Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Speeding 'cushion' may dwindle due to recession

Be careful out there…

The Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices, issued a report in 2005 stating that police in 42 states routinely let drivers exceed speed limits. By Dan Koeck, for USA TODAY

By Larry Copeland, USA TODAY

The recession may be claiming a new victim: the 5-10-mph "cushion" police and state troopers across the USA have routinely given motorists exceeding the speed limit.

As cities and states scramble to fill budget gaps with revenue from traffic citations, "not only are the (speeding) tolerances much lower, but the frequency of a warning instead of a ticket is way down," says James Baxter, president of the National Motorists Association, a Wisconsin-based drivers' rights group that helps its members fight speeding tickets.

"Most people, if they're stopped now, are getting a ticket even if it's only a minor violation of a few miles per hour," Baxter says. He cites anecdotal evidence of drivers being pulled over at slower speeds.

Tim Davenport, 42, of Kansas City, Mo., was recently stopped on 15th Street in Blue Springs, Mo., and ticketed for going 40 mph in a 35-mph zone — although the police officer initially ticketed him for 40 in a 25, he says. "I drove down that road again, and the posted limit was 35," he says. "I figured the judge wouldn't accept that, since I was over the speed limit, and would still charge me with it. So I went ahead and paid" the $60 ticket.

Ivan Sever, 60, of Boston was stopped on the Massachusetts Turnpike for doing 55 in a 45-mph speed zone. "I had just passed into the section where the speed limit is 45," says Sever, who teaches recording techniques at Berklee College of Music in Boston. "I saw the (trooper) and slowed down. I passed him carefully. He pulled me over, said I was doing 55." …

Speeding 'cushion' may dwindle due to recession

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Climate scientist exonerated by British House of Commons

This result was obvious to anyone with a brain.

Phil Jones

The British House of Commons today issued a report  exonerating Professor Phil Jones, the director of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia.  Dr. Jones was embroiled in controversy following the theft of internal emails and documents from the University’s servers in November of last year.

The report states that “the focus on CRU and Professor Phil Jones, Director of CRU, in particular, has largely been misplaced,” and that Dr. Jones’s actions were “in line with common practice in the climate science community,” and the CRU’s “analyses have been repeated and the conclusions have been verified.”

The review by the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee began in January in the wake of the ‘Climategate’ media frenzy.  While the committee’s report recommends that climate scientists should seek to improve transparency in their work, release raw data when possible, and provide more detail on their methodologies, the committee firmly concludes that there was no dishonesty on the part of Dr. Jones and the CRU.  The committee compared the results of other independent analyses of climate data to that of the CRU, and found that they are consistent and independently verifiable. …

Phil Jones Exonerated by British House of Commons

Monday, March 29, 2010

Scientists discover moral compass in the brain which can be controlled by magnets

Very Philip K. Dick.

The moral compass, technically named the right temporo-parietal junction, lies just behind the right ear in the brain. Alamy

By David Derbyshire
Last updated at 10:43 PM on 29th March 2010

Scientists have discovered a real-life 'moral compass' in the brain that controls how we judge other people's behaviour.

The region, which lies just behind the right ear, becomes more active when we think about other people's misdemeanours or good works.

In an extraordinary experiment, researchers were able to use powerful magnets to disrupt this area of the brain and make people temporarily less moral.

The study highlights how our sense of right and wrong isn't just based on upbringing, religion or philosophy - but by the biology of our brains.

Dr Liane Young, who led the study, said: 'You think of morality as being a really high-level behaviour. To be able to apply a magnetic field to a specific brain region and change people's moral judgements is really astonishing.'

The moral compass lies in a part of the brain called the right temporo-parietal junction. It lies near the surface of the brain, just behind the right ear.

The researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology used a non-invasive technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation to disrupt the area of the brain.

The technique generates a magnetic field on a small part of the skull which creates weak electric currents in the brain. These currents interfere with nearby brain cells and prevent them from firing normally.

In the first experiment, 12 volunteers were exposed to the magnetic field for 25 minutes before they were given a series of 'moral maze' style scenarios.

For each of the 192 scenarios, they were asked to make a judgement about the character's actions on a scale of 1 for 'absolutely forbidden' to 7 for 'absolutely permissible'.

In the second experiment, the magnetic field was applied to their heads at the time they were asked to weigh up the behaviour of the characters in the scenario.

In both experiments, the magnetic field made the volunteers less moral.

One scenario described a man who let his girlfriend walk over a bridge he knew was unsafe. The girl survived unharmed.

Under normal conditions, most people rate the man's behaviour as unacceptable. But after getting the magnetic pulse, the volunteers tended to see nothing wrong with his actions - and judged his behaviour purely on whether his girlfriend survived. …

Scientists discover moral compass in the brain which can be controlled by magnets

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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Research concludes there is no 'simple theory of everything' inside the enigmatic E8

This is a bit disappointing.


The "exceptionally simple theory of everything," proposed by a surfing physicist in 2007, does not hold water, says Emory University mathematician Skip Garibaldi.

Garibaldi did the math to disprove the theory, which involves a mysterious structure known as E8. The resulting paper ( ), co-authored by physicist Jacques Distler of the University of Texas, will appear in an upcoming issue of Communications in Mathematical Physics.

"The beautiful thing about math and physics is that it is not subjective," says Garibaldi. "I wanted a peer-reviewed paper published, so that the scientific literature provides an accurate state of affairs, to help clear up confusion among the lay public on this topic."

In November of 2007, physicist Garrett Lisi published an online paper entitled "An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything." Lisi spent much of his time surfing in Hawaii, adding a bit of color to the story surrounding the theory. Although his paper was not peer-reviewed, and Lisi himself commented that his theory was still in development, the idea was widely reported in the media, under attention-grabbing headlines like "Surfer dude stuns physicists with theory of everything."

Garibaldi was among the skeptics when the theory hit the news. So was Distler, a particle physicist, who wrote about problems he saw with Lisi's idea on his blog. Distler's posting inspired Garibaldi to think about the issue more, eventually leading to their collaboration.

Lisi's paper centered on the elegant mathematical structure known as E8, which also appears in string theory. First identified in 1887, E8 has 248 dimensions and cannot be seen, or even drawn, in its complete form.

The enigmatic E8 is the largest and most complicated of the five exceptional Lie groups, and contains four subgroups that are related to the four fundamental forces of nature: the electromagnetic force; the strong force (which binds quarks); the weak force (which controls radioactive decay); and the gravitational force.

In a nutshell, Lisi proposed that E8 is the unifying force for all the forces of the universe.

"That would be great if it were true, because I love E8," Garibaldi says. "But the problem is, it doesn't work as he described it in his paper." …

Research concludes there is no 'simple theory of everything' inside the enigmatic E8

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Quantum with fewer dead cats: first macro mechanical quantum device

Quantum mechanical resonator

Part of the reason the field of quantum mechanics seems so confusing is that it’s hard to really see the theories in action. A physicist can talk about qubits and atoms all he wants, but we laypeople still say “pics or it didn’t happen.” Well, we still don’t have pics (unless you count the delightful illustration of the Schrodinger’s cat thought experiment), but a researcher at UC Santa Barbara has made progress in bringing quantum systems into the sight of ordinary people. Andrew Cleland and his team created the first mechanical device that both operates as a quantum system and can be seen with the naked eye.

The device is little more than a simple piezoelectric resonator made of a teeny-tiny piece of quartz-like material attached to metal plates. The material expands and contracts – kind of like a balloon – with electrical voltage administered at a very precise high frequency. A qubit was then “wired” to the resonator. The device had to be cooled nearly to absolute zero to eliminate most of the atomic movements of the qubit and the resonator. And once the team excited the qubit with a pulse of energy, the resonator fluctuated. For the first time ever, quantum vibrations could be observed on a macro scale. If you’ve been completely lost by all of this talk about qubits and resonators, the short version is this: the device converts a quantum state to mechanical vibrations. And compared with other, similar experiments, it’s gigantic. …

Quantum With Fewer Dead Cats: First Macro Quantum Device

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Friday, March 26, 2010

‘Green Fund’ for climate change proposed by IMF staff

By Sandrine Rastello and Ben Sills

March 25 (Bloomberg) -- A “Green Fund” designed to help nations meet climate-change pledges would sell bonds in global markets and use the proceeds to help poor countries deal with the effects of global warming, International Monetary Fund staff proposed in a report.

The report released today expands upon an idea mentioned by IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn earlier this month as a way to raise $100 billion a year by 2020.

The plan offers a mechanism for rich nations to honor their agreement from last year’s Copenhagen climate summit to provide that amount of money to developing countries to confront drought, flooding, food shortages and disease exacerbated by global warming.

Governments could inject reserve assets in the fund, including those disbursed by the IMF last year, it said. The IMF staff plan also calls for wealthy nations to provide separate subsidies to help finance grants, according to the report.

“Once created, the Green Fund could provide a unified resource mobilization framework capable of meeting the financing needs identified at Copenhagen for decades to come,” the IMF staff paper said. “This seems far preferable to the alternative -- a succession of difficult international negotiations every few years, with uncertain outcomes.” …

‘Green Fund’ for Climate Change Proposed by IMF Staff

Earth Hour tomorrow night at 8:30 PM – Saturday, 27 March 2010

Earth Hour

On Earth Hour, hundreds of millions of people around the world will come together to call for action on climate change by doing something quite simple—turning off their lights for one hour. The movement symbolizes that by working together, each of us can make a positive impact in this fight, protecting our future and that of future generations. Learn more about how Earth Hour began, what we’ve accomplished, and what is in store for 2010.

Participation is easy. By flipping off your lights on March 27th at 8:30 p.m. local time you will be making the switch to a cleaner, more secure nation and prosperous America. View the toolkits, to find out what else you can do to get involved including leading the Earth Hour movement in your community.

Set Your Clock

On Saturday, March 27, 2010 at 8:30 p.m. local time, Earth Hour will once again cascade around the globe, from New Zealand to Hawaii

Sparking a Movement

Since its inception three years ago, Earth Hour’s non-partisan approach has captured the world’s imagination and became a global phenomenon. Nearly one billion people turned out for Earth Hour 2009 – involving 4,100 cities in 87 countries on seven continents.

Last year, 80 million Americans and 318 U.S. cities officially voted for action with their light switch, joining iconic landmarks from around the world that went dark for Earth Hour, including:

  • Empire State Building
  • Brooklyn Bridge
  • Broadway Theater Marquees
  • Las Vegas Strip
  • United Nations Headquarters
  • Golden Gate Bridge
  • Seattle’s Space Needle
  • Church of Latter-Day Saints Temple
  • Gateway Arch in St. Louis
  • Great Pyramids of Giza
  • Acropolis and Parthenon in Athens
  • Christ the Redeemer Statue in Rio de Janeiro
  • St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City
  • Big Ben and Houses of Parliament in London
  • Elysee Palace and Eiffel Tower in Paris
  • Beijing’s Birds Nest and Water Cube
  • Symphony of Lights in Hong Kong
  • Sydney’s Opera House

Earth Hour

Poacher attacked by hippos, devoured by lions

lions and rhinos photo

UPDATE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the poachers were attacked by Rhinos. It was the hippos.

Poaching seems quite a bit less appealing today after an incident that occurred in South Africa. All that remains of one man, who entered Kruger National Park with the intent of illegally hunting animals, is his skull and a few scraps of clothing. After he and two companions snuck into the nature reserve under cover of night to check some illegal traps they had assembled, they were apparently ambushed by a group of angry hippos. The three men all ran in different directions, but only two made it out of the park with their lives. The third, park officials say, was devoured by lions.

According to the report from BBC Brasil, the two hunters who escaped the park after being chased by rhinos hippos informed their unlucky partner's family of the grim news. The family then told officials, who later found the man's remains--which were few after the man had been taken for a meal by lions in the park.

Officials aren't sure exactly which animal killed the poacher, telling the Mirror:

It appears the dead man was charged and injured by hippos. It's impossible to say whether he was alive or dead by the time the lions got him.

Poaching in Kruger National Park, and throughout South Africa, is not so uncommon--with rhinos being the primary victims, long hunted for their coveted horns. Recently, however, officials have stepped-up surveillance hoping to nab poachers crossing into the park. …

Poacher Attacked by Rhinos Hippos, Devoured by Lions

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Surgeons transplant new trachea into child using his own stem cells to rebuild airway

Regenerative medicine is the future.

Still image from a video showing a visualization of the transplantation operation using the new trachea. (Credit: Paolo Macchiarini)

Scientists and surgeons have led a revolutionary operation to transplant a new trachea into a child, using the child's own stem cells to rebuild the airway in the body.

The operation -- a world first -- involved laboratory-based scientists and hospital-based clinicians working in partnership with colleagues in Europe to treat a 10-year-old British boy.

The boy, who has not been named, is recovering from surgery but his condition is stable and he is breathing unaided.

He was born with a rare condition called Long Segment Tracheal Stenosis -- a tiny windpipe that does not grow and restricts breathing.

Shortly after birth, he underwent a conventional trachea transplant at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children (GOSH), but his condition deteriorated last November when a metal stent implanted in that operation began to erode into the aorta, a key artery, causing severe bleeding.

Scientists and surgeons at UCL, GOSH, the Royal Free Hampstead NHS Trust, and the Careggi University Hospital in Florence, Italy, developed a new technique to treat the life-threatening condition.

They stripped cells from a donated trachea, used it to replace the entire length of the damaged airway, and then used the child's own bone marrow stem cells to seal the airway in the body. …

Surgeons transplant new trachea into child using his own stem cells to rebuild airway

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Avatar’s James Cameron: “Anybody that is a global-warming denier at this point in time has got their head so deeply up their ass I’m not sure they could hear me.”


James Cameron’s eco-pic has become the top grossing film of all time (see “Post-Apocalypse Now“).  And that did not endear him to the anti-science crowd.  Glenn “brainless frog” Beck said Cameron “is officially running for Antichrist.”  Cameron has now responded, as Brad Johnson reports in this repost:

Avatar director James Cameron thinks global-warming deniers are “boneheads” who are “going to have to be answerable” for their denialism. With a global box office of $2.7 billion, Avatar is the highest grossing film of all time. Conservatives unnerved by the environmental themes of this sci-fi action-and-romance popcorn flick are complaining that it’s a “sanctimonious thud of a movie,” a “three-hour lecture on war, imperialism, and green awareness,” “every militant global warming supporter’s dream come true,” and “socialism-disguised-as-nonsense enviro stuff.” Cameron fought back in a press conference, offering to debate Glenn Beck (who he calls “a f—ing asshole”) and other “boneheads”:“I want to call those deniers out into the street at high noon and shoot it out with those boneheads. Anybody that is a global-warming denier at this point in time has got their head so deeply up their ass I’m not sure they could hear me.” …

Avatar’s James Cameron: “Anybody that is a global-warming denier at this point in time has got their head so deeply up their ass I’m not sure they could hear me.”

VSS Enterprise Flies Over Mojave

VSS Enterprise completes her first captive carry. Virgin GalacticFirst Captive Carry Flight for Virgin's "Enterprise"

"VSS Enterprise completes her first captive carry... Virgin Galactic announced today that VSS Enterprise has completed her inaugural captive carry flight from Mojave Air and Spaceport."

Branson spacecraft completes test flight, CNN

"British billionaire Richard Branson's dream of space travel that thousands of people can afford took a leap toward reality with the maiden flight of the world's first commercial spacecraft over California's Mojave Desert. Branson's company Virgin Galactic announced Monday that the VSS Enterprise had successfully completed what it called a captive carry flight attached to a carrier plane." …

VSS Enterprise Flies Over Mojave

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

South Korea unveils 'recharging road' for eco-friendly buses

The Online Electric Vehicle (OLEV), towing three carriages, runs along a blue line under which power strips are buried for recharging, at an amusement park in Gwacheon, south of Seoul. S.Korean researchers launched an environmentally-friendly public transport system using a 'recharging road' -- with a vehicle sucking power magnetically from buried electric strips.

South Korean researchers Tuesday launched an environmentally friendly public transport system using a "recharging road" -- with a vehicle sucking power magnetically from buried electric strips.

The Online Electric Vehicle (OLEV), towing three buses, went into service at an amusement park in southern Seoul. If the prototype proves successful, there are plans to try it out on a bus route in the capital.

The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), which developed the system, says OLEV needs a battery only one-fifth the size of conventional electric vehicles and eliminates the need for major recharging.

It also avoids the need for overhead wires used to power conventional trams or trolley buses. …

S.Korea unveils 'recharging road' for eco-friendly buses

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Multicore requires OS rework, Windows architect advises

Microsoft architect Dave Probert sees tomorrow's OS kernel acting more like a hypervisor

By Joab Jackson, IDG News Service
March 18, 2010 08:23 PM ET

With chip makers continuing to increase the number of cores they include on each new generation of their processors, perhaps it's time to rethink the basic architecture of today's operating systems, suggested Dave Probert, a kernel architect within the Windows core operating systems division at Microsoft.

The current approach to harnessing the power of multicore processors is complicated and not entirely successful, he argued. The key may not be in throwing more energy into refining techniques such as parallel programming, but rather rethinking the basic abstractions that make up the operating systems model.

Today's computers don't get enough performance out of their multicore chips, Probert said. "Why should you ever, with all this parallel hardware, ever be waiting for your computer?" he asked.

Probert made his presentation on Wednesday at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Universal Parallel Computing Research Center.

Probert is on the team working on the next generation of Windows, though he said the ideas in this talk did not represent any actual work his team is doing for Microsoft. In fact, he noted that many of the other architects on the Windows kernel development team don't even agree with his views.

For the talk, he set out to define what a new operating system, if designed by scratch, would look like today. He concluded it would be quite different from Windows or Unix. ..

Multicore requires OS rework, Windows architect advises

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Saturday, March 20, 2010

Closing of sushi restaurant that served endangered whale ‘a self-imposed punishment’

I’ve never seen anything like this announcement from a business:

The Hump logo

After twelve years doing business in Santa Monica, The Hump will be closing its doors effective March 20th, 2010.

The Hump hopes that by closing its doors, it will help bring awareness to the detrimental effect that illegal whaling has on the preservation of our ocean ecosystems and species. Closing the restaurant is a self-imposed punishment on top of the fine that will be meted out by the court. The Owner of The Hump also will be taking additional action to save endangered species.

One such action will be to make a substantial contribution to one or more responsible organizations dedicated to the preservation of whales and other endangered species.

The Hump apologizes to our loyal customers, the community of Santa Monica, and the public at large for our illegal actions. While the current difficulties faced by The Hump overshadow the many friendships formed over the years, we want our customers and friends to know how much we thank you for your support.

The Hump

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The best argument against global warming

Nelson: Say global warming is a myth! Matt Groening

By Dr. Peter Gleick, President, Pacific Institute

Here is the best argument against global warming:

. . . .

Oh, right. There isn't one.

There is no good argument against global warming. In all the brouhaha about tiny errors recently found in the massive IPCC report, the posturing by global climate deniers, including some elected officials, leaked emails, and media reports, here is one fact that seems to have been overlooked:

Those who deny that humans are causing unprecedented climate change have never, ever produced an alternative scientific argument that comes close to explaining the evidence we see around the world that the climate is changing.

Deniers don't like the idea of climate change, they don't believe it is possible for humans to change the climate, they don't like the implications of climate change, they don't like the things we might have to do to address it, or they just don't like government or science. But they have no alternative scientific explanation that works.

Here is the way scientists think science works: Ideas and theories are proposed to explain the scientific principles we understand, the evidence we see all around us, and the mathematical models we use to test theories. Alternative theories compete. The ones that best explain reality are accepted, and any new idea must do a better job than the current one. And in this world, no alternative explanation for climate change has ever come close to doing a better job than the science produced by the climate community and represented by the IPCC and thousands of other reports. Indeed, the evidence that man-made climate change is already happening is compelling and overwhelming. And our water resources are especially vulnerable (see, for just one example, this previous blog post).

But the world of policy often doesn't give a hoot for the world of science. That, of course, permits climate deniers to simply say "no, no, no" without having to come up with an idea that actually works better to explain what we see and know. That's not science. It's ideology.

And in the world of media, it makes some kind of sense to put a marginal, discredited climate denier up against world-leading climate scientists, as though that's some kind of fair balance. Scientists don't understand that -- and it certainly confuses the public. …

The best argument against global warming

Return of the Dark Ages: Texas Board of Education rewrites the Enlightenment

Anti-science activists should be forced to abandon technology and live in the woods.

Tony Auth

Another vote, another win for the conservative majority on Texas’ State Board of Education.

Science is in a street fight with anti-science, as Nature has argued.  Now the forces of the dark ages are taking on the Enlightenment itself.

As the NYT reported, “Last year, the Texas Board of Education adopted language requiring that teachers present all sides of the evidence on evolution and global warming” (see How ultraconservative Texans are rewriting your kids’ textbooks and bringing global-warming denial into science class).

Narcissism, Texas-style. Protesters outside the State Board of Education meeting in Austin, week of 8 March 2010.

The Texas Board of Education wants dumber kids.

Thursday, the Dallas Star-Telegram reported:

Ken Mercer, a member of the State Board of Education, wants Texas students to know about both the good and the bad that government can offer, he said Thursday.

So, he introduced an amendment to state social studies curriculum standards that said: “understand how government taxation and regulations can serve as restriction to private enterprise.”

He said the students need to know that over-regulation and over-taxation can inhibit innovation and stifle industry.

His fellow member, Terri Leo, agreed. She said it’s especially important today, with issues like cap-and-trade and “policies that are based on supposed global warming theories.”

Kids don’t need to know the harm pollution can cause, of course, just the “harm” from  efforts to stop pollution.  No need to point out, say, that a U.S. study found, “Closing coal-fired power plants can have a direct, positive impact on children’s cognitive development and health” (See “If you want smarter kids, shut coal plants“).

And then Friday, the Texas Freedom Network reported:

… the board stripped Thomas Jefferson from a world history standard about the influence of Enlightenment thinkers on political revolutions from the 1700s to today. In Jefferson’s place, the board’s religious conservatives succeeded in inserting Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin. They also removed the reference to ‘Enlightenment ideas’ in the standard, requiring that students should simply learn about the influence of the ‘writings’ of various thinkers (including Calvin and Aquinas).”

Hey, let’s just stop teaching “reason” and “thinking” entirely.  It  really just leads to our kids asking annoying questions and learning stuff.  Very dangerous.

The Dark Ages return: Texas Board of Education rewrites the Enlightenment

Friday, March 12, 2010

Climate Exchange sees shares climb on encouraging results

James Murray, BusinessGreen, Friday 12 March 2010 at 13:54:00

Pre-tax profits exceed expectations at carbon exchange specialist

Faltering confidence in the global carbon market received a shot in the arm this morning as the world's largest exchange for carbon credits, the London-based Climate Exchange, announced better-than-expected preliminary results for 2009.

The company, which operates the European Climate Exchange (ECX) and the Chicago Climate Futures Exchange (CCFE), saw its share price climb around 13 per cent to 535p after confirming that it recorded its first annual profit last year.

The company reported that pre-tax profits increased more than twofold to £6.8m, while revenue from its core businesses rose 48 per cent year on year to £33.6m. The firm also improved its cash position from £12.4m at the end of 2008 to £19.2m at the end of last year.

In addition, the volumes traded on its leading exchanges rose substantially, with the annual volume of trades on the ECX increasing 82 per cent to 5.1 billion tonnes and average daily trading volumes on the CCFE climbing by 183 per cent to 5,406 contracts. …

Climate Exchange sees shares climb on encouraging results

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New Gallup poll shows sharp partisan divide in understanding of climate change

Call this the “Ignorance Gap.”

Gallup poll on climate change, 11 March 2010.

Gallup poll on climate change, 11 March 2010.

The partisan divide on climate science has been growing for a while, as I discussed in a 2008 review of the Gallup polling.  No surprise, really, since the anti-science disinformation campaign uses “experts” that are more credible to conservatives, and that disinformation is repeated to death on conservative media outlets.

Now Gallup has updated its polling and just now released its own analysis, “Conservatives’ Doubts About Global Warming Grow,” with this fascinating ideological breakdown that shows how the divide has grown in the past 2 years: …

The disinformers are winning, but mostly with the GOP - New Gallup poll shows sharp partisan divide in understanding of climate change

Thursday, March 11, 2010

We bought a toxic asset; you can watch it die

By Chana Joffe-Walt and David Kestenbaum

Toxic assets — home mortgages packaged into complicated bonds that no one wanted to touch when the housing bubble collapsed — are starting to trade again.

Planet Money wanted to figure out how this chapter of financial history will end.

So we decided to buy a toxic asset of our own.

How We Found Our Toxic Asset

There's no store where you can buy toxic assets; you have to know a guy. We know Wit Solberg, a former Wall Street trader.

Solberg left Wall Street to set up his own shop, Mission Peak Capital, in Kansas City, Mo. He and a dozen guys sit at desks with their tools: monitors, potato chips, Snapple, chewing tobacco. Pretty much all day long, Solberg looks at those monitors and evaluates toxic assets.

"The big black Angus cow that everybody wants? We're not buying that cow because it's too expensive," he says. "We want the cow that's got a wounded leg, but she might produce a few more calves for us — and [she's] cheap."

Finally, we find a beautiful, totally toxic asset at what Solberg thinks is a good price: $36,000. Back in the bubble, somebody paid $2.7 million for this thing. We buy a piece from Solberg for $1,000. It's going to be our encyclopedia of the financial crisis.

What Our Toxic Asset Looks Like

Our toxic asset has 2,000 mortgages, many of them in hard-hit states like California, Arizona and Florida. A lot of the people in our bond are really struggling. Almost half are behind on their mortgage payments, and 15 percent of the homes are already in foreclosure.

At some point those homes will be taken over and sold for a loss. Every time that happens, the bond shrinks. Eventually, our part of the bond will disappear entirely.

Until then, we get a little money every month from people paying off their mortgages. We just got a check for $141. If it goes to Thanksgiving, we could double our money.  …

Tracking Our Toxic Asset

Tracking Our Toxic

Interactive: Tracking Our Toxic Asset

We Bought A Toxic Asset; You Can Watch It Die

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UK carbon market defies recession to clear £110bn mark

James Murray, BusinessGreen, Thursday 11 March 2010 at 00:15:00

New figures from UK Trade & Investment to show UK's low carbon industry grew over four per cent last year

The UK's low carbon market defied the recession throughout 2009, exceeding expectations to grow 4.3 per cent during the year to £112bn, according to new figures to be released later today.

The data, which was compiled by consultancy firm Innovas on behalf of UK Trade & Industry (UKTI), also revealed that over 900,000 people are now employed by businesses providing environmental goods and services.

In a further indication of the burgeoning strength of the carbon market, the carbon finance sector enjoyed the fastest growth rate of 7.9 per cent, followed closely by the wind energy industry which grew 6.5 per cent, and the solar market which grew six per cent.

The weak pound also helped drive exports of low carbon goods, with the UK solar industry alone seeing exports expand by around a quarter to over £1bn.

The full report will be released at a UKTI event in London later today where business minister Pat McFadden is expected to announce the launch of a new comprehensive government review of low carbon business opportunities. …

UK's low carbon market defies recession to clear £110bn mark

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Sushi chef, restaurant charged with serving endangered whale

Sei whale and calf, 01 April 2001 Portugal. Greenpeace 

(Reuters) - A California sushi chef and the restaurant in which he worked have been charged with illegally serving meat from an endangered Sei whale, the Justice Department said on Thursday.

Kiyoshiro Yamamoto, 45, and the parent company of the popular restaurant The Hump in Santa Monica were charged late on Wednesday with violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act which makes it illegal to sell any kind of whale meat.

The case stemmed from informants who ordered whale meat at the restaurant in October 2009 and evolved into a sting operation by U.S. wildlife and customs officials who observed whale meat being served at the restaurant last week.

"Someone should not be able to walk into a restaurant and order a plate of an endangered species," U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. said in a statement. …

Sushi chef, restaurant charged with serving endangered whale

Galaxy study validates general relativity on cosmic scale, existence of dark matter

A partial map of the distribution of galaxies in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, going out to a distance of 7 billion light years. The amount of galaxy clustering that we observe today is a signature of how gravity acted over cosmic time, and allows as to test whether general relativity holds over these scales. (Credit: M. Blanton, Sloan Digital Sky Survey) 

ScienceDaily (Mar. 10, 2010) — An analysis of more than 70,000 galaxies by University of California, Berkeley, University of Zurich and Princeton University physicists demonstrates that the universe -- at least up to a distance of 3.5 billion light years from Earth -- plays by the rules set out 95 years ago by Albert Einstein in his General Theory of Relativity.

By calculating the clustering of these galaxies, which stretch nearly one-third of the way to the edge of the universe, and analyzing their velocities and distortion from intervening material, the researchers have shown that Einstein's theory explains the nearby universe better than alternative theories of gravity.

One major implication of the new study is that the existence of dark matter is the most likely explanation for the observation that galaxies and galaxy clusters move as if under the influence of some unseen mass, in addition to the stars astronomers observe.

"The nice thing about going to the cosmological scale is that we can test any full, alternative theory of gravity, because it should predict the things we observe," said co-author Uros Seljak, a professor of physics and of astronomy at UC Berkeley, a faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and a professor of physics at the Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of Zurich. "Those alternative theories that do not require dark matter fail these tests."

In particular, the tensor-vector-scalar gravity (TeVeS) theory, which tweaks general relativity to avoid resorting to the existence of dark matter, fails the test.

The result conflicts with a report late last year that the very early universe, between 8 and 11 billion years ago, did deviate from the general relativistic description of gravity.

Galaxy study validates general relativity on cosmic scale, existence of dark matter

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Catalyst discovered that reduces CO2 by using light energy

graphic depicting interaction of microbes, sunlight, titanium oxide catalyst to convert CO2 into CO

Mar. 5, 2010

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – A recent discovery in understanding how to chemically break down the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into a useful form opens the doors for scientists to wonder what organism is out there – or could be created – to accomplish the task.

University of Michigan biological chemist Steve Ragsdale, along with research assistant Elizabeth Pierce and scientists led by Fraser Armstrong from the University of Oxford in the U.K., have figured out a way to efficiently turn carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide using visible light, like sunlight.

The results are reported in the recent online edition of the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Not only is it a demonstration that an abundant compound can be converted into a commercially useful compound with considerably less energy input than current methods, it also is a method not so different from what organisms regularly do.

“This is a first step in showing it’s possible, and imagine microbes doing something similar,” Ragsdale said. “I don’t know of any organism that uses light energy to activate carbon dioxide and reduce it to carbon monoxide, but I can imagine either finding an organism that can do it, or genetically engineering one to channel light energy to coax it to do that.”

In this collaboration between Ann Arbor and Oxford, Ragsdale’s laboratory at the U-M Medical School does the biochemistry and microbiology experiments and Armstrong’s lab performs the physical- and photochemical applications. 

Ragsdale and his associates succeeded in using an enzyme-modified titanium oxide to get carbon dioxide’s electrons excited and willing to jump to the enzyme, which then catalyzes the reduction of carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide. A photosensitizer that binds to the titanium allows the use of visible light for the process. The enzyme is more robust than other catalysts, willing to facilitate the conversion again and again. The trick: It can’t come near oxygen.

“By using this enzyme, you put it into a solution that contains titanium dioxide in the presence of a photosensitizer,” he said. “We looked for a way that seems like nature’s way of doing it, which is more efficient.” Armstrong notes that “essentially it shows what is possible were we to be able to mass-produce a catalyst with such properties”. …

Asking “what would nature do?” leads to a way to break down a greenhouse gas

Exclusive: Dr. George Woodwell sets the record straight

Science fights back.


The response to the [email] vandals is to bury them with the data and experience of a century of scholarly research and analysis. The information that is important in making the decisions as to how to manage our world is unequivocal and must be advanced, not as questions at the edge of scientific knowledge where scientist like to dwell, but as the facts that they are, facts as immutable as the law of gravity. The climatic disruption is not a theory open to a belief system any more than the solar system is a theory, or gravity, or the oceanic tides, or evolution.  This approach is uncompromising, partisan in the sense of selected for the purpose. It is not a lecture to undergraduates; nor is it ecology 101. It is a clear statement of what is required for government to do its job in protecting the public welfare. The scientific community has a firm responsibility in this realm now. This is not the time to wring our hands over the challenges to hyper-scientific objectivity, the purity of scholars, and to tie ourselves in knots with apologies for alleged errors of trifling import.

That’s the opening paragraph of a statement Dr. George M. Woodwell emailed me yesterday.  Woodwell, founder, Director Emeritus and Senior Scientist at the The Woods Hole Research Center, was responding to some “private e-mails obtained by [the uber conservative newspaper] The Washington Times,” including one of his that has been misrepresented.

Since Woodwell has blogged here before, I asked him to clarify his original use of the word “partisan,” since I was pretty sure he was not using it in its Washingon, DC political sense, as some have implied.  He wasn’t.  In addition to his statement, he sent me a remarkable piece of 1988 Senate testimony he gave (reprinted below), which makes clear he has been at the forefront of warning the public about the dangers of human caused global warming.

His statement continues:

The fact is that we, humans, have changed the composition of the atmosphere with respect to heat-trapping gases enough to start the progression of global climate, not into a new steady state, but into an open-ended warming that is pulling the environment out from under this civilization. If one wonders where that process leads, one need not look far around the world to find dysfunctional landscapes. Have a quick look at New Orleans, the Gulf Coast, or Haiti before the earthquake.  All have fallen far below any point where internal resources can be used to restore a nation with a functional political system, a vital economy, and a functional environment. They have fallen into an abyss, beyond rescue without massive outside aid that will, first, restore a functional landscape to produce, for instance, a water supply, and stable agriculture, and a fishery. Something to build an economy around, and to support a government. …

Exclusive: Dr. George Woodwell sets the record straight

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Thermocell harvests energy from hot exhaust pipes

By Colin Barras, 12:54 09 March 2010 

The hot gases passing through a vehicle's exhaust could be tapped to generate power, using "cuffs" made from a new carbon-nanotube-based material. The "thermocell" produces electricity at a similar cost per watt as commercial solar cells.

All around us there are opportunities to soak up wasted heat and convert it into electricity, says Ray Baughman, who works on thermocells with colleagues at the University of Texas at Dallas. Car exhaust pipes and power stations are just two forms of technology that waste a lot of heat and could be improved by building thermocells into their designs to recover lost energy.

However, to date the most effective thermocells have been based around expensive platinum electrodes, making them impractical. Baughman and colleagues have now shown that cheaper carbon nanotubes can be used instead, because the nanotubes pack a huge surface area into a tiny volume, and electrons transfer quickly between the electrolyte and nanotube electrodes. They have made thermocells three times as efficient as any before.

The basic design is simple. Each thermocell contains two electrodes, positioned at either end of a temperature gradient: for example, one right next to a hot pipe and the other closer to the surrounding cooler air.

In between is a chemical mix, in which the heat encourages chemical reactions that push electrons around an external circuit. Ions in the mix shed electrons at the hotter electrode and pick up electrons at the cooler one to complete the circuit.

One of the team's thermocell designs is intended to be wrapped around a hot pipe, inspired by the fact that heat leaks out from such structures in many situations, such as chemical factories and power plants. "You could harvest energy from the tailpipe of a car," adds Baughman. …

Nanotube cuff is 'solar cell' for exhaust pipes

India backs Copenhagen Accord - last major carbon emitter to do so

indian parliament photo 

photo: Kartikeya Kaul via flickr.

By Matthew McDermott, New York, NY on 03. 9.10

India, the world's last major emitter to formally back the Copenhagen Accord, has done so. Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said the decision reflected India's contributions in shaping the Accord. Ramesh went on to list the three conditions under which India will participate:

India the world's last major emitter to formally back the Copenhagen Accord has done so. Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said the decision reflected India's contributions in shaping the Accord. Ramesh went on to list the three conditions under which India will participate:

1) The Accord is a political document and not a legally binding one. (Well we knew that...)

2) The Accord is not a separate negotiating track outside the UNFCCC framework. (Something discussed as a possibility due to the perceived increasingly unwieldy nature of trying to get so many countries to agree...)

3) The purpose of the Accord is to bring consensus in the ongoing two-track UNFCCC process. (Too bad the consensus is still not enough action quickly enough...)

India Backs Copenhagen Accord - Last Major Emitter To Do So

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Regional rainfall in a warming world

Simulation of computer models of different design, here is a robust pattern of enhanced rainfall across the equatorial Pacific during the first half of the 21st Century under a 'business and usual' scenario of carbon dioxide emissions.

By John D. Cox | Fri Mar 5, 2010 05:15 PM ET

Slowly but surely, a picture of climate change at the regional scale -- where it really matters -- is beginning to take shape.

Apart from the obvious warming at the high polar latitudes, which already is affecting Arctic sea ice, the rate of Greenland ice cap melting, and Antarctic ice shelves, new details are beginning to emerge about the impact of global warming in the Tropics -- the boiler-room of Earth's climate and weather.

This is the home of El Niño, and the generator of Asian monsoons, the towering cumulonimbus storms that deliver water vapor to the atmosphere and drive patterns of rainfall over much of the world.

In the March issue of the Journal of Climate, a team of University of Hawaii researchers led by meteorologist Shang-Ping Xie offers a preliminary look at what a relatively uniform warming does to a climate system that is chock o'block with regional patches of hot and cold and wet and dry. …

Regional Rainfall in a Warming World

Evidence provided in UK Parliamentary inquiry into climate scientists was prepared by oil and gas industry consultant

Just so we’re all clear on the forces behind the persecution of climate scientists:

The Institute of Physics, London. This week the body was forced to clarify its submission to the parliamentary climate emails inquiry. Photograph: Rex Features / Jeff Blackler

The Guardian just broke the news that a consultant to Shell and other oil and gas interests was the source of ‘evidence’ provided by the Institute of Physics in the current UK parliamentary review of the controversy in England over climate scientists’ emails stolen from servers at the University of East Anglia.

The Guardian reports:

“Evidence from a respected scientific body to a parliamentary inquiry examining the behaviour of climate-change scientists, was drawn from an energy industry consultant who argues that global warming is a religion” …

The Guardian has established that the institute prepared its evidence, which was highly critical of the CRU scientists, after inviting views from Peter Gill, an IOP official who is head of a company in Surrey called Crestport Services.

According to Gill, Crestport offers "consultancy and management support services … particularly within the energy and energy intensive industries worldwide", and says that it has worked with "oil and gas production companies including Shell, British Gas, and Petroleum Development Oman".

Gill's LinkedIn profile reveals that, in addition to his post at IOP, he works for the Energy Institute, a "leading professional body for the energy industries" that advocates "the safe, environmentally responsible and efficient supply and use of energy in all its forms," and that he started his career with an outfit called Coal Processing Consultants LTD.

Perhaps the parliamentary inquiry should pause for a second to ask Gill and the Institute of Physics a few questions, especially in light of the fact that the IOP was recently forced to issue a clarification stating that the evidence it submitted on the topic of the CRU hack “does not undermine the scientific basis for climate change.” …

Evidence Provided In UK Parliamentary Inquiry Into Climate Scientists Was Prepared By Oil and Gas Industry Consultant

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Asteroid killed off the dinosaurs, says international scientific panel

An artist's rendering of the moment of impact when an enormous space rock struck the Yucatán peninsula at the end of the Cretaceous Period. (Credit: Don Davis, NASA)

ScienceDaily (Mar. 4, 2010) — The Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction, which wiped out the dinosaurs and more than half of species on Earth, was caused by an asteroid colliding with Earth and not massive volcanic activity, according to a comprehensive review of all the available evidence, published in the journal Science.

A panel of 41 international experts, including UK researchers from Imperial College London, the University of Cambridge, University College London and the Open University, reviewed 20 years' worth of research to determine the cause of the Cretaceous-Tertiary (KT) extinction, which happened around 65 million years ago. The extinction wiped out more than half of all species on the planet, including the dinosaurs, bird-like pterosaurs and large marine reptiles, clearing the way for mammals to become the dominant species on Earth.

The new review of the evidence shows that the extinction was caused by a massive asteroid slamming into Earth at Chicxulub (pronounced chick-shoo-loob) in Mexico. The asteroid, which was around 15 kilometres wide, is believed to have hit Earth with a force one billion times more powerful than the atomic bomb at Hiroshima. It would have blasted material at high velocity into the atmosphere, triggering a chain of events that caused a global winter, wiping out much of life on Earth in a matter of days.

Scientists have previously argued about whether the extinction was caused by the asteroid or by volcanic activity in the Deccan Traps in India, where there were a series of super volcanic eruptions that lasted approximately 1.5 million years. These eruptions spewed 1,100,000 km3 of basalt lava across the Deccan Traps, which would have been enough to fill the Black Sea twice, and were thought to have caused a cooling of the atmosphere and acid rain on a global scale.

In the new study, scientists analysed the work of palaeontologists, geochemists, climate modellers, geophysicists and sedimentologists who have been collecting evidence about the KT extinction over the last 20 years. Geological records show that the event that triggered the extinction destroyed marine and land ecosystems rapidly, according to the researchers, who conclude that the Chicxulub asteroid impact is the only plausible explanation for this. …

Asteroid killed off the dinosaurs, says international scientific panel

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Intelligent Designers Enlist Climate Skeptics in the War on Reality

This was inevitable.

Ross Gelbspan's picture

Ross Gelbspan

Critics of the teaching of evolution in the nation’s classrooms are gaining ground in some states by linking the issue to global warming, arguing that dissenting views on both scientific subjects should be taught in public schools. The linkage of evolution and global warming is partly a legal strategy: courts have found that singling out evolution for criticism in public schools is a violation of the separation of church and state. By insisting that global warming also be debated, deniers of evolution can argue that they are simply championing academic freedom in general. They are also capitalizing on rising public resistance in some quarters to accepting the science of global warming, particularly among political conservatives who oppose efforts to rein in emissions of greenhouse gases.

Intelligent Designers Enlist Climate Skeptics in the War on Reality

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

South Dakota legislature declares that astrology can explain global warming

Of course, they meant “astronomy,” but apparently South Dakota legislators don’t know the difference.

Dr. Steven Salzberg is the Director of the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology and the Horvitz Professor of Computer Science at the University of Maryland, College ParkBy Steven Salzberg

Here in the U.S. we have a never-ending competition among the states to see which one can enact the dumbest laws. This past week, the South Dakota House of Representatives passed a law that tells schoolteachers how to present the evidence for global warming. The lawmakers who wrote the bill clearly don’t believe that global warming is a reality, so they simply created a law to promote their version of reality. Interestingly, they used the same strategy used by creationists in their efforts to ban the teaching of evolution: the “teach the controversy” approach, where you claim you simply want children to hear both sides of the issue. But the part that really got my attention was the law’s claim that “astrological dynamics” are one of the driving forces behind global climate change.

The South Dakota bill, which was passed 36-30 (not all the legislators are idiots; here’s the roll call vote), includes a number of delightful errors, which are worth examining one by one. Let’s start with the most entertaining claim:

That there are a variety of climatological, meteorological, astrological, thermological, cosmological, and ecological dynamics that can effect (sic) world weather phenomena and that the significance and interrelativity of these factors is largely speculative.

Wow! The South Dakota legislature has declared, by majority vote, that the ancient pseudoscience of astrology “can effect world weather”! Astrology, of course, is a superstitious belief that the movements of stars and planets can affect our daily lives here on Earth, a belief that has no basis in science. Some people – including, apparently, the South Dakota legislature – still take it seriously, although most view astrological forecasts as light entertainment.

(Perhaps South Dakota was jealous of all the attention that creationists are getting by attempting to legislate the teaching of creationism in other states. Bradford Plumer over at The New Republic thinks this is their attempt to win the “dumbest state in the nation” prize.) …

South Dakota legislature declares that astrology can explain global warming