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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:

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Fox News Lies about Greenland’s Ice Melt

Extent of surface melt over Greenland’s ice sheet on July 8 (left) and July 12 (right). Measurements from three satellites showed that on July 8, about 40 percent of the ice sheet had undergone thawing at or near the surface. In just a few days, the melting had dramatically accelerated and an estimated 97 percent of the ice sheet surface had thawed by July 12. Image courtesy NASA (click for larger view)

Amazing how Fox News — you know, the ‘Fair and Balanced’ one — seemingly takes just about any news story and twists, spins and mangles it to fit some conservative agenda. This time they’ve taken this week’s NASA announcement of the ‘unprecedented’ Greenland ice melt and ignored the gist of it so their counterview could be used as an anti-global warming article entitled, Skeptics put the freeze on NASA ‘hot air’ about Greenland ice

But them trying to position this in that way is bullshit.

Let me illustrate why Fox News using this one quote they pulled out of the press release, positioning it as a glaciologist’s comment that was pooh-poohing the magnitude of the event:  [Read more…]

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Is the Prius a Polluter?

Just saw a cousin’s Facebook post about her new (actually slightly used) Toyota Prius. She had talked to me earlier about my Prius, how I liked it and so forth, so I was intrigued that she and her fiancee purchased one. She looks pretty happy in the photo, doesn’t she?

Then a friend of hers commented, “Yay the “green” that is the most damaging to the environment to build.” Someone then asked what he meant and he went on with, “Prius pollutes more is based on the production and transport of nickel for the on-board rechargeable battery pack. The nickel is actually mined and smelted in Sudbury, Ontario (Canada) by Inco. The nickel is then shipped to a refinery in Europe. From there, the nickel goes to China to produce nickel foam. Then, it goes to Japan. In Japan Panasonic manufactures the battery itself, then it’s off to the Toyota plant for final vehicle assembly. Lastly the cars are shipped to the United States, completing the world tour required for a Prius battery.

That was certainly a bit of cold water thrown on her excitement! I’ve had exactly the same reaction from many who pooh-pooh driving a hybrid or electric car, think those of us who do are “greenies” or goofballs,  all while they climb in to their car or truck that, on a good day, gets 18mpg and costs them $100 a week to drive.

So I took a moment to refute and minimize what this kid had said and also thought this entire discussion would make a great post:  [Read more…]

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Our 2011 Family Trip

We had an amazing trip to Germany, Austria and Poland and yes, if the internet access had been easy to obtain and ubiquitous, it would’ve made the trip A LOT easier and more enjoyable. Here are a few photos of our adventure:

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Louis C.K. on Why Appreciate ‘the Amazing’

Comedian Louis C.K.  has this very funny rant on how people don’t appreciate technology, flying, Wifi on those flying planes and more. This is EXACTLY what I’d love to say to people when they complain about their smartphone while they’re riding in a car (“it, like, is totally slower than my home internet“) but you’re in a CAR going down the HIGHWAY AT 75MPH! Or those who complain about the nearly 13 hours it takes to fly from Minneapolis, MN to Narita, Japan (“oh my butt is so sore“), a trip that took weeks by train and then ship less than 75 years ago!

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My 2011 Road Trip

treasurecityAfter coming to the realization that the compulsion to jump in the car with my new camera and head out on a road trip was not going away, I took off for a week and did it.

The following slideshow is not representative of the 700+ photos I took—many of those taken were done for dramatic and photographic effect—but these select ones give an overview of this adventure.

The most profound thing was all of the history I discovered and had reinforced on this trip. I’m still absorbing what transpired on this road trip and may post about it again soon.

Click the photo below to view my Flickr photo album:

Steve's 2011 Road Trip - 1

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Bachmann is Not the Brightest Bulb in the Sign

Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, in a continuation of her tirades against the “nanny state” and “government takeover” of seemingly everything, reintroduced her Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act which essentially demands proof of compact fluorescent light bulb safety (due to the mercury it contains) and the carbon emissions purported to be reduced if incandescent bulbs begin their current governmental mandated phase-out in January of 2012.

Even though her amended bill seems to include a focus on “the people” vs. her usual focus on business, I have my doubts but can’t figure out what her real motivation is in trying to kill this 2012 mandate. In part her bill states that proof is needed that compact fluorescent bulbs, “…will not pose any health risks, including risks associated with mercury containment in certain light bulbs, to consumers or the general public, including health risks with respect to hospitals, schools, day care centers, mental health facilities, and nursing homes.” Really? I highly doubt Bachmann cares at all about “consumers and the general public” since she’s not showing ANY leanings in that direction during her Congressional tenure.

I’m still trying to figure out who wins here. Is she in the pocket of “big light bulb”? Not likely. Is it just low-hanging fruit to get the non-thinking masses riled up? Probably. But even that isn’t clear and I highly doubt she’s just being her usual short-sighted, screamingly goofy on any anti-Obama issue so other GOP’ers don’t have to be, self.

For the last five years (see this post from 2006) I’ve been closely watching what’s going on in energy and, especially, the ONE, MOST WASTEFUL energy use WORLDWIDE: incandescent light bulbs. The US Department of Energy, the European Union energy ministers, and anyone with half-a-brain can do the 2nd grade arithmetic necessary to easily see the energy wasting nature of this lighting source.

This article (written in 2006!) from the Economist summed up the primary reason why we MUST get off incandescent lighting:

Worldwide about 20% of all electricity generated is used for lighting. Several studies reckon that LEDs could eventually cut that amount in half. That would not only save billions of dollars in electricity bills, but also significantly reduce energy demand, environmental pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions.

So is Michele Bachmann a terrorist who wants us to remain dependent on foreign oil? Is she concerned that big oil companies will have their revenues lowered if the U.S. moves toward efficient and energy saving lighting? Seriously, I can’t think of what the hell her motivation is here other than finding any reason to jump on an issue that gets people riled up one way or another.

What do you think?

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Will Google Experience Control Data’s Fate?

An early Control Data system with supercomputer genius Seymour Cray at the controls

Google’s recent announcements about their focus on wind energy and these five initiatives bring up the possibility that they’re following in the footsteps of Control Data, a Minnesota corporation that took its eye off the ball and lost their lead as one of the nine most influential computer companies and are now out of business.

Control Data Corporation (CDC) was a supercomputer firm. For most of the 1960s, it built the fastest computers in the world by far, only losing that crown in the 1970s after Seymour Cray left the company to found Cray Research, Inc. (CRI). CDC was one of the nine major United States computer companies through most of the 1960s; the others were IBM, Burroughs Corporation, DEC, NCR, General Electric, Honeywell, RCA, and UNIVAC. CDC was well known and highly regarded throughout the industry at one time. —from Wikipedia

William Norris, founder and CEO of CDC, was a computer visionary but also a social activist. One of his key initiatives was computer-based learning, an initiative that took an increasing amount of his time and made many people who worked there (and I know dozens and am related to many former CDC employees) continued to be befuddled over the lack of focus on core competitive moves and what seemed like an acceleration in “cause related” investments over the years. Yes, losing Seymour Cray was devastating but there was so much more to the core business than chasing the supercomputer end of it.

Sadly, those of us in Minnesota who looked up to CDC watched it slowly fade away and sell off bits and pieces of itself until it was non-existent.

The Google Self Driving Car

Google’s stated business mission? To, “…organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Beyond the mission they post items like this “Ten Things We Know to be True” manifesto which outlines core beliefs like, “Focus on the user and all else will follow” and when it comes to their primary business, search, that “It’s best to do one thing really, really well.

So help me understand Google: How do windmills and self driving cars fit in to the focus of Google and everything you stand for and believe?  There’s a lot of buzz in the tech community about the “Google brain drain” as people bolt to go to Facebook and other startups and I’m not the only one that wants to see them focus, and I’d hate to see you haunted by the ghost of William Norris who’d hate to see another leading company lose its way.

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Your Mileage May Vary

Technologists, “greenies” and (hopefully) mainstream consumers are anticipating the release of many new hybrid and electric cars, none the least of which is the soon-to-be-shipped Chevrolet Volt. The issue I see coming is one of potentially profound disappointment by the general masses due to the current state of energy storage in batteries.

I am a somewhat disappointed owner of a Neuton rechargeable lawnmower with nickel metal hydride (NiMh) batteries (I bought an extra battery for $99). After the first season the batteries weren’t holding a charge so I couldn’t finish my relatively small lawn with both batteries. Neuton agreed I’d “conditioned” them properly over the winter by storing them inside and charging ’em once per month, so they gave me two new ones. They’ve also have recognized the initial failings of these first batteries and have since done a deal with Duracell for newer technology they ship with the current generation of mowers, but reviews I’ve read show people still disappointed with the lower-than-gas-mower power and how as the stored energy drains, the mower’s power weakens right alongside it.

Since I have a Toyota Prius in the garage—a car I may still upgrade to a plugin hybrid (PHEV) using Minneapolis-based ReGo‘s technology for $5,000—I am trying to keep up on the current state of electric storage technology (i.e., batteries) and how far we have to go. No question I see that it’s closer to mainstream but the jury is still out on whether or not it’s yet commercially viable.

That’s what General Motors thinks too.

On page 154 in their most recent SEC Form S1 filing (PDF) they state, “On a fully charged battery and tank of gas, the Chevrolet Volt has a driving range of hundreds of miles. When powered only from electricity stored in its 16-kWh lithium-ion battery; the Chevrolet Volt has a typical range of 25-50 miles depending on terrain, driving technique, temperature and battery age. Advanced lithium-ion battery technology is the key enabling technology for the Chevrolet Volt, although this technology is new and has not been proven to be commercially viable.

All that said, I do believe in the brilliance of GM’s approach by leveraging battery storage along with a small internal combustion engine that will do nothing but charge the batteries when they fall below a threshold. It means that I could hop in the Volt and drive to Chicago…something I would never do in a purely electrical vehicle like the widely anticipated Nissan Leaf which this New York Times article states, “…has a range of about 100 miles before it needs recharging. But that range can vary a lot – to as little as 62 miles to as much as 138 – depending upon factors like weather, traffic, accessory use, load and driving style.” I’d be very nervous driving a Leaf for a full weekend day…let alone out of the Twin Cities metro area.

If you’d like to watch a video that gives a solid overview of the current state of the marketplace, this one from the recent World Energy Expo in Austin, TX will give you a good sense of what’s going on right now. When it comes to vehicle energy storage, I anticipate that consumers will become disillusioned unless they completely and totally understand the limitations and the variables that comprise the statement, “…and your mileage may vary.

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When We Run Out of Oil…

If you pay attention to any of the relevant facts about oil production (i.e., supply), oil consumption, and why it’s likely we’re in the Middle East fighting a “war” (e.g., to deploy a strategic military position to ensure a steady flow of oil), then you probably do like I do: waver between complacency and sheer terror over the prospect of running out of oil.

I’ve been following oil geeks at The Oil Drum for some time, and while they clearly give solid and deep analysis of all the current data and conjecture in the oil industry, it’s this “Crash Course 17A-Peak Oil” video by Chris Martenson (from his Crash Course on economics) that I’ve embedded below and is one that will give you a very concise snapshot of where we are in the world with respect to peak oil.

Having learned more than I ever wanted to know about the looming fate of us all in a world soon hungry for energy, I gave up a 34mpg Mercedes diesel in favor of a Toyota Prius — one I routinely get 48mpg in as an average — since I can see strategically that the world’s dependence on a finite resource is accelerating while that resource is dwindling and getting more expensive to deliver. Not a pretty combination. It’s also why I’ll be buying a plug-in hybrid in the next year or two when I find one that fits my strategic and tactical needs for transportation. Gas prices in the next two years will only go one way….up.

Bottom line? If you’re not thinking about your business and personal life in a world with shrinking energy reserves, then you’re not paying attention and need to be….now.