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GraniteGeek is going to hide under a rock for a week or so - see you then 

I'm about to go on vacation with the family and doing it tech free (without paying for a Tech-Free Camp, thank you), so GraniteGeek is going to enter another land ...the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge ... or something like that.

In other words, this blog is going on hiatus until near the end of the month.

See you then.

Electricity from leaky landfills is bigger than solar power in NH

gg0716biogas

Staff photo by Don Himsel

Fortistar, which converts gas to electricity at the Four Hills Landfill in Nashua, is shown Thursday.

Nashua is in the process of signing a new contract with a company called PPL to operate the electricity-generating system at the city landfill (story here), currently sized at 800 kilowatts but growing 1.6 megawatts if all goes as planned.

PPL, a Pennsylvania firm, operates 64 such systems around the county with a combined capacity of 64 megawatts, 800 kilowatts at the Colebrook landfill. That's not much in the electricity-generating scheme of things - it's the size of one small power plant - but biogas has an extra benefit. It burns methane generated by decomposition of organic trash that would otherwise enter the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. Plus, methane smells - better to burn it than stink up the neighborhood.

Waste Management, the gigantic trash-collection firm, also generates electricity from landfill methane at a number of locations. And there are startups, such as New Hampshire's Neo Energy, working on new systems to get more energy (and/or nutrients) out of food waste.

You can't mention biogas in New Hampshire without tipping your hat to UNH: Its EcoLine project burns methane taken from the massive Turnkey Landfill in Rochester via a 13-mile buried pipeline. This methane fuels a 7.9-megawatt cogeneration plant that provides much of the Durham campus' energy - most of its electricty and part of its heating from hot water.

This means that burning gas from leaky landfills generates at least as much electricity in New Hampshire as do our solar panels, which total somewhere around 8 megawatts when you add in all the small rooftop systems.

Government can improve with A/B testing, which is good: unless they experiment on me, of course

The tech world loves A/B testing - basically releasing two versions of a product or website or marketing campaign out into the real world and seeing which one does better. There's an argument that the government should do more of such testing with programs, instead of just assuming that they'll work the way they're designed. As the NY Times' Upshot blog (successor to Pete Silver's blog) says in this piece:

The White House is also pushing for an expansion of randomized controlled trials to evaluate government programs. ... Using science as a model, researchers randomly select some people to enroll in a government program and others not to enroll. The researchers then study the outcomes of the two groups.

One current trial is evaluating whether federal workplace inspections improve worker safety. Another looks at one-on-one counseling that tries to help low-income students graduate from college. A third trial is examining whether nurses in Durham, N.C., improve infants’ health by visiting them in their homes. The most expensive of these three trials costs just $183,000.

Sounds like a no-brainer. But there is a problem: It's one thing to be given a different version of search results as part of a company's A/B test, but what if your kid doesn't get a nursing visit because of the way you've been assigned in a study? Would you say "I don't mind - it's for the good of society!" I doubt it.

One of the biggest complaints you hear about any change in public school curriculum is that "they're experimenting with my child!" People don't like that, and I suspect such an attitude will limit A/B testing's use in government.

For example, an A/B test might help determine the effects of drug legalization. Don't see that happening soon.

Teaching chess in school is a good idea - but where will you get the teachers?

This is a week for celebrating chess (as in my column today, anticipating the first junior Womens Championship, taking place at UNH-Manchester this week) so it's also a week for contemplating the issue: If we want more kids to learn chess, who will teach them?

Consider this scenario -- you are helping out at a local elementary school chess club. You hear a tussle at one of the boards. It’s two of the second graders. The conflict: is it checkmate? An easy question if you are an avid chess player, but what if you are not? There is so much demand for scholastic chess that there are not enough experienced chess facilitators to go around. Could technology help?

This is from a blog piece that celebrates the use of tablets to teach kids chess. It includes some intriguing ideas - RFID-chipped chess pieces that feed into software.

Although I'm a chess player and fan, I've always been a bit dubious of claims that learning chess has extensive benefits in other areas of education. Sometimes a game is just a game.

By the way, one of my favorite Wikipedia articles, titled "List of chess-related deaths," has been deleted by a cabal of humorless editors who didn't think it was encyclopediac enough. Drat!

Texas Medical Board files 202-page complaint against cancer "cure" being used in NH

The Texas Medical Board has issued a 202-page complaint against Stanistlaw Burzynski, the Houston-area doctor who has been peddling a cancer "cure" for three decades. He hasn't actually curing anybody but he has made a lot of money.

His treatment was recently OK'd by the FDA - which shut him down previously - for a few "compassionate" cases, including a Hudson, NH, girl. The family is now trying to raise tens of thousands of dollars to hand over to Burzynski in desperate hope that it will help their daughter's inoperable brain tumor. Evidence says it won't, but the money will be gone.

I wrote about that situation in my column earlier this month. My column was pretty mild about Burzynski, and didn't go into the financial and regulatory shenanigans that he's been dabbling with - because the main point was that his treatments don't work and we shouldn't be raising false hope in desperate families, or profiting off their pain.

Here's an article about the latest Texas move by a site called Doubtful News, which is associated with the so-called skeptical movement that has long been critical of Burzynski. It's not exactly a calm, neutral article - but that doesn't mean it isn't accurate.

Graduating science PhD's face a surprisingly stagnant job market

Slate has a long and well-researched piece about the job prospects for graduating Ph.D.s in science fields in the U.S., tracking not just employment and unemployment but also post-docs, academia's glorified super-internship.

The results show that Ph.D.'s have low unemployment and good salaries compared to us schlubs: "In time, the vast majority of grads find some kind of work or research appointment. Unemployment among doctorate holders, even young ones, is extremely low, usually around 2 percent." But they don't get full-time jobs in their chosen fields right out of school nearly as often as STEM celebrations might lead us to believe:

Over the last 20 years, employment rates are either flat or down in each major discipline, from computer science to chemistry.

Is this a tragedy? No, especially because Ph.D. holders, in the long term, tend to make good salaries and leave school with low graduate student debt. (Unlike their counterparts in the humanities, their studies are well-funded by all those research grants.) But it’s a sign that all is not exceptionally well in the job market for many scientists.

Is the next-but-one China lunar probe a manned moon-landing practice run?

China plans to land Chang'e 5, a lunar lander that would return samples to Earth, in 2017. That would be very cool - more moon rocks! - but Wired says many people think it's aiming at something much cooler: Sending humans back to the moon.

As several news articles pointed out, the Chang’e 5 reentry vehicle seems rather large. Perhaps the Chinese would just like to collect a lot of samples, but the vehicle just happens to be large enough to fit a person inside. The vehicle won’t be carrying any human cargo in 2017, but a successful Chang’e 5 mission would give the Chinese a great deal of engineering experience and technical knowhow for a human touchdown on the moon.

Chang'e 4, carrying a rover similar to the "moon rabbit" that landed last year but stopped moving soon after, is slated to fly this year.

Here's the article.


We don't have mountain lions but we do have bobcats - although how many, again?

I know a few people who have seen bobcats in New Hampshire. Unlike mountain lion sightings, however, these are often accompanied by photos - because bobcats, unlike the other big cats, are really here. But just how many of them are here? Turns out, that's a good question.

A possible answer, found by UNH researchers, may depend on the time of year. Estimating New Hampshire bobcat numbers in May or June, the biologists found 1,094 resident adults – 547 males and 547 females – and 1,143 kittens, for a grand total of 2,237. That number dropped precipitously, however, when an 85 percent survival rate was assumed for adults, and a 36 percent survival rate for kittens, considered the norm. By October or November, there are an estimated 972 adults and 414 kittens in New Hampshire, totaling 1,386 bobcats.

I took that from a great story in the Jan/Feb issue of Wildlife Journal, the publication of the NH Fish & Game. It tells how we've never been entirely sure how many of these lovely beasts were in New Hampshire, either during their heyday a century ago - when farmland resulted in lots of rabbits and other prey - or their decline in the 1980s and 1990s, when the return of woodlands drover their prey away.

Australia decides patent for "circular transportation facilitation device" (i.e., wheel) was a mistake 

Marc Abrahams, who is the mind (if that's the right word) behind the Ig Nobel awards, reports that the Australian patent office has decided it was a mistake to issue a patent for a "circular transportation facilitation device" because, well, you can't re-invent the wheel.

Abrahams has an article about the patent, which won an Ig Nobel way back in 2001, and other wheel-related patents around the world. It's on BetaBoston, the Globe's tech blog and is, of course, funny and worth a read.

Speaking of the Igs, they'll be held Sept. 18 at Harvard's ridiculously ornate Sanders Theater. Tickets are already on sale.

Northeast is behind the U.S. curve when it comes to ditching landline phones

We in the Northeast like to think of ourselves as urbane and sophisticated and with it (dare I say "hep"? "groovy"?), yet we're national laggards when it comes to ditching landline phones for cell phones.

According to the Center for National Health Statistics, 42% of adults in the South have ditched landlines, as have about 39% in the West and Midwest, yet only 27% of those in the Northeast have done so!

Here's the report; it doesn't break the data down by state.

Why does the Center for Health Statistics compile data about landline phones, you ask? Because it affects how well people can get access to health care services, they say.

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About this blog

David Brooks has written a science column for the Nashua (N.H.) Telegraph since 1991 - yes, that long - and has overseen this blog since 2006.

He chats weekly with New Hampshire Public Radio about GraniteGeek topics, around 5:50 p.m. on Tuesdays. You can listen to old sessions here.

Contact:   E-mail or call 603-594-6531.

ggScienceCafeSidebar

Free, informal get-togethers at a bar that feature discussion among the audience (everybody is welcome) and experts in various fields. Check the website here.

NEXT CAFE: September (we take the summer off)

TOPIC: To be decided

Location: Killarney's Irish Pub, 9 Northeastern Boulevard (Holiday Inn, just west of Exit 4 on the turnpike).

PAST TOPICS:

2014:
June:
Fluoridation in public water. May: Organic gardening. April: Tele-medicine, or doctoring from afar. March: Bitcoin - what is it? February: The science of allergies. January: Electric cars.

2013:
November:
Multiple sclerosis. October: Genetically modified organisms. September: Aquaponics. June: Flying robots (drones!) May: PTSD and brain tauma in veterans. April: Cats vs. wildlife in NH. March: Mosquito-borne disease. February: The science of brewing. January: 3-D printing, with MakeIt Labs.

2012:
November:
"Dark skies and light pollution" with Discovery Center. October: "The science of concussion." September: "The science of pain management." June: "Arsenic in our environment." May: "Invasive species in New Hampshire" April: "Nanotechnology in business and the lab". March: "Lyme disease in NH". Feb: "Seasonal Affective Disorder." Jan: "Biomass energy"

2011:
Nov.: "Science of Polling." Oct.: "Digital Privacy." Sept: "Vaccinations." June: "Future of Food." May 2011: "Climate Change"

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Alternative power map

Click here to see my alternative-power Google map showing large-scale solar, wind, hydro and nuclear plants in N.H., plus intriguing alternative-power items.

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