Category for tech

“An orange river of sunlight”: migration of the Monarchs

Was driving through the warm little town of Ojai California when a monarch butterfly flew helplessly in front of my windshield and then shot up past the little car and out into the open air with a single flap of his wings. Fly on!

Delightful sight. Made me wish for an instant to get out of the car and give chase. That passed, but today I come across an utterly amazing story about monarchs except that well…to call this a story gives it too little credit.

The next voice you hear will be a familiar one: Ari Shapiro of National Public Radio, a wonderfully familiar name in science reporting, and deservedly so. Yet no matter how solid his work, that's not what makes this one special.

In this one, Atlanta Public radio takes nature/science reporting/writing to a new level.

In fact, they raise the bar two or three times, by telling the mind-expanding story of the migration of the Monarch Butterly, smoothly blending radio journalism, the visual geography of Google Earth, delightful, almost Disney-esque nature/science graphics, and citizen science.

Willie Schubert and his colleagues are pursuing similar geojournalism ideas on on an even bigger scale at Climate Commons, I learned at a recent conference of environmental journalists, but what Shapiro et al manage in the below is to tell an old story — the migration of the Monarch — in a complete new way.

It's jaw-dropping.

It's one flaw, as a commentator mentioned, is that it ignores the Western Monarch butterfly, which winters along the Southern California coast, and migrates northward along the West Coast far into Canada.

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Soon to be a major motion picture: Shodan

The story is astonishing/alarming, but the background mythology is downright scary: 

The idea for Shodan came to John Matherly in 2003, when he was a teenager attending community college in California. Obsessed with the digital world, he named his project after a malevolent character in a video game called System Shock II. The character, Sentient Hyper-Optimized Data Access Network, or Shodan, is an artificial intelligence entity that thinks it is a goddess and sets out to eradicate humans.

What is it? All too appropriately, a program that ties together the neglected one-trick-ponys of the digitized machine world, the "control computers" that run pumps, power plants, and so on, Now they can be catalogued by coders, and manipulated from afar, by those in the know. . 

Let the Washington Post explain: 

][Matherly] called his fledgling search engine Shodan, and in late 2009 he began asking friends to try it out. He had no inkling it was about to alter the balance of security in cyberspace.

“I just thought it was cool,” said Matherly, now 28.

Matherly and other Shodan users quickly realized they were revealing an astonishing fact: Uncounted numbers of industrial control computers, the systems that automate such things as water plants and power grids, were linked in, and in some cases they were wide open to exploitation by even moderately talented hackers.

Control computers were built to run behind the safety of brick walls. But such security is rapidly eroded by links to the Internet. Recently, an unknown hacker broke into a water plant south of Houston using a default password he found in a user manual. A Shodan user found and accessed the cyclotron at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Yet another user found thousands of unsecured Cisco routers, the computer systems that direct data on the networks.

The malevolent genius of Shodan has inspired followers:

One of them, an anonymous hacker who calls himself pr0f, is a bright, unemployed 22-year-old who favors hoodie sweatshirts and lives in his parents’ home somewhere overseas. He is among the growing numbers of Shodan users.

After studying control systems in the wake of Stuxnet,[the Israeli/US "worm" that destroyed Iranian centrifuges] he thought the insecurity of the devices seemed crazy and irresponsible.

“Eventually, somebody will get access to a major system and people will be hurt,” he later said. “It’s just a matter of time.”

And just a matter of time before some ambitious young talent makes this into a movie. Young hacker unleashes the machines of the world against the humans!

Premise will be hard to resist, whether or not the screenplay/movie turns out to be any good. 

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What’s not to “like” about widgets (from the WSJ)

Or at least, what's not to trust. It's why I don't link this site to fb, though it hurts my popularity: 

The charticle is easier to understand than the article, but they're both worth a minute or two. 

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NASA drops another climate satellite in the ocean

Two years ago I observed the launch of a NASA satellite, called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, intended to help scientists understand the wide variation in uptake of carbon from the atmosphere by the earth. I wrote about it for the Santa Barbara Independent.

At an impromptu press conference held after the OCO crashed into the Southern Pacific ocean, launch director Chuck Dovale vowed on NASA TV that the agency would not rest until they had found the cause of the failure, and would not send up another satellite until they knew they had found the solution. 

Well, this weekend NASA launched another climate satellite, Glory, designed to measure aerosols in the atmosphere. The mission was powered by the same kind of Taurux XL rocket as before, and the satellite built by the same corporation, Orbital Services. Once again the launch failed, and once again the failure was traced to explosive bolts designed to open a clamshell snout and release the satellite into orbit.

Veteran journalist Seth Borenstein reported on the "contingency," as the engineers say, once again for the AP, as he did on the last failed launch. 

The Taurus XL rocket carrying NASA's Glory satellite lifted from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and plummeted to the southern Pacific several minutes later. The same thing happened to another climate-monitoring probe in 2009 with the same type of rocket, and engineers thought they had fixed the problem.

"It's more than embarrassing," said Syracuse University public policy professor Henry Lambright. "Something was missed in the first investigation and the work that went on afterward."

The cost? $424 million.

Borenstein adds:

Scientists are trying to move climate change forecasts from ones that are heavily based on computer models to those that rely on more detailed, real-time satellite-based observations like those that Glory was supposed to make. The satellite's failure makes that harder.

Epic bad luck? Or incompetence at NASA and Orbital?  

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The best line on “The Social Network”

From a review on The Millions by Sonja Chung:

 I came away from the film wanting to send Mr. Zuckerberg a Facebook message saying, “Don’t worry, kid.  Just relax and try to enjoy your life” but never wanting to meet the guy – in other words, wanting to be “friends,” but not friends.

But Chung is too kind. I came away from the movie hating myself for even touching Facebook.

Here's its hero/villain in what his one-time best friend accurately describes as his "fuck you flip-flops":



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The unheard-of and suddenly indispensable Smartpen

Take it from veteran journalist and computer writer James Fallows, of the Atlantic:

For my own workaday purposes, the most useful recent invention has been
the Livescribe Pulse pen, which I bought just after its introduction
early last year and now can hardly be without. It looks like a somewhat
bulky, cigar-shaped metallic writing instrument. Inside it contains a
high-end audio recording system and assorted computer circuitry. When
you turn it on, it starts recording what you are hearing—and also
matches what is being said, instant by instant (in fact, using photos it
takes 72 times per second), with notes or drawings that you’re making
in a special Livescribe notebook. The result is a kind of indexing
system for an audio stream. If a professor is explaining a complex
equation during a lecture, you write “equation,” or anything else—and
later when you click on that term, either in the original notebook or on
images of the pages transferred to your computer screen, it plays back
that exact part of the discussion. (Works on both Macs and PCs.) For me
this means instant access to the three interesting sentences—I just
write “interesting!” in the notebook or put a star—in the typical
hour-long journalistic interview. The battery lasts for several full
days’ use between recharges, and the pen can hold dozens of hours of

Or take it from me, an average joe journalist… this device is freaking amazing, for anyone who does any kind of interviewing or listening with attention. It passes my tech test: it works straight out of the box, no need to crack open the manual. Even for people with bad penmanship. Unbelievable. 


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Why DeSalination Is Not the Answer

A water manager for United Water Conservation District named Steve Bachman explains succinctly why desalination is not the answer, in a story I wrote in today's Ventura County Star (here):

“People ask all the time about desalination,” he said. “And yes, we can
do that, if you’re willing to pay two times or more what you’re paying
now for water.”

In a phone conversation, he explained further. Water districts can buy water from Metropolitan — when it is available — for $600 an acre-foot. "Desal" today costs in the range of $1100.

So there you go. Of course we haven't mentioned the huge carbon footprint, the infrastructure problems, the salts disposal…but do we need to?

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Geek Love: Past and Present in Rechargeable Batteries

I can keep it short because Jeff Atwood gives you a decade’s worth of experience with rechargeable batteries in a post of a mere thousand words or so, called Adventuries in Rechargeable Batteries.

Bottom line: fast-charge battery chargers can ruin rechargeable batteries.

Atwood tells you to spend a little more — forty bucks on a battery charger — and take advantage of the fact that modern batteries, if handled carefully, can handle hundreds of charges.

Plus, this charger can charge not just the usual "A" and "AA" batteries, but also the much bigger "C" and "D" batteries. And you can see the charge flowing into the battery, and track its progress.

While I’m employed, will try this, and report results in a month or so.

(H/t: Lifehacker)


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Ex Exxonian Still Doubts Climate Change

Lee Raymond ran ExxonMobil back in the days not so long ago when it was raking $25 billion a year and, purely by coincidence, adamantly denying the reality of climate change. Now Raymond has taken his $400 million retirement and moved on. Interesting, even Raymond doesn’t believe in "clean coal."

Discussing a new study by the National Petroleum Council, he adds that the "Holy Grail" of "clean coal," the idea of sequestering the carbon emissions and injecting them deep into the earth, is impractical.

On this point he’s quite convincing, I think, and vividly descriptive:

But what is viewed of course as kind of the Holy Grail on coal-fired
power plants is carbon sequestration. And people are correct in the
sense that the oil industry, for a long time, has been carrying on a
form of a carbon sequestration project because we’ve been injecting CO2
as a secondary recovery technique in oil reservoirs for a long time.
But to go from that, quickly, to massive carbon sequestration for a
power plant is a whole different animal. The technology, I think most
of the people who worked on it would conclude that the technology is
probably there to do it, but it has never been demonstrated at scale.

Secondly, if you think about that very long it will require a
regulatory framework that does not exist today. And how that could be
put together in this country given that you’re going to get into state
jurisdictions and all the other issues that we get into in this
country, in a short period of time, is very, very unlikely. Now, even
if you do that, if you think about it very long, A, one gigawatt
coal-fired power plant, to get rid of all the CO2, I think is it 50,000
barrels a day, 150,000 barrels a day of supercritical CO2 will have to
be injected into the ground. To get to your point, if you tried to
inject all the supercritical CO2 that came from all the coal-fired
power plants you end up moving more and liquids than the oil and gas
industry moves today, just for CO2
. So it is a huge, huge undertaking.
And, again, people — this gets into a lot of the infrastructure
issues, people just assume that that can happen. You can’t assume
that’s going to happen. And the cost is going to be very, very

Hmmm — "clean coal" even in the description of an ally appears to be another one of those Bush administration fantasy, like WMDs, "asperational" emission limits, and Harriet Myers, Supreme Court judge.

However, Raymond damages his credibility by continuing to scoff at the scientific consensus on climate change. False Wall Streeet prophet Jim Glassman, co-author of the classically wrong-headed  "Dow 36,000" from seven years ago asked him:

Jim Glassman: Let me interject a question, I think
Exxon Mobil has probably spent more money on studying climate change
than any other company. Have you changed your mind about climate change
over the last five years?

Lee Raymond: Well, I don’t work for them any more,
so I don’t know what they’re saying. But my own personal view is I
guess the way I would describe it Jim, and Jim’s just baiting me here,
the only thing I would say is the only consensus I know of is that
there’s not a consensus.

Note the assumption: research from outside the corporation is meaningless…

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Coal: The Addiction and the Hope

An excellent news story by Alan Zarembo in the Los Angeles Times begins with the problem:

Coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, is the crack cocaine of the developing world.

But along the way, it also mentions the hope — not the promise, but the hope — for a solution.

Another possibility is a process known as integrated gasification,
which converts coal into a cleaner-burning gas, capturing emissions in
the process.

Coal plants in China and India could eventually be retrofitted with such systems.

"We need a bolt-on solution for those existing plants," said
Stanford’s [Michael] Wara. "It’s going to be very difficult to tell those people
to shut down those plants."

File it under topics for further research…

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