Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Extremely Long Odds Against the Destruction of Earth

ESA / V. Beckmann (NASA-GSFC)

No object in space is more mysterious—and more psychologically menacing—than a black hole. Once known as a frozen star, a black hole is formed when a massive star burns out and collapses upon itself, ultimately producing gravitational energy so powerful that not even light can escape from it. Although physicists can infer the existence of black holes in space, they cannot directly observe them. Yet making mini black holes may be possible when the world’s largest particle accelerator—the Large Hadron Collider (LHC)—goes online outside Geneva, Switzerland. At the heart of the new machine is a phenomenal 17-mile circular tunnel where particles will smash together at nearly the speed of light, producing temperatures 100,000 times hotter than the core of the sun. Physicists will observe the collisions not only for clues to fundamental constituents of matter, hidden dimensions, and the elusive Higgs boson—the hypothetical particle that gives matter its heft—but also for tiny black holes winking in and out of existence.

But a couple of Jeremiahs would halt the fireworks before they begin. A lawsuit filed in U.S. district court in Honolulu seeks to halt the opening of the accelerator, which is funded in part by the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation. A similar suit was filed in 2000 against the Brookhaven National Laboratory to prevent the operation of the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, an accelerator that started up that year. The charge, then as now, is that microscopic black holes produced at the collider might coalesce and engulf the earth, ending all life as we know it. LHC scientists have publicly dismissed the lawsuit as bunkum while quietly double-checking their math just to be sure. DISCOVER asked Brown University physicist Greg Landsberg, who is involved in experiments at the LHC, if we should lose any sleep over the matter.

First off, how might microscopic black holes be produced at the LHC?
When too much matter is put into too small a space, it collapses under its own gravity and forms a black hole. That’s what is happening when astronomical black holes are formed. Now, the LHC doesn’t really create much matter, but it does put a lot of energy in a very small volume, and Einstein showed that for a moving particle, the energy, not the mass, governs gravitational attraction. You might create black holes at the LHC when two particles pass very close to each other, if the gravitational interaction between them is strong enough. But this is possible only in certain models that predict the existence of extra dimensions.

What is the connection between extra dimensions and black holes?
Black hole production requires a strong gravitational attraction. But gravity is much weaker than other forces, such as electromagnetism. One way of remedying this problem is to assume the existence of extra dimensions in space accessible to the carrier of gravitational force—called the graviton—but not accessible to other particles, such as quarks, electrons, and photons. If this is the case, gravity may be fundamentally strong but still appear weak to us, as the gravitons spend most of their time in the extra space and rarely cross into our world.

Imagine a very long and thin straw. If you are observing it from far away, you don’t really resolve the fact that the straw has the second curled-up dimension, its circumference. The straw appears to you as a line—that is, one-dimensional. However, if you approach the straw at a distance comparable to its radius, you would start resolving its second dimension and see that it is truly two-dimensional. Pretty much the same way, when two particles are close to one another, they start feeling gravity from extra dimensions and thus feel the true, undiluted gravitational pull. That’s basically the framework in which it turns out that black hole production at the LHC is a possibility. But one should understand that this is just one model. Whether it’s true or not is anybody’s guess.

How would microscopic black holes be observed?
They would emit light that is much, much hotter than, say, light coming from the stars or sun, because their temperature is many orders of magnitude greater. They would emit high-energy gamma rays, and they could emit all sorts of species of particles, such as electrons and muons, that we could detect.

Can we be sure that a black hole created at the LHC wouldn’t expand and swallow the earth?
I think the honest answer to this question is yes. The black holes that would be produced at the LHC must also be produced by the hundreds every day due to energetic cosmic rays bombarding our earth. When cosmic rays smash into particles of earth material, it’s the same type of collision that happens in the LHC. So the very fact that we exist here on earth to talk about these things tells us that even if black holes are produced, pretty much everything is very safe. Either black holes are not produced at all, or they decay very, very quickly due to Hawking radiation or an equivalent mechanism.

What exactly is Hawking radiation?
Stephen Hawking showed in the early 1970s that black holes are not completely black. They have a slight tint of gray, if you will. That means black holes do not just suck everything in—or accrete, as they call it scientifically—but in fact they must radiate some energy out. This process is known as Hawking radiation.

The intensity of Hawking radiation is determined by the temperature of the black hole. The higher it is, the more intense the radiation is, just like a hot bar of metal emits much more heat than a cold one. Now it turns out that the temperature of the black hole is inversely proportional to its mass. The more massive a black hole, the cooler it is. Thus small black holes are very hot and radiate a lot, while large, astronomical black holes are extremely cold and barely radiate at all. The black holes found in the universe are so cold that it takes forever for them to evaporate, many orders of magnitude longer than the age of the universe.

By contrast, black holes at the LHC would live only a fraction of a second before they radiate their mass away. This is not long enough for them to accrete anything before they disappear in a blast of radiation. These black holes would evaporate almost instantaneously, without moving by more than the size of the atomic nucleus.

Is it possible to quantify the chance of something catastrophic occurring at the LHC?
The probability is never equal to zero in quantum mechanics, but you don’t worry about it if the probability is very small. There is some probability that all the air molecules in your room will suddenly cross over and end up on one half of the room and you won’t be able to breathe. But we are talking about risk management here, and I think people should be worried about probabilities that are large.

If black holes are detected at the LHC, what would it mean for physics?
Above all, it would probably help us build a quantum theory of gravity, the one force that hasn’t really been explained by quantum mechanics. We have very little understanding of what the quantum theory of gravity looks like, and producing these black holes at the LHC would probably be as close as you could get to approaching the answer to this question.

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An Infrared Glimpse of What’s to Come - by Amy Mainzer

On the left, a picture of the constellation Orion taken in the visible light that humans see. On the right, an infrared view of Orion reveals a swirling mass of glowing gas and newly formed stars, which are invisible to the human eye.› Larger image

Almost everyone has had the frustrating experience of getting lost. To avoid this problem, the savvy traveler carries a map. Similarly, astronomers need maps of the sky to know where to look, allowing us to make the best use of precious time on large telescopes. A map of the entire sky also helps scientists find the most rare and unusual types of objects, such as the nearest star to our sun and the most luminous galaxies in the universe. Our team (lead by our principal investigator, Dr. Ned Wright of UCLA) is building a new space telescope called the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer that will make a map of the entire sky at four infrared wavelengths. Infrared is a type of electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength about ten or more times longer than that of visible light; humans perceive it as heat.

Why do we want to map the sky in the infrared? Three reasons: First, since infrared is heat, we can use it to search for the faint heat generated by some of the coldest objects in the universe, such as dusty planetary debris discs around other stars, asteroids and ultra-cold brown dwarfs, which straddle the boundary between planets and stars. Second, we can use it to look for very distant (and therefore very old) objects, such as galaxies that formed only a billion years after the Big Bang. Since light is redshifted by the expansion of the universe, the most distant quasars and galaxies will have their visible light shifted into infrared wavelengths. And finally, infrared light has the remarkable property of passing through dust. Just as firefighters use infrared goggles to find people through the smoke in burning buildings, astronomers can use infrared to peer through dense, dusty clouds to see things like newborn stars, or the dust-enshrouded cores of galaxies.

This animation shows the Sombrero galaxy, first in visible
light and then in infrared. The infrared view shows a bright,
smooth ring of dust circling the galaxy, and stars that are
hidden by dust in the visible-light view.
› Full caption

So how does one go about building an infrared space telescope? And why does it need to be in space in the first place? Since infrared is heat, you can imagine that trying to observe the faint heat signatures of distant astronomical sources from our nice warm Earth would be very difficult. A colleague of mine compares ground-based infrared astronomy to observing in visible light during the middle of the day, using a telescope made out of fluorescent light bulbs! Putting your infrared telescope in the deep freeze of space, well away from the warmth of Earth, improves its sensitivity by orders of magnitude over a much larger ground-based infrared telescope.

On the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer project, our team is in the middle of one of the most exciting phases of building a spacecraft — we’re assembling and testing the payload. Right now, the major pieces of the observatory have been designed and manufactured, and we’re in the process of integrating all these pieces together. The payload is elegantly simple. It has only one moving part — a small scan mirror designed to “freeze-frame” the sky for each approximately 10 second exposure as the spacecraft slowly scans. After six months, we will have imaged the entire sky. The telescope is flying the latest generation of megapixel infrared detector arrays, along with an off-axis telescope that gives us the wide field of view that we need to cover the whole sky so quickly. In the next few months, we’ll be setting the focus on our telescope, characterizing our detector arrays, and verifying the thermal performance of our cryostat. The observatory’s cryostat is essentially a giant thermos containing the cryogenic solid hydrogen that we use to keep our telescope and detectors at their operating temperatures near absolute zero.

Engineers install the telescope optics into the observatory’s
cryostat. The top dome of the cryostat can be seen in the
foreground. This cover will be ejected approximately two
weeks after launch, allowing the observatory an unfettered
view of the sky. Image courtesy of Space Dynamics
Lab/Utah State University. › Larger image

We are also in the midst of making detailed plans for verifying that the spacecraft is working properly once we launch. This is called the “in-orbit checkout” phase. For this mission, checkout is fast — only 30 days! The checkout commences right after our November 2009 launch, when we wake the spacecraft up and begin switching on its various subsystems: Power generation and distribution, communications, attitude control and momentum management, and the main computer system. We’ll also power on the payload electronics and detectors. Next, we will begin the calibration observations that we need to start the survey, such as verifying the telescope’s image quality and the way our detector arrays respond to light. Once these steps are completed, we’ll be ready to extend our gaze across the universe using the observatory’s infrared eyes.

The great thing about the mission’s all-sky dataset is that it will be accessible to everyone in the entire world via a Web interface. So you will literally be able to access some of the coldest, most distant and dustiest parts of the universe from the comfort of your couch. Stay tuned to explore the universe with us!

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Rare Mutant Cells Glimpsed: Imaging System May Help Understand Origins Of Cancer

MIT engineers used a new imaging technique to pinpoint the locations of mouse pancreatic cells with a specific mutation. The blue dots represent pancreatic cell nuclei, and the cells within the yellow cluster express the mutation. (Credit: Hyuk-Sang Kwon)

MIT biological engineers have developed a new imaging system that allows them to see cells that have undergone a specific mutation.

The work, which could help scientists understand how precancerous mutations arise, marks the first time researchers have been able to pinpoint the number and location of mutant cells--cells with a particular mutation--in intact tissue. In this case, the researchers worked with mouse pancreatic cells.

"Understanding where mutations come from is fundamental to understanding the origins of cancer," said Bevin Engelward, associate professor of biological engineering and member of MIT's Center for Environmental Health Sciences, and an author of a paper on the work appearing in this week's online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Peter So, professor of biological and mechanical engineering, Engelward and members of their laboratories developed technologies that made it possible to detect clusters of cells that appeared to be descended from the same progenitor cell.

Unexpectedly, more than 90 percent of the cells harboring mutations were within clusters. That offers evidence that the majority of mutations are inherited from another cell, rather than arising spontaneously in individual cells.

Since the type of mutation being studied (in this case a recombination event) occurs at a rate on par with other types of mutations, "it is as if we are peering in at the very general process of mutation formation, persistence and clonal expansion," said Engelward.

"We think this raises the possibility that mutations resulting from cell division are a tremendous factor in increasing the mutagenic load," she said.

The higher the mutagenic load, the more likely it is that cancer will develop.

Engelward and So started working together several years ago after a faculty retreat for MIT's newly formed Biological Engineering Division. So was developing a new type of microscopy, known as two-photon imaging, and the researchers wondered whether it could be used to locate and image rare types of cells.

The team genetically engineered a strain of mice in which DNA would fluoresce if a mutation occurred in a particular sequence. That allowed them to use So's newly developed high-resolution, high-throughput microscopy technique to detect individual cells that carry the mutation.

"The problem drove the development of a new imaging technology, which now can be used for lots of things," said Engelward.

Lead author of the paper is Dominika Wiktor-Brown, a postdoctoral associate in biological engineering. Other authors of the paper are Hyuk-Sang Kwon, a research affiliate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Yoon Sung Nam, a graduate student in biological engineering.

The work was truly a team effort between many people with very different areas of expertise, said Engelward. "The Department of Biological Engineering and the Center for Environmental Health Sciences are key in helping to bridge people across disciplines," she said.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy and the Singapore-MIT Alliance.

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Why You Will Eat Less in the Future

By Robert Roy Britt, LiveScience Managing Editor

With food and fuel costs soaring and the financial costs of global warming becoming reality, a new cure-all prescription has emerged: The average American should eat less.

And with a new University of Illinois report forecasting even higher food prices next year, the suggestion could become an inevitable way of life for people on tight budgets. It would of course have the added benefit of trimming waistlines and improving health, which would provide additional savings in reduced health care costs.

And cutting back would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, scientists point out, helping reduce the billion-dollar price tags put on damage and woe predicted to come with a warming world.

Fat and unhappy

Roughly 19 percent of U.S. energy consumption goes toward producing and supplying food, David Pimentel and his colleagues at Cornell University write in the current issue of the journal Human Ecology. Considering that the average American consumes an estimated 3,747 calories a day, — at least 1,200 more than health experts advise — the researchers suggest everyone cut back.

Animal products and junk food, in particular, use more energy and other resources for their production than staples such as potatoes, rice, fruits and vegetables.

Producing all the stuff that goes into a single hamburger, for example, requires some 1,300 gallons of water, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. A study in 2006 by University of Chicago researchers Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin found that a vegetarian diet is the most energy-efficient, followed by one that includes poultry. Diets with red meat or fish are the least efficient.

"By just reducing junk food intake and converting to diets lower in meat, the average American could have a massive impact on fuel consumption as well as improving his or her health," Pimentel and his team write in a statement released today.

The idea is not brand new. As LiveScience's Bad Science columnist Benjamin Radford put it earlier this year: "If you really want to help save the Earth, you can start by dropping a few pounds."

You may have to cut back

Meanwhile, prices at the grocery store could force changes in consumption.

Soaring energy prices will yield sharp increases for corn and soybean production next year, according a separate study announced today. Fertilizer prices are expected to surge 82 percent for corn and 117 percent for soybeans, said Gary Schnitkey, an agricultural economist at University of Illinois.

"Roughly 80 percent of the cost of producing nitrogen fertilizer is natural gas, so as natural gas costs have gone up so have the costs of those inputs," he said.

Rising fuel prices also mean it costs more to harvest and transport food.

While farmers will likely absorb some of the added costs, Schnitkey says consumers also should expect to pay more for products ranging from cereals and syrups to grain-fed beef.

"There's not going to be a reduction back to lower food costs as long as we have these higher production costs," Schnitkey said. "Energy prices are driving a lot of what's going on and ultimately that hits the consumer."

Additional savings

If people ate less, and therefore fossil fuel consumption declined, other savings could ensue.

For instance, a third study coincidentally also out today finds that global warming, fueled by greenhouse gases emitted by the burning of fossil fuels, is costing money in the United States and that situation will grow worse. The scientists argue that costs will be in the billions for each of the eight states included in the study: Colorado, Georgia, Kansas, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey and Ohio. California and other well-studied states were not included.

The losses will be due in part to water resource issues, coastal flooding, health effects and reduced tourism.

"We don't have a crystal ball and can't predict specific bottom lines, but the trend is very clear for these eight states and the nation as a whole: Climate change will cost billions in the long run and the bottom line will be red," said Matthias Ruth, who coordinated the research and directs the Center for Integrative Environmental Research at the University of Maryland. "Inaction or delayed action will make the ink run redder."

The study was funded by the Environmental Defense Fund.

You're in control

The Cornell study led by Pimentel argues that the consumer is in the strongest position to contribute to a reduction in energy use.

"As individuals embrace a 'greener' lifestyle, an awareness of the influence their food choices have on energy resources might be added encouragement for them to buy good, local produce and avoid highly processed, heavily packaged and nutritionally inferior food," the scientists write. "As well as leading to a cleaner environment, this would also lead to better health."

Scientists say cutting calories is one of the sure-fire ways to extend the human life span. It might also improve your sex life: Scientists found last year that obesity is linked to erectile dysfunction.

Original here

Worms Do Calculus to Find Food

By Greg Soltis, LiveScience Staff

This is the track of a worm in search of food. The color purple represents the starting point. Red is the end point as well as the peak of the gradient. Credit: Shawn Lockery

Like humans with a nose for the best restaurants, roundworms also use their senses of taste and smell to navigate. And now, researchers may have found how a worm's brain does this: It performs calculus.

Worms calculate how much the strength of different tastes is changing — equivalent to the process of taking a derivative in calculus — to figure out if they are on their way toward food or should change direction and look elsewhere, says University of Oregon biologist Shawn Lockery, who thinks humans and other animals do the same thing.

This research could one day benefit some of the more than 200,000 Americans who detect a foul smell or taste that is actually pleasant or have a weakened or depleted ability to appreciate the scent of a lilac or savor the flavor of a juicy burger.

"The more we know about how taste and smell function — not just at the level of primary sensory neurons, but downstream in the brain — the better prepared we will be to understand when the system is broken," Lockery says.

With the aid of salt and chili peppers, Lockery reached the calculating-worms conclusion by studying two anatomically identical neurons from the worm's brain that collectively regulate behavior. These two neurons function like "on" and "off" gates in a computer in response to changes in salt concentration levels. This dubiously delicious discovery, detailed in the July 3 issue of the journal Nature, hints at the method for smelling and tasting that is thought to be common among a wide variety of species, including humans.

Like human visual systems that respond to the presence and absence of light, Lockery and colleagues found that when the left neuron fires as salt concentrations increase, the roundworm continues crawling in the same direction. The right neuron responds when salt concentrations decrease, and the worm turns in search of a saltier location.

Lockery said this is similar to a game of hot-and-cold with a child. But there is one key difference: the worm doesn't need an observer to say if it's getting closer to or farther from the target — the worm calculates the change by itself.

Observing the worm responding to changes in concentration suggested an experiment to see if the worm's brain computes derivatives. The mathematical concept of a derivative indicates the rate at which something, such as salt concentration, changes at a given point in time and space. So Lockery tried to verify that these neurons recognize changes in salt concentration and then tell the worm where food is and where it is not.

To do so, he artificially activated each neuron with capsaicin, the spicy component in chili peppers, which worms naturally cannot detect. Worms with capsaicin applied to the left neuron crawled forward. When the worm's brain indicated that the current motion leads to increasing salt concentrations, it continues moving in its original direction. But when the worm's right neuron is activated by capsaicin, it is duped into thinking the salt levels are decreasing. So the worm changes direction, hoping to find salt elsewhere.

"We found a new way to do calculus with neurons," Lockery told LiveScience.

Previous studies have identified "on" and "off" cells in the brains of other chemosensory animals such as fruit flies, cockroaches, frogs, lobsters and rats. Given the strong similarities between the olfactory regions of the brains in rats and other mammals, Lockery says that humans should also be included in this list. So his work suggests that this circuit may be a universal derivative for smelling and tasting.

In response to the lingering mystery of why worms go toward salts in search of food, Lockery offers an untested theory that the decaying carcasses of invertebrates, like snails and earthworms, provide a common source of bacteria. Since animals are very salty inside, he thinks there could be a link between salt and bacteria in the wild.

Original here

Parasitic worms may help fuel AIDS epidemic: study

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - People infected with parasitic worms may be much more susceptible to the AIDS virus, according to a study published on Tuesday that may help explain why HIV has hit sub-Saharan Africa particularly hard.

The study involving monkeys demonstrated how a type of parasitic worm that causes schistosomiasis, which affects 200 million people globally, may make HIV infection more likely.

Much lower amounts of the AIDS virus -- 17 times lower -- were needed to cause infection in monkeys who had the parasitic worms than in the parasite-free monkeys, the researchers said.

"The presence of the worm is like adding fuel to the fire -- it creates more fertile ground for the virus to take hold," Dr. Ruth Ruprecht of Harvard Medical School, one of the researchers, said in a telephone interview.

Evan Secor of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, another of the researchers, said the findings likely apply to people as well. This may confirm suspicions that parasitic worm infections like those common in parts of sub-Saharan Africa with unsanitary water supplies make people more vulnerable to HIV, Secor said.

"Sub-Saharan Africa has only like 10 percent of the world's population but almost two-thirds of the world's HIV/AIDS," Secor said in a telephone interview.

"So there's an apparent disproportionate amount of HIV/AIDS there, and it's very severe. So the hypothesis is that one of the things that may contribute to the more intense nature of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa is the presence of these parasitic worms," Secor added.

Schistosomiasis, seen primarily in developing countries, is caused by tiny flatworms that live in snail-infested freshwater like rivers and lakes.

When people wade, swim or bathe in contaminated water, worms bore through the skin and travel in the blood, causing anemia, diarrhea, internal bleeding, organ damage and death.

Secor said the parasitic worm infection may undercut the immune system's ability to fight off HIV infection and may make it easier for HIV to get into white blood cells.


The researchers conducted experiments with rhesus monkeys, some of which had an acute infection with the Schistosoma mansoni parasitic worm and some of which were parasite-free, normal and healthy.

They then exposed the monkeys to a hybrid AIDS virus -- a genetically engineered version that combined elements of the monkey AIDS virus and the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS in people.

Ruprecht said having parasitic worms not only made a monkey more susceptible to AIDS virus infection, but once infected they had far higher concentrations of the virus in their bloodstream, meaning they became more likely to infect others.

"If the virus is extremely high in the blood, then the chances are that the virus is also going to be high in the genital fluids. And therefore such a host would be more likely to be spreading the infection to others," Ruprecht said.

Ruprecht said the findings emphasized the need for public health measures to control parasitic worm infections in regions where HIV infection is common. A drug called praziquantel is available to treat schistosomiasis.

The study, published in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, can be read here

(Editing by Eric Beech)

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Why Microwave Auditory Effect Crowd-Control Gun Won't Work

PHOTO: Franco Vogt/Corbis

22 July 2008—New Scientist magazine recently reported that Sierra Nevada Corp., based in Sparks, Nevada, plans to build what it calls a nonlethal microwave ray gun with the ability to beam irritating sounds into people’s heads. But experts in the underlying biophysics say it cannot work: the device would kill you well before you were bothered by the noise.

The gun, which is being built by Lev Sadovnik at Sierra Nevada, would take advantage of a phenomenon known as the microwave auditory effect. When microwaves are delivered in short pulses, the cochlear tissue in the ear expands. That expansion is heard as an audible click to anyone receiving the radiation, a sound much like that of two rocks being hit together underwater. The company says that the device, called MEDUSA (for “mob excess deterrent using silent audio”), could be used for crowd control.

However, experts say the gun wouldn’t work as advertised. There is no way the ray gun could deliver sound loud enough to be annoying at nonfatal power levels, says Kenneth Foster, a bioengineering professor at the University of Pennsylvania who first published research on the microwave auditory effect in 1974.

“Any kind of exposure you could give to someone that wouldn’t burn them to a crisp would produce a sound too weak to have any effect,” Foster says.

Bill Guy, a former professor at the University of Washington who has also published on the microwave auditory effect, agrees. “There couldn’t possibly be a hazard from the sound, because the heat would get you first,” Guy says.

Guy says that experiments have demonstrated that radiation at 40 microjoules per pulse per square centimeter produces sound at zero decibels, which is just barely in hearing range. To produce sound at 60 decibels, or the sound of normal conversation, requires 40 watts per square centimeter of radiation. “That would kill you pretty fast,” Guy says. Producing an unpleasant sound, at about 120 decibels, would take 40 million W/cm2 of energy. One milliwatt per square centimeter is considered to be the safety threshold.

“There’s a misunderstanding by the public and even some scientists about this auditory effect,” says Guy.

Theoretically, the gun could be used by the military, says James Lin, professor of bioengineering at the University of Illinois. “With any weapon, the intent is to do damage,” he says. In this case, Lin says, the gun would be more likely to cause tissue damage, brain damage, or nerve cell damage than an auditory annoyance.

Sadovnik’s project received a grant from the U.S. Navy Small Business Innovation Research several years ago. The Navy awards grants in phases, and the MEDUSA failed to receive a grant beyond the first phase. Now Sadovnik is working on the project at Sierra Nevada. He declined to comment for this article.

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Scientist: Donuts Helped Shape Our Culture


Paul Mullins is a serious scholar who has studied heavy issues like racism and materialism, but now he has turned his attention to a really weighty subject: donuts.

Donuts are seen at a Dunkin' Donuts franchise, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2008 in Boston.
(Lisa Poole / AP Photo)

Give that man a calorie-rich donut, smothered with colorful chunks of sugar, and he's immediately in hog heaven.

For some time now, Mullins, an Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis anthropologist and archaeologist, has been sitting around donut shops, gulping down those sweets and talking to other customers about why they do the same -- especially when just about everyone knows that too many donuts can make your waist balloon.

Mullins, who runs at least 40 miles a week and is a bit of a lean machine, knows the perils of an unhealthy diet, but he plugs away at his research anyway because donuts, he said, can tell us a lot about ourselves.

"The thing that struck me about donuts" when he began his research a few years ago, he said in a telephone interview, "is nobody is sitting on the fence. There are very few things like that, where people are either fervently attached to, or strongly opposed to, donuts. Nobody is muddling through on middle ground."

And that, he added, suggests that there is more at work here than the biological urge to satisfy a sweet tooth.

"If we just boil it down to biology, it's much tougher to understand food," he said. "We can eat anything if it's not toxic, and somebody across time has eaten virtually everything."

So why do we cling to foods that are at least somewhat toxic and even though they could fuel a very serious obesity epidemic?

"There's something socially telling in that," he said. Some people are committed to maintaining their body within certain parameters, and "there are other people who are very much in touch with their desires and they understand that they like donuts a lot and they are not going to deny themselves because they have been denied so many other things in their lives. Donuts for them are incredibly meaningful and powerful and they aren't going to give them up for 300 calories of discipline."

Mullins has documented the arrival of the precursor of the donut in this country in the 1800s, when the Dutch pastry, olykoek, showed up in New York and other cities. By the mid-19th century, according to his research, that pastry had evolved into the donuts we see today, and it had become a decidedly American food.

And it was, at least in the early days, somewhat class-distinctive. It was food for the working man, not a tasty morsel for the idle rich.

To some degree, he argues in his just-released book, "Glazed America: A History of the Doughnut," the element of class lingers today.

"A lot of people still look at donuts that way," he said. There's a working-class side to its image, but it can also appeal to the upwardly mobile executive who "wants to feel somewhat retro, downwardly mobile, by consuming a donut."

But the real driving force, he said, is something most of us know too well: self-indulgence.

It's not just based on biological addiction.

"It's a recognition of your personal desires and a way to act them out," Mullins said. Food, he said, has always had a social dimension, "even in the earliest reaches of prehistory." That social dimension was born, he said, the first time hominids sat around a fire and pigged out.

But now we have become a car culture, people on the move, in a hurry, looking for a quick bite of something just a tad wicked. And the car, Mullins argues, is the donut's best friend. You can eat a donut with one hand, leaving the other hand free to answer the cell phone, wave to friends and dodge through traffic.

All these social factors have changed the mom-and-pop donut shop into a slick chain with drive-up windows, treats that are both upscale and downscale, and oh-so-American.

Health concerns notwithstanding, Mullins sees nothing wrong with an occasional visit to the corner donut shop.

"It doesn't strike me as a big contradiction," he said. "Donuts are a treat. I recognize desire, I can articulate my desires, and every once in a while..."

In fact, just hours before the interview, Mullins stopped at the small donut shop that he passes on his frequent runs. He wasn't looking for a carrot. Or a plate of sushi. He was looking for the real deal.

"They had these cupcakes that must be 500 calories," he said. "I don't want to know what's inside them. I'm sure there's some lard or fat-like substance, and they were frosted with sprinkles.

"If you had told me in the car that they were going to have these cupcakes I would have said, 'Naw, I don't want one.' But that powerful yeast smell hit me when I came in the door, and I saw those cupcakes and I thought, well, man."

He said he would go for a long run later in the day.

Lee Dye is a former science writer for the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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The Death of HAL –the Evolving Digital Ecosystem

One of the greatest fears of many is the underlying knowledge that, all the wonderful advances of technology, the internet and robotics is simply bringing us closer to being subservient to our robotic overlords. It is essentially a historical imperative, and we can see it coming a mile away.

However British Computer Society President and ECS Professor of Artificial Intelligence Nigel Shadbolt, believes differently.

Shadbolt believes that the future of artificial intelligence will be much different, though no less exciting, than previously expected. “AI has had a huge influence on the past and present of computer science – it will be a large part of the future but not in the way you might think."

According to the AI expert from the School of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton, the difference between the Hollywood style intelligence and what we are seeing evolve around us comes in many forms. For example, it is seen in the computers that can beat chess champions, robotic vacuums like the Roomba, and in the immense power being exhibited by the internet.

Instead of intelligence that is a “brain in a box”, we are seeing intelligence that is assistive, adaptive and flexible. They are helping us “drive our cars, diagnose disease and provide opponents in computer games.”
In other words, instead of an intelligence that is “…agonizing about their existence or whether we are about to switch them off” we are seeing the growth of intelligence that, in years to come, will immerse us and center around humans, rather than feel the need to enslave humans.

“There will be micro-intelligences all around us – systems that are very good and adaptive at particular tasks, and we will be immersed in environments stuffed full of helpful devices.”

He takes his theory further, all the way in to the tubes of the internet. In collaboration with Professor Tim Berners-Lee – the co-inventor of the World Wide Web – the pair have been investigating the next generation Web. “What is emerging now is a digital ecosystem,’ says Professor Shadbolt, ‘involving lots of simple systems which connect millions of complex ones – humans!”

And there begins to be a certain amount of logic and a lessening of the fear I feel for the day when I am some robots whipping boy. We see such developments already in websites such as Facebook and Flickr, and programs such as Google Earth and World of Warcraft. We are being linked together, ever so slowly by a collective conscience.

Such a collective conscience, or intelligence, is self-evident in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia as well. Shadbolt describes Wikipedia as “…the communal expression of a great deal of our encyclopedic knowledge…” As a result, the web will be smart because of humans, not of itself. It is our collective intelligence that is providing the intelligence we feared robots would develop on their own.

Shadbolt suggests that“You don’t need to worry about the robot next door deciding to make a bid for world domination!”

Posted by Josh Hill.

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Mirrors Don’t Lie. Mislead? Oh, Yes.


For the bubbleheaded young Narcissus of myth, the mirror spun a fatal fantasy, and the beautiful boy chose to die by the side of a reflecting pond rather than leave his “beloved” behind. For the aging narcissist of Shakespeare’s 62nd sonnet, the mirror delivered a much-needed whack to his vanity, the sight of a face “beated and chopp’d with tann’d antiquity” underscoring the limits of self-love.

Whether made of highly polished metal or of glass with a coating of metal on the back, mirrors have fascinated people for millennia: ancient Egyptians were often depicted holding hand mirrors. With their capacity to reflect back nearly all incident light upon them and so recapitulate the scene they face, mirrors are like pieces of dreams, their images hyper-real and profoundly fake. Mirrors reveal truths you may not want to see. Give them a little smoke and a house to call their own, and mirrors will tell you nothing but lies.

To scientists, the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of mirrors make them powerful tools for exploring questions about perception and cognition in humans and other neuronally gifted species, and how the brain interprets and acts upon the great tides of sensory information from the external world. They are using mirrors to study how the brain decides what is self and what is other, how it judges distances and trajectories of objects, and how it reconstructs the richly three-dimensional quality of the outside world from what is essentially a two-dimensional snapshot taken by the retina’s flat sheet of receptor cells. They are applying mirrors in medicine, to create reflected images of patients’ limbs or other body parts and thus trick the brain into healing itself. Mirror therapy has been successful in treating disorders like phantom limb syndrome, chronic pain and post-stroke paralysis.

“In a sense, mirrors are the best ‘virtual reality’ system that we can build,” said Marco Bertamini of the University of Liverpool. “The object ‘inside’ the mirror is virtual, but as far as our eyes are concerned it exists as much as any other object.” Dr. Bertamini and his colleagues have also studied what people believe about the nature of mirrors and mirror images, and have found nearly everybody, even students of physics and math, to be shockingly off the mark.

Other researchers have determined that mirrors can subtly affect human behavior, often in surprisingly positive ways. Subjects tested in a room with a mirror have been found to work harder, to be more helpful and to be less inclined to cheat, compared with control groups performing the same exercises in nonmirrored settings. Reporting in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, C. Neil Macrae, Galen V. Bodenhausen and Alan B. Milne found that people in a room with a mirror were comparatively less likely to judge others based on social stereotypes about, for example, sex, race or religion.

“When people are made to be self-aware, they are likelier to stop and think about what they are doing,” Dr. Bodenhausen said. “A byproduct of that awareness may be a shift away from acting on autopilot toward more desirable ways of behaving.” Physical self-reflection, in other words, encourages philosophical self-reflection, a crash course in the Socratic notion that you cannot know or appreciate others until you know yourself.

The mirror technique does not always keep knees from jerking. When it comes to socially acceptable forms of stereotyping, said Dr. Bodenhausen, like branding all politicians liars or all lawyers crooks, the presence of a mirror may end up augmenting rather than curbing the willingness to pigeonhole.

The link between self-awareness and elaborate sociality may help explain why the few nonhuman species that have been found to recognize themselves in a mirror are those with sophisticated social lives. Our gregarious great ape cousins — chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans and gorillas — along with dolphins and Asian elephants, have passed the famed mirror self-recognition test, which means they will, when given a mirror, scrutinize marks that had been applied to their faces or bodies. The animals also will check up on personal hygiene, inspecting their mouths, nostrils and genitals.

Yet not all members of a certifiably self-reflective species will pass the mirror test. Tellingly, said Diana Reiss, a professor of psychology at Hunter College who has studied mirror self-recognition in elephants and dolphins, “animals raised in isolation do not seem to show mirror self-recognition.”

For that matter, humans do not necessarily see the face in the mirror either. In a report titled “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Enhancement in Self-Recognition,” which appears online in The Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Nicholas Epley and Erin Whitchurch described experiments in which people were asked to identify pictures of themselves amid a lineup of distracter faces. Participants identified their personal portraits significantly quicker when their faces were computer enhanced to be 20 percent more attractive. They were also likelier, when presented with images of themselves made prettier, homelier or left untouched, to call the enhanced image their genuine, unairbrushed face. Such internalized photoshoppery is not simply the result of an all-purpose preference for prettiness: when asked to identify images of strangers in subsequent rounds of testing, participants were best at spotting the unenhanced faces.

How can we be so self-delusional when the truth stares back at us? “Although we do indeed see ourselves in the mirror every day, we don’t look exactly the same every time,” explained Dr. Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. There is the scruffy-morning you, the assembled-for-work you, the dressed-for-an-elegant-dinner you. “Which image is you?” he said. “Our research shows that people, on average, resolve that ambiguity in their favor, forming a representation of their image that is more attractive than they actually are.”

When we look in the mirror, our relative beauty is not the only thing we misjudge. In a series of studies, Dr. Bertamini and his colleagues have interviewed scores of people about what they think the mirror shows them. They have asked questions like, Imagine you are standing in front of a bathroom mirror; how big do you think the image of your face is on the surface? And what would happen to the size of that image if you were to step steadily backward, away from the glass?

People overwhelmingly give the same answers. To the first question they say, well, the outline of my face on the mirror would be pretty much the size of my face. As for the second question, that’s obvious: if I move away from the mirror, the size of my image will shrink with each step.

Both answers, it turns out, are wrong. Outline your face on a mirror, and you will find it to be exactly half the size of your real face. Step back as much as you please, and the size of that outlined oval will not change: it will remain half the size of your face (or half the size of whatever part of your body you are looking at), even as the background scene reflected in the mirror steadily changes. Importantly, this half-size rule does not apply to the image of someone else moving about the room. If you sit still by the mirror, and a friend approaches or moves away, the size of the person’s image in the mirror will grow or shrink as our innate sense says it should.

What is it about our reflected self that it plays by such counterintuitive rules? The important point is that no matter how close or far we are from the looking glass, the mirror is always halfway between our physical selves and our projected selves in the virtual world inside the mirror, and so the captured image in the mirror is half our true size.

Rebecca Lawson, who collaborates with Dr. Bertamini at the University of Liverpool, suggests imagining that you had an identical twin, that you were both six feet tall and that you were standing in a room with a movable partition between you. How tall would a window in the partition have to be to allow you to see all six feet of your twin?

The window needs to allow light from the top of your twin’s head and from the bottom of your twin’s feet to reach you, Dr. Lawson said. These two light sources start six feet apart and converge at your eye. If the partition is close to your twin, the upper and lower light points have just begun to converge, so the opening has to be nearly six feet tall to allow you a full-body view. If the partition is close to you, the light has nearly finished converging, so the window can be quite small. If the partition were halfway between you and your twin, the aperture would have to be — three feet tall. Optically, a mirror is similar, Dr. Lawson said, “except that instead of lighting coming from your twin directly through a window, you see yourself in the mirror with light from your head and your feet being reflected off the mirror into your eye.”

This is one partition whose position we cannot change. When we gaze into a mirror, we are all of us Narcissus, tethered eternally to our doppelgänger on the other side.

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Historian predicts the end of 'science superpowers'

Massive investments in recent decades by the European Union, China, Japan, Russia and India have leveled the international playing field in the sciences, according to the essay published in the July 24 issue of the journal Nature. The trend will likely put an end to the age of the "unrivaled scientific behemoth," a status the U.S. has enjoyed since the end of World War II.
"What we are seeing is a diffusion of good science centers all over the world, a trend which ultimately may be good for science," says Hollingsworth. "But it also means that the U.S. relative to the rest of the world no longer dominates."

The authors cite China as the most pronounced example. In 1995, China ranked 15th among nations in the production of science and engineering papers, according to the research analysis firm Thomson Reuters ISI. By 2007, the country ranked second, an increase driven in large part by the country's economic growth.

China also made dramatic gains in scientific talent. From 1985 to 2005, the number of natural sciences and engineering doctorates in China increased seven-fold and elevated the country to third in the world.

Similar major strides in the number of doctorates and the volume of scientific publishing have taken place in India, Japan, Russia and Europe. Hollingsworth argues that this shift closely parallels the emergence of a global economy and the newfound ability of many nations to compete.

"The decline of the U.S. economy relative to the rest of the world is facilitating the strengthening of science elsewhere," the authors argue.
Hollingsworth and his co-authors - UW-Madison senior scientist Ellen Jane Hollingsworth and Karl H. Muller, director of the Vienna Institute for Social Science Documentation and Methodology - assert that U.S. science is still strong and performs at a high level. For example, U.S. researchers still account for more than half of the top 1 percent of most-cited papers in the world.

But the global proliferation of science will present new challenges to the United States. Hollingsworth says that the biggest threat to U.S. science competitiveness may be the massive size of major research universities, which produce a high volume of published work but not a corresponding increase in "major breakthroughs." For example, Hollingsworth says that almost 50 percent of papers published by U.S. scientists are not cited by other scientists, which raises the question of whether the high volume of publishing "is really enhancing our stock of knowledge."

"I think we have become too obsessed with quantitative measures of science - the volume of papers published, where they're published and the number of grants attained," he says.

"To thrive in this transition from a science hegemony to a global competitive landscape, the biggest need will be to become more flexible and more adaptive," he adds. "And if you're not adaptive, you can see what happens with the examples of the auto industry and steel industry in America."

Hollingsworth recommends a major investment in a new type of nimble and interdisciplinary science in the United States by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. He says the creation of more than two-dozen smaller-scale research institutes that would be autonomous from, but adjacent to, current universities could have great results. These would operate with little bureaucracy and without the constraints of conventional academic departments, and be more likely to fuel creative thinking, he says.

These institutes would mirror the successes of smaller-scale campuses such as Rockefeller University in New York, the Salk Institute in California and the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. Each of these campuses, Hollingsworth says, produces a high percentage of breakthrough research advances despite their small size, and their successes stem from an organizational culture and structure that is nimble, collaborative and cross-disciplinary.

For the past 15 years, Hollingsworth has been studying research organizations worldwide and looking at whether there are different approaches and structures around the world that are more conducive to promoting innovation. This essay put his ongoing work in an historical perspective.

Original here

Britain tries to block green energy laws

David Adam, environment correspondent

Britain is trying to water down tough new European legislation to boost the uptake of renewable energy, despite a pledge by Gordon Brown last month to launch a "green revolution" based on clean technology.

Documents obtained by the Guardian show the UK wants to block attempts to give renewable electricity sources such as wind farms priority access to the national grid. The European official who drafted the legislation accused Britain of "obstructing" EU efforts on renewables and said UK officials wanted to protect traditional energy suppliers and their coal, gas and nuclear power stations.

Claude Turmes, a Luxembourg MEP and architect of the EU renewables directive, said: "This would take us backwards and would weaken the possibilities of connecting renewable energy to the grid. A government that says it wants to promote renewables cannot go for other policies behind the scenes."

The renewables directive is intended to support an EU target to generate 20% of energy from renewable sources by 2020.

On access to the electricity grid, the draft directive said: "Member states shall also provide for priority access to the grid system of electricity produced from renewable energy sources".

However, documents seen by the Guardian show Britain wants to change "shall" to "may" - which experts say would seriously undermine the directive. Turmes said the original wording was based on a similar policy used successfully to boost renewables in Germany, Spain and Denmark, and was meant to help countries "kick dirty energy sources like coal off the grid".

A lack of connections to the national grid, which was not designed to channel power from the scattered and remote locations that suit renewables, has stalled the uptake of alternative energy in Britain and led to completed wind farms across Scotland standing idle. A recent report from the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills said 9.3GW of wind power projects were currently waiting to be connected - the equivalent of a new generation of nuclear power stations.

Last month, ministers launched a renewables strategy on how to meet the UK's share of the EU 2020 target, which requires Britain to generate 15% of its energy from clean sources.

The strategy included steps on "removing grid access as a barrier to renewables deployment". Gordon Brown said it would remove "without delay the barriers that currently prevent renewable generators connecting to the national grid".

But the strategy also noted that the draft EU directive obliged member states to give priority grid access to renewables, and said the government was working to "clarify this obligation".

At a meeting of the EU energy working group this week, leaked documents show British officials tabled several amendments to the draft directive, including changing "member states shall also provide priority access to the grid ..." to "member states may also provide access ...".

Oliver Schäfer, policy director of the European Renewable Energy Council, said: "It might look like a minor thing to change the word "shall" to "may", but in terms of policy it's a major change. The word "may" means nothing when it comes to legislation."

Britain's justification for the change, included in the document, was that it was concerned about relying too heavily on intermittent renewablewable sources of electricity. It said: "The use of 'shall' could have substantial implications on network balancing and security of energy supply." It said "thermal sources" of electricity were needed as back-up, and "over time this essential back-up generation might not be available if new renewable generation projects must be given access to the grid". It said the UK wanted the "discretion to prioritise renewable generation".

Turmes said other countries including Spain, Germany and Denmark had experienced no problems giving priority to clean energy, and that large scale renewables such as offshore wind were no more intermittent than existing energy sources.

He said: "This is not a technical problem. Britain just does not want to make the choice to promote renewables, and that means it is lining up with the worst countries in Europe on this issue." He said he was concerned Britain's lead could be followed by France and that the directive would be weakened.

Turmes claimed the UK position was influenced by energy companies. "The incumbent operators want to make life difficult for newcomers."

A spokesman for the DBERR said: "Priority access for renewables is not necessary for us to meet our fair share of the EU renewables target. What renewable generators want is quicker access to the grid, not priority access. The UK is already taking significant steps to remove grid access barriers for renewables."

John Sauven, of Greenpeace, said: "We've always said there was a danger that going for nuclear power would squeeze out renewables. The government has been caught red handed undermining clean energy, and all because of Brown's ideological obsession with atomic power."

Original here

Missouri Town Powered Fully by Wind

The town of Rock Port, in Missouri, is another of the growing number of towns and cities laying claim to be powered entirely by a renewable energy. And though the small town only boasts a population of 1,300, it is the first community in the United States to be powered entirely by wind power.

“That’s something to be very proud of, especially in a rural area like this - that we’re doing our part for the environment,” said Jim Crawford, a natural resource engineer at the University of Missouri Extension in Columbia.

The four turbines which are powering little Rock Port are part of a greater batch of 75 turbines, which installed across three counties, are used to harvest the plentiful wind scouring the landscape. “We’re farming the wind, which is something that we have up here,” Crawford said. “The payback on a per-acre basis is generally quite good when compared to a lot of other crops, and it’s as simple as getting a cup of coffee and watching the blades spin.”

Another benefit for the community is the tax that the wind energy developer that built the turbines must pay. Wind Capital Group, based out of St. Louis, has to pay more than $1.1 million a year in country real estate taxes. “This is a unique situation because in rural areas it is quite uncommon to have this increase in taxation revenues,” said Jerry Baker, and MU Extension community development specialist.

An additional bonus is that landowners can lease part of their property to wind turbines, reaping further profits from the renewable energy source. Add on top of that the savings to rural electric companies, and at least 20 years worth of electric service (the turbines lifespan), and all up, Rock Port Missouri has hit gold – so to speak.

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Giant's Seafood Makeover

Ylan Mui

Last week, we reported on Whole Foods and other supermarkets' new sustainable seafood initiatives. Yesterday, Giant Food announced support for the principles of the Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions, a coalition of nonprofit groups that works with retailers to change the way they buy seafood.

Giant said it is committing to work toward buying environmentally responsible products, making information on seafood products readily available and supporting policy changes that have positive environmental impact. The company's seafood buyers are now also ranking their purchases on how plentiful the species is, how it is caught and what effect fishing has on the species' natural habitat. As part of this effort, Giant said it has recently started selling Pacific long-line cod, which is relatively abundant, and that it will stop selling shark, orange roughy and Chilean sea bass until their populations rebound. The chain was ranked second by Greenpeace in a recent report on the sustainability of supermarket seafood.

Giant is owned by Amsterdam-based Royal Ahold NV and recently has begun catering to the environmentally hip as it tries to keep customers from pushing their carts to Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. It has its own private label organic line called Nature's Promise for everything from salsa to eggs. Of course, I also have to mention that Safeway has a similar line called O Organics that has been so popular it is considering selling it outside of its stores.

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Johnny Depp's Island to be Solar and Hydrogen Powered

I don't spend a lot of time thinking about celebrities. I'm generally more interested in professors at MIT than actors in Hollywood. But every once in a while, our friends at Ecorazzi will post something that catches my eye.

Apparently Johnny Depp bought an island for around $3,000,000 a while back. And, since there aren't exactly power lines running to the tiny island, he had to figure out how to power his (ridiculously posh) home. For the green-minded Depp, diesel generators just weren't an option.

So he turned to Mike Strizki to help him build a system that would produce enough power to quench his celebrity-born thirst for decadence while not throwing off massive amounts of greenhouse gas. The result is a solar system that stores excess energy as hydrogen for use at night, or during cloudy times of day (not too common in the Bahamas, but still.)

The system, to me, seems vastly inefficient. Hydrogen gas is terrible at storing energy in a small space unless it can be compressed a great deal. But Strizki's system uses propane tanks to keep costs low. The result is that 10 thousand-gallon propane tanks are needed to store enough hydrogen to get the island through the night. You can see a video of his less exotic system (in New Jersey) here.

Power storage for renewable systems is a huge deal. But this strikes me as a rather inelegant solution. But a high pressure tank would be costly, and of course require an energy-hungry compressor. So maybe Depp's system is the best we're going to get.

In any case, it's hard to call any of this green when the excesses of owning your own island are so obvious. But I suppose it's better than complete disregard for the environment..

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A Locally Grown Diet With Fuss but No Muss

Peter DaSilva for The New York Times

Trevor Paque at work in San Francisco in a garden his company planted in a client’s backyard.


Eating locally raised food is a growing trend. But who has time to get to the farmer’s market, let alone plant a garden?

That is where Trevor Paque comes in. For a fee, Mr. Paque, who lives in San Francisco, will build an organic garden in your backyard, weed it weekly and even harvest the bounty, gently placing a box of vegetables on the back porch when he leaves.

Call them the lazy locavores — city dwellers who insist on eating food grown close to home but have no inclination to get their hands dirty. Mr. Paque is typical of a new breed of business owner serving their needs.

Even couples planning a wedding at the Plaza Hotel in New York City can jump on the local food train. For as little as $72 a person, they can offer guests a “100-mile menu” of food from the caterer’s farm and neighboring fields in upstate New York.

“The highest form of luxury is now growing it yourself or paying other people to grow it for you,” said Corby Kummer, the food columnist and book author. “This has become fashion.”

Locally grown food, even fully cooked meals, can be delivered to your door. A share in a cow raised in a nearby field can be brought to you, ready for the freezer — a phenomenon dubbed cow pooling. There is pork pooling as well. At Sugar Mountain Farm in Vermont, the demand for a half or whole rare-breed pig is so great that people will not be seeing pork until the late fall.

Although a completely local diet is out of reach for even the most dedicated, the shift toward it is being driven by the increasingly popular view that fast food is the enemy and that local food tastes better. Depending on the season, local produce can cost an additional $1 a pound or more. But long-distance food, with its attendant petroleum consumption and cheap wages, is harming the planet and does nothing to help build communities, locavores believe.

As a result of interest in local food and rising grocery bills, backyard gardens have been enjoying a renaissance across the country, but what might be called the remote-control backyard garden — no planting, no weeding, no dirt under the fingernails — is a twist. “They want to have a garden, they don’t want to garden,” said the cookbook author Deborah Madison, who lives in Santa Fe, N.M.

Her neighbor Chase Ault, a business consultant, recently had a vegetable garden installed with a customized set of plants and a regular service agreement. “I am working 24-7 these days, but I wanted to have something growing in front of me,” Ms. Ault said.

Like organic food, which corporate manufacturers embraced in the 1990s, before it, local food is quickly moving into the mainstream. Last year, the New Oxford American Dictionary picked locavore as its word of the year. A National Restaurant Association survey this year of more than 1,200 chefs, many of whom work for chain restaurants or large food companies, found locally grown produce to be the second-hottest American food trend, just behind bite-size desserts.

For a growing number of diners, a food’s provenance is more important than its brand name, said Michelle Barry, who studies American eating patterns for the Hartman Group, a research firm in Bellevue, Wash. As a result, grocery stores are looking to repackage products like milk and cheese to play up any local angle.

That will be a boon to people who find that shortcuts are necessary if they wish to eat locally. “If you live on East 80th 14 floors up and all you have is a potted plant, it’s tough,” said Lynne Rossetto Kasper, the host of the radio show “The Splendid Table,” who recruited 15 listeners for a study on the subject. Researchers will record their struggles to make 80 percent of their meals from organic or local sources. Spices are the only exemption.

Lazy locavores would never go to such extremes. Rather, they might simply sign up with the FruitGuys. The company, which has offices in San Francisco and Philadelphia, will deliver boxes of local, sustainably raised or organic fruit right to the cubicle.

In the mood for a meal that reeks of community but does not necessitate a communal activity? Three Stone Hearth in Berkeley, Calif., which describes itself as a community supported kitchen, offers its customers the opportunity to make friends while making food from local, sustainable farms, but the worker-owned company also offers online shopping for people who do not have the time to pick up orders or participate in educational activities.

Customers 20 miles away in the affluent community of Mill Valley, for example, can pay $15 to have jars filled with Andalusian stew, made with pasture-raised pork, delivered to their door. The jars, of course, are returnable.

“It’s a very savvy crowd that understands how all the pieces of sustainable farming and nutrition fit together,” said Larry Wisch, one of five worker-owners at Three Stone Hearth. “But they don’t want the headaches of getting here.”

Or you could just have your private chef handle all your local food needs. At their Hamptons summer house, John and Lorna Brett Howard want to eat almost exclusively local, which means that in place of one trip to the grocery store, their chef, Michael Welch, makes several trips to farm stands and the fishmonger.

“What I’m seeing with my clients is not the trendiness or the politics,” Mr. Welch said. “They are looking only at taste.”

Mrs. Howard said she ate local vegetables growing up in northern Michigan and Chicago. But her husband, a private equity fund manager, ate a lot of expensive imported food with little thought about where it came from. But all that has changed.

“It’s like the first time you start drinking good red wine and you realize what you were drinking was so bad you can’t go back to it,” Mrs. Howard said. “It’s that same way with vegetables.”

The author Barbara Kingsolver, whose book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” was a best seller last year, did not have the lazy locavore in mind when she wrote about the implications of making her family spend a year eating local. But she celebrates the trend.

“As a person of rural origin who has lived much of my life in rural places,” she said, “I can’t tell you how joyful it makes me to hear that it’s trendy for people in Manhattan to own a part of a cow.”

Original here

The Real Dangers of Dolly: Rain and Floods

By Andrea Thompson, Senior Writer

A man rides a scooter chair through downtown Brownsville, Texas, as Hurricane Dolly approaches the Rio Grande Valley, Wednesday, July 23, 2008. Hurricane Dolly churned into a Category 2 storm as its eye neared the Texas-Mexico border Wednesday, bringing fierce winds and heavy rains that blew down signs, damaged an apartment complex and knocked out electricity to thousands. Credit: AP Photo/Matt Slocum

As Hurricane Dolly batters the coasts of Texas and Mexico, it's not the whipping winds that residents should be most worried about. It's the water.

Storm surge accounts for the majority of hurricane-related deaths.

As history and studies of severe weather have shown, storm surge and torrential rains can wreak havoc on coastal communities; the power of water, along with the suddenness with which floods can happen, often catches people by surprise, with potentially devastating consequences.

Flooding, which can result from both torrential rains and the ocean surf a storm can push ashore, is what officials in Texas were most concerned about after Dolly made landfall as a Category 2 hurricane at 9 am EDT on Wednesday. Residents of the Rio Grande Valley have been warned of potential severe flooding and possible levee breaks.

The National Hurricane Center predicted that Dolly could drop a total of 6 to 10 inches (15 to 25 centimeters) of rainfall in the next few days, with some isolated spots potentially getting soaked by up to 15 inches.

When an area receives such a large amount of rain in a short period of time, it can cause flash flooding. As the name implies, these floods can happen suddenly, with water rising several feet in a matter of minutes and taking unsuspecting communities by surprise.

On average over the last 30 years, more people have died as a result of flooding than from lightning, tornadoes or hurricanes, according to the National Weather Service. And almost half of all fatalities that result from flash flooding are vehicle-related, as rapidly rising waters can quickly inundate roads. Many drivers try to cross the water, only to be swept away in the current — it only takes about 2 feet of water to float a car, and 500 pounds of force pushes on a car for each foot of water rise, according the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Pedestrians fare no better: Six inches of fast-moving water can knock a person off their feet. Not to mention the debris that can be carried along by the floods, which can often tear down trees and roll boulders.

Flash floods typically occur when a slow-moving thunderstorm or large storms such as a tropical storm or hurricane pelt an area with rain so fast that the ground can't soak all the water up. Flooding can be particularly bad in urban areas, because roads and parking lots don't soak up as much water as soil might, turning streets into rivers. (An intense thunderstorm that dumped 1.5 inches of rain over Manhattan in just one hour in August of 2007 flooded the subway system and several stations, crippling the city for several hours.)

Another watery force, storm surge, is viewed as the most destructive part of a hurricane. Storm surge can build for hours before a hurricane makes landfall as the storm's winds push against the ocean and cause the water to pile up higher than the sea's usual level.

As the hurricane makes landfall, the water is pushed onshore and can quickly wash many miles inland, destroying homes and businesses. The storm surge from Hurricane Katrina, for example, was estimated to have reached heights of 24 to 28 feet (7 to 8.5 meters) along a 20-mile swath of the Gulf Coast and washed up to 12 miles inland, devastating the Mississippi coast.

The National Weather Service warned coastal residents of Texas that storm surges of 4 to 6 feet above normal tide level could inundate the coast north of the center of the storm and that the storm would bring with it "dangerous battering waves."

While Dolly is unlikely to be the disaster that Katrina was, officials are still warning residents of low-lying areas to stay in shelters, out of the way of floods and storm surge.

Original here

LA Plastic Bag Ban: Disposable Bags Outlawed By 2010

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles shoppers soon won't hear the question, "Paper or plastic?" at the checkout line.

The City Council voted Tuesday to ban plastic shopping bags from stores, beginning July 1, 2010. Shoppers can either bring their own bags or pay 25 cents for a paper or biodegradable bag.

The council's unanimous vote also puts pressure on the state, which is considering an Assembly bill that would impose bag recycling requirements on stores. City officials said their ban would not be implemented if the state passes the bill and requires at least a 25-cent charge per bag.

"We've gotten to a point where we need to act as a city, where we can have real results," said Councilman Ed Reyes, who proposed the bag ban. "We're trying to do it in a way where we can educate and inform the public of what we're doing."

Reyes said the ban will minimize cleanup costs for the city and reduce trash that collects in storm drains and the Los Angeles River. The city estimates more than 2 billion plastic bags are used each year in Los Angeles. About 5 percent of plastic bags and 21 percent of paper bags are recycled in California.

Banning plastic bags will not solve the litter problem, said an attorney who opposes the regulation of plastic bags.

"We've had enough of politicians accepting the misinformation that's spread around the Internet about plastic bags," said Stephen Joseph of the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, which represents bag manufacturers.

Joseph said the city motion gives "a free pass" to paper bags, which he argued are biodegradable but consume more materials and natural resources to make.

Three percent of the bag fee will be returned to the retailer, 3 percent will go to the state, and the rest will go back to the city to fund an education campaign.

Last year, San Francisco passed the nation's first bag ban, which took effect in November.

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Japan feeds animals recycled leftovers

By Risa Maeda

SAKURA, Japan (Reuters) - With animal feed and fertilizer prices at record highs, Japan's food recycling industry is seeing greater demand than ever before for pellets for pigs and poultry made from recycled leftovers.

Japan disposes of some 20 millions tonnes of food waste a year, five times as much as world food aid to the poor in 2007. The leftovers used to be dumped in land fills where they decomposed and produced the greenhouse gas methane.

But government legislation since 2001 has spurred a recycling industry that turns food scraps into animal feed and fertilizer, or ships leftovers off to facilities where the methane gas produced by rotting food is harnessed to power industrial plants.

"Given higher fuel and feed prices, the (food recycling) business is on the rise now," said Yasufumi Miwa, researcher at Japan Research Institute Ltd.

Farmers had been loathe to use recycled animal feed, but rising feed prices have made them more receptive to recycled feed, which is about 50 percent cheaper than regular feed.

A pig farm in Akita Prefecture, northern Japan, has offset a 20 percent jump in compound feed prices in the past year by making its own recycled feed from scraps disposed by local food manufacturers.

"We could have faced a critical situation this year if we didn't produce feed by ourselves," said Hideki Sato, a spokesman at Sugayo Co, which currently raises 20,000 pigs.

Former garbage truck driver Hiroyuki Yakou became so fed up with dumping loads of discarded food every day that he started a food recycling company, Agri Gaia System Co, Japan's largest recycled animal feed maker.

"It really was a waste," said Yakou.

Nowadays, his drivers cart truckloads of rice balls, sandwiches and milk discarded by 1,200 Seven-Eleven stores to his factory on the outskirts of Tokyo where the food scraps are turned into dry and liquid animal feed for pigs and chickens.

The feed is not used for cattle or sheep due to strict health regulations to prevent Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), more commonly known as Mad Cow's disease.

Food recyclers often use leftovers from convenience stores and restaurants where strict health laws mean unsold items must be thrown out at the end of the day.

"They don't take disposed food from households as they are not in good conditions," said Miwa.

Japan imports about 75 percent of its feedstocks from abroad. It is the world's biggest corn importer to feed animals.

But recent price hikes due to high corn and soy meal prices, the main ingredients in animal feed, has made recycled feed more popular. Although it still accounts for only 1 percent of feedstocks in Japan, or about 150,000 tonnes in 2006, double the volume of 2003. In Japan, companies such as food manufacturers, retailers and restaurants produce some 11 million tonnes of food waste a year. They are responsible for disposing the waste, often paying hefty fees to have it carted away and dumped.

A revised recycling law introduced in Japan in December sets gradually increasing recycling targets for companies that dispose of more than 100 tonnes of food waste a year, adding to their incentive to work with feed recycling companies.

Japan's food industry, the biggest producer of food waste, recycles more than 70 percent of leftovers. About half is turned into feed, less than 5 percent into methane and the rest into fertilizer.

"At first, corporate waste was converted into manure, and more of the waste is now turned into feed, which is more lucrative," Miwa added.

Some have begun to use the waste to produce methane to save energy and at the same time reduce dumping costs.

Regional governments, which incinerate waste to reduce volume before dumping in landfills, are now trying to produce alternative energy from the waste. Methane from food waste is used to generate electricity in some parts of Japan.

The Tokyo metropolitan government's cleaning service agency and Tokyo Gas Co began a test plant in February to produce methane and ethanol from waste from school meals. It is the first plant in Japan to produce two types of fuel at the same time.


At Yakou's plant, workers carefully sift through food carted in by cool trucks to remove non-edible objects, such as skewers and plastic, before sending the leftovers to a cooking facility.

The food waste is turned into two types of dry feed after a final heating process -- rich in fat and protein and less fat and protein but more carbohydrate -- and a liquid type from pasteurized drinks such as milk and chopped vegetables.

"A blind test of pork shows respondents tell the difference immediately. That's because the fat of our pork is sweeter than usual," Yakou said. "Another effect of tasty feed is that hens produce more eggs than usual".

Despite the 'waste not, want not' attitude, some animal rights activists and nutritionists are critical of feeding animals leftovers that have often passed their use-by-dates.

Junichi Kowaka, head of Japan Offspring Fund, a consumer interest NGO, said feed made from fast food may lack minerals necessary for both humans and animals.

"I think the chances are high that the animals will get sick if they eat only that kind of feed while being kept in artificial environments," he said.

($1=108.24 yen)

(Editing by Megan Goldin)

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