Sunday, February 24, 2008

May 26th chase


Hi, Reddit!

(Note: All photos get super-biggified (850 pixels wide) in a new window when you click them.)

Well, yesterday caught me by surprise! I was back in Kearney, visiting the fam, when Darren Addy called me at around 4PM and asked me if I'd been watching the weather. I hadn't. :) But a quick check of the surface obs and the RUC hinted that if I was willing to drop just a bit south into northwestern Kansas, it might be a fun day. So, I quickly got the car ready (you've never seen me Rain-X so fast!), swung by to pick up Darren, and off we went. We dropped south from Holdrege, and as we did, we could see that the cap had definately broken to our southwest. As we approached the storm that was east of Hill City (at around 6PM, IIRC, though my timeline is fuzzy), the sky was putting on one heck of a mammatus display:

We sat in Norton for a little while watching the storm split. The left split was more or less just sitting there spinning like a top, while the right split, which was quite questionable at first in terms of prospects, soon took off to the east like a jackrabbit and exploded. We took the right split. Now, of course, we were behind and just north of the storm by this point, so we ended up having to punch it. But by that point it seemed very clearly outflow dominant and was transitioning to a something more linear. Darren managed to nagivate the pea hail and crazy winds that were lofting enormous amounts of dust to our north. Eventually, we punched through and got east of it, and holy cow, was that an incredible sight. The storm had developed a HUGE roiling shelf cloud followed by a boiling mass of really dark clouds caused by the outflow. All the pictures below are from after we got east of it. We also ran into a bunch of people on the road who were from Canada and Michigan -- we didn't have much time to talk as the storm was closing in at a rapid clip. If you look close enough, you can actually see one of the Canuakistanians standing stage left in one of the pictures below. :) I never got a chance to give them my name and number like they wanted -- if any of you are reading this and need to get in touch with me, my email is ryan at digicana dot com.

No tornadoes, but WOW what an incredible looking storm! Seriously, it looked like something out of Independence Day! Most of these shots are taken as we race east past Phillipsburg and Kensington.

(a note on this last picture: in order to get the shot with the cemetery sign readable, I had to horizontally flip this photograph in photoshop. Props to Darren for seein' this photo!)

BTW -- I don't post this stuff with the intention of making money, but last time I did this, I got about a brazillian people who wanted to know how they could buy prints. If you do, just drop me an email (digicana at gmail dot com). Generally, prices (shipping included) are:

8x12 or 8x10 (your pick): $35
10x15 or 11x14 (your pick) : $50
16x24 or 16x20 (your pick): $100

I print photos of this type on metallic pearlecent paper, which, in past experiences, has made colors look incredible. Note that 8x10, 11x14, and 16x20 will have borders on them (white lines on the left and right hand sides of the photo or the top and the bottom of the photo, depending of if it's a vertical or a horizontal photograph), whereas 8x12, 10x15, and 16x24 will not. However it's harder to find frames and mattes for 8x12, 10x15, and 16x24 prints. I can't gauruntee that the 16x24 prints will be super sharp -- the resolution gets down to around 160dpi at that size. However, what makes the photos cool are more the colors and tones anyway, so it'll probably look really good even if it's a bit soft.

Original here

The “French Chernobyl”

Years of unchecked pollution in France’s Rhone River have taken their toll with the recent discovery of PCB levels at 10-12 times the safe limit in the river’s fish.

The Rhone near Ardeche. Photo by PRA.

The discovery has led to a ban on fish from the river, prompting many to wonder about the health effects eating the fish may have had and leaving some of the rivers’ fishermen suicidal.

The Grand Large area of the Rhone outside Lyon is a tourist magnet, but the pollution in the water and its effect on wildlife has led the World Wildlife Fund to christen the area the “French Chernobyl”. The river’s sediment and fish show toxic levels of PCBs. PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyl, are an industrial chemical used to manufacture generators and electrical items, among others. They’re known to cause infertility and birth defects, and they may be carcinogenic.

Oddly enough, the problem was not uncovered by the government but by a local fishmonger. Cédric Giroud was the largest fishermen in the Grand Large area, selling thousands of tons of freshwater fish in the poorer sections of Lyon. His freshwater catches were significantly less expensive than Mediterranean fish, and he was a popular retailer among the poorer immigrant families in the French port.

In 2004, birds started dying along the Rhone. Autopsies showed the cause of death was avian botulism. Giroud’s customers were concerned. Giroud said: “Although there was no effect on my fish, customers who had seen dead birds were wary. Off my own back, just to reassure them, I sent my perfect-looking fish to the lab. I expected excellent results.”

The tests came back with an unexpected result. The fish had 10-12 times the legally mandated safety limit for PCBs. The French government banned consumption of fish from the Grand Large area in 2005, and has now applied that ban to all fish caught in the Rhone. Environmental groups, however, say this instance of pollution is just the first publicized incidence of much larger environmental problems the French government has ignored for decades.

Alain Chabrolle of local environmental group Frapna said: “This is the tip of the iceberg, the more research is done the more toxic contamination will be uncovered. There must be precise research on all possible PCBs sources, accurate maps and measures taken. The state polluted and allowed others to pollute. For decades they have put their head in the sand.”

The government may have actually been the root cause of the problem. The French government ran an industrial waste processing center called Tredi on the banks of the Rhone for years. The plant was intended to reduce the amount of pollution in the area, but it actually dumped PCBs into the river. New private owners, however, insist they have cleaned up the plant.

The environment is under repair, but for many the damage has already been done. Fishermen have not been offered any compensation while their livelihood has been removed, and Giroud admits he thinks of suicide. Scientists are trying to determine what, if any, health problems may have occurred from the consumption of tainted fish, but the research has not yet been finished.

Original here

Super-speed Internet satellite blasts off in Japan

(CNN) -- Japan launched a rocket Saturday carrying a satellite that will test new technology that promises to deliver "super high-speed Internet" service to homes and businesses around the world.


A rocket carrying a super-fast Internet satellite lifts off from its launch pad on the Japanese island of Tanagashima.

The rocket carrying the WINDS satellite -- a joint project of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries -- lifted off its pad at 5:55 p.m. (0855 GMT).

If the technology proves successful, subscribers with small dishes will connect to the Internet at speeds many times faster than what is now available over residential cable or DSL services.

The Associated Press said the satellite would offer speeds of up to 1.2 gigabytes per second.

The service initially would focus on the Asia-Pacific region close to Japan, a JAXA news release said.

"Among other uses, this will make possible great advances in telemedicine, which will bring high-quality medical treatment to remote areas, and in distance education, connecting students and teachers separated by great distances," JAXA said.

The rocket was launched from Japan's Yoshinobu Launch Complex at the Tanegashima Space Center.

The Sun will vaporise the Earth unless we can change our orbit

Dr Robert Smith, Emeritus Reader in Astronomy, said his team previously calculated that the Earth would escape ultimate destruction, although be battered and burnt to a cinder. But this did not take into account the effect of the drag caused by the outer atmosphere of the dying Sun.

He says: "We showed previously that, as the Sun expanded, it would lose mass in the form of a strong wind, much more powerful than the current solar wind. This would reduce the gravitational pull of the Sun on the Earth, allowing the Earth's orbit to move outwards, ahead of the expanding Sun.

"If that were the only effect the Earth would indeed escape final destruction. However, the tenuous outer atmosphere of the Sun extends a long way beyond its visible surface, and it turns out the Earth would actually be orbiting within these very low density outer layers. The drag caused by this low-density gas is enough to cause the Earth to drift inwards, and finally to be captured and vaporised by the Sun."

The new paper was written in collaboration with Dr Klaus-Peter Schroeder, previously at Sussex, who is now in the Astronomy Department of the University of Guanajuato in Mexico.

Life on Earth will have disappeared long before 7.6 billion years, however. Scientists have shown that the Sun's slow expansion will cause the temperature at the surface of the Earth to rise. Oceans will evaporate, and the atmosphere will become laden with water vapour, which (like carbon dioxide) is a very effective greenhouse gas. Eventually, the oceans will boil dry and the water vapour will escape into space. In a billion years from now the Earth will be a very hot, dry and uninhabitable ball.

Can anything be done to prevent this fate? Professor Smith points to a remarkable scheme proposed by a team at Santa Cruz University, who suggest harnessing the gravitational effects of a close passage by a large asteroid to "nudge" the Earth's orbit gradually outwards away from the encroaching Sun. A suitable passage every 6000 years or so would be enough to keep the Earth out of trouble and allow life to survive for at least 5 billion years, and possibly even to survive the Sun's red giant phase.

"This sounds like science fiction," says Professor Smith. "But it seems that the energy requirements are just about possible and the technology could be developed over the next few centuries." However, it is a high-risk strategy - a slight miscalculation, and the asteroid could actually hit the Earth, with catastrophic consequences. "A safer solution may be to build a fleet of interplanetary 'life rafts' that could manoeuvre themselves always out of reach of the Sun, but close enough to use its energy," he adds.

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Can You Predict Happiness?

If you think you can predict what you will like, think again. When people try to estimate how much they will enjoy a future experience, they are dependably wrong, according to research by Harvard psychologists — and the reason is something they call "attentional collapse." When we imagine future experiences, we tend to compare them with alternative experiences — experiences we've had in the past, or other experiences we might have before or after. But the fact is that none of those alternatives come into play once we're actually in the moment. That's what Daniel Gilbert, author and Harvard psychology professor, means by "attentional collapse": it's the idea that when we are actually having an engaging, encompassing experience, it acts like a black hole of imagination, sucking in all of our attention and making our preconceptions irrelevant.

The thought of a weekend office picnic, for example, sounds tedious compared with a trip to the spa, but fun compared with working overtime on a Sunday. But these comparisons have little bearing on our actual experience of the picnic because once we arrive and start chatting with colleagues or playing softball, the experience draws our attention away from the alternatives. "The kinds of comparisons we're making when we're imagining the future aren't the kinds we make when we get there," Gilbert says.

In his latest research, conducted in collaboration with social psychologist Carey Morewedge of Carnegie Mellon University and presented last weekend at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Boston, Gilbert bolsters the theory that our inability to predict enjoyment of our future experiences keeps us from accurately predicting what will make us happiest in the future overall.

Take the simple act of eating a potato chip. In a series of experiments, Gilbert invited Harvard undergraduates to a lab stocked with potato chips, along with either sardines or chocolate. To compare expected versus actual enjoyment of the experience, one group of students was asked to predict how much they would enjoy the chips compared to the relatively better food (chocolate) or the worse food (sardines); this forecasting group was asked to imagine eating the chips before, after or instead of the alternatives. Students in another "experience" group were instructed to eat the chips and the other foods. Turns out that the other foods had no impact on the actual enjoyment of eating chips. "People who are simply imagining how much they're going to like chips imagine they're going to like them much more if they're eaten after sardines, than if they're eaten after chocolate," Gilbert says. "That's wrong."

Whether the students ate chips before or after sardines or chocolate, it made no difference. Rather, eating a potato chip was an experience unto itself. "It's the taste of that crackily, greasy, salty, crunchy, fried potato flavor — it's the consuming experience you're having and your attention collapses on this moment," says Gilbert.

So what does eating potato chips have to do with our larger, more important life decisions? Consider the choice to marry one sweetheart over another. If you pick the genial, down-to-earth banker, will you forever regret letting go of that free-spirited artist who loves traveling as much as you? Probably not. The very fact that you'll be living with — and experiencing — one spouse and not the other means that the passed-over option will quickly fade in your mind. "The people you don't marry don't move in with you," says Gilbert.

Envisioning what life would have been like with an alternate spouse becomes difficult and increasingly irrelevant as you settle into the life you've selected. "Once you make a choice in life, the unchosen alternatives evaporate," he says. According to Gilbert's earlier research, which he featured in his 2006 book, Stumbling on Happiness, when faced with an irrevocable decision, people are happier with the outcome than when they have the opportunity to change their minds. "It's a very powerful phenomenon," he says. "This is really the difference between dating and marriage."

But what if the person you didn't marry moved in next door? Suddenly your attention isn't completely collapsed on your own marriage, and every day you can witness the alternative life you overlooked.

Gilbert simulated that scenario with potato chips. As in the other experiments, one group of students was asked to eat the chips and other foods, and another was asked to imagine doing so. Only this time, two more groups were asked to eat — or imagine eating — to the beat of a metronome. Those who ate at a normal pace — one chip for every 15 seconds — came to the same misguided conclusions as other students: predictions did not correspond to their actual levels of enjoyment. Yet those who ate chips more slowly, one every 45 seconds, had very different results. Their forecasts were almost completely accurate.

Eating the chips slowly is an "experience that isn't engaging, so your mind is free to wander to all of the other things you could have been doing," Gilbert says. The same phenomenon occurs while driving, when you move into the right lane, only to have the traffic stall as the left lane speeds by. Suddenly, "it really hurts to be in the right lane," he says. "You're not driving, you're not engaged, you're not navigating. You're just sitting and your mind can wander and you can think about all the things you might have done instead of getting in the right lane."

Yet the moments when we are actually able to dedicate that level of comparison to an experience while we're having it are few and far between, Gilbert says. In the vast majority of scenarios, "the roads we don't take in life disappear a lot more quickly than we think they will."

So what does this mean for how we should contemplate our next big decision? For Gilbert, it's simple. "When looking into the future, never trust your gut. That doesn't mean it's always wrong, you should just never trust it. It never hurts to stop and ask."

Original here

Solar sector set to shine through credit crunch

FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Solar power will be a bright investment prospect as the appetite for green energy grows, even though the global credit crisis is making banks more wary of providing financing.

In the short term, the sector will also have to contend with a shortage of silicon, a key ingredient for solar cells that turn sunlight into electricity, and possible changes in political support as elections take place.

"This year will be a very volatile year," said Sven Hansen, chief investment officer at clean technology investor Good Energies, which has about 7 billion Swiss francs ($6.38 billion) under management.

"The industry will see fantastic growth, but it will be a bumpy ride in terms of how financial markets value photovoltaic companies."

The number of new large-scale solar energy plants has been growing rapidly particularly in sun-drenched countries like Spain and Italy, but also in Germany and the United States, where regulatory conditions offer incentives and stable returns for investors.

Conditions could change because of a presidential election in the United States and general elections in Spain in March.

"Whether there are support programs in place has a strong impact on markets' development," Hansen said.

Growth is still expected to be strong, driven by increased interest from institutional investors, such as pension funds and insurers, which are seeking alternative stable and long-term opportunities

Experts also expect the silicon shortage to ease next year as silicon makers hike up capacities and production.

"Leverage ratios are more difficult, but we will ride out the storm. The business is not shut," said Peter van Egmond Rossbach, director of investment at Impax Asset Management.

The firm provides finance for renewable energy projects around the world and has $2 billion under management.

Thirty percent is invested in solar, 40 percent in wind and the rest in other renewable energy projects, it said.

"It just means that (project financing) is getting more expensive and we have to bridge with equity," he added.


Tighter liquidity on global financial markets resulting from a crisis in the U.S. subprime mortgage market last year has made banks more risk-averse.

As a result, conditions have become tougher, pushing up interest payments for loans and other financing costs, which reduces the cashflow and leads to higher purchase prices for investors.

"We notice it in the purchase prices," said Barbara Flesche, head of equity sales at Epuron, a project developer, which is fully-owned by German solar group Conergy (CGYG.DE: Quote, Profile, Research).

Epuron develops, finances, develops and operates large-scale renewable energy projects, bringing together investors, banks and equipment producers.

It has completed deals worth about 800 million euros ($1.18 billion) since 1998, it said.

Banks were less willing to provide high gearing for such major projects, which dampened investor hopes of a higher return on equity, Flesche said.

But she added: "The risk for purchase prices is not something that's hurting us dramatically -- so far."

Flesche said demand from institutional investors for such large-scale renewable portfolios was still strong and was now also reaching into new markets such as Turkey, Greece or Italy.

"It will become more difficult to get bank financing, but not impossible," Epuron's Flesche said.

The European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA) expects the global market to be five times bigger than it was in 2007 within the next five years.

It said it expected annual installations to reach a 10.9 gigawatt peak by 2012 globally, up from a peak of about 2.2 gigawatts in 2007, adding that annual growth rates of well above 25 percent could be expected.

The European Energy Council has forecast that by 2010 about 1.6 percent of total energy generation will derive from photovoltaic sources, which compares to a share of 0.01 percent in 2003.

By 2010 the council expects about 19 percent of generation will derive from renewables, 15 percent from nuclear and 66 percent from fossil sources.

(editing by Barbara Lewis)

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Move Over, Oil, There’s Money in Texas Wind

SWEETWATER, Tex. — The wind turbines that recently went up on Louis Brooks’s ranch are twice as high as the Statue of Liberty, with blades that span as wide as the wingspan of a jumbo jet. More important from his point of view, he is paid $500 a month apiece to permit 78 of them on his land, with 76 more on the way.

“That’s just money you’re hearing,” he said as they hummed in a brisk breeze recently.

Texas, once the oil capital of North America, is rapidly turning into the capital of wind power. After breakneck growth the last three years, Texas has reached the point that more than 3 percent of its electricity, enough to supply power to one million homes, comes from wind turbines.

Texans are even turning tapped-out oil fields into wind farms, and no less an oilman than Boone Pickens is getting into alternative energy.

“I have the same feelings about wind,” Mr. Pickens said in an interview, “as I had about the best oil field I ever found.” He is planning to build the biggest wind farm in the world, a $10 billion behemoth that could power a small city by itself.

Wind turbines were once a marginal form of electrical generation. But amid rising concern about greenhouse gases from coal-burning power plants, wind power is booming. Installed wind capacity in the United States grew 45 percent last year, albeit from a small base, and a comparable increase is expected this year.

At growth rates like that, experts said, wind power could eventually make an important contribution to the nation’s electrical supply. It already supplies about 1 percent of American electricity, powering the equivalent of 4.5 million homes. Environmental advocates contend it could eventually hit 20 percent, as has already happened in Denmark. Energy consultants say that 5 to 7 percent is a more realistic goal in this country.

The United States recently overtook Spain as the world’s second-largest wind power market, after Germany, with $9 billion invested last year. A recent study by Emerging Energy Research, a consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass., projected $65 billion in investment from 2007 to 2015.

Despite the attraction of wind as a nearly pollution-free power source, it does have limitations. Though the gap is closing, electricity from wind remains costlier than that generated from fossil fuels. Moreover, wind power is intermittent and unpredictable, and the hottest days, when electricity is needed most, are usually not windy.

The turbines are getting bigger and their blades can kill birds and bats. Aesthetic and wildlife issues have led to opposition emerging around the country, particularly in coastal areas like Cape Cod. Some opposition in Texas has cropped up as well, including lawsuits to halt wind farms that were thought to be eyesores or harmful to wetlands.

But the opposition has been limited, and has done little to slow the rapid growth of wind power in Texas. Some Texans see the sleek new turbines as a welcome change in the landscape.

“Texas has been looking at oil and gas rigs for 100 years, and frankly, wind turbines look a little nicer,” said Jerry Patterson, the Texas land commissioner, whose responsibilities include leasing state lands for wind energy development. “We’re No. 1 in wind in the United States, and that will never change.”

Texas surpassed California as the top wind farm state in 2006. In January alone, new wind farms representing $700 million of investment went into operation in Texas, supplying power sufficient for 100,000 homes.

Supporters say Texas is ideal for wind-power development, not just because it is windy. It also has sparsely populated land for wind farms, fast-growing cities and a friendly regulatory environment for developers.

“Texas could be a model for the entire nation,” said Patrick Woodson, a senior development executive with E.On, a German utility operating here.

The quaint windmills of old have been replaced by turbines that stand as high as 20-story buildings, with blades longer than a football field and each capable of generating electricity for small communities. Powerful turbines are able to capture power even when the wind is relatively weak, and they help to lower the cost per kilowatt hour.

Much of the boom in the United States is being driven by foreign power companies with experience developing wind projects, including Iberdrola of Spain, Energias de Portugal and Windkraft Nord of Germany. Foreign companies own two-thirds of the wind projects under construction in Texas.

A longer-term problem is potential bottlenecks in getting wind power from the places best equipped to produce it to the populous areas that need electricity. The part of the United States with the highest wind potential is a corridor stretching north from Texas through the middle of the country, including sparsely populated states like Montana and the Dakotas. Power is needed most in the dense cities of the coasts, but building new transmission lines over such long distances is certain to be expensive and controversial.

“We need a national vision for transmission like we have with the national highway system,” said Robert Gramlich, policy director for the American Wind Energy Association. “We have to get over the hump of having a patchwork of electric utility fiefdoms.”

Texas is better equipped to deal with the transmission problems that snarl wind energy in other states because a single agency operates the electrical grid and manages the deregulated utility market in most of the state.

Last July, the Texas Public Utility Commission approved transmission lines across the state capable of delivering as much as 25,000 megawatts of wind energy by 2012, presuming the boom continues. That would be five times the wind power generated in the state today, and it would drive future national growth.

Shell and the TXU Corporation are planning to build a 3,000-megawatt wind farm north of here in the Texas Panhandle, leapfrogging two FPL Energy Texas wind farms to become the biggest in the world.

Not to be outdone, Mr. Pickens is planning his own 150,000-acre Panhandle wind farm of 4,000 megawatts that would be even larger and cost him $10 billion.

“I like wind because it’s renewable and it’s clean and you know you are not going to be dealing with a production decline curve,” Mr. Pickens said. “Decline curves finally wore me out in the oil business.”

At the end of 2007, Texas ranked No. 1 in the nation with installed wind power of 4,356 megawatts (and 1,238 under construction), far outdistancing California’s 2,439 megawatts (and 165 under construction). Minnesota and Iowa came in third and fourth with almost 1,300 megawatts each (and 46 and 116 under construction, respectively).

Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado and Oregon, states with smaller populations than Texas, all get 5 to 8 percent of their power from wind farms, according to estimates by the American Wind Energy Association.

It has dawned on many Texans in recent years that wind power, whatever its other pros and cons, represents a potent new strategy for rural economic development.

Since the wind boom began a few years ago, the total value of property here in Nolan County has doubled, and the county judge, Tim Fambrough, estimated it would increase an additional 25 percent this year. County property taxes are going down, home values are going up and the county has extra funds to remodel the courthouse and improve road maintenance.

“Wind reminds us of the old oil and gas booms,” Mr. Fambrough said.

Teenagers who used to flee small towns like Sweetwater after high school are sticking around to take technical courses in local junior colleges and then work on wind farms. Marginal ranches and cotton farms are worth more with wind turbines on them.

“I mean, even the worst days for wind don’t compare to the busts in the oil business,” said Bobby Clark, a General Electric wind technician who gave up hauling chemicals in the oil fields southwest of here to live and work in Sweetwater. “I saw my daddy go from rags to riches and back in the oil business, and I sleep better.”

Wind companies are remodeling abandoned buildings, and new stores, hotels and restaurants have opened around this old railroad town.

Dandy’s Western Wear, the local cowboy attire shop, cannot keep enough python skin and cowhide boots in stock because of all the Danes and Germans who have come to town to invest and work in the wind fields, then take home Texas souvenirs.

“Wind has invigorated our business like you wouldn’t believe,” said Marty Foust, Dandy’s owner, who recently put in new carpeting and air-conditioning. “When you watch the news you can get depressed about the economy, but we don’t get depressed. We’re now in our own bubble.”

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