Thursday, April 10, 2014

Solar Danger

Even something as perceptually benign as a solar power plant can have unexpected and unintentional consequences, such as becoming a solar energy equivalent of the La Brea tar pits.  Birds and insects get singed and thereby attract more birds and insects.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

What Your Metadata Has To Say

In a study of only 546 volunteers, it was shown that a great deal of sensitive information can be gleaned from a person's telephone metadata.  That's why the first thing investigators do in CSI shows is pull the suspects phone records.
Mayer and his team showed that participants called public numbers of “Alcoholics Anonymous, gun stores, NARAL Pro-Choice, labor unions, divorce lawyers, sexually transmitted disease clinics, a Canadian import pharmacy, strip clubs, and much more.” ...
“It highlights three key points. First, that the key part of the NSA’s argument—we weren’t collecting sensitive information so what is the bother?—is factually wrong. Second, that the NSA and the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] Court failed to think this through; after all, it only takes a little common sense to realize that sweeping up all numbers called will inevitably reveal sensitive information. Of course the record of every call made and received is going to implicate privacy. And third, it lays bare the fallacy of the Supreme Court’s mind-numbingly broad wording of the third-party doctrine in an age of big data: just because I reveal data for one purpose—to make a phone call—does not mean that I have no legitimate interest in that information, especially when combined with other data points about me.”

Policies Have Consequences

Some people may have lost their insurance because of Obamacare. But when states refuse to fully implement it, some people lose their lives.  What a country!

Virginia is another state where it sucks to be among the working poor.  One can only hope that voters come to their senses and make some changes in their governors and in their state houses.

Navy Deploys Lasers

The US Navy is set to deploy ship-board laser weapons this summer.  They can target drones, small boats, light aircraft, and missiles.  It uses commercially-available technology and costs less than a dollar per shot.  The current defensive weaponry being replaced spews thousands of rounds of depleted uranium. 

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

CO2 Recycling

Liquid Light's CO2 converter can turn this troublesome byproduct into over 60 chemicals.  Other companies are working on even more such processes.  So instead of sequestering CO2, fossil power plants should start looking at selling it to these chemical fabricators.

What do New Jersey, Texas and Arizona have against Tesla?

Back in the last century, auto dealer franchise laws were adopted in response to the monopolistic behavior of car manufacturers.  They also kept a portion of the profits from car sales in the states where the cars were being sold.  The inefficient layer of middle-men may have inflated prices a bit but some of that money remained in-state where it could be taxed for effectively.

Now,Tesla is challenging that business practice.  In any given location, there aren't enough cars sold to support a traditional dealership.  And the prices are already steep enough such that bumping them up to support middle-men would hurt the small volume of sales even more.  Furthermore, no smudge-pot car dealership is going to be effective at selling Tesla's because of the conflict of interest that comes with selling a product that would supplant the product line that generates almost all of your profits.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Hypocrisy Lobby

Y'know, if you are going to deny coverage for you employees to use certain contraceptives, you should really stop investing in the companies that make them.  Hobby Lobby's 401k retirement plans have $73 million in mutual funds that hold stocks in the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture the birth controls to which the company objects.

Natural Gas Into Liquid Fuel

Over at BYU, they are turning raw natural gas into upgraded liquid alcohol fuel.  The catalysts are not exotic and the process runs at around 180 degrees Celsius. 

Mugshots from DNA

With a surprisingly small sample database, researchers have built eerily accurate facial reconstructions from just a person's DNA.  My first thought is the forensics applications but it could go so much farther than that.

Failed Republican Experiment

In 2012, Kansas enacted severe tax cuts.  They could have been the shining demonstration of the success of a the Republican low-tax utopia.  But instead of the wet dream, low-tax Kansas became a nightmare.  Schools are poorly funded.  The damage by the Great Recession to public services has been deepened and extended rather than alleviated.  There was no improvement to the Kansas economy.  New jobs and earnings have lagged behind the rest of the country.  And the situation is projected to continue to be worse than the rest of the nation.  But it was good for the wealthy.

Do we need any more evidence that those calling for lower taxes are only interested in lining their pockets at the expense of society as a whole?

H/T Hullabaloo

Nifty Fuel Cell

This solar-induced fuel cell catalyzes biomass such as powdered wood into electricity.  It can use all kinds of biomass and the catalyst functions from sunlight or low-grade heat.  Pretty cool, I say.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Bankers' Big Lie

The bankers want us to believe that the American financial consumers were responsible for the Great Recession.  The evidence shows that bankers were the real villians is this.  They inflated valuations and issued bad mortgages by changing their own rules.  And nothing has been done to keep them from doing it again.

Sorry, everybody was not to blame. “We” didn’t all do it. “Main Street” didn’t succumb to a new tulip mania, and cheap credit didn’t expose anything but the corruption and immorality of a financial industry that systematically put huge numbers of even credit-worthy borrowers into defective products. Cultural theorizing—especially the evidence-free kind—should be seen for what it is: an exercise in complacency. It’s easy. And it’s what you lean on when you don’t want to take on structural problems, the kind you actually have to do something about.

Taxing All College Graduates

Josh Freedman makes the case for using an income tax bump on college graduates as a means for funding public higher education.  Then, he tries to find problems with the proposal.  I find his counter-arguments weak so maybe the time has come for this idea.

The arguments for it include: no debt taken on by students, repayment is tied to income, ease of administration, poor people will not be supporting higher education through general taxes, and more poor people could avail themselves of higher education.

In trying to construct some viable argument against the proposal, Freedman gets lost in the weeds about poor people being under-represented at private schools.  But that's irrelevant.  He also argues against an idea that isn't in the proposal.  Again, irrelevant, and a waste of bits.

Here's a link to Oregon's attempt to put such a thing in place.

Texas’ New Abortion Law is Driving Women to Extremes

Texas abortion laws suck and this is why.  Any genuine medical reason for an abortion runs afoul of the small-minded laws written by anti-choice activists who could care less about human medical realities.  Methinks the "God" they worship has something to be desired as well.

Not Biodiesel But 'Biogasoline' From Plant Waste

Chemists at UC Davis have derived a chemical process that can be use to convert cellulose into sustainably-sourced gasoline.  Cellulose is processed into levulinic acid which is then processed into the gasoline-like hydrocarbons.  It has a high yield and doesn't involve fermentation like previous methods.  Provisonal patents have been filed.

Five-second Food Rule Validated

Recent research supports the applicability of the 5-second rule.  So if that food hits the deck, snatch it up quickly and proceed with your meal.

Netflix Link to Pandora's Promise

Pandora's Promise on Netflix.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Obamacare and the Part-Time Economy

Obamacare has not yet turned America into a nation of part-time workers, as many of its strongest critics have long said it would. 
In fact, the opposite seems to be happening, according to new government numbers published Friday: The number of part-time jobs is actually shrinking, and full-time jobs are being created instead.
The critics may not be all that good at business.  Smart employers take a broader view that just saving a few nickel and dimes by engineering ways to not have to pay for their employees' health care.  If they have the demand, they need good, healthy, motivated, and experienced employees. It saves money in the long run because the business itself operates better.  However, when demand is iffy, it just gets harder to do that and the businesses go into survival mode and are forced to cannibalize themselves just like a malnourished body begins to consume it's own muscles.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Better Than A Minimum Wage Hike

Warren Buffet has a better idea.  An appropriate increase in the EITC would put more money into the working poor's hands without the economic impact employers.  That money would come out of tax revenue, so maybe we could not build quite as many warplanes.

Dave Camp has some more ideas on improving the tax code.  These include streamlined educational tax credits, a larger standard deduction, and a larger child tax credit.  He also would eliminate special interest tax advantages and a great many loopholes.  Since he is writing in the WSJ, he has to float the canard that lower taxes would magically create jobs, but we can forgive him for that since many of the things he lists get bipartisan support.

Update: Obama's budget has an expanded EITC and child tax credit in it.

Methanol from Carbon Dioxide



Just below I linked an article that talked about a method using microbes to generate sugars for fuel production from atmospheric CO2.  Today the folks at SLAC have identified a catalyst that can do pretty much the same thing, without the messy biology.  This stuff synthesizes hydrogen and CO2 into methanol.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

USPS and the Economy

Could the Post Office save the economy?  Postal banking is an old idea that may be worth thinking about again. More poor people could get affordable banking services.  It would make the delivery of federal benefits to the poor more cost effective by cutting out the commercial banks that skim those dollars by charging fees for access to food stamps and unemployment benefits.  A protected savings method for the poor could be provided.  More banking could be provided to the immigrant population since many of them already use money order services provided by the Post Office.  Postal banking could lead the way in improving measures against identity fraud by rolling out more secure "chip-and-PIN" debit cards.  It could lead the way in establishing mobile phone banking services.  Established banks have been slow to do this because they see the lead-in costs as too expensive.  Postal banks wouldn't sell your personal information to advertisers like other banks do.  Recessions could be dealt with efficiently by putting stimulus money directly into the hands of consumers with a Federal Reserve ATM system.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Fukushima radioactivity and California

Before the hysteria machine gets all wound up, one should note that Fukushima radioactivity poses little threat to California.  As usual with these sorts of things, background radiation that everyone lives with every day without batting an eye completely washes out the Fukushima contribution.  It's only because of the peculiar isotopes and really sensitive instruments that we can even identify it at all.  The real killer in all this was the circumstance of living too close to the coastline where tsunamis can come through your door.

Echo Chamber Effects

It's conventional wisdom that the echo chamber effect has increased our political polarization.  Now, the math backs it up.  Even our affinity search engines contribute to the effect. They tend to recommend articles that are similar to the ones we like to read.  Before too long, all you see are things that mesh with your own point of view.  The lesson here is that if we are going to govern for all the people, we need to make the significant effort to read the stuff from the other viewpoint and try to understand how other folks see the situation.

Cheating Our Children

The voices on the right like to use the charge that when the government runs a deficit we are cheating our children. But the truth is actually the reverse of that.  Interest rates are low because businesses and individuals are sitting on plenty of cash because there is a lack of good investment prospects brought about by the shortage of demand.  We cheat our children when we don't put that money to work by not investing it in infrastructure and education.  Businesses and individuals don't do infrastructure and educations, government does.  The government needs to be borrowing all that unused money and use this opportunity to make the future brighter for our children.

Passive Cooling in Full Daylight

If you could build cooling panels that radiate excess heat into space in would be a nifty thing.  These guys have.  The trick is to absorb incoming heat and re-radiate that energy out at a frequency that isn't absorbed by the atmosphere.  It's a greenhouse effect dodge.

Fuel From Air

This is really old news now, but the concept is interesting. This is another one of those enhance biological process that converts atmospheric CO2 into sugars that can then be processed into fuel.

Hemp for Cooking Oil

Once our nation gets past having hemp around for recreational use, we should capitalize on the many useful industrial applications of this fine crop including excellent cooking oil.  It's nutritionally similar to olive oil but with a longer shelf life.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Debt-Free Higher Education

Oregon House Bill 3472 proposes as system by which students get free college tuition in exchange for a small percentage of their future earnings for 20 years.  Students would have no debt, no interest, and the rate would not change.  Over time it is expected that the system will create stable funding for higher education without the profit-seeking middlemen and the crushing student debt burden.

Missouri Guns

It's a no-brainer that easy access to firearms will result in more deaths by gunfire.  Yet many, for various reasons, feel that the level of carnage is either non-existent or justifiable.  With this study, the argument for the former weakens significantly.  So one must ask, are the additional 60 murders per year in Missouri offset by some other public good?  Has the sacrifice of innocent lives brought about any discernible benefit?

Friday, February 14, 2014

Graphene for Desalination and Other Filtering

Graphene's peculiar characteristics allow it be fabricated into a high flux filter for water.  Fabricated in layers like mother-of-pearl, it lets water quickly pass through while selectively rejecting other sorts of molecules including salts.  The filtering pores are customizable such that they can be tailored to inhibit dissolved molecules of a given size.

Plastic Bags Into Diesel

University of Illinois researchers have demonstrated a method that can convert plastic shopping bags into diesel fuel more efficiently than crude oil.  I wonder what the plastic bag equivalent to a barrel of crude is.

Effects of Inequality

Krugman points to interesting research that shows mere affluence can make your opinions more conservative. Lottery winners become less interested in income equality.  In other research, Krugman notes that austerity produces more income inequality.  The rich care less and less about the unfortunate even when their riches are unearned.  And the austerity policies supported by the rich, makes them richer and everyone else poorer.

Break Even

Just want to note this notable milestone.  Lawrence-Livermore reports that they have been able to get more energy out of a fusion reaction than they put into it.  The ironic thing is that they weren't actually working on developing fusion power, but instead were doing research for nuclear weapons.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Volkswagen Helping Unions Organize

Why is a major automaker assisting organization efforts in right-to-work Tennessee?  Because the Germans have learned that having a union can boost productivity and provide better flexibility during downturns.  The key idea is an entity known as a "works council".  Managers like the councils.  Here's why.
There are three major advantages of councils. You're forced to consider in your decision making process the effect on the employees in advance…this avoids costly mistakes. Second, works councils will in the final run support the company. They will take into account the pressing needs of the company more than a trade union can, on the outside. And third, works councils explain and defend certain decisions of the company towards the employees. Once decisions are made, they are easier to implement.

Neutrinos in the News

A recent paper hints that they may be much more massive than current understanding acknowledge.  That would explain why there were fewer galaxy clusters in the early universe that can be explained by current estimates of neutrino mass.

It might also explain why they are more affected by passing through the earth than they should be.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Creationism Is Dangerous

Something you should know about your friends that hold to creationism is that they are in the grip of a near-cultish belief system. This HBO documentary demonstrates that.
Creationism, the documentary reveals, isn't a harmless, compartmentalized fantasy. It's a suffocating, oppressive worldview through which believers must interpret reality-and its primary target is children. For creationists, intellectual inquiry is a sin, and anyone who dares to doubt the wisdom of their doctrine invites eternal damnation.

Interesting Nazi Legacy

OK, how many of you knew that the popular sacrament of the 60's was gifted to us by Nazi scientists?  I remember hearing that it came from CIA research but I hadn't heard from where they got it.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Peak Oil Strategy

Our local PNNL facility produces a method of making crude oil from algae.  It bypasses that whole bury-it-underground-for-millions-of-years-and-drill-for-it thing.

Oklahoma Fights Gay Marriage

First, a federal judge strikes down Oklahoma's gay marriage ban.  Then Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel mandates that all states must not disciminate against same-sex marriages when providing benefits for their National Guard members.  In response, Oklahoma stops providing benefits to all married members of its National Guard.  It's possible that someday they might twist themselves into dropping marriage status as a consideration for any and all state programs.  This could be fun to watch.  Unless, of course, you live in Oklahoma.

Gummy Lithium Btteries

Wazzu scientists have a better lithium-ion battery for you.  It works as well as the liquid kind but without the fire hazard.
You can stretch, smash, and twist it, and it continues to conduct electricity nearly as well as liquid electrolytes. Furthermore, the gummy electrolyte should be easy to assemble into current battery designs, says Zhong.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Pensions vs. Corporate Welfare

This article compares the funds states put into pensions to funds they give away in corporate tax breaks.  This may be an unfair comparison but it raises interesting questions.

Lousiana wants to cut its $350 million state pension plan while handing out $1.8 billion in corporate tax breaks.  It's the worst state at this, but all states give specialized tax breaks to keep and attract industry.  But are those breaks compensated for by higher revenues from the economic activity that is attracted?

Corporations have perfected the practice of getting states to bid against one another with tax breaks.  Any state that wishes to avoid this unilaterally disarms itself.  Much like individual workers, the only way states can get out of this bind seems to be to organize. 

Abortion Rate Lowest Since 1973

When one sees a statistic that the U.S. Abortion Rate Hits Lowest Point Since 1973 it makes me want to see why.  It's interesting to note that rate peaked back in 1981 with 29.3 abortions per 1,000 women and plateaued at around 19.4 from 2005 to 2008.  Then it dropped to 16.9 by 2011.  The key cause isn't the drop in the number of providers due to more restrictive laws.  With more contraceptive use, the overall pregnancy and birth rates have declined as well.  Perhaps the recent recession and available contraception has led more folks to delay children for the time being.

Another factor has been the more frequent use of medication abortions.  These make abortions more accessible and easier to do earlier in the pregnancies.

It is yet too early to see any impact from some of the recently enacted anti-abortion restrictions.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

An Alternative to Obamacare

The Republicans have finally provided their alternative to the ACA.  It should really give Obamacare a boost because, frankly, the alternative proposals are unpleasantly aromatic.

Too Poor For Obamacare

In its original form the ACA provided aid for the really poor folks by expanding Medicaid.  But with a recent Supreme Court decision, states are free to opt out of that.  As a result, the poorest folks get left out completely.  There are a bunch of governors that need to be unelected since they clearly don't care a whit about their poorest citizens.

The Cult and the Brain

TED talk presenter, Diane Benscoter, shares her experience as a member of a cult and how it works in a brain.  She references Kathleen Taylor about the mental illness aspect of religious fundamentalism.  At the root of it all is a loop of circular thinking that nothing can penetrate and can make it possible to rationalize anything.  It isn't that there's evil at work but rather a fault in human reasoning capacity that others can happily exploit for their own ends.

Sweet Crude Biofuel

Genetically-modified yeasts can convert table sugar into complex lipids that can be used instead of petroleum-based products.  Now just how are we going to produce all the sugar that is needed?

Greenhouse Gases into Chemicals

For a generation the major raw material for the chemical industry has been petroleum.  How much better it would be if our greenhouse gases could be converted into useful chemicals!

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Price of Lax Gun Control

Access to guns increases the risk of suicide and homicide.  If people have a gun, they are more likely to use it. That's a no-brainer.  Do the benefits of an armed populace outweigh this cost?

Getting Poverty Wrong

What the the GOP gets wrong about poverty:

The war in poverty isn't lost. While it is still too high, the poverty rate has fallen in the last few decades thanks to government programs.

The cost of welfare is the the $1 trillion per year that is touted by the Cato Institute.  A more honest figuru is about $212 billion per year.

Poverty isn't caused by moral decay.  Worker productivity have gone up some 80% while wages have only gone up 4%.  Workers are not reaping the full benefits of their labor.

Poverty reduction programs are not wasteful.  In six of the largest anti-poverty programs, 90 to 99% of the money actually gets into the hands of the clients.

Food stamps don't keep people on welfare.  Some 87% of the food stamp recipients who can work work and that number has been growing.

Big government doesn't keep people poor.  The programs successfully 40 million people out of poverty in 2011, 9 million of whom were children.  Nothing harms opportunity more than poverty and nothing improves it more than the lack thereof.

Anti-poverty programs are not short term solutions.  They yield long-term benefits in children's health, education, and eventual careers.

The statistic that is quoted as the official poverty rate that hasn't changed much is a bad statistic.  It doesn't reflect some sources of income.  The real poverty rate has, in fact, been declining for decades.

Income inequality is a big deal.  It's the highest it's been since 1928.

Marriage doesn't really lift people out of poverty.  The synergy of shared expenses isn't as large as is assumed in the way we take our statistics.

The number of people in poverty is much larger than the official statistic.  According to the census, 1 in 3 fall below the poverty line.

Contrary to the GOP talking point, raising the minimum wage would actually lift half of our working poor out of poverty.

Rather than kill the economy, a higher minimum wage would improve it.  It would grow by $22 billion and add 85,000 new jobs.

"Economic Freedom Zones" won't help poverty.  They just move it around.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Universal Biofuels Production

chemical process that digests any plant material has been discovered.  This opens the way for biofuel production from almost any feedstock.

Sugar is relatively easy to obtain from things like fruit and seeds, but those are also the sorts of things we like to eat. Most of the sugar in the rest of a plant, however, is locked into a complex polymer called cellulose. Figuring out a way to easily break down cellulose has been one of the major hurdles to the expansion of biofuels.
Now, researchers from the University of Wisconsin–Madison have figured out a chemical treatment that, given a bit of time, can completely dissolve any plant matter including wood. The end result is a solution containing mostly sugars, along with a few other organic molecules—some of which can be shunted off to synthesize the key ingredient of the chemical treatment itself.