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The Greatest Technology Invention in Human History

Can’t recall when I first heard this, but was listening to some tech pundits at a show and the moderator asked the panel, “So what do you think is the greatest technology invention in human history?” Each panelist answered until it got to the last guy who said, “the toilet.”

This conference was just after my family and I had returned from London and had toured a castle. In it was a room that, during the 1300s, royalty went in to and sat down on an outhouse-like hole to perform their bodily functions. The hole went all the way down several stories to who-knows-where. Even the tour guide helped us appreciate how important have a waste-collection system was and to the kids said, “Imagine if you didn’t have a toilet in your house today!”

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation believes in the importance of sanitation in saving lives (and giving a quality of life!) and sponsored this delicate video to stress the importance of this device and the sanitiation systems it leverages:

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Still Denying Climate Change?

bb-climate2I get so weary of climate deniers who seem to think climate change is some sort of liberal agenda item. I’ve tried hard to change minds, but it’s very hard to do. So I hold out little hope that yet *another* pro-business, pro-conservatism publication, Bloomberg Business, will get the deniers to understand. Bloomberg Business takes the data NASA released last week and presents it in these neat little interactive charts. Ones that climate deniers who skip the news and slept through science class should hopefully be able to understand.

The science didn’t do it since so many think science is BS and God will take care of us all, so we can just sit on our butts and do nothing. The Pope doesn’t think God will just handle it for us nor do these other 100 Catholic and Evangelical religious leaders (PDF) who support the Pope’s position.

Then, when that liberal organization called the Pentagon stated this in a 2014 report (PDF), the deniers ignored or pooh-poohed it:

The responsibility of the Department of Defense is the security of our country.  That requires thinking ahead and planning for a  wide range of contingencies.

Among the future trends that will impact our national security is climate change. Rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels, and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict. They will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe.

In our defense strategy, we refer to climate change as a “threat multiplier” because it has the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we are dealing with today – from infectious disease to terrorism. We are already beginning to see some of these impacts.

Sad that our education system has churned out so many functionally science illiterate people who just cannot comprehend the data or believe that 97% of scientists concur that climate change is real.

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Climate Change & Big Cars

Often I wonder if the vast majority of people are just stupid. Or to be a bit kinder, perhaps they’re illiterate or they get their strategic decision-making “data” from watching the climate deniers on Fox News since that’s the only channel available to them.

But when I saw this in today’s Minneapolis StarTribune I shook my head in disgust and sadness that confirmed my worst fears about my fellow human beings:

climate-change_big_cars

Loudest climate warning issued,” was replaced last evening online by a much clearer one: UN climate panel says emissions need to drop to zero this century to keep warming in check. It states that, “Climate change is happening, it’s almost entirely man’s fault and limiting its impacts may require reducing greenhouse gas emissions to zero this century, the U.N.’s panel on climate science said Sunday.” That means NO greenhouse gases. You know…like the ONES PRODUCED BY BURNING FOSSIL FUELS IN BIG CARS!

From the report:

“Emissions have risen so fast in recent years that the world has used up two-thirds of its carbon budget, the maximum amount of CO2 that can be emitted to have a likely chance of avoiding 2 degrees of warming.”

Two degrees of warming would devastate the world’s coastlines…you know, like Florida’s (more on that in a moment).

So then I was taken aback when I saw this article on the front page of the StarTribune’s Business section that said, “Small-vehicle sales seen slumping as low fuel prices benefit SUVs. Larger SUVs are looking good to buyers as gas hovers near $3 a gallon in much of the nation.

What?

BUYING BIGGER CARS

Some quotes from that second article that illustrates why I said all that stuff about people in my opening paragraph:

The price of gas per gallon is drastically low — I’m really celebrating and enjoying that at the moment,” said Andrea Turner, a Tennessee mother who last week bought a 2014 Buick Encore sport-utility vehicle. The Encore has extra space to fit her 5-foot-11 frame and 10-year-old son’s soccer gear.

You just feel so much better when you look at the pump, and you’re pleasantly surprised,” said Jeff Schuster, an analyst for LMC Automotive in Troy, Mich., who sees a direct link between gasoline prices and small-car sales. “You say, ‘Maybe I’ll splurge on something and treat myself.’ ”

Right now, gas mileage is not that much of an issue for consumer choice,” said Greg Williams, new-car sales manager at Holman Honda of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

It’s not gas mileage…it’s the carbon going in to the atmosphere dummy. Hope Greg Williams has plans to get out of Florida since this is what the National Geographic climate change map shows for Florida when all Arctic and Antarctic ice melts (the absolute worst-case scenario, I should add):

Florida completely submerged if/when all ice melts in the Arctic and Antarctica

Florida completely submerged when all ice melts in the Arctic and Antarctica

 

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Slo-Mo Sprinklers

Foolin’ around this morning shooting video on my iPhone. After viewing it I really liked the haunting bird song, along with the moth flitting about back-n-forth, and it put a smile on my face so thought I’d share it.

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We Are All Connected: My DNA Journey

UPDATE 5/11/2014
Saw this article today and did some investigation.
A variant of the gene KLOTHO (KL) is known for its anti-aging effects in people fortunate enough to carry one copy. Now researchers find that it also has benefits when it comes to brain function. The variant appears to lend beneficial cognitive effects by increasing overall levels of klotho in the bloodstream and brain.” Also, Klotho (KL) is generally considered to be a tumor suppressor gene in breast and pancreatic cancers.

Turns out I have the variant. I would never had known that had I not been able to login to 23andMe and discover that I had it. Cool, heh?

Three years or so ago National Geographic produced a fascinating show called The Human Family Tree as part of its Genographic Project. If you haven’t seen it I don’t want to introduce any spoilers, but it was the first show like this I’d watched that told real stories about the amazing connectedness of humans. It also had surprises in it that obviously changed the worldview of some of its partcipants!

That show was a big deal to me since it was the first spark of my internal fire to learn more about DNA and my own family tree.

23andme-kitAfter this show I became very intrigued by the work going on at 23andMe. At the time, the ‘swab’ kit (for sending in your DNA) cost $499 so I decided against it at the moment. In the fall of 2011 they dropped the price to $99 so I signed up.

It was fun to see the results but the key with 23andMe is that the participants have to answer survey questions…over-and-over-and-over again. I’m willing to do it since I benefit from other people doing the same, but it did become a daunting task after awhile. Still, I was able to see what others in my maternal/paternal haplogroups suffered from so I have at least an idea of what sorts of illnesses I’m prone to having.

I’ve also connected with 3rd, 4th, and 5th cousins. One woman who is a 3rd cousin, for example, connected with me and she lives in California. I looked at her profile and, in a long list of surnames she was connected to, was the surname of my maternal grandmother’s parents! So my great grandfather’s family in Norway had a male who, um, ‘connected’ with a woman in her lineage and passed on that familial DNA. Cool.  [Read more…]

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Is it Time to Buy LEDs?

cree-bulbQuite often I’ll get in to debates with friends and family about energy and we end up in conversations about why we choose to be a three Prius family and why I’m so hot on the Internet of Things and my investment in SmartThings‘ technologies. Where it gets tough, however, is justifying why we are replacing our incandescent light bulbs (and even compact fluorescents (CFLs)) with LED light bulbs since the costs of LEDs are still a bit high.

That LED bulb cost makes the return on investment (ROI) a little tougher to justify for purely economic reasons, except when you consider that one LED will last for ~25,000 hours and an incandescent for only 750-2,000 hours.

LED costs are coming down but, like my friend Eric said to me just last Friday, trying to time the purchase of doing a wholesale incandescent lightbulb replacement in your home is like “catching a falling knife.” Buy too early and you get hurt since the break-even will take too many years, though I’ll argue that the time is now to begin replacing incandescents (and CFLs) with LED bulbs.

For my wife and I it’s not just about cost, however. We strive to do our bit to minimize our energy footprint and try to positively impact human’s effect on the climate in a myriad of ways such as recycling more than anyone in our neighborhood. Our lightbulb replacement adventure is just starting but will add to our objectives of minimization. Every little bit helps.

So let’s take a look two examples of bulb replacement in my own home to give you a sense of what I’ve already done and what the results have been so far. Hopefully this will help you determine whether or not the time is right for you to “catch the knife” and replace your incandescent bulbs with LEDs.

[Read more…]

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Is Thorium Our Energy Answer?

nuclear-plant

Nuclear power plant in Cattenom, France – Photo by Stefan Kühn

Slowly but surely I’ve become a believer in thorium reactors as one potential energy source that is abundant, cheap and an element that is naturally present everywhere in the world. 

We will need it and Bill Gates is on board and investing in thorium so you know there has to be something world-changing about this element to get him involved.

To give you an idea of why we need more major energy sources — and we won’t be able to satisfy demand with solar, wind or other renewables since the demand is so great globally — let me share with you one sentence that starts off the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s International Energy Outlook 2013:

“The International Energy Outlook 2013 (IEO2013) projects that
world energy consumption will grow by 56 percent between 2010 and 2040.”

Holy shit. A 56% increase in the next 37 years? Yep.

If you want to know more about thorium — and I’d hope you would at least ask your elected representatives about what the U.S. is doing with thorium research to make sure energy is top-of-mind for them — here is a link to a Wikipedia article on thorium and the video from that Bill Gates page here is about 28 minutes long, but is a great overview and I encourage you to watch it.

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Don't Believe in Climate Change?

This graph, based on the comparison of atmospheric samples contained in ice cores and more recent direct measurements, provides evidence that atmospheric CO2 has increased since the Industrial Revolution. (Source: NOAA)

This graph, based on the comparison of atmospheric samples contained in ice cores and more recent direct measurements, provides evidence that atmospheric CO2 has increased since the Industrial Revolution. (Source: NOAA)

Must admit I’m still stunned when I talk to an actual human being (one who seems intelligent) and they tell me that they do not believe in climate change. Anyone with an 8th grade education who can read should be able to figure out that the evidence is overwhelming.

NASA has this Global Climate Change website and the graphic above comes straight from their page entitled “Evidence.” With all of that extra CO2 in the air — a gas that traps heat in the atmosphere and is a concept even an 8th grader who has been in a hot car could understand — the evidence goes beyond what we can see and experience ourselves. Seeing, analyzing and cataloguing the data from space and satellites is an amazing set of tools to collect it all and prove climate change is real. 

From NASA’s Evidence page:

  • normPage-3Sea level rise: Global sea level rose about 17 centimeters (6.7 inches) in the last century. The rate in the last decade, however, is nearly double that of the last century.
  • Global temperature rise: All three major global surface temperature reconstructions show that Earth has warmed since 1880. Most of this warming has occurred since the 1970s, with the 20 warmest years having occurred since 1981 and with all 10 of the warmest years occurring in the past 12 years.6 Even though the 2000s witnessed a solar output decline resulting in an unusually deep solar minimum in 2007-2009, surface temperatures continue to increase.
  • Warming oceans: The oceans have absorbed much of this increased heat, with the top 700 meters (about 2,300 feet) of ocean showing warming of 0.302 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969.
  • Shrinking ice sheets: The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have decreased in mass. Data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment show Greenland lost 150 to 250 cubic kilometers (36 to 60 cubic miles) of ice per year between 2002 and 2006, while Antarctica lost about 152 cubic kilometers (36 cubic miles) of ice between 2002 and 2005.
  • Declining Arctic sea ice: Both the extent and thickness of Arctic sea ice has declined rapidly over the last several decades.
  • Glacial retreat: Glaciers are retreating almost everywhere around the world — including in the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska and Africa.
  • Extreme events: The number of record high temperature events in the United States has been increasing, while the number of record low temperature events has been decreasing, since 1950. The U.S. has also witnessed increasing numbers of intense rainfall events.
  • Ocean acidification: Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the acidity of surface ocean waters has increased by about 30 percent.12,13 This increase is the result of humans emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and hence more being absorbed into the oceans. The amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by the upper layer of the oceans is increasing by about 2 billion tons per year.

It might be too late to stop the acceleration in global CO2 levels. When it comes to climate deniers, maybe they will wake up when their crops whither and die due to abnormal heat and little rain, or when the oceans rise and either they’re inundated with water or millions of refugees flood their towns and neighborhoods. 

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North Dakota's 7.5 Billion Barrels of Oil Means We Have All We Need, Right?

bakkenWhat if reducing our dependence on foreign oil wasn’t just about renewable and alternative energy sources—wind, solar, battery-powered electric vehicles—but also meant harvesting our own fossil fuel sources here at home?

N.D. oil is more plentiful than previously thought in this morning’s Minneapolis StarTribune also pointed out that, “The government has sharply increased its estimate, and some think it is still too conservative.” Though the U.S. Geological Survey estimates 7.5 billion barrels, “Continental Resources, the largest acreage-holder in the North Dakota oil patch, estimated in December that the basin contains 20 billion barrels of oil and 4 billion barrels of liquid natural gas.” 

Wow. That’s a lot of energy. There is no question that there is a huge oil boom in that region of the country and my family is benefiting from it, even though my own personal focus is on being ‘green’ and finding ways to optimize my own energy use.

My grandfather, Martin Wolla

Martin Wolla

As a young man my maternal grandfather and his pals acquired mineral rights to areas around Tioga, ND, right in the heart of the Bakken Formation. These rights were split between my mom and her brother and, after mom passed in 1994, they went to my dad and ultimately will be split between my three sisters and me. While the royalties are laughingly diluted by the time they’ve made their way to us (now worth a couple of decent meals at a restaurant each month) the amounts are rising little-by-little and it will be interesting to see if they become even remotely meaningful to our incomes at some point.

My biggest concern, however, is that the government, automakers, oil producers and others will take their eye off the ball when it comes to developing alternative energy sources. Why? That StarTribune article said it best when discussing the new 7.5 billion barrel estimates and whether or not companies could safely ‘invest’ in the region: “The new estimates should give potential investors confidence that the oil boom could have decades to run. At the current rate of production — 22.5 million barrels in January — it would take 27 years to remove 7.5 billion barrels from the ground.

27 years. Seems like a long time, right? The point is that even this new, substantial source of energy will run out

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We Just *Cannot* Be Alone

The more I learn about the vastness of the universe, the deeper is my belief that we simply cannot be alone in the universe. Watch this animated flight through the universe made by Miguel Aragon of Johns Hopkins University with Mark Subbarao of the Adler Planetarium and Alex Szalay of Johns Hopkins. There are close to 400,000 galaxies in the animation, with images of the actual galaxies. The images and data came from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS).

When you figure that our Milky Way galaxy contains an estimated 200-400 billion stars our own home galaxy is incredibly likely to harbor life. Astronomer Carl Sagan‘s once said, “The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, it sure seems like an awful waste of space

Sagan also continually described the universe’s potential for life being due to the “billions and billions” of planets out there. Though I’ve been watching the Mars Curiosity landing and the first pictures that have returned from that barren planet like this amazing 360 degree panorama, I do so with the knowing (and a tinge of sadness) that it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever leave this planet and explore another world. 

Don’t even bother to do the math on 200 billion+ stars times 400,000 galaxies and the planets and the possibilities and…

…just watch the video. It’s cool: