Archive for February, 2006

return of cat blogging

Friday, February 24th, 2006

Zoe and the new Sideris-Crouch offspring. Safely ensconced in Indiana.

(Great pic, Robert. I can just hear the other parents screaming at the Internet. Keep that cat away from the baby! Let me assure everyone: that thing Zoe does with baby dolls, she’d never do with real babies 😉 )

wireless hazardous to your health

Friday, February 24th, 2006

Lakehead University, in in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, has decided not to install wireless on campus because of health concerns.

The safety of chronic, long-term exposure to electromagnetic energy, of which radio waves are a part, is a hotly contested scientific subject. Researchers have conducted hundreds of studies assessing the health impacts of this form of energy, studying not only radio waves, but related topics, such as microwaves and the electromagnetic fields around electric wiring.

With the profusion of cellphone towers, wireless networks and electricity using electronic devices, exposure levels are rising rapidly across the globe.

But most studies have been unable to prove conclusively that common, everyday exposures are a health hazard. In response, regulatory bodies around the world have usually concluded that there is no reason for public concern.

The university instead will rely on and augment its existing fibre optic network. This actually handles some of the bandwidth problem experienced by universities. Increasingly students expect ubiquitous Internet connectivity — wherever you are on campus, you can connect. They don’t often connect their low bandwidth to the number of users on the network. However, this is becoming a huge strain on campus networks. Increasing capacity is expensive and university IT departments find all sorts of innovative ways to finance the growth, like downloading costs to neighboring academic departments. Wonder why tuition or user fees are going up? Here’s one reason.

Also, I appreciate the logical consistency of a university taking a stand on a health issue. Universities talk a lot about protecting the health of their student and staff population. Here they’re taking the precautionary principle under consideration and, in the absense of definitive evidence that the waves are safe, are being proactive. This step won’t make the administration a lot of friends. (Of course, it’s easy for me to say. I’m sitting here in the comfort of my own electromagnetic radiation…)

Read to the last paragraph.

computers that aid recycling

Thursday, February 23rd, 2006

Not recycling computers but using computers to boost recycling. The idea is that you pay people to recycle. Computers are used to track that recycling and calculate the renumeration.

It’s called RecycleBank.

Households get credit for the weight of materials they recycle, which is scanned and recorded through a computer chip embedded in the garbage bins when they are picked up by the sanitation crew. They exchange that credit for coupons at various businesses. Municipal officials save disposal fees. Recycling companies make more money from processing. Retailers gain the feel-good association with a socially beneficial activity.

RecycleBank charges municipalities (or private haulers, depending on the arrangement) $24 a household, and guarantees clients that they will save at least that much in disposal fees as waste is diverted from landfills and incinerators. The company also receives revenue from recycling plants, depending on how much it increases the amount of materials that are processed.

The computer chip is a radio frequency ID, an RFID (apparently, the entrepreneurs found a company that already made bins with embedded RFIDs!).

The “smart waste” tag, a combination computer chip and bar code, enables the bins to be scanned and weighed and the amount linked to a household. The information is channeled from an on-board computer in the garbage trucks into a databank.

The Internet is used so that participating individuals can check their point balance online and obtain their coupons.

Now how about using computers to get people to recycle computers? Love that recursion.

Google Earth and tiles

Sunday, February 19th, 2006

How does Google Earth work? Nature Magazine explains the “Short cuts [to] bring the globe to your screen without crashing your computer”.

Wikis on flu

Saturday, February 18th, 2006

Check out the wiki that’s tracking bird flu. It’s an amazing resource that provides basic science and tracks the geographic spread of the disease. What someone needs to do is create a Google Maps version of this information.

On the subject of maps, the master site for bird flu maps is the eponymous There you can find out about the Google Earth layer for bird flu. Also, see the European Union site for decent maps.

Google Earth meets Nature

Friday, February 17th, 2006

Google Earth has made the pages of Nature Magazine. The big deal? What it offers researchers, in terms of the third dimension, the accessibility on the web, the ease of use, the bundled imagery, and the ability to share and collaborate on data. And that’s a big improvement on GIS:

With traditional Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software — which was previously the only way to deal with spatial data like these — combining the two data streams would have been a headache. With Google Earth it will be effortless, says Pedersen [a remote sensing specialist at the Technical University of Denmark]: “It provides a very easy interface to a lot of different data.”

The article goes on to say that even though GIS companies like ESRI were “caught napping,” they will be releasing a horde of new products to add onto Google Earth. Indeed, ESRI believes its new entries into the online market will be the Google Earth-killer. My prediction? Too little, too late.

Back to Nature. Go to the article to see the “curtain” of atmospheric data displayed at right angles to the satellite imagery. Cool.

See this other Nature article on Google Earth mashups and the environment.

ruin your day…

Friday, February 17th, 2006

This will do it:

Greenland’s glaciers are melting into the sea twice as fast as previously believed, the result of a warming trend that renders obsolete predictions of how quickly Earth’s oceans will rise over the next century, scientists said yesterday.

The new data come from satellite imagery and give fresh urgency to worries about the role of human activity in global warming. The Greenland data are mirrored by findings from Bolivia to the Himalayas, scientists said, noting that rising sea levels threaten widespread flooding and severe storm damage in low-lying areas worldwide.

(A summary of the article in Science is here.)

If this wasn’t depressing enough, Jim Hansen, the NASA scientist who’s been prevented from speaking out about dramatic acceleration of climate change, had to publish his article in a newspaper in the UK:

a few weeks ago, when I – a NASA climate scientist – tried to talk to the media about these issues following a lecture I had given calling for prompt reductions in the emission of greenhouse gases, the Nasa public affairs team – staffed by political appointees from the Bush administration – tried to stop me doing so.

climate predictions

Tuesday, February 14th, 2006

British Scientists are making use of various media to publicise and popularise their climate prediction project. Scientists have teamed up with the BBC online as well as BBC television to try to get global participation in a distributed computing program. This project should not only increase scientific knowledge of climate change, but also increase public awareness of issues…the new program is different from the old one (which has beeen running for two years) in that it represents ocean cycling as well as atmospheric cycling, allowing for more realistic predictions.

handy little microbes…

Monday, February 13th, 2006

An underappreciated life form, microbes have recently been being exploited by scientists to create ethanol as an alternative fuel source. Using microbes rather than corn or other plant products could solve the concern that vegetation is being diverted from tables into gas tanks. Scientists are also mining termite guts for microbes that could help turn woodchips into ethanol, which seems somewhat less sustainable.

As an aside – ever wonder how accurately you are interpreting the emails you read? A study shows that most people actually have a 50-50 chance that they will interpret the tone of an email (ie sarcasm) correctly, a problem that apparently leads to major problems in the workplace.

finding fish

Monday, February 13th, 2006

MIT researchers has developed a new way to find fish in the ocean. Using modified sonar, the device can map fish at much greater depths and distances than traditional techniques.

The NYTimes article says the device is a boon for conserving fish because scientists can use it to better understand the behaviour of shoals of fish. Let’s hope the technology is not so cheap that the big trawlers also can use it.

A movie of the modified sonar is here. Warning: it’s a BIIIG file.

Dueling models: the temperate forest edition

Sunday, February 12th, 2006

Creating mechanisms to capture carbon was one of the major topics of this past climate change conference. One way to do this is through forests: trees in forests capture, “sequester,” carbon dioxide by absorbing it as part of photosynthesis. In the Kyoto Protocol, countries can offset their greenhouse gas emissions by planting forests, so called ‘Kyoto forests’. There is strong incentive for countries that signed on to Kyoto to do afforestation, the planting of trees in areas where there previously were no trees, or reforestation, the planting of trees in areas where there used to be trees.

Instead of sequestering carbon, now it’s been shown that the expansion of forests in temperate climates might actually increase the emission of carbon dioxide. Why such a radical change in viewpoints? It may be a result of re-examining the assumptions of the computer simulations of climate change.

Johannes Feddema of the University of Kansas and six colleagues from the US National Centre for Atmospheric Research report in Science journal that they looked at changes in land use – the growth of cities, clearing of forests for agriculture, and draining of marshes – and their impact on climate change in the next 100 years. They confirmed something environmentalists have predicted for decades – the destruction of the Amazon forest would make the local climate 2C (4F) warmer because trees soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and burning them releases it. But then the scientists looked at temperate zones and found the opposite.

Simulations predicted the conversion of north American and European forests and grassland to agriculture would cool the region and counteract the effects of global warming by 25%-50%. This is because ripening corn and other staples would reflect more sunlight back into space, and release more moisture into the air, while dark forests would absorb sunlight and send thermometers soaring. Ken Caldeira and a Carnegie Institution team backed the finding in Geophysical Research Letters. “We were hoping to find that growing forests in the US would help slow global warming. But if we are not careful, growing forests could make global warming even worse.”

So is this model correct? Plenty of carbon models still show carbon sequestration occuring more uniformly across forest types. This latest model demonstrates that considerable uncertainty persists in understanding role of forests in lessening climate change and certainly calls into question the use of forestation to remediate climate changes.

Feeling guilty about your car?

Sunday, February 12th, 2006

Then offset your car’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions with a Terrapass. The idea is that you make a donation, equivalent to your car’s emissions, to the Terrapass people. They promise to invest it in “clean energy projects that reduce industrial carbon dioxide emissions.”

According to the website, Terrapass started out as a class project where the professor asked the question: how do we allows individuals, as opposed to firms, to participate in the carbon trading market? This is what the students came up with (pretty good, I’d say).

What you do is plug in your car make and model and year. The site calculates your car’s GHG per year. Here’s an example from the site:

To offset 6,800 lbs of CO2, I could purchase a $40 yearly pass. Terrapass sends the money to a number of alternate energy companies.

Terrapass recently started a blog to discuss all things environmental, particularly when they concern energy conservation.

A Saturday afternoon in Boston

Sunday, February 12th, 2006

While out of town for the weekend in Boston I witnessed the integration of physical and virtual activism. There was a large banner from a small aircraft grabbing the interest of citizen below on a Saturday afternoon. Following the short political message a website address was posted. The activism was effective because the short message achieved attention and lead the interested to greater information on the website.

total cost accounting saves bathroom drugery?

Friday, February 10th, 2006

actually they are unrelated.
Conclusions by the New Economics Foundation are reported on the BBC. Nef finds that despite the huge revenues exhibited by oil and gas companies, when social factors of greenhouse gas emissions are factored in, these revenues are actually turned into losses. The report suggested that each tonne of carbon dioxide emissted costs about $35 in environmental damage…which adds up pretty quickly.

as a side note (of the cat blog genre):
“Nanotech saves bathroom drudgery…”using regular bathroom light and an environmentally friendly coating of nanotechnology particles, the bathroom can clean itself – possibly an environmental benefit, according to a Friends of the Earth representative…

artificial lights and the environment

Friday, February 10th, 2006

From GeoCommunity

Lights enable humans to use the outside environment at night, but what does artificial illumination mean to wildlife? Artificial night lighting may affect behavior of wildlife in complex ways, and may even contribute to declines in some reptile species, according to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Texas Tech University published in a chapter in a new book by Island Press.

In the book, experts worldwide explore the ecological effects of artificial night lighting across animal groups and plants. In their book chapter, Dr. Robert N. Fisher, a USGS scientist in San Diego, Calif., and Dr. Gad Perry, an assistant professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, reviewed the knowledge base from published and unpublished accounts and reported that scientists know relatively little about the effects of night lighting on reptiles, other than young sea turtles. They noted that little is known about the natural history of most herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians), although decline rates in reptiles are believed by some scientists to be similar to those reported in amphibians.

In rapidly urbanizing southern California, Perry and Fisher noted that declines appear to be occurring in populations of many local reptile species for a variety of causes, but significant local declines of two nocturnal snakes – from coastal sand dunes and marine terraces — may have links to light pollution.

Hmm. Using one technology (GIS) to understand the negative impact of another technology (outside lighting).

one for nature…

Thursday, February 9th, 2006

A promising note amongst the bad news out there – British Columbia announced tuesday that the government has agreed to protect 2.1 million hectares of costal temperate rainforest – an area called the Great Bear Rainforest (virtual activism anyone?). While only part (1/3) of the area is protected from logging, stipulations have been made that the rest of it must be logged using more sustainable practices (although the area is still open for mining). NGOs have been pressuring the government for years regarding protection of the BC rainforest through various forms of activism, both through their scientific advising and public demonstrations. NGOs note that their scientific reccomendations were not completely adhered to, and that further steps will need to be taken.

changing the meaning of “accuracy”?

Thursday, February 9th, 2006

Amid several recent debates as to the accuracy of handy online reference tool Wikipedia, an inquiry has been launched (by wikipedia) into the editing and or polishing of biographical entries, coming from capitol hill IP adresses. – article by BBC here. Wikipedia questions whether or not it is ethical for individuals to edit (or have an employee edit) articles that they may have a vested interest in. However, many of the senators involved argued that they were correcting inaccuracies. This leads to the question, what is really accurate? If anyone can be an editor on the internet, one of the web’s most valuable aspects, who is capable for upholding some sort of truth or accuracy? Is this sense of false accuracy even unique to the internet?


Monday, February 6th, 2006

Check out WWF’s call to action site here. It seems they have taken the difficulties of virtual activism’s commitment building straight on. They not only provide information but also seem to create online campaigns, and inform people about them. The “passport” is even in various languages. It is not addressing the digital divide but it sure is addressing some of the major concerns about virtual activism.

hactivism on the Ceeb!

Monday, February 6th, 2006

“Toronto ‘hactivists’ benefit from grant for internet censorship work” – university students fighting censorship on the web got a $3 million grant from a chicago company to spy on people spying on other people…

google it…

Sunday, February 5th, 2006

Ever wonder how people did research before the internet? I hate to date myself, but really…the internet provides seemingly endless information to anyone peeking in the door…or taking the lid off the box, so to speak. While the Internet has become essential for many day to day activities, when one goes to exploit it for its intended scientific transparency and information sharing purposes, the mind is blown…google scholar, put simply, provides me with knowledge I would not otherwise have. As I contemplated this, a link to a very well written article (read it!) arrived in my inbox (of my new gmail account, incidentally), which gives one some pause. Google has admitted that their goal is to collect all global knowledge and store it in an organised and useful manner (or something along those lines). The nerd in me thinks that is incredibly cool, but not without some (significant) trepidation, and leads to the question, is it possible to “not be evil” …?