind energy. Since T. Boone Pickens gave up on building enormous wind farms, there hasn't been so much highly visible talk about large projects. However, recently Baryonyx Corporation won the bid for thousands of acres of off-shore wind space. earth2tech asked the fledgling company how they intend to operate in this industry of notoriously high capital expenses, and
While the answers don’t necessarily paint a picture of a company with a strong action plan, or enough money in the bank to finance such a project, the company does provide some more insight into their intentions.
My first thought on hearing about this off-shore wind company was not how they're going to manage costs and engineering. What I immediately noticed instead, being once an elementary school dinosaur expert, was that the company is named for a strange, possibly semi-aquatic relative of the Tyrannosaurus, known for its single huge claw on its hand. (I didn't find note on their website saying "We are named for a dinosaur because blah blah blah" either.) A little odd for a wind power company moniker, no?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Goodbye Snow

No, I'm not talking about Global Warming here. This year we're saying goodbye to a different type of "snow." Also just called static, TV snow is a signal picked up by analog televisions when there is no stronger signal around. And where does this weak signal come from? Much further away than you might expect. As Scientific American writes,
The impending digital-TV transition has a forgotten victim: the big bang. You can tune an analog set between broadcast channels and see static, part of which is energy left over from the hot primordial universe. This static is known as the cosmic microwave background radiation, and its discovery in the 1960s proved the big bang theory. But on a digital TV, the best you can do is "The Big Bang Theory".
Since the the digital TV signals don't pick up this analog ambiance, the only relic of Big Bang snow on TV may be the opening sequence for HBO.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Population Control

The Columbia University magazine has an interesting article about overpopulation in this season's issue. On the one hand, population control seems like a good thing:
Now, after decades of unprecedented population growth, the land is running out. In southern Uganda, as in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, farm communities are bumping up against one another and against dry lands, mountains, and rain forests... Other farmers are subdividing their parents’ land, reducing the typical-sized farm plot in some parts of Africa to half an acre.

“That’s too small to feed a family,” says economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, who directs Columbia’s Earth Institute.
The only way to break this cycle of overpopulation and misery, Sachs writes in Common Wealth, is for wealthy nations to provide birth control to the world’s poor.
However, any mention of population control is immediately going to bring up memories of the last time large-scale birth control was attempted, during the '60s and '70s. China's "one-child" policy was one of the most innocuous methods used.
Western family planners in the 1960s and 1970s, in their zeal to slow population growth and to spur development in Asia, supported forced sterilizations, slum demolitions, and other abuses.
The article has a lot of details the sudden population increase in Africa and Asia, the history of the birth control agencies and processes, and how more kindly methods of birth control (for the purpose of slowing population growth rather than focusing only women's rights) may become a major issue again.

In a different news story, India is looking into an untried birth control idea: having Indians watch more television.
In rural India where birthrates are high, many people live in homes without electricity. Health and Family Welfare Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad has called the country to redouble its efforts to bring electricity to the rural population so these people can plug in TV sets and watch late-night soap operas rather than have sex.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Upsetting all your gravity and quantums and stuff

Let's start it off with a funny picture. The next post will be more serious, I promise.