Aug 31, 2011

"The greater our knowledge increases, the more our ignorance unfolds."

-John F. Kennedy

Aug 30, 2011

Don't Believe the Doom & Gloom

The BEA reported today that real consumer spending increased in July to $9.428 trillion (2005 dollars), setting a new monthly record (see chart above).  Consumer spending in July increased by 0.46% from June, and by 2.3% from a year ago.  That was the highest monthly increase in consumer spending since December 2009, 19 months ago.  By major product type, the largest increase in July was the 2% jump in spending by consumers on durable goods.

In comparison to the cyclical peak in December 2007 when the recession started, real consumer spending in July was 1.1% and $100.4 billion above that pre-recession level.  Despite low readings for consumer confidence based on survey data, the spending data tell a different story: consumer spending is coming back strong to new record levels almost every month.  

Aug 29, 2011

Next Gen Nukes

Safety Plan The Generation III+ reactors at the Vogtle facility in Georgia will feature a passive safety system to safeguard the plant in the absence of power. Kevin Hand
In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster in March, the appetite for new nuclear power plants slipped to post-Chernobyl lows. Regulators from Italy to Switzerland to Texas moved to stop pending nuclear-power projects, and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) began to reevaluate the safety of all domestic plants. Yet nuclear power still provides 20 percent of America’s total electric power and 70 percent of its emissions-free energy, in large part because no alternative energy source can match its efficiency.
One nuclear plant with a footprint of one square mile provides the energy equivalent of 20 square miles of solar panels, 1,200 windmills or the entire Hoover Dam. If the country wants to significantly reduce its dependence on carbon-based energy, it will need to build more nuclear power plants. The question is how to do so safely.
In the 30 years since regulators last approved the construction of a new nuclear plant in the U.S., engineers have improved reactor safety considerably. (You can see some of the older, not-so-safe ones in this sweet gallery.) The newest designs, called Generation III+, are just beginning to come online. (Generation I plants were early prototypes; Generation IIs were built from the 1960s to the 1990s and include the facility at Fukushima; and Generation IIIs began operating in the late 1990s, though primarily in Japan, France and Russia.)
Unlike their predecessors, most Generation III+ reactors have layers of passive safety elements designed to stave off a meltdown, even in the event of power loss. Construction of the first Generation III+ reactors is well under way in Europe. China is also in the midst of building at least 30 new plants. In the U.S., the Southern Company recently broke ground on the nation’s first Generation III+ reactors at the Vogtle nuclear plant near Augusta, Georgia. The first of two reactors is due to come online in 2016.
(Click the above image for more details.)

Aug 27, 2011


"Luck is a dividend of sweat. The more you sweat, the luckier you get."

- Ray Arthur Kroc

Aug 26, 2011

Space Golf

What will it be like to do ordinary things on the extraordinary alien worlds of our solar system? For instance, will we still play our favorite games? In 1971, during the Apollo 14 mission, astronaut Alan Shepard hit a few golf balls on Earth's moon, where the gravity is six times weaker than on Earth. But what if you took a swing on Hyperion, where the gravity is 500 times weaker than on Earth? How gently would you have to swing to prevent the ball from going into orbit?

Click here to investigate/play.  Some great pictures!

Aug 25, 2011

Energy Star

The Energy Star program has been working on making its qualifications stricter, but across all the appliances there are still many bearing the label that aren't really that much of an improvement over other models.  To make it clearer which appliances are really the best of the best, Energy Star will now identify the top tier appliances with a "Most Efficient" label.

The new label will apply to just 5 percent of Energy Star washing machines, heating and cooling equipment, televisions and refrigerators/freezers.  The EPA may add more categories of appliances later this year.

To give you an idea of what the new label means, for refrigerators/freezers to earn the "Most Efficient" title, they have to be 30 percent more efficient than standard models, while TVs will have to be about 80 percent more efficient that standard models.  Out of the existing 1,800 refrigerators and freezers that are Energy Star certified, only 15 qualify for the new label, while only 18 out of the 1,400 Energy Star TVs qualify.

Aug 23, 2011

The King Is Dead!

I always found these "King" commercials a little more than creepy.

This is the only time I will say I am glad the "King" is dead.

At least I know the difference between a Birthday and a Death :o)

Aug 22, 2011

No Compromise!

"Don't compromise yourself. You are all you've got."

- Janis Joplin

Aug 20, 2011


"Things do not change; we change."

-Henry David Thoreau

Aug 19, 2011

Philosophical Phun – Free Choice?

As far as science is concerned, free will is tricky. Most of us seem to think that we, at least some of the time, face genuine choices and are responsible for the decisions we make. I can choose to drive or take the bus. I can help the needy or help myself. I can choose to be with this person or that one. In the West, our entire legal system hinges on whether doing one thing over another is up to us. If it is, we're responsible for our actions and should pay the penalty for making bad choices.

But this is not squaring well with a modern view of the world. Many scientists and philosophers are realizing that if the rest of the world is governed by natural laws and chance and humans are a part of the world, then humans must be governed by natural laws and chance too. Consider this argument by philosopher Galen Strawson. He says that in order to ultimately be responsible for our actions, we would have to be responsible for the way we now are since the things that define us--our beliefs, desires, goals, environment--provide the basis for the decisions we make. But much of the factors that contributed to the way we now are were out of our control. We aren't responsible for our DNA. We didn't choose our parents or where we were born and grew up. We had little influence over the schools we attended or why we may like red wines over white. So, since we're not responsible for much of the way we now are, we can't ultimately be responsible for our actions.

"Scientists will discover an increasing level of molecular detail about the inherited factors that undergird our personalities, but that should not lead us to overestimate their quantitative contribution. Yes, we have all been dealt a particular set of cards, and the cards will eventually be revealed. But how we play the hand is up to us."

This approach focuses more on what experience seems to present us with (or what a sacred text teaches) rather than what we come to learn by analyzing facts about the world. It comes down to how much we trust our intuitions.

I think that the answer is somewhere in between.  As a species, our progression is limited by natural laws and chance, but our day-to-day existence provides many opportunities for choice, and it is those choices that we must be held accountable for.


Aug 18, 2011

Decisions, Decisions

We all have to make decisions about how to spend our time, energy, and money. Ask yourself, “Will this decision make me happier?” 
1. Is this decision likely to strengthen my relationships with other people? 
2. Will this decision provide me with novelty and challenge?
3. What is the opportunity cost of this decision? Energy, time, and money are limited, what will you have to give up?
4. Does this decision help you be yourself? 
5. When you consider a particular course of action, do you feel energized or drained?
6. How happy are the people who have made that particular decision? 

Aug 17, 2011

Bike the Country!

A plan that originated in the 1980s to build a system of interstate bike paths has come back to life after lying dormant for 30 years. Only two stretches of bike interstate were established back then:  U.S. Bicycle Route 1 from Virginia to North Carolina (initially planned to run from Florida to Maine) and U.S. Bicycle Route 76 from Virginia to Illinois (initially planned to run from Virginia to Oregon), but new routes may soon cover the whole country.

The Association of American State Highway and Transportation Officials has already approved six new routes. Four of these will be in Alaska, one will span Michigan's lower peninsula and one will go from New Hampshire to Maine.  Another 15 have made it past the planning phase.  The ultimate goal is to have a nationwide system of bicycle routes, and 42 states have expressed support for the plan.

If you're curious, the eight states that haven't jumped onboard yet are Alabama, Hawaii, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and South Carolina.

AASHTO has created a full map with prioritized routes marked.  It's a sight to behold.

Aug 16, 2011

Dogs Drool, Cats Rule, and Bucko Won :o)

Thanks Wildcat.  Watch to see the winning caption, and for crying out loud, follow him!

Science Scene - Waste Not

Clean Machine After a weeklong cruise, a typical 3,000-passenger cruise ship may hold nearly 200,000 gallons of wastewater in toilets—a problem, inventor Namon Nassef says, that the ZLD could easily eliminate. John B. Carnett
When Namon Nassef had to buy a new engine for his boat, he saw an opportunity. He could finally install the invention he had been working on, a machine he calls the Zero Liquid Discharge Sewage Elimination System (ZLD). The device uses engine heat to oxidize and evaporate toilet, shower and galley waste.
A typical combustion engine makes use of only 30 to 35 percent of the energy contained in fuel; the rest escapes as heat through the radiator or the exhaust. The microwave-oven-size ZLD puts that exhaust heat to work. When a passenger flushes a boat’s toilet or drains the waste-containment tank, the wastewater runs through a pipe to the ZLD, which can be installed anywhere in the craft. First the waste enters the machine’s equalization tank, which grinds it into pieces a quarter of an inch or smaller in diameter. Next it moves to the homogenizer, a container with three sets of blades that dissolve solids into 0.002-inch-diameter particles. Then an injector pump pressurizes the waste stream and sprays it through a nozzle into the engine’s exhaust system as a fine aerosol.
The exhaust of an idling engine is at least 550°F, which is hot enough to flashevaporate the waste and thermally oxidize the organic materials. Quite simply, the device can break down anything organic that’s put into it. The process eliminates all odors, Nassef says, and the main by-products are carbon dioxide and clean water vapor.
How It Works: Zero Liquid Discharge: Waste flows from the boat’s toilet to an equalization tank, which breaks it into small pieces. The material next moves into the homogenizer, a container where it gets chopped into particles. The injector pump pressurizes the material and sprays it through a nozzle into the engine’s exhaust system, where the heat cleans it.

Nassef built a ZLD prototype in 2004 from washing-machine parts and a five-gallon paint bucket. The current version, his 11th update, uses only as much energy as ten 100-watt lightbulbs, sterilizes waste without any of the harsh chemicals of other portable toilet-waste-disposal systems, and can be scaled up or down. In 2007 it earned a certificate of approval from the U.S. Coast Guard for marine sanitation devices.
Nassef is starting with boats, but the ZLD has the potential to work in just about any vehicle with hot-enough exhaust and a toilet. He’s drawn interest from RV manufacturers and the U.S. military, which often resorts to burning waste with jet fuel (at a total cost of $400 per gallon) at its forward operating bases. Another promising market is airlines, which could plug the ZLD into existing toilets, allowing some planes to shed up to 500 pounds of wastewater weight over the course of a flight.

Aug 15, 2011


Politics History of Politics


1. (Government, Politics & Diplomacy) (functioning as singular) the practice or study of the art and science of forming, directing, and administrating states and other political units; the art and science of government; political science
2. (Government, Politics & Diplomacy) (functioning as singular) the complex or aggregate of relationships of people in society, esp those relationships involving authority or power

Political "truth" comes down to an agreement among a particular social group as defined by the political or legal system in question. In order to be effective in these systems, one must have the power of persuasion: the ability to dialogue and simmer down disparate ideas until there is a general (though not, of course, universal) agreement. If one resorts to preaching or dictating political or legal truth, one has abandoned social discourse and so is not doing politics any longer.  This is the part of the equation that our politicians seem to have forgotten.

Aug 13, 2011

Overdue Picture Posting

Finally got the camera software loaded on my laptop, so here are a couple of New Orleans Swamp pictures from May, and two Shuttle Pictures from July.  My Bad.  At least the camera seems to be working again.

Iowa - Corn Pole?

Photo credit: mattdente/Creative Commons

The U.S. state of Iowa is an agricultural superpower, simultaneously eclipsing Canada in grain production and challenging China in soybean production.

Last year Iowa's farmers harvested 55 million tons of grain while Canada's farmers harvested only 45 million tons. Over the last five years, Iowa has averaged 57 million tons a year to Canada's 49 million tons.
Graph on Grain Production in Iowa and Canada, 1960-2010
While Canada has more than 30 million acres in grain, mostly wheat, Iowa has only 13 million acres in grain, almost entirely corn. The difference in yield per acre is huge, just 1.4 tons in Canada against more than 4 tons in Iowa.
With soybeans, Iowa produced 13 million tons in 2010 while China produced 15 million tons, mirroring their average production figures over the past five years. While Iowa has less than 10 million acres in soybeans, China has 22 million acres. Yield per acre in Iowa is 1.4 tons, exactly double the 0.7 tons of China.
Graph on Soybean Production in Iowa and China, 1964-2010
The bottom line: Iowa is at the heart of the U.S. Corn Belt, a phenomenally productive piece of agricultural real estate. It enables the United States, with only 4 percent of the world's people, to produce 40 percent of the world's corn, the leading grain, and 35 percent of its soybeans.


Aug 12, 2011

Science Scene - NASA's Orion Makes a Splash

Splashdown Test The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle test undergoes a drop test at the Hydro Impact Basin (HIB) July 21, 2011. NASA
Next-generation spacecraft will not land on runways. Instead they’ll splash down in the ocean a la Apollo, Mercury and Gemini.
NASA just completed building a million-gallon pool to test these splashes, and managers have been dunking a test model of the space agency’s next crew vehicle.
The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle “boilerplate test article,” which weighs 22,700 pounds, is attached to a special gantry — think of a person swinging on a rope out over a lake — and dropped into the Hydro Impact Basin. In the video below, it was going about 24 mph at impact.
The $1.7 million Hydro Impact Basin will help prove that the Orion capsule can withstand a splashdown. Other future space capsules will also be tested in this manner.
NASA is planning additional drop tests at higher speeds throughout the summer.

Aug 11, 2011

Dander Up?

You've heard the commercials for allergy treatments; they all promise relief  from the symptoms of allergies.  But now, researchers from the University of Nottingham in the UK have found the secret to what causes a very common allergy - cat allergies.  Their discovery could lead to a whole new class of drugs that attack allergies at their first point of contact, so that symptoms of allergy and asthma never develop at all.

Cat dander, the microscopic flakes of a cat's skin, causes the most common pet allergy.  What the Nottingham epidemiologists, led by Dr. Amir Ghaemmaghami, discovered is a single protein in human dendritic cells that is affected by cat dander.  That cell, isolated, is the first affected by  the cat allergens, and is the first cell in the chain reaction of symptoms... the itchy, watery eyes, sneezes, rashes, asthma symptoms, et al.  These allergy-susceptible dendritic proteins are the mannose receptors,and the researchers found that they are not only susceptible to cat allergens, but dog allergens, dust mites and, possibly, hay fever and other allergens. The mannose receptors are found on the skin and in the nose, lungs, and stomach.

Ghaemmaghami and his team, whose study is published in the journal The Journal of Biological Chemistryare already at work on several possible drug solutions aimed at attacking the allergens at the first point of entry, hoping to keep the symptoms at bay, or at least to a minimum.

Aug 10, 2011

Philosophical Phun - Buddha

The Buddha's basic teachings are usually summarized using the device of the Four Noble Truths:
  1. There is suffering.
  2. There is the origination of suffering.
  3. There is the cessation of suffering.
  4. There is a path to the cessation of suffering.
The first of these claims might seem obvious, even when ‘suffering’ is understood to mean not mere pain but existential suffering, the sort of frustration, alienation and despair that arise out of our experience of transitoriness. But there are said to be different levels of appreciation of this truth, some quite subtle and difficult to attain; the highest of these is said to involve the realization that everything is of the nature of suffering. Perhaps it is sufficient for present purposes to point out that while this is not the implausible claim that all of life's states and events are necessarily experienced as unsatisfactory, still the realization that all (oneself included) is impermanent can undermine a precondition for real enjoyment of the events in a life: that such events are meaningful by virtue of their having a place in an open-ended narrative.

It is with the development and elaboration of (2) that substantive philosophical controversy begins. (2) is the simple claim that there are causes and conditions for the arising of suffering. (3) then makes the obvious point that if the origination of suffering depends on causes, future suffering can be prevented by bringing about the cessation of those causes. (4) specifies a set of techniques that are said to be effective in such cessation.

Much then hangs on the correct identification of the causes of suffering. The answer is traditionally spelled out in a list consisting of twelve links in a causal chain that begins with ignorance and ends with suffering (represented by the states of old age, disease and death).

The Twelve Nidānas (causes) describe a causal connection between the subsequent characteristics or conditions of cyclic existence, each one giving rise to the next:
  1. Avidyā: ignorance, specifically spiritual ignorance of the nature of reality[45]
  2. Saṃskāras: literally formations, explained as referring to karma
  3. Vijñāna: consciousness, specifically discriminative[46]
  4. Nāmarūpa: literally name and form, referring to mind and body[47]
  5. Ṣaḍāyatana: the six sense bases: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind-organ
  6. Sparśa: variously translated contact, impression, stimulation (by a sense object)
  7. Vedanā: usually translated feeling: this is the "hedonic tone", i.e. whether something is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral
  8. Tṛṣṇā: literally thirst, but in Buddhism nearly always used to mean craving
  9. Upādāna: clinging or grasping; the word also means fuel, which feeds the continuing cycle of rebirth
  10. Bhava: literally being (existence) or becoming. (The Theravada explains this as having two meanings: karma, which produces a new existence, and the existence itself.)[48]
  11. Jāti: literally birth, but life is understood as starting at conception[49]
  12. Jarāmaraṇa: (old age and death) and also śokaparidevaduḥkhadaurmanasyopāyāsa (sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and misery)

Source 1  and Source 2.

Aug 9, 2011

Science Scene - Styrofoam Ban?

Sandwiches, milkshakes and other food items frequently packaged in foam takeout containers will have to be packaged in other materials under a bill that cleared the state Senate on Thursday. SB 568 by Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) would prohibit food vendors and restaurants from dispensing prepared foods to customers in polystyrene foam beginning Jan. 1, 2014.
Expanded polystyrene foam, commonly known as Styrofoam, is a lightweight plastic that, when littered, is often carried from streets through storm drains into the ocean. It accounts for 15% of storm drain litter, according to the California Department of Transportation. It is the second-most-common type of beach debris, according to a study by the Southern California Coastal Water Quality Research Project.
Fifty California jurisdictions have already banned foam takeout food packaging, including Huntington Beach, Santa Monica, Malibu and Ventura County.
SB 568 passed on a bipartisan 21-15 vote. The bill is headed to the Assembly, with a floor vote by the end of August.

Aug 8, 2011

What's In It For Me?

I happen to believe that the only way to really get serious about our deficit problem is to reform both the tax code and our entitlement programs.  Our overall tax rates are the lowest they have been in decades, and our payments to individuals (entitlements) continue to rise.  I think there should be more means testing for social security and medicare, as well as gradual increasing of the age when benefits kick in, and that our payments to address the poor should be increased.  This will not be fixed without some pain being felt for all.

Over the last month, we've heard endless debates on federal spending, federal spending as a share of GDP, the $14 trillion ever-increasing federal debt, the the federal debt as a share of GDP, spending cuts as a condition to raise the debt limit, possible revenue/tax increases, a possible balanced budget amendment later, etc.  

In 2010, the OMB reports (Table 6.1 Composition of Outlays, 1940-2016) that the federal government spent $3.45 trillion, and made about $2.3 trillion in "payments to individuals," which was about two-thirds (66.13%) of total federal spending last year, the highest ever in history (see top chart above).   And that category was more than three times larger than the share of 2010 federal spending on defense (20.1%) and more than 11 times larger than the share spent on net interest (5.7%).   

Where does all that money go? The bottom chart displays a percentage breakdown of the $2.3 trillion in payments to individuals for 2010, and shows that more than 76% of those payments were for Social Security and Medicare, about 14.4% was for spending on the poor (public assistance, food assistance, and housing assistance), 7% on unemployment insurance payments, and 2.4% on student assistance. 


Aug 6, 2011

Excellent Article: The taking of Osama Bin Laden

When James, the squadron commander, spoke, he started by citing all the forward operating bases in eastern Afghanistan that had been named for SEALs killed in combat. “Everything we have done for the last ten years prepared us for this,” he told Obama. The President was “in awe of these guys,” Ben Rhodes, the deputy national-security adviser, who travelled with Obama, said. “It was an extraordinary base visit,” he added. “They knew he had staked his Presidency on this. He knew they staked their lives on it.”

As James talked about the raid, he mentioned Cairo’s role. “There was a dog?” Obama interrupted. James nodded and said that Cairo was in an adjoining room, muzzled, at the request of the Secret Service.

“I want to meet that dog,” Obama said.

“If you want to meet the dog, Mr. President, I advise you to bring treats,” James joked. Obama went over to pet Cairo, but the dog’s muzzle was left on.

Afterward, Obama and his advisers went into a second room, down the hall, where others involved in the raid—including logisticians, crew chiefs, and SEAL alternates—had assembled. Obama presented the team with a Presidential Unit Citation and said, “Our intelligence professionals did some amazing work. I had fifty-fifty confidence that bin Laden was there, but I had one-hundred-per-cent confidence in you guys. You are, literally, the finest small-fighting force that has ever existed in the world.” The raiding team then presented the President with an American flag that had been on board the rescue Chinook. Measuring three feet by five, the flag had been stretched, ironed, and framed. The SEALs and the pilots had signed it on the back; an inscription on the front read, “From the Joint Task Force Operation Neptune’s Spear, 01 May 2011: ‘For God and country. Geronimo.’ ” Obama promised to put the gift “somewhere private and meaningful to me.” Before the President returned to Washington, he posed for photographs with each team member and spoke with many of them, but he left one thing unsaid. He never asked who fired the kill shot, and the SEALs never volunteered to tell him.

The above is a very small sample of the excellent New Yorker Magazine article.  Click the link for the full nine pages, but be prepared to spend some time.  It is an excellent read.

Aug 4, 2011


"Leadership is a matter of having people look at you and gain confidence, seeing how you react. If you're in control, they're in control."

- Tom Landry

Aug 3, 2011

Science Scene - Space Camp :o)

A team of student engineers at North Carolina State University is planning for a camping trip way off the beaten path. Meshing textile and aerospace engineering know-how, the team has created an inflatable, tent-like habitat tough enough to protect astronauts bedding down on the Martian surface. They’ve even built in a lightweight Sabatier reactor that can produce water, fuel, and oxygen from Mars’ carbon dioxide-rich environment.
The challenge was to build a lightweight, collapsable structure that--unlike NASA’s current range of spacefaring materials--isn’t heavy, rigid, and voluminous. The 1,900-square-foot living space the team designed is a blend of materials that includes Demron, a commercially available textile used in various radiation- and heat-proof hazmat implements (nuclear workers cleaning up Japan’s current radioactive mess are wearing the stuff).

A polyurethane substrate gives the material rigidity when inflated, and a gold-metalicized film that reflects UV rays provides additional protection. The habitat’s dome shape is also optimized to repel the incoming meteorites that regularly pelt the Martian surface.

Perhaps more importantly, this Mars habitat will integrate a better, more spaceworthy Sabatier reactor than the ones currently used in space (the Sabatier process involves using a nickel catalyst to cause a reaction between carbon dioxide and hydrogen at high temperatures that produces water and methane).
There is currently a Sabatier reactor aboard the International Space Station, but it includes long, weighty tubes filled with nickel pellets--hardly ideal for packing on a deep space journey where every pound must be accounted for. The NCSU team’s answer: a nickel nanoparticle coated fiber material that can still create the reaction without the bulk and weight of those tubes.
Though it will be decades before such a tent might be pitched upon Martian terrain, the student team is wasting no time getting their technologies in front of the people who can help get it there. They will present their inflatable habitat to the NASA-sponsored RASCAL (that’s Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts Academic Linkage) competition next week.