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Granite Geek January - December 2010

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January 2010

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Astronomical trivia trifecta: Perihelion


As Bad Astronomy's Phil Plait points out, the sun is at perihelion (closest point to Earth of the year). We're 147,098,040 kilometers away, compared to 152,096,448 kilometers at apehelion (July 6).Coming on the heels of postings about the blue moon and new decade, at this this trivial** tidbit is based in astronomical reality.


A side note: Bad Astronomy currently has one paid ad*: a big, staggeringly cheezy banner from a stock-picking chump of the sort I hoped had been killed off by the recession. If a well-read blog like Bad Astronomy, which is hosted by Discover magazine, can't sell ads more reputable than that kind of guff, what hope is there for the rest of the "we won't build paywalls, ads will support us!" contingent?


*not counting the ad for Plait's own book, an example of what newspapers call a "house ad."  The big drawback of house ads is that nobody pays you to run them.


**or not so trivial if you're on the seacoast, as a tide-knowledgeable reader points out in comments below




Messy clean-up follows the spectacular bridge explosion


Great lead on the Burlington Free-Press story today about the work that needs to be done now that the dangerously unsafe Lake Champlain bridge has been brought down by detonation:


Like many public spectacles, the Lake Champlain Bridge implosion produced an ungainly aftermath that just about no one came to see. Less than an hour after the climactic event Monday, as the spectators headed home and the camera crews packed up, salvage crews got to work. Their job was to clean up the mess.


The story describes how floating excavators have to pull all the bits of steel off the bottom of the lake - breaking through ice as they do it. Some of the lake is too deep, up to 65 feet, for those clawed-hand-type excavators, so cranes will have to be used.





An informed blogger prods Telegraph package on power grid


I had a series of stories on Sunday and Monday about New England's power grid that might be of interest. For people who peruse blogs, however, the most interesting item was probably a sidebar aboutGranite Viewpoint, a Seacoast-based blog that I have linked to many times. Jim's informed postings about energy and the grid are what prompted me to write the stories. Here's the sidebar. He's the best example of citizen journalism I've seen.


Here's the main power-grid story from Sunday ("High price to keep energy flowing").


Here's a sidebar written by the Keene Sentinel about the Fitzwilliam station, part of a series of improvements that have been made to the grid in recent years. (The fact that the Telegraph and Sentinel cooperated on this package, when we're theoretical competitors, is another sign of the changing media landscape.)


Here is today's story, about the high-voltage DC line that runs from Quebec hydro through NH to Massachusetts. (My family went to Mt. Cardigan this weekend, and the HVDC line runs right by there. I got to say "Hey, I know what those big power lines are!") (ADDENDUM: A commentator to the Telegraph articles points to this Christian Science Monitor story about a guy who wants to use buried superconducting cables instead of traditional copper lines on towers.)



The best wikipedia editor in New Hampshire?


No, it's not me - it's Ken Gallager, who carefully and systematically patrols a couple thousand NH articles on wikipedia. Or so says this brilliantly written, incisive, prose poem of an article in the Sunday Telegraph.



33" of snow is 1" of rain?


Burlington, Vermont, got a record snowfall this weekend - as the paper's Weather Rapport column notes, an official tally of 33.1 inches over a day and a half, the biggest total ever recorded in that city.


However, the column also says that, melted down, it equaled a mere 1.05 inch of water. That's a 33-1 ratio, whereas 10-1 is the usual "average" ratio of snow to moisture. That must have been really, really dry powdery snow. A previous very heavy storm at Burlington was 22.9 inches of snow but had "snow water equivalent" equaling 1.94 inches of rain, which is more usual.





Cape Wind decision coming soon?


The Boston Globe reports that the Interior Secretary has summoned a meeting of interesting parties with an eye toward making a decision on the Cape Wind offshore wind farm, which has been in the works for an incredible 9 years. Nine years - holy cow. That makes the decade-long construction period for a nuclear plant look less distressing.


As long as we're talking about alternative energy, note that The Portland Press-Herald reports an Austrian company is going to assemble wood pellet boilers at a factory in Bethel, Maine. These are automated boilers to heat buildings, with hoppers that hold hundreds of pounds of pellets at a time. This is a small push for the wood-pellet industry up the "value chain" (business buzzword alert!) from providing raw materials (wood) and first-level product (pellets) to machinery itself.



19-year-old is world's No. 1 in chess

A Norwegian 19-year-old has a World Chess Federation ranking of 2,810. - making him the youngest person ever to be ranked No. 1 in the world (Yes, younger than Gary Kasparov, who is his trainer.)Here's is Magnus Carlsen's wikipedia articleHere's his blog (or maybe a blog about him, it's a little unclear).


Josh Friedel is New Hampshire's only chess grandmaster -  he grew up and learned to play in Manchester before heading out west a few years ago. He's currently ranked 634th, with a ranking of 2,516.



After 40 years, Museum of Sciences retires planetarium projector


If you've ever gone to the planetarium at the Boston Museum of Science - you're reading GraniteGeek, so I assume you have - you've seen its Zeiss projector in action, displaying stars and pictures on the dome above you. The museum has just retired the device, which was installed in 1970, as part of a $9 million upgrade of the 57-foot-wide dome and facility. Hail and farewell, thou good and faithful servant.


Here's a Flickr posting from a fanHere is the museum's press release.


Nashua's Sky-Skan Inc., which makes digital projectors of various cool types, is installing its Definiti 4K system to provide the digital imagery, while a new Zeiss projector will provide the stars. (Note: This post originally said, in error, that Sky-Skan was not involved.)


Thanks to reader John Walsh for the tip.





The economics of our carbon cap-and-trade system


The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, our 10-state carbon cap-and-trade system, has wound up its first full year. The system has worked fine - the auctions went smoothly and all the allowances (each lets a utility emit one ton of carbon pollution) were sold for almost half a billion dollars, spread among various Northeastern states. Another quarterly auction will happen in March.


But the economics aren't so hot, with prices zooming down to rock bottom. Lower electricity usage due to the recession and perhaps increasing efficiency means utilities have less pollution to cover with allowances. (I wrote about this most recently last month, after the fourth quarterly auction of 2009.) The situation is likely to get worse, not better, this year - or so says this fine analysis from ESAI, an energy analysis firm. The analysis says the per-ton prices need to be five times what they now are, in order to provide incentive for real reductions.


From what I can gather in the news, the chances of a national carbon cap-and-trade system being passed this year are nil, so RGGI will continue to be the standard-bearer for this flawed but interesting market-based approach to pollution control.


Meanwhile, NHBR reports that NH has joined the other RGGI states, pledging to develop a "Regional Low-Carbon Fuel Standard, aimed at reducing by 10 percent the carbon intensity of vehicle, and potentially heating, fuel." Pledges are easy and implementation is hard, of course, but the mere fact that RGGI exists does give hope.



That mysterious anthrax case, updated


I just listened to a media conference call with Dr. Elizabeth Talbot of the state Dept. of Health and Human Services about that incredibly unusual gastro-intestinal anthrax from a drumming circle Dec. 4 in Durham. Apparently the anthrax came from animal-hide heads on African drums that was aerosolized when people whacked on them. There were at least 60 people there, with 54 animal-hide drums (plus some with synthetic drum heads). Two of the drums have tested positive for "very low" levels of anthrax. Here's a news item, for background.


The weird part is that the sick woman (who is getting better, by the way) swallowed the spores rather than inhaled them. This may be the first case of its kind in the world: All other cases of gastro-intestinal anthrax known to officials came from eating contaminated meat, not from spores in the air.

This is so unusual that Talbot said nobody even knows what the infectious dose is for such spores, so they can't really say how bad the amount on the drums was.


The anthrax was ordinary, "wild" type, very common in the environment. We all encounter is frequently and never get sick; it's not clear why this woman got ill, such as whether she has some genetic susceptibility.


"We may never know exactly what happened for this patient," said Talbot.



See a turkey flock? Tell the state online


Wild turkeys have become commonplace in the past decade or so, as the population continues to expand following its mid-1970s re-introduction into NH. The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department is asking for  an online "citizen science" survey to determine numbers, reporting sightings of turkey flocks seen through March 31, by filling out an online survey here:


The Winter Flock Survey asks participants to report the number of turkeys in the flock; the location where they were seen; the type of habitat the birds were observed in; and what the turkeys were feeding on, such as acorns, beechnuts, seed at birdfeeders, or corn silage.


Last winter, people responding to the survey reported over 1,500 flocks totaling nearly 24,000 turkeys, and encompassing all areas of the state. "For parts of the state, especially eastern and northern New Hampshire, we could benefit by additional sighting reports," said Ted Walski, Turkey Project Leader at Fish and Game.


Winter is the best time to census the birds because turkeys gather in large, highly visible flocks at this time of year. There are an estimated 40,000 wild turkeys in New Hampshire.




'Gee, Officer Krupke' for geeks


I am helping out the annual fund-raising comedy night for a local FIRST robotics team - my kids aren't in high school any more, but it's fun to do anyway - and I am living a childhood dream. I read Mag magazine as a kid (of course) and loved the parodies of musical numbers; so we're doing a parody of West Side Story called FIRST Side Story. I'm having a blast writing the lyrics, including a version of "Gee, Officer Krupke" (YouTube here, if you've forgotten the wonderful tune) in which the FIRST team tells the freshman that he'll fit in:


Listen here, freshman, it's really quite clear

There's somebody in your psyche that has brought you right here

We all see it in you, so we have to speak:

Deep down inside you, you're a geek!


And here's his response:


My mother is a chemist, my dad's a Ph.D.

I started learning calculus when I was only three

Every home computer, we take apart and tweak

Goodness gracious, no wonder I'm a geek!


In case you're wondering, I've set it up so we do a musical parody with no singing and no music!


If you're around Amherst a week from Saturday, why not drop by, buy a ticket, and support a good, geeky cause? There will be three Boston comics - if the past is any judge, two will be funny and one will be a dud. Here are the details.





Play with Netflix data to your heart's content


If you like clever, intriguing visual displays of data, you have to play with - I mean, analyze - this New York Times online Javascript mapping that shows the most popular Netflix rentals by Zip code. It covers only major cities, so the Boston area is as close as it gets to New Hampshire, but it's fascinating anyway. (The deliberately stupid "Mall Cop" is loved in Billerica, but they wouldn't touch it in Cambrdige.)


Here it is:


Things like this are desirable to media companies because readers spend a lot of time with them, and you can sell time as page views to advertisers. (Pardon this mercenary note, but watching friends get laid off will do that.) The interesting thing is that there are no ads on the Times interactive map - but many of the movies are linked to the archived Times review of the film, so the map serves as an ad-free lure to ad-filled pages.



Is that a levitating UFO? Close ... it's actually a roof


Great story (read it here) from the Portsmouth Herald about a "UFO" - a weird, floating pyramid - that was spotted in the background of a video of an early December accident in Portsmouth. With the thoughtful analysis that is the calling card of Internet discussion, much freaking out occurred online. Alas for those seeking paranormal thrills, reports the paper:


While the triangle appears to be floating behind the building at 135 Commerce Way in the video, it is in fact the pitch of the roof of the wood chip storage shed at Public Service of New Hampshire's Schiller Station, located off Gosling Road, in the distance. The overcast sky on Dec. 9 hid the roof, as well as the concrete wall at the power plant, creating the illusion of a floating dark triangle.


One of my first stories when I moved to New Hampshire in the late 1980s involved a UFO report in Merrimack. As I reported, the mysterious nighttime lights were seen at the same time that an an advertising plane was flying around, blinking messages toward the ground. The person who reported the UFO to police called me the next day, furious that I had dared to not take his/her (I forget which) sighting at face value.





Digital is cool, but newsprint still generates the news


Traditional media is, as they say, in transition - a term that means "watching its business model explode and trying not to be killed by the shrapnel" - and lots of cool journalism is being created (like this blog). But to nobody's surprise, a study done by a journalism think tank finds that virtually all news still starts with "legacy media" - i.e., newspapers and local TV stations.


The Project for Excellence in Journalism found (in a week-long analysis of Baltimore news) that most local news is still generated by legacy media, with both the quantity and quality of the journalism diminished from years past.


That last sentence makes me shudder, but it's true. The number of full-time working journalists in New Hampshire has, I would guess, been reduced by one-third in the past four years. There was waste and laziness and pointless repetition in the industry, for sure, but I'm afraid we've gone way beyond fixing that.


General interest newspapers produced 48 percent of the new material, followed by 28 percent from local TV, 13 percent by specialty newspapers, 7 percent from radio station Web sites and 4 percent from new media outlets.



Money to fight Asian longhorned beetles


Worcester, Mass., has chopped down roughly 25,000 trees in an attempt to contain the voracious Asian longhorned beetle, a process that has cost tens of millions of dollars. Another $41 million in emergency funds have been added by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reports the Globe. There's a 74-mile quarantine zone around Worcester, within which trees, firewood and the like can't be moved. More infected trees have been found within that zone (see this report), but so far none outside of it, at least not in New England.  Let's hope it stays that way, although I doubt it will.



PSU Prof Explains Science Behind Olympic Winter Sports


As the world ramps up for next month's opening of the Vancouver Winter Olympic games, a Plymouth State University professor is helping to explain what really happens when a ski jumper lifts off, a speed skater turns or a curling broom sweeps. The Science of the Winter Olympic Games is an NBC Website (they're broadcasting the games) who went behind the scenes to give viewers an intriguing, fact-filled look at the science at work when a world-class athlete performs.


Dr. George Tuthill was interviewed for the five-minute long segments in September on the Plymouth campus, and appears in pieces on ski jumping, bob sled, curling and speed skating.





Biotech is sagging, too


Remember when biotech was going to be New England's next iteration of computers/software in terms of jobs and high-flying firms? Oh, well - lots of people had inflated expectations a few years ago.


The closing of the Shrewsbury, Mass., animal testing site by Charles River Laboratories International Inc., as reported in the Globe here, shows that biotech is contracting, too. Charles River supplies lab rats to firms, mostly for drug testing; it says cutbacks in New England biotech R&D have hit it hard. From the story: "The company said it hopes to resume operations there when biotech companies spend more money developing drugs."



How do you know an alt-energy tech is growing? Regulations grow, too


Geothermal wells - meaning heat exchange rather than Iceland-like power from underground - are an obvious way to reduce energy usage. Basically, you circulate water through tubes in underground rock or gravel, where temperatures are stable compared to the air, and use that to reduce the cost of heating a building.


The system is growing by leaps and bounds, partly because, unlike solar panel installation, it fits into an existing industry: The region's many well-drilling firms already have most of the equipment and knowledge to install them. But as with all technologies, geothermal has a downside: the liquid used to carry heat to and from underground, whether water or something else, can hurt groundwater.


Enter regulators. The NH Department of Environmental Services can now adopt rules to regulate the "heat exchange fluids"  in closed loop geothermal systems, preventing antifreeze-like stuff which could be dangerous if it leaks, and to prohibit open loop geothermal systems when they might contaminate aquifers with brackish or saline groundwater. Also, drilling contractors much be licensed by the NH Water Well Board.


This is annoying for those in the industry, but an indication that geothermal is moving from niche to mainstream.






Google suggestion for "Nashua"


Google suggestions - can't find fun stuff


You've probably seen stories about funky things you can find amid the suggestions which pop up when you start typing terms into Google's search bar (e.g., here). At the Telegraph we looked for intriguing examples from local stuff to make a fun story but couldn't find anything entertaining. For example, "tax-free" brought up "tax-free shopping" (yawn), while weird sentences such as "I think Nashua is like ..." brought no suggestions at all, which I assume means that too few people use that term in a search.


But as a Telegraph lifer, I must admit I enjoyed the order of the above suggestions.





No "homers" to cheer for in X-Prize automotive race


Sports fandom is geographically based (live in New Hampshire but cheer for the Phoenix Suns or Miami Dolphins? I don't think so) - so why not do the same in geek contests? Alas for the highest-profile of those contests, the Automotive X-Prize (build an 100 mpg vehicle that meets various criteria by August, win $10 million), there's only one team that's got any hint of a geographic claim for us: Alternative Fuels Sources, a "start-up of family and friends" located in southwestern Connecticut. (Here's their page on the X-prize site.) That's really more New York than New England, alas.


The contest kicked off yesterday at the Detroit Auto Show, as I learned from Treehugger.


AFS's approach sounds very interesting, because they want to make fuel from fertilizer: "ZeroFuel is a safe carrier of ammonia and hydrogen in a water-carbamide (aka urea) solution. Carbamide is produced as solid pellets from hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide at over 130 million tons a year. The carbamide infrastructure is already in place world wide as consumers can purchase carbamide fertilizer (46-0-0) at any mass market retailer."


Nonetheless, I think I'm going to have to put aside geography and go with blood ties in my rooting interest. My son goes to Cornell, so I'll have to cheer for that school's team as it pursues a less far-out idea, a hybrid diesel. Go Big Red!



Segway has been sold!


ADDENDUM: More information from Friday's Union-Leader is hereincluding this key point: "... the new chief operating officer said there are no plans to move Segway and its manufacturing plant from New Hampshire."


Not much more information except that the buyer is British, however, according to the breaking-news blog on the Telegraph site.





'West Side Story' for geeks


If I may toot my own horn - that's kind of the point of a blog, isn't it? - I have written the single most brilliant geek-oriented musical parody ever to grace the English-language stage: "West Side Story" re-done for a high school FIRST robotics team. I wrote about this in my Telegraph column this week, and have just finished tweaking the lyrics for tomorrow's performance (at Souhegan high School, 7 p.m., $20 at the door, followed by three Boston-area comedians).


This is my favorite verse, sung by a student to the tune of "Gee, Officer Krupke":


My mother is a chemist, my dad's a Ph.D.

I started learning calculus when I was only three

Every home computer, we take apart and tweak ...

Good-ness, gra-cious, no wonder I'm a geek!


The robot singing "I Feel Pretty" isn't bad either. (Sample line: "I'm robotic / not chaotic / I'm robotic, hypnotic-ly so.") Or the song about Dean Kamen, done to the tune of "Maria."


I suspect this will be the high point of my artistic career, so I'd better savor it while I can.



Physical Fitness in London


As some of our readers might know, we were in London for seven weeks attending the birth of our first grandson. It's a new title for us, being grandparents. Daughter is doing great and is happily taking on the duties of being a parent.


The only glitch was that I was unable to log on to Granite Geek. My view of technology and society was snapped around, seeing as a tourist but also immersed in the daily life of people from entirely different backgrounds. I'll keep these short. These won't be travelogues but will be my point of view as a photographer and someone appreciative of solutions to problems that wouldn't occur to engineers on this side of the pond.


I was looking at the list of cities ranked in terms of obesity and London came in around 7th. That listing was a surprise to me. Walking around the city, it was difficult at times keeping up with the rapid pace of pedestrian traffic. On the Underground escalators, signs and audio announcements exhorted people to "keep right", allowing those in a hurry to run up or down the moving machinery. Men, women and children, these people were used to moving fast and getting things done. The only places where people slow down is in the many parks where it is socially acceptable to put the cell phones away and move at leisurely pace.


The only signs of out of shape people were visitors from the US or other countries. We were easy to pick out of the crowd, the only ones wearing hats in the drizzle and carefully looking both ways before crossing the street. Cyclists were everywhere, keeping up with traffic and zipping in and out like New York City bike messengers. We are experienced cyclists but certainly not brave enough to try these streets. Still, we never saw a traffic jam. One way they keep the traffic volume down is to place a surcharge on cars in the busiest parts of the city. Cameras are everywhere, keeping track of license plates, violations and parking. We saw lots of parking police. When they write a ticket, they also take several digital photos of the offending vehicle and street position. There isn't much chance of protest given photographic evidence.


Earle Rich Currently volunteering in Fruitland Park, FL





Keen is the eye of the beholder


From an icelandic proverb.


We just returned from seven weeks in London where we greeted our new grandson into the world. It was a happy event and mother and child are doing well. It is good to be back in New Hampshire for a week before sliding off to the south for our volunteer jobs in Florida.


As a photographer, spending time in a new and totally different location is to see like a child again. London is nothing like Mont Vernon. No great surprise there. The differences are more than just buildings or people or infrastructure. Even the colors and store advertisements are so much more intense. For those first couple of weeks, every walk outside demands a photo to document views so unlike our usual images of forest, dirt roads and homes isolated from each other. London is a stacked city, rising up from the streets, piling as much as possible into limited land.


It's also an old city, with glimpses of Roman walls going back 2000 years. Touching these is like contacting those early laborers who were probably my ancestors. We are virtually certain that there is no royalty in our lines, just people who did the work and lived their short lives as slaves, serfs and farmers. Visiting the London Museum or British Museum allows us to see those artifacts that survive from prehistoric time to the present. There is more attention to the middle ages up to Shakespears time just because more of daily life was written down and more 'stuff'


London is also a new city with building cranes towering over new construction everywhere. The city has some of the most innovative architectural buildings I've ever seen. Some of this activity is preparation for the Olympics coming in 2012. Disruptions to the normal flow of traffic on the underground system are fully covered on the morning television channels. Londoners love to complain about the underground. We found the transportation system to be a modern marvel even though it started in 1865. We could enter any place on the system, clock in using our Oyster card, hop on the train and be anywhere in the city in just a few minutes. On leaving, we would clock out and the toll fee would automatically be deducted from the card. If we were at all confused, attendants or other riders would always venture help.


This piece started out as an opinion on the benefits of traveling to re-activate a sense of wonder and make photography more fun. In the seven weeks, I took about 2500 photos of which perhaps half are up on Flickr. As we came near the end of our visit, I took fewer photos. I noticed that I didn't see the unique city in the same way. We had the "been there, done that" attitude that comes when the freshness wears off. We were museumed out. We had no desire to see yet another view of history or more oversized paintings of very important people.


It was time to come home.


As usual, photos are up on Flickr, a photo sharing website.


Earle Rich   Currently volunteering in Fruitland Park, Florida





Does small-town broadband really make sense?


Very interesting article in the Sunday Burlington Free-Press (read it here) about as $75 million plan to bring fiber-based broadband to 22 towns scattered throughout central Vermont, with a total population of 46,500, or less than half of Manchester, N.H. It will be run by a nonprofit, pseudo-governmental group (official site here).


The article is interesting because it moves from the usual narrative ("broadband is the 21st century version of roads or universal phone service, always desirable everywhere!") to ask whether a project like this really makes financial sense. The financial imbroglio faced by the municipally owned Burlington Telecom, in the state's only real city, make that a very good question to ask.





Bye-bye LORAN: GPS makes mariners' radio-naviation system obsolete


LORAN-C, a radio-based navigation aid that for decades was the high-tech aid for finding yourself at sea is being turned off next month, superseded by GPS satellite navigation. Developed during World War II, LORAN ("LOng RAnge Navigation") used low-frequency signals (90 to 110 kilohertz). Ships at sea and aircraft could triangulate their position calculating the time delay of signals from two towers. Robust and cheap, it worked great - I learned about it when I got my private pilot's license 30 years ago.


However, satellite-based GPS works even better, most notably by not being limited to within 1,000 miles or so of coastlines. As a result, LORAN is being fazed out and will be turned off as of Feb. 8 (Coast Guard announcement here). A LORAN transmitter on Nantucket is among those that will be shut down.


I imagine there are some old-timers who aren't crazy about the switch, even though the advantages are enormous - just as there are folks who miss Morse Code. But technology has little time for nostalgia.





Breeding a burp-less sheep


Each summer, our family keeps a few sheep to crop the fields and make the barn smell like a barn should (we borrow them from 4-Hers who are glad to be free of feeding/care for a few months). The experience has taught we that nothing burps like a cud-chewing animal: It's a sort of gurgling, explosive, wet noisy belch that would be envied by even the crassest of fratboys.


Alas, sheep belches (like cow belches) are a surprisingly big contributor to global warming, since about two-thirds of the gas released is methane. So Australian farmers are trying to breed a belch-free sheep, reports Australian press.



New Hampshire has the country's second-fastest Internet?


Content delivery network Akami claims that in the third quarter of 2009, the average Net speed in New Hampshire was 5.9 Mbps, making us the second-fastest networks in the country.  Here's a story about it; Akami sells its "State of the Internet" report, so no freebie link to the details.


The company says NH's average just edges out Massachusetts. Both states are almost twice as fast as the U.S. average, which is w-a-a-ay behind places like Japan and South Korea. (But we kill North Korea!)


Statewide averages don't tell diddly-squat about your own connection, of course. Dial-up folks in Jaffrey would love 5.9 Mbps, whereas FAST (ex-FiOS) folks in Nashua would sneer at it.





Do bike helmets discourage bicycling?


I went skiing last weekend and noticed that I am in the extreme minority by not wearing a helmet. (I also don't wear goggles, which makes me almost unique, but that's another story.) I find them uncomfortable and they make it hard to see; plus I'm a very timid skier, so shouldn't need them. (Yes, I know I'm making excuses.)


I also don't ride wear a helmet when bicycling, which made me interested in this report at the Freakonomics blog about a study which claims that mandatory youth-helmet laws discourage bicycle-riding:


Their research first confirms earlier research that "helmet laws significantly reduced bicycling fatalities among youths age 0-15 (i.e., youths who were directly treated by most states' age-16 helmet laws) by about 19 percent." ... But: "There is also robust evidence for an unintended and previously undocumented mechanism: helmet laws produced modest but statistically significant reductions in youth bicycling participation of 4-5 percent."



Using the right batteries in your camera


As I travel around the country, I observe amateur photographers using various camera types taking photos to record their family vacation. I also see frustration when the camera stops working because the batteries run out just when that not-to-be-repeated shot disappears forever. Being the inquisitive type, I ask to see the camera and check out the batteries they are using.


Usually, when this happens, they are using regular batteries such as alkaline or "heavy duty" carbon zinc batteries. Those are the wrong kind of battery to use in a high demand load that most cameras present to the energy source.


What should be used are Nickel Metal Hydride rechargeable or Ni-MH cells. These will last 5 or more times as long on a charge and are good for many hundreds of charge cycles. They are sold in most stores along with a charger. I've seen a set of 4 with charger for less than $12.00. You should have at least two sets with you and charge them before use. Shelf life is pretty good, but topping them off before a trip is always a good idea.


You shouldn't discharge them down to zero, but charge them up whenever convenient. These aren't like the old NiCads with the supposed memory effect. Ni-MH batteries are much better.


Your camera may have a special battery made with Lithium or Lithium ion. Those are even better than Ni-MH but are only made in unique sizes. They don't come in the traditional AA or AAA physical format. These need a charger that matches the battery. Used in my Nikon D300, I can get over 1000 shots per charge.


Incidentally, in this short article, I use the term 'battery' because it's in common use. To be strictly correct, a 'battery' refers to a group of cells, sometimes in a single casing.

Another small wind turbine - from NH inventor


ADDENDUM: Britain's Royal Academy of Engineering says in a report that small-scale, rooftop wind turbines are virtually always a waste of time, accomplishing little. Story here. It includes this potent quote: "The things that save the money are not done, because they are not sexy."


There's something about designing wind turbines that brings out theAlexander Calder in people: They just can't stand making a small version of large three-bladed turbines; they want unusual moving shapes.


There's an energy ball, there are interlocking gear-like blades, there  are funky vertical helixes - and now there's a funky horizontal helix with a cool name (Spiralairfoil) from a Hillsboro, NH inventor. The Sunday Concord Monitor has a gee-whiz story (here) that includes the usual "this could revolutionize wind power" statements, glossing over the difficulty of generating power from very small wind devices.


So far, at least, small wind turbines tend to be kinetic sculptures that generate very expensive electricity. Perhaps this will be different - we can only hope.





The hip bone's connected to the thigh bone ...


In general I find that the physical drawbacks of being in my mid-50s (e.g., tinnitus, slow recovery from injuries) are more than compensated by the mental/psychological advantages (e.g., accumulated knowledge base and the blessed relief from worrying about what people think of my appearance). But there is one mental drawback to aging that bothers me: I don't learn new stuff anywhere near as easily as I once did.


I am encountering this at the moment because I'm taking a night class to become an EMT, and we've just hit anatomy, about which I know nothing. I'm staring at umpty-ump names of bones, muscles, blood vessels that need to learned, plus various medical terminology, and finding that my memorizing muscles have atrophied. Whereas once I could have read the chapter and retained perhaps three-quarters of it, now I have to wade through it over and over and over, and even then I stumble ("distal" ... does that mean closer to the head, or am I thinking of "dorsal"?).  It's quite humbling, and makes me envy the twenty-somethings in class who absorb it effortlessly.


On the other hand, I bet those twenty-somethings fret about the way their hair looks to the opposite sex, whereas I haven't worried about my W.C. Fields nose in two decades!



Can you imagine being covered with 32,000 ticks?


The most recent issue of Wildlife Journal, a glossy magazine put out by the New Hampshire Fish & Game, has an article talking about ticks and moose. Written by a masters candidate in wildlife ecology at UNH named Dan Bergeron, it talks about research into the effects of ticks on moose and contains some eye-popping tidbits, including this:


Winter ticks have been associated with large moose die-offs ... They are not known to carry any diseases. ... One might wonder how something as small as a tick could harm an animal as large as a moose. The answer is sheer numbers.Average numbers of winter ticks on a single moose in Alberta, Canada, are around 32,000, with a maximum of nearly 150,000! It is likely that moose in N.H. harbor similarly massive numbers of ticks.


Holy toledo! The number is so large that it causes loss of winter coat, anemia, reduced body fat and even death. The article says that studies of hair loss patterns on moose can indirectly track tick infestations, because moose rub off their coats scratching on trees to get rid of ticks.


Here's the magazine's site. The current issue isn't online yet; New Hampshire state government needs money, so buy it. There's also an article about winter-hiking Mount Monadnock; by coincidence, my wife and son did exactly that today.




Granite Geek is now in an iPhone app


The Telegraph has an iPhone app, and GraniteGeek is prominently featured, as you see from this screenshot. The problem is that "GraniteGeek" didn't fit, so we have become "Geek Blog" in the iPhone universe. Plus, the only good icon we could find was a half-filled beaker ... I guess I need to write more about chemistry.


The app costs $3.99, plus we'll throw in a free - that's right, free! - iPhone app for the Telegraph newspaper in the United Kingdom.* We were going to offer a Ginsu knife but couldn't get it past Apple's confirmation policy.


I know you're slavering to buy it, so here's the link:


*this is a joke, by the way; the UK Telegraph offers a free iPhone app, and we have no connection with it or with them.



"Hair ice" photo by Rick Eppler, via Prof. James Carter


"Hair ice" or "silk frost" - the neatest ice formation you've ever seen


Ice forms in amazing ways, as I've noted before (such as this post, with a picture of a startling dark/light divide in a local pond), but I've never seen anything like the photo above - taken from this article by James Carter, a geology professor at Illinois State University. It concerns a type of ice formation called "hair ice" or "silk frost", in which the ice crystals grow into long, separate strands that look just like silky hair.


It appears to be a function of water absorption by organic compounds, as it is usually found on wood, but it doesn't seem to be well understood. Very, very cool.


Spotted via the Treehugger blog.





Vermont nuke plant's problems continue


UPDATE: The Free-Press has a follow-up in Sunday's paper (read it here) that tritium leaks are not uncommon: "At least 20 nuclear power plants around the country have reported tritium soil or water contamination, based on a Free Press examination of Nuclear Regulatory Commission documents and information gleaned from interviews with advocates and critics of nuclear power."


Nuclear power may or may not be key to the world's energy future (the technology is carbon-free, well understood and hugely scalable, but it's very expensive to build and has those nasty waste/proliferation problems), but there's no question that Vermont's nuke plant isn't making a very good argument for the cause. The latest issue, as the Burlington Free-Press reports, is a baffling leak of tritium, which has been found in one monitoring well at levels of 28,000 picocuries per liter, above the EPA safety standard of 20,000 p/l. Plus, high levels of radioactive isotopes cobalt-60 and zinc-65 have been found in a trench in a building where radioactive waste is stored and treated.


The aging plant has had other issues, notably the partial collapse of a cooling tower, and is in a financial tussle with state utility regulators over long-term energy contract pricing. It is trying to get its state license renewed for another 20 years when it expires in 2012. It would be tough to shut it down, I think, since it provides well over half of the state's electricity generation capacity.


Here's the Energy Information Agency site about it.


Greentech Media has a nuke-power debate: pro herecon here.





Noise from big wind turbines is a problem


Excellent story in the Portland Press-Herald (read it here) about the noise effect of utility-scale (1.5 megawatt) wind turbines, which have turned some pro-wind folks on Vinalhaven Island into doubters. (Note: For more details about sound from windmills, see Earle Rich's comment after the article.) From the story:


Workers will make small modifications to the equipment (to reduce noise). They'll change the turbines' gearbox ratio, for instance, and close air vents in the nacelles, the housing that covers components. Baker also is looking at adding sound dampening insulation to the nacelles.


Another idea is to turn down the turbines, essentially slowing the blades' rotational speed. Sound measurement in decibels is a logarithmic equation. That means cutting the output from 45 decibels – the state standard – to 42 decibels would cut sound volume in half. That much would reduce power output by 20 percent.


Another approach is to turn down the turbines only when the sound is most annoying. Computers can do this, but it's a complicated calculation. He has begun collection sound and wind speed data and trying to correlate it to what neighbors observe.



Was the surprising Mass. senate win due to Facebook?


My apologies for dragging politics (ugh) into GraniteGeek, but here is an interesting commentary in the Washington Post that says the surprising win of Republican Scott Brown in the Massachusetts U.S. Senate race was partly a reflection of a strong use of social media like Facebook and Twitter - which is anathema to traditional political operatives. The argument is made by a couple of online political consultants, so it should be taken with a grain of salt, but nonetheless it's interesting:


In many campaigns, even today, there's an unspoken assumption that though Facebook, Twitter and a Web site are necessary, they also are not terribly consequential (except as online ATM machines). The "real" work of politics goes on behind closed doors, in fundraisers, where progress is measured in increments of $2,400.





Photo by Jake von Slatt, SteamPunkWorkShop


Saving old steam engine, boilers as a factory is demolished


This blog post from Steampunkworkshop (spotted via BoingBoing) talks about a century-old Nichols and Stone factory that made furniture in Gardner, Mass., which is being torn down. It includes a huge Skinner Unaflowsteam engine and alternator that provided electricity for the plant, and two monstrous boilers (consuming 2,500 gallons of oil a week) that heated the factory. One is shown at left.


The steam engine alternator could allegedly produce 275 kilowatts at peak - that is more than five times the biggest solar-photovoltaic plant in New Hampshire (the one atop PSNH's HQ in Manchester).


The poster is looking for folks to help save some of this massive old machinery. Nichols and Stone is still in operation, just not in this old plant.



A damp decade in N.H.: The three wettest years occurred since 2005


From UNH News Service: New research from the University of New Hampshire shows that the last five years have been some of the wettest in more than 100 years.


According to Mary Stampone, assistant professor of geography and the New Hampshire State Climatologist, the years from 2005 to 2009 have broken records for monthly, seasonal, and annual precipitation totals. Specifically, the years 2008, 2005, and 2006 are the top three wettest since 1885 when the state began keeping records. Stampone presented her research on long-term New Hampshire precipitation patterns recently at the American Meteorological Society's 90th Annual Meeting.


"However, extreme as these events may seem, statistical analysis of total annual precipitation recorded at six New Hampshire weather stations from 1895 to the present indicates similar wet periods are present and are typically followed by extended periods of drier conditions," Stampone said.


The following are the wettest and driest years for New Hampshire's six weather stations:


* Berlin: wettest, 1954; driest, 1948.

* Concord: wettest, 2008; driest, 1965.

* Durham: wettest, 2008; driest, 1941.

* Hanover: wettest, 1983; driest, 1963.

* Keene: wettest, 2005; driest, 1964.

* Nashua: wettest, 2008; driest, 1941.


Stampone also found that the period after 1931 has generally been wetter. From 2004 to the present has been wetter than 1895 to 2003, and includes three of the wettest years for stations within climate zone 2.


Stampone said it's difficult to know now whether or not the last five years indicate a new precipitation pattern or if it indicates a shift back to the type of cyclical pattern of multi-year wet periods followed by extended dry ones.


Prior to 1970, the state experienced a cyclical pattern of three to five wet years followed by a five to seven year dry period. After 1970 the pattern switched to a period of high interannual variability where every year was very different from the previous one. Since 2004, New Hampshire has been in an extended wet period that is similar to the wet periods recorded prior to 1970, but the current period is wetter for southern parts of the state (climate zone 2). It is worth noting that this pattern is not seen in the Berlin record, indicating that the factors influencing precipitation in northern (climate zone 1) and southern areas are different.


"This year will be a good indication as to whether or not we will stay wet or move into a drier period like we used to prior to 1970. We'll have to keep our eyes on the skies," she said.



To appreciate music, we need surprise


This is a blog from Jonah Lehrer, a writer for Wired magazine, among other.


This explains a lot about the way we need an element of surprise, only satisfied when the final chord completes the expectation of the frontal cortex.





Mount Washington's wind speed record broken


First we lost the Old Man of the Mountain - now we're losing claim to "world's fastest wind"!


The World Meteorological Organization has confirmed that a gust of 253.5 mph (408 km/h) was directly measured at ground level in Australia during Tropical Cyclone Olivia on April 10, 1996, breaking the 231 mph (372 km/h) maesurement made in April 1934 atop Mount Washington. (see report here) (This later report notes that the Mt. Washington gust lasted 10 seconds; the Australia gust last 3 seconds.)


The Mount Washington Observatory said Tuesday it is studying the WMO's report and will be issuing a statement later today. (Update:The statement is here.)


Measuring wind speed for records is more complicated than it seems. Much faster winds have been measured in hurricanes than the Mount Washington gust, but only in the upper atmosphere or measured indirectly, by satellites looking down from space and using various methods, such as a variant of radar known as lidar,  to measure wind from afar, or doppler radar

Mount Washington's claim is that it has the fastest direct measurement – made by spinning cups on a device known as an anemometer – of ground-level winds.


There have been several claims over the years that faster ground-level winds have been directly measured, but questions have arisen about the mechanisms used, leaving Mount Washington's claim in place.


(A Web 2.0 note: I stumbled across this story because I noticed that somebody from Australia had altered the Mount Washington article on wikipedia.)





iPhone app company that helps Bostonians report potholes


I have a story in the Telegraph today (read it here) about a Nashua company that has developed an iPhone app which the city of Boston uses to let residents report problems - potholes, graffiti, streetlights, etc. - and put the reports directly into the work flow of city workers. It's pretty cool.


A side note about the the company, called Creative Bits. It is virtually a virtual company. It has an office in the Nashua Millyard, but the space operates mostly as a mail drop while the company's three to eight software engineers work at home or on site. In terms of jobs and money spent in the community, it's hardly here at all; no secretary, little or no lunchtime business, little of the overflow that happens when a successful company is located nearby. This helps explain why a region can be a tech hotbed and still not be producing much in the way of jobs.




Oddest "citizen journalism" I've ever seen - a video about milfoil


I'm not sure what to make of this opinion piece from the site Moultonboro Speaks about the need to fight invasive milfoil in our lakes, spoken by computer-generated voices from computer-generated cartoon characters - except to say that no traditional media outlet would ever have thought of it.


(Spotted via



Mars is wicked close! (by planetary standards, anyway)


Mars, as you may have heard, is relatively nearby - in opposition (that is, directly opposite us from the Sun as Earth passes it on the inside orbit and therefore as close to us as it gets. This makes it somewhat bigger in appearance, also means it rises as the sun sets and vice versa, so it's visible all night long.


The astronomical community is taking advantage of this period, which officially happens Friday, to show folks the Red Planet. There's an online organization called Beauty Without Borderssponsoring telescope viewings (that's their logo above). I don't seen any hereabouts - too cold, maybe - but it's still on opportunity to take the binoculars outside and check out the ochre star-like object.


Opposition occurs about every two years, but the distance between Earth and Mars varies each time, depending on our orbits. In 2003, Mars came closer to Earth than it had for some Bignum of years (60,000 or so, I think), which led to some Internet rumor foolishness saying it would be the size of a full moon. This time it will be about 99.33 million kilometers away, almost twice the 2003 opposition distance of 56 million kilometers.





Will iPad be bad news for E-Ink?


One of the coolest pieces of the most interesting new technology of recent years is made by E-Ink of Cambridge, Mass. - the little rotating black-and-white balls that are the secret behind screens of the Kindle, Sony Reader and other "electronic reader" devices. This system has big advantages over traditional computer screens (no power draw when a page is static, easier on the eyes due to lack of backlight) but also has problems (no color, slow to refresh). The question is whether really good tablet computers and/or super smartphones can make traditional screens good enough that they'll kill E-Ink technology.


With the arrival of Apple's iPad, the Globe asked a few consultants this question, and they all said there isn't any E-Ink killer out there ... yet. Here's the story.



A "hydrogen highway" down the Seacoast?


A company called SunHydro wants to put 11 hydrogen refueling stations that use electrolysis technology from Proton Energy, which uses solar-power electric to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, all along the East Coast - including one in Portland, Maine, and one in Braintree, Mass. Each station costs about $3 million and will have a customer base of almost nothing (seen many hydrogen vehicles lately?) so if this comes about it's a non-trivial attempt to tackle the chicken-and-egg problem of creating a fueling system for alternative-fuel vehicles.


Wired magazine has a big story about the plans, which still seem to be a long way from reality.



"No calculators" icon


The results from NECAP  - a ridiculously acronymed set of standardized public-school tests run by New Hampshire and a few other states - were released today. Part of my job was gathering data about the results and also looking at some sample questions, which is where I encountered the associated icon: NO CALCULATORS! I couldn't resist sharing ...


If you want to compare yourself against elementary, middle and high schoolers, you can see some sample questions here. The 11th-grade math made me pause a bit, I'm embarrassed to admit.





Obama to hand manned spaceflight to private firms?


No local angle, but if this NY Times report is true, it's astonishing:


President Obama will end NASA's return mission to the moon and turn to private companies to launch astronauts into space when he unveils his budget request to Congress next week, an administration official said Thursday. ...


Obama's request, which will be announced on Monday, would add $6 billion over five years to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's budget compared with projections last year.  ... The new money would largely go to commercial companies that would provide transportation to and from the International Space Station.


My childhood self would be appalled, but I have come to the conclusion that manned spaceflight is a time and money sink with insufficient return. Despite the cowboy/explorer appeal of astronauts, it's obvious to me that beyond  low-Earth orbit, we should leave it to robots until we know more about where we're going and discover better ways to get there.


Sorry, Heinlein and Asimov...


Here are Phil Plait's thoughts at Bad Astronomy blog; he thinks it's probably a bad idea, but maybe not entirely.


(A semi-related note: The LA Times reports that California wants to register the stuff left behind at Tranquility Base by Apollo 11 as a State Historical Resource, which "would be a victory for scientists who want to build support for having Tranquility Base designated a United Nations World Heritage Site in advance of what they believe will be unmanned trips to the moon by private groups, and even someday by tourists. Proposals to place the items on historic registries in Texas and New Mexico are planned for later this year.")



Robot dinosaurs coming to Manchester!


"Robot dinosaurs" ... need one say more? I hope not, because I don't know much more.


All I know so far: the SEE Science Museum in the Manchester Millyard will be hauling the dinosaurs through a third-story window on Monday morning in preparation for a new exhibit. (Yes, we'll have a photographer at the dino haul, for my Telegraph column next week. I'm sure the Union-Leader will cover it, too.)


Here's the robot-dinosaur exhibit Web site, which is a bit sparse.



Can iPhones keep ski areas honest about snowfall totals?


Smartphone-toting skiers who find less snow at a ski report than expected can use phone cameras and wireless networks to complain to their buddies. This new transparency might force ski areas to be more honest, or so says Salon in this report, based on part on a study last month by two Dartmouth professors that got a lot of press.


The professors found (gasp!) that ski reports exaggerate their snowfall totals. More tellingly, they found that the difference between mountain reports and official tallies at the closest weather station was greater on weekends or holidays. But they also believe that this difference was less in places with cellphone connections that allow the use of an iPhone app for reporting real-time ski conditions.


Hey, this is the East Coast: I *expect* to scrape my skis over ice at least part of the time. Powder is for imps!





Study: Cellphone ban doesn't reduce car crashes


The Wheels blog at the NY Times reports (here) on a study that found no-use-of-cell-phone-in-car laws succeeded in reducing the number of people driving while talking - as determined by standing on a street corner and counting the people going by with a phone to their ear - but didn't reduce the number of car crashes. The authors of the study are flummoxed. From the press release from the Highway Loss Data Institute:


"The laws aren't reducing crashes, even though we know that such laws have reduced hand-held phone use, and several studies have established that phoning while driving increases crash risk," says Adrian Lund, president of both the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and HLDI. For example, an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study that relies on driver phone records found a 4-fold increase in the risk of injury crashes. A study in Canada found a 4-fold increase in the risk of crashes involving property damage. Separate surveys of driver behavior before and after hand-held phone use bans show reductions in the use of such phones while driving.


One (possible answer) is that drivers in jurisdictions with such bans may be switching to hands-free phones because no US state currently bans all drivers from using such phones. In this case crashes wouldn't go down because the risk is about the same, regardless of whether the phones are hand-held or hands-free.


Further evidence that social science, like public health and anything else that depends on the behavior of that most annoying of species, human beings, is really really hard to predict.




January 31, 2010


Whither Verizon's 4G network?


I encountered this interesting discussion on DSLreports (read it here) which talked about Verizon using its upcoming 4G network called LTE - it starts tests launches this year, in Boston among other cities - to return to Northern New England and scarf up more customers from FairPoint. The writer thinks Verizon ripped everybody off with its landline sale here, but can't help admiring the company's business acumen even as he disparages its ethics.


LTE stands for Long Term Evolution, and broadcasts in the 700 MHz block. Here's Verizon's vague description of the service.


Clearwire (Spring's 4G service) has shown that expanding wireless service isn't always straightforward, having been turned down in its first efforts to locate transmission towers in Nashua (they're now looking at Merrimack). Presumably Verizon already has all the towers and antenna space that it needs, however.



Globe ponders nuke leaks, wind-speed record (and, indirectly, media's future)


One of the models of big media these days is to abandon the race to be first with breaking news that has long been at the heart of journalism, because professionals are hopelessly outnumbered by the sea of "citizen journalism" - cellphone pictures of wrecks or fires, bloggers who find cool tidbits amid the masses of official action, etc. Instead, the thinking goes, big media should concentrate on long-term work (investigative pieces) or slower, after-the-fact summaries and discussion.


In the latter category, today's Sunday Globe ponders two items that have been discussed here over the past week. Whether they work or not is a matter of opinion.


One concerns the tritium leaks at Vermont Yankee (read it here). It does an excellent job of summarizing the issue and, more importantly, placing in context of other leaks, especially within the context of the push to expand nuclear energy ("But the leaks have the potential to slow, if not stop, the bandwagon. Crucial voices are calling for caution.") (The statewide paper, Burlington Free-Press, has of course been on top of this all along. Its Sunday story concerns how unsettling all this is to other Vermont utility firms, since Vermont Yankee provides a huge percentage of the state's power.)


The other article concerns the topping of Mount Washington's claim to have the highest recorded surface wind speed. (Read it here) This one involves lots of quotes from locals (including, lazily enough, newspaper quotes, among them from my Telegraph story) and some flowery writing amid hard-news tidbits: "The news descended like a tropical depression over a state that still grieves for another fallen icon, the Old Man in the Mountain, which crumbled in 2003." It doesn't add much to the discussion, but for somebody who missed the news it's a good, entertaining summary.





February 2010

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PSNH power plant conversion (from burning coal to wood) is a model


A new research paper argues that converting coal-burning power plants to using biomass can be an effective way to fight greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. I read about it in the NY Times' very fine Green Inc. blog (read it here) - which cites PSNH's 2007 conversion of part of the Schiller Power Plant in Portsmouth from coal/oil to burning wood (and some cocoa bean shells) as a model.It points out that financially, part of the incentive for the Schiller move was creating "a revenue stream from the sale of renewable energy certificates."




Publishers vs. e-books - a blow in favor of "content"?


As a person who produces "content" for a living (ugh, what a phrase) and who has watched the monetary value of his work plummet in the Web 2.0 era, I'm not exactly an impartial observer of the interesting tussle between and the publishing house Macmillan. (Summary: The publisher wants the right to raise prices for e-books if it chooses; Amazon said 'no' and even stopped selling the company's print books as punishment, but quickly backed down. Here's the NY Times story.)


My opinion can be summarized as "If I write good stuff I want to be paid good money!" although I realize this may no longer be tenable. So instead I'll point to some other folks' analysis (although, come to think of it, this is analysis written by people who produce "content" for a living).


This Wired piece says "Macmillan's Amazon beatdown proves content is king" which I'd like to think is true. Another possibility comes in Salon: The iPad has scared the Kindle folks so much they'll do anything, since the Amazon deal is similar to one that Apple has with publishers. If so, the transmitters of content are still in charge; the only question is whether Apple or Amazon will be the dominant transmitter.


As a side note, I'm not this has any effect on the near-zero monetary value of breaking news, which has become a commodity in the era of citizen journalism.



Live Stream from NHPR


During my period of volunteering here in Florida, I like to listen to NPR most of the time. However, I'm in an area that would be best described as 'fringe'. FM radio works fine for screaming rock, shouting religious evangelists and country and western music. Not even close to what I want to listen to. NPR is intermittant at best.


At home I have the radio tuned to WEVO from Concord or Nashua. Now that I'm 1200 miles from home, I also have the option of their streaming audio programming over the internet. I'm using Verizon's Broadband adapter as my connection to the world. It works very well all up and down the east coast, allowing me to check email and favorite blogs (Granite Geek at the top) anywhere on the road and while I'm parked at the Life Enrichment Center here in Fruitland Park, FL.


What a wonder we have in modern technology. Growing up, we listened to two AM radio stations with WBZ coming in sometimes when the weather was right. When we were able to receive three television stations, we thought that it couldn't get any better than that. The technology kept getting better with more choices as Maine joined the rest of the country. I remember the first international TV broadcasts leading to live images from the moon!


We take so much for granted. I think we need people like myself who remember how it was but still have our wits intact to convey a sense of wonder not only to our present level of technology but live in anticipation to what is to come. Live broadcasting from any station in the country or world is just a slight indication of possibilities. Using Skype, I can talk to friends anywhere and watch their video as they show off their homes and kids. Is that cool or what?


Being a technotwit from way back, I sort of know how it all works. That doesn't take away the sense of magic I feel when I poke my head up and look around at what is going on all around us.


Color me happy!


Earle Rich... On the Road




Another vaccines-cause-autism link collapses


You've probably heard that the Lancet, the most prominent British research journal, has retracted a flawed 1998 study linking certain vaccines with autism, saying that the science was wrong and the main researcher misbehaved. (Coverage here, and here, but there's plenty more online) That paper pretty much launched the modern anti-vaccine hysteria, and thus indirectly led to a resurrection of certain communicable diseases. Many of the anti-vaccine folks are so entrenched in their thinking that this will make no difference to them, but perhaps it will make it harder for them to fool other people into following their errors.


The paper was shameful, but this does show the all-important ability of science-based medicine to re-examine itself and make corrections - even if it's a slow, painful process.



When your car hits a tree, it's "kinetic energy poisoning"


The word "energy" gets tossed around a lot by folks who don't really know what it means - most annoyingly, in the goofier alternative therapies. ("These crystals focus your body's internal energy field and enhance energy flow, blah blah blah"). During my classes to become an EMIT I've been hearing the word plenty in a non-quantifiable but legitimate way to get across the concept that when dealing with trauma (which from an EMT's point of view mostly means an injury that requires surgery), what you're seeing is the result of  energy on bones, tissue and organs.


Your car hits a tree, and all its f=ma energy has to transfer out of the formerly moving object. So it gets transferred around to the tree, busting it up; throughout the car, crumpling it and smashing it, and worst of all to the body of the driver/passenger. When something really bad has happened, like the femur (a very big, strong bone) getting broken, you know a ton of energy has transferred into the patient's body.


Which leads to this wonderful phrase I heard tonight: "trauma is kinetic energy poisoning." This isn't something I heard in physics class, but it's a good concept: treating kinetic energy as if it is a hazardous material that "spills" in an accident, damaging things around it. Emergency personnel's job is to determine what is damaged and how to fix it.


No goofy crystals needed.




Blogging is for old people


"Blogging is for old people, Pew report finds" is the wonderful - but kind of painful - headline on this San Francisco Chronicle story on a survey. Here's part of the story:


The results indicate blogging has become so 2006, when 28 percent of the two groups studied, teens 12 to 17 and young adults 18 to 29, actively blogged.  By the fall of 2009, that percentage dropped off to only 14 percent of teens and 15 percent of young adults as blogging "lost its luster for many young users," said Amanda Lenhart, one of the report's authors.


I tied GraniteGeek to twitterfeed in an attempt to latch onto mobile social media, but the survey says young adults don't use Twitter much, either.


It's almost like devices with full-size keyboards are becoming the latest equivalent of rotary telephones. (Yes, I still miss rotary phones; the sound and feel of the dial clicking around ... ah, it was as satisfying as working on a really good typewriter.)



Build a power plant, so you can make money from a greenhouse


A proposal is being floated for a 30-megawatt wood-burning power plant in Hopkinton - which is fine. The interesting part is that it would also build 20 acres of greenhouses and pump CO2 and excess heat there, to boost growth of whatever the business plan calls for(maybe cut flowers, which make big profit on a per-plant basis, but I'd prefer out-of-season vegetables and fruits). Here's the Concord Monitor story. This quote is interesting:


The project's real profit would come from what leaves the greenhouse, not the power plant, Rosen said. As an example, Rosen said, 1 million pounds of organic tomatoes could be grown each year. "We would never do the project for the electricity," he said. "You can produce an amazing amount of stuff out of greenhouses today."



The tallest American elm in New England was 217


The official age of "Herbie" - the American elm in Maine that was officially the tallest of its species in New England until it finally succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease - is 217, reports the Press-Herald. From the story:


The 110-foot tree survived 14 bouts of Dutch elm disease thanks to its caretaker, Frank Knight, who's now 101 himself. Eventually, though, the fungal disease claimed the tree, which was cut down on Jan. 19.


Very sad, but all things must pass. And , as I noted in my Telegraph column two weeks ago, there are lots of other tree-threatening diseases swooping in.





BoingBoing readers can be as humor deprived as the rest of us


This week, the Telegraph had a particularly ridiculous bureaucratic run-in with the advance folks for the Obama visit to Washington: they sent advance folks to talk to scores of teen-agers at Nashua High School South, where Obama later appeared - but then told us that we couldn't report on anything at the event because it was "off the record"! The idea of keeping a lid on a meeting with a roomful of texting teens was so funny that we wrote a story about it, only to be told the next day that ... well, I'll let you read the wonderful correction that we wrote, chuckling the whole time:


"A story on Page 1 of Tuesday's Telegraph quoted a White House official explaining that a Q-and-A session with dozens of teenagers in Nashua High School North on Monday was "off the record." However, the explanation about the talk being "off the record" was, it turns out, also "off the record" and should not have been quoted."


I liked it so much I sent it to RegretTheError, where it was seen byBoingBoing, which is usually a clever and witty site. But for some reason the readers went humor-deaf and went into tut-tutting mainstream media mode, which is the default reaction at too many online sites. Ah, well - it still makes me smile.


(Addendum: Gawker also picked it up  - copying BoingBoing's copying of RegretTheError in the funhouse mirror effect of the Internet - and then hugged with an even more tone-deaf "media are morons" note.)




Monkfish - from ugly to desirable


One of the most visible signs (visible to us landlubbers, anyway) of stresses in the ocean ecology is "fishing down the food chain" - the way that commercial fishing operations, having helped destroy stocks of desirable species like cod, take aim at species that they once ignored.


The Portland Press-Herald, which like a good newspaper in a port city writes a lot about the fishing industry, has a piece today on a perfect example: The hideous, bottom-dwelling and long-ignored monkfish, which is now a prized catch. The story notes that little is known about the monkfish, because there wasn't funding to study it until recently, so it's hard to know how to regulate the industry so that we don't devastate yet another species - at least, not too quickly.


How long will this go on? When you hear that commercial fishing operations are concentrating on jellyfish, you know the oceans are dead.


(ADDENDUM: The Sunday Globe has an article about disputes between commercial and recreational fishermen caused by a decline in stripers.)




Cell-phone warning bill already drawing lobbyists


Maine is considering enacting the nation's first law mandating stickers on cell phones warning of brain cancer, and as the Portland Press-Herald reports, it's drawing lobbyists like flies to honey.


I think the warnings are unnecessary and kind of silly, but if they make people use their cell phones less then maybe it's a good thing - we'll be subjected to fewer unavoidably overheard conversations in public. The sticker could say "Warning: Cell Phone Use Probably Won't Harm Your Brain Cells But It May Harm The Fabric of Society."



SNHU research: Test might help understand when people lie


Researchers at Southern New Hampshire University say they have uncovered a method to use the implicit association test (IAT), used by social psychologists as a measure of subtle prejudice,  to reveal more about the cognitive processes involved in lying. The school reported it as follows:

As originally developed, the implicit association test showed participants a series of pictures of either young faces or elderly faces, followed by word attributes that are either positive (like "beautiful" or "joyful") or negative (like "tragic" or "horrible") on a computer screen. Participants indicate as quickly as possible whether the attribute is positive or negative. Participants often respond more quickly and easily if positive attributes share the same response key with pictures of young faces and negative attributes share the same key with pictures of elderly faces than vice versa. The IAT is based on the assumption that if the object of an attitude elicits a subconscious attitude that is more negative, then pairing that object with positive attributes should lead to slower response times than if the object of an attitude is more positive.


SNHU Professor of Psychology, Dr. Peter Frost, along with students Roland Denomme and former students, Michael Adie, Annabel Lahaie, Angel Sibley and Emily Smith, recently investigated whether the IAT could be used to detect people engaged in lying. In a series of experiments, subjects were first asked to study a description of a crime scene with certain key details that they were told were either correct or incorrect. During a second phase of the experiment, subjects participated in an interview in which they were either instructed to lie or tell the truth about the key details read in the crime scene description even though the interviewer asked for truthful responses. In the final phase of the experiment, subjects took the IAT.


Subjects sometimes pressed one key if they saw truthful details or positive attributes and another key if they saw deceptive details or negative attributes. Other times, subjects followed the opposite rule (pressing a key for truthful details or negative attributes and another key for deceptive details or positive attributes).


Frost found that subjects who had lied during the interview were slower at responding when deceptive details shared the same response key with positive attributes than when deceptive details shared a response key with negative attributes. Frost and his research team intend to continue their investigation into whether a subconscious, negative attitude towards lying might slow down associations between deceptive details and positive attributes.


According to Frost, the implications of this new application remain to be seen. "We haven't yet examined whether subjects can alter the results if asked to fake their reaction times," he said. "At the very least, though, these experiments provide us theoretical clues into the cognitive processes involved with lying. Our findings are consistent with past research that has shown certain inhibitory parts of the brain can slow down response times when we lie." Frost's findings are scheduled to be published this year in the second issue of the American Journal of Psychology.



A good use for Twitter: Getting I-93 traffic updates


The New Hampshire Department of Transportation is starting a Twitter feed for I-93 traffic alerts, ( which makes a lot of sense (although they add sternly, "NHDOT strongly encourages motorists to use this new service responsibly" - meaning, I think, Don't Tweet And Drive!).


They say they'll be adding more heavily trafficked roads as time goes on, thus providing the sort of real-time traffic advice that radio-show helicopters have been trying to give for years. Very cool.


The press release assumes a relatively small amount of Twitter knowledge, as you can see:


Twitter is a widely known and accepted website that many states are using as part of their transportation management programs for notifying the public of critical traffic alerts.  Twitter gives the NHDOT's Transportation Management Center the ability to notify travelers of real-time traffic and road conditions before they encounter a congested area by sending a text message directly to phones or emails, providing an immediate one-way notification to "followers" when an event occur





A different way to vote - instant-runoff elections


Town meeting season is coming up, which means elections will be held in a couple hundred towns and school districts over the next two months for selectmen, budget committee, supervisor of the checklist, etc. Everybody in New Hampshire uses good old fashionied majority voting: Whoever gets the most votes, wins. But there are other methods.


One is instant-runoff voting (IRV - wikipedia article here), which is designed to create a majority winner when more than two people are contesting for a single seat, without having to go through follow-up elections. In it, voters rank all their candidates by preference; if nobody gets a simple majority of votes, the candidate with the fewest top-preference rankings is tossed out and his/her ballots parceled among the remaining candidates according to the next ranking on each ballot - which instantly re-enacts what would (presumably) have happened if there was a second, runoff vote. This process continues until there is a winner.


So far as I know isn't used in New Hampshire, but is used in the city elections in Burlington, Vermont. (This was drawn to my attention by a letter to the editor of the Burlington paper, blaming instant-runoff voting for some current city problems.)


It sounds pretty cool to me, although it would make election night in the newsroom a nightmare - trying to figure out which of, say, eight candidates won the three open selectmen seats would take more calculation that we could handle on deadline.



Reading one-handed tweets while driving is OK in New Hampshire


A question has arisen out of the new state Twitter service alerting drivers to problems on I-93 (if you missed the post, here it is), and here's the answer:


Under the new state law banning texting while driving, you can read Tweets behind the wheel - as long as you do it one-handed. The law (HB34) says:


This bill prohibits writing a text message and using 2 hands to type on or operate an electronic or telecommunications device while driving.



Different Facebook habits in our cities


This guy has analyzed a ton of Facebook data and put together some wicked cool interactive pages reflecting them, titled Facebook Pages of Countries, States and Cities. Among his analysis: He breaks up the US into 7 regions, based on their Facebook habits like friends and fan pages; we're part of Stayathomia, because we rarely link far from home.


With that at mind, I took a look at data for the two NH cities, Manchester and Concord - here are the cities where people living in those places have the most friends:


* Manchester's friends are in, in order: Boston, Concord, Lowell, Portland ME, New York, Worcester, Burlington, Washington D.C., Hartford Conn. and LA


*Concord's friends are in, in order: Manchester, Boston, Burlington VT, Portland ME, NYC, Washington, Harford Conn, Worcester, and LA.


Not much difference except for Concord's snub of Lowell and Manchester's snub of Burlington.





Can you tell a person's age from their feet?


My Telegraph column today (read it here) asks that question, based on a sixth-grader's interesting science project.


The answer, judging from my inability, is no: looking at pictures of people's naked feet, I guessed that an 80-year-old was 11, and a 16-year-old was 44, among other wild misses.


Check out the column and see how you do - I have a truncated version of the test there. You can email me your guesses ( or put them in comments below the article itself.


Meanwhile, I'm keeping my socks on.



PSNH "scrubber" looks better as the GOP rises again


GraniteViewpoint, a Seacoast-based blog that I have mentioned many times and used as a driver for a series of stories in the Telegraph, has an interesting analysis of how PSNH's $450million scrubber at theMerrimack Station coal-fired power plant in Bow might be looking like a better deal these days as the Republican Party strengthens.


It's worth reading GraniteViewpoint's argument - check it out here - but in summary he notes that the chances of the EPA getting authority to limit carbon dioxide is getting worse because the GOP in general doesn't support the idea. However, the chances of the EPA tightening regulations on sulphur dioxide and mercury emissions from coal-fired plants is still good.


Well, guess what: The Bow scrubber does a great job reducing mercury and SO2, and does nothing to trim CO2. That avoidance of greenhouse gases was a point against it during last year's debate over whether PSNH should spend so much money, but if the political winds continue as they are, this mix isn't a problem any more: It looks like PSNH might be ahead of the regulatory curve.


As a side note, Granite Viewpoint says that if other power plants have to ramp down because of sulphur and mercury controls, the price of coal might fall, benefiting PSNH ratepayers. Whether it benefits the atmosphere is another matter.





iPhone app of the day: "translates" your dog's barking and Tweets it


I can't do justice to this item from the Improbable Research blog, so I'll just link to it (right here!) and swipe a bit:


Bowlingual: iPhone app translates what your dog barks, posts it to Twitter


How society survived without this for so long, I can't say ...



Churches discuss how "evolution poses no problems for their faith"


Six New Hampshire churches - most from the "liberal" side of Protestantism (Universalist and Congregationalist) and one affiliated with American Baptist Churches - are participating in the fifth annual Evolution Weekend, described by organizers thus:


Churches, temples and mosques from across the United States and around the world are joining together to celebrate Evolution Weekend, Feb. 12-14, a period designed to recognize that religion and science, two fields of critical importance to humans, should be seen as complementary rather than confrontational. Participation includes such activities as sermons, lectures, discussions and classes.


One important goal is to elevate the quality of the discussion on this critical topic - to move beyond sound bites. A second critical goal is to demonstrate that religious people from many faiths and locations understand that evolution is sound science and poses no problems for their faith.


I'm an agnostic, which means an atheist without the courage of his convictions, but this sounds great. The separation of church and state is vital for governance, but there shouldn't be a separation of ideas.


N.H. churches that are participating, according to the Web site (which is here), are South Parish Unitarian Church, Charlestown; Monadnock Congregational Church, UCC, Colebrook; Franklin Congregational-Christian Church, UCC, Franklin; Franklin UU Congregation, Franklin; Plymouth Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Plymouth; The United Church of Warner, Warner. I'm surprised there's no representative from the state's population centers of Manchester, Nashua and Concord!


There are 43 churches participating in Massachusetts, plus a half-dozen each in Vermont and Maine.



Burning cocoa shells to make electricity gets state OK


PSNH has gotten a lot of attention for one of the more charming alternative-energy programs around: burning coca bean shells in its Schiller power plant in Portsmouth. Even the Economist magazine wrote about it.


They should get more attention now, following the announcement that last year's test has convinced the New Hampshire's Department of Environmental Services to OK plans by PSNH and Lindt USA to "incorporate cocoa bean shells as a supplementary fuel source at Schiller Station on a more permanent basis."  Lindt is expected to soon deliver the first load of shells from the company's new chocolate production facility in nearby Stratham, and burn them to produce electricity.


An interesting aspect is that the shells are burned in the two boilers that burn coal, not in the third boiler, which was converted to burning wood chips a few years ago. A 30:1 mix of coal to shells does the trick, says PSNH. Here's the press release.


We're talking about a tiny amount of power here, and a tiny amount of reduction of CO2, but it's still cool.


Speaking of biomass power, the Northern Wood Power Project, the name given to the woodchip boiler  at Schiller, recently produced its billionth kilowatt-hour of electricity. The 50 MW facility is our best example of large-scale biomass power production.


(Later ethical note: I wrote the above piece before I checked my mailbox, where I found a Lindt chocolate bar along with the PSNH press announcement. I was not swayed by it, honest!)




Frisbee's inventor is dead, and geeks everywhere mourn


A moment of silence, please, for the passing of Walter Fredrick Morrison, the man who invented the Frisbee. The BBC has some great pictures - check them out.


I have long been puzzled as to why throwing Frisbees is the sporting activity of choice among geeks, rather than soccer or lacrosse or something like that. Is it a function of the complexity of the flying disk's trajectory? Its history as a non-establishment activity (although I had never heard of a "buzzbee")? Sheer happenstance?


All I know is that Ultimate Frisbee - officially called Ultimate Disk because Wham-O got shirty about trademarks - is the only high school club sport in which a majority of any given team is likely to know calculus.




A Western version of RGGI stumbles


For a while it looked like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the Northeast's innovative cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions by utilities, would be overtaken by events: A much larger version was planned by states out west, and then the Obama administration began pushing a federal version. But the federal one is mired in politics, and now (according to this article in, Arizona and possibly Utah are pulling out of plans to create the Western Climate Initiative. From the story:


The WCI includes seven western states and four Canadian provinces that agreed to work together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and participate in a regional cap-and-trade program that would launch in 2012 and be fully implemented by 2015. ... In an executive order last week, Arizona's new governor, Republican Jan Brewer, announced that Arizona would not implement the cap-and-trade proposal advanced by the WCI, though it would remain part of the group. Her argument: Implementing cap-and-trade at this point would put her state at a competitive disadvantage nationally and internationally and hurt its economy.




Maine sites considered for testing wave energy


The Portland Press-Herald has a story about a wave-energy development company that wants to do testing at some of the sites off Maine which have been designated as test sites for offshore wind power. Read the story here. This is all very preliminary, as is most wave-energy work - a field that, in the U.S. at least, is still well on the R side of R&D.


For those interested in developing "green" energy, the following paragraph might be the most important, because it shows that abundance of natural resources isn't the key:


The Gulf of Maine doesn't have great wave-energy resources, Staby said. But the combination of designated test sites, companies that design and make composite materials, and support from state government and the university system make Maine a good place for testing wave-energy devices.


Meanwhile, in Vermont, there's a push to make another large (by our standards, anyway) wind farm, with a Town Meeting vote set on the issue: Free-Press story here.




Verizon says 4-G service on track for rollout around Boston


Verizon Wireless is set to roll out its mobile data service called LTE, or long-term evolution (what a stupid name) service, starting in Boston and Seattle.  From the CNet story:


Verizon Wireless is in the final testing phase, or "Phase 4," of its LTE technology. Within 60 days he said he expects testing to be completed in Boston and Seattle. After those trials are complete, Verizon will be ready to announce commercial deployments.


This uses the 700 MHz spectrum left over from the analog TV spectrum. Peak speeds have been reported at 60 Mbps (says Gizmodo). CNet adds the kicker:


The next bit of news consumers can look for from Verizon is pricing. Verizon hasn't yet detailed plans for how much it will charge to use the new 4G LTE service.


On a side note, the NY Times has a cautionary piece (here) about 4G's business future: "many of the world's major carriers are holding back. They are wary of repeating the mistakes of a decade ago, when billions were spent on equipment and licenses for third-generation networks, the current standard, only to see consumers largely ignore the technology until Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007."



What should NASA do?


Even by blog standards, linking to another publication's letters discussing an issue is a pretty lazy way to present a debate - but the five letters printed by the NY Times in this collection, titled "Goal for NASA?", are too terrific to ignore. Replying to an earlier editorial about whether we should try to go to MARS, and playing off Obama's new proposed NASA budget that leaves much manned space flight to private companies, they pithily summarize the debate of what NASA should be doing, thusly:


1. "NASA's prime task should be developing space resources."


2. "A return to the Moon for mining, fuel production and in-space manufacturing offers nearer term economic benefits through investment in our technologies, our economy and our people"


3."The new plan finances technology and robotics, but has no other clear goal. Perhaps we should listen to the Augustine Commission, which concluded last fall that the program was simply underfinanced"


4. "If we use the space station as our base to launch and maintain manned spacecraft, I believe that we will have taken a major step toward a sustainable manned space program."


and the most amusing:


5. "According to the Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, the manned space program "masquerades as science." You could say it is a spectator sport, having about the same relationship to science that intercollegiate football has to education"



Electric "Zamboni" flunks its Olympic test


Attempts to make a "green" - boy, I've grown to hate that word - Zamboni-like machine have hit problems at the Olympics, as I learned from this post (via Slashdot) which talked about major delays in speed-skating competitions because of them. These weren't made by the Zamboni company, but by a competitor. I didn't even know Zambonihad competitors.


There aren't many details about what went wrong; I would think creating an electric ice-surfacing machine wouldn't be too difficult, but I'm pretty ignorant about this stuff. Maybe all that water sloshing around near all those batteries was a problem.


First the Prius fiasco, then signs that Tesla is fizzling, now problems with electric Zamboni-ish devices ... at this rate, they'll bring Hummer back.



Net metering (get paid to produce electricity) may get bigger


NH Public Radio has a nice piece - although their transcribing system is a little clunky, so it's hard to read in print - on a proposal to extend "net metering" from individuals and small systems (up to 100 kilowatts) so that it's available to cities and big systems (as much as 1 megawatt, which is borderline utility grade). Here's the story, spotted via NHBR.


Net metering allows individuals to be paid by the local power company when they send electricity out into the grid because, for example, their PV is cooking on a sunny day. It basically lets you use the electric grid as a huge battery that collects your excess power and returns it to you when needed. Without net metering, self-generated power was limited to a few off-the-grid folks; with it, there is now well over half a megawatt of home-generated power in the state (as I noted earlier). Expanding net metering to larger systems is a good idea.


PSNH and other utilities are wary of net metering because they worry that distributed generation doesn't pay its fair share of the grid cost for poles, wires, transformers, maintenance, etc., even though it uses and depends on those systems - which seems to me a reasonable fear. Tweaking energy bills so that you still pay for fixed costs and base operating costs, even if you generate all your own power, is needed.





We *are* in a recession: Rock Band sales are bad!


I was startled by this Boston Globe story today, which says that sales of Rock Band - the video-game sequel to Guitar Hero - have plunged so much that Harmonix Music Systems Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., may have to pay back some money to its new parent company, Viacom. From the story:


After selling nearly 600,000 units last October, The Beatles: Rock Band sold just 1.18 million units over the Christmas holiday season, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times, which reported last Saturday that Viacom wanted some of its bonus money back.By contrast, the year's hottest game, Modern Warfare 2, sold more than 8 million units during the same period.


Once again, the attempt by the game industry to expand beyond the adrenalin-filled shoot-em-up sector hasn't done as well as expected. I would comment more, but I have finish a conquest in Warcraft II.



Our coyotes are more wolf-like than the West's coyotes


As I've noted before (in this Nov. 30 post), genetic analysis indicates that as coyotes have migrated back to the East Coast over the past few decades, they have interbred with eastern wolves. The Boston Globe has a story about this today, nicely summarizing the work:


In a paper published this month in the journal Biology Letters, Roland Kays, curator of mammals at the New York State Museum, shows that the coyotes that migrated east through Ohio were not as well adapted to the Northeast as those that came through southern Canada, hybridizing with wolves en route. Kays says the hybridization gave northern-migrating coyotes the evolutionary edge over the southern-migrating population, allowing them to colonize the region five times as fast.




Store your stuff in The Cloud, via Comcast


I'm not sure, but I think Comcast is the dominant Internet provider for homes in my portion of southern New Hampshire, if not by customer numbers then geographically (it's the only non-satellite option available in many scattered portions of exurbia).  So when it does something interesting, it can affect a lot of non-ubergeeks.


I was intrigued to see this report, via the Globe, that it is integrating the online backup/storage service offered by Mozy (which Comcast has bought) into its regular cable-modem service.


Life in The Cloud, here come the teeming masses!




Choose your conspiracy: Hiding UFOs or faking 9/11


Britain has released lots of formerly top-secret UFO files, which show that (a) a percent or two of the endless reports aren't well explained and (b) some UFO fanatics are annoyingly persistent. Here's the Huffington Post summary, or you can sit through the Telegraph (of UK) video.


Closer to home, Barnstead town meeting will vote on a non-binding warrant article asking Congress to investigate the Sept. 11 attacks (Monitor story here) because some folks can't let go of much-chewed-over claims that the towers shouldn't have collapsed from fire and the Pentagon plane couldn't have made such an accurate hit, etc. Vast conspiracy is the only explanation they can think of - presumably Dick Cheney masterminded it from his secret hideout so his buddies could grab Iraq's oil by force, or something like that. Popular Mechanics did a fine debunking of these ideas last year, here's the link.


I wonder if there are any ban-fluoride-from-water warrants out there, or maybe I'm-allergic-to-cell-phone-broadcast warrants? Requests for Bigfoot-hunting funds?  Flat Earth Society, where are you when we need you?



No more SwANH: Software, high-tech industry groups merge


New Hampshire's geek world has lost its best acronym: the Software Association of New Hampshire (SwANH) has been subsumed by the New Hampshire High Technology Council. NHHTC ("nuh-hikt"?) isn't nearly as as much fun to say as SwANH ("swan")!


The release says this will create "a single voice for the state's high technology community,"  for lobbying legislators or luring business. This could be a good or bad thing. If it reflects a shrinking of our wild entrepreneurial spirit (SwANH seemed a little less corporate than NHHTC) then it's bad; if it reflects a maturity and growth - i.e., more funding and more jobs - then it's good.


SwANH has been around for 16 years. I went to a few of their earlier conferences, and still have a fine leather briefcase that they handed out when times were flush.


All SwANH members are now NHHTC members, and SwANH programs will continue to be offered, except its annual meeting.


The groups announced the merger yesterday (Thursday), but as of this morning neither one's Web site seems to reflect it, that I can see.



NH to sample Connecticut River for tritium from nuke plant


The  New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services' Emergency  Services  Unit said Friday it will begin weekly tests of water samples along the Connecticut River, in response to the tritium leak at the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant, which is adjacent to the river. Some samples have already been collected since the plant admitted that tritium-contaminated water has been released from various places, ending up in local groundwater, but this program is more systematic.  No samples so far have detected unusual levels of the radioactive material.


From the press release:


Samples will be  collected  and  tested  on  a  weekly basis beginning today, in various locations  along  the  Connecticut  River  adjacent  to  Vermont Yankee.   Officials at Vermont Yankee detected a tritium leak back in January when elevated levels of  the radioactive material were discovered in an on-site monitoring well. ... Tritium  is  one of the least dangerous radionuclides because it emits very weak  radiation.   It  does not pose any hazard externally, but can pose an internal hazard if large quantities are ingested or inhaled.


DHHS' Division of Public Health routinely collects and analyzes hundreds of environmental samples each year around the 10-mile emergency planning zones of  both VY and Seabrook Station nuclear power plants to monitor air, soil, ground and surface water and plants.  No radiation levels above what occurs naturally  in  the environment have been found.  DHHS will continue to test water  samples  and  work  with  Vermont Yankee and the Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner until the situation is resolved.


A side note: the river makes up the state border between NH and Vermont but NH owns all of it. Generally, state borders run down the middle of rivers but for whatever reason the border is on the high-water mark on the Vermont side.





A SwANH memory: Dan Brown (pre-"Da Vinci Code")


After seeing the item about the Software Association of NH joining theNH High-Tech Council, former Telegraph colleague Dave Aponovich sent me a note reminiscing about his appearance at a 1998 SwANH panel at which the lunchtime speaker was Dan Brown. The advance notice reads: "The luncheon keynote speaker will be Dan Brown, the Phillips Exeter Academy English teacher who wrote the bestseller, The Digital Fortress.'"


I suspect they would word it differently these days.




Next step in tidal-power test, at Bay of Fundy


My alternative-energy Google Map of Northern New England (here it is, for those who have ignored that big ugly link in the right-hand rail) has several pins pointing to tidal-energy projects, all of them still in the R phase of R&D.


One of the most promising, which I've written about a couple of times over the years, is by a company called Ocean Renewable Power, which puts what looks like a big horizontal-axis egg beater on the ocean floor; its double-helix design means it spins whichever way the tide is flowing, and its direct-drive, permanent magnet system is relatively straightforward, reducing (in theory) maintenance. The units are stackable, making expansion easy.


The Portland Press-Herald has a big story today on the company's preparation for a 60-megawatt test, and hopes for a 1-megawatt project operating within a year or so. That's tiny by utility standards, enough for a couple hundred homes perhaps, but would be a big step forward for a power source that has always seemed promising but which faces lots of obstacles. If nothing else, keeping electronics and spinning mechanical systems going amid constantly surging sea water is tough.




Are nuke plant problems harming the "Vermont brand"?


There are plenty of reasons to be interested in and/or worried about the situation at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, where walls collapse and tritium escapes into groundwater, but the Burlington Free-Press offers a new one today: It might be harming the Vermont brand!


Cheddar cheese, maple syrup and craft beer are just a few of the products that rely on bucolic, pristine images of Vermont to attract customers. Some now fear the growing list of problems at the state's nuclear power plant could hurt the Vermont brand that bolsters local business and tourist destinations.




The guilt-trip method of enforcing eco-behavior


The utility National Grid is finding that giving people energy-usage scorecards comparing them to their neighbors is a great way to get them to reduce how much they use. NY Times tory here.  Boston Globe story from last October here. It's the "guilt-trip" method of getting other people to do things you want them to do, a practice that has a multi-million-year history among primates.


This sort of thing can go too far - we  don't want to force energy hogs to wear a scarlet letter - but done at an individual level, as this is, it seems like a great idea.



Solar power: Not too big, not too small ...


New Hampshire is puttering along in the rooftop-solar-power business, with homeowners having applied for more than 600 kilowatts worth of Renewable Energy Fund rebates, mostly in 5-kilowatt photovoltaic increments. That's the solar-power equivalent of sandlot baseball.


With our climate we'll never probably enter the big leagues, like a 400-megawatt PV plant proposed for the California desert, which just got a $1.3 billion loan guarantee. But we still have a shot at what might be called the minor leagues: solar projects smaller than traditional power plants (which rarely go below 12-15 megawatts) but too big to power just a single user (examples of the latter include  the 50-kilowatt systems atop PSNH headquarters in Manchester and Stonyfield Yogurt in Londonderry).


The only "minor league" photovoltaic system in New England is the 435-kilowatt Brockton Brightfield in Massachusetts, but Western Massachusetts Electric Co. is planning another, out in Pittsfield. It has permission from that state's utility regulators to own power production within its service area, and plans to build 8 acres of solar panels producing 1.8 megawatts alongside a substation. That last fact is, I suspect, critical: It means the company already owns the land, and there will be minimal cost connecting the panels into the grid.


I am reminded of the proposal by a company called GridSolar, which wanted to scatter PV facilities like that alongside power lines throughout Maine. Regulators, as I noted in November, frowned on the idea.



Dartmouth makes "nano-switch" turned by pH


Dartmouth researchers have developed a new molecular switch that changes its configuration as a function of the pH of the environment. Nano devices are so new that it's hard to tell whether a discover like this will prove important or just quirky, but it's sure interesting. Imagine if you could turn off the lights in your room by spraying vinegar into the air - wouldn't that be fun?


The press release (here) is pretty slim: "Light-induced configurational switches are known and have been used in various applications. Ours is chemically driven, similar to biological motors, which can lead to new possibilities in nanotechnology".




Vermont Yankee nuke plant's future on the line today


The Vermont Senate is slated to vote today (Wednesday) whether to extend the license of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant past 2012.Here's a Free-Press story. All the recent bad news, especially the fact that the company didn't admit to past leaks of radioactive tritirum, seem to have tilted the odds (which were once well in its favor) against the plant. From the story:


Vermont is the only state where the Legislature has a role in deciding a nuclear power plant's future. Today's vote likely will not end debate regarding Vermont Yankee's future, as the Legislature could take another vote sometime before 2012, and there could be challenges to the Legislature's authority in the matter.



Vermont tells nuke plant to close in 2012


The Vermont Senate has voted not to extend Vermont Yankee's license beyond 2012, when it runs out. Free-Press story here. Two months ago, I would have bet a bazillion bucks against this happening!


Here's the whole gallery of Free-Press coverage, if you need background.


Here's the next-day NY Times story, which notes "Unless the chamber reverses itself, it will be the first time in more than 20 years that the public or its representatives has decided to close a reactor.' The Globe just used the Times story.





Comments sought on expanding alt-energy rebates


The state's Renewable Energy Fund, managed by the PUC, supports the residential renewable-energy rebate program, under which more than 240 homeowners have requesting rebates of up to $6,000 for photovoltaic and wind turbine systems under 5 kilowatts.  The combined generation capacity of these systems is roughly 600 kilowatts.


On Friday, Sept. 26 at 10 a.m. in Concord the Public Utilities Commission will hold be a technical session as part of a push to expand it, to support the development of thermal and electrical renewable installations in New Hampshire.  They're aiming to establish a new rebate program by April 22. The Sustainable Energy Division is also considering developing one or more "commercial scale rebate programs and/or issuing a competitive request for proposals for renewable energy projects."


There will be a public comment hearing on March 18, and comments may also be provided in writing. Here's the PUC order (a slow-loading PDF) for more information.



Weird comment spam leads to ... wikipedia?


Comment spam on blogs has gotten quite sophisticated, with algorithms that create comments similar to real sentences, stealing terms from the post itself. They've gone way beyond the "Great post! I learned a lot!" stuff.  All of them include a link to a commercial site, to generate in-links that fool search engines


But in the past few days I've had several comments in which the commenter's name was linked to ... wikipedia! What the heck? There's no commercial advantage to driving links to wikipedia, so why are folks doing it?


The wikipedia articles in the links are close to the post topics (New Hampshire, technology, unidentified flying objects) and the comments themselves seem to be written by a human being - but what's the point? That one has me baffled.



It could be a big year for 'red tide'


Researchers searching the ocean floor in the Gulf of Maine found plenty of hardened cysts deposited by algae last fall that can seed the blooms known as "red tide," leading them to predict that this summer could be a bad season for the toxic algae. Its biggest effect is to shut down shellfish collecting, because those filter-feeders can accumulate the toxins.


Here's the Cape Cod Online story, which is short but meaty. Here's the NOAA press release (they fund the research), which has more detail: "Scientists are reluctant to make a forecast of precisely where and when the bloom will make landfall because bloom transport depends on weather events that cannot be predicted months in advance."





Alternating current from a wind turbine?


It's tough to judge the reality of new inventions from news stories - reporters are usually liberal-arts majors, not engineers - so stories like this one in the Burlington Free-Press need to be taken with a grain of salt. It says that a tiny company in Willston, Vt. has patented a new time of wind turbine that can generate alternating current without the use of an inverter. If this is true, it will really help small wind turbines, the sort used for homes and small businesses, because such a large percentage of their total cost is the electronics. The article has links to the patent and to the company - click through to see them (and thus reward the paper's reporting by giving them more traffic).


Might be hooey, might be a game-changer, might be a reasonable idea that doesn't quite pan out in the real world. Interesting, either way.



Using cell phones causes - if not brain cancer, then drooling


The ever-wonderful Improbable Research blog has a post (here it is) pointing to one of the weirdest bits of research I've seen in a long time: It claims that use of cell phones over long periods of time correlates with "human parotid gland secretion" - i.e., salivating. It claims that in 50 subjects, there was more salivating from the parotid gland on the side of the head that the subjects regularly used to talk on the cell phone (in research-speak, "MPH [Handheld Mobile Phone] use was on a dominant side of the head".)


That does it: I'm going back to that old rotary dial Princess phone!





A big (5 MW) solar farm for NH, snarled by cost questions


I hadn't realized that PSNH wants to build a large (up to 5 megawatt, or 5,000 kilowatt) solar farm atop the capped Manchester city landfill. This would be the first almost-utility-scale photovoltaic plant in the New England, 11 times the size of the Brockton Brightfield and 100 times the size of the biggest solar sites in New Hampshire.


This story in NHBR, however, says it's caught up in a debate about how to pay for it - particularly, whether PSNH can use some money it pays into a state-controlled renewable energy fund because it didn't hit some renewable energy standards. That fund is supposed to help kick-start the state's renewable-energy industry.


Critics say PSNH is trying to keep a stranglehold on power generation in NH; PSNH says it is in the best position to use this money to actually build large-scale solar facilities, rather than just talk about them. The project could cost $40 million.





March 2010

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My kids at the old sawmill, 1997


Getting lost in woods you know well


I have the great good fortune to live next door to a 100-acre, largely wooded parcel of land, with one old home in the middle. For almost 20 years out family has tromped the trails in the woods, which lead to the remains of an old sawmill (shown above, 13 years ago) that I think of as our Roman ruins. The homeowner recently died and his grown children have have begun logging the woods - whether to get some money out of the property or as a prelude to development, I'm unsure.


Either way, I find myself in the odd position of getting lost in woods that I strolled through since my college-aged children could barely toddle: The old trails are often blocked by limbs and new trails have been made by the loggers. It's weird to find yourself looking around, confused, when you're perhaps 20 yards from a place you've been 500 times - not just weird but unsettling. It makes you wonder about how many other certainties are ephemeral



It's tough for ski areas to cut energy use


Slate has a good piece about efforts by Vail, the monstrous ski area in Colorado, to cut its energy use by 10 percent. New England ski areas like to be seen as "green," but are facing the same difficult issue of meeting the energy-sucking demands of their fickle clientele:


Vail was clear: no turning off the energy-gulping snowmaking machines or cutting back on grooming, no turning down the temperatures in the hot tubs at the Lodge at Vail. "Expecting your guests to change their behavior so you can save energy is not a viable strategy,"


Highly visible photovoltaic cells (or even mountain-top wind turbines, like at Jiminy Peak in Mass.) only do so much. The key, says the story, is lots of difficult, invisible, clever efforts to trim a bit here and a bit there.


On an unrelated note, here's an example of one such trim-a-bit effort, from the NY Times. A Minnesota utility pays people to hook their water heaters into a system that cuts power at peak times; it has trimmed peak energy draw by 9 percent.





Lobster harvest sets record


It sounds odd at first that the population of lobsters is estimated by the number of them that are caught each year. It might seem that catching more means fewer are left in the wild, but it's the opposite: when more are caught it means that there are more in the wild.


This is possible because lobstermen go to regular assigned locations and do it on a regular basis, so their catch can be used as a sampling of the total. Ocean fishing, on the other hand, is a hunter-gatherer approach, loosely overseen by authorities, in which increasing annual catches often do mean that the total population is falling because it's being plundered.


As a result, lobster populations are pretty well understood and so are doing pretty well. The Press-Herald reports that the 2009 Maine harvest was a record in pounds (although low prices mean it was far from a record in dollars), with 75.6 million pounds caught last year, up 8 percent from 2008. Check out the link - it has a great photo of a female lobster laden with eggs.


A little Google-ing for this post made this landlubber realize that lobster populations are much more managed than I had thought. The Gulf of Maine Research Institute, for example, has papers about stuff like using herring bait to help "sublegal lobsters" - too small to be captured - grow and reproduce, and doing mathematical modeling of the migration of lobster larvae.





Graduate school is like kindergarten


The comic strip PHD has long been a favorite of researchers, post-grads and others living in the upper realms of academia - so popular that the author does speaking tours at prestigious universities! So far as I know it's never had a New Hampshire angle, alas, but that's not going to stop me from linking to it today, because even I (who never went to grad school) found it funny: How Grad School is just like kindergarten.



Burlington rejects instant-runoff voting


My column in the Telegraph today (read its prose poetry here) is about alternative methods of voting, in which I pointed to Burlington, Vt., which uses "instant-runoff voting" in its mayoral race. I lost track of what is happening in Vermont, because yesterday Burlington rejected this voting method, which has been used in two elections, and will return to traditional "one-man, one-vote for one-candidate" rules.


Here's the Free-Press story, which includes this comment that reflects the problem with IRV:


Mayor Bob Kiss was elected twice through the system. In 2009, Kiss prevailed after three rounds of runoffs. He received just 29 percent of the initial vote in a five-man race but defeated Republican Kurt Wright after three other candidates were eliminated through IRV. "This was an anti-Bob Kiss issue" for the repealers, Keogh said, those unhappy "that somebody can win with 29 percent of the vote."





Anti-evolutionists helped by anti-climate-warming crowd


Pardon me if I wander outside New England here, but this NY Times story headlined "Darwin Foes add Warming to Targets" is depressing:


Critics of the teaching of evolution in the nation's classrooms are gaining ground in some states by linking the issue to global warming, arguing that dissenting views on both scientific subjects should be taught in public schools.


It talks about the usual sorts of "teach the controversy" bills in the usual sorts of places - Kentucky, Texas, South Dakota - but this silliness can pop up anywhere. Keep an eye on what your kids are being taught, folks.



It's hard to measure heating-oil use


Slate has an ongoing project in which one of its writers is trying to live "the efficient life". Today's installment (read it here) raises an interesting point:


As I've started paying attention to my household energy use, I have noticed something strange. It is incredibly easy for me to monitor my electricity usage and nearly impossible to monitor my use of heating oil and propane.


As he notes, you can generate flowcharts and data blocks about your home electricity use to your heart's content - or even see how much power is being produced by solar panels, like PSNH's, in a live stream - bur you've got to wander into your basement and gaze an an old float-style gauge to see how much oil is left in your tank, and there's no way to keep track of day-by-day usage to make decisions:


I can't measure how different behavioral changes would affect consumption. What would happen if I turned the heat down to 65 instead of 68? Would it save a gallon or a half a gallon? How much oil does it take to get the house from 68 to 72 in the morning? Given that heating oil costs more than $3 per gallon, small amounts can add up to significant savings.


There's a lot of talk about "smart meters" for electricity to aid conservation efforts, but I've never heard of any talk about trying to do the same for liquid fuels. Considering how much heating oil New England uses, that could make a big difference.

NH: Not much tritium in Connecticut River


This is mostly lifted from a NH Department of Health and Human Service press release:


The  New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services says initial samples taken of water  in the Connecticut River near the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in  Vernon,  Vt.,  showed  tritium  levels  below  500  pCi/L,  which  is  the  lower limit of detection for the lab testing equipment.


"These  test results are very reassuring and indicate tritium is not posing a  public  health  threat  in  the Connecticut River," said New Hampshire's Public  Health Director Dr. José Montero.


The samples was collected from the Connecticut River above and below  the Vermont Yankee Plant to test for tritium in response to the leak detected  by  Vermont  Yankee  officials  back  in January. Samples will be collected  and  tested on a weekly basis at least through the end of March.  Five preliminary samples were also taken in February and all were below the 500  pCi/L  level,  as previously announced. Vermont Yankee officials there are working to identify and fix the leak.


Tritium  is  one of the least dangerous radionuclides because it emits very weak  radiation.  It  does  not pose any hazard externally, but can pose an internal  hazard if large quantities are ingested or inhaled. It is present naturally in low levels in the environment.


DHHS'  Division  of  Public Health Services collects and analyzes hundreds  of  environmental  samples each year around the 10-mile emergency planning  zones  of  both  VY  and Seabrook Station nuclear power plants to monitor  air,  soil,  ground  and  surface  water and plants.  No radiation levels above what occurs naturally in the environment have been found.





Google wants a few good high-speed-Net cities - maybe


Burlington, Vt., likes to think of itself as a cutting-edge place among small cities - which isn't always a good thing, as its innovative city-owned fiber Internet system is tied up in a snarl of financial and regulatory hassles - so I'm not surprised to see it being very public about applying for what the Free-Press (in this story) calls "a vague mass solicitation from Google ... to find one or maybe a few U.S. communities in which to provide high-speed Internet connections and experiment with new broadband applications."


I love this paragraph:


Elz Curtiss, noting that the application team had been unable to make the sound on a Google video audible during the meeting and that one member was unsure what a gigabit was â€” Google said it wants to provide a connection of one gigabit per second, much faster than currently available technology — wondered if the city had people available to negotiate with the technical experts at Google.



Millions and billions


Every once in a while I read a blog posting that really blows my mind. This is one that truely impressed me with not only good writing but explains just how big the universe is.


Earle Rich





MIT's Media Lab gets $90 million building


MIT's Media Lab, which if nothing else is the highest-profile geeky place on the Eastern Seaboard, having generated more news stories than any equivalent space this side of Cupertino, Calif., has a new $90 million, 163,000-square-foot building. It's not as funky looking as theStata Center, which is probably a good thing - perhaps it won't have the need for a multi-million-dollar lawsuit about leaking roofs - but is drawing some rave reviews for looks, at least from the outside. Hiawathat Bray's story in the Globe describes the sort of stuff that the Lab is known for:


A team led by composer Tod Machover was preparing a vast high-tech chandelier for the September premiere in Monaco of Machover's new opera, "Death and the Powers," about a man who uploads his consciousness into a machine. In another lab, researchers William Lark, Ryan Chin, and Michael Lin showed off their efforts to design a two-passenger electric car that can be folded to half its normal size when parked. Doctoral candidate Grant Elliott demonstrated research in "biomechatronics," advanced prosthetic devices that use digital technology to help amputees walk normally and with less effort.





Storm reveals "sunken forest" along NH seacoast


Seacoast Online reports that recent storms washed away sand at the northeast end of Jenness Beach on the N.H. seacoast, revealing stumps of trees that are several thousand years old.


The instance of extremely low ebb tide and periods of increased storm activity have revealed the stumps of the cedar and pine trees, dating back more than 3,600 years, according to carbon dating. They've been seen only four other times in recent history, in 1940, 1958, 1962 and 1978, said Herlihy, though there has been at least one other non-recorded sighting. ...


The belief is there was forest extending far beyond what the elements have managed to uncover, said Herlihy, as the coastlines of world were altered radically due to glacial shifts and rising waters. He said the New Hampshire coastline might at one time have stretched up to 75 miles farther out to sea from where it is at present. One clue supporting that theory are the stumps of the cedars and pines. Those species do not thrive if their roots are in salt water.


The story says a similar forest exists further north, near Odiorne Point in Rye, but is visible at a number of low tides."When portions of the forest were uncovered previously, the original Atlantic Cable, laid in 1874, could be seen among the stumps."





Instead of filling potholes, plant flowers in them


This isn't really geeky, but since tomorrow is Town Meeting day in NH and many people will be voting on road-paving projects, I can't resist:This is the blog of a guy in Britain who fills in potholes with dirt and plants flowers in them. "If we planted one of those in every hole, it would be like a forest in the road." So grab your petunias and get to work!


(Spotting via Treehugger)



Popular Science Archives


Popular Science has teamed with Google to put all 137 years of the magazine on line. The site still has a few problems, but they are working to make it better.


I have several boxes filled with issues going back to 1936 up through the 1950's stored under the eaves of our house. I'll still keep them for the quality of the early cover artwork and the pleasure of smelling and holding these relics from the past. Tossing these into the recycling bin would be too much like ripping out part of my personal history. My wife or kids can deal with them as they please when I've made the final phase change.


I acquired them when the local library in Searsport, Maine cleared out all their shelves of these and other magazines. Fortunately, the dump truck driver was convinced to bring them to my house and my mother allowed me to keep them. I consider those magazines my primary incentive to become an engineer. Now, Make Magazine, Nuts & Volts and a few others fill in the gap that was missing for a few years. Popular Science is returning to its roots, featuring how-to-do-it articles as regular features.





Cats, static electricity, and computers


My home PC is a tower, that is located in my desk in a vertical partition just above the floor, which lacks a door. It has developed an occasional habit of instantly going black and then reverting to some Intel board error checksum message, one of those written in a large, clunky font. (It's an XP machine.) You have to turn off everything and hard boot. I suspect I have found the cause for this, although I'm not certain.


We have four cats, and one of them goes crazy with delight when you come out of the bedroom in the morning, rubbing all over you and everything else within reach, purring like mad. I swear the blackout happened this time, as well as the last time a week ago, when the cat scraped past the computer tower. Perhaps it's coincidence, but I wonder if there was some sort of static electricity buildup involved? This cat might as well be a cloth rubbing against a glass rod in a science class.


If so, it would be Item No. 147 on the List Of Ways That Cats Can Annoy You. (Item No. 1 on the list has to be the time we were cat-sitting a relative's felines and I walked into my bathroom to find one happily chewing on my toothbrush. The horrible part was the thought: how many times has it done this before?)



The birds and the bees - and bears and electric fencing


It is officially almost spring: I turned on the electric fence around the beehive yesterday. Bears are hungry when they wake up up after hibernating, you know. NH Fish & Game knows it: They're telling people to take down their bird feeders, lest they lure a wayward bruin.


But as YouTube demonstrates, an electric fence will keep the bear away from your hive.





Pulling hydrogen from Maine wastewater?



The skepticism meter went into the red on this story from the Portland Press-Herald, due to shortage of details, but it's fun to contemplate if nothing else: According to the story (read it here), an inventor wants to use effluent from the town's wastewater treatment plant and hydroelectricity from the Royal River to produce hydrogen and other gases:


He has developed a proprietary technology called radiant energy transfer. It uses electromagnetic radiation to break the hydrogen-oxygen bond at certain frequencies. The process was demonstrated last fall in the lab by filling a balloon with hydrogen made from wastewater. The radiant energy transfer unit ... can be scaled up in modules, uses minimal energy and produces hydrogen at a rapid rate.


OK ... sounds delightful, but there's many a slip twixt lab and shipping, to coin a phrase. Still, there's no harm in trying, and an easy cheap way to produce hydrogen gas would be a boon for alternative energy. Here's the inventor's site; perhaps those with more knowledge than I could apply the baloney-meter and see what it says.



Robot explorer stuck in pipe at nuke plant


I can't beat the lede on the AP story: " A small robot looking for the source of a radioactive leak at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant is stuck in the mud."


When it rains, it pours - especially when it rains tritium!


Here's the story, hosted by the Free-Press.



Youthful players of Go wanted


Go is the finest of all board games. I was never able to raise myself above lousy - 15 kyu at the best - when I played regularly, but it still fascinates me.


If it fascinates you and you are a lot younger than I am, consider the Youth Go Tournament being held in Boston on March 20. Here's the Web site. There are 17-and-under contests, and some for 12-and-under, with wicked cool trophies. $20 entry fee.


I suspect the level of play will be quite high - it's a qualifier for the US Youth Go Tournament, and is held at the Greater Boston Chinese Cultural Association, a reflection of the way East Asian players dominate. Not for the faint of heart.


If you don't know anything about Go but would like to learn, a group meets many weekends at the Barnes & Noble in Nashua to play. Email Peter Gousios ( to learn more.



If you let your cat outside, you're a bad person


My column in the Telegraph today starts out deliberately provocatively:


As a cat owner, I am comfortable making the following statement: If you let your cat outdoors, you are a bad person.


Oh, yes, you are. No matter what excuses you hide behind, you have chosen to release a wildlife-slaughtering machine on the great outdoors: You might as well be scattering poisoned birdseed and filling the woods with mousetraps


It hasn't drawn as many comments as I expected - only 8 so far, and no frenzied response from the "it's unnatural to keep your cat indoors" crowd.





Examining the crummy winter up close


Having survived Town Meeting day (a harrowing time in the local-newspaper business), I'm going to detox with the family at Lonesome Lake hut for a couple days, and see the crummy winter we've had up close.(Can I blame our low snowfall on Global Warming? No, I suppose I have to be reasonable, unlike the "DC storm disproves global warming" crowd.) Anyway, no GraniteGeek posting from the White Mountain





If you buy or sell exotic reptiles, you're a bad person


As long as I'm insulting pet owners, let's take a well-deserved swipe at people who buy exotic reptiles, because they are bad people, too.


Folks, if you need interesting possessions to make yourself seem interesting, find something less destructive to own than non-native reptiles.


Buying and selling them is destructive in two ways: The species get harmed by the pressure to collect them and snag some of the ridiculous sums you're fooled into forking over, while your location may be harmed when the beastie escapes or you dump it because you got bored. That's why Florida, which is having problems with escaped constrictors among other creatures, wants to largely ban the trade in exotic reptiles.


The problem isn't limited to warm climates, a fact that was brought home by a startling story from Saco, Maine, of all places. A gaboon viper (one of the deadliest snakes in the world) was found dead from the cold behind a store - and good thing the cold got it before it got a passer-by.


Here's the Press-Herald story. This quote is very telling:


"I've worked in poison control for 20 years, and almost all the bad bites we have is people being bit by their pets, and many of those were intoxicated people," Simone said. "You're not faster than your snake."


If you're absolutely crazy about reptiles, contact NH Fish & Game - they've got a fine reptile and amphibian reporting program you can join (Web site here). You'll be a far more interesting person than a goofball with a poisonous snake in an aquarium.




3-point-14159 / we think pi is mighty fine!


Happy pi day. Feel free to wave pompoms and chant with me:



we think pi is mighty fine

Wrap some ra-di-i a-round

their circle, and two-pi you've found!

Add "e" and "i" and toss in a boiler

plus 1 and 0 - you'll get Identity of Euler!*


So the last couplet doesn't scan - my favorite poet is Ogden Nash and he loved to not scan.


*copyright 2010 Literary Estate of David Brooks Esq.



Moving People


Saturday, right after a couple of rainy days, probably isn't the best time to go to the Disney Magic Kingdom. But, in spite of dense crowds of kids and parents, it was a great time. We couldn't help but be inspired by parents and kids enjoying each others company.


Disney is great at handling masses of people. Even the in the lines snaking back and forth gave us a chance to talk with people, find out where they are from, take a few photos and generally just indulge in people watching.


After the fireworks display at 21:00, we joined the tide heading back to the parking lots. Here, the technical aspects of herding cats really shined. After a short ride on the monorail, we were directed to the trams. These seven car assemblies take thirty to forty people and kids in each car. Time seven, thats an average of about 250 per tram. At the peak, they were running 2.5 minutes apart, so 24 runs an hour for 5000 to 6000 people per hour. That's an efficient movement of people. The lines ran quickly and except for an occasional child way overtired, everyone seemed to be in good spirits






Daily usage kwh


My electricity use keeps falling


It's partly the warm winter, partly the fact that our second kid is now at college and partly (I hope) our new pellet stove, which causes the electricity-sucking fan on our oil burner to turn on far less often - but for whatever reason, my household electricity usage has fallen mightily this winter compared to last. The 12-month running average through March is 18.65 kwh/day, a whopping 15 percent drop from the 22 kwh/day at this point last year - and only about 60 percent of the 32 kwh/day I was using three years ago.


The chart shows my PSNH bill's 12-month running average, calculated monthly; you can see how it has consistently fallen. Part of this is cheating - two kids no longer live here full-time - but part of it is 2 1/2 years of effort and expenditure, including a new fridge, solar water heater on the roof, CF bulbs, extra insulation galore, and the pellet stove. Short of setting up PV panels (which ain't gonna happen while the kids are in college) I'm not sure there's much more we can do.


As a side note, our heating-oil usage has fallen this winter by at least one-half and probably more. Again, weather and kids are a chunk of that, but the pellet stove contributes.



The complications of rural fiber for Internet


Getting broadband to non-urban areas remains a problem, for financial more than technical reasons. This article on the telecom industry site Light Reading demonstrates how complicated it can be:


A public/private partnership, Maine Fiber Co., won a $25.4 million (stimulus) grant to build what is called the Three-Ring Binder, an middle-mile fiber optic network that will include three fiber rings in Western, Northern, and Downeast Maine. Maine Fiber's intent is to lease dark fiber as an open access network, and not to sell commercial services.... It is now facing a challenge from FairPoint Communications Inc. , which ... has gotten a bill introduced in the state legislature prohibiting the state and state-owned divisions from providing telecom services to non-state entities. In addition, the non-profit Maine Fiber has been unable to gain CLEC status — since it is an open access network and not a service provider — and so it now needs special action by the state legislature to gain access to 36,000 utility poles before it can begin construction. With a 2012 deadline looming to get the network up and running, delays are a major concern.


At the heart of the dispute is Fairpoint's insistence that Three-Ring Binder is a government-funded duplication of its own fiber optic network. Those who want the new network built complain that Fairpoint refuses to lease dark fiber on its network, that its fiber optic network lacks the necessary capacity, and that its leased services are too expensive.


This sounds like the early days of trying to get dial-up in the boonies - small ISPs constantly complained that Verizon (or maybe it goes back to NYNEX; my memory is fading) wasn't providing them fair and reasonable-cost access to the network. Change copper lines to fiber-optic lines and the overall theme sounds unchanged.




Hey, Google - we want your super-fast fiber over here!


Lots of cities are hoping Google chooses them for its plans to provide complete fiber-to-the-home and develop a superfast municipal Net system - I've mentioned Burlington before, but Portland, Maine (Press-Herald story) and various Massachusetts cities (Globe story) are trying, too.


I don't know of any New Hampshire submissions to this effort -which is defined here by Google.



Deflecting snow by seeding clouds? Not easy


A post from the Freakonomics blog on the NY Times site (read it here) points out that the mayor of Moscow - a place that knows its winter weather - vowed to reduce snow in his city this year through cloud seeding. The result? Record snowfall.


Cloud seeding to alter precipitation isn't a bogus idea, of course, as this Scientific American interview shows, but it's far from a precise science.





Extracting oil from marine algae - someday


I sometimes suspect that biofuel from algae will be the microbiology/alt-energy equivalent of fusion power: perpetually in the intriguing early research stage, never in production. Here's a Press-Herald story about a Maine company seeking to tap lipids - fats - produced by a highly productive but slow-growing form of marine algae called botryococcus. Note this quote from the story:


Although small quantities of algal biofuels are now being produced, they are too expensive to compete with fossil fuels. Wilson predicts that technological breakthroughs and rising petroleum prices will make algae a feasible fuel source in 10 to 15 years.


Reality is always 10 years in the future  - sound like fusion?



Snow discrepancy between valleys and mountains


Last week my family spent the night at Lonesome Lake Hut in the White Mountains (we were the only folks there, so the caretaker let us sleep next to the wood stove in the main room rather than in an unheated bunkhouse - ahhhhh!). There was more snow than I had expected after seeing the paucity of snow along the highway and at the trailhead: There was at least 2 1/2 feet alongside the packed-down trails once you started climbing.


Judging from this informed commentary on the ViewsFromTheTop forum, this week's rain was snow in the White Mountains and places north, particularly above roughly 2000 feet elevation. The result, says one commenter: "Along the Glenclif Trail, there was a dramatic increase in snow around the 2000-2500 elevation line, going from a few inches to several feet in about 10-15 minutes of hiking. ... It's hard to remember so much discrepancy between valleys and mountains as this year."


It has been a crummy winter where I live, down south and low elevation, but a decent winter not too far away. That's shows how hard it is to judge weather.


ADDENDUM: From the latest email blast from the Mount Washington Observatory:


While meteorological spring has sprung across most of the eastern seaboard, winter continues on Mount Washington. Several powerful storms in recent weeks have brought high winds (132 mph on February 25!) and more than 26 inches of snow during the first half of March alone.


The upside is some good spring skiing; the downside is... well, I'll let you see for yourselves in this YouTube video posted by our crew:




ITU chart of telecom generations

The ugliest 4G chart you've ever seen


I'm writing an article for the Sunday Telegraph about 4G plans for New Hampshire by Verizon, AT&T and Clearwire (Sprint). This has required a lot of study since I don't understand this stuff too well. (Prediction: I will get at least three emails Sunday from telecom techs pointing out errors/omissions.)


As part of research I went to the International Telecommunications Union site and found the above chart, which (a) demonstrates the unbelievable alphabet soup of acronyms used in technologies (EVDO! HSDPA! TD-SCDMA-LCH-TDD!), and (b) is the ugliest tech-related chart I have ever seen. It looks like it was designed by the folks who make My Little Pony - I swear, it's too garish for MySpace!


So of course I had to share ...




The sound of trees' vascular systems


BoingBoing has a post (read it here) linking to a "bio-acoustician" who has recorded the sound that trees' vascular systems make as they move material up and down the circulatory system - as maple trees are doing right now, much to the joy of syrup makers. From the article:


The xylem and phloem of the tree fill with air to try to maintain the osmotic pressure that's usually produced by the sucking of water up through the roots.  At a certain point the cells burst. Krause adds "When they pop, they make a noise: we can't hear it, but insects can. And when insects hear multiple cells popping, they're drawn to the tree because certain ones are programmed to expect sap. And when the insects are drawn to the tree, the birds are drawn to the tree to eat. it's all a microhabitat formed by sound: The sound of popping cells."  (Incidentally, when the xylem cells pop, they die and form the rings of the tree).  Recordings are made at their natural high frequency (about 47 kHz!) with a hydrophone and then slowed down by about a factor of seven.



No chronic-wasting disease in NH deer


New Hampshire's white-tailed deer population shows no evidence of chronic wasting disease (CWD, sometimes calls the deer/elk version of "mad cow disease"), based on data gathered during the 2009 hunting season, according to New Hampshire Fish and Game. This material is swiped from their press release:


Deer Biologist Kent Gustafson recently received results from a federally certified veterinary diagnostic laboratory that indicate that all the deer tissue samples taken during last fall's hunting season tested negative for CWD. A total of 439 tissue samples were tested.


Chronic wasting disease is a neurological disorder that is fatal to white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk and moose. First found in the Midwest in 1978, it has slowly spread and now exists as close at upstate New York. During the fall 2009 deer hunting season, New Hampshire Fish and Game collected heads from hunter-killed deer across the state for testing. The monitoring is part of a nationwide effort, financially supported by USDA-Veterinary Services, to identify areas with CWD. As a result of these efforts, 3,164 deer have been tested in New Hampshire since testing began in 2002. Hunters can legally bring back only deboned meat, antlers, upper canine teeth and/or hides or capes with no part of the head attached from places where CWD has been detected.


The World Health Organization has concluded that there is no evidence that people can become infected with CWD. Current information suggests that CWD is most likely transmitted by an abnormal protein present in the nervous system and lymphatic tissue of infected animals. These abnormal proteins are very stable and may persist in the environment for long periods, posing a risk to animals that come into contact with them.


For more information, visit the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department site.


Additional information on the disease can be found from the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance at .



No tritium in river from power plant, Round III


The  New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS)  says a third set of water samples taken from the Connecticut River near the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in  Vernon,  Vermont, again found "no  tritium in excess of the lower limit of detection  for  the laboratory equipment. "


"We  are  reassured  that the test samples continue to show for all intents and  purposes  no tritium in the Connecticut River," said Dr. José Montero, DHHS  Director of Public Health. "We are planning to continue testing river water  samples  on  a weekly basis at least until the end of this month, at which  time we will reassess our plan based on circumstances at the Vermont Yankee Plant."


Three rounds of samples were collected from the Connecticut River above and below the power plant to test for tritium in response to the leak detected by Vermont Yankee officials back in January. All samples were below the 500 pCi/L  level,  which  is  the lower limit of detection of the Public Health Laboratory  testing equipment. Vermont Yankee officials continue to work to fix the leak.


DHHS'  Division  of  Public Health Services routinely collects and analyzes hundreds  of  environmental  samples each year around the 10-mile emergency planning  zones  of  both  VY  and Seabrook Station nuclear power plants to monitor  air,  soil,  ground  and  surface water, and plants.  No radiation levels above what occurs naturally in the environment have been found.





The parabola that will make your March Madness picks win


If you're a college basketball fan and a math afficianado, you'll enjoythis Washington Post article about the mathematics of a good shot. A sample:


So if the men's ball were thrown straight down from above - that is, at an angle of 90 degrees to the horizontal hoop rim -  there would be 4.25 inches of free space all around, a comfy margin. But as the angle decreases and approaches the horizontal, the free space for a "nothing but net" shot gets much smaller. At 55 degrees, it's about 2.5 inches. At 45 degrees, it's down to 1.5 inches. And at 30 degrees, it's basically impossible to get the ball straight into the basket.


Free-throw success is also improved by adding a little backspin, which pushes the ball downward if it hits the back of the rim. The North Carolina State engineers calculated the ideal rate of free-throw backspin at three cycles per second. That is, a shot that takes one second to reach the basket will make three full revolutions counterclockwise as seen from the stands on the player's right side.




2009 chart from Concord NWS office

Very cool weather data chart


Visualizing data can be very useful, and I have found a great example at the Web site of NOAA - which handles weather/climate information, so it possesses more data than you can shake a petabyte at. (Check the charts here.)


The above chart shows a year's worth of temperature high/low, precipitation accumulation, and snow accumulation data for the Concord National Weather Service office from 2009 - very, very cool.


Precipitation, for example, was pretty normal until mid-June, then it went bananas (it was a wet, wet month, you may recall) but then total remained normal for the rest of the year (the dark green line stays parallel to the bright green one). Teasing out temperature trends is harder but it seems like it was above average more than below average (average being that lime-green band in the middle).


As I say, very well done.



4G is coming! (Whatever that means ...)


I've got an overview piece in the Sunday Telegraph about how 4G is coming (read it here).


The Twitter-sized version is: Nobody really knows what 4G is because nobody agrees what 3G is, but Verizon, AT&T and Clearwire (Sprint) are spending tens of millions to bring it here anyway - in hopes that you'll eventually get 4+-Mbps downloads over the air from them, instead of over wires from FairPoint/Comcast.


ADDENDUM: I'm disappointed:  I thought the comments section of the article would be full of geekoid debate about Mpbs and time-division vs. code-vision multiple access ... but all it has is people complaining about their cell-phone coverage. BORE-ing.




Monstrous gamer convention coming to Boston


PAX East 2010 is coming to Boston in a week - as many as 60,000 people might be part of it, claims Mass High Tech in this story. PAX stands for the Penny Arcade Expo, a name taken from what may be the most successful Web-only comic, about a couple of gaming geeks, or perhaps geeky gamers.


The event includes several independent computer-game companies (here's a list, which includes a game called "AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! — A Reckless Disregard for Gravity"), as well as the big guys.


The panels sound much more entertaining than panels at scientific conventions, including one called "It's Got A Good Beat, And I Can Kill Zombies To It" and one that is described thus:


How young is too young for The Hobbit? What should my kids' first LEGO set be? How can I control my disgust if my child tells me he likes Jar Jar and the Ewoks? When should I buy my kids their first non-six-sided dice? These questions and many more will be discussed by writers for's GeekDad blog and other geek parents.


It starts Friday and runs through next Sunday.



Nuke plant tritium leak found


ADDENDUM: Big, follow-up story from Burlington Free-Press is here


A little robot in a concrete pipe has found the source - or, maybe, a source - of the tritium leak that has been plaguing Vermont Yankee,reports the AP. From the story:


Among the pipes housed in the concrete enclosure were two connected to Vermont Yankee's advanced off-gas building, where impurities are removed from steam so it can be condensed back to water and routed back for another trip through the reactor. The pipes were connected to two redundant systems, meant to back one another up. Both deteriorated during the plant's 38-year life and leaked. That should not have been a problem if the second failure had not occurred. There was a drain in the bottom of the concrete enclosure to catch just such leaks and send any liquid coming to it to be processed. Concrete dust from the enclosure's construction or from a later retrofit mixed with water formed mud that plugged the drain.


As I've mentioned before, New Hampshire has been testing the Connecticut River, which is used for cooling water by the plant, andsays it has not found any tritium levels higher than background levels. (New Hampshire owns the entire river; the state border is on the Vermont side, rather than in the middle.)





Maine lake has earliest "ice-out" on record (136 years)


No long-term climate claims here, one way or the other, but the Portland Press-Herald reports that Lake Auburn had "ice-out" on Monday, meaning the lake is virtually clear of ice. That is eight days -eight days! - earlier than the previous record:


"Since 1874 the water district has been keeping track of the date the lake opens for boating. Ice didn't clear from the lake until May 14 that year, which remains the record for the latest ice-out date."


Meanwhile, on Lake Winipesaukee, there's a slight chance that "ice out" (meaning the lake cruiser ship can go from port to port) will be declared before April 1. If so, it will be the first time since 1946 and only the second time on record. The full list of ice-out dates is here.



Two-person Segway at China auto show


From the Union-Leader (read the whole article here; it's got a video demonstration):


Segway joined General Motors on the stage in Shanghai today to unveil a two-passenger, Segway-powered vehicle that can drive itself, turn on a dime and communicate with others like it to avoid collisions. ... The new vehicles grew out of Segway's partnership with GM on Project PUMA (Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility), announced last year.


Here the Reuters story, which doesn't even mention Segway. It emphasizes that this is a concept car, not anything with a production timeline.


Here's an auto-geeky story from Motorauthority, which says the vehicle weighs about 1,100 pounds and has an estimated range of 25 miles on a battery charge. It was designed in Australia, using Segway's drivetrain platform. (ADDENDUM: Here's Scientific American's take: "The EN-V resembles more an enclosed pedicab—minus the bike—than it does a car.")


No Dean Kamen at the announcement, so far as I can tell. Segway, you'll recall, was bought by UK investors in January. It has not announced any plans to leave Bedford.



NH's only collegiate flight program to end


Daniel Webster College in Nashua, which got its start as New England Aeronautical Institute, is ending its flight program. (Telegraph story here.) This was the only degree program that includes flight training in the state, and one of the few in the country. Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts has the only equivalent program in New England.


DWC was bought by for-profit ITT Educational Services last year, and rumors have flown since then that the flight program was a money-loser. It can't have been helped by the slow decline in general aviation.


DWC's students have long contributed to Nashua Airport's reputation as the second-busiest in the New England in terms of takeoffs and landings. It's going to get a lot quieter, I imagine.





Sugar mapling fades as red tide blooms


Ah, the signs of spring: Blooming dinoflagellates along the coast making bivalves inedible, and warming temperatures causing maple-tree sap to stop running.


Maine has just issued its first red-tide warning of what many predict will be a bad season (story hereMass. has a good red tide fact sheet here).


The mild winter is putting an early end to New England's maple sugar season, reports AP. That might be a tad embarrassing, because this weekend is Open House time for sugar shacks in all three states, asthe NH Maple Producers Association page notes. If you've never visited a sugar house, you should - they're not exactly high-tech, but it's still fascinating to see the intricate evaporation systems that have been developed over the centuries.





No 'cell phones may cause brain cancer' warning for Maine


The Maine Senate and House have killed a proposal to put warning stickers on cells phones warning that they may contribute to brain cancer - an assertion that has little or no evidence to support it.  Here's the AP storyhere's some background.)



Earliest ice-out on record for Lake Winipesaukee


Ice-out was declared March 24 on the state's biggest lake. As this chart shows, this is four days earlier than the previous earliest ice-out for records that date back to 1887.


ADDENDUM: I did some simple calculations using that above chart, calculating the average ice-out date per decade (ignoring the incomplete 1887-1890). With rounding, here's what I found:


Ave. ice-out - Decade

Apr. 23 - 1890s

Apr. 18 - 1900s

Apr. 23 - 1910s

Apr. 18 - 1920s

Apr. 22 - 1930s

Apr. 17 - 1940s

Apr. 17 - 1950s

Apr. 23 - 1960s

Apr. 23 - 1970s

Apr. 17 - 1980s

Apr. 16 - 1990s

Apr. 16 - 2000s


So the last two decades have seen the earliest ice-out at Lake Winnipesaukee, on average, since records began - although not by much. (Note: I ignored Leap Years when calculating days of the year, since they are almost evenly spread out by decade.)


I'm not sure how significant this is, since the declaration of ice-out is somewhat subjective. Any sweeping conclusions about long-term patterns have to note the warm 1960s and '70s, which show how much it can change.


It's funny how no decade had an average date of April 19, 20 or 21, isn't it? You'd think the dates would be more evenly spread out - but then again, that's just the sort of error that people make when "eyeballing" numerical patterns and drawing conclusions.




Graphic display about Vermont Yankee tritium leak


The Keene Sentinel online is hosting an excellent graphic showing how tritium leaked at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. Check it out here. It comes from Entergy Nuclear, the company that owns the plant, so it should be approached with caution, but it's still quite interesting - although it would be more interesting if the audio was working, which it isn't for me at the moment.




Is the coyote the new wolf (and other modern environmental questions)


John Harrigan is a North Country journalist of considerable repute, whose weekly column in the Union-Leader is often worth perusing. Today (read it here) he ponders the role of the coyote in today's New Hampshire environment, noting that it is changing from its varmint role:


There's a growing sentiment that our larger Eastern coyote is occupying a legitimate niche left vacant by the wolf, and thus belongs here. This extends to the conclusion that the coyote has every right to its share of the wildlife pie, and should not be persecuted.


He also notes that the state may ban deer-feeding, a "feel-good" activity that is bad for the deer, making them spread parasites, get too close to roads, "and it puts them in predictable proximity to free-running household dogs, which already may do more damage to the deer population than coyotes do."




Gaming convention was too big for Boston


According to this Boston Globe story, the sold-out PAX East 2010 was too big for the Hynes Convention Center, anyway.


"I think the city is a little bit taken aback by how big this is," said Curt Schilling, former Red Sox pitcher and cofounder of the video game design company 38 Studios LLC of Maynard. "I don't think they were expecting this."


Yes, that's right - even at a video-gaming convention, the Globe quoted a Red Sox player.



$66 million "middle-mile" broadband plan for NH


A collaboration of public and private organizations is seeking $66 million to help build a "middle-mile" fiber optic network around the state, to increase broadband expansions.


The proposal was made to the National Telecommunications & Information Administration's Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (NTIA BTOP) to fund  broadband expansion in New Hampshire. From the UNH press release:


The proposal, submitted on behalf of Network New Hampshire Now by the University of New Hampshire, calls for building a middle-mile fiber optic network that will connect homes, businesses and community organizations . NTIA will decide by late summer whether to accept the proposal.


The NNHN project would expand broadband in all 10 counties in New Hampshire in three ways. First, existing middle-mile fiber from the Seacoast, across to the southwest, up to the northwest, on to the North Country, and through the Lakes Region will be expanded and new fiber will be put in place. Second, an innovative model called FastRoads will be implemented to provide fiber optic connectivity in communities, starting with Rindge, in the southwest near the Massachusetts border and Enfield in western New Hampshire. Finally, the project includes the construction of a middle-mile microwave network for public safety, public television and mobile broadband communications on mountaintops across New Hampshire.


In addition to UNH and DRED, NNHN partners include the Community Development Finance Authority, all University System of New Hampshire institutions, the Community College System of New Hampshire, the Keene Municipal Broadband Committee, Southwest Regional Planning Commission, North Country Investment Corporation, town managers in Hanover and Keene, state legislators, and telecommunications vendors.


"The middle-mile fiber network is seen as a major opportunity for economic development. In particular, the network designed for New Hampshire has openness as its core purpose – it will enable affordable choices for all providers to reach areas of the state that have been difficult to service," said George Bald, commissioner of the state Department of Resources & Economic Development (DRED), one of the collaborating partners involved in the grant application. "The Network New Hampshire Now proposal puts the state on par with international fiber optic broadband capacity and capability."




Record rainy months all over


UPDATE: The Telegraph's weather guru, Doug Webster, says Nashua will probably break its wet-March record, but is at least four inches behind its all-time wettest month - October 2005. Concord, site of the state's official National Weather Service office, is nowhere near a record, since this month's rainstorms haven't gone terribly far north.


The Weather Channel says rain from yesterday to tomorrow - as much as 3 to 6 inches when all is said and done - will set a  number of rainfall records in New England, including:


Boston wettest March on record - previous record (11.00") stood from 1953. This will also be one of the 5 wettest months ever in that city.


Providence, R.I., will set a new March record, and this may go down as the city's wettest month of all time.


Portland, Maine, which is likely to be hit hard by the tail end of this story, may set a new March rainfall record, topping a record that has stood since 1953, just like Boston.


No news on any records in New Hampshire, but I can't believe something won't be set. It's wet, wet, wet



Count reptiles, don't imprison them


Being rare doesn't mean being invisible, it seems: 259 volunteers in the state's Reptile and Amphibian Reporting Program saw more Blanding's turtles than any other species, even though Blanding's is endangered.


Blanding's turtles may have been highly reported because of media publicity regarding this species, according to Michael Marchand, a biologist with Fish and Game's Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program. Their large size and movement patterns, which make them visible in residential areas and along roadsides, may also have been factors, Fish and Game reported.


New Hampshire Fish and Game Department has released new data on reptile observations made in the state during 2009 through RAARP. Among the most common reported species were: Blanding's turtles (73 sightings) milk snakes (55 sightings) wood frogs (35 sightings) spotted salamanders and Eastern newts, which tied with 28 reported sightings each. (Alas, no timber rattlers - NH's only poisonous snake.)


Since 1992, the Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program at the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department has coordinated a volunteer-based program through which people report sightings of reptiles and amphibians found throughout the state. A total of 8,208 records have been collected since the RAARP program began.


"The information people provide helps biologists determine the distribution of species in the state. Verified reports of rare species are quite helpful in identifying where existing populations are located and in assessing conservation actions," said Marchand.


This year, biologists are asking RAARP volunteers to help fill in gaps in the data for several seldom-seen reptiles and amphibians. Priorities for documentation this year include: Fowler's toads, Northern leopard frogs, mudpuppy salamanders, blue-spotted and Jefferson salamanders, Eastern box turtles, musk turtles, wood turtles, spotted turtles, Blanding's turtles, Eastern hognose snakes and black racer snakes.


If you want to help - and it sure beats being a goofball who buys rare reptiles/amphibians - check out





Cram the entire U.S. into New Hampshire!


If the entire US lived with the population density of Brooklyn, N.Y., we could all fit into New Hampshire.


Or so claims this post, found at the delightful Strange Maps site.



NH's Baer (video games), Easton (GPS) in Inventors Hall of Fame


The National Inventors Hall of Fame has added Ralph Baer of Manchester, who developed Magnavox Odyssey, the first home video game, while working at Sanders Associates in Nashua, and Roger Easton of Canaan, who developed the GPS satellite naviation system while working for the Naval Research Lab, in its latest induction ceremony. Dean Kamen, you won't be surprised to hear, is already in the hall.


Baer and Easton went down to D.C. together six years ago when both received the National Medal of Technology from Pres. Bush (which Kamen has also received).


I have interviewed Baer several times over the years (here's his Web site). I talked to Easton by phone yesterday and will be writing more about him for my next Telegraph column. he doesn't have a Web site, but he does have a wikipedia article.



April 2010

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Does buying "green" stuff turn you into a jerk?


This paper in Psychological Science (read it here) has one of the oddest bits of sociological research I've seen in a while:


We found that mere exposure to green products and the purchase of such products lead to markedly different behavioral consequences. In line with the halo associated with green consumerism, results showed that people act more altruistically after mere exposure to green products than after mere exposure to conventional products. However, people act less altruistically and are more likely to cheat and steal after purchasing green products than after purchasing conventional products.


Why? Because, the researchers say, you feel so warm and fuzzy about buying ecologically superior stuff that you feel it gives you license to be a jerk afterwards, as a sort of weird balancing act:


People tend to be strongly motivated to engage in prosocial and ethical behaviors if their moral self is threatened by a recent transgression; they are least likely to scrutinize the moral implications of their behaviors and to regulate their behaviors right after their moral self has experienced a boost from a good deed. This implies that virtuous acts can license subsequent asocial and unethical behaviors.


All this is based on a 5-minute survey and a couple experiments with a few dozen college students, so I wouldn't go overboard with it. But it's certainly intriguing, and backs up the stereotype of the obnoxiously self-righteous Prius owner.





Two charged in Gene Mallove's murder


I see in the Union-Leader (read it here) that two Connecticut men have been charged in the long-unsolved murder of Eugene Mallove, the cold fusion advocate, who lived in Pembroke. The story doesn't give a motive for the killing. Here's a more detailed story from The Day in Connecticut, which also doesn't give a motive but says more arrests are possible


Mallove was killed May 14, 2004. He was cleaning out a rental house at his mother's home in Norwich, Conn. Police arrested two men and said they killed him during a botched burglary, but that case fell apart and led to them asking for the public's help a year ago.


Mallove's participation in fringe areas of research, including the high-profile fight with hot-fusion researchers that led him to quit his job as chief science writer at the MIT news office, has led to some goofy conspiracy theories about his death.


Mallove wrote "Fire from Ice" about the whole cold fusion situation, but his legacy is probably best seen in Infinite Energy magazine, which he founded and ran out of Pembroke. (I first wrote about it and Mallove back when the magazine was still called Cold Fusion.) It is still going strong, examining various types of fringe scientific theories.



Obama offshore drilling plan protects Georges Bank


Here's a regional angle from a national story that I hadn't thought of:Pres. Obama's surprising decision to open up offshore drilling for oil and gas continues to protect Georges Bank, the fisheries-rich area on the far side of the Gulf of Maine. Here's a story from Foster's Daily Democrat.


(Spotted via NHBR)



A look at the Mars rovers


I meant to promo this earlier - but hey, it doesn't start for three hours, so there's still time to head to Concord!


Andy Stone from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory will talk about at the Mars Expeditionary Robots - i.e., the rovers! - in a 7 p.m. talk at theMcAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center on April 2. I think it requires the usual fee ($12 adults, $9 children). Afterwards there will be a free Skywatch telescope-using session with the New Hampshire Astronomical Society.





Geocaching and Easter egg hunting - a natural fit


This seems so obvious, I'm surprised I hadn't heard of it before: Mixing geocaching and Easter egg hunts. This is an AP story from Colorado, but it could work anywhere:


Organizers will hide 12 large buckets of eggs in Boulder Junction Winter Park in a variation on geocaching, a popular outdoor activity where people use GPS coordinates to hide items and post their locations online. Egg hunters will get GPS coordinates of the stashes to program into their device.


Geocaching hasn't quite lived up to its initial hype, which made it seem as if it would become the new national family pastime, but it's going strong a decade or so after it started (which happened after GPS achieved its current accuracy when they turned off the "selective availability" feature that had dumbed it down at the request of the military). lists more than 5,000 of them in New Hampshire, which is nothing to sneeze at.





Storing wind power in ceramic bricks


Portland Press-Herald's Tux Turkel has a story in the Sunday paper (read it here) about a test program on a couple of Maine islands to store excess energy from wind turbines in ceramic bricks, then release it as heat when needed.


Basically, when the turbines are producing more power than the island needs, rather than sell it to the mainland they heat up thermally dense bricks inside commercial heating units. These release the heat later, displacing the need for expensive kerosene or other fossil-fuel heaters. They're using "off-peak heaters" from Steffes Company, which makes a whole slew of them in various sizes and shapes, for commercial and residential. The devices are designed to use traditional grid power in off-peak hours, thus saving money, but this application seems perfect. It's an example of the sort of cost-reducing effort that is needed to make wind/solar financially sensible.





Another wind farm proposed in NH

Iberdrola, the Spanish wind-power giant that owns and operates New Hampshire's only wind farm (Lempster Mountain), is proposing a 48-megawatt farm, with 24 turbines, in the North County. That's twice the size of Lempster.Here's the Union-Leader story: "If approved, construction could begin in the later part of this year, with a commercial operation date of December 2011."


I have, of course, added this proposal to my Google map of alt-energy items around the region, a screen shot of which you can see here.


Also, Stetson Wind in Maine has completed its upgrade, to 82 megawatts. I've updated that on the map, too.



UNH report: Warmer climate means more serious rain storms


From UNH News Service: Confirming what most people in the Northeastern United States are seeing out their windows and "consistent with projections of climate change associated with global warming," a new study of precipitation in the region over the last 50 years indicates an increasing trend of heavy rain events.


The report notes that several detailed studies published in peer-reviewed literature conclude that the recent changes in precipitation patterns around the globe are due to an increase in global temperatures driven by enhanced levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which come from the burning of fossil fuels and land use changes.


"Warmer temperatures lead to greater evaporation rates and allow air to have a higher capacity for water vapor, leading to a more active hydrological cycle. Because more water vapor is in the air, when the air rises and cools due to expansion under lower pressure, more water vapor gas is available to condense into liquid to form clouds and ultimately rainfall," states the report.


Conducted by the University of New Hampshire's Carbon Solutions New England (CSNE) and Clean Air-Cool Planet (CA-CP), "Trends in Extreme Precipitation Events for the Northeastern United States 1948-2007" details precipitation data from 219 National Weather Service cooperative stations in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Read the report here.


The new report is an update of "Indicators of Climate Change in the Northeast 2005" by CA-CP and Cameron Wake, a research associate professor at the UNH Complex Systems Research Center and director of CSNE. The update is based on Master of Science thesis work conducted by UNH graduate Susan Spierre, and Wake.


Says Wake, "One of the key challenges for this study was to identify the best possible precipitation data sets to analyze. We spent considerable time and effort to ensure that was the case."


The report concludes that "all of the definitions for quantifying extreme precipitation events (frequency of accumulation, the 99th percentile of events, or recurrence intervals) indicate that the occurrences of these events, and the intensity of rainfall, are increasing" in the region. The report indicates annual precipitation also showed "predominantly positive increases from 1948-2007, with the most significant increases occurring most recently."


The increase in extreme precipitation events and in annual precipitation is occurring primarily during the spring and fall.



Pricing "smart meters" is harder than making them


Connecticut Light and Power has New England's most aggressive program for installing "smart meters," as a way to upgrade the grid. One of their main advantages is to allow different pricing at different times of day, encouraging people to spread out their usage and reduce the need for peak power production, which is the most expensive and often the dirtiest (e.g., oil-fired jet-engine-like turbines that can fire up quickly) and which leads to the development of more power plants.


But changing the way we pay for electricity is not easy. This GreenTech media story notes that in a test, the company (owned by Northeast Utilities, which also owns PSNH, New Hampshire's biggest utility) charged $1.60 per kilowatt-hour during critical peak time. That is10 times their price of off-peak pricing, which is already higher than most of the country, and will almost certainly lead to lots of debate. In California, a similar peak-pricing attempt by PG&E has encountered stiff opposition.


As CNet puts it: "Utilities are wary of consumer reaction to smart grid."


It's a complicated process setting electricity rates even with a dumb grid; changing the technology is going to make that much, much harder.





Looking at pictures of sick people makes you healthier


Nothing local this morning that I can find, so let's contemplate this intriguing article in Pscyhology Today about a weird study: "it appears that merely looking at people who look sick does help your immune system prevent you from getting sick yourself."


The study by researchers at the University of British Columbia (read the PT article here) took blood samples from young adults who looked at slide shows. The white blood cells of the group that saw slides of obviously sick people produced more interleukin-6 (IL-6), "a proinflammatory cytokine that white blood cells make when they detect microbial intruders" than the other group. In other words, "the researchers were able to determine whether seeing pictures of disease-y people actually stimulated the immune system to fight infection more aggressively. And it did."


This wasn't just a factor of stress, either' the sick photos were judged less stressful than the other group by the students - the other group included things like pictures of people with guns.


The human mind - it is a weird, weird thing. No wonder homeopathy and other silly stuff actually works sometimes!

(Spotted via BoingBoing)



Heavier rainstorms are consistent with warming world


"Extreme precipitation events" - meteorology-speak for more than 1 inch of water falling in 24 hours, either as rain or snow - has become more consistent throughout the Northeast over the past half-century, a result that is consistent with what could be expected in a world warmed by greenhouse gases, according to a new study. Here's the AP storyYou can read the report here, just click on the PDF link.


UNH associate professor Cameron Wake, a familiar name to those who have followed meteorology research in the region, isn't making a direct link between specific storms and warming, but noted that a warmer world has more energy to evaporate water, creating more water vapor in the air. From the story:


The study examined precipitation data from 219 Weather Service reporting stations in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont from 1948 to 2007. In all but 18 of the stations, "extreme precipitation events," defined as storms that produced at least 1 inch of rain over a 24-hour period or the water equivalent of snow, are occurring at a more frequent rate.





Study: NH tops in percentage of jobs lost to China


Here's the Union-Leader story about the report from the Economic Policy Institute, and here's the report. From the story:


An estimated 16,300 jobs were shifted to China between 2001 and 2008, about 2.35 percent of the total job market. …


Ross Gittell, professor at the University of New Hampshire's Whittemore School of Business and Economics, has research that also shows a big loss of high-tech jobs in New Hampshire, especially in the early part of the last decade. Companies making computer parts and electronics benefited from the Y2K scare and the boom in cell phone use, said Gittell.


After 2000, some of the demand in technology began to wane, the economy lagged and companies looked to move their manufacturing to countries with cheaper labor, he said. "We had thousands of employees at single facilities, and those jobs went away and they didn't come back, but they didn't come back just because of China," said Gittell.


New Hampshire has since managed to maintain economic stability because of growth in other areas, such as the retail, hospitality, and financial service industries, he said.



New Hampshire's Foucault pendulum


I didn't realize that Dartmouth College has a Foucault pendulum - a swinging pendulum over 70 feet high, with  a bob weighing 260 pounds, that takes 34.7 hours to complete its rotation around a compass on the floor and thus demonstrate the Earth's rotation. Yet it's been there since 1974, as I learned from this "Ask Dartmouth" item spotted via … (I hate to admit it) … Twitter.


Here's a good site explaining how these pendulums ("pendula"?) work.





Hello, my name is Andrew Sylvia, i'm one of David Brooks' fellow writers at the Nashua Telegraph and a new contributor here at Granite Geek.


Since this is a Science blog, I figured I should share the link that I always think about when I think of science in the 21st Century.


And since this is also a New Hampshire blog, I figured I'd put forth a few New Hampshire related stats up to that part in that Youtube video about the Indian students, how they've got more honor students than we have students in total.


Well, according to the New Hampshire Department of Education the state of New Hampshire has slightly over 190,000 students, or about20,000 fewer studentswho recieved a Bachelors of Arts with honors in 2005 according to the Indian Department of Higher Education.


When it comes to the honor roll college grads in technical and scientific fields from that year, the number triples.





Biocontrol (a voracious beetle) shows hope against hemlock pest


The Worcester Telegram has an update (read it here) on research into developing a biological control against the hemlock wooly adelgid, a particularly nasty invasive bug that is threatening the region's hemlock trees.


Mausel is encouraged that research to date shows that Laricobius nigrinus, a beetle not much larger than a poppy seed, is killing off the adelgid. Equally important, it has a taste only for the aphid, which is visible as a white, woolly mass on the underside of hemlock needles.


And what gives Mausel increased confidence is finding the beetle alive and well in test plots where it had been released. In Wendell State Forest, 150 beetles have been released the past two years.


The article includes a good amount of caution, however, noting that biological controls are never the final answer: "Like the gypsy moth, the hemlock adelgid will never be completely eradicated. The best we can hope for is to bring it into some kind of balance within the ecosystem, much the same as in its native Japan."


Here's a good site about wooly adelgid in NH.


AND SPEAKING OF INVASIVE SPECIES: Massachusetts wants to expand its program that is trying to keep zebra mussels from spreading (Berkshire Eagle story here) "The Zebra Mussel Task has recommended increasing from two to six the number of state-funded boat ramp monitors being stationed at seven local lakes and ponds. The monitors ensure watercraft being launched are free of the destructive mollusk and educate the public about keeping their boats clean.



Vegans should eat oysters!


I am not a vegetarian but as time goes on I find myself eating less meat for health and cost-saving reasons, and I must admit the environmental argument against eating meat is very solid. (It takes tons of land, water and energy to create an edible animal; eating the plants that the animals consume is far more efficient.) Going all the way to vegan-ism seems excessive - they won't eat honey, for crying out loud! - but who am I to say?


With that in mind, I found this piece from Slate titled "It's OK for vegans to eat oysters" quite interesting: It argues that oysters, unlike other bivalves like mussels, let alone factory-farmed fish, can be harvested in large numbers without harming the environment. It also does a nice job discussing the issues involved:


When I became a vegan, I didn't draw an X through everything marked "Animalia" on the tree of life. And when I pick out my dinner, I don't ask myself: What do I have to do to remain a vegan? I ask myself: What is the right choice in this situation? Eating ethically is not a purity pissing contest, and the more vegans or vegetarians pretend that it is, the more their diets start to resemble mere fashion—and thus risk being dismissed as such. Emerson wrote, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."





Could our greenhouse-gas law be undone by federal law?


The Boston Globe has a story today (read it here) that, while couched in lots of conditional terms and maybes, says that federal climate bills may weaken the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative that 10 Northeast states have been operating under for more than a year. From the story:


Some states, Massachusetts among them, have policies already more ambitious than the one contemplated on the federal level. Key to state officials' concerns is language that could force such states to scale back their policies to match the federal law.


Fourteen senators, including six from New England; all New England state environmental protection chiefs; and four New England state attorneys general have signed onto letters urging the Senate … to ensure states retain some authority to enact clean energy programs.


As you may know, the Obama Administration was talking about making a federal version of RGGI - a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions from industries and utilities - but has largely scrapped the idea because of political and industry opposition.


I'm not sure RGGI has done much to encourage electric utilities (the only industry covered by it) to reduce emissions, largely because the recession has slashed electricity use and production, reducing the need for utilities to balance out about the pollution they produce - the price of carbon has fallen almost to the minimum. But it has worked smoothly, providing a good model for how cap-and-trade can operate; it's a shame the country as a whole isn't going to follow suit.



Our coyotes are turning into a ‘top predator'


I've written about coyotes a lot lately, and this Concord Monitor story (here) shows why: They are becoming quite a force in the region's ecosystem. The story profiles a former UNH ecology instructor who now lectures about coyotes and how they are filling the space once filled by wolves:


As coyotes from western states migrated through Canada to New England, they bred with wolves, Schadler said. The resulting animal can grow to 45 pounds - nearly twice as large as western coyotes - and is beginning to hunt in packs.


In driving the wolf from New England, Schadler said, people created an opening for it to return in the form of a far more adaptable hybrid. "That wolf genetic material is now in a form we can't control," she said. "Once coyotes come into an area, there's no getting rid of them."


Schadler's not alone in this opinion, as earlier posts have noted: John Harrigan wonders about itbiological analysis supports it; and maybethe fatal attack of coyotes on a hiker in Nova Scotia is an indication, too.





Testing your Net speeds in Maine


Maine Internet speed test


Maine is launching an interesting project to map Internet speeds throughout the state. That's a screen shot of it above from a test I ran from 1 Main Street in Portland (I assume there's a 1 Main Street in Portland).As you can see, it tests download, upload and latency. It's part of state efforts to expand broadband, a notable but, as we all know, financially difficult goal.


Here's the Press-Herald storyhere's the site itselfhere's the state agency (ConnectME) that's overseeing the project.





Is broadband a "telecom service" or an "information service"?


Pardon a trip into the world of government regulation (can you say "BORE-ing"?) but I'd like to point to a short  opinion piece in today's NY Times, concerning the issue of "net neutrality."


As you probably know, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in a case involving Comcast and AT&T that some the Federal Communications Commission can't force ISPs to give equal weight to all Internet traffic, raising fears that big carriers will give preference to their own content. (Here's the AP story.) Some say this will squelch the government's vague but sweeping plans to expand broadband throughout the country, since profit-minded firms have, understandably, not been all that enthusiastic about expanding into rural/poor areas where there's little profit to be had. The FCC was going to force them to do something, but then the Supreme Court said they have no authority.


So what's to be done? Susan Crawford, a former special assistant to President Obama for innovation policy, argues that a wonky legal change in definitions is all that's needed:


(The FCC) can regain its authority to pursue both network neutrality and widespread access to broadband by formally relabeling Internet access services as "telecommunications services," rather than "information services," as they are called now.  …


The F.C.C. has the legal authority to change the label, as long as it can provide a good reason. And that reason is obvious: Americans buy an Internet access service based on its speed and price — and not on whether an e-mail address is included as part of a bundle. The commission should state its case, relabel high-speed Internet access as a "telecommunications service," and take back the power to protect American consumers.






The Earth is warming and we're to blame


Today my column in the Telegraph moves from Wednesday, the day on which it has run for years, to Monday, for newspaper-logistics reasons rather than anything to do with with content.


For the column I interviewed UNH's Cameron Wake about the certainty of human-caused climate change even when you can't link it to individual events (this year's rainstorms, for example). On the assumption that this might generate some questions, I have accumulated a few links here for those who want to learn more about why scientists are so certain that our fossil fuel use is changing the entire climate  quickly in ways that we mostly don't like:


Wood Hole Research Center: (NOTE: This isn't the Wood Hole Oceanographic Institute, as a commenter below points out; my error in not realizing it!) - An excellent summary of evidence for a warming Earth, for the way greenhouse gases accumulating at unnatural rates, and why the two seem linked.


NOAA "Global Warming FAQ" - kind of dry and cautious, but a clear summary of, among other things, why it doesn't seem that climate change is due to natural causes.


National Science Foundation: "Global Warming Inevitable This Century"  - "the inevitability of climate change results from thermal inertia, mainly from the oceans, and the long lifetime of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere."


NEISA "Indicators of Climate Change in the Northeast" - a depressing collection of data for those of us who love traditional New England winters.


Time Magazine "Case for Global Warming Stronger Than Ever"-  journalism not science, but this March 12 piece on a UK report analyzing recent studies does an excellent job of summarizing the situation.


Finally, something a tad more argumentative, from a site creating to squash global warming skepticism. A good summary of why the usual "it's not true" arguments fall flat: "Skeptic Arguments and What the Science Says."



Google's Boston office is hiring - for very specific skill sets


Xconomy has a piece (read it here) about Google's office in Cambridge, Mass. ("Boston" is close enough for a  headline, right?) It's got "more than 100 engineers and 100 business development staff" and is hiring:


Google Boston is now big enough to have what he calls "end-to-end" responsibility for major parts of the Google product lineup, including the Chrome browser and operating system, the YouTube server and client infrastructure, Google Book Search, and the Google Friend Connect social Web service. …  My impression is that Vinter has been working hard to make sure that Google Boston isn't simply a vehicle for hiring talented New England engineers who don't want to move to Mountain View, but that it builds teams that have a direct impact on Google's bottom line and on the problems the company is trying to solve.



Darpa Fears US Nerd Shortage


Says Wired Magazine
This trend is concerning. Where will the next generations of engineers that will get us to Mars come from? Or perhaps more importantly, who will invent the next Tang?





Trash-to-energy is big in Europe, but not here


The NY Times story (read it here) says that environmental concerns - cue the irony-meter - are keeping the U.S. from following Europe's lead in burning trash to create energy. Instead we pile it in landfills. From the story:


Across Europe, there are about 400 plants, with Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands leading the pack in expanding them and building new ones. By contrast, no new waste-to-energy plants are being planned or built in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency says — even though the federal government and 24 states now classify waste that is burned this way for energy as a renewable fuel, in many cases eligible for subsidies.


One problem, says the article, is that waste-disposal decisions are usually made locally, so that NIMBY factors rule. Also, we have a lot more open land for relatively cheap landfills than Europe does; and then there's a portion of the green movement which says trash-to-energy just provides an incentive to create more trash.


The U.S. is starting to do a pretty good job in tapping methane from landfills and burning it for power - UNH's ECOLine project, which provides something like three-quarters of the Durham campus' energy, is a terrific example.



Would you build a 320-foot-long slide rule?


Several people in the newsroom have forwarded me the obituary of a man named James Reed, who taught school in Hudson. If you're wondering why, consider this portion of the obit:


He even assisted a student build the largest slide rule, gaining admission to the Guinness Book of Records.


It was listed in the 1979 record book, and was almost 321 feet long!


However, according to this site, slideruleguy, that  record was beaten by three feet later the same year, by a group from University of Illinois College


(Speaking of absolutely nothing, a site called the International Slide Rule Museum has a link to the "Nerd Zodiac", which has signs like Cisco the Router and Tux the Penguin. My birthday falls under "Keuffel and Esser, the Slide Rule" - folks who are "known for keeping their cool and never letting on that they're being pulled too far until they reach their limit and abruptly fall apart.")



Anti-invasive-weed stickers required on seaplanes


Boaters in Maine have long had to buy a $20 sticker that says "Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers – Preserve Maine's Waters" both to raise awareness among boaters in hopes that they'll clean up when traveling from waterway to waterway and also to raise money for the state's Invasive Aquatic Species Program. Now the state is requiring them on another vehicle that can inadvertently carry various nasties from place to place: Seaplanes.


From the state announcement (here):


The "Lake and River Protection Sticker" is two parts – one to be attached to the outside edge of each pontoon — and costs $20. It can be purchased through the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife's website,, or at most of the Department's license agents statewide. The Maine Legislature added seaplanes to the existing law in 2009 because of the potential of these crafts to transport and transfer invasive aquatic plants. T






Verizon plans 4G research center in Mass.


As I and many other people have noted before, 4G (as in fourth-generation mobile broadband) is a branding concept rather than a technological term - heck, there isn't even agreement about what 3G means. Still, the idea of IP-based mobile systems with 4 to 10 megabyte upload/download and short latency is intriguing.


Verizon Wireless being the dominant mobile operator around here, and since their switch in technology to from America-centric CDMA to worldwide GSM (underpinning their LTE 4G technology) is one of the most interesting changes in the field, their 4G plans are particularly of interest. So I couldn't help but notice this Mass High Tech item:


Verizon Communications Inc. says it plans to start building a new research center focused around 4G wireless Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology. Verizon Wireless currently is piloting an LTE network deployment in parts of Boston. The new Verizon Technology Innovation Center will eventually house more than 300 scientists and researchers, officials said, most of whom are already working for Verizon in two exisitng buildings at that location, according to spokesman Phil Santoro.


Boston is one of Verizon's LTE test sites.



How many bobcats are in New Hampshire?


From UNH press service:


DURHAM - UNH professor of wildlife ecology John Litvaitis leads a team of UNH scientists that has partnered with New Hampshire Fish & Game Department on a four-year study to learn how many bobcats the state has and where they're roaming.


"It's an animal that a lot of people are very surprised to find out still exists in any abundance in the state," says Litvaitis. Bobcats were hunted (often with dogs) or trapped in New Hampshire – mostly with a bounty paid – until the season closed entirely in 1989. After two decades of protection, Litvaitis says, it seems that the bobcat is back.


Found throughout the continental United States, bobcats are about twice as large as domestic cats and sport a characteristic stubby tail. The carnivorous predators live about six to eight years and have few natural predators other than humans. Bobcats, along with the much rarer Canada lynx, comprise the generic category "wildcats".


The researchers focused their research on a 20-mile radius around Keene. In the most hands-on method, Litvaitis and a team that includes Derek Broman, a master's student in wildlife ecology, enlisted local trappers (hired by N.H. Fish & Game) in the state's southwest corner – an area whose rocky outcroppings and rugged geography have long harbored a significant bobcat population – to trap 12 bobcats during the past several months for detailed study.


Each animal was weighed, measured and examined to determine its overall health; the largest in the study was a 38-pound male. Researchers took small tissue samples that will yield valuable DNA information then outfitted each bobcat with a radio collar that uses GPS technology to track the animals' movements. One use for this GPS data, says Litvaitis, will be to begin to identify corridors along which bobcats generally travel. "We need to start thinking about more connections between the areas we've already protected," he says.


Researchers also aim to estimate their abundance with less direct methods. At the end of March, taking advantage of the early snow melt, Litvaitis led a dozen undergraduates to the Keene area to collect bobcat droppings, or scat, which yields each animal's unique DNA. From that data and existing data, he says, researchers can extrapolate population numbers. The research team is also extrapolating population density from images of bobcats caught by remotely triggered cameras set up on known bobcat paths.


Litvaitis, who has studied bobcats since he was a graduate student at the University of Maine in the early 1980s, says that the resurgence of bobcats in New Hampshire likely has little impact on the ecosystem; they will never reach a density level where they could become a pest the way deer have.


"The bobcat is an obvious emblem of all that's good about nature," he says. "It's an animal that just exemplifies wild. To have it still in our neighborhood is wonderful."


Learn more about Understanding Bobcats in the Granite State, a cooperative project of the University of New Hampshire and New Hampshire Fish & Game Department, at View a video of the researchers trapping and collaring a bobcat at





Pollen season is here - but I haven't noticed it much


I'm probably bringing down the wrath of the Fates by saying this -hubris and all that, you know - but I have hardly been bothered by pollen so far this year, despite the fact that I've read a bunch of stories about how this is a bad season because of the early warmth and rain.


I think this goes to show how pollen is a hyper-local, micro-climate-ish phenomenon. And if I start sneezing tomorrow, I'm going to blame blogdom.



How cool will the Iceland volcano make us this summer?


LATER ADDENDUM: In this 8 p.m. story, an expert says the eruption doesn't seem big enough to affect weather for us, but could cool off northern Europe. The fact that Iceland is so far north also limits the global effect, since less ash makes it to southern latitudes.


The erupting volcano in Iceland - I won't even try to spell it - is emitting so much smoke and ash that flights have been shut down in Europe (NY Times story here). I wonder what this will do to our summer weather - if we'll see a Mount Pinatubo effect?


The fact that the plume goes east due to the rotation of the Earth means we'll get it at its most dissipated, but still, one of the few obvious-causality effects in weather/climate is the widespread cooling effect of volcanic eruptions blocking sunlight - as this NASA fact sheet notes.


ADDENDUM:'s The Big Picture has a bunch of fine photos here.



Turn in your second refrigerator, get $30 - if you act fast


I have a story in the Telegraph today (here it is) about a new program funded by RGGI funds through the state's electric utilities, in which NH residents can get a free pickup of their second refrigerator/freezer, and $30, too. The idea is to get these little-used, power-sucking (they tend to be old, and therefore inefficient) applies off the grid.


I rushed the story into the paper because it was being announced today and I wanted to scoop everybody … but judging from the calls I'm getting, I was almost too fast: Organizers haven't updated their toll-free phone number or the NHSaves Web site yet to confirm that it's open to state residents. "Try them again later today" I've told two people so far, and it's only 9 a.m.



Chiropracters drop libel suit in UK


No local angle here, but in the big picture this is very good news for science: The British Chiropractic Association has dropped its ridiculous libel suit against science writer Simon Singh, who dared to point out how ridiculous some of their health claims are.Here's the item.


It was outrageous from the get-go, which is why I put the "Keep Libel Laws out of Science" bug over there on the right-hand rail. It's wonderful that this is a victory for Singh - a terrific writer, whose "Fermat's Enigma" is as good an example of popular mathematics as you'll find. Let's hope it has a ripple effect to protect science-based truth-tellers everywhere.




Burglar stole Nobel prize in physics


The Boston Herald reports that a burglar broke into the Boston-area home of Harvard prof. Roy Glauber and, among other things, swiped his Nobel prize in physics! Egad.


Glauber may be best known to Boston-area folks as the man who sweeps detritus off the stage of the annual Ig Nobel awards. I don't think any award show in the history of the planet has ever had a more impressive moment than in 2005, when Ig guru Marc Abrahams announced that the janitor wasn't available because he had to go to Sweden to accept the Nobel prize in physics.



Smart car shocks, better antibodies get entrepreneur awards


The New Hampshire High Tech Council has announced two winners of its Entrepreneur of the Year Award. They're intriguingly different start-ups:


Active Shock of Manchester is developing a "semi-active damper technology provides real time control for your suspension system, ending the compromise between performance and ride quality. The patented continuously variable damper valve is controlled by ASI's patented Ride State Aware algorithm that reads sensors embedded in the damper and outputs the ideal force target in real time."


Adimab,of Lebanon, founded by a couple of Dartmouth professors, which is developing a better, faster way to produce immunoglobulin G antibodies.


The awards will be will be presented by the New Hampshire High Technology Council at its 22nd annual awards banquet on Monday, May 10 at the Radisson Hotel, Manchester.



"Web" - is it capitalized? two words? AP says: Sort of


This is the latest update from the Associated Press stylebook. I thought GraniteGeek readers might enjoy it:


website - A location on the World Wide Web that maintains one or more pages at a specific address. Also, webcam, webcast and webmaster. But as a short form and in terms with separate words, the Web, Web page and Web feed. See Web.


Got that? You write "website" but "Web page", and "Web feed" but "webcast"  … ARGH!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Still, I suppose you can't entirely blame AP, because the English language is full of such idiocies. My favorite is "back yard" as a noun and "backyard" as an adjective … or wait, is it the other way around?



Some Random Observations On New Hampshire's Municipal Geography


* Durham and New Durham are in the same county, but Hampton and New Hampton are not.

North Hampton is north of Hampton, but South Hampton is actually southwest of Hampton, not south.

* There are more than three times as many people in Manchester as there are in all of Coos County.

* Hillsborough is in Hillsborough County, Strafford is in Strafford County, Grafton is in Grafton County, but Merrimack is not in Merrimack County, Carroll is not in Carroll County, and Sullivan is not in Sullivan County

* There are only two towns in the state that border two other states, Hinsdale and Pittsburg.

* New Castle, the smallest municipality in the state, would fit into Pittsburg, the largest, 121.4 times, roughly the same surface area ratio between Earth and Jupite



Quote for the day


"My computer can beat me at chess, but I can beat my computer at kickboxing"


-Emo Phillips





The mystery of the missing 320-foot slide rule


As I promised earlier, I've written a follow-up about the missing 320-foot slide rule that was built in Hudson in 1979 and listed in the Guinness Book of Records. It's in today's Telegraph: read it here.  It includes an interview with the current record-holder, in Texas, and an NH man who is part of the Oughtred Society (slide-rule fans) who specializes in oversized slide rules. I couldn't find any photo of the slide rule, though; I'm hoping the article will bring one out.


The latter made an interesting comment that didn't fit into the story: The precision of slide rules (two or three decimal places) was fine for engineers until the Space Age because the materials they worked with couldn't be measured to any greater degree of precision. It was only with the arrival of orbital calculations and other work involved with firing rockets into space that this factor became a real drawback.



Anthrax mystery remains a mystery


As I report in the Sunday Telegraph (read it here), nobody can figure out why a woman got gastro-intestinal anthrax by inhaling a spore during an early December drumming circle. She is the first recorded case in the U.S., and maybe the world, of such a combination.


There was nothing unusual about the anthrax spore ("garden variety" was the term used by the doctor I interviewed) and nothing unusual about the patient's genetics or medical history. Just bad luck, apparently.





NH may expand "net-metering" power law to businesses


NHBR's Bob Sanders reports (read it here) that the state Senate is moving ahead with a plan to expand the "net metering" law, which lets you sell excess power from your home solar/wind array back into the grid, and make it of interest to businesses:

House Bill 1353 increases the limits of the state's three-year-old net metering law tenfold, opening up a law mainly aimed at homeowners and small businesses to much larger companies.


The current law, however, limits the size of generators to 100 kilowatts. The new law allows one-megawatt generators, enough to supply about 200 homes, or a large supermarket or a small factory with electricity.


The development of below-utility-scale, distributed energy production will go a lot faster if bigger companies, with deeper pockets, find it worthwhile to get involved.



Forecast is gloomy for New Hampshire's bats


My Telegraph column today is a depressing* litany of bad news about wild bat populations in the state and the entire Northeast, which continue to be demolished by white nose syndrome. It also has a depressing sidebar about how this is harming the activity of spelunking (i.e., caving). So you've got two reasons to bemoan the state of the world!


Read it here.


*but brilliantly written, of course





A play about evolution at MIT


IT and playwrights don't seem to have much in common, but the ultimate geek school has been trying to link to the humanities for a while. The latest effort is "From Orchids to Octopi," a play about evolution, which is at the Central Square Theater through May2. I


Melinda Lopez, commissioned by the National Institutes of Health to celebrate the 150th anniversary of "On the Origin of Species." Surprises erupt as a muralist's work is derailed by hallucinations, pregnancy, and dinosaurs in this witty take on how we understand - or do not - the theory of evolution. Charles Darwin comments on it all.


Details about the play, which costs from $15 (students on day of show) to $30 (normal human beings in advance), are here. It's part of Catalyst Collaborative, a collaboration between MIT and the Underground Railway Theater. I saw a show there a couple years ago based on Richard Feynman's "Surely You're Joking" autobiography, and it was excellent.



Zap zebra mussels with underwater electrical pulses


The scourge of zebra mussels arrived in Massachusetts last year (here's my most recent posting, from December; now that boating season is starting up again, we'll probably hear more about it soon). These tiny, prolific bivalves have been a real problem in other freshwater areas where they've shown up, driving out other species and reproducing to the point that they've even clogged intake valves for nuke power plants.


The search for an easy way to kill them without wiping out everything in the ecosystem is ongoing. Here's an interesting idea: Create a "sparker or electrical discharge between electrodes in water which produces a shock wave and vapor cavity bubble that disrupts the zebra mussel life cycle." Read a research paper about the possibility.


And speaking of nasty aquatic invasive species, the Vermont legislature is considering a bill to outlaw felt-soled waders for fishermen, in hopes it will slow the spread of "rock snot" from stream to stream. (story here) Felt is hard to clean, which makes it easier for the soles to accidentally carry bits of didymo to the next angling adventure. Many anglers oppose such bans, however, saying that felt soles are much safer because they are less slipper when wet than any other material.





Film studio buys Mass. gaming company


Turbine Inc. in Westwood, Mass., best known for making the "Lord of the Rings" and "Asheron's Call" MMORPGs, has been bought by the interactive division of Warner Brothers, reports the Boston Globe. I suspect that intellectual property was a chunk of it, similar to the way Disney bought Marvel comics: "Acquiring Turbine will give Warner Bros. total control over all future video games based on author J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved Lord of the Rings novels."



The story of the 320-foot slide rule - exclusive!


I've got the whole story of the world-record-breaking slide rule built at Alvirne High School in Hudson in 1979 in today's Telegraph. If you missed earlier tales, knowledge of this construction had all but disappeared until it was mentioned in the obituary of the industrial arts teacher who oversaw the project, piquing my curiosity and leading me to talk to the guy who initiated the project, who is now a nuclear engineer in Virginia.


This is a great example of why being a reporter is fun - you get to poke around in weird stuff.



"Trust leaked away with the tritium"


The NY Times has a long blog post - really, it's an article; I assume it will be in tomorrow's paper - about the effect of the tritium leak at Vermont Yankee and similar problems at other sites. (Read it here) The essence of the posting, which came from a hearing called by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is that tritium isn't a very dangerous radioactive material and that none of the leaks, including Vermont's, have been truly dangerous to the environment. (Five sample sessions taken from the Connecticut River near Vermont Yankee have failed to detect any tritirum, says NH - April 20 press release here.)


The real danger, says the article, comes from the way plant owners have often failed to be open about the leaks, leading to worries about whether more serious problems are being hidden.





Nobel laureate asks: what is space, anyway?, at UNH on April 29


From UNH news service: Frank Wilczek, professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and 2004 Nobel Laureate, will discuss "the new space, how we got to it, and where it points" at the University of New Hampshire in Durham on Thursday, April 29, 2010, at 4 p.m. in the Memorial Union Building Theatre II. Wilczek's talk, part of the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences' Frontiers Lecture Series, is free and open to the public. (Details here, including a map if you hunt around a bit.)


Wilczek describes his talk: "What is space: An empty stage, where the physical world of matter acts out its drama; an equal participant, that both provides background and has a life of its own; or the primary reality, of which matter is a secondary manifestation? Views on this question have evolved, and several times changed radically, over the history of science. Today, the third view is triumphant."


Wilczek, the Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics at MIT, is known, among other things, for the discovery of asymptotic freedom, the development of quantum chromodynamics, the invention of axions, and the discovery and exploitation of new forms of quantum statistics (anyons). When only 21 years old and a graduate student at Princeton University, in work with David Gross, he defined the properties of color gluons, which hold atomic nuclei together.


Wilczek was among the earliest MacArthur Fellows (1982-87) and in 2004 received the Nobel Prize in Physics. He contributes regularly to Physics Today and to Nature, explaining topics at the frontiers of physics to wider scientific audiences. Two of his pieces have been anthologized in "Best American Science Writing" (2003, 2005). Together with his wife Betsy Devine, he wrote a book, "Longing for the Harmonies" (W.W. Norton).  His latest book, "The Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether, and the Unification of Forces" (Perseus) appeared in September 2008.  He's currently working on on "The Attraction of Darkness," a novel mixing science, music, sex, and murder.





Mass. "cash for clunker appliance" program crashes under popularity


Massachusetts was overwhelmed by interest in its "cash for clunker" home-appliance program, designed to get old, inefficient home appliances off the grid. As the Globe reports, the Web site crashed within minutes of launching, forcing a work around. Even so, the $5.5 million program was a sellout: "By noon, the state had allocated 26,566 rebates ranging from $50 to $250, to be used to replace old appliances with power-stingy dishwashers, refrigerators, freezers, and washers."


New Hampshire decided not to do this system with appliances, but are doing it for home heating systems (story here). They say this gives more efficiency bang for the buck, since home heating systems tend to be older than appliances.



Tidal power in Maine … under FDR?


Hope continues to spring eternal for tidal power, particularly on the northern bits of coastal Maine with its record-breaking Bay of Fundy tidal forces. There's an awful lot of energy in that water just waiting to be snagged - but the realities of keeping moving parts working in surging salt water at reasonable cost have kept tidal power from moving past the research and development stage.


Here's my most recent post about an Eastport, Maine, company trying to make it work with underwater turbines.


The NY Times is visiting that company, and as a sort of preliminary item they have a blog post (here) noting that back in the 1930s, when FDR was president, there were efforts to create a different type of tidal power in that very spot, using dams that would be filled daily by the tides. (This site has a good explanation of so-called barrage projects.) It was canceled due to costs and the environmental effects of the dam, but it shows that the lure of getting electricity from tides isn't something born of climate-change fears.



Trying To Find The Average Of Infinity


This week was not a good one for my fantasy baseball team due in part to Cincinnati Reds pitcher Micah Owings.  This week, Owings has an ERA of infinity. For those of you who don't know what an ERA or Earned Run Average is, it is a baseball statistic that calculates how many runs a pitcher would give up throughout a full game. This is done through the following formula…


(Earned Runs/Innings Pitched) x 9


Owings gave up 2 runs without recording an out, but rather than his ERA found by dividing 2 by 0, which would give him a "perfect" ERA of 0.00, it is instead tabulated as infinity, meaning that per the forecasting calculation that an ERA is, theoretically if Owings continued his performance, according to his ERA there would have been literally no end to the amount of runs he would have given up, there would be no number large enough to count that many runs.


The Reds aren't going to get rid of Owings, but the Minnesota Twins did in 1961 when Fred Bruckbauer ended his short career with an ERA of infinity.


Perhaps fortunately, the 1961 Twins like my fantasy team were not given a team ERA of infinity despite the fact that you cannot add infinity to any data set and get an average that is a real number.


Owings had a hot start, but the fact that he has broken the laws of mathematics with his poor start is making me think it's time for me to get a new reliever for my team.



Happy 20th Birthday Hubble Telescope


The Hubble Telescope turns 20 years old tomorrow.


It's produced amazing pictures over the years, but in its early years it was best known for a faulty lens that needed to be fixed.


What's forgotten is that several more servicing missions followed that first servicing mission to fix that initial lens problem.


The fourth mission was STS-109, in March 2002. just a month before Manchester, New Hampshire's first man in space, Lee Morin, went up to help install a piece of the International Space Station





How the PSNH solar array efficiency was calculated


My Telegraph column today (read it here) is a bit of a grab-bag about solar power. In it, I say that I'll explain a couple of items here in the blog because I didn't have room in print. So here goes:


I calculated the efficiency of the 51.3-kilowatt solar installation on the roof of PSNH's headquarters in Manchester because it is connected to FatSpaniel software, which provides remote access to data about solar power production.  (Here's the site - play with it yourself!)


1. From the start of August 2009 (it wasn't online for all of July) through the end of March 2010, we find a total generation of 26,227 kilowatt-hours. Those 8 months had 243 days or 243*24=5,832 hours. So on average, the solar array was continuously producing 26,227/5,832 = 4.5 kilowatts of power, or a bit under 9 percent of its theoretical maximum output.


Of course, this was the worst half of the year: In all of December it generated a feeble 650 kilowatt-hours. In August it generated 11 times as much power.


If nothing else, this quickie calculation shows why utility folks, who are used to coal/gas/nuclear plants that generate 80 to 90 percent of their rated power every hour of the year, aren't too impressed by solar and wind power.


2. One of the interesting facets about the participants in the state's "net metering" program, which allows homes to sell power from alternative-energy systems back to the utilities, is how small wind is faltering.


There are 265 photovoltaic installations with an installed capacity of 787 kilowatts, compared to 35 small-wind operations. Further, wind is fading (so to speak): In the few half year of the program, roughly 20 percent of applications were from home turbines; how it's down to about 13 percent. I suspect this is a sign that people are realizing small (under 5 kilowatt) wind turbines are very hard to position correctly; they can very easily be duds.


Massachusetts, I was told by an official there, has seen the same thing; the only wind power that's succeeding there involves units of 100 kw or more, located near the coast. New Hampshire, obviously, doesn't have much coast (18 miles is the usual figure).



The silliness of being "sensitive" to electronic signals


Slate has a great piece with a great headline ("I tried to sauté my brain at the base of a cell phone tower. It didn't work.") about anti-wireless folks who whip up fears about electronic signals and what they might be doing to our systems. It takes a few shooting-fish-in-a-barrel potshots at "electro-sensitive" hypochondriacs, but also points out that the anti-wireless crowd ignores extensive research and certain basic facts of life in three-dimensional space - the inverse-square law - if they clash with their world view.


That's a depressingly common ability of human beings, and not just anti-science folks; we're all pretty good at selectively filtering evidence to suit our point of view. That's why science exists, in fact - it's an attempt (not great, but the best we've got) to overcome this habit.



Simple Savings


While volunteering at the Life Enrichment Center in Florida this winter, I did the usual miscellaneous jobs that always need doing. My primary responsibility though was to look into possible energy savings. This is important because of the nasty penalty that the local energy company imposes when we go over a defined KWH limit. That amounts to $9.00 a KWH which cost us another $8000 during the month of February.


We have several meeting rooms that use four foot fluorescent lamps. In the main dining hall. We have 56 fixtures with four or two lamps in each. There are 39 tables in the room.


Before making any changes, I used my Minolta lightmeter, calibrated in LUX to measure the light at each table. There was a considerable variation in light levels with several "hot spots" that were much brighter.


There were 24 four lamp fixtures. I removed the inside two lamps from each. Light readings were taken again resulting in much more even light over the room. People who regularly work in the room couldn't tell the difference in light levels. The average light was reduced by 10.6%.


Each lamp is rated at 34 watts and the ballast represents about 50 watts. I conservatively rated the power saved in each of the 24 fixtures at 100 watts. So, we saved 2400 watts or a 30% reduction in power at a cost of zero!


In addition, since the fixture runs cooler, it is expected that the life of the remaining tubes and ballast will be longer. In Florida, this also reduces the air conditioning cost.


Sometimes its the simple things that can make a difference. I went through the same process with our other meeting rooms with similar results. We did some other things that I'll write about later.


Earle Rich…..Mont Vernon, NH



No more Floppy Discs


Sony is stopping production of the 3.5″ floppy disc. I can't say that I'm sorry to see the end of them.


When I bought my first computer that didn't have a disc drive, I bought a USB powered floppy drive, just in case I might need to recover some older files. I think I used it twice. Anyone want it?


Earle Rich…..Mont Vernon, NH



Is The Hadron Super Collider Causing All These Earthquakes Recently?


No? Yes? Huh?


Well, I guess an earthquake is better than a Black Hole or a Time Travelling Bird(he poops on your car before its even there!)





Pellet fuel and biodiesel, expanding slowly


I am going to Manchester today to take a look at HeatNE: Heating the Northeast with Biomass, a conference about making more use of burning wood to reduce fossil fuel usage. So I couldn't help but noticethis story in the Globe, about $3.2 million in stimulus funds helping western Mass. convert from oil-burning to wood-pellet-burning boilers. It tackles the interesting question of whether wood is really carbon neutral - burning it releases carbon but growing new trees re-absorbs that carbon, yet only over the span of decades:


The systems' pollution profile is evolving. For example, the boilers' carbon emissions can be neutralized by the growth of new trees that capture carbon. However, the process of "resequestering'' carbon, as it's known, can take years. So the state energy office is trying to find out how long it takes for pellet boilers to become carbon neutral. That is one of the questions to be tackled in a new study of the environmental consequences of biomass fuels the department has commissioned from Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences in Manomet, Mass. "There's still carbon coming from stack,'' said Breger, of the state renewable energy division. "The issue is, at what rate; over what time frame can we wait for carbon to be re-sequestered?''


And on the topic of alternative fuels, a post on an earlier message asked what had happened to Batchelder Biodiesel, a refinery built in an old Nashua mill building to turn "brown grease" from restaurants into diesel. It is awaiting IRS certification so customers can get rebates; I'll have a story in a day or two.





Mystery biofuel maker gets $30 million


There's a great quote in this Globe story (read it here) about Joule Unlimited in Cambridge, Mass., which just got $30 million in venture capital to fund R&D for its hush-hush method of making diesel substitute by using "an unnamed organism — not algae — that sits in a device similar to a solar panel. The organism consumes sunlight and the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, then sweats ethanol."


Here's the quote, from chief executive Bil Sims:


"The organism is an organism,'' Sims said, declining to elaborate.


If the biofuel doesn't pan out, that man has a future in politics.


The story ends with a terrific summary of the fascinating but all-promise-no-return area of getting fossil-fuel substitutes out of living things:


Nate Gagnon, an alternative energy analyst at IHS Herold in Connecticut, said plenty of investors are paying attention. "There are biotech companies all over the place that are getting money to do this,'' he said. "The big ‘if' is, which one can bring it out of the lab and onto the street in a cost-effective manner?''


Here's an article from Cnet GreenTech, with a cool illustration.



Triangular manhole covers, and my 7-year-old mistake


Nashua has triangular manhole covers, making it virtually unique in a world filled with circular and, occasionally, square manhole covers. I love writing about them, but I just got a phone call from somebody reading a 2003 story on the topic - and he found a geometry mistake!


I wrote "A square manhole cover could fall through its own hole because the diagonal of a square is 40 percent longer than the side. Ditto with rectangles, pentagons, equilateral triangles- all of them have diagonals that are longer than at least one side, which means the lid can be maneuvered down through the hole, and fall."


BZZZZT - wrong! I meant, of course, "isosceles triangles".


That's what so wonderful about the Internet … you can never escape your stupidities.


The story is here, but you need to register with the Telegraph website to see it. Go ahead and register, will you? It helps us sell the site to advertisers and Lord knows we need the money



Globe says Cape Wind offshore wind farm will get OK, the online face of the Boston Globe, says that the Interior secretary will, about an hour from now, give  the thumbs up to Cape Wind off Cape Cod, launching the nation's first offshore wind farm and probably setting the stage for a bunch of multi-hundred-megawatt turbines a few miles offshore up and down the Northeast coastline.



Professional Football Is Better Than A New Hampshire Post-Grad Education After All


Sports Illustrated reports that Graduating UNH Tight End Scott Sicko has changed his mind about forgoing an NFL career to pursue post-graduate studies.


It seems the world will have to wait for a Dr. Sicko, unless he recieves an honorary degree in Special Teams.





College kids race hybrid go-karts!


The third annual Formula Hybrid Competition is next week at New Hampshire International Speedway. It's a version of a long-running college competition in which schools build miniature formula racecars (think FIRST Robotics meets Grand Prix), except the cars are electric/gas hybrids. It's sponsored by Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering. I covered the very first one two years ago, which had a dozen teams, half of whose cars couldn't even run (hybrid cars are more complicated than you think).


This year there are 30 entries, including New Hampshire Technical Institute, Dartmouth and the University of Vermont - a much better showing from the region.


It runs from Monday through Wednesday, May 3-6. along with Dartmouth it's supported by the Society of Automotive Engineers and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, so it's pretty darn geeky. Car nuts crossed with people who think a good argument involves capacitors vs. lithium-ion batteries.



Cool interactive real-time map of power outages


PSNH has created a real-time map of New Hampshire to reflect power outages on a town-by-town basis. It's a nice example of a database-based scripting interface, or something like that. Here it is.


PSNH also has a decent Twitter feed that is used for breaking news.





Don't judge a book - particularly this book - by its cover


The worst sci-fi paperback covers


Nothing of local interest today, so let us admire this website, called Good Show Sir, which features photographs of really, really bad science fiction and fantasy paperbacks. You can't get worse than bad sci-fi cover art - even bad detective story art and bad romance-novel art isn't as bad, because those two are so predictable; bad sci-fi art can go ANYWHERE.


I show you this example (Heinlein's "The Star Beast") because I own it. I hadn't really admired its cover-art awfulness before now, however …


(Spotted via BoingBoing)



Remembering New Hampshire's offshore oil refinery that almost was


The "Katrina of oil spills" spreading in the Gulf of Mexico right now is a reminder that (a) we in New England use a lot of oil, because we heat our homes with it more than any other part of the country, and (b) we almost had a huge offshore refinery at the Isles of Shoals built three decades ago, and if that had happened almost inevitably we would have seen some sort of oil spill by now.


Here's a UNH library link to historic material about the plans. A quick summary:


Greek shipping magnate, Aristotle Onassis and others wanted a massive oil refinery to be built on Great Bay just outside of Durham, N.H. Olympic Oil Refinery's plan was to build the refinery at Durham Point, supply it with the necessary freshwater from Lake Winnipesaukee and pump oil back and forth to the terminal at the Isles of Shoals via a pipeline through Great Bay, Newington, Portsmouth and Rye. The pipeline's final leg would have crossed the ocean floor from Rye to a supertanker terminal at the Shoals. Had Olympic Oil been successful, the 400,000-barrel-per-day refinery would have been the largest built from scratch in the United States at the time.


Of course, fighting that refinery was just another example of NIMBY, since we happily use gasoline/kerosene/etc. refined in other places. If we don't want the unpleasantness associated with turning oil into usable projects, we shouldn't use those products. But that's easier said than done….




May 2010

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How Many USS New Hampshires Equal The Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant?


This week the current incarnation of the USS New Hampshire saw a new commander, and that made me wonder about something.


The USS New Hampshire, the 4th boat to hold the name USS New Hampshire, is a Virginia Class Nuclear Powered Submarine, and New Hampshire is also known for its Nuclear Power Plant at Seabrook, but how do the two compare?


Well, it turns out it would take about 25 Virginia Class subs, or five times more than are currently operating if you include the USS New Mexico, which was commissioned last month.



Heating with wood: More of it, more types of it


I have a long, but hopefully witty and eminently readable, piece in the Sunday Telegraph today about the present and future of biomass, mostly meaning heating with wood. Read it here.


The heart of the story is that while the technical options are expanding widely, cost is still the driver. No surprise there, I suppose.


The story came out of a visit to the HeatNE conference in Manchester, an industry gathering featuring  everything from little pellet stoves to massive industrial wood-chip boilers. The most interesting speaker, I thought, was Christiane Egger, Deputy Director, O.Ö. Energiesparverband (the energy division) for the State of Upper Austria, which is a small part of Austria. They have really pushed biomass, to the point where virtually all new housing is heated with wood exclusively.


Among the things she said: Don't build electricity-only biomass plants; make sure they are cogeneration (i.e., provide heat as well as power) because that's how to make the best use of your trees. Interesting …





The return of bobcats - tracked by cell phone, sort of


The Portsmouth Herald (SeacoastOnline is their Web moniker) has a piece about attempts to delineate bobcats in New Hampshire. Read it here. Here's a nice touch:


As of late last month, UNH faculty and students, trappers and Fish & Game personnel involved in the effort had tagged 12 bobcats, collared them and taken small bits of tissue for DNA testing. The first one collared and tracked via satellite, a male, has moved through primarily wooded areas near the town of Sullivan since being tracked.


Four bobcats are fitted with collars that use cell phone towers to call in their locations five times a day with great precision. While that technology is more convenient for researchers, it is in limited use. The other eight are fitted with collars that will release and fall off the animal in September, to be picked up and the data analyzed after that. The cell phone technology is more expensive.


But yes, "the bobcats have phone numbers," he said.


Those who sight bobcats and wish to report their observations can do so at



Dartmouth: Nation's top tech-tycoon school?


Lists are silly and annoying, and online lists are even sillier and more annoying since you often have to click through all the choices to see the whole list. But lists are fun, too, so let's note that the Daily Beast, an  online news-but-not-much-actual-reporting/analysis site, has a list of "Tech's 29 Most Powerful Colleges" - those that "do the best job crafting technology leaders." (See it here, but be ready to do lots of clicking). Dartmouth tops the list, ahead of Stanford, Princeton, Harvard and MIT.


The list was generated when daily Beast "tabulated alma maters of more than 250 industry tycoons and execs." (How does somebody become a "tycoon" as compared to an "exec", I wonder? Business is so confusing.) In other words, they looked for something that can be easily counted and turned into a list … but I can't sneer; I've used that method to write trend stories myself!


Here's the Dartmouth write-up from the site:


Tech Feature: The Dartmouth Regional Technology Network, a technology incubator designed to help burgeoning tech companies realize their goals and take root in the Northeast.
Alumni Innovation: Not all Dartmouth grads take technology seriously. Steve Russell '58 led the team that developed one of the first videogames, Spacewar!, in 1962.



Just When You Thought You Knew What "Gasoline" Meant


I was poking around the state laws today and I found this under the definition of "Gasoline"


259:37-b Gasoline. – ""Gasoline" shall mean all products commonly or commercially known or sold as gasoline, including casinghead and absorption of natural gasoline, regardless of their classification or uses, and any liquid prepared, advertised, offered for sale, or sold for use as or commonly and commercially used as a fuel in internal combustion engines, which when subjected to distillation in accordance with the standard method of test for distillation of gasoline, naphtha, kerosene, and similar petroleum products (ASTM Designation D-86) show not less than 10 percent distilled (recovered) below 347 degrees Fahrenheit (175 degrees Centigrade) and not less than 95 percent distilled (recovered) below 464 degrees Fahrenheit (240 degrees Centigrade); provided that the term gasoline shall not include commercial solvents or naphthas which distill by ASTM method D-86 not more than 9 percent at 176 degrees Fahrenheit and which have a distillation range of 150 degrees Fahrenheit or less, or liquified gases which would not exist as liquid at a temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit and a pressure of 14.7 pounds per square inch absolute.


….I am interested to see if any gas station attendants in the state of New Hampshire could actually prove on the spot that their gasoline is all of these things.




May 4, 2010


Wood-burning power plant - with greenhouses!


The Concord Monitor has a story today (read it here) about the proposal to turn a Hopkinton trash-burning facility into a wood-burning power plant that would use at least some of the CO2 and latent heat to boost production in 20 acres of associated greenhouses. The greenhouses, claims the developer, is where the money is. Interesting.


Turns out, this isn't a unique idea: Here's a Treehugger story about a 12-MW power plant built primarily to power greenhouses, with excess sent to the grid.


One problem with the Monitor story: It doesn't say how big the power plant would be! Previous plans have talked about 30-35 megawatts, which is pretty good sized for a biomass power plant in New Hampshire.





A "virtual school district" for western Massachusetts


This Globe story (read it here) is a little light on details, but it talks about a Massachusetts school "district" that will be entirely online. It will be run by, a company that specializes in homeschooling and online schooling.


I was much more skeptical of this idea before my wife took an online accreditation course, to keep her veterinary degree. It was much harder and more useful than the CE courses she takes at annual events and conferences! And then there are college level things like MIT's Open Courseware, which basically puts its entire curriculum online for you to play with.


Of course, elementary and high school are quite different than college and post-grade, and particularly for lower grades the socialization element is at least as important as the academic. But still, this is interesting stuff.



Lake monitoring volunteers are wanted


From the NH Department of Environmental Services: Do you live near a lake or pond? Are you interested in collecting lake samples, conducting your own water quality tests and understanding the test results?


Attend the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services Volunteer Lake Assessment Program (VLAP) annual workshop. Participants will learn about VLAP and how to become part of an important program that helps monitor the state's water quality, identify aquatic plants, and utilize lake sampling techniques. Also, workshop attendees will learn more about stormwater runoff and view a pervious pavement demonstration. In addition to the popular lake ecology and aquatic plant identification sessions a special guest will present on warm water fishery management.

Where:    NH Department of Environmental Services,     29 Hazen Drive,     Concord, NH

When:    Saturday, May 15, 2010, 8:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.

Cost:    $5 registration fee at door, pre-registration is required.


For more information or if you would like to attend the VLAP workshop, please contact Sara Steiner, VLAP Coordinator, at (603) 271-2658, or email  Or, register on-line at





Maine power-grid upgrade moves ahead


A billion-dollar upgrade of Maine's power grid, designed partly to provide a way to carry lots of wind power from ridgeline turbines down to southern New Hampshire and the Boston area, is moving ahead, reports the Press-Herald. It's not a done deal - regulatory items like this can take forever - but Central Maine Power has scaled it back a bit, removing some objections about cost.


This would be a system of 345-kilovolt* AC towers, the workhorse of modern power grids, to carry power from near Bangor over to N.H., hooking into existing grids. The story says it has various alternative-energy components:


The settlement would include a provision for CMP to fund various energy-efficiency activities in homes and businesses. Another provision, Davies said, would endorse Grid Solar's concept of using solar electric panels to meet demand on hot, high-demand days, and local alternatives to building new power lines in South Portland and the midcoast.


To my knowledge, this is the second-biggest grid project in the works in New England, beaten only by the plan to run a huge line down from Quebec, to carry hydropower down to the grid in southern N.H. (Recent story here.)


*yes, I originally wrote just "volt" … teach me to slap together a post before heading out in the morning



State Supreme Court protects anonymous Web sources


The state Supreme Court has ruled in a complicated case with a stupid name that in some cases, anonymous Web comments are protected. The Telegraph has run a quickie writeup here and will have more detailed report when we have time to write it! Here's a portion of the full story: (Here's the final story, in Friday's paper.)


The state's highest court on Thursday extended the traditional media's right to protect anonymous sources to the world of Internet bloggers and journalists.


In a First Amendment case that had big implications for the future of online journalism, the New Hampshire Supreme Court said freedom of the press is a fundamental right that extends beyond newspapers and periodicals to any kind of publication that serves as a vehicle for information and opinion.


For the first time, New Hampshire's high court set a precedent for deciding whether websites can be forced to release the identity of online commenters. It instructed lower courts to weigh the media's right to protect sources more heavily than the plaintiff's concerns in lawsuits over defamatory comments made online.


Here's another analysis, from the citizen Media Law Project: "the Court concluded that a lower court's injunction preventing a website from posting a leaked document was an unlawful prior restraint on speech."




May 7, 2010


What happens to your Facebook page when you die?


A good friend of mine died recently (I'll be flying to his funeral soon; not much posting from me this weekend) and his friends from around the world have been commiserating at his Facebook page. Which leads to the question: What happens to it?


It can be turned into a memorial page, if the family wishes. Here's Facebook's blog explaining the process. Basically, they freeze the page, allowing only certain types of comments to be added.


When I realized this I went into reporter mode and emailed a bunch of questions to Facebook P.R. about the process.They couldn't provide any statistics about how many memorial pages exist, although I would suspect the figure isn't small.


The process must be requested by a "family member," although that term isn't nailed down (gay partner?  sister-in-law? best buddy who has posted a zillion comments on the page over the years?). They don't have a set process in place to ensure that the request is legitimate, but take each case as it comes. They also handle it case by case if, say, the widow wants a page memorialized but the parents want it taken down.


Newspapers have history with this sort of thing, of course; we've been running obituaries since forever. Most papers, including the Telegraph, only take obituaries from funeral homes, which sometimes can be an annoyance for families - this is necessary because we have been burned in the past by pranks, fake obits. We have also run into the occasional family feud, where the spouse wants one thing and the blood relatives another - very messy.





Tesla Wind Turbine


Here's a link to a New Hampshire company that has patented another innovative turbine design inspired by Tesla. The power estimation is off by a factor of 100, but that little fact isn't the real issue. Read the comments at the bottom of the Phyorg article for a few little engineering issues.


Earle Rich ... Mont Vernon, NH





Fooling the Consumer (again)


I wrote a previous post about toilet paper rolls being narrower than they used to be. Apparently that wasn't enough of a gain for the manufacturers. Now, if you compare rolls from a year ago, the diameter of the cardboard center is larger. I don't have an old one to compare, but the difference is obvious.


Grumble - grumble . . .


Earle Rich ... Mont Vernon, NH





Nuclear missile or mountaintop observatory - which would you visit?


I had a free afternoon in Tucson, Arizona, this weekend, and faced a choice: I had time to visit either the Kitt Peak National Observatory, one of the nations' great research sites for astronomical viewing, or the Titan Missile Museum, the only remaining launch sile (with missile) of a Titan II nuclear missile from Soviet Cold War days - but not both.


Which would you have gone to?


I visited the Titan, on the thinking that there are other major observatories but this is the only such facility. Here's the Web site. The missile is still in the silo, without propellant or warhead of course, and everything else is just as it was when the site was shut down in 1987.  The other 53 silos (17 others scattered around Tucson - each silo was at least 8 miles from any other - plus 18 in Little Rock, Ark., and 18 in Iowa) were destroyed and the silos "imploded" and covered with rubble.


If nothing else, the control room was a nostalgia feast for 60s-ear government technology, with notebooks full of Dyno label-maker tabs, and everything made of GI-issue grey steel; (some painted light green, to indicate that it operated on 24-volt DC, and therefore would continue to run on batteries even after if first USSR strikes had knocked out power).


One interesting tidbit: The first women to have combat roles in the Air Force were members of the Titan II crew. Another tidbit I had forgotten: Some of the Titans were turned into launch vehicles for the Gemini program.



Examining evolution by manipulating entire islands


New Scientist has an article (here it is) about two Dartmouth researchers doing a real-world experiment manipulating reality to see what it does to evolution - in this case, to some small lizards on some tiny Bahamas Islands. Among other things, they wrapped some islands in mesh to keep out predators, and imported predators on other islands. From the story:


Four months later, the researchers returned to the island and recaptured every remaining lizard, noting which had survived and which died. Larger, longer-legged and higher-stamina lizards had survived better than smaller, wimpier ones on higher-density islands where competition was more intense, they found. However, these traits did not affect the chance of survival in the face of predation. This supports the idea that competition, and not predation, is the primary selective force in these island lizards, says Calsbeek.


If you subscribe to Nature, you can read the paper here.



Holes in snow "promptly filled with deep blue light"


I'm not sure what to make of this posting from Futility Closet, which claims that in 1934 a scientists digging snow on Mt. Washington saw the holes "promptly filled with deep blue light". The posting adds says "no explanation was ever found, and no blue light has been reported since."


Cool, except that this February posting from the Mt. Washington Observatory blog has a photo of what seems to be the same phenomenon. Not so startling



Making Stuff


After being away from home for way too long, I really look forward to being back in my shop again. The biggest problem is choosing a project that is worthwhile and enough of a challenge. After looking at tools offered in my woodworking and turning magazines, I decided to build a small woodturning lathe from scratch. It's purpose is to make pens and pencils from local woods.


Penturning has become a great way for those with limited space to exercise their creative potential and make something useful for holiday gifts and even perhaps make a little cash on the side.


There is a lot of equipment from suppliers being offered, but I wanted to make a tool that included all the features I wanted such as servo controlled speed adjustment, direct drive, digital readouts, industrial switches and interchangeable headstock threads. I already have a wood lathe, two metal lathes and a milling machine, so doing this from stuff on hand wasn't impossible. My usual goal is to make machines and gadgets without ever making a trip to the hardware store. That means that I've always kept my eyes open for potentially repurposed  stuff when visiting our local dump/recycling center.


We are lucky to be close to high tech businesses that have to clean out excess inventory. Employees take this stuff home and then face opposition from wives or just need the space back. Our dump used to have the metal pile out near the entrance. Now though, there is a dedicated container where everything is tossed, making it much more difficult to retrieve the good stuff. Still, a little creative retrieval is possible if you don't mind compromising your dignity.


Back to the project. The base was originally a machine for making wirewound resistors. The motor was part of an old (and large) disc drive. The switch were from a machine for making security lanyards. The transformer part of an industrial oven, wire and hardware miscellaneous salvage and so on. The electronics were also salvaged from wherever. Total cost is zero so far with about a weeks work into it.


I could have bought an equivalent lathe for about $250. But where's the fun in that. I get a lot of satisfaction of making tools. When my wife needs something for her furniture business, I usually whip it out quickly, saving a trip or an order from catalogs.


It turns out that there are more and more people rejecting commercial stuff, making or modifying whatever they need without the constraints of someone elses idea of the right way to do things. MAKE Magazine is enjoying a large increase in circulation because of SteamPunk and Crafts enthusiasts.


What I'm doing isn't unusual. I belong to NEMES, New England Model Engineering Society, a large group of fellow machinists and craftspersons.


These people aren't limited to little models, they make everything you can imagine from musical instruments, electronics gear, 3-D CNC machines, steamboats, scientific instruments and whatever their imaginations can come up with. It is so inspirational being around these people. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, so the cross pollination of ideas given freely is a real boost to creativity.


This is sort of a rambling post, but probably fits the Granitegeek blog requirement. I have a great time with technology, reading about others work and doing a little myself. It's an interesting world out there.


Earle Rich ... Mont Vernon, NH





My car runs on water! (sigh ….)


Foster's has the latest in stories (here) about a "local guy whose car runs on water" - the engine performs electrolysis on water and pumps the resulting "Brown's Gas" into the combustion chambers to increase fuel efficiency. These stories show up every few months; the Concord Monitor ran a particularly naive one last year.


I suspect the reporter (a freelancer, I guess, because it's a "special to" byline) believes that the claim is bogus because he leads the story with the man's UFO story, a lovely way to subtly discredit him. He also tries for a little balance, albeit way down in the story:


The efficacy of this increasingly popular DIY energy solution has been questioned by skeptics like Mike Allen, the senior automotive editor of Popular Mechanics. In a series of recent editorials he explained that because electrolysis requires more energy than the burning of the HHO gives back, the HHO generator system is actually energy inefficient. He also road tested the technology and found that it had no impact on fuel economy.


Baillargeon doesn't agree. "I don't believe it," he said. "All I can say is I'm getting the fuel mileage."


And we all know that self-measured data by people with a financial/psychological stake are always accurate.


A local guy came into the Telegraph a few months ago with the same claim. I told him I'd love to write the story but that I needed to have independent confirmation that his mileage really had improved. He said sure, no problem, I'll get back to you - I haven't heard from him since.


The wikipedia article about "water-fuelled cars" (here it is) includes this excellent explanation:


A common fallacy found in connection with this type of modification is the mistaken assumption that cars generate excess electricity via their alternators that normally goes to waste and therefore is available for electrolysis. The amount of force required to turn an alternator or generator depends strictly on the electrical resistance of the circuits it is supplying, and residual heat lost due to friction. If an electrolysis unit is added to a car, the amperage it draws from the car's electrical system will make the alternator harder to turn, which will put additional drag on the engine. As a result more fuel will be required to maintain the same rotational speed (RPM.).



"Rock snot" leads Vermont to ban felt soles for wading boots


Vermont is on the verge of outlawing felt-soled wading boots, part of an attempt to prevent anglers from inadvertently spreading the slimy invasive weed didymo ("rock snot") from stream to stream. Here's the Free-Press article, which notes that Alaska has already imposed a ban. The problem is that felt is very hard to clean, unlike rubber or other materials, so it's very hard for even conscientious anglers to avoid carrying tiny bits of didymo as they visit various fishing holes.


New Zealand, which has the world's worst didymo outbreak, banned felt soled boots in 2008. This isn't popular with many folks, since felt soles are much less slippery than alternatives, and when you're walking around streams on wet rocks you want all the un-slippery-ness you can get.



NH gets largest solar array


I had to update my alternative-energy map: Wire Belt Co. of America today announced a 99-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system, the biggest in New Hampshire, has been placed atop its Londonderry site, next to the Manchester airport. That's twice the size of the state's two top systems, atop PSNH and Stonyfield headquarters.


The system, built by Nexamp of North Andover, Mass. will offset approximately 20 percent  of total electricity consumed each year at Wire Belt. It is comprised of 473 rooftop PV panels covering 3,784 square feet. The estimate it will produce 106,500 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity per year. Based on the US EPA national average, that will cut C02 the equivalent of taking 14 cars off the road each year, powering 10 average homes for 1 year, or planting 16 acres of evergreen trees per year.


CEO David Greer said the company's goal to it to "cut our ecological footprint by 50% in 3 years," which includes "cutting our waste stream and use of electricity, gas, and water usage in half."


Wire Belt makes open-mesh stainless steel conveyor belting. It describes itself as a 4th-generation family owned business





Tweet-up for the shuttle launch


I've got a piece in the Telegraph today (here it is) about a local guy who's going down to Kennedy Space Center to get a close-up view of the next shuttle launch as part of a NASA 'tweet-up'. He's a Twitter follower of NASA who applied for one of 150 spots and was picked.



Electric-car dealer coming to N.H.


UPDATE: Here is the story in Thursday's Telegraph.


Note from Wednesday: I just got back from test driving a Wheego, a Smart car-ish low-speed electric vehicle that will be sold at a Subaru dealership in Hudson N.H.


The company is really interesting: It's a five-person start-up that buys components and assembles them into a car - and that includes the chassis/body, made by the Chinese firm Shuanghuan, whose car is so similar to Smart car that Mercedes is pissed off. They plan to have a full-speed all-electric car for sale by August; it's currently being crash-tested.If so, they'll beat Leaf and Volt and all the other big-name electric cars.


An interesting business point that I didn't get to in the story: Because electric cars have fewer moving parts than internal-combustion engine cars, they require much less maintenance. Since car dealers get at least half their income from service/parts, that means a switch to electric cars will be financially devastating for them, forcing a rework of the whole car-sales industry.




May 13, 2010


Should you refrigerate batteries?


The ever-valuable takes a pause from debunking political lies (a topic that has, alas, become a big chunk of the site's daily fact-checking) to answer the question: Do batteries last longer if you refrigerate them?


The answer: No. Details are here (including an examination of two other questions I've never asked: Do nail polish and pantyhose last longer in the refrigerator?)



Courtesy The Boston Public Library under a Creative Commons license


A train trip to a 1932 solar eclipse


The Globe has a photo display of vintage travel posters, regarding a show at the Boston Public Library. They're very cool posters, including Art Deco-ish items about the old ski train from Boston up to N.H., but the attached poster is definitely my favorite: A special train to see the 1932 solar eclipse that slashed right through New England.


I believe the next total solar eclipse visible in New England will occur in 2024, although I'm not absolutely certain. If you're an eclipse geek, NASA's Eclipse site is for you!


I was lucky enough to see a total solar eclipse in Tennessee, 25 or so years ago. It was, to coin a phrase, wicked awesome.





Increasing vaccinations by paying for them


Maine has passed a law which will provide free vaccinations for all children. Press-Herald story here:


Outbreaks of whooping cough in Maine are a sign that risks have grown….  Measles outbreaks in other parts of the country and polio outbreaks in other parts of the world are additional reminders that the diseases can return without routine immunizations, advocates say.


The article talks only about making up for federal funding cuts, which have helped reduce Maine's childhood vaccination rates from 84 percent years ago to "about 74 percent," slightly below the national average of 76 percent. It doesn't mention folks who shun vaccines because of mistaken beliefs that they cause autism or other ailments; I wonder how much of a problem that is.


New Hampshire shows that paying for shots works: All regular childhood vaccines are free in N.H., and the latest National Immunization Survey showed that 81% of New Hampshire children 19 - 35 months of age had received the recommended number of vaccine doses in 2008, placing New Hampshire among the top 5 states in the country.



What is it with unicycles and geeks?


The AP has a story about a university student who plans to ride a unicycle from Burlington, Vermont, through northern New Hampshire to to easternmost point in Maine. (Here's the story.) He thinks it'll only take 10 days!


But my point is this: After graduation he wants to be … a math teacher!


I am not surprised at all. There's something about unicycles, much more than bicycles or motorcycles, that appeals to geeks. I don't know what it is, exactly - the unnecessary but interesting complexity, I guess. They're the wheeled-vehicle equivalent of convoluted wordplay.


My family owns a unicycle, bought when the kids were younger. None of us has ever learned to ride it, though; those things are tough!




Our only poisonous snake - the timber rattler


I have always heard that the only poisonous snake in Northern New England is the timber rattler, which is extremely rare and extremely shy, to the point that it's virtually impossible to encounter one. (The state knows of one site where timber rattlers live but won't say where it is - not to protect people but to protect the snakes; that's how rare they are.) The result is one of nice things about life here: you never have to be afraid of snakes. By contrast, I was in Arizona last weekend and nervously tiptoed through the brush during an early morning hike, fearing rattlesnakes under every cactus.


A new database by the World Health Organization about poisonous snakes (here), compiled to help health departments decide which antivenom to stock, confirms my belief: Of the 15 poisonous snakes found in the U.S. (including the massasauga, which I've never heard of), only the timber rattler is found hereabouts. The above map shows its range.





Largest power-line project in Maine history is OK'd


Maine regulators have given Central Maine Power the go-ahead for a $1.4 billion, five-year expansion of the power grid in that state, designed partly to bring power from wind farms to populated areas and also keep the grid "stable" as alternative energy ramps up - meaning, I think, increasing the ability to shift power from here to there  to cope with the intermittent nature of wind and solar power. From the story:


"The construction project still needs approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but CMP hopes to begin work in June. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection already has approved the project, as have more than half of the 81 cities and towns along the route, CMP said. In 2012 and 2013, the company plans to hire more than 3,300 new employees for the project."


CMP is a subsidiary of Iberdrola, the Spanish energy giant which is (I believe) the world's largest operator of wind farms - including Lempster Mountain Wind, New Hampshire's only entry in the large-turbine race.


I can't find a good simple explanation, with maps, of what CMP plans; here's their corporate site, with links to lots of legal/technical documents.





Gulf of Mexico oil spill superimposed on New Hampshire, centered on Concord.


Gulf oil spill is almost as big as NH


A map says it all. The map comes from this site, which superimposes onto Google Earth recent data on the size of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill





Inside a cell tower


My Telegraph column today is a tour of a nearby cell tower. I've always wanted to see what's inside the control rooms next to those behemoths - truth be told, it's not too exciting, but you can't tell until you look, can you? The story is here.



NH - yes, we have a megawatt of solar power!


It occurred to me over the weekend that New Hampshire recently hit the psychologically interesting point of having a megawatt of installed photovoltaic solar panels. The last time I checked, 265 photovoltaic installations with an installed capacity of 787 kilowatts were on the state's net-metering system. Stonyfield's 50-kw and PSNH's 51-kw rooftop systems have now been joined by a 73-kw installation at Exeter High and 99 kilowatts at Wire Belt HQ in Londonderry (as I wrote about last week) - which totals 1,050 kilowatts or 1.05 megawatts, not including any off-the-grid installations that I don't know about.


Woo-hoo! Megawatt, baby - we're solar big time!


Well, not really. A megawatt isn't much by utility standards, and 1 megawatt of solar power is even less - it's roughly the equivalent of 1/4 megawatt from fossil fuel plants in terms of total electric output.


However, solar is different because it's distributed: The 787 kilowatts made up of 2, 3 or 4-kilowatt systems on people's roofs is radically different than 787 kilowatts generated by burning goal and sending electricity long distance over power lines.It is more valuable than the mere numbers would make it seem.



NASA Tweet-up crowd for Atlantis launch, May 2010


NASA tweet-up group photo - with a wicked big clock


Newspaper people hate group photos. They are submitted to us all the time, marking some event by showing a whole bunch of people who participated in it, standing awkwardly side by side. We hate them because they are uninformative, complicated (is John Jones third from the left or third from the right?) and boring to look at. Along with the the posed check-passing photo, the group shot is our least favorite cliche picture.


But every rule has an exception, so I had to run the above picture, showing the roughly 150 people invited by NASA, via a Tweet-up, to watch the launch of the Atlantis space shuttle. Nashua resident Aaron Cunningham, who I wrote about last week, sent it; he is somewhere in that teeming mob.


The fun part, of course, is the launch countdown clock beside them. Holy toledo, that's a big, big clock.





Why is writing backwards on suits for spacewalks?


NASA has launched - ha! get it? - a pretty cool Web site explaining the history of space suits. Here it is. I enjoyed the way it mixes old and sort-of-new animation: The site is introduced by a talking avatar - albeit not the most up-to-date; it moves more like someone from Syberia, a 2002 interactive game, than a modern character - but also has Andy The Astronaut, a cartoon that would look right at home alongside Fractured Fairytales of other '60s cartoon shows.


The actual data about the suits is interesting and well organized, in a point-and-click sort of way. Well worth perusing if you're a space fan.


Here's my favorite factoid from the site: The writing on the gauges and dials on the front of suits used for spacewalks is backwards because the astronauts inside the suit have to use a mirror on their wrist to read it - the can't bend enough to see it otherwise. So it's written in mirror writing, like "AMBULANCE" on the front of ambulances that you see in your car's rear-view mirror.



Temperature Anomalies April 2010 (NOAA)


Warmest four months on record, worldwide - and pretty warm here, too


NOAA says January-April 2010 was the warmest such period on record, averaged over the world. The analysis is from NOAA's National Climatic Data Center, which is based on records going back to 1880.


The site (here) includes a funky map showing how much warmer or colder areas were in April, compared to the period 1971-2000. This bit of the map shows us, with bigger red shots meaning a higher average - New England is about 3 degrees above that average. Ugh.





Our cows could generate 1.8 megawatts of power


New Hampshire has roughly 18,000 mature milking cows, says UNH Cooperative Extension, and the manure produced by 10,000 dairy cows can create enough biogass to generate 1 megawatt of electricity, according to calculations from Hewlett-Packard cited in this NY Times story about powering server farms near dairy farms. Ergo, we've got 1.8 megawatts of bovine poop power in the Granite State!


It doesn't really work that way, of course, because our farms are too small (140 dairy farms statewide) to pay for the equipment needed - this only works for mega-dairy farms in the Midwest or California's Central Valley, where thousands of cows are clustered together.  Still, it's an amusing calculation.


Speaking of fuel sources for power, I have a story in today's Telegraph (here) about a report saying NH spent $133 million - $79 million overseas, much to Venezuela - buying coal to burn for electricity.





Coke dispenser should be more profitable than Segway


DEKA, the Manchester-based R&D company that is the heart of Dean Kamen's empire, made a lot of money on medical technology that involved moving fluids - an insulin pump was Kamen's breakthrough invention. Now they're going to move soda, as well.


Coca-Cola has announced a new type of soda dispensing machine, which replacse traditional bags of bags of syrup with DEKA-developed "concentrated flavor cartridges a little larger than a video cassette tape" with "microdosing technology" allowing 100 or more potential flavors from one machine. (If nothing else, this demonstrates how all those different sodas are nothing but water, sugar/sweetener, and a tiny bit of flavoring.)


Cynical geeks with a memory may recall Steve Job's famous taunt that brought John Scully from Pepsi to be CEO of Apple: "Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?" Perhaps Kamen can do both.


The Union-Leader has a story, but it's not online - part of their "please buy the print product" push. Here's a story from a San Diego paper, for some reason. This tech site has a promo video from Bsquare, the company that did the software and touch-screen interface.





Rent-a-solar-panel - whatever happened to that idea?


Two years ago I wrote about CitizenRe, a company that leased solar panels to homeowners - that is, put them on people's houses to reduce their power bills but kept a portion of the resulting income. Their business model had a dose of Amway-ish pyramid-like* schemes (you made money if you got other people to sign up as distributors) which drew lots of criticism. They were supposed to be entering New Hampshire as part of a national rollout, but I never heard anything more from them, and a check of their Web site makes it look like the idea was stillborn (no press releases in 15 months - and start-ups LOVE to issue press releases).


But that doesn't mean the idea of leasing, rather than selling, PV panels is dead. Greentech Media has a story (read it here) about a company called Sungevity (ugh what a name) which is trying to take the same route, and it mentions two other firms - Solar City and SunRun - doing the same thing. I've never heard of any of these; it looks like they are concentrating in the West and Southwest - which makes sense, since that's where the power return is greatest.


*I think Amway is a pyramid scheme, but because it sells a physical product as well as roping people in with unstable promises, it isn't *legally* a pyramid scheme.





Martin Gardner, "Mathematical Games" columnist, dies


There was a time in my youth when I wanted to grow up to be Martin Gardner, who wrote the "Mathematical Games" column in Scientific American for 35 years, all but creating the concept of high-level recreational mathematics for the modern world. He died yesterday at age 95.


Here's a profile of him from Sci Am. It notes that, among other things, his column brought M.C. Escher and Roger Penrose to the attention of the outside world. Not bad, eh? Here's the AP obit.


SciAm was never able to find a good replacement after he quit. Even Douglas Hofstadter, of Godel Escher Bach fame, wasn't nearly as good in his "Metamagical Themas" column, nor was Ian Stewart, who is probably the best writer of any true mathematician today.


In the past decade or so Gardner's main public role has been as a debunker of nonsense and crackpottery, whether medical (fasting cures all!) or physical (perpetual motion machines!) or biology (Lysenko). He got into that field early with his still-worth-reading "Fad and Fallacies in the Name of Science", which was one of the first mainstream debunking works. Expect much lamentation from the skeptical field, like this from Bad Astronomy's Phil Plait.


I found this quote in a comment left by a reader at Slashdot: "Martin Gardner has turned dozens of innocent youngsters into math professors, and thousands of math professors into innocent youngsters." - Persi Diaconis





Audiobooks (and a few eBooks) from libraries


My Telegraph column today (read it here) concerns ongoing efforts by New Hampshire libraries to provide downloadable books to borrow. They've had digital audiobooks for years, and recently started e-books - but they're not compatible with Kindle or iPad, so the non-dead-tree reading audience  is a bit limited.



Mascoma's biofuel plans face money woes


Mascoma, the Lebanon, NH-based cellulosic ethanol bioful company that is trying to turn two Dartmouth professors' work into a new business, is having some problems. Difficulty raising the necessary scores of millions dollars has caused it to push back the opening date for its Michigan plant by a year, to 2013, as reported here by Xconomy. The firm also recently lost a high-ranking executive, reports the Valley News.


Mascoma is developing ways to bioengineer bacteria so they can produce bio-ethanol from the cellulosic, or inedible, portions of plants and do it in a single step, which is cheaper and faster than other methods. The dream is to turn wood chips (the feedstock for the proposed Michigan plant) or weeds or other marginal crops, rather than hard-to-grow corn kernels, into fuel.


A number of companies are pursuing this idea from a variety of research directions. The problem is moving from the lab bench to industrial production, which takes large, complex, expensive machinery.



Hitting the beach? Beware piping plovers!


If you're hitting New Hampshire's beaches this Memorial Day weekend, beware the nesting pairs of piping plovers - two at Hampton Beach State Park and one at Seabrook Beach.The nests are fenced off to keep people away, but New Hampshire Fish and Game is also asking people to keep their dog on a leash and "fill in holes, since holes in the sand are traps for the tiny chicks that can't fly."


Piping plover chicks are able to walk and feed on their own very quickly but cannot fly until they are about a month old, and are very small and hard to see.


Monitoring will be ongoing throughout the summer, until all chicks have fledged and the plovers begin to migrate south for the winter.


Piping plover have a number of natural predators that prey on the eggs and young, such as gulls, crows, skunks and foxes. Introduced predators like feral cats and dogs are added threats, and the birds also must compete with humans for space on the beaches to nest and raise their young.


Volunteers will be needed to help with monitoring once the plover chicks begin to hatch around Memorial Day. Anyone interested in volunteering can contact the N.H. Fish and Game Piping Plover Monitor at 603-419-9728.


Since protection efforts began in 1997, a total of 83 piping plover chicks have fledged from New Hampshire's seacoast. New Hampshire's efforts are part of a region-wide protection program; overall, the Atlantic coast population of piping plovers continues to hold steady.


For more information on piping plovers, visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife website.





We're still driving less, despite lower gas prices


Tree-hugging types, delighting as Hummer died and electric cars became the talk of the town, and total miles driven plummeted, have wondered whether America's auto-centric habits are finally changing. Personally, I doubt it; I thought it was just a temporary shift caused by the recession, but this story from AP does lend the idea a little some credence: Miles driven by Americans in March was lower than the same month last year, despite a slip in gas prices and the improvement (in theory, at least) in the economy over that period.





Bobolink with transmitter found in Vt., tracing 6,000-mile journey


The Burlington Free-Press has a story (read it here) about a researcher who found one of the 15 bobolinks previously tagged with transmitters in Vermont, which carries information about the yellow-headed songbird's annual flight between Vermont and his wintering grounds in South America. From the story:


"For the first time, we'll know — did they get to Florida or Mississippi and stop and wait and wait and wait? Did they fly over the Gulf of Mexico? When did they do that? Then where did they go?" Perlut asked, the questions tumbling out one after the other.


Putting transmitters or, as in this case, location recorders on animals is becoming a major part of field biology, and is proving a great way to discover the hidden habits of animals. As a matter of fact, my daughter is doing just that this summer with turtles in Francestown, working for a St. Anselm College researcher. She gets to walk about in the woods with a handheld device searching for the beep-beep of a marked tortoise. How cool is that?



Roadwork projects threatened by … lack of paint for stripes?!?


A shortage of methyl methacrylate,a monomer that helps make durable, reflective paint, due to problems at a production plant in Texas is threatening road projects around the country, the NY Times reports here. (The wikipedia article about the compound, linked above, talks about the shortage.)


In Texas, officials say the shortage could delay plans to recoat the surface of some roads if there is not enough paint around to safely mark the lanes once the work is done. In some cases, officials said, the state may experiment with using raised reflective buttons to mark lanes if there is not enough paint. In others, workers may decide to paint the center dividing lanes on two-lane roads, but not the lines on the shoulders of roads.


It's always impressive, or surprising, or something when you encounter an industrial bottleneck in today's interlocked world, where one problem can have such a ripple effect.




The Model Engineer & Electrician


Sometimes, walking by the book shelf in the shop, I grab an old magazine or book and admire the creative work that people did a century or more ago.


This from the August 6 1903 issue of The Model Engineer and Electrician:


THE LATEST IDEA FOR A FLYING MACHINE ~ The latest flying machine is that devised by Mr. John P. Holland, the inventor of the United states submarine boat. Mr. Holland's machine differs from those of Santos Dumont, Spencer and Lebaudy in that it is a a flying machine pure and simple, and not a balloon with mechanical additions. Mr. Holland aims at making a huge mechanical bird. It is a very general opinion that what is needed, and all that is needed to accomplish artificial flight, is a sufficiently light and powerful engine. this, says a scientist, is one of the popular misconceptions of this hitherto baffling problem. The pigeon weight 83 pounds to the horsepower, and larger birds 300 lbs. and 400 lbs. to the horsepower, while Maxim and others have all built steam, compressed air, and gas engines at less than 10 lb. to the horsepower, so that it is obviously not lighter engines which are wanted in order that men may fly, but a knowledge to properly use the engines we already have.


     We are amused by the misconceptions of scientists and engineers of the past. But, looking back at my own careers in various fields, I'm humbled by the hard-won knowledge that proved my ignorance of basic principles. I was so confident at times, then had to do a complete reset when someone pointed out where I had gone wrong. I view with a sceptics eye some of the absolute truths so strongly stated in todays journals. I think this is a good thing for me, but it also keeps me from imagining the breakthroughs that younger people, uninhibited by the load of history will be making. Getting out of the way is how progress is made. That's OK with me.


Earle Rich ... Mont Vernon, NH





Region's first 1-megawatt solar plant fires up


National Grid is turning on a 1.2-megawatt solar photovoltaic facility atop its Northbridge, Mass. distribution plant. Globe story here.


It's the first of several megawatt-level solar facilities going on line in the next year or so; I'm going to have to start trimming out some of the smaller solar facilities from my regional alternative energy map!



Our comment system is broken


Those of you saddened by the recent inability to post comments on this blog saying how wonderful I am, be aware that we realize the comment system is broken and are trying to figure out the problem. It appears to be some weirdness between Wordpress and the Telegraph's online registration system, but other than that we're baffled. I say we blame Microsoft.


If you have a staggeringly brilliant comment that you absolutely must share (perhaps along the lines of "GraniteGeek is the greatest contribution to humanity since the invention of the logarithm"), you can always email me at





Going to check out the Tesla-inspired bladeless wind turbine


Earle Rich and I are heading down to Greenville, NH, this morning to take a look at a unique wind turbine design recently patented by a local man. It has gotten a bit of press, and Earle wrote about it earlier this month. It will be the topic of a story/column in the next week or so.


Earle, the engineer, is going as the left brain; I'm the right brain. Or maybe I'm just the driver …





"Put more nitrogen into milk, not manure"


If that isn't a great headline, I don't know what is. "Put more nitrogen into milk, not manure" comes from this USDA research paper, discussing how dairy farmers should tweak cattle feed to reduce costs and the bad effects of dumping excess N into the waterways via runoff: "The scientists found that only about 20 to 35 percent of the nitrogen fed to dairy cows is converted into milk."



Word of Mouth


NHPR has a great program hosted by Virginia Prescott called "Word of Mouth". The program runs Monday through Thursday and covers science and social subjects.


Next week, not sure of the day of broadcast, she will be interviewing editors of MAKE magazine and Boing-Boing. The magazine and websites are something I have subscribed to and followed for years. This will prove to be aimed directly at me, I'm sure. It's an interesting world out there. (Make magazine)


Earle Rich ... Mont Vernon,  NH





New England robots


The Sunday Globe has a story about a 20-person Nashua startup that makes a mobile videoconferencing robot called Vgo - a sleeker version of an idea from MobileRobots just down the road, which  the Telegraph has written about a couple of times - and notes that several companies are trying to merge videoconferencing and mobility to create a new market niche.


The story is pretty upbeat, but it does include one doubter, who says "How is it that much better than having someone at the remote site carry around a netbook computer with a free copy of Skype on it?"





Quebec fires make New England cough


And now for the latest chapter of It's a Small World, Environmental Edition: I went out into some fields this morning and couldn't figure out who was burning brush. Turns out the smoke was due to wildfires in Quebec (Globe and Mail story here), which is causing hazy skies throughout northern New England.


There are hopes that rainstorms will sweep through Quebec tonight and help control the blazes, which cover more than 65,000 acres and have driven more than 1,000 people out of their homes.



Strontium in fish near nuke plant isn't from nuke plant


Interesting AP story:


When a fish taken from the Connecticut River recently tested positive for radioactive strontium-90, suspicion focused on the nearby Vermont Yankee nuclear plant as the likely source. …  State health officials say Vermont Yankee most likely was not the source of the radioactivity in the fish, a yellow perch. Fish and other living things around the world have been absorbing tiny amounts of strontium-90 since the United States, Russia and China tested nuclear weapons in the atmosphere in the 1950s and 1960s. A fresher dose was released by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.


"It's clearly consistent with the background levels from Chernobyl and weapons testing that went on until 1965," said Michael Dumond, chief of prevention services, which includes radiological health, for the state of New Hampshire.


Vermont Yankee, of course, has leaked strontium-90 in what officials say is non-dangerous levels.


Here's the whole story. It's a good piece; the writer has the sense to add this:


Should people limit fish consumption because strontium and other radioactive substances can collect in their tissue? "Absolutely not," Till said, adding that the amounts are too tiny to be a concern. (Some states, including Vermont, have urged limits on fish consumption - especially by children and pregnant women - because of mercury contamination.)



Here comes the 4G hype/reality


As I noted back in March (in this bit of prose poetry), the arrival of 4G over the next year or two means we'll be seeing a lot of confusing mobile-phone techno-speak and also some cool features. AP has a similar piece today, spurred by the imminent arrival of Sprint's first 4G phone.


This topic is sufficiently vague and confusing that it's worth reading about many times.



June 2010

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Lighter towns are more "squiggly" in outline. (Map by Tom Brooks; data from GRANIT)


Measuring the "squiggliness" of NH town borders


My son has been playing with the data in GRANIT, a superb clearinghouse for GIS information about New Hampshire, run by UNH and the state Office of Energy and Planning. He made the accompanying map, which reflects the "squiggliness" of the outlines of NH towns and cities - lighter towns are squigglier, and dark ones are smoother and closer to square or round in shape.


The calculation involves taking the square root* of the area and dividing it by the perimeter. Higher numbers mean the shape of the town is smooth and pretty compact - square places like Wilton have high numbers. Lower numbers mean the shape has  lots of zigzags and bumps and sticking-out bits, like Maryland or West Virginia. Some of the unincorporated spots in the North Country, leftover bits of land once owned by forestry/paper companies that appear to have been surveyed by drunks, have very low numbers.


This conclusion is, I'd say, completely useless. But isn't it fun?


*Why square root? Dividing area, with squared units, by perimeter, with linear units, would give  larger towns a much higher score no matter their shape, because area grows exponentially faster than the perimeter. Under that method, Pittsburg at the state's northern tip, which is by far the biggest town in NH, comes up with the highest number even though it's pretty squiggly.



Boston-area startups are founded by students who stay


Mass High Tech has an article (here it is) summarizing a study of tech startups in Boston, New York and Silicon Valley (Palo Alto, CA). Here's the key point:


(Start-up founders) move to Palo Alto when they are starting their venture, whereas founders pick Boston because they are studying in the area.


In other words, all those annoying college students who clutter up Boston are useful, after all!





FCC seeks 10,000 Net-surfer volunteers


I don't think the government will have much trouble with this recruitment effort, as this ABC News item says:


The FCC is seeking 10,000 volunteers to take part in a study of residential broadband speeds. Specialized equipment will be installed in homes across the country to measure Internet connections. Those results will then be compared with advertised speeds. The agency hopes to get a cross section of volunteers who subscribe to broadband services provided by a range of phone and cable TV companies.


The new project grows out of several proposals outlined in the FCC's national broadband plan, released in March. The plan calls for the government to collect, analyze and publish detailed information, market by market, on broadband pricing and competition. The plan also recommends that the government require broadband providers to disclose information about pricing and performance. "The big issue here is knowing what you are paying for," said Joel Gurin, who heads the FCC's Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau.


If you want to participate, this is where you go.



Atlatl team (no, that's not misspelled) in NH


Franklin Pierce University has the coolest team I've ever seen: the Hurling Ravens, an atlatl team. The atlatl is a spear-throwing tool used by societies that hadn't really developed the bow and arrow, and the team is part of the Anthropology Club. The sport proceeds like archery, "shooting" at various targets, including animal targets of the sort used by hunters.


An article in Archaeology magazine (read it here) has an interview with the team captain, including  this quote:


Basically I organize practices, which we have once a week. We grab our atlatls and the decoy deer and spend about 45 minutes to an hour throwing. I also encourage the team, try to give them pep talks. For instance, I'll tell them to imagine a scenario where they haven't eaten for a week and they're going to have to hit this deer if they want food. That gives them some motivation.


(Poking through GraniteGeek's detritus, I find that I mentioned atlatl back in 2006 in this posting, which links to a Valley News story that is no longer live, so I'm not entirely sure what it was about. I never have that trouble reading yellowed newspaper clippings!)




'Rock snot' spreading in Vermont


I haven't had a depressing invasive-species post for a little while, so here's one: The AP reports that "rock snot" (didymo), the slimy algae that can coat streams, is still spreading in Vermont. (Story is here.)


It has appeared on the New Hampshire side of the Connecticut River, but so far hasn't spread in our state. It will, though.


NH Department of Environmental Services has a good FAQ about it, here.



"Squiggliness" of borders, part II


Earlier this week I noted that my son analyzed the shape of all New Hampshire towns and organized them by relative "squiggliness." (Here's the post, if you've forgotten the gem.) It was a fun little piece, but it turns out the issue can have a more serious application.


Paul Sand of UNH saw the post and pointed me to this 2006 paper from the Harvard Institute of Economic Research titled "Artificial States." It calculates the fractal measure of the borders of various countries and then correlates them to various political and economic measures.


The paper says that really straight borders correlate with poorer, more conflict-ridden countries, apparently because straight borders tend to be arbitrarily drawn (e.g., European countries deciding from afar about borders for African colonies) and thus more likely to ignore natural and political matters that can lead to peace and prosperity - for example, they're more likely to divvy up ethnic groups among nations. Here's a column talking about the study.


Fans of fractals will be reminded that the breakthrough paper by fractal founder Benoit Mandelbrot concerned boundaries - it's called "How Long is the Coastline of Britain."


The next step for me and my son is to see if there's any correlation between squiggliness and per-capita income for New Hampshire towns. Hmmm ... I wonder if we can apply for an NSF grant?



Pen Lathe Photos


A few weeks ago I mentioned that I started a new project of making a pen lathe from scratch. It's finished now and the photos are up on Flickr.


As usual, the design evolved along the way. I wanted to make the DC motor act as a servo motor. It worked fine as long as the load was within reasonable limits. However, there was so much difference in rotational mass from spindle drive with no chuck to bowl drive with a heavy chuck that I couldn't tune the servo drive to handle the range. So, I wound up with a variable transformer to step-down transformer to DC bridge to drive the motor. The power supply is stiff enough that doing the actual turning doesn't change the RPM that much.


The digital readout was kept, industrial switches and lamps look good and the whole lathe is stiff enough for anything I might put on it. It ended up heavier than I like for RV traveling so I might just make another one using hard won knowledge to make the next one better. (I really need five lathes).


Earle Rich ... Mont Vernon, NH





Can Maine be an offshore-wind-development giant?


What if Maine could tap its boatbuilding and composites expertise to build strong, lightweight components to float in the Gulf of Maine? (Floating wind turbines) could power the Northeast, and be far enough offshore to dampen opposition from coastal residents.


That's a quote to ponder from a story in the Portland Press-Herald from tech reporter Tux Turkel (read it here) about one Maine professor's push to get that state to move into the offshore-wind business (like this) - not just by siting wind farms but developing and constructing them, too.


Developers came to Maine at the dawn of the 20th century to exploit the state's rivers and forests and its proximity to markets, to build an industry around pulp and paper. Now global companies are looking 20 miles offshore at Maine's steady breezes, and its closeness to Northeast cities, to develop an industry around floating wind power. But power production is only the start, Dagher says. Maine could launch a new manufacturing sector to build and service the components of deepwater wind.


Of course, this is the greenenergy/greenjobs dream that everybody from Obama on down is dreaming. The other "playing off our strengths" alternative-energy argument in northern New England involves biomass - burning wood for electricity/heat. And we certainly have enough folks who know how to harvest forests





Barn swallow in our barn


Citizen Science projects galore


My column in the Telegraph today (read it here) is mostly an excuse to run my daughter's picture of barn swallows in our barn, but it includes some decent stuff about citizen science projects, including these:


Frogwatch: Run by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, it asks people to do an amphibian census near their homes during a selected week.


Folding@home: One of many "distributed computing" projects in which people use their home computer's down time to do large calculations, it studies the shape of protein folding, which is linked to many diseases. A University of California-Berkeley site called BOINC organizes dozens of distributing-computing projects.


Galaxy Zoo: This site asks people to look at pictures of galaxies taken by the orbiting Hubble Telescope and classify them by shapes, "a task at which your brain is better than even the most advanced computer." A spinoff called Moon Zoo does the same thing with pictures of lunar craters.


Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network, or CoCoRaHS: Run by the Colorado Climate Center, it compiles backyard precipitation measurements from thousands of sites for an incredibly comprehensive view of weather patterns.


Worldwide Star Count: This 2009 project, which I believe will be repeated this fall, asked people to list the stars they could see as a worldwide measure of light pollution.



Continental drift takes Appalachian Trail to Europe and Africa


As anybody who's not a young-Earther knows, the US and Africa were joined eons ago, before the continents drifted apart. This has led to a clever inspiration by some of the folks involved in the Appalachian Trail: they want to extend it from Labrador, Canada (where the International Appalachian Trail ends  after heading north from Mt. Katahdin in Maine, the end of the original AT) to Europe and North Africa:


As it's now shaping up, the International Appalachian Trial will brush the east coast of Greenland before picking up in Ireland and Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. It will resume on the mainland in Norway and proceed south through France, Portugal, nip western Spain and end in Morocco. Trails already exist along much of the conceptual route, planners point out, so participating countries in many cases can mark certain trail segments with the IAT sign to make it part of the network. Where the trail meets the seas or overland gaps, hikers will have to make their own ferry or train arrangements.


Here's an AP story about it.


This UC-Berkeley stite has a nice little animation about tectonic plate movement over the millennia - it's here.





Live-blogging chess matches - is that illegal?


A professional chess player is suing a site called Chessbase because it transmits moves from chess games in real time without paying. Here's the NY Times item: "The lawsuit seeks damages for violating copyright laws as well as for the sponsors of the match, who were hurt by the loss of Web traffic to the match's Web site."


See, sports editors? Chess is a real sport - it has the same money-related controversies as baseball!


(Speaking of sports, check out this incredibly awesome interactive calendar of the World Cup soccer games throughout South Africa. It's a great argument for using Flash.)





It's so hard to be "green," even the Amish have trouble


Amish farmers in Pennsylvania, who would seem to be as "green" as you can get (no mechanized vehicles, no electricity) are under EPA investigation because their practices of spreading manure for fertilizer is causing too much runoff into waterways. From this NY Times story:


Runoff from manure and synthetic fertilizers has polluted the Chesapeake Bay for years, reducing oxygen rates, killing fish and creating a dead zone that has persisted since the 1970s despite off-and-on cleanup efforts. But of the dozens of counties that contribute to the deadly runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus, Lancaster (Pa.) ranks at the top. According to E.P.A. data from 2007, the most recent available, the county generates more than 61 million pounds of manure a year. That is 20 million pounds more than the next highest county on the list of bay polluters, and more than six times that of most other counties.

It is, indeed, hard to be green.



Turns out, hair isn't that great at cleaning up oil spills


For a while there, everybody (including the Telegraph) was talking about how discarded human and pet hair could help clean up the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Alas, as this story makes clear, it turns out that making oil sponges/booms out of hair isn't a very good option after all:


Hair will soak up some oil. But not nearly as well or expediently as other things. And that human hair is loaded with bacteria and pathogens and, therefore, not necessarily the greatest thing to send through the mail. Animal hair used in oil-gathering exercises has been sterilized.


The hair-collects-oil story is the sort people love because it gives them the option of making a helpful sacrifice that isn't much of a sacrifice at all - very high psychological-reward-compared-to-effort ratio.



New Hampshire Geography Quiz For The Week Of June 7th


Hi all,


It's been awhile since I posted here, so I figured i'd try to come in on a regular basis with a weekly geography quiz.


This week's question is this...


What New Hampshire town was formerly known by the name "Protectworth"?


(Update: 10:04 AM, Thursday 10 June) Sorry I forgot to say this, but the answer will be revealed next week!





People in Keene 12,000 years ago?


The question of when people arrived in North America can be contentious, but my eyebrows rose slightly at this Union-Leader story about a dig in Keene which claims to have found signs of people from 12,000 years ago. That's very, very early - the Clovis settlements in western North America, generally considered the oldest except possibly for a few scattered arrivals from across the Pacific Ocean, are only about 13,000 years old. Getting all the way to the Northeast in a millennium would be pretty speedy, especially since the glaciers only left New Hampshire from the last Ice Age around 12,000 years ago.


From previous stories I've done about archaeological digs in NH, I've heard that the first good signs of hunter/gatherers here in NH date to about 10,000 years ago. Admittedly, though, I've only done a couple of stories, so my knowledge is pretty thin.



Update on the Fox Island Windpower Project


This link is a May, 2010 update on the power generated (near projection) and the noise issue that has received a lot of publicity. A survey of neighbors returns mixed results, fully described in the report.


Earle Rich              Mont Vernon, NH


(Note from Dave B., since we can't add comments: The weirdest part of the report is that the people who most complained about the noise refused to participate in a neighbor survey to see how bad the turbines were! In fact, only 9 of the 18 neighbors that were asked to participate in the survey, actually did so. I find that very odd, considering it was being run by the local power co-op, not a big faceless utility.)





Is wood-burning power worse than coal-burning?


An organization called the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences has just released a study saying that wood-burning power isn't much better than coal-burning, and may even be worse, in terms of being carbon-neutral. Here's the report. Here's the Globe story that alerted me.


The big drawback with wood power is that trees are much less energy-dense than coal or oil, so you have to burn more volume for the same amount of power. Manoment says this problem overwhelms the big advantage of trees - that they regrow, pulling carbon from the atmosphere within human time scales.


One big uncertainty seems to involve the amount of whole trees that have to be cut to create the power levels that being sought. If you have to take lots of them, then the time it will take forests to re-grow, and thus re-absorb the carbon released by burning, is much longer. Advocates say there is plenty of leftover wood to be taken, Manomet says there isn't.



RGGI cap-and-trade prices hit rock bottom


Prices for carbon allowances hit rock bottom in the latest auction for the region's unique pollution-control system, driven by uncertainty about the future of greenhouse-gas legislation combined with continuing softness in the demand for electricity due to the recession.


This week's auction, the eighth since the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) cap-and-trade system began, sold 40.7 million carbon-dioxide allowances, which can be used to offset pollution during 2009-2011, for $1.88 each. That is barely above the minimum of $1.80. (Details here.)


The prices have steady fallen since March 2009, the first auction in which all state utilities had to participate: They cost $3.51 then, $2.19 last fall, and $2.07 in the previous auction, in March of this year.


In a parallel offering, the RGGI auctioned CO2 allowances for the second three-year control period, 2012-2014. A total of 2.1 million allowances sold at $1.86.


By 2012, power plants in the 10 participating states must hold enough allowances to cover emissions.


The money collected from the auctions – $662 million total so far for the 10 participating Northeastern states, including $24 million for New Hampshire – is mostly being spent by the various states on ways to reduce energy usage, including weatherization programs. But cash-strapped states, including New York and New Jersey, have begun raiding the funds to help balance budgets.


New Hampshire is doing it took, taking $3.1 million in RGGI to help reduce the state budget deficit. (NHBR story here)


RGGI claims that in Connecticut, an electric and gas energy efficiency programs funded in part with RGGI proceeds are producing more than $4 in benefits for every $1 invested.





Resistant elm tree vs. resistant elm tree


AP had a story this week about a Forest Service program to plant Dutch Elm Disease-resistant elm trees in forests, as a first step toward returning the iconic American tree to our landscape (here it is). Speaking as somebody who has written about such efforts for a couple of decades, the interesting part to me was at the end, when they added some skeptical comments from Keene-based Elm Research Institute, which has a different line of disease-resistant trees than the ones raised by the feds. (I have four ERI elms on my property, close to 20 years old; one of them succumbed to Dutch elm two years ago but the others are fine.)


(ERI) has sought answers from the Forest Service program about how the trees from which the saplings were cloned were determined to be disease-resistant, and whether the young trees will be adequately tracked for survival rates.


This is an interesting question, because it's not entirely clear how to determine how disease-resistant a given line of trees is, when you're dealing with a fungus carried by beetles that takes years to cause harm. Both groups found trees that were naturally resistant and have cross-bred them, creating strains with names like Jefferson and Valley Forge, but since they don't mature for decades it's hard to reach quick conclusions about the effectiveness of your strain.


ERI injects lots of fungus into trees and sees how they react in the short term. Critics say this is so different than the natural disease route, in which small amounts of fungus are introduced in many places over long periods, that it doesn't reflect what will happen in the wild.  There are lots and lots of ERI trees planted around New Hampshire - they have a very effective publicity campaign - and I haven't heard about any sweeping problems.



X-Rays are a wonder


This from the May, 1898 issue of The Model Engineer and Amateur Electrician. These are filled with new developments of the age including dubious medical applications of electricial appliances.  The magazine had several construction articles for generating your own X-rays, or Rontgen rays. With these, you could see the bones in your hand or, with one high powered set, see through your body to see the bones of the spine.


"Some interesting particulars of a new application of the Rontgen rays for curative purposes were communicated by Dr. Edward Schiff, lecturer at the Vienna University, at the last sitting of the Imperial and Royal Medical Society. A series of experiments conducted by Dr. Schiff and his assistant proved that these rays could be used for the cure of disease in a manner capable of perfect control by means of a more or less intense application for a longer or shorter period, producting reaction in the exact degree required. In this way it has been possible for the lecturer, on the one hand, to remove hair from parts of the body where it constituted a disfigurement without causing the slightest inflammation, the intensity of which he was in a position to increase or reduce at will."


It took a long time before the overuse of X-rays were proven to be a bad thing. Even in to the 1940's, you could go into a shoe store and get a 'flourescope' image of your feet for better fitting shoes. Kids especially enjoyed using these machines as a novelty.


Earle Rich ... Mont Vernon, NH





Fireflies (that is, lightning bugs) galore


One of the things I missed when moving up to New England from Virginia was lightning bugs - fireflies, to some. They exist up here, but not in the huge masses that you'll find on summer nights down South.


Or so I thought, anyway. Last night, night in the cool-ish drizzle, the field next to our house was swarming with lightning bugs, flashing at weird random intervals and flying all over the place. I tried counting them, but it was hopeless; there were a couple hundred visible, at least. What a fabulous display; it makes you want to gush about the Wonders Of Nature and all that sort of hoo-hah.


I wonder if I have underestimated the lack of lightning bugs up here? I've hunted around for estimates of populations/ranges without much success.





Electric cars have rescuers slightly nervous


Since New England's first electric-car dealer is coming to the Nashua area, I thought I'd look into the issues raised for "first responders" - firefighters, EMTs and police who show up at accident scenes. New power systems raise new questions:


If an electric car is burning, should water be applied, or fire-suppressing foam, or some other type of foam? Since electric motors are silent when running, how do first responders at a mangled vehicle determine if the engine is off or on? How can they disconnect the batteries quickly and safely, just to be sure? When extracting somebody trapped in a vehicle, are there places that can be cut on a regular car that should be avoided on an electric one?


Here's my story in today's Telegraph.


The idea isn't exactly unique to me; I've read several national variants lately. Here's one from a Web site called; here's one about GM giving training to first responders about the Volt.



A skeptical view of that Tesla wind tubine


A few weeks ago Earle Rich noted that a New Hampshire man had gotten a patent on a small wind turbine inspired by a Nikloa Tesla patent (which was for steam- or water-powered turbines). Recently he and I went out and saw it in person - here is my story in today's Telegraph.


The one line takeaway: The inventor hasn't done any measurement or serious testing of the design, and back-of-the-envelope calculations cast enormous doubt on this turbine's ability to create more than a few hundred watts of power until it is enlarged to a ridiculous size.





Fungus causing pine needle problems


I can't say I've noticed much problem with pine trees where I live, but this McClathy News Service story (read it here) says two species of fungus - white pine needle cast and brown spot needle blight - are thriving due to the wet winter and spring, causing many pines to drop their needles and look unhealthy: "Needles on trees affected by the fungus turned yellow or brownish in mid-May, especially on lower branches, while the tops often remain green."


As tree diseases go, these don't sound too bad - not necessarily fatal, just ugly. Unless they weaken trees and make them susceptible to all those various other invasive nasties out there, of course.




White Nose Syndrome hits a ninth bat species


A group called the Center for Biological Diversity reports that the bat-killing White Nose Syndrome has been found in a ninth species. Here's the press release. The report says the disease, which was first spotted in central New York state and has devastated bats throughout the Northeast, has now been found all the way in Oklahoma, as is shown in the above map (taken from the Center's web site, via the New York Department of Environmental Conservation).


Here is the New Hampshire Fish & Game site about WNS.





NH robotics firm bought by California maker of robot arms


I have a story in the Telegraph today about the small ($5 million revenue, two dozen employees) MobileRobots of Amherst, which makes autonomous robots for industry, being bought by larger ($50 million, 140 employees) Adept Technologies of California, which makes some very cool robotic arms for industry.  Here it is.


Although this sale is prodded by specific qualities of the two firms, it also reflects, I think, the fact that robotics is entering a phase where size increasingly matters. Scrappy start-ups (although MobileRobots is 16 years old, so that's not quite the right term) are going to need more capital and sales heft.



Bye-bye, incandescent bulb


Ikea will stop restocking incandescent light bulbs and figures they'll all be gone from its stores by the end of the year. (AP story here.) That's well ahead of the mandated phase-out, which starts 2012. The end of filament bulbs is way overdue.


Speaking as a guy who bought his first compact fluorescent bulbs more than 6 years ago (they're big and ugly, and now relegated to the basement) I suspect that our grandkids will look back on CFLs as a klunky transition technology, now that LED bulbs are starting to look more hopeful.





Seabrook nuke plant seeks another 20 years of life


In a non-surprising move, the owners of Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant have made a request to have their license extended from 2030 to 2050. Story here.


Seabrook is very much unlike the smaller, older Vermont Yankee plant, which is struggling to extend its state license (Vermont is unique in that the state also must OK nuke plants) due to leaks of radioactive tritirum and a sloppy attempt at a corporate cover-up. (Story here.) Although the construction of Seabrook was rife with controversy, and protestors called the Clamshell Alliance helped prevent a second unit from being built at the same site, and cost overruns bankrupted our state utility, its two decades of operation have been fairly quiet. Still not all are happy about the possiblity of a license extension, as this opinion piece shows.



Even after death, Bobby Fischer is complicating things


No offense to Kasparov et al, but the chess world just hasn't been the same since Bobby Fischer went off the rails, many years ago. He was just so delightfully weird - although I suspect that having to  deal with him in person would have sent even the proverbial saint off the deep end.


Anyway, as this NY Times item notes, Fischer is still being annoying two years after he died. He didn't leave a will (of course) and everybody is fighting over his estate. Now he's going to be dug up for a little DNA sampling to see if he's the father of a 9-year-old girl.


I haven't played any form of competitive chess in decades and couldn't even make way through a Ruy Lopez opening any more (my rating peaked at about 1250, barely advanced beginner status, and faded as college classes used up my brain cells). My son has been learning Go, so in recent weeks we've been playing that board game instead; its adherents like to claim "Go:chess::chess:checkers" although I'm not sure that's quite fair.





Financing complicates offshore wind in N.E.


Offshore wind farms in the Northeast make a lot of engineering sense: that's where the continent's best winds are, it's close to lots of electricity-consuming people, and the broad continental shelf makes construction comparatively cheap compared to the west coast. But paying for electricity generation is complicated.


The current system of calculating rates of return and fees for regulated utilities has been developed over a century to deal with fossil-fuel power generation, which is always-on and has a relatively large fuel cost. It's not always straightforward to see how to apply it to intermittent power producers that have no fuel cost.


As an example, consider this Treehugger piece about an offshore wind farm proposed for Rhode Island, which is on track to be the first in the Northeast. Some supporters are pulling back because of rulings about the way the state's Public Utilitity Commission decided that electricity charge should be calculated. Warning: It's pretty complicated, and the sort of legalistic/accounting problem that drives engineers crazy.


But if the money doesn't work, the machines will never be made.



How do you pronounced the number "101"?


I long time ago, when 100-millimeter cigarettes were novelty, somebody came out with a 101-millimeter cigarette that had a jingle about being "a silly millimeter longer - one-oh-one".


I mention this bit of braincell-cluttering trivia because of this wonderful item on the Improbable Research blog, in which people debate how to pronounce the number 101 - it is "one hundred one" or "one hundred and one"? No decision was reached, but at least one person chosen "one-oh-one," but for reasons of efficiency rather than commercial jingledom. (I also like this answer: I say both are correct; the situation is within the definition of what Computer Scientists call a "don't care.")


I include the  "and" for clarity's sake, to make sure people heard me properly. But I won't scorn those of you who belong to the "one hundred one" camp.


(This would be a wonderful posting for readers to comment on, but WE STILL DON'T HAVE THE COMMENTS WORKING! ARGHHHHHH!!!)



Very early solar power in Massachusetts


I didn't realize that some of the nation's first solar photovoltaic systems were in Massachusetts, including a 100-kilowatt unit installed way back in 1981 in Beverly Mass. (here's a 2001 article about it, which says it operated without incident for 20 years) and a whole neighborhood home/business system in Gardner, Mass. in 1985 - here's a 2004 story about it, which indicates that the experiment was a mixed success. Here's an item from a company involved in creating the Gardner system.


Stories like this are interesting because one of the selling points of PV is maintenance-free operation over long periods of time. As this Greentech Media story notes, the weak point in the cells is the inverter, which switches the DC power to AC.





Getting offspring from a super chestnut tree in N.H.


If all goes well, this morning (Monday morning) I will accompany folks from the American Chestnut Foundation as they hand pollinate a "mother tree" found in Hudson, N.H., near the Mass. border. These trees have the blight that has virtually destroyed the American chestnut, but still flower - they have some sort of natural resistance. The ACF manually pollinates them, covers the resulting flowers in bags so nothing bad will happen to them over the summer, then collects the nuts and plants them. The idea is to grow trees that can naturally shrug off the blight.


Here are details about the program. Here's the ACF home page.


Similar methods - labor-intensive methods to grow descendants of naturally resistant trees- is being used to develop American elms that can withstand Dutch Elm Disease, which virtually wiped out that species earlier this year. As I noted last week, the process isn't always straightforward.



Longest day, but not earliest sunrise or latest sunset


Today's the longest amount of daylight of the year, but as I have noted many times in the past, it's not the day with the earliest sunrise (that was last week) or latest sunset (that's next week). This Web site can give you those figures.


This counter-intuitive result is due to the oddities of our orbit, which makes the noon-to-noon period lengthen and shorten over the course of the year. Our clocks, which don't want to have a slightly different time period for each "day" of the year, fudge the difference; it's not noticeable in normal life except at the equinoxes. This listing at explains it pretty well.



New Hampshire Geography Quiz for June 21st, 2010: Covered In Rich Corinthian Leather


I figured since "weekly" might be too much (or too little), we can skip that part this time.


Currently the World Cup is going on down in South Africa, and Slovenia, where "rich Carinthian leather" comes from*, played the US the other day to a 2-2 draw. Slovenia's the smallest country in the World Cup, but if New Hampshire were a country, it would be even smaller than Slovenia.


That made me wonder - if New Hampshire was a country, where would it rank among the other countries of the world? I found out, but now it's your turn.


Answer To The Last Geography Quiz: Protectworth, New Hampshire is now known as Springfield, New Hampshire.


*Along with Austria, the region straddles the border between the countries.





Connecticut to probe Google's data sniffing


The Connecticut attorney general says he'll lead a group of state a.g.'s looking into whether Google broke the law when it sniffed personal data off of wireless networks around the world while compiling Street View pictures for Google Maps. Here's the NY Times story. Google says it mistakenly grabbed fragments of data (including some email passwords) over unsecured Wi-Fi networks in more than 30 countries. Google discovered the problem - or at least publicly admitted that it existed - after German regulators started an inquiry.



I'm moderating a clean-power conference - gulp!


On Thursday at 6:30 p.m. in Manchester, "Repower New Hampshire," a project of the Alliance for Climate Protection, will hold a conference with local business leaders about how a transition to clean energy sources. The roundtable will include Amanda Grappone of Grappone Auto Group, Dawn Wivell of the International Trade Resource Center Director Dawn Wivell, Jim Rubens of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and will be moderated by (drumroll, please) David Brooks of the Nashua Telegraph.


The back story for GG readers: They were looking for a third person on the panel and asked me, but I don't know enough to face real business leaders who will have real questions and expect real answers. (I'm a journalist; I don't actually know anything.) Jim Rubens was moderating and I pointed out that he knows more than me - so they said, "OK, we'll switch." I was stuck.


It'll be at UNH-Manchester, 400 Commercial St., Room 301. Be there or be square.


(Now ... I wonder what a moderator does, exactly?)



Held hostage by Robins


Year after year, a pair of robins builds a nest on top of a light fixture out on our back deck, the one we usually use to go in and out of the house. We also have a cat that really - really wants to get up and personal in their space. So, we change our normal routine and keep the cat in until the babies are out and on their own.


According to realiable sources, (the internet), the time from hatching to leaving is only about two weeks. So, we have another week of tip-toeing around, trying not to disturb them. The cat feels that being confined to the house is grossly unfair, but we are bigger and therefore in charge.


There are compensations, seeing the parents slaving away, feeding those open beaks that are always outstretched and begging. They are ugly critters, but still cute. Youngsters are full of so much energy, eagerly awaiting the latest offerings from mom and pop. This is just part of what makes living in rural New Hampshire worthwhile. Just close enough to nature to enjoy it but comfortable in our artificial nest so we don't have to worry too much about the dangers from Mother Nature.



Telegraph institutes a mild pay wall


The era of All Free Online All The Time is probably coming to an end, although I have no idea what it will morph into. The Telegraph took a step toward a pay wall today, requiring a paid subscription for unlimited access to Visitors to the Web site will have access to 30 stories over a 30-day period before triggering a request for a subscription, with options ranging from seven-day delivery at $3.50 a week to Sunday-only delivery for $1.50 a week. More information can be seen here.


The Union-Leader has taken a different tack: They keep certain stories off the Web site entirely, making them available only to print subscribers or subscribers to their e-reader version.  That approach is designed to protect print subscriptions as much as to gather new subscribers.





At an MIT flea market, selling vacuum tubes has a funny little photo spread from the Flea at MIT, a long-running flea market run by the MIT Radio Society and associated groups that draws people from all over. The photographer set up a sort of photo booth and asked people to show their wares and describe them. Easily the best is this one (you have to click to see it; go ahead, it's fun) - a guy from New Hampshire who was selling vacuum tubes from old electronic devices. If that isn't the perfect MIT flea-market item, I don't know what is. And he looks like somebody who would go to an MIT flea market.


The photographer asked people for a three-word description of the Flea. This is a good one: "techo junkie paradise."





Clean-power conference tonight, featuring yours truly


Tonight at 6:30 p.m. in room 301 at UNH-Manchester (400 Commercial St.), I'm going to be moderating a three-person panel with local business leaders about how to transition to a "clean energy" economy.  That's assuming I can find my coat and tie.


It's sponsored by "Repower New Hampshire," a project of the Alliance for Climate Protection. The roundtable will include Amanda Grappone of Grappone Auto Group, Dawn Wivell of the International Trade Resource Center Director Dawn Wivell, Jim Rubens of the Union of Concerned Scientists, so there will be some people on stage who know what they're talking about.



Putting powdered sugar on bees in a hive. My wife is sugaring one of five "supers" that make up the hive, each of which has 10 hanging frames with cells that bees fill with pollen and honey.


Putting powdered sugar on 30,000 bees


Our bees have varroa mites, a parasite that looks like a little, tiny horseshoe crab. One method of controlling them is to open the hive and sprinkle powered sugar on all the bees; in the process of cleaning each other, they knock off the mites (which get stuck on a special sticky board we put under the hive). This picture shows my wife doing this weird little practice last weekend.


Perhaps not surprise





Better batteries for laptops, if not for cars


Boston-Power get rejected in its request for $100 million from the feds to pay for R&D of better rechargable lithium-ion batteries for cars, but the private sector still likes it: It announced $60 million in new funding, largely to boost development of the batteries for H-P laptops.


Here's a GreenTech media story; there are plenty others around.



Fail to predict an earthquake and you're a criminal?


Those wacky Italians! First they implode in the World Cup (are you allowed to have a World Cup without a team from Italy?) and then they decide that seismologists who failed to predict the deadly April 6 earthquake in that country are guilty of manslaughter! (Story from here.)Unbelievable.


Hey, I have an idea: Nobody predicted the 5.0 earthquake that slightly rattled the region on Tuesday. Maybe we can sue them for negligence.


(And what about Calexico, California, which was moved 31 inches by an April earthquake (story here). They should be prosecuting left, right and center!)



Comments have returned!


Comments are working again. Feel free to write some variant of "your brilliance continues to astonish me"!





FAA: "Flying car" can be heavier than an airplane


Massachusetts-based Terrafugia has gotten Federal Aviation Administration approval to carry an extra 110 pounds on its "roadable aircraft" and still qualify as a Light Sport Aircraft. The company sought the exemption to the maximum takeoff weight so they could add automotive safety equipment like air bags and safety frame cage. (Here's the press release. Here are a bunch of pictures of the very cool craft.)


Its takeoff weight can now be 1,430 pounds - which is very light for a car. A Mini weights at least 2,300 pounds and even a snub-nosed Smart car is 1,600 pounds.





Burning wood for power and heat makes sense, but is harder than it seems


 "Biomass" energy - burning wood, usually in the form of processed pellets or other post-scrap, for heat and electricity - has to play a large part in the energy future of the Northeast if we 're going to reduce fossil-fuel use, but it's not as easy as it seems. This Tux Turkel piece in the Portland Press Herald (read it here) has a sobering sidebar: "Plans to build a $20 million wood pellet manufacturing plant in Burnham, Maine, this year have been put off, a victim of tight financing and lower demand. It's an example of the challenges facing an industry that couldn't make pellets fast enough two years ago, when oil prices spiked, but now is more cautious."


Here's a piece I did a few months ago about various biomass efforts in the state. (By the way, here's my story: I installed a small wood-pellet stove in the living room last fall and my heating oil use declined by one-half this winter - although my youngest child went off to college, so at least half of that savings is due to lifestyle changes. Our electricity use also declined sharply, because the fan in the pellet stove uses much less power than the fan in the burner in our basement.)


And here's a recent NY Times Q&A with one of the authors of a Mass. study which indicated that the pollution benefits of biomass vs. fossil fuel are more complicated than it seems.



Can the chestnut tree be returned to our forests?


Lots of people are familiar with efforts to bring back the American elm, which was wiped out by Dutch Elm Disease, but fewer (including me until recently) know about similar efforts to bring back the American chestnut. That program, spearheaded by the non-profit American Chestnut Foundation, is using a multi-generational set of cross-breeding to create a tree that is resistant to the blight that destroyed the species. I wrote about the program in the Sunday Telegraph: read it here.


Part of the process includes putting bags over the female flowers on so-called "mother trees," which have grown enough to produce flowers and therefore have at least some naturally resistance. This protects them until ACF volunteers can carefully pollinate them with pollen from cross-bred trees that have some resistance. It's part of a long, complicated process: if everything goes perfectly, New Hampshire won't see plantings of resistant, cold-hardy chestnuts from New Hampshire lineage until 2022!


By the way, the American chestnut is distinct and separate from the horse chestnut tree, which is pretty common.





Verizon FiOS is slower in the Northeast than out West


PC Magazine did a huge "speed test" of Internet providers around the country. (Read it here) Some interesting conclusions for the Northeast:


Verizon FiOS is the fastest service overall in the Northeast (1.19 Mbps vs. 1.04 for Comcast cable modem), but its even faster out West, where it averages 1.70 Mbps. Not sure why - perhaps the equipment is older here? (note in response to a query below: This measures so-called "surf speed" - this link describes methodology.)


NH's broadband penetration is 75 percent, average for the region; of which three-quarters is cable, one-fifth DSL and about 6 percent is fiber (the leftover FiOS, now called FAST, in southeast NH).


Vermont's broadband penetration is pitiful: 44 percent. Even larger, more rural Maine is better, at 58 percent.


And speaking of broadband, the government wants to auction off a lot more spectrum to commercial providers to increase wireless boradband. NY Times story here.






Public concerns about wind farm plan


A public hearing with "more than 100″ people about a proposed 100-megawatt wind farm on the Fletcher and Tenney mountain ridges produced the usual concerns and support, according to this story in the Concord Monitor which has these quotes:


"I have no problem with going green - I've seen what oil does to the ground. . . . I've seen what it does to the Gulf," he said. "I'm just more concerned about my situation."


"I'd rather not see turbines in the distance to my north, but we all have to sacrifice," he said. "If we nitpick everything, we're not going to get anyplace."


And this one, complete with the S word ("syndrome", that is):


One controversial topic in the wind energy community is "Wind Turbine Syndrome," a name coined by Malone, N.Y., pediatrician Nina Pierpont in a book that links the turbines' low-frequency noise to a constellation of health symptoms such as headaches and tinnitus reported by nearby residents. Lawrence Mazur of Rumney has implored the committee to look into the so-called syndrome further and asked last night if the panel would consider issuing a cease and desist on the project until more research is completed.



Conference on "sub-topic of sub-area of narrow field of research"


The online comic PHD (piled higher and deeper, of course), has a spot-on satire of academic conferences in this wonderful comic. "Topics include, but are not limited to, every possible combination of buzzwords." It's worth a moment of your helter-skelter morning romp through the Internets!



Notes from the woodpile


Last September, as I was adding the last row to my woodpile, I took one piece of black cherry, carefully weighed it and marked the end with date and weight. This June, moving next winters fuel to the woodshed, I came across that piece and weighed it again. The loss of water was significant.


I started out at 3639 grams. In June, after being stored under a waterproof cover, the weight is 2455 grams for a loss of 1184 grams. I referred to chapter 4 of R. Bruce Hoadley's book "Understanding Wood, A craftsman's guide to wood technology" produced by Taunton Press for explanations of the process of drying wood. He is the go to reference for the technology of wood. His companion book, "Identifying Wood, accurate results with simple tools" is also very good.


The moisture content of wood is measured as the ratio of the weight of water in a given sample to the weight of the sample when completely dry. Usually expressed as Percent Moisture Content. Completely dry is only achieved by oven drying before the sample absorbs moisture from the air again. I haven't gone through the oven drying process but plugging in the numbers (2455/1184 = 2.07 = 207%).


All this water given off is so-called free water that is held in the pockets of the wood cells. Bound water is tougher to drive off, being held in the walls of the cells. Any wood purchased as lumber is usually kiln dried, done for dimensional stability as well as to lower shipping costs. If the lumber is then stored outside without a cover, it will reabsorb moisture from the air. It's important, especially if the wood is being used to make furniture to allow the wood to stabilize for a few weeks where it will be used. Otherwise warping will occur as it absorbs moisure unevenly.


The way wood moisture content is usually measured is to divide the air or kiln dry weight by the the initial weight. So, my piece of cherry was (2455/3639 = 67%). Electronic instruments are available that are used by woodworkers to measure this before using wood for furniture.


Black Cherry is somewhere in the middle for green water content. Ash is quite low at 46%, black cherry is 58% and eastern hemlock is 98%. Red oak, a common wood around here is 80%.


This was a simple experiment but it shows the importance of using dry wood in your stove. It takes a lot of energy to drive off water from wood. The efficiency of woodstoves is always measured with dry fuel. Using wet wood, even wood that was formerly dry but stored uncovered in the wet and snow, is very counter-productive.


It takes a long time to air dry firewood. Don't expect to get good results from wood that was cut in the summer to be ready to use in November. A lot of the firewood that people buy from large suppliers was stored in great heaps outside. The wood in the middle of the pile certainly wasn't exposed to the air or sun. I like to have my firewood cut at least a year ahead of time. I have a two section woodshed. Each sections represents one heating season. One side gets the green wood and will be used in two years. This years wood was stacked last year. As long as I keep up with it, the system works.


Earle Rich ... Mont Vernon, NH



Real geothermal power from central New Hampshire?


A Massachusetts firm called Atlantic Geothermal - which had the great good taste to copy one of my past columns (with permission) on its Web site - wants to test whether central New Hampshire might be suitable for real geothermal power. They're talking about Iceland-type systems, not the underground heat exchange that's called geothermal hereabouts.


The Concord Monitor reports (read the story here, it's well done) that the town of Bow, next to Concord, gave the firm permission to conduct "non-intrusive testing." The 3-D underground imaging, with a price tag of $1 million, needs a grant from the federal Department of Energy.


Most underground energy in New England is produced by decay of radioactive elements in granite, but according to the story: "earlier studies have shown there are underground vertical formations of granite in the Concord area that measure between 300 and 400 degrees. (Atlantic Geothermal) said other scientists have found no evidence that the heat was being produced by radioactive isotopes breaking down within the earth's mantle, so he hopes those rocks are being heated from the earth's core. ...(If so,) an intricate series of piping can be constructed underground to capture the energy. That piping would draw heat to the surface, where it would boil liquid to power turbines."


The story says Atlantic Geothermal has evaluated five locations throughout New England, but so far Bow seems to be the most promising.





US frowns on antibiotics in animal feed, thankfully


I'm a carnivore and a fan of large-scale modern agriculture, but there are certain practices on today's farms do that are just insane. One of those is pumping antibiotics into animals so they'll grow slightly faster, even though this leads to drug-resistant bacteria infecting all of us. Attempts to rein in this practice have always been squelched by the farm lobby, which likes the higher profits of faster-growing beef/pigs/chickens (and we consumers like the lower food prices this creates).


This is a classic case in which the advantages are obvious and so are defended, while the drawbacks are hidden and diffuse and as a result don't rile us up. (Economists have some term for this situation, which is pretty common, but I can't think of what it is.)


The FDA is trying again to limit antibiotic use in livestock, reports the NY Times. Let's hope they succeed; health care costs enough as it is, without adding more drug-resistant germs to the mix.



July 2010

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Hand-to-hand combat against invasives!


The battle against invasive species is more fun to think about when it involves cool technologies (genetic manipulation) or bio-controls (imported predators) - but sometimes the best technique is low tech. That's why the Nashua River Watershed Association has sent out this invitation seeking muscular waterproof folks to help its ongoing struggle against water chestnut in the upper stretches of the river:


On Saturday, July 17th from 11:30 AM to 4 PM, volunteers are invited to help scout and pull water chestnuts, an invasive exotic weed, from the Pepperell Pond section of the Nashua River. Gathering baskets and maps will be provided (although if you have an old laundry basket to donate, please do!). … Volunteers should wear old clothes, bring (rubber dishwashing) gloves, sunscreen, bug spray, water to drink, and a bagged lunch. Volunteers may bring their own canoes and equipment, but will be asked to sign an insurance waiver. A limited number of canoes will be provided by Nashoba Paddler on a "first call, first served" basis. Advanced registration is required; all participants must register by calling the Nashua River Watershed Association at (978) 448-0299. Email is not sufficient for this registration.


We were canoeing down there last week; it's a lovely spot, but the weeds are definitely in danger of taking over. (This isn't the water chestnut that you eat, by the way - it's a different species, with a nasty barbed seed pod that lives for ages in river-bottom muck.)



The "smart grid" begins at the grid level


For most of us (me, anyway), "smart grid" means devices that provide information and control at the home level about electricity usage, ranging from so-called day part pricing, in which energy is cheaper off peak, to futuristic ideas about "smart" refrigerators that can be ramped down to balance out power loads.


But smart grids are at lest as important, maybe more so, at the grid level, allowing the folks who distribute electricity to decide how best to do so, and when more power is needed.


ISO New England, which oversees the region's grid, sqays it has gotten an $8 million federal grant to accelerate a three-year, $18 million project to install 30 "smart-grid devices" called phasor measurement units. They say these will help control room operators monitor and measure performance detect and address problems on the system, with information about the system's status increasing " from once every four seconds now to 30 times per second."


"Over time, the data collected from the PMUs will better inform decisions regarding power grid design and operation. ISO New England and New England transmission companies expect to begin installing equipment later this summer and complete the project over three years." ISO New England and the transmission owners participating in the project will match the federal grants.




Obama's beehives are a lot prettier than ours


The Obamas allowed a beehive to be set up on the south lawn of the White House, which is pretty cool. I must say, however, this online video from (screen shot above) indicates that their hive is a whole lot nicer looking than ours, which you may recall from this post, or this post.


(UPDATE: After watching the video, my wife had me query the White House as to whether they've gotten varroa mites, like we have. I'll let you know if they answer. Also, we asked why their hive is held together by strapping; we use straps because we're afraid bears will knock the hive over - but I don't think there are bears in D.C. …)





The public-vs.-science gap: Whose fault is it?


The American Academy of Arts & Sciences has an article about a report which says, in essence, that scientists can't just roll their eyes at the ignorance of the general public but must make a lot more effort to help everybody understand what research means and why it is important.Here's the article. Here's the report.


This is a point I've made many times over the years, perhaps because my job puts me in the middle. On one side I'm exasperated by readers/colleagues who can't tell the difference between astrology and astronomy, on the other side I'm exasperated by scientists who ridicule colleagues for "dumbing down" any explanation enough so that people outside their little circle can understand.


Call it the "Sagan Syndrome" - a scientist who communicates to the public, like Carl Sagan, is immediately labeled past his prime and incapable of good work. This is an attitude that the research community needs to overcome. (What's most exasperating is that the snootiest researchers tend to be loudest at complaining that we don't fund their work enough!)





Network NH Now map


Spreading broadband with fiber optic, microwave, and more


I have a story in today's Sunday Telegraph (read it here) about the latest grant ($44.5 million in stimulus plus $20 million in added help locally) to spread broadband in New Hampshire. It's mostly building a fiber-optic "middle mile" backbone, from which last-mile additions can be spread later, although there are also microwave-tower links and a hook into the interesting LINC (wireless broadband) system that's planned in the upper Connecticut River Valley. This map gives the big picture plan.


The story sidebar may be of particular interest to GG readers, to whit:


The federal government defines broadband as Internet service with at least 0.8 Mbps (megabits, or million bits, per second) download and 0.2 Mbps upload – but that's pretty feeble.


Commercial broadband tends to be at least five times that fast. Comcast, for example, promises download speeds up to 12 Mbps with Powerboost home service and 50 Mbps with its top-end service; FairPoint offers up to 3 Mbps with its DSL and between 5 and 30 Mbps downloads with fiber-optic FAST; and Verizon Wireless is testing so-called 4G cell-phone service that claims download speeds of 5 Mbps or more.


Network New Hampshire Now isn't promising any particular speed at this point, since it has three years to complete its network and the final result is partly dependent on what's done by the Internet service providers that sign on to use the network. But it's definitely going to leave the federal definition in the dust.


"We've always been talking about speed well over 10 Mbps," said Michael Blair, GIS consultant for the Southwest Regional Planning Commission, one of the member organizations in Network New Hampshire Now.



Oh no: I missed World UFO Day!


I missed World UFO Day, as I learned about from this NY Times story, which notes:


World U.F.O. Day is celebrated by some on June 24, to commemorate the first widely reported U.F.O. sighting by Kenneth Arnold, a pilot who claimed to see what he would call "flying saucers" over Mount Rainier the same year.


I guess I shouldn't feel bad about not celebrating, though, because it doesn't seem like anybody did. A little Web surfing could only find this Latin American-tinged celebration, but it's from 2009.


There isn't even any notice from MUFON, the Mutual UFO Network. It used to have a big chapter on NH Seacoast, but it has been subsumed into the national network. (This Web announcement is sad in its stark brevity: "NH MUFON is Now Closed Forever.")


That's too bad, because New Hampshire has an obvious way to celebrate: Hold a conference at the UNH collection of the papers of famous alien abductees Betty and Barney Hill. Much of the collection is online here.





A monstrous power line, under Lake Champlain


Quebec has enormous hydro-power reserves - a geeky way of saying it has a lot of rivers that are dammable - and the northeast U.S. uses a lot of electricity. Connecting the two is the idea behind a 2,000-megawatt power line that will probably run through New Hampshire, if the various approvals are given, connecting to the Boston area. Story about that plan here.


Now another giant north-south power line has been proposed, running under Lake Champlain and then along the Hudson River, connecting to NYC. It would be a high voltage direct current (hvDC) line, which has the advantage of carrying power with much less energy loss, but has the disadvantage of being difficult to connect into because it's so expensive to switch DC back to the AC used by the grid. As a result, it would be hard for Vermont to tap into this line if it wanted to, say, replace the power from Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant.  Story here. Website of the developer here.


Here's a story I did a few months ago about the hvDC line running through New Hampshire; it's the only one of its kind in the Northeast.






Grass-eating crabs are killing Cape Cod marshes


Sometimes it seems that the list of environmental problems never stops growing - it's the "wet blanket" effect that, I think, makes a lot of people anti-environmentalist; they're so tired of hearing bad news that they just pretend it's all "tree-huggers" and can be ignored without feeling guilty.


Anyway, here's another problem to add to the list: Crabs are "essentially clear-cutting the vegetation," turning marsh-grass fields into mud. A possible culprit? Us, of course: Recreational fishing may have reduced the crabs' natural predators too much, in the words of one researcher: "It's looking like a classic story of humans altering one link in a food chain and everything going nutty, having cascade effects."  Here's the Globe story.



Global warming? My concern this week is local warming


It was 80 degrees when I got up this morning - 80 degrees at 6 a.m.! That is not fit for human habitation.


The really depressing part is that when my kids are my age, this could be the summer norm for New Hampshire. Ugh. Is it too late to move to northern Laborador?


On the other hand, I did get to wade into the Souhegan River this morning as part of the biweekly amateur collection of water samples for testing of oxygen levels and e.coli bacteria (as I wrote about recently). I wish I could have sat and enjoyed it for an hour, but this work thing was hanging over my head …


(Of course, it could be worse: I could be a firefighter. Fighting the inevitable brush fires while carrying all that equipment wearing all that heavy protective gear in all this heat and humidity must be absolutely brutal. Hats off to them.)



Bad news: Asian longhorned beetle found in Boston


Speaking of depressing environmental news, as I was two posts ago, here's a new one: They've found the Asian longhorned beetle in Boston. (Globe breaking news item here.)  Worcester is no longer alone in having this tree-destroying pest … alas.


How long before it's found north of the state border, I wonder?



Near-record heat, but not near-record electricity usage


Is it the recession or is New England starting to make a difference with energy efficiency and alternative energy? (I suspect it's the former, but you never know.)


Whatever the reason, New England fell almost 4 percent short of its all-time electricity usage today even. (Story here.) 28,000 megawatt hours was the ISO-New England record on Aug. 2006 (when the Boston maximum was 98 degrees, says this site) whereas about 27,000 megawatt-hours seems likely to be used July 6 (here), when the temperature hit 100 in Boston, one degree shy of the record.


(Update: The Globe visited EnerNOC, the company that helps oversee the grid operation, in this story.)




July 7, 2010


What is the coldness equivalent of a fire?


The heat wave has brought temperature to everybody's mind, which prodded some family discussion at dinner last night which eventually led to this question: Why isn't there a coldness equivalent of fire - that is, a phenomenon which spreads on its own and lowers temperature, the way fire spreads on its own and raises temperature. I discount phenomenon that reflects changes in the weather, like a spreading glacier.


One possibility is that raising temperature breaks molecular bonds, which releases energy that is reflected as a higher temperature, leading to a feedback loop - and there's no equivalent phenomenon that lowers temperature. Is there?


Another possibility is that there is an equivalent, but one that's much slower than wildfire: When leaves come out on trees in the spring, they absorb energy from the surrounding air and use it to grow more leaf area, which absorbs more energy (it's always cooler in or near forests, and not just because of shade). I'm not certain that's an exact parallel but it's interesting.


Comments are working again and the spam filter is on, so they're no longer swamped by glop. Thoughts are welcome.



EPA coal rules wouldn't affect NH's big power plant


As the NY Times reports (here), the administration has proposed new air-quality rules for coal-burning power plants that officials said would bring major reductions emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. However, PSNH won't be affected, even though it owns the 478-megawatt Merrimack Station power plant, by far the state's biggest coal-burning facility.


That's because the controversial and expensive scrubber being built at Merrimack Station will reduce those pollutants, as well as mercury emissions, below any level of concern to EPA. But it's also because (as PSNH's Martin Murray pointed out to me), New Hampshire isn't even one of the 31 states, plus D.C., that are covered by the proposed ruling. Neither are Vermont and Maine. Here is a PDF fact sheet about that proposed regulation, called a transport ruling.




July 8, 2010


Solar-powered plane flies for 26 hours


An oversized ultralight (one person, 230-foot wingspan, which is more than a 848) with banks of solar cells on its wingtops stayed aloft for 26 hours yesterday, circling all through the night. (Story here)


It's a pretty cool adventure, although what it says about alternative energy in transportation is a little hard to see. Putting solar cells atop a car, for example, would be lucky to power the radio.



How can it be hot? We're at aphilion!


Here's a pretty funny lead: The eastern United States is broiling in a dangerous heat wave. Yet this week Earth is farther away from the sun than the planet will be at any other time during 2010. How can that be?


Fortunately, that beginning for this National Geographic article is tongue-in-cheek, and uses the heat wave as an excuse to talk about the actual factors that affects the planet's temperature - axial tilt, land/ocean proportions in the hemispheres, etc. The article notes that the difference between the amount of sunlight hitting Earth at perihelion (closest) and aphelion (farthest away) is only about 7 percent.


ADDENDUM: My alert (or maybe just work-avoiding) brother points out this item from futilitycloset: a message appeared for a short time on NOAA's Web site in 2003, saying "the Earth has left its orbit and is hurtling towards the sun. Unusually hot weather will occur for at least the next several days as the Earth draws ever nearer to the sun. Therefore, an excessive heat watch has been posted."




July 9, 2010


Welcome to college! Care for a DNA test?


Berkeley, part of the University of California, is mailing "saliva sample kits" to every incoming freshman and transfer student, telling them they can use the kits to submit their DNA for genetic analysis. It's part of an orientation program on the topic of personalized medicine. (Scientific American article here.) It's optional, although I wonder how much subtle pressure there will be ("You didn't? What are you, some kind of tree-hugging luddite?")


Nobody on this coast is doing anything similar that I know of.





One of our cats on a previous monitor


My CRT screen died


I turned on the home computer this morning and my 16-inch CRT monitor went BANG, and then BANG and then BANG again and then BANG BANG BANG. Quite alarming.


I did the only sensible thing: I panicked and turned it off.


I will take it to the dump today (Saturday dump run!) and then go to the Telegraph's Milford office and hopefully scrounge another leftover CRT screen, abandoned when the company switched to flat panels. The main limitation is they can't be more than 16" diagonal or they're too deep for my desk; I'm not sure any exist (copy editors used huge monitors, to see the newspaper page during layout). I may have to buy a new one; that seems so wasteful!


The biggest drawback of a flat panel is that the cats can't lie on top of it in the winter.





Thank you, global warming, for this berry year


Strawberries were incredible this year, and way early; raspberries are a little early and equally fabulous; blackberries are already coming out (way early), and blueberries seem sensational, judging from the 4 quarts we just got at our local pick-your-own place (Zahn's in Milford). If you haven't picked berries yet this year, you deserve a dope slap; check this site for a nearby farm.


There might be debate about patterns of heat waves and high temperatures (see the latest column from the Telegraph's weather columnist, Doug Webster, here), but there's no doubt that a number of natural phenomena are shifting earlier in New Hampshire, including maple syrup flows and ice-out (as I noted here). Looks like berry harvesting may be joining the pack - which is a sign of bad things, but if the crops stay this fabulous then at least there's a silver lining.





Spotting invasive beetles with a radar collar around trees


From today's Globe: "With the invasive (Asian longhorned beetle) recently discovered in Boston, a Northeastern University professor and an undergraduate are attempting to devise a way to find the beetle earlier. Carey Rappaport, professor of electrical and computer engineering, and sophomore Kassi Stein are developing a radar collar that can be wrapped around a tree trunk. The collar would beam microwaves into the tree, and sensors would show any dry voids, which signal that Asian longhorned larvae have probably begun feeding inside the tree."


Here's the story.



Special effects guru wants to make a sci-fi film in … western Mass.?


Hollywood pro Douglas Trumbull (he's got a hefty wikipedia article that covers his work directing or overseeing special effects for many science fiction classics, from "Terminal Many" to "Blade Runner" - plus, he helped develop Imax) lives in the Berkshires, the scenic part of western Massachusetts. He wants to jump-start video/film work out there, so here's his plan: "Produce a sci-fi film entirely in Western Massachusetts."


Cue the joke titles: "ZooMass in space" - "Tanglewood 3-D" - "The Zebra Mussels That Ate Springfield"


Here's the story in Mass High Tech.



Left Foot Braking


I've always been a proponent of using my left foot to activate the brake, claiming that it reduces reaction time. Today was one of those moments when I believe it saved a messy situation.


I was coming back from kayaking on Nubanuset lake in Hancock. Leaving Hancock village, I took the shortcut up over the hill by the apple orchard. The speed limit on this road is 30 mph and I was doing a little less than that. I noticed a car approaching the road from a driveway. But, instead of stopping at the road, the driver drove right out in front of me.


I'm a defensive driver. I try to predict worst case situations and be ready to react. My left foot was poised over the brake pedal so I immediatly slammed on the brakes. My distance from the other car was about two feet when I stopped. If I used the conventional system of moving my right foot from the gas pedal, over to the brake pedal and then applying full force, that small difference in time would have made the outcome completely different.


Looking at the other driver, I saw an elderly woman with a passenger. She was probably distracted and assumed, as usual, that there is very little traffic on that road. She backed up, I drove on and we both went on our ways.


I didn't find much about the technique one way or the other. It seems there are an equal number of people for or against it. I think I'll continue to do it. I've had one accident back in 1964, and I hope I can continue my safe driving record.


Earle Rich           Mont Vernon





Charging one electric vehicle = running 5 plasma TVs


A blog called GreenCarReports has an article about a study which claims that widespread adoption of electric cars won't cause undue strain on the power grid. (The story is here.) From the story:


The study is well regarded, in part because of its authors. It was a joint effort by two somewhat unlikely partners: the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), which is the utility industry's research arm, and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). It looks at the consequences of drivers charging plug-in vehicles at different times during the day. And it assumes a gradual rollout of electric vehicles into the current U.S. fleet of 300 million vehicles.


In practice, this means electric cars will only impose marginal increases on the electric grid. The load of one plug-in recharging (about 2 kilowatts) is roughly the same as that of four or five plasma television sets. Plasma TVs hardly brought worries about grid crashes.


Of course, a blog called "GreenCarGrid" is going to be pro-electric vehicle and might overlook negative studies, but this one sounds pretty legitimat



A slide from Gary Lauder's talk


Proposal for a hybrid stop/yield sign brings good discussion


My Telegraph column this week is about a proposal to develop a new traffic sign that would be a cross between a yield and a stop sign, so you don't have to stop when nobody's around (wasting gas) but have direction of how to proceed when others are there (unlike a four-way yield sign, which wouldn't work).


Here's the column. Check the reader comments at the end - they're a good example of intelligent online discussion, with only a little "it's all those Massholes!" type foolishness that tends to make too many comment sections unreadable.





Historic patent models on display at SEE Science Center


I love the history of technology, and judging from the popularity of steampunk, so do lots of other people. So I was psyched to see an announcement from the SEE Science Center in Manchester (read it here) that they'll have six patent models from the Rothschild Patent Model Collection on display through December. The patent models, from the day when the patent office often required a working model before they would issue a patent (wonder how that would go with software patents?) are from the period between 1809-1905. The Rothschild Patent Model Collection is the largest private collection of viewable United States patent models in the world. After the patent models leave the SEE Science Center, they will be heading to the Smithsonian in Washington DC to be included in a display there.


In fact, I was so intrigued that I'm going there this afternoon to see them, for a future science column.


The SEE Science Center is located at 200 Bedford Street, in the Millyard area.





One little wasp sting swells up my whole arm


I'm not typing so well today; I was stung by a wasp/hornet yesterday (something that came out of a big nest in one of our apple trees) and my right arm is swollen from elbow to knuckles. It's like I inflated it with a bicycle pump. It's not exactly attractive, but the smooted-out skin does make the arm look younger, in an obese kind of way.





Sustainable seafood from the Gulf of Maine


The Gulf of Maine Institute is mounting a campaign saying that fish caught in the Gulf of Maine can be eaten without any liberal guilt (that's not quite how they  phrase it), because stock management plans have made its harvest largely sustainable. (Here's the Portland Press-Herald story.) It's always hard to know how much of  campaigns like this is "greenwash" and how much is legit; the article mostly talks to retailers and restaurants, who naturally want this to succeed.


Further, I'm not absolutely sure from the story if they mean the Gulf of Maine Institute, or the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. The article uses the former name, but says it's based in Portland, Maine, which seems to indicate the latter group.





WD-40 and social media


There's a wonderful piece in the Washington Post today (read it here - well worth it) about WD-40, which is both going retro (bringing back its original yellow-and-black can design) and going social media (creating a sort of crowdsourced advertising campaign). The piece has some wonderful lines about this petroleum-based do-it-all product, including this gem:

WD-40 is to bad handymen what cream of mushroom soup is to bad cooks.

A case in point: I use it constantly.





"Landscape auction" in Vermont to help conservation


There's an interesting auction taking place in Vermont to help conservation efforts, according to this Burlington Free-Press article:


The Landscape Auction for Vermont's Working Landscape will be the first such event to be held in the United States. The new conservation fundraising tool has been used in Europe to raise hundreds of thousands of euros for conservation. Bidders at the partnership auction will compete to "buy" one of 50 landscape elements — an access trail to the White River, for example, or tree plantings to stabilize a stretch of bank on the Second Branch, or the low-tech restoration of a 19th century hillside pasture on Adder Brook in Bethel.


The idea is that most of us who benefit from conservation efforts by, say, walking on a trail past a stream and over a knoll, have no way to contribute to keeping these public/private lands open. This auction creates such a venue. Read the details here.





Patent model of "a new and useful Machine for Performing the Operations of Notching, Slotting, Boring and Burring of Knitting Needle Blanks"


What if every patent application had to submit a model?


My Telegraph column today (read it here) is about the display at SEE Science Center of six models from the nation's best collection of patent-application models, which had to accompany U.S. patent applications from 1790 until 1880. Above is a knitting needle model by Walter Aiken, better known as one of the creators of the Cog Railway.


It's a neat display, but the really neat part is that the entire Rothschild Patent Model Collection - 4000 pieces, a number that include supporting documents, is looking for a permanent home. There's lots of space in the Manchester Millyard buildings - hmmm




NOAA: June was warmest month on record


This map says it all: We were about 3C above the 40-year average, and many other places were even hotter. As far as I can tell, virtually all the blue dots, showing cooler than average, are over water. Map is from NOAA, here.





Too much wind power can be a transmission line headache


(ADDENDUM: Announcement for combined heat-and-power biomass plant in Berlin - see story here - raises some questions about the North Country grid, too, as the first comment notes.)


(ANOTHER ADDENDUM: Turbines aren't fallible, either: Saco, Maine is suing the manufacturer of a turbine that proved a dud, then broke. Story is here.)


It's always been clear that renewable energy - in particular wind power, which can go from nothing to full throttle in a short period of time - is more complicated to handle than fossil-fuel power plants, which can be pretty much controlled at will. Oregon saw the result of that recently, when lots of wind farms had to be turned off because too much power was being generated, as this story notes:


The pace and geographic concentration of wind development, coupled with wild swings in its output, are overwhelming the (Pacific Northwest's) electrical grid and outstripping its ability to use the power or send it elsewhere. In theory, better coordination of the balkanized grid operations around the west could help solve the problem, reducing costs, eliminating bottlenecks and solving scheduling conflicts that plague the system today. In practice, however, those efforts have often stalled at the planning stage — the victim of risk-averse engineers, utility managers or public utility customers worried about seeing their rates increase.


This is a lesson for folks planning offshore wind farms out East: Just adding turbines isn't enough.






We have lots of trees, but not real tall ones


NASA has released a cool new map (see it here- that's just a screen shot above) showing forest heights around the world, taken from satellite data. The Northeast's trees are relatively short, because of species type more than logging history, it seems:


Temperate conifer forests — which are extremely moist and contain massive trees such as Douglas fir, western hemlock, redwoods, and sequoias–have the tallest canopies, soaring easily above 40 meters (131 feet). In contrast, boreal forests dominated by spruce, fir, pine, and larch had canopies typically less than 20 meters (66 feet). Relatively undisturbed areas in tropical rain forests were about 25 meters (82 feet), roughly the same height as the oak, beeches, and birches of temperate broadleaf forests common in Europe and much of the United States.


As you may know, Maine and New Hampshire are, respectively, the two states in the US with the largest percentage of surface area covered by trees, part of the Great Northern Forest.



Barn swallow babies in the nest


Our barn swallows hatched


A few weeks ago I wrote about barn swallows that had built their nest on the first floor of our former chicken house, where the sheep live, instead of up on the third floor, where nests usually are built. Well, the babies finally hatched - here's a photo. Feel free to say "awwwww" but please don't add a misspelled caption and upload it to LOLBirds.


(A confession: This picture was actually taken a couple of weeks ago and I forgot about it: The babies flew from the nest last week. They grow up so fast ….)





UNH Researcher Receives Nearly $400,000 to Study ADHD


Most parents of teenagers can attest that their children can focus on activities that they like to do, such as video games, but not focus well in other situations, such as when completing homework. A new research project at the University of New Hampshire will look more closely at why this occurs and how drugs used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) affect normal adolescent brains.


Jill McGaughy, assistant professor of psychology, has received a two-year $399,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the ability of normal adolescents to learn to focus their attention on one task and then shift their attention to another task. McGaughy and her team, who are using a rodent model, also will investigate the parts of the brain that control an adolescent's ability to stop engaging in activities that no longer yields positive consequences.


"We hope our work will lead to new insights in assessing attention in adolescents. We also hope that this work will lead to insights about when and how to treat these different ADHD-like symptoms, such as poor impulse control and an inability to re-direct attention," McGaughy said.



Topology for Fun


I look at a lot of blogs every day. Mostly science oriented, but others as well. As an information junkie, I'm easily entertained by well done and astonishing facts and videos. The best one today is from


a blog written by an woman who wants to be a full time science writer. The latest one today, Thursday, is about a video showing how a circle can't be reversed, but a globe can be. Watch how a solid can transform into just about any other shape, with rules governing what can't be done.


Earle Rich              Mont Vernon, NH





From bloody sock to online fantasy


Curt Schilling - whose pitching for the curse-breaking Red Sox, including the "bloody sock" game, is known even to non-sports folks like me - is one of the folks behind a new video gaming company in Massachusetts. The Globe's Hiawatha Bray has a short item (read it here) about the firm's planning first game, which is built around a fantasy world that doesn't seem too sword-and-sorcery-ish, thank goodness. It's called Kingdoms of Amalur; here's the Web site.


Bray's article notes that the company, called 38 Studios (Schilling's jersey number; the working company name was Green Monster Studios, a much better Red Sox-related moniker), is playing Rhode Island and Massachusetts against each other, threatening to move and trying to get more state aid.



If you're going to steal a signature, make it Neil Armstrong's


Neil Armstrong has never been very comfortable with his first-man-on-moon celebrity, so it was a surprise when an NH auction house put up a signature of his for sale. Turns out, as this story notes, the signature was swiped from a customs declaration form.  From the story:


Armstrong stopped signing items in 1994, greatly increasing the value of his signature. Last year, a $10.50 check that Armstrong wrote only hours before he and his Apollo 11 crew launched for the moon sold for $27,350 through RR Auction.





Plane manufacturer aims for mid-coast Maine


A company that makes small (six- to eight-seater) turboprop planes says it wants to establish a manufacturing facility at the closed Brunswick Naval Air Station, about an hour north of Portland on the Maine coast. The planes would have a lot of composite materials in them, as small planes increasingly do for weight reasons, and Maine is psyched at the idea, since, as the Portland Press-Herald (story here) reports:


Kestrel Aircraft fits into two industry categories that the (base redevelopment authority) has identified as key prospective tenants: aviation companies and those using composites, which is a growing industry used by Maine boat and windmill manufacturers.


It sounds like an interesting mix. There is a note of caution, though: Kestrel hasn't gotten FAA certification for its planes, so all this could still fall apart.


One interesting note from the story: The reason Kestrel is looking at Brunswick is that the CEO owns vacation property on Moosehead Lake, so he knows the state. Despite all the planning and advertising and think tanks that localities do to attract business, its amazing how many big industrial moves are made because so that facilities can be located near places that the CEO likes.





No posts this week


I'm off hiking for the rest of the week, so no posts from me until the weekend. Enjoy the heat!



Last Winter's Weather


Last winter's weather around the North America was unusual for the cold that rolled down the east coast, heavy snows in the midwest, little snow for the winter olympics and I saw actual snow in Florida. This article is a pretty good description of the oscillating patterns that come out of the Pacific.


Looking back is a lot easier than predicting the future.


Earle Rich ...  Mont Vernon, NH





Invasive species prevention


We went kayaking on Haunted Lake in Francestown today. The weather was about perfect for temperature although the wind came up as we headed back. It was blowing the wrong way, of course


Along with lots of flowering water lilies, there seemed to be a lot of strange growths on the bottom of the lake. We didn't know what it was, but just in case, when we returned home, I made sure to wash the kayaks off in the driveway to remove any possibility of transfering something nasty to any of our other favorite boating lakes.


Many lakes have a person stationed at the boat launch to inspect and find out where your boat has been most recently. This is probably the least effective preventative action to keep our lakes free of invasive species. It depends on sharp eyes and honest reporting to do any good. Cleaning off your boat is the best thing you can do.


It's part of our duty as citizens to maintain our quality of life for everyone.


Earle Rich ...  Mont Vernon, NH





Update on the Fox Islands Wind Project


This link is to the survey to find the reaction to the wind project so far. It's significant that 99% of those participating support the project and have few problems with the noise issue. As expected, the power generated in the summer months matches the lower wind speeds and the reduced power program at night to lower noise levels. Still, this is a good example of a program that delivers as promised.


Earle Rich ...  Mont Vernon, NH





Really Cheap Color TV


Where I grew on the coast of Maine, the people weren't noted for their technical expertise. When the first televisions came to Searsport, people erected huge antennas aimed at the Boston stations, primarily to see the Red Sox games. The pictures were pretty snowy of course. Sometimes though it was good enough so you could almost make out the baseball. People would gather around, drinking beer and smoking and having fun commenting on the game.


Later, when stations came to Portland and Bangor, the picture quality improved a lot. We were still limited to black & white images on tiny screens. Peddlers from Massachusetts roamed the rural countryside selling used sets that worked at least until the salesman drove away down the road. My first job was as a tv repairman trying to get those old sets with 20 plus tubes working again. We had a tube tester, voltmeter and a good supply of substitute tubes as our only equipment. Needless to say, our efforts sometimes weren't good enough.


Along with those crappy sets, some people bought new ones. Still though, they were black & white although we heard about color sets coming along. It was a while before our local stations were able to transmit color. However, reading the advertisments in the back of popular magazines were promises of a simple way to make those older sets simulate a color picture.


Our neighbors up the road fell for the spiel. Soon, they were able to see color on their sets. What they had paid good money for was a plastic self-adhesive sheet that was placed on the front of the CRT. The top was colored blue, the center was clear and the bottom was green. For just the right scene, you would see green grass and blue sky. Not bad but there were a few drawbacks. Since they left it on all the time, you would see strange effects like blue faces and green trousers. The picture was dimmer so they turned the brightness up all the way, shortening the life of the expensive crt.


Looking back, I don't think any of us had a sense of critical analysis. We looked at it, shrugged our shoulders and didn't say a word. It just wasn't done. There was enough strangeness around us that one more thing didn't seem to matter. I'm sure we wouldn't fall for such an obvious scam now.


Or would we?


Earle Rich  ...   Mont Vernon, NH



August 2010

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NH joins Google Street View lawsuit


This is late (I've been hiking out West, Internet-free for better and for worse) but I thought I'd post it, in case any GraniteGeek readers missed it: "New Hampshire has joined a multi-state coalition of attorneys general probing the unauthorized collection of personal data from wireless computer networks by Google's Street View cars."


Read the whole Union-Leader story here.


I like this sound bite from the story:


New Hampshire is one of 38 states and the District of Columbia that so far joined the investigation being led by Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal's office. "Street View cannot mean Complete View – invading home and business computer networks and vacuuming up personal information and communications," Blumenthal said in announcing the investigation last week.



Rip-off wikipedia "book" flummoxes author


Self-publishing is a wonderful thing, but like all wonderful things it has a downside. Jeremy Davis, founder of the wonderful New England Lost Ski Area Project, has run face-first into one of them.


He is about to publish a well-researched book on lost ski areas of Southern Vermont, only to find that a wikipedia "scraper" project (download some free wikipedia articles, print them out, slap them into an expensive book that can fool a few suckers via online sales) has made a cheezy alternative and is peddling it on in a way that makes it look like Davis wrote it. Here's the story from the Times-Argus.


If you want to read about lost ski areas of Southern Vermont, wait for the real book, which comes out soon. Order it here. I have Davis' first book, "Lost Ski Areas of the White Mountains" and it's great.





No U.S. women in Women's Chess Grand Prix

The Women's Chess Grand Prix, featuring a dozen players with FIDE rankings of at least 2220 (master to international grandmaster level), is going on in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. There aren't any American women to root for - not even any Western Hemisphere women, using the political defintion of the term. Or African women, for that matter. There's one Russian (only one - surprising!), one from India, four from China, one from Mongolia (!), two from Europe (France and Bulgaria), one from Qatar, one from Turkey and one from Georgia.

Judit Polgar, the top ranked women in the world and the only female chess player that most people have heard of, isn't participating.

Here's the site



What's rarer than a blue lobster?


A yellow lobster, of course. One was found in Rhode Island last weekend (here's the Providence Journal story). The story says an estimated 1 out of 30 million lobsters are yellow (at least, of those caught along the eastern U.S.), while somewhere around one in 4 million lobsters are blue.


I want a plaid lobster, personally. With lots of butter.



Ig Nobel tickets are on sale - hurry, hurry!


New England's finest contribution to the rare combination of technical accuracy and juvenile imbecility will take place Thursday, Sept. 30. I refer, of course, to the Ig Nobel awards - this is the 20th first annual event. I attended the 4th through 18th but missed last year's; I'm told it was a gem. I won't miss this year.


Here's the info. Buy your tickets now!





Northern Lights are a distinct possibility tonight


UPDATE: It was clouded over - didn't see a thing. ARGH! And we didn't even get much rain out of it, just a sprinkle; and boy, do we need rain.


One of the regrets of my life is that I've never seen the Northern Lights. Tonight (Tuesday, Aug. 3) might change that: A massive solar storm sent a blast of plasma our way, and with any luck it will energize the atmosphere overnight.


If you've got a good spot to look north, and if there aren't clouds, give it a late-night shot. I plan to.


CNN Story here.





You know your son is growing up when …


… he signs his first non-disclosure agreement.  Cue "Turn Around" song from those old Kodak ads, and focus on teary-eyed father. *sniff!*

After years of giving parents no information about how his life is going ("How was school today?" "Fine") he finally has a legal reason to say nothing! He's doing a bit of software work for a small electronics shop; otherwise, his lips are sealed.




August 5, 2010


You think wind-farm debate is contentious here?


A public hearing on a proposal to put some offshore wind turbines in Lake Michigan got so loud from angry anti-wind folks that the consultant fled the stage! Read the story here, which contains this quote : "You must confront your own form of hypocrisy. We're all guilty," Bobier said of those opposing wind farms but turning a blind eye to other threats to the lake. "The real issue is the need for energy that is polluting the planet."


Addendum: As this item from Treehugger notes, four Midwest states (Texas, the two Dakotas and Minnesota) now get more than 10 percent of power - I suspect that means peak power, not annual power output - from wind.



Bat species pushed to extinction by fungus


We know how bad White-Nose Syndrome has been in its effect on bat populations. Well, a study in Science (read the article here) says it's even worse than we feared: "Mortality associated with WNS is causing a regional population collapse and is predicted to lead to regional extinction of the little brown myotis (Myotis lucifugus), previously one of the most common bat species in North America."





Low-impact hydropower


The Burlington Free-Press has a story (read it here) about a company applying to put two small (1-megawatt) run-of-river turbines on existing dams in that state, partly because even small hydropower plants provide a stable source of energy that can smooth out jagged production from wind and solar.


Turns out, this is part of a whole push for "low-impact hydropower" - basically small turbines installed on existing dams without altering the flow characteristics of the river. A Maine-based institute pushes the idea (here's its home page) with a certification program that it likens to certifying food as "organic", thus:


A voluntary certification program designed to help identify and reward hydropower dams that are minimizing their environmental impacts. Just as an organic label can help consumers choose the foods and farming practices they want to support, the LIHI certification program can help energy consumers choose the energy and hydropower practices they want to support.


This is in contrast to projects like the massive HydroQuebec plan, which could end up providing the equivalent of a nuclear power plant's worth of electricity to the Northeast. Small-scale hydro like this could only add a small amount to the region's grid, but every bit helps.



Milfoil doesn't just kill ponds - it contributed to a swimmer's death


The invasive aquatic weed milfoil is choking ponds all over the place, but until now I've never seen it implicated in a human death. In Washington state, however, a woman drowned while swimming in a lake partly because she became entangled in the floating weeds. Here's the story.


We don't want to get too tabloid-ish here: The drowning was caused at least as much by fatigue as by getting entangled in the weeds. But it's a sad reminder of how bad invasive weeds can get.





Goffstown Pumpkin Regatta 2006 - the "boats" sailing toward the bridge where the squirt-gun-toting public awaits them


Giant pumpkin regatta threatened by dry weather


One of the coolest sporting-ish event each year in New Hampshire is the Great Pumpkin Regatta in Goffstown. Folks buy giant pumpkins (roughly 800-1000 pounds each, about five feet across), scoop out the innards, glue on a sort of wooden collar that can hold an electric trolling motor (5 hp), then decorate it and wear goofy clothes and sail them around a small pond while a couple thousand people on the banks shoot water pistols at them. It's a blast. (My wife "captained" a pumpkin for a couple years - possibly the high point of her professional career.)


Today, however, the Union-Leader reports has an alarming report: The dry weather is wreaking havoc on the pumpkin crop, possibly threatening the regatta! (Read it here) This is a threat from global warming I hadn't anticipated.





The appeal of sundials


What's the allure of sundials? "their mathematics, the artistic aspect, the history or the mottoes."


That's the conclusion from a light but enjoyable story in the Burlington Free Press (read it here) about the annual convention of the North American Sundial Society, meeting in Burlington.


As a demonstration of how sundials are more than fancy garden ornaments, the society will be part of the first USA Science & Engineering Festival, being held in Washington DC area in October 2010.





Has somebody solved the "P isn't NP" problem?


There are a few problems in mathematics which are easy to state and staggeringly difficult to prove. They usually reside in number theory: Goldbach's Conjecture and Fermat's Last Theorem are obvious candidates. (By contrast, the Riemann Hypothesis is hard to describe to us laymen.)


"Does P equal NP" is an important problem in this category which isn't in number theory. It can be described thus: "one of the outstanding problems in computer science is determining whether questions exist whose answer can be quickly checked, but which require an impossibly long time to solve by any direct procedure."


That's the way it is described by the Clay Mathematics Institute, which offers $1 million for its solution. A solution has been claimed by a researcher at HP labs in Palo Alto, Calif., although it has not been peer reviewed. Here's the paper, which is way way way over my head. (Spotted via Slashdot)


If it holds up the proof probably won't change much, since everybody assumes the assumption is true, but you never can tell. Often with proofs like this, the important thing is the way they are approached, which can create new tools for other work.


The Clay Mathematics Institute recently gave $1 million for solving the Poincare Conjecture - another problem that's hard for laymen to understand - but the recipient, reclusive Russian mathematician Grigory Perelman, won't accept it. That whole story is told in a fine book, "Perfect Rigor" by Masha Gessen, who is herself a Russian mathematician. It's a great present for any GraniteGeek reader! the



Flywheel power storage gets $43m loan


Beacon Power in Tyngsboro, Mass., which makes great big flywheels to act as power storage for utility companies, has gotten a $43 million federal loan guarantee, to build a manufacturing facility in New York state. As explained in the Cnet story (read it here), the important job that the system performs is frequency regulation:


Right now, grid operators typically use natural gas power plants to maintain a balance between supply and demand the grid and keep a steady frequency of 60 cycles per second. The Stephentown project, expected to be completed by the end of the first quarter next year, will be able to provide 10 percent of the frequency regulation services in New York needed on a typical day.


Frequency regulation is pretty esoteric stuff: I found this great article explaining its importance on a site called Seeking Alpha, although its emphasis involves choosing winning firms for investment purposes.



May-July was warmest on record for the Northeast


In a weird way it's a consolation to know that I'm not alone in disliking the miserable weather: NOAA said the May-July quarter was the warmest on record for the Northeast, and the Souheast, dating back to 1895. (See this page)


Precipitation was below average but nowhere near low-record territory, even though it sure feels wicked dry.



05:06:07 08/09/10



At exactly 6 minutes and 7 seconds after 5 o'clock on August 9 of 2010, it was ….


(and in military time, at 13 seconds after 3:14 p.m. on Dec. 11, it will be 15:14:13 12/11/10)





Primate study on learning was based on false data


The Globe has a story today (read it here) about a psychologist in the Primate Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at Harvard who is "on leave" because of questions about scientific misconduct, in particular related to this interesting paper:


The paper tested cotton-top tamarin monkeys' ability to learn generalized patterns, an ability that human infants had been found to have, and that may be critical for learning language. The paper found that the monkeys were able to learn patterns, suggesting that this was not the critical cognitive building block that explains humans' ability to learn language. In doing such experiments, researchers videotape the animals to analyze each trial and provide a record of their raw data.


An internal examination at Harvard University . . . "found that the data do not support the reported findings. We therefore are retracting this article.''


It's vital for the scientific world to be transparent and to find, report and fix errors - that's what makes science work. The article says the study has taken three years.


The scientist is Marc Hauser - here's his bio page at Harvard.



Our airport is a Terrific Twitterer!


Manchester airport, the biggest in Northern New England, has long been recognized for its growth, its relatively low ticket prices and other amenities, but now it's got a a new, odd-sounding accolade: Top Ten Twitterer.


Forbes Magazine (which, like all us media outlets, loves to rank things) recently calculated the ratio of Twitter followers to total passenger, and Manchester-Boston Regional Airport was ninth in its size category.


I'm so proud!





Even long-defunct nuke plants have waste issues


The Maine Yankee nuclear power plant shut down 14 years ago, but it still has a "dry-cask storage facility" - in other words, a place where drums of nuclear waste are kept - that nobody knows what to do with. The Portland Press-Herald has a story )read it here) about a committee meeting that says, basically, (a) nobody wants the waste there, but (b) nobody has anywhere else to put it.


But any solution appears to be at least a decade away, and is subject to the forces of politics and technology. … The commission was formed early this year by Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Its job is to recommend a safe, long-term solution for spent nuclear fuel and nuclear waste. It must issue a draft report in 18 months and a final version in two years.


I think I can guess what its report will say: Keep things as they are until a post-Yucca Mountain depository is developed. What else could it say?



The Grad Thesis Repulsor Field


PHD Comics is a long-running Web comic built around graduate students. I've never been one myself, but it sure rings true.


You don't have to be a grad student struggling to finish a thesis to enjoy today's comic which presents a wonderful general-relativity-like, diagrammatic explanation of why it's so hard to finish a project: It's a "generalized model of the forces encountered by an individual in the final stages of graduate space-time (which is just like real space-time, but with added imaginary dimensions)."


Click here to see the comic in all its glory. And then get back to work.



Perseid meteor shower tonight


After a bone-dry summer, cloudy thunderstorms have moved in and blocked the sky on both of the recent nights when Northern Lights were possible, including last night. Argh!


Tonight (Thursday night) there's another chance for a night-sky display: the Perseid meteor shower should peak, and there's almost no moon to blot it out. Some reports say this is a particularly good Perseid year; check out As always, the best viewing comes after midnight, as the Earth turns into the debris field, but any time when it's dark is possible.


The Perseids is caused by passing through the trail of comet Swift-Tuttle.





Survey: Many think broadband expansion isn't important


The Pew Research Center has released a survey which it claims shows this:


By a 53%-41% margin, Americans say they do not believe that the spread of affordable broadband should be a major government priority. Contrary to what some might suspect, non-internet users are less likely than current users to say the government should place a high priority on the spread of high-speed connections.


Surveys of vague issues like this (what does "major priority" mean, anyway?) should be regarded with enormous skepticism. But they're still fun to think about.


Here's the survey press release. Here's a Washington post story about it.



Newspaper vs. blogger - an interesting copyright lawsuit


The Concord Monitor has a good story today (read it here) about a Nevada newspaper suing an NH blogger (among many others) because an entire article was cut-and-pasted into the blog's comments section. It's a complicated issue that's well presented - the Las Vegas Review-Journal has hired a company to scour the Net and sue what it feels are content thieves, which seems a little alarming; on the other hand, cut-and-pasting entire articles isn't anybody's definition of "fair use."

Check out the Monitor story, it's a good read. Here's a general story from Nevada about the issue, which has been pushed by a Las Vegas attorney.


I am of two minds on this issue. My paycheck depends on money flowing into the Telegraph in return for my reporting, so let's sue those pajama-wearing blogger content thieves!!! But GraniteGeek depends on free access to other people's reporting, so keep the free flow of Internet information open for the good of democracy and all humanity!!!


(What I really want, to be honest, is for my reporting to be protected and paid for, but everybody's else to be available to borrow at will … jeez, is that too much to ask?)



Oops - Perseid peak is actually tonight!


UPDATE: Cloudy all night, saw nothing … but at least it rained a little bit.


I got a day ahead of myself this week, so let me repeat this item:


Tonight (Thursday night) there's another chance for a night-sky display: the Perseid meteor shower should peak, and there's almost no moon to blot it out. Some reports say this is a particularly good Perseid year; check out As always, the best viewing comes after midnight, as the Earth turns into the debris field, but any time when it's dark is possible.


The Perseids is caused by passing through the trail of comet Swift-Tuttle.





Choi & Shine Architects - plan for "Land of Giants" electric pylons


Electricity transmission pylons that look like people


A Massachusetts firm has designed cross-county transmission pylons - the huge metal ones that carry high-voltage (220kV) lines long distance - that look like people. Here's their Web site. The idea is that the necessary upgrades to the electric grid might be more palatable if the towers looked cool, which sounds good to me.  The above picture shows them placed, via computer graphics, in Iceland, where hydropower and geothermal power has created a surplus of electricity that needs to be moved hither and yon, but I think they'd look just as cool carrying the 1200 megawatts of electricity that are proposed to come down here from Quebec Hydropower.


Here's a Treehugger post about the contest that they entered (they came in second).


(Speaking of Quebec Hydro, Vermont just signed a deal to buy a quarter of that state's power through 2038. Free-Press article here.)



Online articles about Obama daughter in NH pulled - sort of


A few TV stations and papers reported today that President Obama's youngest daughter is attending a summer camp in New Hampshire, with articles that included the name and location of the camp. All those articles have been pulled from the various Web sites as of today, as shown here from the Union-Leader site. I assume this happened at the urging of the Secret Service.


But pulling info from the Web is tough - for example, you can still read the name of the camp in the summarized link to the U-L article, which I found by doing a search in the paper's own search box. (Those links tend to be created and stored somewhere other than the server holding the stories). Most intriguing, from an irony point of view, is that a Google News search on the topic brings up a Google AdWords advertisement for the very camp, even though you can't click to any articles that give the camp's name.


(We discussed this story at the Telegraph this morning and decided that if we had learned about it we would have written about it, from a home-state-booster point of view, but wouldn't have said which camp she was attending. However, it's easy to make such decisions after the fact, when you're not in the grip of deadline - maybe we're just mad that we didn't get the story first.)





Summer is tough on electricity use


I just got my PSNH bill, and for the first time in three years, the amount of electricity we used went up significantly from year to year - 18 kwh/day last July, 21 kwhy/day this July. We don't have air conditioning, but even so we can the whole-house fan constantly, and on some days even turned on the fan in the furnace to bring up cool (well, cool-ish) air from the basement. Those big fans are real energy hogs.


The real surprise, however, is that the bill says the average temperature for this period last year was 72 F and this year was 74 F. I can't believe we were only two degrees warmer than last year!


The heat has driven up PSNH usage considerably, as was noted in a response to an earlier GG post from M Chagnon of PSNH - he pointed to this chart that PSNH put together to show the increase in energy use.



Storage Efficiency


As most of us can relate, we have a lot of slides from our film cameras. My wife has at least 26 Sawyers slide carriers from all her travels and family affairs. I probably have at least that many slides in boxes and envelopes from my 50 years of photography.


I read about an inexpensive slide scanner in one of my photo magazines and thought it might be good enough for what we need. I'm not going to make 13×19 prints from these and my wifes photo equipment over the years tended towards minimum investment/poor quality.


I saw one of these scanners during my recent visit to Staples. It's an ION Slides2PC scanner, uses LEDs as the light source and needs only a USB connection to the computer. My first trials were encouraging. The color of her slides of a visit to Europe in 1965 was pretty dreadful, but quick editing in Abobe Lightroom at least brought back something close to acceptable. If the color is too bad I'll simply convert them to a black & white image. I do that with badly faded Polaroid and old color prints too. The scanner has carriers for slides and can handle color or black and white negatives


I'm always concerned about the time involved in scanning. Some of the more expensive units take a long time for high definition and accurate color rendering. This unit is pretty fast, taking just a few seconds to adjust the exposure and another few seconds to download to the computer. There is an initial calibrate mode that compensates for the bluish color of the LEDs. The carrier takes 4 slides at once and each clicks into place during the process.


Tonight I did a test on actual time to scan 100 slides from one reel. It took a total of 43 minutes start to finish. Editing with Lightroom will probably take another hour or less since I can use pretty much the same values with presets.


There is one more benefit to the scanning process. Since they are now in the computer, we can get rid of all those reels and keep the slides as a wrapped stack. Two stacks of 50 slides in one package take up 21 cubic inches. The Sawyers reel took up 192 cubic inches or 9 times as much volume. We will gain back a lot of shelf space in our closet.





Blog Bedridden by Bad Back


I've been sidelined by a bad back and won't be posting on this blog for a couple days.




Whatever happened to West Nile Virus?


My column in the Telegraph today asks the question "Whatever happened to West Nile Virus?" The answer is: Nobody's quite sure, but it's an interesting question, as these charts show:


The sharp rise and mysterious decline of West Nile Virus can be seen both nationally and locally.


Human cases and fatalities caused by WNV in the U.S.


2009: 720 cases/ 32 fatal

2008: 1356 cases/ 44 fatalities

2007: 3630 cases/ 124 fatalities

2006: 4269 cases/ 177 fatalities

2005: 3000 cases/ 119 fatalities

2004: 2539 cases/ 100 fatalities

2003: 9862 cases/ 264 fatalities

2002: 2156 cases/ 284 fatalities

2001; 66 cases/ 10 fatalities

Source: Centers for Disease Control


Cases of WNV found anywhere - in humans, animals, birds, or mosquito "pools" - in New Hampshire:


2009 0

2008 1

2007 2

2006 22

2005 47

2004 14

2003 223

2002 142


Source: NH Department of Health and Human Services



N.H. gets 167-kw solar array, its biggest yet


I received a press release by email but can't find much more information about this, but it seems a 167.4kW photovoltaic system has been installed by the North Conway Water Precinct, using federal stimulus money. It's a ground mounted system includes 744 solar panels and 2 inverters tracking output and efficiency. and was officially turned on Aug. 12.


I have added it to my Google Map of alternative energy, but will soon have to start paring down the smaller solar systems as their novelty wanes. That's a good problem, I think …





A scoop stretcher, shown in split mode, which allows it to be slid under a patient. (Picture stolen from Australian Ski Patrol Association, hence the snow.)


Getting carried out of my bedroom on a scoop stretcher


On Saturday my back went out for no reason - I was sitting at a table, eating lunch - and it got progressively worse, to the point that on Sunday I couldn't get out of bed. We had to call the Amherst/Mont Vernon ambulance service so they could take me to the hospital


Unfortunately for them, my bedroom is at the top of a narrow staircase with a right-angle turn at the top; in order to get a queen-sized box spring into the room years ago, we had to remove some of the stairs!


In order to get me out, EMTs and firefighters called in for a lift assist had to strap me to a scoop stretcher,  then at least six or eight people had to maneuver it out the door, stand it upright , spin it on one point, and wrestle it down the stairs. I'm sure it was an impressive sight, although I had my eyes closed in dread the whole time. Amazingly, they didn't hurt my back at all in the process.


Now I'm home on narcotics, waiting for it to heal. I was worried about getting addicted, but they make me nauseous and give me a headache, so I guess I'll be able to give them up!



DNA from the grave disproves Bobby Fischer paternity claim


He's been dead 2 1/2 years, but Bobby Fischer still generates the most interesting stories in chess: His body was recently exhumed in Iceland so DNA samples could be taken to settle a long-running paternity claim. That's certainly more exciting than lawsuits over who gets to head the World Chess Federation.


The NY Times says that he's not the father.



N.E. women win math olympiad awards


Five students from New England won medals in the 9th annual China Girls Mathematical Olympiad, at which the US teams placed second, behind China. The girls on the U.S. teams wrote an online travelogue at The Mathematical Association of America also had an item about it (read it here), in which the coach said the team "did well on combinatorics problems and number theory problems" but had issues with geomtry and also algebra, which he described as "our real weak subject in general" - although I imagine they don't stumble of what most of us think of as algebra from high school days.


Gold medals were awarded (among others) to Jae Eui Shin, a senior at Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts; Elizabeth Synge from Lexington, MA, a senior at Boston University Academy; and Shijie Joy Zheng from Bellevue, Washington, a senior at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. A bronze medal was awarded to Adisa Kruayatidee from Stevenson Ranch, CA, who is a senior at Phillips Exeter Academy; and an honorable mention acknowledged Andi Wang from Stoneham, Mass. who will attend MIT this fall.


48 teams of girls from ten countries throughout the world competed at the international competition held in Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei Provence, China.


The eight US team members were chosen from the top ranks of the female finalists in the 2010 USA Mathematical Olympiad. The teams' coach was Zuming Feng, a math teacher on the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy, leader of the USA International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) team, and director of the Mathematical Olympiad Summer Program (MOSP) since 2003.





Survey: Boston TV watchers "time shift" 70 percent of the time


The Globe reports (read it here) that roughly 70 percent of the 150 or so Bostonians who participated in a recent survey said that at least part of the time they watch TV shows via DVD, online streaming or (in rare cases) over mobile devices at a time of their choosing rather than when it is broadcast. This is a bit higher than the national average.


Since I only get two or three channels over the air single the digital switchover, our cable-free family almost always watches shows via non-TV methods. Pretty much the only exception is Masterpiece Theater, or whatever it's called now, on PBS, and we miss it half the time and have to watch it via the Web even then.


I may be getting a Roku box that, assuming I can set it up, allows the Net to be streamed to the TV set. That will help de-broadcast-ify us even more.



How do they know that piece of the "true cross" is really true?


You've probably seen various stories about a relic with a piece of the true cross - the actual physical cross upon which Jesus was crucified* - was stolen and returned. Here's a typical AP story.


None of these stories really answer the most interesting question: how the church knows this bit of wood, as compared to the zillions of fakes that circulated in Europe for centuries, is real. (Martin Luther famously said "Enough pieces of the true cross exist in the monasteries of Europe to build an entire ship and enough thorns exist from Christ's crown to fill an entire forest.")


This is the closest to historical antecedent that I can find from stories: "Vermont investigators said the relic given to them by Frost is a 'small piece of wood that Roman Catholics believe is a piece of the cross.' On the back of the case is a wax seal stamped with the Pope's ring, although it was not specified which Pope had stamped the seal."

*according to Christian doctrine, of course



Study: Even ‘fake' acupunture can help ease pain


A fascinating study (discussed here in the NY Times) indicates that acupuncture does help ease self-reported pain in patients with knee arthritis, even when it's "fake" acupuncture, meaning that the needles were inserted randomly rather than in the places indicated by traditional acupuncture theory.


This seems to indicate that much of acupuncture's benefit comes from the placebo effect: people think it will help them, so it does. (From the story: "The researchers also found that the enthusiasm of the person inserting the needles had a small but statistically significant effect.") This isn't surprising, since by some estimates perhaps 30 percent of all pain relief, even from well-proven traditional medication or surgery, is due to the placebo effect.


But it seems that some of acupuncture's benefit comes from something organic happening when needles prick our skin, perhaps altering the way the brain perceives pain signals. Fascinating. No wonder acupuncture seems to sort of work on animals (although it's hard to tell about pain relief in animals; conclusions often depend on what pet owners tell doctors, and owner's belief/disbelief can color their reports).


If you're a traditional Chinese-medicine doctor, this study isn't really good news, because it means all that ch'i/life force/energy flow stuff, with its cool-looking diagrams and ancient wisdom, is unnecessary. On the other hand, it probably contributes to some patient's belief in the process - just as an MD's white coat contributes to our belief in them - so in an indirect way maybe it does help.





NH nostalgia: Clamshell Alliance vs. Seabrook nuclear


For some Baby Boomer New Hampshire-ites, the term "Clamshell Alliance" brings back the sort of memories that other folks associate with Woodstock or attending your first (Insert Minority Group Here) Rights Parade. In the late 1970s and early 1980s this group fought hard against the construction of Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant on New Hampshire's coast; they are a large part of the reason that only one reactor was built instead of two, as initially planned.


Now the Allianceis back in the news, expressing concern that it's too early for Seabrook Station (its official name) to seek a 20-year renewal of its operating license, which doesn't expire until 2030. (Read the Foster's Democrat story. For back story, here's the Wikipedia article about the Clamshell Alliance.)


Undoubtedly the shadow of Vermont Yankee, Seabrook's much smaller nuclear neighbor, hangs over this process; Vermont Yankee's license runs out in 2012 and, as this Rutland Herald editorial summarizes, its future is "iffy". The two Northern New England nuclear plants have different owners and different histories, but inevitably their histories color the public view of each other.



Maine tidal-power firm ready to add electricity to the grid


Portland, Maine-based Ocean Renewable Power Co. says its 60-kilowatt tidal-power generator off Eastport, on the edge of the Bay of Fundy tidal area, is generating "grid-compatible" power - albeit only as a further test. (Mass High Tech article here) The company says it won't actually send power into the grid from its TideGen system until late 2011, when it should generate enough electricity to power 50 to 75 homes after being connected through the Bangor Hydro Electric Company system.


Tidal and wave power sound obvious and straightforward easy but have proven very difficult, largely because it's hard to keep moving machinery operating in turbulent sea water. You may have seen the monstrous turbine being planned to draw power from tides north of Scotland (article here) or read about other ideas like the "sea snake" that pumps oil around in its long, tubular frame (check it our here), but so far the amount of real tidal/ocean power being generated around the world is minuscule.





P=NP proof is probably wrong, but it's interesting anyway


Technology Review has a fine piece by John Paulos of "Innumeracy" fame about the proposed proof that P/=NP (I haven't got a "not equals" sign, hence the clunky topography), the most central unsolved problem in computer science. The proof seems flawed, says the article, but it explains that even though everybody believes that P doesn't equal NP (which means that some problems exist which computers cannot ever solve), a proof would be useful:


If P equals NP, every NP problem would contain a hidden shortcut, allowing computers to quickly find perfect solutions to them. But if P does not equal NP, then no such shortcuts exist, and computers' problem-solving powers will remain fundamentally and permanently limited. Practical experience overwhelmingly suggests that P does not equal NP. But until someone provides a sound mathematical proof, the validity of the assumption remains open to question.


It's a deep and interesting issue, well presented. Read the article here.



When 3G isn't 3G (over and over again)


As we all wait for 4G (whatever that is) to arrive in Northern New England, let's peruse a fine piece of reporting about how the definition of 3G has changed over, and over, and over again, with examples dating back to 2002. Read it here, and chuckle/cringe.


The key points are these:


This is all a red herring. Focusing on the protocol between your cell phone and the tower — or worse, spending money on that basis — is letting yourself be distracted. It's like the secret pick-me-up in Geritol, concocted by Madison Avenue instead of a chemist. In truth, a lot of boring factors control the performance of your cell phone data transmissions, principally:


How much spectrum has the carrier licensed in my city, and how much is allocated to this kind of modulation? How many other people am I sharing the local tower with? In other words, how big is my cell, and how many towers has the carrier built or contracted with? How much throughput are my cellmates trying to consume? How much throughput has the carrier built in its back-end network connecting to the tower?





I'm surprised there isn't more organized editing of wikipedia by activists


The NY TImes has a post about a gathering of Zionists, teaching them how to edit wikipedia articles because "People in the U.S. and Europe never hear about Israel's side, with all the correct arguments and explanations." (Read it here) I'm surprised this doesn't happen more often, frankly; by now I would have expected Vermonters to have organized to balance wikipedia "bias" against the Green Mountains in favor of the White Mountains, while Mainers united to "balance" their Portland (52 kilobites of data in its article) vs. Portland, Oregon (93 kilobytes), even as New Hampshire-ites rally at their keyboards make sure wikipedia has "correct arguments and explanations" about motorcycle-helmet laws.


Decades as a reporter have taught me that 90 percent of the time, claims of media bias - at the local level, anyway - translate into "you didn't emphasize the thing I thought was important, and you mentioned stuff I don't like." (The other 10 percent of the time, it's often a screwup rather than deliberate bias, although certainly not always.) I don't see why that would be any different with wikipedia.





‘Inattention to surroundings' thanks to tech is a park hazard


We're all familiar with the debate in the White Mountains about charging for rescues (this is the famous case) partly because cell phones have given people a false sense of security in the wild. The NY Times has a story about how this is a problem in all National Parks, to the point where "Inattention to surroundings" (too busy snapping cell-phone photos) has been added as a contributing factor to explain rescues, along with things like "darkness" and "animals". (Read it here)


Visitors arrive with cellphones or GPS devices and little else — sometimes not even water — and find themselves in trouble. Such visitors often acknowledge that they have pushed themselves too far because they believe that in a bind, the technology can save them.


Last fall, two men with teenage sons pressed the help button on a device they were carrying as they hiked the challenging backcountry of Grand Canyon National Park. Search and rescue sent a helicopter, but the men declined to board, saying they had activated the device because they were short on water. The group's leader had hiked the Grand Canyon once before, but the other man had little backpacking experience. Rangers reported that the leader told them that without the device, "we would have never attempted this hike."



Small solar, wind incentives likely to be halved

New Hampshire will probably cut its rebate program for small-scale, residential solar and wind projects, as I report in the Sunday Telegraph. (Read it here) The rebates will probably be cut in half, from a maximum of $6,000 (almost everybody gets the maximum) to $3,000.

The idea is to free up more money to help organizations from hospitals to multi-family units to businesses get alternative power sources - also, the money comes from payments by utilities who can't meet (note: see post below about whether that wording is fair) renewable-energy standards and less of that has been paid because power generation has fallen in the recession.

What this means is that if you're waffling on installing a system, you should hurry! Details are here.





"Yoga wars" pit US copyright vs. Indian history


Because of my back problems I am looking into yoga, tai chi and the like - activities that emphasize balance and flexibility rather than strength and endurance. So I was amused by a Washington Post article about the Indian government fighting efforts by some US companies to copyright their styles of yoga. (Read it here.)


Apparently for-profit yoga schools in the home of capitalism compiled various positions in various orders and copyright them. India is looking way back to fight these claims:


India's Traditional Knowledge Digital Library has gathered a team of yogis from nine schools and 200 scientists to scan ancient texts, including the writings of Patanjali, thought to be the original compiler of yoga sutras. The group is documenting more than 900 yoga postures and making a video catalogue of 250 of the most popular ones, from sun salutation to downward-facing dog.


Patanjali lived in the second century BC. Talk about prior art!





4G (whatever that is) launches in Boston soon


Sprint, via its Clearwire subsidiary, is launching the first 4G wireless network in Boston next month, says the Globe. (Read it here) It claims downloads of 3 to 6 megabits/second, somewhere around two to four times faster than 3G. Except that 3G, as we learned in a post last week, is a moving target that has shifted a bunch of times over the past decade.


No hard word about when Clearwire, or AT&T or Verizon, will bring 4G north of the border.



The place where New England's electric grid is controlled


CNET reporter Martin LaMonica has done something I've long wanted to do - visited ISO New England, the control center for New England's electric grid. It's a good description of how the system works, including the push for "demand response," in which companies get lower rates if they agree to stop using power at peak times. This is a sort of semi-smart-grid way to balance the grid's needs without building more power plants. It also talks about ways to communicate with power producers if, say, too much wind power gets produced by a storm surge.


Read the article here.



Polygamous/polyandrous songbird needs protection


The advocacy group center for Biological Diversity is pushing for endangered-species protection for the Bicknell's Thrush, which breeds only in the alpine portions of mountain ranges in northern New England and Quebec. Here's their statement.


From the laymen's point over view, the interesting thing about this bland-looking songbird is its parenting: All males and females take multiple partners, and males share the job of bringing food to several nests. the species is both polygamous and polyandrous at once and, unusually for songbirds, males have overlapping territories. They're sort of like a giant commune.


This odd arrangement is designed to maximum parental support for offspring in a tough environment, but even so the bird's populations have plummeted. One problem may be warming climate, which brings hardwood trees further up mountains (Bicknell's Thrush likes evergreens) - and when you're on a mountaintop already, it's hard to escape uphill.





West Nile is found in NH, right after I said it has disappeared


It was inevitable, I suppose: I wrote a column two weeks ago highlighting the virtual disappearance of West Nile Virus from New Hampshire (no cases were found in animals, birds or mosquitoes last year, making us the only state in the nation so favored) - and now the state announces that it has been found in some Manchester mosquitoes. Read the Union-Leader story here.


The last two days have seen the first sustained rainfall of this dry, hot summer, so mosquitoes should start flourishing again.



part of Cameron Wake's UCS ad


UNH's Cameron Wake featured in national climate-science ad campaign


Cameron Wake, a glaciologist who has for years been the most prominent voice at UNH in regards to the reality of climate change, is one of three scientists featured in a new advertising campaign by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The ads depict scientists as kids talking about what things in the natural world made them become scientists.


Part of Wake's ad is shown above - the other two ads have the scientists depicted as grubby children, but Wake gets to be a teenager in a convertible VW bug, next to what looks like a '60s-era Cameron Diaz clone. The text says in part: "In high school I was a romantic—and I still am. Faraway places have always filled me with wonder. I get to mountaineer my way to new discoveries. My research on Arctic glaciers has revealed how our world is warming like never before."


Here's the ad campaign. Here's an NY Times article about it, which notes that the campaign is designed in part to defray lingering images from the Climategate email brouhaha. If you don't believe that image lingers, check the comments on my Telegraph column this week about climate change. (The column, by the way, concerns a report co-written by Wake.)


SIDE NOTE: This item from Boing Boing (read it here) notes that this is the 35th anniversary of the first major scientific paper predicting climate change from CO2 buildup. It's a good response for those who trot out the tired "back in the 70s they warned about global cooling!" comment.





Blood Pressure Test


I had a speck of wood chip in my eye this morning. I went to the emergency center in Milford to have it taken care of. In the process of checking in, they measured my blood pressure and as usual, it read 100/70. I'm usually on the low side, so nothing to take notice of.


I then went to the local Rite Aid in Milford to pick a prescription for eye drops. As I had to wait a few minutes, I sat down and used the free blood pressure tester. The reading, 30 minutes after the first reading was 149/94.


If I only used this tester, I would be very concerned about my health.


I'm just saying, if a simple test like this seems way over your usual test, get a second test from another, more respectable agency. Free tests like this are good as long as there are regular calibrations done on the equipment. I knew this was wrong, someone else could get more than a little worried.

Earle Rich   Mont Vernon





The amazing return of wild turkeys to NH


If you need more evidence of the successful return of wild turkeys to New Hampshire - and anybody who drives doesn't need much evidence, since slowing down for turkey families wandering down the road has become commonplace - then consider this: Turkey population growth is so vigorous that the state is expanding the fall shotgun turkey-hunting season to cover even the populated southeastern parts of the state. (To be specific, they've added Wildlife Management Units J1, J2, L and M to the five-day season.)


Hunting and development wiped out wild turkeys from New Hampshire a century ago. A few dozen birds were imported from New York state to the Keene area in the mid-1970s, and  in the past decade the population has exploded. It is probably the most successful wildlife restoration program in New England in recent decades.


The spring hunting season is well established, with 3,667 gobblers killed over the four-week season this May; the fall season is smaller, it seems to be growing, too.


I'm not a hunter, by the way, but I am a supporter of hunting. There are certainly some beer-guzzling hunting slobs who act like jerks and endanger other people, but overall the hunting community knows at least a much about wild areas, and works at least as hard to keep them wild, than the environmental community.


After all, a guy cautiously creeping through New Hampshire woods at dawn in a cold October drizzle is more attuned to Mother Nature than somebody like me thinking positive thoughts about animals and trees while snoozing in bed.



Recession seems to be reducing America's birth rate


It's hard to pinpoint cause and effect when it comes to short-term demographic changes, but as this Washington Post item (read it here) notes, there is serious speculation that a two-year drop in America's birth rate has been caused by the recession:


That drop prompted speculation that the fall was the result of the recession–a notion supported by an analysis of data from 25 states that was released in April by the Pew Research Center. The report found that states that tended to suffer most from the recession had the biggest declines in births.


The number of babies born in the U.S. was an estimated 4.136 million last year, down from 4.25 milllion the year before and about 4.4 million the year before that.




August 28, 2010


Blue lobster, yellow lobster - why not a calico lobster?


In Portland, where they know their lobsters, a calico lobster is on display. Click here to see the Portland Press-Herald story with the photo; it looks like a "tortoise-shell" calico cat (orange and brown, no white).  From the story:


Calico lobsters are one of the rarest of miscolored lobsters. A blue lobster is one in a million and a yellow or orange is one in 30 million, said Diane Cowan lobster scientist and the founder of the Lobster Conservancy in Friendship. Calicos are even rarer. Only albinos are rarer, though just how rare is anyone's guess.


Cowan said discolored shells are a genetic trait. In her 25 years of research, she has only seen two or three calicos, presents to her from local fishermen.


Personally, I'm holding out for a paisley lobster.





Best. Algorithm-created spam. Ever.


Like many blogs, this one is occasionally hit by pseudo-comments filled with links, which are "written" by an algorithm so they kind of look real and might not get tagged as spam by filters. Those comments are usually really dull ("this is a great blog! I just found it! Keep up the good work!") but occasionally they get charmingly weird. This one, which landed last week, is the best so far: is the most informative site since the creation of the cake


I take that as a real compliment.





Biodiesel reality strikes Vermont


A proposal to turn soybeans into biodiesel has flamed out in Vermont, taking roughly $2 million in investments with it, reports the Free-Press (read it here). The story says the finances failed because oil prices didn't stay high and federal subsidies withered, while the technology proved much harder than expected.


This is a common scenario: Turning organic products into liquid fuel is difficult. Here in Nashua, we're still waiting for our biodiesel plant to start up - as I noted in April (time to check into it again, I think), the plant will turn waste fat from restaurants into diesel, and is awaiting various permits.



Oh, my aching back


GraniteGeek readers have already heard me whine - er, heard my insightful comments about serious middle-age back pain; today the Telegraph readers get to hear it too, in my column. Read it here!


I did at least pretend my column was journalism by interviewing a physician, whose advice was echoed by some comments in this blog: If it's muscle-related, as it is 80-85 percent of the time, then keep moving as much as you can.



Knowing Knots


When I was a kid, newly involved in the Boy Scouts, the emphasis was on acquiring skills that might lead to a badge. As part of the process, we were invited to attend an exposition where we all showed off our skills. My contribution was a stamp collection which got all the attention it deserved.  


Part of the program was a demonstration of our knot tieing skills. We were all lined up and told to tie various knots on command. One of the first was to tie a bowline. I didn't know how to do it, so just stood there and fumbled. I didn't do much better on any of the others. I still have a vivid memory of wishing I was somewhere, anywhere else and that these people could never see me again as such a loser.


An elderly friend of the family, Pop Warner, was watching with my dad. After the show and in my presence, he really tore into my father for allowing such basic knowledge to be withheld from me. Tieing proper knots, especially from a family of lobster fishermen, was an essential part of life. My father never did take on that responsibility, but Pop Warner and a couple of other mentors along with the scouting book gave me what I needed to get through life. 


Later, in Navy boot camp, I was able to help other recruits with basic knots to help them pass the weekly tests. I've had a lot of rigging experience since then. I've never had a load get away or something fail because of  I didn't know how to tie a proper knot. That experience with the scouts was never repeated.


Earle Rich      (Ready to face the public again)               Mont Vernon, NH





Vermont's second big wind project OK'd


A judge has given the final OK for Vermont to build its second major wind farm, near the Connecticut River in the Northeast Kingdom. (I love writing "Northeast Kingdom" - it's a better nickname even than "North of the Notches".) Read the Free-Press story here.

Maine remains the region's wind-power leader of course, with three major (over 20 MW) facilities running and a few more in the works. NH still has just one, with a N-of-the-N proposal in the works. Details on my alternative-power Google Map here.

ADDENDUM: Massachusetts Supreme Court says the state can override local opposition to the Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound. Globe item here.



September 2010

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Global-warming skeptic turns into a convert


Can't find anything local at the moment, so as we prepare for temperatures in the high 90s - HIGH 90s!!!! ARGH!!!!! - let's note this item: One of the world's most notable scientific skeptics of fighting human-caused climate change (he wrote "The Skeptical Environmentalist," which argued that the cost of fighting global warming wasn't worth it) has changed his tune, and now says a carbon tax is needed to raise billions of millions of dollars for technologies to slow the rate at which we're altering the world's weather.  Here's an NY Times article.



A night coming up in Concord for moon fans


If you're sad about the administration's desire to scrap our return to the moon, you might want to be at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Centerin Concord later this month for International Observe the Moon Night, a NASA-sponsored lunar lovefest.


Harlan Spence, lunar specialist and director of Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space will discuss NASA's latest mission to the moon, while Tom Estill of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center will be on hand for various "lunar activities."


There will also be a ton of moon viewing through the center's Celestron 14″ Schmidt-Cassegrain Telescope in the rooftop observatory.


It'll also feature various other family stuff, including a presentation of Tonight's Sky planetarium show highlighting the moon.


The cost is $9 Adult, $6 Child (3-12), $8 Student/Senior. Free for Members. It takes place Saturday, Sept. 18 from 6-10 P.M.





Looking at Boston's new not-quite-dazzling 4G


The Globe's tech guru Hiawatha Bray takes the new 4G network from Sprint/Clearwire out for a spin today (read it here, with a video). His lede summarizes it well:


At last, 4G has come to Boston, and I feel like a man who's gotten a shirt for Christmas. I'm grateful, of course, but I was expecting something a bit more exciting.


He says the upgraded T-Mobile 3G (with HSPA+) is a reasonable alternative, but that speeds and devices need to improve to make a big difference.



Emerald Ash Borer


Research by Cornell on the threat to our Ash trees.


Earle Rich Mont Vernon, NH



Mascoma buys another cellulosic ethanol technology


Lebanon NH-based Mascoma Corp., which is trying to develop a commercially viable method of turning wood chips, grass and other cellulose-containing plants into ethanol, has bought another company which has a different approach.


We will now demonstrate the difference between a blog and a newspaper. I saw the press release about this yesterday but wasn't able to do any actual, you know, reporting (e.g., figure out the different technologies). In the old days I'd be in trouble, but now I can ... just link to the Xconomy story!





Don't delete your Facebook account - gunk it up


If you're sick of Facebook or some other social-network site, don't delete your account - gunk it up. That's roughly the advice of Microsoft employee and tech blogger Jason Burns, who argues in this post that such a move leaves your identity open for other people to occupy: "Deleting a social network is at best a way to give someone a free pass to impersonate you and at worst giving someone a ticket to try to attack all of your friends." Instead, he says, replace the real information with fake stuff - the side advantage is that if you ever change your mind, you can easily start using the site again.


This social media stuff raises interesting questions. A good friend of mine died this year, and after much debate his friends and family are turning his Facebook page into a memorial, as Facebook allows - it's a site  that only current "friends" can see, and where his information can never be altered. We made this move after some spammer got into his site and sent us all messages from him, months after his death. Many folks were quite freaked out ...


Spotted via Braniac.



Sad news: Pumpkin-chunking trebuchet has retired


For the first time in five years, New Hampshire will not be represented at the world Punkin Chunkin contest in Delaware by Yankee Siege, the massive record-holding trebuchet built by Greenfield dentist Steve Seigars.


The huge machine weighs 56,000 pounds and stands on wheels that are 10 feet in diameter. Its swinging arm is powered by a counterweight that weighs as much as 8 tons - the equivalent of 3 or 4 full-sized cars. It has long held pride of place at the Yankee Seige farm stand on Route 31 in Greenfield, near the Lyndeborough town line, hurtling pumpkins at a pretend castle for enthusiastic crowds.


Down in Delaware, Yankee Seige has set four records in the full-sized trebuchet category, breaking the 2,000-foot barrier last year. Seigars has long said he would retire if he broke that mark, and true to his word the trebuchet (and farm stand) have been retired. For now, at least ...


On the happier side, though, New Hampshire has a new gigantic pumpkin-tossing entry: A 10,000-pound air cannon. I'm profiling it in this week's Sunday Telegraph, so check the story out on Sunday. (That's the newspaper version of "film at 11″)





Trading firewood at the border, to keep out invasive pests


Anticipating lots of northbound camping tourists over Labor Day, Maine put up flashing signs on I-95 telling people not to bring firewood into the state, and offering to swap it with locally cut wood. (Press-Herald story here)


Firewood is one of the main routes by which invasive bugs enter a new area - in particular the Asian longhorned beetle, which doesn't travel very far on its own. I think this is a brilliant idea, both because it stops imported firewood and because it lets people know about the problem. Kudos to the Pine Tree State.





Cluster of small- to mid-scale animation studios - in Watertown, Mass.?


The Globe has a nice look at a cluster of small- to mid-scale animation studios that have grown up around Watertown, Mass., in what appears to be the classic entrepreneurial scenario: One guy started a company that grew just enough to spin off a few others, and the feed on each other. This is exactly the sort of jobs- and tax-producing scenario that makes politicians support colleges and "economic incubators" and that sort of thing.


You can read the item here - and unlike most geek-economy stories, it has good illustrations. Not photos of rumpled guys sitting at computers, but pictures of goofy animation shows!


The article doesn't don rose-colored glasses, though: It notes that this sort of industry waxes and wanes with hits and misses; not an easy life.



Building an air cannon to shoot a pumpkin a mile


I have a feature in the Sunday Telegraph about local folks building a compressed-air cannon to shoot pumpkins, with the aim of firing them a mile at the annual Punkin Chunkin contest in Delaware. This is hands-on geekiness at the extreme! Hopefully it should balance out the sorrow caused by the Yankee Siege trebuchet's retirement.


Read about the air cannon here, with photos and video.



Math on the Walls


The amazing Natalie Wolchover who writes the factodiem blog has come up with a real winner this time


She gives examples and links to a site the explores the 17 types of wallpaper designs that derive from Escher type drawings. Even the ancient Egyptians knew about these variations, apparently.


This is a fun site that might even have some useful applications.


Earle Rich -  Mont Vernon, NH





How old is that bear? Check its teeth


Maine's Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is asking bear hunters to give up a tooth from their  animals this year to help keep track of the state's population. As AP reports (read it here), biologists can establish a bear's age by cutting a cross-section of a tooth and counting the rings under a microscope, much the way a tree's age can be determined by counting the rings on a cross-section of trunk.


2,032 hunters have done so in the past two years.


From the story:


Last year, about two-thirds of the teeth submitted by hunters came from bears that were 3 years or old or younger. Younger bears have a higher mortality rate than older bears. They are more likely to cross roads and show up in people's yards, and are more vulnerable to hunters, said (the biologist). "They're young and brash, don't think of everything and lack experience," she said.



Why that Harvard prof fudged some monkey-behavior data


Harvard prof. Mark Hauser faked some of his monkey-behavior data because science is hard and takes a long time and sometimes doesn't work, but Hauser is a go-go guy in a real hurry.


That's the conclusion of ab excellent summary of the controvery in the current Slate. (Read it here) It describes the histoy and complications of the experimental setup and how it helped prod the impatient Hauser to fudge results. From the article:


(The studies) pose one major problem, however: They're laborious as hell. You must deal with many unpredictable test subjects in time-consuming trials while trying to ensure absolute consistency. Then you must watch the trials played back on a monitor and code the results ... And it's best if the coding is done in a way that's blind to exactly what the baby or monkey is seeing or hearing, so the coder can't prejudge the response.


All this takes many, many hours, of course, and creates additional room for error. And sometimes you spend weeks going through every step and find ... nothing. Nothing new, nothing to report, nothing to publish. This can prove horrifically frustrating for someone in a hurry.


I think this is part of why a lot of smart people drift into pseudo-science or downright quakery: The real thing is not just hard to understand but also takes a lot of time, effort and money, yet has no guarantees. It's so much easier to wrap yourself in something fake like astrology or homeopathy or life auras.



Last Ig Nobel tickets go on sale Thursday - quick, get to the phone!


If you don't have tickets to this year's Ig Nobel awards, the last batch goes on sale Thursday, by phone or in person (at the Harvard Box Office) but not via the internets. So says The Ig Cabal.


Note this announcement: All ticket-holders will receive free bacteria! (Please hold onto your ticket stub.)


The ceremony happens Thursday night, Sept. 30, in Harvard's elegant Sanders Theater, which becomes considerably less elegant when the Ig Nobel crowd is in attendance.


If you've never been to the Ig Nobel awards, you are missing out. Buy a ticket now, or forever hold your peace.





Jellyfish in our lakes - are your children at risk?!?!?!


I've got a story today about some rare freshwater jellyfish spotted in Merrimack. (No, we didn't take the "are your children at risk" angle ... they're so small they can't sting humans.) Here's the story - check out the video along with the story - they are very cool beasties.



The Transition "roadable aircraft" during its first flight.


Mass. ‘flying car' company building prototypes


Terrafugia has apparently given up on its attempt to stop people from calling its product a "flying car," since their announcement that they are starting "low-volume production" in Woburn, Mass., uses that term. The company makes the Transition Roadable Aircraft, a car with folding wings that has gotten FAA certification.


The company said in a release Wednesday that two prototypes are being built in the 19,000-square-foot facility in Woburn. From the release: "One will undergo extensive drive testing while the other will be used to complete Light Sport Aircraft certification flight testing. Experience from the construction of these prototypes will also be used to finalize the initial price point of the vehicle, which is expected to be between $200,000 and $250,000."


The company said it will add 50 "skilled manufacturing jobs" by 2013, and is taking reservations for delivery by 2013; all they need is a $10,000 refundable deposit.


Terrafugia was founded by five pilots who are graduates of MIT.





The greatest YouTube video today: Instant Search meets Tom Lehrer


I can't find anything local to dazzle you with, so why not CLICK HERE and watch a stupendous little video in which the lyrics to Tom Lehrer's brilliant "The Elements" are displayed in Google's new Instant Search. You'll be glad you did.





Jellyfish galore!


I'd like to think I started something by writing about freshwater jellyfish in NH (article here) since the Globe followed up with a piece about freshwater jellyfish in Walden Pond (se it here) - but I think the coverage is a coincidence.





My domain registrar is up for auction - gulp is registered through GoDaddy, a domain registration company that is, I just learned, up for actuion. (Story here) That shouldn't make a difference to me, of course, but somehow the baton often gets dropped in these sort of sales. So if you check into GG one day and find something else, you know who to blame!





Don't dump those unwanted pills


The Drug Enforcement Administration will be holdinga National Take-Day Day in New Hampshire on Saturday, Sept. 25, in which people can turn in pills or medicine. Law enforcement does it because misused prescription meds are a magnet for misue, but there is a really good environmental reason to do it: Flushed or dumped-in-the-landfill-and-leaching-into-groundwater medicines are becoming a big problem.


This is part of a federal program - check out the site here. The Food and Drug Administration also has a lo



It was 13 degrees warmer than last year


It was pretty cool and damp for the last half of summer 2009, and pretty hot and dry this year - but I hadn't realized how much of a difference until I got my latest PSNH power bill. It says the average temperature from Aug. 9 to Sept. 9 was 60 F last year and 73 F this year. That's a heck of a difference.


It also helps explain why, for the second month in a row, my year-to-year electricity usage went up - from a daily average of 15kWh last year to 19 kWh this year. Even without air conditioning, running a whole-house fan all the time gets expensive!



Fighting coastal erosion can be a losing proposition


Check out the photo in the Inquirer and Mirror, the newspaper of Nantucket island, as part of a story about one guy's long-running battle to save his home from erosion, no matter how much damage it does to neighbors by increasing erosion on the rest of beach. Here's the story.


The tussle involves an Arizona man who surrounded his vacation home with sandbags to keep the coast from eroding, even though that's illegal, and fought a long legal battle against the town.


Such anti-erosion efforts are illegal because (a) it usually doesn't work in the long run, and (b) it redirects natural coastal erosion patterns - which on a place like Nantucket, where 100 feet of beach can disappear in a summer and then reappear two years later, means that it increases the erosion of people around you.


Also, as this story notes, the anti-erosion bags that were washed away in that futile effort are now floating around and posing a hazard to ships.





A chilly morning, hunting for e.coli in the river


Today was the final biweekly sampling session for volunteers on the Souhegan and Merrimack rivers, who gather water samples that are tested for e.coli bacteria and dissolved oxygen, as a way to keep tabs on the health of the waterways.


My family has been doing this for years; this year it was my turn. The hot summer made it a delightful way to start every other Tuesday, splashing around in the cool water - today, however, was pretty friggin' cold. 4 1/2 Celcius (aboug 40 F) in the water; brrrr. Lots of minnows, even if there wasn't much water due to the dry summer.


The Telegraph hosts the results on a Google map - check it out here. I do the site called Souhegan 122, on Route 122 by the golf course. It's usually pretty good, although last time it was yellow, meaning not really safe for swimming. Not that there's enough water to swim in.


The work is overseen by the Souhegan Watershed Association and the Lower Merrimack River Local Advisory Committee





"Cooking for Geeks" ... with recipes!


My column this week is about the great new book "Cooking for Geeks," published by O'Reilly (complete with that company's cheesey/cool clip-art animals on the cover) - but it's a two-fer. My column, including an interview with the author, Mass. software engineer Jeff Potter, ran Monday (read it here) and today in Feast, the Telegraph's food-oriented special section, I have a "sidebar" complete with three recipes (read it here, and then fire up the stove). Poached Pears in Red Wine, anybody?





Plugging in the Segway at work? Bad idea


There has been a kerfuffle in Germany over an IT worker who commuted on a Segway, then plugged it in to recharge at work. His boss fired him for stealing electricity, but was reinstated after much media attention.


I read about this on Treehugger (article is here), which noted that it raises questions about access to rechargeing stations that will arise as electric vehicles become more common:


Employees who drive to work frequently benefit from a free parking spot. Bicyclists are granted a place to safely lock and store their bike. This is even required under building codes that demand a certain number of spaces be available for cars and bikes. What does it cost a company in working capitol costs and maintenance to provide these perks?





Go board


A chess center instead of an Islamic center near ground zero?


The New York Times suddenly active chess blog reports this tidbit (read it here):


The president of the World Chess Federation has offered to buy the site of the controversial Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan and build a chess center on it.


An intriguing idea for getting out of a political imbroglio. But why not a Go club, to rival the Massachusetts Go Association, which might have the best facilities of any Go club on the east coast?




Electric Saab to be powered by Mass. batteries


Westboroguh, Mass.-based Boston-Power will provide the lithium-ion batteries for an all-electric Saab, reports the Globe. (Read it here.) From the story:


The ePower is a standard Saab 9-3 model with the gasoline engine and drivetrain removed. Instead, it is fitted with a 184-horsepower electric motor to drive the vehicle's front wheels, along with a Boston-Power lithium-ion battery pack. Saab expects the ePower to travel up to 124 miles on a single charge.


This stuff gets attention (as I've just demonstrated), but I suspect that from a business point of view the more important part of the business is laptop batteries, an area where Boston-Power recently claimed it has made a breakthrough, generating three times the normal lifespan. EE Times article here.





A giant "wetlab" south of Cape Cod to test ocean energy systems?


The Marine Renewable Energy Center at the UMass-Dartmouth wants to create a huge ocean-energy incubator area Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, and in the ocean south of them. It would be pre-approved for testing of wave, tidal and offshore wind systems, skipping the long paperwork hassles that have bogged down the fields. From the Globe (read it here):


Technically, the project is being called the National Renewable Energy Innovation Zone. I prefer to think of the rectangular area as the Big Wetlab: a place where entrepreneurs and big energy companies can beta test the energy technologies of the future, sooner and with fewer hassles than they'd face anywhere else. (In the world of drug development, wetlabs are where all the important experiments are done.)


Research scientists will tell you that it's the sideline complications - permitting, funding, etc. - which really bog them down. Any system that could sidestep at least some of that for alt-energy research would be great.



Next year it's the 50th anniversary of the Betty and Barney Hill alien abduction!


Today is the 49th anniversary of the night (Sept. 19, 1961) that Betty and Barney Hill were abducted by aliens while driving back to Portsmouth from a vacation in Quebec. (Here's the Wikipedia article, which goes on and on and on and on - including much detail about the drawn-from-memory star map of the aliens' home galaxy, which gets true believers into a real tizzy.)


That means next year is the 50th anniversary of the story that started the whole alien-abduction craze. I assume that we'll see a big to-do at UNH, which has the Betty and Barney Hill papers available for academic analysis (here's the site).


(Thanks to the Twitter feed of Granite State Skeptics, which alerted me to this wonderful NH anniversary.)





Nanotech manufaturing conference in Lowell, Mass.


UMass-Lowell is hosting the 5th annual nanotechnology manufaturing conference on Tuesday and Wednesday, at which "government, business and academic leaders will determine how far nano has come and how far we have to go to get nano-based products out of the laboratory and onto assembly lines," to quote the school's materials.


Here's the conference Web site. It includes cool stuff like using nanotech to make better body armor, but probably more important are several sessions devoted to understanding health and safety issues in the manufacturing and use of nanotch products. Weird things can happen when you deal with active ingredients that are small enough to, say, sneak past the blood-brain barrier or lodge themselves deep in the lung's alveoli.


UML is part of the Center for High-Rate Nanomanufacturing, along with UNH and Northeastern in Boston, a loose collaborative among the three universities trying to turn research into stuff they can sell. It has been around for a few years - like many folks, I wrote stories with headlines like "Big News From Small Products" when it was first developed - and the fact that it has produced no instant mega-breakthroughs is a reflection of the complexity and difficulty of designing and making things at the sub-molecular level.





Shame on me for passing on a bogus Mark Twain quote


Considering that I've read the debunking site for many, many years, it's embarrassing that in my column this week I mindlessly passed on the incorrect statement that Mark Twain said the wonderful quip that golf is "a good walk spoiled." As a reader named Richard Schwartz politely pointed out, the site Quote Investigator (here) can't find it attributed to Twain earlier than 1948, long after Twain was dead. After I groveled in apology, Schwartz  noted: "Twain, Chuchill, and Yogi Berra should have their own web site consisting of all the things they didn't say."

The column (read it here, complete with editor's note pointing out that the Twain quote is probably bogus) is about the NH High-Tech Council's Techno Golf Tournament, which allows you to cheat (extra clubs! super-powered balls! laser rangefinders! but not robots, alas). They've extended the signup date to tomorrow (Sept. 22), if you're interested.





Super Harvest Moon tonight


NASA reports: "For the first time in almost 20 years, northern autumn is beginning on the night of a full moon. The coincidence sets the stage for a "Super Harvest Moon". ... The action begins at sunset on Sept 22nd, the last day of northern summer. As the sun sinks in the west, bringing the season to a close, the full Harvest Moon will rise in the east, heralding the start of fall. The two sources of light will mix together to create a kind of 360-degree, summer-autumn twilight glow that is only seen on rare occasions."


Here's the site. When I linked to it, by the way, Firefox gave me this message: This Connection is Untrusted. You have asked Firefox to connect securely to, but we can't confirm that your connection is secure. Weird.


Also: Jupiter is very close to us tonight, by the standards of gas giants at least. As the Bad Astronomy blog notes (read it here): "In reality, it doesn't matter if you go out tonight, or wait a few days. While technically Jupiter is closest right now, it's not like it'll be a lot farther away tomorrow night."



Can flu drug's starter chemical be made from pine needles?


Researchers at the University of Maine believe that shikimic acid, one of the chemicals needed to make Tamiful, the flu palliative, can be obtained from the needles of white pine trees. "he researchers hope to attract interest from the state's forest products industry to develop a market for shikimic acid," says the Portland Press-Herald. (Read the story here)


The major source of shikimic acid has been star anise, a small tree that bears a hard, star-shaped fruit that is prized as a spice. Star anise grows only in a few mountainous regions of northwest China, and it's very expensive. During the peak of the swine flu pandemic last year, the price soared to $700 a kilogram -about 2.2 pounds.





Genetically modified salmon is an interesting idea, for better and worse


The announcement from Waltham, Mass.-based AuqaBounty that it has developed a genetically modified strain of salmon, which grows twice as fast as a standard Atlantic salmon, has produced a lot of "frankenfish" protests, and also some folks saying this is the start of "Green Revolution"-type benefits for fisheries to feed a crowded planet. Here's today's Globe story.


Here's an article from LiveScience, which describes the fish: "AquaBounty's Atlantic salmon has additional DNA from both Pacific Chinook salmon and an eel-like fish, which allows it to keep pumping out growth hormone year-round. So while the modified salmon doesn't grow bigger than normal salmon, its hyper-growth rate means that it can go to market sooner."


That article also has details about security, designed to keep the fish genes from tainting the wild population: "AquaBounty plans to grow only female fish at two indoor facilities. A smaller breeding facility at Prince Edward Island, Canada, would hold fertile salmon that provided the eggs. High pressure applied to the eggs renders the resulting offspring sterile with around a 99 percent effectiveness rate, according to Hallerman of Virginia Tech, who made a presentation at the FDA hearings. The sterile, all-female offspring would grow up at a separate isolated facility in Panama. Their self-contained tanks would use re-circulated water, with redundant security measures to prevent accidental release."


A side note: I am reading "An Entirely Synthetic Fish", which is about the spread of rainbow trout throughout the world via stocking. (He means synthetic in the sense of populations artificially maintained and spread, not in the sense of genetics.) It's very good, pointing out how hatchery-raised fish have reduced biological diversity by swamping ecosystems. Here's a review.



Hunters urged not to spread deer urine because of "mad deer disease" fears


Hunters have lots of ways to avoid detection by their prey. One is to mimic the animals' scent - perhaps by spreading deer urine around. But some officials fear that at least one popular deer-urine product contains prions that may be linked to chronic wasting disease, the deer version of "mad cow disease." The Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife (press release here) is urging hunters not to use urine-based scents because of this:


The infectious agent  ... is a mutant protein or "prion" that can be passed in urine. This mutant protein can bind to soils and remain infectious for many years. Some captive deer facilities producing urine products for hunting have not complied with mandatory disease prevention and monitoring regulations. The products they are producing may, as a result, be capable of transmitting diseases such as CWD.


This is a bit of an overstatement, because it's still not certain that prions cause CWD. Still, the disease is so devastating  - entire deer herds have had to be slaughtered in the Upper Midwest because of it - that being over-cautious makes sense. CWD has been found as close as New York State, and we want to keep it out of New England, if possible.

This site discusses CWD throughout the country.



Bat Boy fights white nose syndrome


Weekly World News may no longer exist in print but it lives online, and its most intriguing creation - the weirdly wonderful Bat Boy, a human-bat mutant - has joined the fight against white nose syndrome, the fungal disease that is wiping out many bat species in the Northeast.


Here's the article, which contains what appear to be real (i.e., boring) quotes from Bat Conservation International, a Texas-based group of flying-mammal fans, welcoming the arrival of this - well, I guess you'd call him a celebrity spokesman.



Hemlock Woolly Adelgid sighting


This from my brother in Maine who works at Acadia National Park. - Earle


It was reported yesterday by the Maine Forest Service that hemlock woolly adelgid, a serious (and fatal) pest of our native hemlock trees, moved 50 miles closer to Acadia NP this year.  It has been detected in 26 southern Maine towns-up from 8 infested towns prior to May, 2010.  The closest to us is in the area around Damariscotta.  All areas within 20 miles of the coast are considered vulnerable.  Here's more information


Beginning in mid-October, the adult adelgids will begin to feed and develop wool, and so will be much more visible.   As you are out and about in the park or adjacent lands this fall, please inspect hemlocks you see and let me, or someone on the resource management or fire staff, know if you suspect you've seen it.   Please record the date, exact location of the tree(s), and, if possible, take a sample twig and put it in a sealed plastic bag and  bring it in for confirmation.  Identification Caution: Make sure the hemlock you suspect is infested is not sitting under a bird perch....


Also, please do not buy or move to  your home hemlocks for landscaping or hemlock firewood originating in the infested (and quarantined) area. Many thanks for helping to protect our hemlocks and the animals that depend on them!  And let's hope for a cold winter to keep these nasty invaders at bay.





My computer is in the shop


My home computer is in the shop for much-needed upgrades, so I couldn't post all weekend - not until I got into work this morning. But that's OK - I don't need to post on GraniteGeek, I can take it or leave it. Absolutely. It's entirely optional. I didn't wake up at 3 a.m. thinking of items I should have posted, or wonder whether I could sneak down to the library and use the public PC - no, no, not me. I'm in control here ...



UNH professor to speak in DC about oil dispersants


From the UNH News Service: Nancy Kinner, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of New Hampshire, will speak before the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling in Washington, D.C., today (Sept. 27) Kinner, who is co-director of the UNH/NOAA Coastal Response Research Center, was asked to speak about the use of dispersants in the response to the spill.


For more information on the meeting, including an agenda and live streaming during the meeting, go to


The Commission, established by President Barack Obama in May, is chaired by Senator Bob Graham and former EPA Administrator William K. Reilly. Joining Kinner in the discussion of dispersants will be current EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Coast Guard Commander Rear Admiral Mary Landry.


Since the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill began in late April, Kinner has been sought after for her expertise, sharing her commentary with hundreds of national media outlets and testifying before federal lawmakers three times. In addition, she has taken a leadership role in creating and disseminating scientific knowledge in support of clean-up efforts, convening several high-level meetings among spill responders, scientists, and other stakeholders in the Gulf of Mexico spill region.


The Coastal Response Research Center (CRRC) is focused on developing new approaches to oil spill response and restoration in marine and estuarine environments through research and synthesis of information..Established as a partnership between NOAA and UNH in 2004, it is part of the Environmental Research Group at UNH.



New Segway boss dies in Segway accident



The BBC is reporting that the British millionaire who bought Segway last year has died after apparently riding one of his company's scooters off a 30-foot cliff into a river. (See story here.)


Jimi Heselden, 62, crashed into the River Wharfe while riding the vehicle round his estate in Thorp Arch, Boston Spa, West Yorkshire, on Sunday. He was pronounced dead at the scene.


The BBC said a spokeswoman for West Yorkshire Police confirmed Heselden's identity, adding that a "Segway type" vehicle had been recovered in the water.


Press reports said he was driving a rugged, "off-road" version of the upright, two-wheel scooter, testing it for the company.


Heselden made his fortune after founding Leeds-based company Hesco Bastion. He was a backer of Segway UK, which handled dealerships for Segways in Britain. Segway UK bought Bedford-based Segway Inc. in December 2009.





Big North Country wood-chip-to-energy plant gets OK


(Addendum: The last paper mill in the North Country is closing, reports the Union-Leader)


There's a surprising amount of controversy about plans to convert the old Fraser paper mill in Berlin to a wood-to-energy plant. To us southern flatlanders it seems a no-brainer: The area is full of loggers who need jobs now that the paper industry has left, so why not put them to work creating electricity instead of envelopes? It's not an even swap - loggers will never make as much supplying lower-quality wood to a power plant as they did by supplying a paper mill - but it's better than nothing, right?


It's not that easy, though; there has been lots of debate about which company should operate the site, how big it should be, and even (to the surprise of us who are South of the Notches) whether there are enough trees to support all the biomass plans. (This blog post, which frowned on the biggest proposal, is an example.)


Nonetheless, the plan by Laidlaw Energy to create a 70-megawatt has gotten state approval, a big step. A power purchase agreement with PSNH is the next obstacle, but that seems do-able. Here's the Union-Leader story.


70 megawatts isn't huge by industry standards - the Merrimack Station coal-fired plant is about seven times as large  - but it's decent. And this would generate far more power over the course of a year than a similarly sized wind farm since wind produces power about a third of the time and biomass plants operate in the 80-90 percent range, like fossil fuel plants.



Map of fossil parks - U.S. Park Service


Fossil Day at national parks - but not in NH


New Hampshire is a wonderful place, unless you live for fossils. Our geological history means we haven't got any. This point is painfully brought home in the above map, part of National Fossil Day at the nation's national parks. I think we're the only state except Louisiana without a brown dot listing a fossil-day park; however, the list includes Acadia in Maine and Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Woodstock, Vt., neither one of which strike me as a good place to find trilobites, so maybe I shouldn't be too upset.


The ceremony is set for Oct. 13 - here's the NPS website.



High-Tech Council extends Product of the Year deadline


The New Hampshire High Technology Council is extending the deadline for companies to apply for the Product of the Year Award (POY) to October 6.


The culmination of this competition takes place at the POY banquet held on November 15 at the Radisson Hotel-Center of NH in Manchester.  In mid-October, up to five finalists will be selected and awarded the Product of the Year Judges' Award. These Finalist Judges' Award Winners will next present their products in a trade show format that includes a seven-minute presentation to the entire banquet audience of over 300 people on the night of November 15th. The audience will help determine the winner.


Applications can be downloaded from the NHHTC web site. The winner will have their product displayed prominently in the booth the NHHTC maintains at the Manchester Boston Regional Airport.


Companies that have won the Product of the Year award over the past four years were Nanocomp Technologies, UltraVision, Insight Tech Gear, and Holase, Incorporated





Anti-fluoridation crowd still has sway, even in Mass.


Of all the public health initiatives developed over the past century, one of the best bangs for the buck comes from the fluoridation of public drinking water. It doesn't cost much and it is incredibly effective in limiting what by some definitions is the biggest health problem in the world: cavities.


But like many things, fluoridation has become draped in a lot of fuzzy concerns about chemicals and government control - and the way the term "socialism" has become a misunderstood insult these days, I wouldn't be surprised if the goofy McCarthy-era fears of communist plots and danger to our precious bodily fluids didn't return. As a result, even in well-educated Massachusetts, a place that embraces public health initiatives as much as anywhere in the U.S., "nearly 150 cities and towns that could add the substance don't," reports the Globe (see the story here).


I'm sure not what the figure is, in NH. I'll have to find out.


Here's the CDC's take on fluoridation. Here's a quackwatch site subtitled "Don't let the poison-mongers scare you."  And here's a typical anti-fluoridation site.



Gun Drilling


I had a job once designing and making a current monitor for a gun drilling machine, keeping track of the 25 HP hydraulic motor driving the drill. In case of a bound up drill, the motor would shut off. 


They were drilling 5/8″ holes end to end in 1″ thick, 20 foot long, 5 foot wide plates of nickel. Around those holes in the area left over, they drilled 1/4″ through holes. The drills were hollow so they could pump high pressure oil to flush out the chips. They used electronics to monitor the position of the drill head and could move the hole to keep it going straight. These plates were used in nuclear power plants as a heat exchanger.  


The machine shop was quite a place. Huge lathes used as gun drilling platforms, dark and ill-lite, smelling of used oil and thick dust everywhere. They obviously knew what they were doing. They were providing a very high tech service that not any machine shop could provide. I only saw it at night as this was outside my regular job.  


New England is full of businesses like this. I like the mini-mall manufacturing buildings with side by side businesses with all sorts of people living their dream. They use each others expertise, borrowing equipment and supporting each other. Like a big company, they cooperate to get over the "less than critical mass" problem that any one person business goes through.  Alone, they can't be good at everything. Together, they can survive long enough to develop into a real and recognized business. Some never get past this initial stage but a few grow and become stable companies and household names.



If you like to watch gimbals, here's a video for you


BAE Systems showed off a new $20 million testing facility, which includes systems to test methods that aircraft, particularly helicopters, can detect and defend against incoming weapons in real time. There's a Telegraph story which includes a quick little video showing a test rig with dual gimbals that can pitch, yaw and roll until their degrees of freedom are positively giddy. Click here to see it.





Bloggers must disclose cash-for-postings (I would, if anybody would pay me)


The Union-Leader has a post by an attorney, part of their "Ask the Expert" series, which discusses  rulings by the Federal Trade Commission that even lowly bloggers must disclose when they're paid to say nice things about products or services. Here's the article. Here's a bit of it:


"(T)he post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product or service will be considered an endorsement subject to the prohibitions of Section 5 of the Act regarding unfair and deceptive practices. ... (These are) administrative interpretations of the law intended to help advertisers comply with the FTC Act and not binding law themselves, it is clear that the FTC intends to investigate and pursue allegedly deceptive use of testimonials or endorsements."


The rulings date back to last fall but so far as I can tell, the FTC hasn't actually tried to fine or penalize anybody for this yet, and it's not clear exactly what fines or penalties could be imposed. (The number $11,000 was tossed around for a while, but that's from existing "deceptive advertising" statutes that the FTC says don't apply.) Still, it's an interesting issue - part of the whole debate about how to treat "amateur" vs. "professional" folks in the new information ecosystem.


By the way, I hope reading the piece makes you appreciate one type of professional: editors and writers. Attorneys are smart people on the whole, but their writing - argh! I Consider this phrase describing a hypothetical situation: "An online message board designated for discussions of new music download technology is frequented by MP3 player enthusiasts." MP3 player enthusiasts! Gotta love it.



Newspaper reporters try "fact verification" as a non-reporting job


A couple of veteran N.H. newspaper guys - who I know, by the way - have faced the bleak future of the newspaper businesses* and decided to create a new company based on their reporting skills. It's called Fact Verfication, and you hire them to do grunt reporting work for you. From the press release:


Newspapers used to be the guardians at the gate in the information world, checking facts and making sure they were correct," said Matt McSorley, who formed the firm with Mark Hayward. But newspapers have fallen on hard times, while information has multiplied immensely, he said. offers professional research services to any organization or company that wants to publish, post or broadcast a message. Company researchers verify facts through credible sources, and the company posts the details about the verification on


That last part is the unusual bit. You don't hire them as a private investigator who hands the information to you - you hire them as a private investigator who makes the information available to everybody, to support your position or product. Interesting. (I'm not sure what happens if the facts they verify turn out to go against their employer's interests; I hope they get paid in advance!)


Union-Leader readers will recognize Hayward, who has been one of the paper's senior writers for many years. McSorley was an editor here at the Telegraph and now works at the U-L.


* As for me, I have taken the traditional journalist approach to the shrinkage of my industry. I whine and cringe in fear but don't actually do anything useful about it.



The IBEX global maps of the heliosphere show rapid changes in the protective boundaries surrounding our solar system. At the top is the first six-month IBEX map while the bottom image shows the second, most recent map. Clearly visible and circled is a bright "knot" of emission from the IBEX ribbon. This knot appears to expand and soften in the second map and signifies the surprisingly rapid changes in the heliosphere in a mere six-month period. Credit: IBEX Science Team and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.


UNH helps map magnetic "bubble" around the sun


From UNH News Serice: At a media teleconference today at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) headquarters in Washington, D.C., University of New Hampshire space scientist Nathan Schwadron participated in the unveiling of the second maps of the heliosphere produced by the Interstellar Boundary Explorer Mission (IBEX). The maps, produced by the IBEX Science Team in coordination with the UNH-based IBEX Science Operations Center (ISOC), show surprisingly rapid changes in the protective boundaries surrounding our solar system.


After a year and a half of active measurements in space, the IBEX Science Team is publishing the second set of global images generated by the IBEX mission. The UNH operations center is responsible for leading the on-orbit science operations of the IBEX spacecraft as well as generating the maps from the raw telemetry sent down from space. The heliosphere is the huge, magnetic bubble that surrounds the Sun.


"These boundaries, which are created by the solar wind that continually streams out from the Sun, protect our entire solar system from most of the harmful particle radiation that pervades the galaxy," says Schwadron, UNH associate professor of physics and lead scientist for the ISOC.


Describing the mission, IBEX principal investigator David McComas of the Southwest Research Institute says, "IBEX images the solar system's boundaries from a very high-altitude orbit around Earth extending almost to the Moon. The images themselves are not composed of light but, rather, of neutral atomic hydrogen that emanate from the collision between solar wind and the matter that fills the galaxy."


The first set of images from IBEX, revealed in October of 2009, showed an entirely unexpected feature: a narrow ribbon that extends across much of the sky. Now, the second set of images from IBEX show that the ribbon continues to persist and is largely unchanged.


However, some features, such as a bright knot of intense emission from the ribbon, appear to spread out in the new maps, revealing rapid changes in these protective boundaries. "Such rapid changes in the emissions over only six months are another stunning surprise from this mission of discovery and exploration," McComas adds.


More than half a dozen different theories are now vying to explain the origin of the mysterious ribbon. Schwadron elaborates, "The second maps now increase the difficulty in explaining the ribbon itself and how it can change so quickly. While the second images provide some insights into the possible source of the ribbon, none of the ideas so far proposed can fully account for the surprising new observations from IBEX."


The new IBEX results, titled "Evolving outer heliosphere: Large-scale stability and time variations observed by the Interstellar Boundary Explorer" by McComas et al,  were published in the Sept. 29, 2010 edition of the Journal of Geophysical Research - Space Physics.



October 2010

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I'm in trouble: Globe plans to paywall the paper!


Over the three years this blog has operated, I have discussed and linked to Boston Globe stories more than information from any other source. But I might have some problems next year, when the Globe plans to put the newspaper Web site behind a paywall, leaving the froth and quick hits of available for free. (Here's the story.) They think they can make this split because has been around so long that it has its own identity, whereas most newspaper web sites are little more than the print paper online.


Some newspapers in NH have flirted with trying to wring more money out of online readers. The Telegraph makes you register - for free - if you read more than 10 articles per month (I think) and pay if you read more than 30. (I'm not certain about the details because, as an employee, I don't have to pay!) The idea is to keep the found-via-Google traffic which wouldn't pay no matter what, but wring money from regular customers who, presumably, value the work. The Union-Leader is different: it keeps some stories offline entirely, telling Web readers they have to buy the newsprint or e-reader edition to see them.


As I've said before, I'm a two-faced Janus on this issue: I don't want my newspaper paycheck to bounce so I approve of pay options, but I want access to as much information for this blog, so I frown on them.



Ig Nobel Prizes, where bat sex rules


Last night was the 19th first annual Ig Nobel Awards, at Harvard. I missed it, alas - I went to 15 of them but have now missed two in a row! Shame on me.


The website for the prizes and AIR is down, no doubt due to traffic. Here's a CNN report on who won.





194 seeds collected from American Chestnut in NH


The harvest of a recently found American Chestnut "mother tree" in Hudson produced 194 viable seeds, I am told by Curt Laffin, a member of the American Chestnut Foundation who oversaw this year's artificial pollination and seed collection. That is far more than any other tree in N.H. or Vt. that the group dealt with this year. I have written about this a couple of times - most recently here.


The work is part of a decades-long program to cross-breed the few remaining American Chestnuts (virtually all were destroyed by blight in the first half of the 20th century) with resistant Chinese chestnuts, then cross-breed them with American Chestnuts for at least eight generations, weeding out weed sisters along the way by blasting them with fungus, until you've got a resistant tree that is 15/16th American.


The program has 44 trees of various ages growing in Peterborough and is looking for another N.H. location. The idea is to grow state-specific strains, to add variety.


For more information, here's the American Chestnut Foundation site.





What could have destroyed our hornet nest before we could spray it?


My wife and I got bundled up at first light this morning, while it was still 40 degrees and insects were sluggish, to tackle a huge hornet nest in our apple tree. (It's almost time to pick for applesauce, so we needed to get rid of it.) We put on extra layers under our bee suits, including snowpants and boots, grabbed the toxic foam spray, and headed out to the field - only to find that the nest, which was much larger than a football, had been destroyed. A few remnants were in the tree and bits were on the ground, but nary a black-and-yellow hornet in sight.


It was a relief in a way - I swelled up for three days when one of those #$%@ buggers stung me this summer - but also a bit of a letdown. And a puzzle; what could have done that to the nest? It seems pretty early for it to have been abandoned for the winter.


(By the way, the ingredient list on the spray was interesting: Active agents were just 0.4 percent of the total - all the rest was foam.)





Taking a tour of Seabrook nuke plant


A reporter for Cnet took a tour of Seabrook Station and posted a long article, with photos - see it here.


Because of security concerns, the tour didn't get to learn much about spent-fuel storage, which is kept in "dry casks" on site, or the control system, although the writer noted that most systems are still analog, because Seabrook was designed more than 20 years ago and you don't lightly change systems in a place this big and dangerous.


Seabrook is likely to give more press tours because it wants to get its license extended early, adding another 20 years to its lifespan. If nothing else, it looks really really good compared to Vermont Yankee!





Google "street view" tricycle at Dartmouth, on YouTube



Dartmouth put up a video about a visit to the campus by the Google "trike" - a 300-pound tricycle with on-board generator to power Google's 360-degree cameras for the automobile-unfriendly portions of its Street View maps. The images will be part of Google Maps "within a few maps" says the video.


Watch it here.


Wired piece on the trike: read it here. Comment from the official Google blog: read it here.



What's better: Winning a Nobel or winning an Ig Nobel?


You've probably heard that Andre Geim  is the first person to have won both a Nobel Prize and an Ig Nobel Prize. (Here's the official press release.) It's unclear which of these awards will bring him more joy, although the latter will certainly produce more paper airplanes.


But this statement about Geim isn't exactly true, as Marc Abrahams of the Annals of Improbable Research notes:


Technically, Andre Geim is not the very first person to have been awarded both an Ig Nobel Prize and a Nobel Prize — but he is the first to win both as an individual. Bart Knols, who (together with Ruurd de Jong) was awarded the 2006 Ig Nobel Prize in Entomology (for showing that the female malaria mosquito Anopheles gambiae is attracted equally to the smell of limberger cheese and to the smell of human feet) was also one of the hundreds of employees of the International Atomic Energy Agency who together were awarded a Nobel Prize in peace in 2005.





Big bucks for UNH ocean mapping program


From UNH News Service: The University of New Hampshire's Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping (CCOM) has received $35.7 million from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to continue the Joint Hydrographic Center, a NOAA partnership and a national ocean-mapping research center. The funding, granted through a competitive process, provides the center with $7,151,000 per year for five years, through 2015.


The Joint Hydrographic Center's research focuses on the use of sophisticated sensors to increase the accuracy and resolution of coastal and ocean mapping, greatly expanding the applications of data that's been used in chart creation. The center also has developed innovative tools, several of which have become industry and research standards, for the visualization of the data it collects.


Among its many projects are the collection of multibeam bathymetry and acoustic backscatter data that can be used to support an extended continental shelf under Article 76 of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea. JHC scientists have collected data in U.S. Arctic and Gulf of Alaska, Atlantic, Bering Sea, Gulf of Mexico, and Northern Marianas. Moving forward, the JHC is exploring mid-water mapping using a new generation of sonar that can record features such as gas bubbles, obstructions to navigation, or fish in the water column.


The center also has developed an ocean-mapping-specific curriculum and offers master's and doctorate degrees, as well as a one-year post-graduate certificate, with a specialization in ocean mapping.



Construction of power-plant "scrubber" going well, PSNH says


PSNH says the monstrous "scrubber" being built at the coal-fired Merrimack Station power plant in Bow is ahead of schedule and under budget. The facility, which removes mercury and sulfur from emissions - coal-fired power plants are the biggest source of environmental mercury in new Hampshire -  will be operating by June 2012 at a cost of $430 million, about $27 million below its budget. The state-mandated project has been helped by good weather, PSNH says.


Here's the press release. The scrubber was very controversial, and in a weird twist it was opposed by environmentalists, some of whom had pushed to mandate it in the first place, because the price tag doubled - opponents said the money would be better spent on non-coal power systems, especially since the scrubber does nothing about release of CO2. (Here's a July story from NHBR about the big-bucks finances for the work.) PSNH says we can't do without this electricity workhorse - except for the Seabrook nuclear plant, 450-MW Merrimack Station is the biggest power producer in the state - which will soon be a model of cleanliness.


Here's a simple explanation of how the scrubber works. It sprays water on the stack emissions, which mixes with a limestone slurry to combine with the mercury and sulpher.





Cold weather's coming, gas mileage's slipping


I have a pretty long commute, which is a pain ni the neck but does make for automotive predictability - and the mpg readout on my 2003 Civic hybrid is reflecting the arrival of fall: it has fallen almost exactly 1 mpg in the past two weeks, as the temperatures have gone from hot to cool. It's an interesting phenomenon; the engine is presumably tweaked to be maximally efficient at certain temperatures.



Why can't we have a miles-long scale model of the solar system?


Air and Space Magazine has an article (read it here) about scale models of the solar system built in cities throughout the U.S. - outdoor arrangements, often along hiking trails, that distribute the planets with orbital distances and often, but not always, planetary sizes to scale.


It lists more than 20 of them around the country, including a neat one I had never heard of: a 40-mile display along Route 1 from Houlton to Presque Isle, Maine. All the planets except tiny Pluto can be seen from the highway; Jupiter and Saturn measure 4 to 5 feet across. Neat! Here's the website.


Much smaller versions exist at the Montshire Museum of Science in Vermont (1.6 miles long) and at the Boston Museum of Science. I think we should build one in New Hampshire. The gold dome on the Statehouse could be the sun. If we did that, how far away would Pluto be?


Let's see - the sun is 865,000 miles across and the dome is - well, I don't know how big it is. I have a call into the state to find out. When I get a figure, I'll do the calculation. Pluto's average distance is 3.6 billion miles from the sun, or roughly 4,160 times the diameter of the sun, so each 100 feet in diameter would mean putting Pluto about 78 miles away.


(UPDATE: James Garvin, state architectural historian, says 30 feet is a good estimate foe the dome's diameter, which would put Pluto about 25 miles away. And you've got to love historians: His reference for the figure is an 1866 newspaper article!)


The great thing about these solar system displays is that they really bring home how far apart the planets are. Space is really, really, really empty.


(spotted via BoingBoing)



Verizon bringing LTE (4G, whatever that is) to Boston area this year


Boston is part of the LTE rollout, meaning higher-speed data links for cell phones, that Verizon has announced will happen by the end of the year. Here's a short item on the announcement.


Chances are it won't bleed too far outside the city at the beginning; I suspect we'll be waiting north of the state border for a while.





Sheep can be a pain in the %$#!


I'm staying late at work today so I came in late, and figured I'd have a liesurely morning before my commute. Instead, Shelley and I spent 90 minutes chasing sheep and fixing the electric fencing.


Horses and cows and pigs - they're a snap to keep in with electric fencing. But sheep, with all that protective wool, can be a real pain in the patoot. Fortunately, they're really stupid, but once they get an idea in their pea brains - e.g., the grass on the other side of this fence is worth getting zapped - it's impossible to dislodge it.



How to keep planes from colliding on the ground: Use red lights!


It seems weird to non-pilots that perhaps the most difficult part of modern aviation happens after the planes are on the ground, when they're taxiing around in a confined space where lots of other planes are taking off and landing. It has proven surprisingly difficult - particularly surprising in this age of GPS units that can lead drivers from point A to point B - to easily and accurately guide pilots on the ground. The problem has always been that systems which do a job job in tracking fast-moving planes in the air far away don't work for slow-moving ones on the ground nearby.


The FAA has a bright new idea: Use red lights to tell pilots when to stop. Brilliant!


The system embeds the lights in the runways, and federal officials say they produced a 50 percent reduction in "runway incursions" (one plane on the ground gets too close to another one, usually trying to land) at the nation's airports this year. So maybe it is brilliant.


The Globe has a short item (read it here) with an illustration of Logan's runways and how the lights are configured.




October 9, 2010


More disturbing news at Vermont Yankee: Tritium found in well water


As always, it's hard to judge the significance of the latest tritium news at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, but the fact that it was found in well water nearby can't be good. The levels are very low and the direction/rate of flow in the aquifer is uncertain, so it may not be as bad as it sounds, but still -


Here's the Free-Press story.





Time to get honey from the bee hive


It's time again to get honey from our beehive - getting the combs out, cutting off the wax with a hot knife, and using a delightfully clunky centrifuge (bought at a yard sale by a friend of ours) to spin the honey out of the comb. I have photos of last year's effort on my Facebook page here.


(Addendum: We got 4 gallons, plus a ton of wax that Shelley says she wants to make into candles. Hippieville, here we come!)





A look at MIT's OpenCourseWare - college for free (sort of)


My column in the Telegraph today looks at MIT's OpenCourseWare, which is sort of a college education for free. (Here's the column.)  It is spurred by the fact that one of the OCW leaders is speaking this week at TechExpo 2010 in Portsmouth, which struck me as an odd combination. Talks about leadership and making money off social media and mobile applications - sure.


Will business folks and startup wannabes really be interested in MIT standards like calculus or electrical engineering, or oddballs like "Street-Fighting Mathematics"? Maybe not, although Economics 101 and other staples of the Sloan School of Management could fit the bill.


On the other hand, who knows? OCW users include MIT students: Traffic surges at exam time, when it's time to review, and at the end of the year, when students have to choose classes for the following term, Carchidi said. But it also includes other university and high school students, and people at schools in Third World countries looking to supplement courses, and a bunch of riff-raff like me, wandering through because we've tired of sudoku.



When it's hot, electricity use goes up


The hot summer boosted electricity use to the point that, despite the recession and extra efficiency, records were broken, says ISO-New England, which controls the power grid. (Read the press release here (PDF).) Some details:


New England's all-time electricity consumption for one month was recorded this July at 13,385 gigawatt-hours (GWh). The previous one-month consumption record was set in July 2006, with 13,365 GWh of electricity used.


Energy consumption in June, July, and August totaled 36,863 GWh, ranking summer 2010 in third place behind summer 2005 (38,150 GWh) and summer 2006 (37,076 GWh). May's peak demand set a new record for that month: 22,817 megawatts (MW) on May 26. Preliminary results indicate September's peak demand set a new record for that month: 26,098 MW on September 2.


Two new "top10 demand days" were recorded this summer during one heat wave: July 6 (27,100 MW) and July 7 (26,494 MW).


Note, however, that supply is no problem - partly because of the region's unique "demand response" auction, in which electricity users bid for the turn off power when demand is high, thus reducing the need for peak power generation. I wrote about it, as part of the grid's Forward Capacity Auction, in recent column; read it here.





"What normal person would put up with the inane indignities of the electoral process?"


We usually shun politics here in the intellectual Xanadu that is GraniteGeek, but the weird collection of know-nothings that have percolated to the top of this election cycle requires some sort of comment - so let me point you to a Slate essay today by Christopher Hitchens, which argues that running for, and then holding, office is such a painfully stupid activity that it attracts more painfully stupid people than any other activity this side of (insert whatever public pastime you scorn the most here).


What normal person would consider risking their career and their family life in order to undergo the incessant barrage of intrusive questioning about every aspect of their lives since well before college? To face the constant pettifogging and chatter of Facebook and Twitter and have to boast of how many false friends they had made in a weird cyberland? - Then comes the treadmill of fundraising and the unending tyranny of the opinion polls, which many media systems now use as a substitute for news and as a means of creating stories rather than reporting them. And, even if it "works," most of your time in Washington would be spent raising the dough to hang on to your job.


Here's the essay. Hopefully I'll find a more intelligent topic to post about soon ..



Trading goods at the speed of light will create difficult economic problems


The last post was about politics, and this one is about a topic almost as dreary: economics. But it's cool economics - an analysis of inter-stellar trade! Here's the abstract:


This article extends interplanetary trade theory to an interstellar setting. It is chiefly concerned with the following question: how should interest charges on goods in transit be computed when the goods travel at close to the speed of light? This is a problem because the time taken in transit will appear less to an observer traveling with the goods than to a stationary observer. A solution is derived from economic theory, and two useless but true theorems are proved.


I spotted it via this Freakonomics blog link. Here's the PDF of the paper, which includes this excellent line: "The remainder of the paper is, will be, or has been, depending on the reader's inertial frame, divided into three sections."


The author is Paul Krugman, now famous as a Nobel laureate who writes for the NY Times





1,200 MW of new Quebec hydropower is creeping closer


The plan to pump 1,200 megawatts of Quebec hydropower down through NH to eastern Mass. is creeping along: The Concord Monitor reports today (read it here) about discussions in the town of Franklin to host a 25-acre converter station, changing the DC current of the power line to AC. There's already a substation in the location. From the story:


Franklin was chosen, Long said, because it is at a crossroads in New Hampshire when it comes to power lines - there are already existing power lines running north-south and east-west.


The current plan is for the $1.1 billion project to start carrying power by 2015, the story says.


DC lines are like big interstates - they carry power efficiently, but it's very expensive to build any interchanges, so there are relatively few places where AC lines can connect to them. We need AC to actually use the power, of course. (Note: The much-hyped offshore Atlantic Wind Connection plan, backed by Google's money, is also DC. Cnet item here.)


The project has been dubbed "The Northern Pass". Here's the PSNH press release (PDF). Here's the project website.



UNH to build four 'space weather' instruments for satellites


From UNH news service:


The University of New Hampshire's Space Science Center (SSC) recently saw a fourfold increase in their role to provide a critical instrument onboard the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) third-generation weather satellites currently under construction. With the increase comes an additional $3 million in funding for a project total of $10.6 million under NOAA's Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) Program.


The SSC was originally contracted to design and build a single Energetic Heavy Ion Sensor (EHIS) for the Space Environment In-Situ Suite (SEISS) on the GOES-R satellite, which when launched will be the first in a series to replace the nation's aging, 30-year-old weather satellites. But in the wake of passing a series of critical engineering tests on an proof-of-concept instrument, the center was informed that three additional instruments would be needed for the GOES-S, -T, and –U satellites.


While some 80 percent of the instrumentation onboard the GOES satellites will be dedicated to tracking Earth-based weather, the space environment suite, of which the EHIS is a part, will point upward towards space to monitor one of the components of "space weather" – the constant stream of energetic particles in space that is sometimes greatly enhanced by activity on the Sun. The UNH-built instrument will measure particles with the highest energy ranges – particles that can pose great risk to satellites, astronauts, and transpolar aircraft crews.


"Space weather is now considered a part of weather. It's known that these large solar storms can generate charging effects that can impact satellites and, when they hit Earth, generators on the ground," says UNH research associate professor Clifford Lopate, lead scientist for the EHIS instrument.


Lopate, of the UNH Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space (EOS) and Department of Physics, notes the 30-year-old technology on the current GOES satellites will not serve us well in the future as Earth's changing climate puts more and more demands on satellite technology to analyze climate phenomena and accurately predict weather.


The EHIS incorporates a unique design, developed by Lopate's UNH colleague, astrophysicist James Connell, called the Angle Detecting Inclined Sensor system, or ADIS. The sensor employs a very simple and conservative approach in terms of the technology and replaces heavier, more complex detectors. ADIS is therefore very reliable, which is critical for weather satellites that must remain robust to be fully operational over 15 years in orbit. Because these are long-lasting missions UNH personnel will likely play a support role for the EHIS instruments for years to come.


UNH is a subcontractor in the project as part of an original 2006 award through the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA), working in coordination with the NOAA GOES program, of $101.7 million to Assurance Technologies Corporation (ATC) of Chelmsford, Mass. for development of the SEISS.


The UNH team plans to deliver two EHIS instruments in 2011 and 2012, respectively. The first satellite in the GOES series is scheduled to launch in 2015.





Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom - My homemade (i.e., crummy) "stand-up desk" at work

My homemade (i.e., crummy) standup desk, to help my back at work


Earlier this year I blew out my back, to the point that EMTs had to haul me out of my house. (I wrote about it in this column.) A week of drugs killed the pain enough to make me mobile again and I'm doing fine since.  I'm doing various goofy-looking stretching and "core strengthening" exercises at home, and am concentrating harder on treating my back well during the day.


Part of that new treatment involves sitting less, since sitting is bad. But I sit and type on computers all day long - not good.


So I made myself a platform that raises my keyboard and mouse 10 inches. I made it out of scrapwood in the basement, and since I'm a crummy carpenter it's wobbly - but hey, it was cheap! I keep it on the floor, and put it on top of my desk three or four times a day so I can work standing up for 10-20 minutes at a time. The accompanying photo is posed; I moved out of the way to show the platform, so my arms aren't usually quite so disjointed.


One of the things about long-term back care is that it's hard to tell whether whatever you're doing is helping or not. There's no equivalent of weight loss to measure. That's part of the reason why there is so much often-conflicting advice about caring for your back.




Celebrity-branded swordfish sounds goofy, but makes ecological sense


Celebrities stick their names on all sort of stupid junk, so why not swordfish steaks? Linda Greenlaw, a famous fishing-boat operator and author, has put her name to north Atlantic swordfish being sold in Hannaford supermarkets in the Northeast, partly to raise consumer knowledge that this species is doing well and can be eaten guilt-free. As the Portland Press-Herald (read it here) puts it: "The purpose of the marketing effort is partly to sell swordfish and partly to tell the public that swordfish is a local and sustainable product, taken from healthy stocks." (Count me among the uninformed public: I assumed that swordfish, which seems kind of exotic, is endangered and would never have bought any.)


The fish was the target of a program called "Give Swordfish a Break" about a decade ago, which urged boycotts of North Atlantic swordfish due to population concerns. The program has been judged a success and stocks replenished, as this National Resources Defense Council site notes, and the boycott has been lifted.



Best election issue in the country this year: Create a UFO commission!


Forget boring stuff like budgets and laws - in Denver, they get to vote whether to create a commission "that will meet twice a year and gather the most compelling evidence regarding the existence of extraterrestrialsand UFOs, and put it on the city's website."


Why don't we get good stuff like that in New Hampshire?


Here's the story, from AOLnews.



Dean Kamen - soon to be a TV star


Our own Dean Kamen is going to be a cohost of a Planet Green show called Dean of Invention (not a modest fellow, our Mr. Kamen) in which he jets around the world looking at cool innovations - or as the show's advance material says, he goes on a "quest to find the next scientific breakthroughs that will improve life for all mankind." It starts next Friday.


Here's the website.


Note the prominent logo for FIRST, the high school robotics competition. Kamen is a fanatic about FIRST and undboutedly required that logo be there. He and says it will be his greatest legacy and he may be right; FIRST remains by far the best example of non-traditional teaching of science and technical material.





Massachusetts tiptoes into the electric-car-charging world


Massachusetts may have almost a dozen car-charging stations in place by the end of the year, says the Globe:


At least five stations will be installed in the Springfield and Hadley areas by the end of this year, and another three are expected in Boston by the first quarter of 2011, according to officials. Currently, there are only three stations in the state, all of them at hotels - The state Energy and Environmental Affairs office anticipates at least 100 stations will open next year. - A station costs between $1,500 and $8,000. . (Read the story here.)


A state with 100 gasoline stations wouldn't have many cars, and 100 public charging stations won't exactly get the electric-car industry leaping with joy - but it's a start. The figure is also a bit misleading since  most charging will probably be done at home or at work, and nobody gasses up their car at home.


As a New Hampshire-based newspaper report, I'm chagrined to admit that I have no idea if any charging stations exist or are planned in this state. I've never heard of any so I assume there aren't any, but I guess I'd better find out!





Natural gas boom upends alternative energy business plans


The AP has a nice story on how the increase in U.S. supplies of natural gas could make it more difficult for wind and solar plants to work, because they assumed competition against high-cost fossil fuel. Read it here. From the story:


A recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the future of natural gas found that 80 years' worth of global natural gas consumption could be developed profitably with a gas price of $4 or below.


Plans for nuclear plants and wind farms were made under the assumption that gas prices would average $7 to $9. At that level, electricity prices would be high enough to make wind and nuclear power look affordable. Now many of these projects suddenly look too expensive.


Plans for three dozen new nuclear plants were drawn up in the middle of the last decade, and the nuclear industry hailed what it called a renaissance. -Now almost all of those plans have been delayed or shelved.





Another disease eliminated from Earth: rinderpest


It hasn't gotten much attention, but the UN says humans have now wiped out a second disease (after smallpox): Rinderpest, a virus that a century ago devastated cattle. It's associated with warm climates, so I'm not sure it ever existed here, but still - with all the gloomy news we've got, it's nice to contemplate an incredible accomplishment like entirely eliminating a fatal disease.


Here's the NY Times story.



A 90-year-old house built of newspapers - try doing that with a website!


Today's serendipitous online-wandering discovery: In Rockport, Mass.,  there's a 90-year-old house built of varnished newspapers. The framing is wood but the wallboard, and some furniture construction, is made of layers of old newspapers covered with glue and varnish. It was built as a summer house in 1921 but is still standing, nicely weatherproof.


Here's the home's website (Asas, it's not open for tours in the winter - I'll have to schedule a springtime Road Trip). Here's the story on Treehugger that alerted me to it.



"Father of fractals" dies


Benoit Mandelbrot, the man who virtually created fractal geometry, the most popular branch of mathematics (at least in terms of poster art on college walls), has died at age 85. Here's the PC magazine story.


Mandelbrot wrote one of the great papers in modern math: "How Long is the Coast of Britain: Statistical Self-Similarity and Fractional Dimension," which has a terrific wikipedia article (here). I interviewed him on the phone once, but his accent was so thick that I didn't get much of interest.


A personal note: I have a soft spot for fractals because the first freelance piece I ever sold was to the Washington Post about an "art show" of fractal designs, back in pre-Internet days when few had seen the patterns. It made me realize that popular writing about tech/math topics was fun and, if not exactly the roads to riches, could produce a sort of career.





To deter thieves, spray them with - DNA?


A few places in Rotterdam have installed highly visible systems which can spay a fine mist "laced with synthetic DNA" that can be triggered if there's a robbery. The DNA mist, visible under UV light, marks the criminals and anything that's stolen; it's also being used to mark property for future recovery in case of theft, sort of like a molecular social-security number.


Here's an NY Times story, which is light on details about the system. In fact, it says "Much of the spray's effectiveness, he said, comes from the mystique surrounding DNA."


One company making it is called SelectaDNA, a British firm. Here's its website. The stuff comes in spray, grease and gel form, and the DNA is in "microdots," with the site-specific codes in a database available to police. (The database, I would think, is a weak point - it gets hacked and the whole system is a shambles.) I couldn't find any prices on the site; you have to inquire, I believe.



Margin of error and polls - I have to eat a little crow


My telegraph column this week is about margin of error in political polling, and specifically how you treat those cases in which the difference between two candidates is more than the margin of error but less than twice the m.o.e.


I've always been a stickler on that topic, saying this case means the poll is too close to call, but it seems I was wrong - that, like AP, in those circumstances I should say one candidate is "slightly ahead". Read the details here.



My microwave uses more power while sitting idle than when used


Today's embarrassing realization: Over the course of the year my microwave oven has used more than twice as much electricity when off, sitting idle, than when on, actually cooking something.


(Now I'll have to unplug it and plug it back in all the time, darn it! Why do they have to include a glowing clock, anyway?)


Using my Kill-a-Watt meter, I found that when "off" the microwave draws 38 watts. When on - despite all its various settings we only use one setting, over and over as much as needed, which I suspect is the way most people use them - it draws almost 1,200 watts.


I figure that at the very most, the microwave is used 20 minutes a day. So it is not used 23 hours and 40 minutes a day.


Ergo, each day it uses 1,200 * 0.3 = 360 watt-hours while in use, and 38 * 23.6 = 896 watt-hours while sitting idle. More than twice as much daily total power draw occurs when it's just sitting there, doing nothing useful.





Vt. researcher: U.S. power grid is more resilient than some say


Responding to a highly publicized study that said attacks on relatively small portions of the U.S. electric grid, like certain substations, could disrupt much of the nation's power, a University of Vermont researcher and colleague have done a new analysis that calls it - in a quote from this UVM press release - "hooey." (That's a good word; you don't see it enough.)


The money quote from engineering professor Paul Hines, "If you were a bad guy, there is no obvious thing to do to take out the power system."


The deeper issue is whether dependence on topological models is sufficient to understand and predict the behavior of the grid. Here's a quote from the UVM academic, Paul Hines: "Some modelers have gotten so fascinated with these abstract networks that they've ignored the physics of how things actually work — like electricity infrastructure, and this can lead you grossly astray." From the release:


Using real-world data from a 2005 North American Electric Reliability Corporation test case, they compared how vulnerable parts of the grid appeared in the differing models. The topological measures — so-called "characteristic path lengths" and "connectivity loss" between nodes — came up with dramatically different and less accurate results than a model that calculated blackout size driven by the two rules that most influence actual electric transmissions — Ohm's and Kirchhoff's laws. In other words, the physics horse won.


Here's the Burlington Free-Press story that alerted me to it.




Rain, hail & snow: Community weather watching in N.H.


A online "citizen science" project with the weird name CoCoRaHS - which stands for Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network - is expanding in New Hampshire. A training session is set for Nov. 9 in Milford and I imagine more are planned or have been held.


CoCoRaHS asks people to post precipitation measurements online, preferably each day, to create a detailed weather map around the country. In's one of many systems that use lots of volunteers to gather data and/or make observations which are combined online to create fodder for scientific research. I wrote about this phenomenon - which ranges from Frogwatch to Galaxy Zoo - back in June (read the column here).

Here's the NH site for CoCoraHS. It says there are "over 175 observers" in the state already, a third of which post daily.

New Project


I don't feel right unless I have a project going. Usually that means some small tool or gadgets that with a few hours invested, let me save a couple of dollars and fifteen minutes in time. The latest though was completely different than my usual small scale work.


I decided that I needed to get my garage back from all the lumber, garden tractor, log splitter and boxes of miscellaneous goodies and other under-foot junque ( fancy junk ). With some help from relatives and neighbors, my wife and I built a 12×20 foot gambrel roof shed/small barn. It took six weeks of steady labor and many trips to local lumber yards, but it's now finished. Once the floor paint dries, I'll be making steady trips getting the garage ready to house the cars.


We adapted plans from a book from Black & Decker, "A Complete Guide to Contemporary Sheds". We added 8 feet to the plans and added a few windows (left over from house window upgrades). We made a few mistakes along the way but nothing that couldn't be fixed or covered over. I appreciate one of the sayings of my father, "A professional carpenter is someone who has his OWN barrel of plastic wood". Trim can cover up a lot of sins. There was alway a temptation to say, "It's only a shed", along the way. Still, compared to some vacation homes I've seen, it turned out OK.


Looking at it from the house, I only see prideful results. It was hard work and makes me appreciate my Dad's competent skills building houses from scratch, limited to plans sketched on one sheet of paper, mostly outlining the footprint and number of rooms. I wish I had worked more with him, but he was impatient with kids. He would have appreciated the power tools I used, especially the air nailer. My arms would be feeling all that impact energy now without that efficient amplifier of directed power.


Next project discussed, a table saw and drill press made from scraps designed for traveling.


Earle Rich - Mont Vernon, NH



Our winter forecast: Above, below or just at normal. Got that?


Here's the National Weather Service winter forecast for the region:


Northeast and Mid-Atlantic: equal chances for above-, near-, or below-normal temperatures and precipitation.


That will help your planning.


The NY Times explains it in this post, as here:


Winter weather for these regions is often driven not by La Niña but by weather patterns over the northern Atlantic Ocean and Arctic. These are often more short-term and are generally predictable only a week or so in advance. If enough cold air and moisture are in place, areas north of the Ohio Valley and into the Northeast could see above-average snow;





Weird foreign spam comes in snail mail, too


It's always fun, in an irritating sort of way, to get foreign-language spam - even in this globalized world, it's mildly exciting to see languages you can't read in your inbox.


I received a reminder this week that this weirdness is hardly confined to the digital realm: We received a 120-page, double-sided missive from Winsen, Germany - entirely in German - about Scientology. I don't know  German, so I can't tell whether it's pro or con Scientology, but it makes sure to COMPLETELY CAPITALIZE the word "Scientology" every time it appears.


The best part is that it was mailed to The Cabinet in Milford, one of our weekly papers. Presumably the address was found on some list of US newspapers, but it has to be a pretty gigantic list to include a small N.H. weekly newspaper. The thought of somebody photocopying hundreds of copies of a screed and mailing them to hundreds of newspapers in another country where they don't even speak your language!!! - it's kind of weird.


If anybody out there knows German and would like to read this item, feel free to send me a self-addressed, stamped envelope, and it's yours!



Is an activist blogger a journalist?


A Nashua-based blogger who runs KingCast, a provocative blog that often takes on conservatives, is suing some state Republicans and the Nashua police, saying he was illegally ejected from some GOP events in N.H. even though he should be protected by the First Amendment (freedom of the press). This raises the still-interesting question of who should be considered a journalist now that the old media structures have dissolved.


Here is today's Telegraph story on his lawsuit.  From the story: "King says he just wants to be able to cover political rallies as would any other journalist, mainstream or not. He 'didn't cease to be a journalist' when he stopped writing for a newspaper and created a blog called KingCast, King said."


Here's the KingCast blog.





Heating oil price rise sounds good to wood burners


It's an ill wind that blows no good, so forecasts for sharply higher heating oil this winter (article here) are good news to the tiny but growing biomass-heat industry.


The Northeast is the region most dependent on heating oil in the U.S. Of course, we're also the region most heavily forested by area (Northern New England, at least). That's why a biomass heating group thinks we should get 25 percent of our heat by burning wood - if oil prices rise, more people might agree.





Mountain lions in New Hampshire? Probably not, but -


Last year I wrote about the persistent debate over whether wild mountain lions (cougars) live in New Hampshire, here.


But people to hear about dangerous wild predators, so here's an updated story from the Telegraph, featuring (as such stories always do) people who are sure they have seen one and officials pointing out that no real evidence has been discovered. It's a good piece that quotes, among others, retired wildlife biologist Eric Orff, who is well known to NH wildlife fans, pointing out that the state has investigated claims since the 1940s with no result, and that in contrast there is solid tracking evidence of the presence of the incredibly rare lynx


I would bet these sightings are the result of wishful thinking, but then again I couldn't tell a fisher from a tomcat if they ran across my path, so my opinion isn't worth much.


And as a counter argument I have talked to a very knowledgeable outdoorsman who believes that mountain lions might will be in NH but that Fish & Game officials wouldn't admit this even if they knew it to be true, out of fear of public outcry for these "dangerous vermin" to be eradicated. I find that plausible, too.





"Can you hear me now?" field trip


I am heading out shortly to drive around with one of Verizon's "can you hear me now?" folks - not sure of the official term - who test the network signal on the road, to see how it's done. They say I can take some pictures, but not close-up ones; they don't want competitors to get a good look at their equipment.


I'm happy with this restriction, to be honest; it gives me an excuse for taking my usual crummy pictures.



Bees Solve Traveling Salesman Problem


I love this. Bees, with a brain the size of a grass seed, solve complicated problems that would take super-computers days of calculations. Scientists are trying to find out how on earth they can do this. Something not mentioned that I thought of is that perhaps the bees are using an analog computing process and that the scientists are too focused on treating neurons as a biological digital system.


Analog computers, with potentiometers setting amplifier gains and meters as the output, can greatly simplify complicated problems. They aren't as accurate, but sometimes that isn't so important for real world problems. All fire control systems and guided missile flight controls were analog before digital took over. They were quite reliable but hard to service and calibrate. They were replaced when speed and accuracy became more important. I still have some analog computer components, marvels of cams, gears and non-linear pots. They are only parts of larger systems so will never again be more than objects of steampunk art.


Earle Rich - Mont Vernon, NH



Skepticism in New Hampshire: Debunking with a smile, not a sneer


My column in the Telegraph today is about the Granite State Skeptics, which has turned into a pretty active local alternative to Boston Skeptics or Connecticut-based New England Skeptical Society. Read it here.


I emphasize their attempt to adopt what might be called Skepticism with a Smiling Face - or, as astro-geek Phil Plait puts it, the "Don't be a Dick" approach to spreading rational thought.


Incidentally, I have added a link to Granite State Skeptics' site, complete with their nifty logo, in GraniteGeek's right-hand rail. Speaking as somebody who tried (feebly, I admit) and failed to start up a similar group more than a decade ago, I appreciate the fact that they seem to be pretty active and useful.





Mass. wind-power firm seeks to go public


Technology doesn't advance without money, so let's take note of the fact that Boston-based First Wind Holdings is probably going to file to go public this week, seeking to raise a few hundred million dollars from stock buyers that it can use to build more wind farms. Read Tux Turkel's story in the Portland Press-Herald here. First Wind runs two big wind farms in Maine and has just started a third (which I added to Granite Geek's alternative-power map yesterday).


From the story:


Investor interest in First Wind's stock could be an important indicator of the health of the wind power industry, both nationally and in Maine. The industry's rapid growth has been sapped this year by the economic downturn, and by low natural gas prices that have driven down wholesale electricity costs and made wind less competitive. Installed capacity is off 71 percent from last year, down to 2007 levels, according to the American Wind Energy Association.


Some global utilities, such as Central Maine Power Co.'s parent, Iberdrola of Spain, operate large wind power subsidiaries in the United States. But First Wind would be unique: a publicly traded, U.S.-based company solely devoted to wind energy in the Northeast, the West and Hawaii.



Paul the Octopus - may he rest in peace


Paul the psychic octopus, who picked World Cup winners with astonishing accuracy, has died of old age. Here's a story from the Telegraph - the British one, not the New Hampshire one.


As I'm sure you recall, Paul the Octopus chose the winners in the soccer world championship by picking food from one of two boxes respresenting the two teams in the game. It started as a fun stunt by a German aquarium and became a global sensation as his success rate soared - there's even  a documentary film in the works.


The cephalopod's passing is worthy of GraniteGeek mention because the tale demonstrated that random events can produce astonishing results without the need to invoke higher powers, intelligent agents or pseudo-scientific fluffery. That's a lesson more people should take to heart.



Model airplane fly-overs help horseshoe crab research


From UNH News Service by Rebecca Zeiber: To survey pits dug by horseshoe crabs in the sediments of the Great Bay Estuary, researchers attached a small camera onto a model airplane. This novel approach allowed University of New Hampshire graduate student Wan-Jean Lee to determine the extent of the horseshoe crab impacts without having to mar the sediments by walking over them.


Lee, a Ph.D. candidate in zoology, stood on the bank at Adams Point in Durham, directing Joshua Idjadi, assistant professor of biology at Eastern Connecticut State University, as he maneuvered the plane over certain areas and at various altitudes by remote control.


This approach let me get valuable aerial video of the sediments on a graduate student's budget," says Lee, who also ran a video camera on a zipline above the sediments for a similar overview. "Josh has the expertise in the hardware, while I found a way to apply his skills in my research and convert the videos into a format that is amenable to analyses." (Watch the video here:


Lee's research, sponsored by the Cooperative Institute for Coastal and Estuarine Environmental Technology, NOAA's Great Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and N.H. Sea Grant, focuses on sediment disturbance by foraging horseshoe crabs to see how it impacts the invertebrate community. Video data collected from the model airplane flyovers will determine the extent and location of the disturbance in the bay.


In late spring, the crabs migrate to the mud flats in the Great Bay Estuary to spawn. The adults revisit the mudflats throughout the summer until early fall, digging around in soft sediments looking for invertebrates to eat and creating round pits about one foot in diameter. When the tide recedes, the crabs move into deeper waters and the newly exposed mud resembles the surface of the moon.


There is a growing recognition that organisms can impact their environment in physical ways, similar to how a beaver can change a flowing stream into a pond by constructing dams, explains Jeb Byers, associate professor of ecology at the University of Georgia, formerly a UNH professor of zoology who continues to serve as Lee's graduate adviser. The horseshoe crabs' pit digging can influence the sediment structure, size and amount of organic matter, and turbidity, all of which can then influence the type of organisms that inhabit the sediment.


"No one has ever investigated how these pits change the turbidity, biogeochemistry or biota,"Byers said. "These are seemingly large and obvious effects but they've been off the radar screen thus far."


The rates of disturbance are highest in late summer and begin to taper off in early fall each year. This is not a new phenomenon, and both Lee and Byers emphasized that the pit digging is normal in Great Bay.


"The term 'disturbance' has a negative connotation," Lee said. "But the truth is that disturbance is a natural part of the ecology."


Lee collected sediment samples in the pits and compared the invertebrate community to undisturbed sediments half a meter away. Her research indicates that less than a day after a pit is made by the crabs, there is a significant reduction in the abundance of invertebrates as compared to the undisturbed sediments. This remains true for up to three days after the pit is dug, as invertebrates begin to return after that point.


Lee will continue to monitor the invertebrate densities and horseshoe crab activity throughout other areas of the bay to better understand the role that crabs play in the ecosystem. The results will also be used to aid in education and outreach in the future, Byers said.





Mystery website, with potential Monkees connection, roils Maine politics


The parent company of the Portland Press-Herald employed "two Internet experts" (lovely old-fashioned-sounding phrase, that) to figure out who is hosting a website that is attacking an independent candidate for Maine governor. The experts found that the website is hosted by an anonymizer and registered to what appears to be a pseudonym - and this is the best part - of Michael Blessing. That name has been used by Michael Nesmith of Monkees band fame (whose later "alt country" solo career produced some pretty good stuff), but it's not at all clear that Nesmith is actually involved. Don't you love Net anonymity?


From the story: "The people behind the site apparently aren't in favor of any particular candidate, they simply want Cutler to lose."


Here's the story - check it out.



Geek heaven at Verizon Wireless' switch office


I have an article in the Telegraph today about a guy who drives around for Verizon Wireless doing the equivalent of "can you hear me now?" (Read it here) I also have a small sidebar answering the question you want answered: No, they aren't saying when 4G will ooze up from Boston, where it has just started, into New Hampshire.


What I didn't go into much was the VW switching office in Hooksett, which handles all their cell phone traffic from New Hampshire, Maine and most of Vermont. (All of New England is handled by 10 such switches). They've ask that I not be more specific about location for security reasons, although they admit that (a) the building has a honking big tower covered with microwave antennas and (b) it's on Google Maps.


I got a tour and it was cool - tens of thousands of square feet of newish space (opened in 2005) designed to take signals from copper, fiber, microwave or whatever and process them into and out of the main phone system, come hell or high water. It's got a 1.35-MW generator that's bigger than a trailer my wife and I once lived in, plus a roomful of massive lead-acid batteries. The switch room itself looked like a scene from "2001″, full of quiet humming computerish white boxes.


The most interesting part is that the building is almost twice as big as necessary, with about half of it sitting empty. They did that so they could add a second switch if traffic becomes necessary.



Topographic maps at the click of a button


Remember when getting a good topographic map of an area required going to some obscure corner of your local hardware store where they were stored, or maybe a sporting goods store, or maybe sending away by mail?


The Net has changed all that, of course. The latest example: New Hampshire Fish and Game has put up USGS topo maps with excellent labels (click here to see the list) along with bathymetry (depth) maps for select water bodies. They're not the first ones to put them online, but I find this interface as fast and easy as any I've seen. They've also got links to 2009 satellite photos of the same area, allowing easy comparison between map and picture - very helpful.


ADDENDUM: Speaking of online information about New Hampshire geology, the Mountain Washington Avalanche Center has a nifty new webiste - see it here.






Wind firm thinks stock sale will be less - er, breezy?


UPDATE: The stock sale was cancelled Thursday, reports Tux Turkel in Maine.


A couple of days ago I noted that Boston-based First Wind was going public. Well, the Globe points out today (read it here) that the financial difficulties facing alternative energy in the recession and falling prices of fossil fuels has led the company to trim how much it thinks it will raise, from $300 million to $228 million. Back in 2008, it thought it could raise $425 million.


From the story: "First Wind generated about $88 million in revenue through the first nine months of the year, about 50 percent more than it reported for the same period of 2009. But the company also posted an operating loss of $43 million for the first three quarters, about the same amount it lost over that period last year."



"Compostable" spoons and forks sometimes aren't, UVM finds


As the biggest state school in a state where environmentalism is re rigeur, the University of Vermont likes to do various "green" things - like use compostable spoons and forks made of corn starch. Alas, as the Burlington Free-Press reports, they don't actually compost very well, and have been banned from a large composting facility. Read the story here.


The market for cutlery billed as compostable burgeoned a few years ago, but it was only after many of those knives, forks and spoons had been cured in compost piles over many months, and had languished in other piles for many more months awaiting processing, that they were found not to have degraded. The culprits were nondegradable petroleum-based compounds that manufacturers mixed in with the vegetable starch to render the utensils rigid and heat-resistant.


It's an unfortunate truth that a lot of "green" products don't work as well as the environmentally unfriendly items they're replacing - dishwashing detergent being the current high-profile object lesson. The problem is that we don't see the environmental damage that, say, petroleum-based flatware does around us so we don't count it in the final equation.



UNH studies how to make dairy production less greenhouse-gassy


From UNH News Service: Scientists from the University of New Hampshire have been awarded $700,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to do a baseline study of greenhouse gas emissions at both traditional and organic dairy farms operated by UNH. The grant will also support development of extension and higher education programs that will improve the competitiveness of organic livestock and crop producers, as well as those who are adopting organic practices.


The three-year study by scientists at UNH's Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space (EOS) and Applied Geosolutions, LLC of Durham will include field measurements of greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide, from all components of both traditional and organic dairy farming.


Says the project's principal investigator, research associate professor Ruth Varner of the EOS Complex Systems Research Center, "In farming, the nitrogen cycle is what people are really interested in. Nitrogen fertilizer is typically used to grow crops and there is a lot of nitrogen in byproducts, which can produce nitrous oxide, one of the greenhouse gases we are measuring."


If, for example, nitrogen-rich manure is used to fertilize fields it may have an impact on gaseous nitrogen and carbon emissions to the atmosphere. The USDA-funded project aims to put detailed numbers on these emissions via field measurements using, among other methods, autochamber technology to measure gaseous emissions around the clock.


Conversion from conventional to organic dairy farming in the Northeast will result in enhanced ecosystem services and improved environmental benefits through the reduction in nitrate leaching and greenhouse gas emissions and increases in soil organic matter.


As part of the project, a computer-based program will be tested as a decision-support tool for farmers to evaluate best management practices at their farms. The tool will be tested in collaboration with partners in the study, Organic Valley of LaFarge, Wis., and Stonyfield Farms of Londonderry. The project will provide farmers with training in using the tool and assistance with accessing relevant data regarding both the productivity of, and ecosystems services provided by, their farms.



Large-scale hydropower from Quebec: How "green" is it? How good for us?


New Hampshire Public Radio's "The Exchange" talk show did a segment on the Northern Pass Hydropower Project, which wants to create a 1.2-gigawatt power line to bring more Quebec hydropower through N.H. into Massachusetts.Large-scale hydropower has its environmental pluses and minuses; its "green" status is so debatable that some in Massachusetts (as noted here) don't want it to count toward the state's renewable-energy goal, partly because they fear it will swamp local, greener but more expensive options like solar and wind.


You can listen to the NHPR show by clicking here.





Vermont state police sell their DUI videos


Here's an interesting income stream that most governments haven't thought of: Sell the video that police cruisers make of driving-under-the-influence traffic stops! Buy your buddy's DUI and play it at parties - what a scream!


That's what Vermont state police do, the Burlington Free-Press reports (read it here); the issue has come up because a candidate had a drunk-driving stop.


We have joked in the newsroom that police departments should sell mugshots, which have proved to be one of the most popular items to draw traffic online, and in print. But we thought it was just a joke!


(Yes, I originally wrote that this involved Maine state police - hey, I hadn't had any coffee yet)



Can you really measure politicians' egos on a logarithmic scale?


Quantifying is the essence of science: to a large extent, if you can't measure it, it isn't science. So in this moment of poilticking excess let us applaud the effort of former Telegraph staffer Darren Garnick and engineer Ilya Mirman to quantify the egos of U.S. Senators.


You can read about their effort at Slate (here) and see the mathematical formula they devised here. The data involve pictures/tropies/machismoness of senators' offices, and the two were clever enough to create a logarithmic scale to better handle the wide range of egoness - "like the Richter Scale," as they point out.


All of Northern New England's senators lie in the "moderately humble" category. As a region, we're only out-humbled by the senators in the Mountain Time Zone, whose scores border on Uriah Heep territory.


Coincidentally, I'm writing a story about research by Barrett Rock of UNH that quantifies another usually-number-free topic: Autumn foliage color. He measures what might be considered leaf-peeping quality from satellite photos as part of work on the effects of climate change.



Courtesy image showing the "Citylights" display


17,000-square-foot display screen makes a hit at Expo


Sky-Skan of Nashua, which started as a firm making high-end planetarium displays, created what it calls "ultra-high resolution" screen for the Saudi Arabia Pavilion at Expo 2010 in Shanghai, China. The company teamed with GPD S.A. of Spain to make a 17,000 square foot screen using 25 projectors and 2.5 miles of cables.


"Our contribution was hardware, software, and support for the projection. GPD handled the show production component, which consist of sweeping views of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's highest achievements. For all of the pavilions at the Expo, this theater is making Saudi Arabia's one of the most popular: they celebrated the pavilion's 4 millionth visitor Oct. 17th with tickets to Saudi Arabia." wrote the firm .


The exhibit opened on May 1. Closing ceremonies on Sunday.


A video about the show was uploaded to Youtube by the firm and is worth checking out:




"Proofiness" - a look at how even good numbers can deceive us


A couple of weeks ago I wrote a column about margin of error in polls, and how mathematically sound reasoning about the effect of m.o.e. could be misleading because it doesn't factor in reality. (Here it is)


There's a new book out that makes the same point, but more so, called "Proofiness" (a play on Steven Colbert's "truthiness"). Here's an NY Times interview with the author. The book sounds like it has too  many cutesy fake words, but otherwise is good stuff. From the interview:


A regression analysis is a tool for taking a set of data, a collection of points, and making sense of it with a formula. It's a powerful technique because it allows you to present data in terms of things you think are relevant. - The problem is that if your initial assumptions don't have a basis in reality, then it's going to come up with an answer that makes it look like there's a connection when in fact there isn't.


The greatest book in this field, as you probably already know, is "How to Lie With Statistics" by Darrell Huff. You can order it from Amazon here; I'm sure you know somebody who would love it for Christmas.



November 2010

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Debate begins on huge Quebec hydro power line project


If you wonder why states need a statewide newspaper, consider the Union-Leader of Manchester. Despite its many faults - personality traits, fans would say - the U-L remains the best way to connect people throughout all of New Hampshire over an issue. (WMUR, our TV station, could do it better, but it never covers anything but crime any more, so it doesn't matter)


An example of the U-L's reach is a story today about the start of hearings on rights-of-way for the Northern Pass project, to bring 1,200 MW of Quebec hydropower down to southern NH and then once to Boston. This is a big deal for the state and region, but since the initial debate is happening in the northern edge of the state, nobody in NH's populous areas would hear about it - if not for the U-L.


Here's the story. My favorite bit is the guy who wants the project to be made of superconducting power lines that are buried, cost be damned! That's thinking outside the box.



Does E-Z Pass reduce premature deliveries?


When pregnant women breath polluted air, it can harm their babies. Cars stopped at toll booths produce more pollution. Ergo, the existence of E-Z Pass, which lets cars zip through toll booths, should reduce birth problems in women living nearby. And that is exactly what research found, as I learned from the Freakonomics blog.


Usually when people talk about the unintended consequences of technology, those consequences are bad (e.g., interstate highways create sprawl). It's nice to see a good-news accident, so to speak.



Do women hunters like online or in-person safety classes?


ADDENDUM: Note that this is a hunter safety course, not a course about being able to shoot well. In fact, you can take a practice version for free - go to


I'm doing research on a story about women hunters in NH, and here's a GraniteGeek-ish tidbit I have found. The sample size is too small to make sweeping conclusions, but in 2010 in New Hampshire, women who took the mandatory hunters education course preferred in-person to online classes. Draw gender-related conclusions as you will:


Hunter Ed. class:

Total - %

female 150 - 22%

male 530 -  78%


Online hunter ed:

Total: - %

female 65 - 14%

male 385 - 86%





Seabrook nuclear plant isn't alone in seeking an extension on its license


I didn't realize how many middle-aged nuclear plants, like Seabrook Station on New Hampshire's seacoast, are trying to extend their operating license for a few more decades. The NY Times has a piece about several other plants in the process, and how this is more appealing because the recesion  has made new nuke-plant construction more difficult. (Read it here) Greentech Media has more detail in its story: Read it here.


Seabrook has a long way to go before its license renewal is OK'd. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has just appointed a board to examine the request - see the story here from Seacoast Online.





Post-election night (without a UFO commission)


I was up doing election coverage for the Telegraph until 2 a.m., and there's no non-election news around, so GraniteGeek isn't likely to be all that fascinating today. There's one national election note of interest to us: Denver did NOT establish a UFO commission! Story here.


At the Telegraph we stumbled on one interesting problem last night while typing results from local ballots into a Google Docs spreadsheet, so it could go online. In the interest of fairness, the NH Secretary of State's office scrambles the order of the parts from left to right on our ballots, to avoid giving out inadvertent voter preference. (They also scramble alphabetical order in races with multiple seats.)


This party order doesn't matter to voters, who only see one ballot (hopefully, anyway!), but when you're compiling totals for, say, a state representative race that requires compiling numbers from several towns, it's very confusing that the Republicans are in the left column in Town A but the middle column in Town B and the right column in Town C. We messed up a couple of auto-summed totals for a while because of that.


(A side note: I miss the days when I could sleep all morning ... even when I get home at 2 a.m., I can't stay in bed after about 7:30 a.m. any more. I blame the kids - 19 years of getting up for them became an unshakable habit.)





For sale: Nuclear power plant, slightly used. Tritium leak, no extra charge


The owners of Vermont Yankee want to sell it, reports the Burlington Free-Press (story here). The story notes the state's governor election "is a staunch critic of the Vermont Yankee who called for the plant to close when its current license expires in 2012."


Vermont Yankee is fairly small (650-megawatt, about 60 percent the size of Seabrook) and aging (it opened in 1972) and has had some well-publicized problems with tritium leaking from exterior pipes (although that's not an uncommon problem, as this Nuclear Regulatory Commission article notes). It will be interesting to see if despite that, it draws buyers looking to succeed from the desire for carbon-free energy.





As local kids fade away, UNH looks overseas


The school-age population of New England is slowly shrinking and the appeal of warm-weather universities growing, so what's a school like UNH to do? Embrace globalization, of course. The school has recently signed with an Australian firm that specializes in attracting foreign students to U.S. colleges. "The goal is to have 10 to 12 percent of the undergraduate student body come from other countries by the end of the 10-year agreement, university officials said. In the last academic year, 76 of the school's approximately 12,200 undergraduate students were from other countries, along with 245 of the 2,200 graduate students." (AP story here)


They're facing tough competition, though - universities around the world have begun realizing that the US has a good thing in the amount of foreign talent we lure to our shores through our college systems. In fact, even high schools can get into the act: The NY Times had a story last week about a Maine high school that is recruiting kids from China (read it here).



NH has two entries in the national Pumpkin Chunkin contest


Recently I profiled a Nashua-area group that built a huge air cannon called American Chunker to fire pumpkins as far as a mile (read it here) - but they're not the only group going to Delaware for the 25th annual national Pumpkin Chunkin contest. As reported in the Telegraph today (read it here), a Merrimack group has built a wicked cool looking trebuchet called Launch-Ness Monster and is taking it down for the contest, too.


The state's five-time champ, the Yankee Siege trebuchet, has retired.





Maine has 12 straight warmer-than-average months


The AP story is upbeat about it (folks in cold country like it being warmer!) but us winter-lovers can only shake our head: October was the 12th straight warmer-than-average month in Maine, the longest such streak in the nation. NH and other Northeast states have been above the long-term temperature for 10 months. Here's the story.





More about that non-compostable "compostable cutlery"


A good newspaper has a niche, and the Burlington Free-Press, located in the heart of Vegan Vermont, jumps all over "green" issues - as well it should. The latest example is an examination of the "compostable cutlery" controversy, in which forks and spoons (and, I sincerely hope, sporks) that were supposed to be made of biodegradable materials weren't, and ended up clogging large-scale composting operations. (Read it here)


The article notes that standards and measurements for this field are limited, which leaves us depending on the manufacturers' claims - and surprise, surprise, sometimes those claims are unjustified! From the article: "Some early varieties didn't hold up well to hot soup, said David Hughes, a senior sales representative for Foley Distributing in Rutland ... So around 2006, he said, some manufacturers started adding a petroleum-based ingredient to the mix — polypropylene — which made the utensil more heat-resistant but also rendered it non-compostable."



Climate change - sound and fury, signifying what?


I had an article in Saturday's paper about UNH research indicating the changes in our sugar maple population in recent years (we laymen will take note of less sugar in the sap, less orange in the leaves).


You can read it here. Then you can go on and read the comment thread at the bottom, which is longer than on any story I've written in many months. But on second thought, don't - 95 percent of it is "you're an idiot!" "no, you're an idiot!" etc. You have better things to do with your time.


Expect more such "debate," if I may use that noble-sounding term for often ignoble behavior, now that climate-change-denying politics have been swept into office in Washington. The American Geophysical Union is marshaling scientists to go on a PR binge to counteract them, as the LA Times reports.





'Solar power on a stick' in Nashua, Berlin


The biggest state utility PSNH is testing "pole solar" in Nashua and Berlin - that is, solar panels mounted on utility poles, feeding directly into the grid. I wrote about it in my Telegraph column today: Read it here. It's a project by Petra Solar of New Jersey, which has received regulatory approval to put up 200,000 such panels in New Jersey, creating a 40-megawatt solar power plant scattered throughout the Garden State.


PSNH put up eight 200-watt panels in NH, so this isn't exactly a big power project, but it's still interesting.





Phoenix/WFNX sues Facebook, and vice-versa


I don't use the sites enough to know exactly what they're made about, but the parent company of the Boston Phoenix and WFNX radio is suing and being sued by Facebook over various social-media stuff, reports the Boston Globe. (Read it here) The Phoenis says Facebook's "computer network and method of creating and sharing a personal page''are covered by their patent, Facebook says Phoenix's "features such as guides for bands and eateries on the newspaper's website and an online music player at the radio station" infringe on their patents.



Inventor of Ethernet moves from Boston to Austin


Bob Metcalfe, best known among geeks for inventing Ethernet and among business types as the founder of 3Com, is leaving the Boston area, where he has been for two decades, to teach at the University of Texas-Austin. Globe item here. Metcalfe is 64, so this may not be the loss that it would have been three decades ago, but it's certainly symbolic, if nothing else.





Winner with 38 percent of vote has Maine mulling "instant runoff" elections


A three-way race for Maine governor meant the winner got just 38 percent of the total vote. This has some folks in that state calling for a change from a traditional first-past-the-post election to an "instant runoff" scenario, in which voters don't just choose one candidate but rank them. The ranking is used to decide a winner when there's no majority winner, which is why it's sometimes called ranked-choice voting. Press-Herald story here.


Advocates say the system changes the behavior of politicians. From the story: "She said candidates would avoid negative campaigning because they would be hunting for second- and third-place votes in addition to first-place votes."


Burlington used that form of election twice, but voters didn't like it, partly because it elected somebody in a five-way race who proved to be quite unpopular, and have gone back to traditional methods (as I noted in this post back in March.)


There are lots of possible ways other than "vote for one" to hold elections - the wikipedia article does a pretty good job of discussing most of them.



Gulf of Maine has 4,000 species, twice earlier estimates


Beth Potier of UNH News Service wrote this condensed version of a Campus Journal article for GraniteGeek:


Friday, more than 100 ocean scientists, educators and policy makers from around New England will come to the University of New Hampshire for the 2010 Ocean Literacy Summit hosted by the New England Ocean Science Education Collaborative. The summit, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Granite State Room of the Memorial Union Building, features a keynote address by Paul Snelgrove, lead scientist for the Census of Marine Life, and a panel discussion of Census of Marine Life researchers that includes UNH associate professor of history Jeffrey Bolster.


Concluding the summit, ocean scientist Sylvia Earle will deliver a public lecture, "We Are All Sea Creatures," at 5:30 Friday in the Granite State Room. Tickets to Earle's talk and a pre-lecture reception (4:30 in the Swampscott Room of Holloway Commons) are available for $20. Faculty, staff, and student tickets to the lecture only are available for $10. Register online at, or pay at the door.


The ten-year Census of Marine Life – a major global collaboration that released findings last month in London — engaged scientists and historians from Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut to gather, share, and analyze information on the Northeast and beyond, making comparisons of marine environments across time and space. The Census found that the Gulf of Maine is home to more than 4,000 known species, more than double previous estimates.


Bolster, who will participate in a panel at 2 p.m., was one of the lead investigators for the Census's History of Marine Animal Populations project in the U.S.; he will discuss research that has shown that virtually all areas of the Gulf of Maine, from the intertidal zone to the deep basins, have been affected by humans. Some changes have been occurring for decades, and in some cases, centuries. "The more we understand the past," says Bolster, "the better we can manage for the future."


To learn more about the Ocean Literacy Summit, go to To attend the Summit meetings, register at; the registration fee of $60 can be paid at the door. For additional information, contact Mark Wiley of N.H. Sea Grant, who is the UNH host of this event, at



Two 4th, one 5th-place finish for NH teams at Punkin Chunkin contest


ADDENDUM: Check out the wicked cool video of the Launch-Ness Monster in action - it's like no trebuchet I've ever seen:


(Note: These are unofficial results)


The American Chunker air cannon from Nashua came in 4th in its division  at the 25th annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin contest in Delaware, with a shot of 3,535 feet, about 200 feet less than the longest shot overall. American Chunker would have come in first if the title was given for best average distance, instead of just longest out of three attempts, because it got off three good shots with no "pumpkin pie" (i.e., the pumpkin explodes from the pressure within the barrel). The team plans to work on increasing muzzle velocity, says Brian Labrie.


Meanwhile, the Launch-Ness Monster from Merrimack, a cool-looking trebuchet, came in fourth in the Adult Trebuchet division with a longest toss of 1,618 feet.


Here's my story about American Chunker, a couple of months ago.


Here's our story about the Launch-Ness Monster, from last week.


ADDENDUM: I was just told that I had missed a third NH team, Tired Iron from Hancock. Chuck Willard, one of the original designers of the sadly retired Yankee Siege trebuchet, is behind it. It came in fifth, behind Launch-Ness Monster.





Cold Fusion magazine 1994 premiere issue


Before "Infinite Energy" it was "Cold Fusion" magazine


In cleaning out my attic, I found a premier copy of Concord, NH-based "Cold Fusion" magazine from 1994 - the cover scan of which you'll see here. This intriguing magazine was launched by Eugene Mallove, who lived near Concord, after he split from MIT alleging that hot-fusion folks were squelching the truth about cold fusion. I wrote about it and interviewed Mallove several times over the years.


My favorite article is an essay by Arthur C. Clark titled "2001: The Coming Age of Hydrogen Power And the Dawn of a New Era." It includes a letter he wrote to then-Vice President Al Gore, urging government support of research into cold fusion.


There's also a great advertisement for a N.J. firm called The Cold Fusion Company Inc. - not to be confused with the Internet services firm of the same name - selling medallions made of palladium, since the value of that metal, used in cold-fusion work, was sure to soar as the field took hold.


Mallove was murdered at a family home in Connecticut in 2004. The magazine is still going strong and still based in Concord, although now it is called "Infinite Energy" and its interests spread far and wide (too far and wide, for many tastes). Despite some increased acceptance from mainstream science, the idea that cold fusion is anything more than an interesting chemical reaction remains, shall we say, controversial.


By the way, I'm sending the issue to the magazine offices to add to their collection. That seems the best thing for it.


Here's the magazine's website. Here's the most recent story I can find about Mallove's case, although it's six months old.



Hydrogen filling station for fuel-cell cars coming to Maine ... maybe


A Connecticut company called Proton Energy wants to build a dozen or so hydrogen filling stations along Route 95 to power fuel-cell electric vehicles. The northernmost would be in Portland, Maine; the next one down would be in Braintree, Mass. Each station would cost at  least $2 million, says the Portland Press-Herald story. (Read it here)


From the story: The East Coast stations would be privately financed by SunHydro's wealthy owner, Tom Sullivan, founder of the successful Lumber Liquidators flooring chain, which has a store in Scarborough. "Most everything done until now has been a demonstration project," said Rick Smith, president of the Hydrogen Energy Center. "This is private money, with a goal to use the technology in day-to-day business. That's a huge change."


SunHydro is the parent company of Proton energy.



This is why UFO eye-witness reports aren't worth much


You've probably heard all about the mysterious missile launch, filmed off the California coast, and how it turned out to be an airplane contrail seen at an odd angle, magnified by the setting sun. (If not, check a report here) It's an interesting tale, because the video looks EXACTLY like a rocket launch; that's certainly what I thought it was.


But the story is most interesting because it shows why convincing-sounding eyewitness reports of UFOs should be taken with huge helpings of grains of salt: It is much, much easier for us to be fooled than we think. The airplane pilots who see mysterious lights behaving in non-earthly ways, the folks who see strange things flying overhead; the people who watch aliens - their enraged "I know what I saw!" comments are worth nothing. We often don't know what we see; certainty is no gauge of accuracy.


This goes for eyewitness reports of ghosts, sea monsters, Bigfoots, too - and most down-to-earth crimes, as well.





This is post No. 3,000 (within rounding error)


I missed marking the 3,000th post on Granite Geek ... this one is actually 3,002 in our 3-plus years. But hey, who's counting?


As I noted in the Telegraph, some time in 2011 I will write my 1,000th Granite Geek weekly column for the newspaper. I'm not sure exactly when because I haven't kept close tally on the count of the column, which was called "Science from the Sidelines" for the first 17 years of its existence. For a few years, for example, one column a week was replaced by a star-watcher report, which complicates the calculation.


This doesn't count a second Telegraph column called "Living Online" that I wrote for a few years in the mid-90s, when the Internet thingy was still new. That column did stuff like explain smileys and talk to local folks who still ran BBS systems. It was fun, but it got outdated fast.


As a sign of the times, "Living Online" listed five incompatible email addresses for me: AOL, CompuServe, GEnie, an email address (happily, the local ISP MV Communications is still going strong) and something else I can't remember. (Delphi - that's what it was!)





An obvious place to track wind speed: Atop cell towers!


(ADDENDUM ON SUNDAY: The Press-Herald's Tux Turkel looks at whether how opponents of Rollins Mountain Wind Farm in Maine hope the new political/financial landscape will help them hobble it. Read it here.)


Nothing local today that I can find, so let's note this interesting -  yet obvious, once you think about it - idea: Putting wind sensors atop cell tower in order to better forecast wind-power output. (CNet story here) The sensors exist at roughly the height of wind turbines, so they do a better job of letting the utility know what's out there and what's coming - important information if intermittent alt-energy isn't going to destabilize the grid.


Speaking of wind farms, I believe that work commenced this summer on New Hampshire's biggest, the 99-MW Granite Power Windpark in Coos County, although the parent company Noble Environmental Power is struggling with a ton of debt, as this press release indicates. I don't know what that will do to the wind farm's schedule. The anti-clean-power folks who have taken power in Washington can't be helping; they'll scare off financing, I would think. The low cost of natural gas, which provides much cheaper energy, is also an issue.





Telegraph photo by Grant Morris: The official CoCoRaHS rain rauge has an inner tube, marked to 1/100ths of an inch, and an outer overflow tube that can hold 11 inches of rain.


CoCoRaHS - goofy name, useful rain watching


My column in the Telegraph is about a volunteer precipitation-measuring program called CoCoRaHS (community Colaborative Rain, Hail, Snow network). I attended a training session last week and as soon as I go down to the shop to build* a post for my new rain gauge, I'll be participating too. If you're interested, you can join online. Here's the column.


*that only requires a couple of cuts on an 8-foot 2×4, so perhaps "build" is overstating it.



Municipal fiber broadband program struggles to get going in Upper Valley


The Valley News has a good story on the financial struggles of a 23-town attempt to create a municipally owned fiber-optic Internet network in eastern Vermont. Read it here.


The program is called ECFiber and financing has been the sticking point. That's no surprise: Getting money to bring broadband into rural areas (connecting scattered houses is expensive and total audience is small) has bedevlied broadband efforts since the days when 2400 baud was "high speed." Combined with the complication of creating "municipal broadband", which hasn't really worked in this region, and you can see the problem.



Weirdest unit of the day: tenths of inches


I just got a "snow stick" in preparation for starting to take weather measurements with the CoCoRaHS systems, as I mentioned in my column today and in a previous post. The weird thing is, it's measured in tenths of inches. What a gawky mixture of metric and imperial units - why not eights of a millimeter? It hadn't occurred to me that weather precipitation data is in this odd melange until it stared me in the fact from a 30-inch-long metal pole.


One result is that it's virtually impossible to buy a suitable snow-measuring yardstick except through a National Weather Service supplier, since nobody makes rulers marked in tenths of an inch, at least not in a length suitable to measure snow depth in New Hampshire.





Flow Physics Facility director Joe Klewicki, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of New Hampshire, in front of the two 400-horsepower fans that each move 250,000 cubic feet of air per minute.


Record-breaking 'big and slow' UNH wind tunnel will tackle turbulence


From UNH News Service: The University of New Hampshire is now home to a wind tunnel that is the largest of its type in the world. At 300 feet long, the new $3 million Flow Physics Facility (FPF) is the world's largest scientific quality boundary-layer wind tunnel facility. It will help engineers and scientists better understand the dynamics of turbulent boundary layers, informing the aerodynamics of situations such as atmospheric wind over the ocean, the flow of air over a commercial airplane or of sea water over a submarine.


Two 400-horsepower fans, each moving 250,000 cubic feet of air per minute, can generate a wind of approximately 28 miles per hour in the facility. The relatively low velocity of wind generated over a great distance makes for greater accuracy in measuring the turbulence that develops in a specific class of flows known as high Reynolds number flows.


"The philosophy behind this facility is the big and slow approach," says Joe Klewicki, professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Center for Fluid Physics, as well as outgoing dean of the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences.


"Turbulence is often called the last unsolved problem in classical physics, and our lack of understanding has many adverse effects, from weather prediction to engineering design and practice," says assistant professor of mechanical engineering Martin Wosnik, who helped design the facility with Klewicki and assistant professor of mechanical engineering Chris White. "This new facility will help us test, for the first time, new theories that are emerging to update the classical views of turbulence, which date from the 1930s and '40s."


Researchers from UNH and beyond will use the facility to explore the aerodynamics of, for instance, the junction of the wing and fuselage on an airplane. "This is a huge issue for aircraft companies, because it enables them to better predict or even manipulate fuel economy," says Klewicki. Or by placing a model cityscape on a turntable in the wind tunnel, engineers could model how the release of a chemical into the atmosphere would flow around buildings.


The wind tunnel is also ideally suited for human-scale aerodynamic studies, says Klewicki. By positioning athletes like skiers or bicyclists in the tunnel, scientists and coaches could improve helmet design, posture, or pedaling position for maximum efficiency. For elite competitors, "the smallest change in where your knee is when you pedal, for instance, can mean the difference between finishing first or fifth," says Klewicki.


The FPF, which is on Waterworks Road on the eastern edge of campus, is essentially a rectangular box, 300 feet long by 20 feet wide. The fans create suction that pulls air through open garage-style doors on the opposite end of the facility: "Unless both garage doors are open, the fans won't run. Without such precautions one could cause damage to the structure," says Klewicki.


Funding for the FPF was provided by the National Science Foundation through EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research), the Office of Naval Research, and UNH.




Don't go to Concord to watch the Leonids tomorrow


The Leonids & Pizza Party at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center has been postponed until Thursday, November 18 due to Wednesday night's crummy weather forecast.


The special star party and meteor watching will take place from 8 p.m. to mmidnight. Discovery Center educators will explain the phenomenon of meteor showers in general and the Leonids in particular. They suggest bringing lawn chairs, blankets, flashlight, and to dress in layers for variable temperature outdoor viewing.


Schedule: 8-9:30 - Have some pizza & explore the exhibit galleries. 9:30-10 - "What is a meteor shower and what are the Leonids?", a special presentation. 10 p.m. - Head outside for naked-eye viewing of meteor showers, and guided telescope viewing with Discovery Center educators. (Restrooms available until midnight!)


Price: $10 Adults, $9 Students/Seniors, $7 Children, $3 Members





Climate change is here, so conservationists should "hedge their bets"


Great lede to a Portland Press-Herald story today on a climate-change conference for conservation groups:


Ten years ago, J.D. Irving Woodlands Division planted only black spruce to replace the trees it harvested on its 1 million acres of Maine forest. Today, the Canadian company is branching out, planting white pine and other species that can tolerate warmer temperatures. If scientific forecasts for climate change prove correct and the cold-loving black spruce disappears from northern Maine's forests, the company won't experience major disruptions in its forestry operations.


That's an example of the "hedging your bets" philosophy urged at the conference, says the story. (Read it here.)


The story says nothing about causes, so the ALL CAPS deniers don't have to weigh in: it's just a matter-of-fact discussion about how to roll with the coming punches.




You'll have to pry the white pages out of our cold, dead hands


Other parts of the country might be nearing the end of the printed, delivered-to-everybody white pages (as the Washington Post has noted), but I report in today's Telegraph that FairPoint has no plans to take that route in Northern New England. Here's my story. Here's the Post story about Verizon ditching the book in the mid-Atlantic states.


Most of the newsroom - the under-30-year-olds, at least - has to contain their snickers when I pick up a phone book looking for a number, instead of going to the web.


At my very first job, when I was hunting for story ideas, an editor recommended that I flip through the yellow pages and see what caught my eye. It works pretty well - but try doing that with!





NH environmental group teams with General Motors


Cool Air-Clean Planet, a Portsmouth NH-based environmnental group that has been around for at least a decade, has released a statement that begins:


Clean Air-Cool Planet's CFO and Vice President for the Corporate Program Bob Sheppard is one of five "all-star advisors" helping GM's Chevy division choose the best way to reduce 8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. Sheppard has been working with the company since early summer, helping to guide a $40 million investment in renewable-energy and energy-efficiency projects.


This is the sort of move that gives some environmnetalists the heebie-jeebies out of fear that the deep pockets of industry will fool them into creating a "greenwash" that hides lack of progress, and which makes other environmentalists celebrate out of belief that only by bringing in the most powerful force in our society - private business - will real change be possible. The devil, of course, is always in the details.


You can read more details at Sheppard's blog on CACP, right here.





My first weather observation - and I'm already late


I finally signed up for the Community Collaborative Rain Hail Snow network (CoCoRaHS). I was supposed to have entered my rainfall (0.00″) at 7 a.m. today, but I did it at 8:06 ... hey, it's Sunday! I think this means I won't be on the national map today; I believe it has to be in before 8 a.m. to make it.


If you have no idea what I'm talking about, check this prior post.



Fast growing nodules in New Hampshire Lake


Results from UMass-Amherst research of metal-rich sedimentary deposits in the Second Connecticut Lake that "could be helpful in discovering new metal sources."


Earle Rich ( Glad to be back home from Spain )     Mont Vernon, NH





Our beehive has died - last week it seemed fine


My wife and daughter checked our beehive today and found that the entire hive was dead. Just last week we had so many bees on our porch (we'd left some old comb there - oops) that we couldn't use it.


This isn't some mysterious colony collapse. It seems the queen died a little while ago, since we couldn't find any new brood in any cells, but we didn't notice. Presumably the rest of the hive eventually died of old age,  until there were too bodies left to keep the hive warm, and all the rest died overnight.


We plan to order a new queen and three pounds of bees and start over in the spring.


In the meantime, my daughter used some of the hive's honey in making three loaves of bread  - yum!



Appropriate technology: Voting machines that read paper ballots


My column in the Telegraph today celebrates optical ballot readers, the kind required in New Hampshire for communities that don't do strictly hand counting of ballots. I call it the perfect example of appropriate technology- not so cool that it's suspect, but not so old-fashioned that it's a pain. You can read it here.


After much of the day the column only has two largely supportive comments. I'm surprised, since there is a small contingent which thinks even optical ballot-counters are bad and that only hand-counting is the true and constitutional; I figured at least one of them would raise objections. In fact, one local town has passed a law that says hand counting must be used in town elections, as this article notes.


By the way, I mean "constitutional" as in the NH state constitution, which says ballots must be counted in open meeting. Some people think that having the machine count the ballots violates this wording, but I believe the ability to have people recount the paper ballots makes this a pointless objection. If we used all-electronic touch-screen machines then they'd have a point, but fortunately the state nixed that idea years ago.



Cape Wind, that long-fought-over Nantucket Sound windfarm, gets final OK


From the Globe: "The state Department of Public Utilities gave permission today for National Grid to purchase half of Cape Wind's power, removing the last significant hurdle for the controversial wind farm to start construction in Nantucket Sound next year." Read the whole piece here.





Ridiculous fear of wireless signals from smart electric meters


It's hard to keep a straight face when you read something like this, from a Portland Press-Herald article (read it here) about Central Maine Power's program to install smart meters, which use two-way wireless signals:


Opponents, led by Elisa Boxer-Cook of Scarborough, an environmental health activist, say that goal ignores a worldwide debate over the safety of the wireless transmissions that connect networks of smart meters. Such concerns have led Scarborough, Cape Elizabeth and Sanford to pass resolutions asking for moratoriums.


It's hard to take seriously concerns about health effects of electromagnetic frequency from smart peoples stated by people who have had radio and TV signals passing though their bodies their entire life, and who undboutedly hold cell phones to their heads several times a day.


The chart below was prepared by Pacific Gas & Electric, which is not exactly an unbiased source, but it seems to agree with industry standards, and explains why the concern is idiotically misplaced. Concern that smart meters may somehow lead to higher rates even though they should do the opposite - now that's a legitimate fear.


Comparison of RF Power Density in the Everyday EnvironmentDevice Relative Power Density in microwatts per square centimeter (μW/cm2)

FM radio or TV broadcast station signal


SmartMeter™ device at 10 feet


Cyber cafe (Wi‐Fi)


Laptop computer


Cell phone held up to head


Walkie‐Talkie at head


Microwave oven, two inches from door






CoCoRaHS map


Two one-hundredths of an inch of rain - my first official measurement


See that purple dot with 0.02 near the county name "Hillsborough" on this map, taken from the CoCoRaHS site? That's me! I got my first precipitation measurement after a couple days of 0.0. (Pretty clunky map they provide, isn't it?)



Ig Nobels will be broadcast on NPR on Friday


If you missed the 19th 20th first annual Ig Nobel award at Harvard last month, you can hear it during the first hour of "Science Friday" this week, on NPR. Here's the announcement from the Ig folks.





Who built the first computer? Depends what you mean by "computer"


I recently read "The Man Who Invented the Computer," a sort of biography of John Atanasoff by the novelist Jane Smiley. The book is pushy than the title; she admits from the beginning that your idea of the "inventor" of the digital electronic computer depends partly on definitions - for example, ENIAC didn't use binary unlike Atanasoff's device (built at Iowa State, where he taught), but ENIAC could run programs in a way that Atanasoff's couldn't. And then there's Konrad Zuse in German who built a device called the Z1 that in a way was more advanced than either, but who was squashed by the Nazis and largely forgotten.'s Braniac blog discusses the matter a bit (in this posting), and dismisses Atanasoff's device as "more like a superfast calculator."


I also own a copy of "The First Electronic Computer: The Atanasoff Story" by a couple of computer researchers named Burks. The argue on Atanasoff's behalf; the book isn't very readable, but includes an incredible amount of detail, especially from the trial between Atanasoff and ENIAC, which Atanasoff won.





Simplified spelling debate roils Spanish-speaking world - bueno o mal?


Geekishly-oriented people have traditionally been sympathetic toward, or at least intrigued by, attempts to simplify the English language. (The wikipedia article  English language spelling reform is quite interesting, noting such fun stuff as Benjamin Franklin's phonetic alphabet and the fact that Darwin was part of the English Spelling Reform Association - which, amazingly, does not have its own wikipedia article).


But English isn't the only language in the world, despite what we anglophone Americans think, and the NY Times has an article about how Spanish is embroiled in a similar debate over attempts to drop some accents and odd (to English-speakers, anyway) things such as considering "ch" a letter. (Read it here)


As a side note, a version of the English-language debate occurs in the newspaper world concerning Associated Press style. For example, AP recently sent out three style updates that I described thus in an exasperated email to a friend:


Let's see ... "stand-alone" as an adjective is hyphenated but "firsthand" as an adjective is one word ... "cardholder" is one word, but when used in "credit card holder" it is two words ... "do's" has an apostrophe before the 's' but "don'ts" doesn't ... ARRRRRRRRRGGGHH!





Region's biggest municipal broadband operation faces repossession


Despite all the talk over the years about municipal broadband - high-speed Net services built and operated by local governments - there isn't much of it in our region. The biggest example is in Burlington, Vt., where city-owned Burlington Telecom has fiber-optic service bringing voice, data and TV to a good chunk of the area.


Alas, BT is not a very good role model, at least from the financial and operational point of view. After financial problems and allegations that the mayor gave it money without city council approval, which would be  illegal, BT is facing repossession after missing a $480,000 loan payment. CitiCapital, which loaned it $33.5 million in 2007, is threatening to ... I dunno, how do you repossess a telecome firm? Rip up the fiber optic, pull the switches and sell them to somebody else, I guess. What a waste that would be. The financial mess is so bad that it has hurt the city of Burlington's bond rating.


The Burlington Free-Press reports that a group of state investors want to buy BT and save it. (Read the story here)





When you lose Internet, who knows what's to blame?


My house lost Internet connection last night. It was no big deal since we had no need for it at the time, but it was the usual situation in which it's hard to tell, without more work than I want to do when I'm not at work, whether the problem is in the wireless router, the modem, Comcast itself, or something else. Turns out it was Comcast, according to this report (spotted via Union-Leader article) which indicates it was a domain name server problem.


I often daydream of working out of the house - especially at moments like now, when I'm getting ready for my big-carbon-footprint, 40-minute commute - but in that case, a loss of Net would be fatal.



FIRST robotics gets $20 million from NASA, and I get to write parody lyrics


On Wednesday night after work, I'll be heading to my kids' former high school to help the local FIRST robotics team plan its fund-raiser*. while a bunch of other dads and moms will do various mentoring stuff that ranges from teaching software and overseeing use of a machining lathe to badgering the kids to sell more tickets to the fund-raiser. (Kids who like to build robots find selling tickets to strangers *much* more difficult than, say, electrical engineering.)


Two decades after it launches in a Manchester gymnasium, FIRST robotics remains the gold standard of making technology fun and intriguing for teen-agers. It's an international phenomenon - and in recognition of that, NASA, which has been a FIRST partner for years, has just awarded it $20 million. (Press release here.) That's tax money well spent.


* This year we're doing a musical parody of the "Wizard of Oz" - a follow-up to last year's parody of "West Side Story." We do it without actually singing or using music, which is the interesting part ... but leads to things like a version of "Gee Officer Krupke" in which a student celebrates his geekiness thus:

My mother is a chemist
my dad's a Ph.D.
I started learning calculus
when I was only 3

Every home computer
we take apart and tweak
Good-ness, gra-cious
no wonder I'm a geek!





Ridiculous fear of wireless signals from smart electric meters - Part II


At the risk of being repetitive of a posting last week, I remain mind-boggled ("boggle-minded"?) by the folks opposing Maine Central Power's smart meter proposal, as reported by the Portland Press-Herald. The story (read it here, and weep) includes this gem:


Betty McLeod of Windham said she is chemically and electrically sensitive. She must be careful about computer use, and her ear burns when she uses a cell phone for more than a few minutes.


ARRRGGGGHHHHH!!!! (sound of head pounding on desk)


The program, which sounds like a good first step toward a smart grid shaping energy usage, is described thus:


CMP's $192 million program aims to replace 620,000 meters with wireless, digital versions in two years. The utility's subcontactor, VSI Meter Services of Aston, Pa., has switched out about 56,000 meters. About 250 customers have either asked CMP to skip them or remove the devices from their homes. CMP is honoring those requests, but has said that allowing customers to opt out would dilute the benefits of the program.



Startup's founder explains why he moved to Boston


There's an excellent first-person column about the decision process of where to place a startup on Xconomy, writter by the founder of a data-in-the-cloud firm called Backupify titled "Why I moved to Boston". He started in Louisville, Ky., and says:


What really matters is the type of startup, how it gets financed, and what markets you play in. If you are playing in markets where you customer is the average American, and you need little capital, or can grow slowly, or can use customer capital, then you can build a company anywhere you want to be. But building companies that need a lot of capital, grow extremely quickly (and thus need a lot of employees), or are very high-tech is extremely difficult outside of major or minor startup hubs.


He says the major hubs are Boston, Silicon Valley and New York - minor ones include Austin, Seattle and Boulder.


Read the entire post here. The company site is here.



When judges ponder "instant messaging" the result is ... interesting


The New Hampshire Supreme Court has upheld the idea that a series of  instant messages can be considered harassment under state law, rejecting an argument that they are constitution a single conversation and therefore don't meet the legal requirement that harassment involves "repeated communications."


I just wrote a news story for the Telegraph about this (here it is), but I think GraniteGeek readers will really enjoy the judges' contemplation of how AIM fits into state law. Here's a snippet:


Further, we believe that an instant messaging conversation and a telephone conversation differ significantly. In a telephone conversation, two (or more) individuals can simultaneously speak directly with, and listen to, each other.  Such conversation entails the near instantaneous imparting and receiving of oral messages; parties often speak simultaneously, with one person talking over or cutting off the other's speech in mid-sentence.  Unlike an instant messaging conversation, a telephone conversation's substance is not composed, physically typed on a computer keyboard, electronically sent to another computer, and made available for another person to read, comprehend, and possibly respond.


Here's the whole ruling in PDF form, if you want a little light reading.



Forget the flying car - the Pentagon wants a flying Humvee


Photo courtesy Terrafugia

Photo courtesy Terrafugia


Terrafugia, the Woburn, Mass., firm developing a flying car (they prefer "roadable aircraft"), has gotten part of a $65 million DARPA* contract to develop a vehicle

e that "would function like a Humvee on the ground while also providing helicopter-like mobility."

"Intended missions include medical evacuation, avoidance of improvised explosive devices, remote resupply, and Special Forces insertion.  The vehicle will be able to travel 280 miles by land and air, using vertical take-off and landing to increase access to difficult terrain, and automating flight controls to enable operation by non-pilots." said the statement.


A flying armored car with guns! Awesome. (Although the poor safety record, mind-boggling cost and obliterated deadline of the military's helicopter/fixed-wing Osprey doesn't make me optimistic.)


Terrafugia, according to its press release, will be a subcontractor to one of two winning teams. The work calls for Terrafugia's expertise in drive and flight integration, deployable flight surfaces, and automotive crash safety for an aircraft," the company said.


*DARPA is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the R&D arm for the DoD. It's best known to geeks for its early role developing that thingamajig we now call the Internet.


December 2010

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The Telegraph will no longer print itself


UPDATE: This story from the Portsmouth Herald talks about the finances of the printing press operation itself. It also gets to use the word "venerable" when talking about the Telegraph.


The Telegraph has announced that at the end of the year it will no longer print its own newspaper, ending 176 years of inking paper in the Nashua area - and also putting 40 people out of a job.


The newspaper will still come out seven days a week, but the actual printing presses will roll in Newington, on the Seacoast, and then the papers will be trucked an hour to us. That means deadlines will be earlier, which will be a problem for West Coast scores and also on election nights. (Telegraph story here)


The company says it's a cost-cutting move that will let it "focus on core competencies" (buzzword alert), which presumably means the newsroom, web folks and ad sales. That sounds fine, and I guess the move makes sense as part of the transition from old-time newspapering to digital news production, but it's still depressing. Even aside from the lost jobs, a newspaper that doesn't have a printing press isn't really a newspaper - at least not to somebody my age.


Only four or five years ago, the company probably got 10-20 percent of its income (maybe more) from the presses doing outside work. We printed the FInancial Times for a while, and also the Metro Boston free daily. Combined with the collapse in classified ads, the fall of the commercial printing business has just clobbered the firm (which is part of the reason that I had to take two weeks of unpaid furlough this year).


A number of other papers have made similar moves, most notably in Maine, where the Portland, Augusta and Waterville newspapers are all printed in Portland and trucked around the state.



Discovery Center: Stellar spectroscopy, skywatch on Friday


From McAuliffe/Shepard Discovery Center: Educator and archaeo-astronomer R.P. Hale will discuss spectroscopy and how it reveals the makeup of other stars in the weekly Super Stellar Friday program at the McAuliffe/Shepard Discovery Center. The session, which starts at 7 p.m., will include a chance to look through a spectroscope and see the "fingerprints of elements" common to stars.


The Discovery Center observatory will be open from 7-10 PM. Following the program will be a free Skywatch outside with the New Hampshire Astronomical Society, including telescope advice and assistance. Telescope viewing begins at dusk.


The programs are recommended for ages 8+, children under 13 must be accompanied by an adult. Cost: $9/adults, $8/seniors & students, $6/children.



4G from Verizon Wireless on Sunday in Boston


Verizon Wireless says the Boston area will be one of 38 cities where it will roll out 4G on Sunday, as it begins to try to get some income from the many hundreds of millions of dollars it has spent creating an LTE network using leftover TV spectrum. Here's the Globe announcement. This Globe story notes that Sprint and, to an extent, AT&T have already moved past 3G in Boston and that lack of the right sort of smart phones will limit the industry for a while.


Verizon's coverage map isn't very specific about what parts of greater Boston will have coverage at first, but I couldn't find any parts of New Hampshire or Maine. I suspect we're talking about inside Route 128.



December 2, 2010


Can NH have offshore wind with a shortage of shore?


The Union-Leader quotes UNH touting its potential offshore wind-testing site near the Isels of Shoals in a story on a report touting offshore wind for the Northeast, nimbly sidestepping the fact that we have so little ocean coastline (18 miles, depending on your yardstick) that you'd have to aim carefully not to accidetnally put the turbines in Massachusetts or Maine. Here's the article; here's the report titled "Offshore Wind in the Atlantic."


UNH does a lot with offshore research, despite our shore shortage - as we noted a year ago in this posting, about stimulus funds to UMaine/UNH for offshore wind testing.



Another down year for West Nile Virus - hooray!


In August I wrote about the happy mystery of disappearing West Nile Virus (here's my column), with a cautionary note that officials don't like to discuss it for fear of raising false hopes. Well, I finally remembered to go back and check this year's numbers for New Hampshire, and despite the state's first human case in seven years (which could have been contracted out of state), there was no resurgence.


The numbers, as you can see from the state (PDF report here), show one person, one animal (a North Country horse) and a single batch of mosquitoes (in Manchester) were found to have the virus. That's a little worse than the zero-zero-zero of last year, but it's darn close to being nothing.


As my story noted, we're unsure why WNV has faded: "Perhaps it scares us into getting better at avoiding mosquito bites. Perhaps the virus has mutated to become weaker. … Perhaps early victims tended to have unusually weak immunity against this new threat. … Or perhaps we're just seeing the result of weather on populations of various mosquito species that have different susceptibility to the virus and which act differently to spread it (some bite mammals, some bite birds, some like it cool, some like it hot, etc.)."


New Hampshire and New England aren't alone in this. As of Nov. 30, says the Centers for Disease Control, the nation had 934 cases of reported WNV, compared to more than 4,200 in 2006 when the number peaked nationally.



Betting odds on that NASA 'exobiology' announcement


I got a clever bit of targeted spam this morning - a notice from the PR form for an online betting site, saying it had established odds on what NASA would announce today about "exo-biology". These are the odds:








[The +/- Indicates the Return on the Wager. The percentage is the likelihood that response will occur. For Example: Betting on the candidate least likely to win would earn the most amount of money, should that happen.]


It's so clever that I'm tempted to link to the site, except that it appears to be blocked on the Telegraph servers. It's called


As you know by the now, NASA funded research that found bacteria in Mono Lake which uses arsenic to replace phosphorus in its DNA, so "a new model for the existence of life," which had the tiny payout, was the winner.




December 3, 2010


Do we have more Lyme disease because possums don't like us?


Some fascinating research about the effect of ecosystem biodiversity on diseases comes up with this tidbit, about Lyme-carrying ticks: " homes abutting large swaths of woodland are exposed to fewer disease-carrying ticks that those with 'a little patch of woods in the back yard.'" (Taken from this NY Times post) The problem is that white-footed mice, which often carry Lyme-infected ticks, don't mind woodlands broken up by development, but that development drives off other creatures which either prey on the mice or else are worse hosts to ticks (such as possums). Result: More Lyme diseases affecting us and our pets.


Biodiversity in ecosystems, the scientists report in the Thursday's issue of the journal Nature, dampens a pathogen's ability to spread among humans.


There's a good, selfish reason for the non-treehuggers among us to support treehugger policies.



Comcast vs. Netflix 'net neutality' battle is more complicated than it seems


Farhad Manjoo at Slate has a good analysis of the Comcast vs. Netflix "net neutrality" fight over streaming video, which is more complicated than it seems. The complication is that the tussle started with a request from Level 3, which handles the Netflix streaming video, for more interconnection ports from Comcast - but Level 3 has a peering agreement with Comcast and the request would throw that tit-for-tat arrangement out of whack.


Read the piece (here it is) for good, clear expanation. The conclusion is muddier, alas:


When you click to watch a streaming movie, you imagine that the path from Netflix to your home computer is relatively straightforward. What actually happens, though, involves a patchwork of regulation, custom, and long-standing formal and informal deals about how the Internet should work. The problem is that the Internet continues to evolve, and nobody—not content providers like Netflix, network companies like Level 3, ISPs like Comcast, or perhaps especially regulators and lawmakers—know what it's going to look like in the future. The upshot? Kiss network neutrality goodbye. Not the idea—just the push for tough regulation.



Wikileaks' DNS server is - or, rather, was - in New Hampshire


(ADDENDUM: Here's my story in Saturday's Telegraph)


I hadn't realized that wikileaks DNS server was just up the road from me, in Manchester, N.H., until all the brouhaha broke about a denial-of-service attack that forced wikileaks to switch to a Swedish DNS service. (The story is all over the place, so let's link to a different source: The Radio Free Europe version!)


Here's an AP version that I have tweaked slightly to emphasize the NH angle.


The DNS server is EveryDNS, a free service provided by Dynamic Network Services. This is their complete statement on their website: provided domain name system (DNS) services to the domain name until 10PM EST, December 2, 2010, when such services were terminated. As with other users of the network, this service was provided for free. The termination of services was effected pursuant to, and in accordance with, the Acceptable Use Policy.


More specifically, the services were terminated for violation of the provision which states that "Member shall not interfere with another Member's use and enjoyment of the Service or another entity's use and enjoyment of similar services." The interference at issues arises from the fact that has become the target of multiple distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks. These attacks have, and future attacks would, threaten the stability of the infrastructure, which enables access to almost 500,000 other websites.


Thus, last night, at approximately 10PM EST, December 1, 2010 a 24 hour termination notification email was sent to the email address associated with the account. In addition to this email, notices were sent to Wikileaks via Twitter and the chat function available through the website. Any downtime of the website has resulted from its failure to use another hosted DNS service provider.




December 5, 2010


An invasive species that isn't all bad news: Sea squirts


Invasive species are usually all downside, as far as the existing ecosystme is concerned. They disrupt what's there and generally reduce the total biodiversity by out-competing lots of locals. But they're not always entirely bad news, as an AP story about research in the Gulf of Maine indicates (read it here):


The work found that some animals are thriving among the sea squirts, including a species of marine worms that might be food for a species of Cancer crab that also appears to like the habitat created by the sea squirts. The worms also are a known favorite of the winter flounder, a struggling groundfish species that slurps the worms up like spaghetti, said Smith, who works at the Woods Hole Laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Northeast Fisheries Science Center.


Smith hesitates to call the findings about sea squirts "good news," because so little is known about the long-term affects of a species that could still prove to have far more cons than pros. "It's not completely negative," Smith said. "Maybe that's a better way to put it."



EasyDNS: "The company that did NOT take down wikileaks"


The Canadian DNS company EasyDNS has a new slogan: "The company that did NOT take down wikileaks."


This, of course, is a reference to New Hampshire's EveryDNS, which did pull WikiLeaks' DNS service this week in the face of what it says was an overwhelming DDOS attack which otherwise would have brought it down, and the fact that a bunch of people confused the two company names - including, I am ashamed to say, me in my story Saturday. After getting it right in posts and news blogs all day, I confused it in the print story! ARGH!!!!! (Slaps self on forehead.) I guess I can't get mad any more if somebody calls us the Nashua Telegram.


(In the meantime, WikiLeaks is asking for a mass mirroring effort, as Slashdot notes here)


EveryDNS has gotten some criticism for its actions, which led to this note on its website:


First, let's be clear, this is a difficult issue to deal with and there are opinions on all sides. Second,, the world's largest free managed DNS provider, is not taking a position on the content hosted on the or website, it is following established policies so as not to put any one user's interests ahead of any others. Lastly, regardless of what people say about the actions of, we know this much is true - we believe in our New Hampshire state motto, Live Free or Die.


If nothing else, this gives me a chance to point to the excellent wikipedia article about that motto (here it is),  which includes the Unix slogan, down under "other uses". If you live in NH, you hear "live free or die" cited so often in so many different contexts that it edges close to content-free buzzword status, unfortunately. Because it's still the coolest state motto in the country, by a mile.


By the way, EasyDNS is more sympathic to EveryDNS than it sounds. If you read their whole posting (here), it talks about the complications of a DNS server facing a DDOS attack and the difficulty of making calm decisions in the midst of a "shitstorm".




December 6, 2010


Turning grass into "wood pellets"


Biomass power usually means burning wood, often in the form of wood pellets, but there's no reason we couldn't burn other plants if we could get them into an easily handle-able form. That's the idea behind a U.Maine project to build a "perennial-grass pellet mill" up near near Presque Isle. From the Portland Press-Herald story:


The university says grass pellets have too high an ash content for most commercial boilers or home stoves. It also says the aim isn't to compete with wood pellets, but to keep more Maine cropland in production. The university's Cooperative Extension, a partner in the venture, estimates grass pellets could create a high-value crop on 400,000 acres of underused farmland. … Several area potato farmers have signed on to grow Reed Canary grass, a tall perennial with an extensive root system. Not everybody is delighted with this idea, though, since the wood-pellet industry is in a bit of a slump at the moment


You can read it here.



Our 603 area code can stay single for a few more years


An example of 603 as a stand-in for N.H.: "Voice of the 603" is an a capella competition


My column in the Telegraph today is about the fate of the 603 area code in New Hampshire. We like having a single area code but population growth has long raised the possibility of getting a second area code. In 1999, in fact, we were told that a new area code was imminent, but a change in the way numbers are given out to carriers (doing it in lots of 1,000 instead of 10,000) has extended 603's solo status.


Here's my column.


Here's the PUC docket about when/whether to add a second area code, and if so, whether to make it an overlay or a split.




December 7, 2010


Vermont's nuclear waste may (or may not) go to Texas


Not only is Vermont Yankee struggling for its life, there are also some questions about a 50-year-old contract between Vermont and Texas (of all places) that will allow Vermont's spent nuclear waste to be dumped in the Lone Star State. Apparently, s an Illinois nuke plant that wants to horn in on the action … or so says the NY Times.


The story is here, and you'll have to read it to get all the details in this complicated tale.



If you buy or sell or own exotic reptiles, shame on you


Back in March I had a blog piece about the stupidity of owning, buying or selling exotic reptiles, prodded by the discovery of a live gaboon viper in Maine; the deadly snake had obviously been dumped by some loser who bought then snake to look cool, then got scared or bored.


Sort of the same thing happened up in Littleton recently, where a construction crew came across a 7-foot boa constrictor dying or dead alongside the road - probably another case of abandonment by somebody who thought it made him or her (him, I bet) look cool. He was wrong. Here's the story.


My earlier statement holds true: If you own, buy or sell exotic reptiles, you're an idiot. Cut it out.


If you really like reptiles (and who doesn't?) then join the state's Reptile and Amphibian Reporting Program to help find native beasts in the wild, not just in an aquarium. That's truly cool.  Check it out here




December 8, 2010


Moxie is now distributed in Florida


There's no geek angle, but I can never get enough news about Moxie, the soft drink unique to New England that tastes like cough medicine mixed with a failed Dr. Pepper clone. The AP reports that it is now distributed in Florida, apparently to better sell it to "snowbirds" who head down from New England to the nation's flattest state* each winter.


I can't believe anybody drinks that stuff, and yet there's an undeniable fascination about a regional foodstuff that has managed to survive in the age of global branding.


* it has the lowest "highest point" of any state - 345 feet above sea level.



Trademark tussle: vs PC Connection


I've got a story in the Telegraph today about a trademark fight between PC Connection, based in Merrimack NH, and a one-man computer store in West Virginia that registered through GoDaddy. The judge's ruling only says the case should be tried in West Virginia, not NH. You can read it here, with a link to the actual ruling.


I thought this was an interesting quote from the defendant, who put a "not affiliated with PC Connection" tag on his site:


"If this large corporation wants to proceed with pursuing detrimental effects to my family's livelihood, then so be it. … Most (dot)com addresses have been monopolized by corporations such as PC Connection, so there are not a lot of options available."


That argument might not resonate with me if somebody bought, say, "" and started putting up a bunch of slanted stories online that everybody thought was by the Nashua Telegraph.



Everything you wanted to know about white nose syndrome


Wired has a long, in-depth piece about the logistics, biology and medicdal confusion over white nose syndrome, the disease* that is devastating the population of wild bats in an extinction unequalled for wild mammals in modern times. Read it here.


It does have one small optimistic note:


Field observations and Reeder's work with captive bats suggests that WNS virulence varies by cave microclimate. Reeder … recently installed a set of environmental chambers that provide fine-tuned control over temperature and humidity for bats inside. If cold and dryness moderate the disease, she and the Pennsylvania biologists will try to manipulate real-world environments, sinking air shafts into hibernacula to create pockets of safety.


* not exactly the right word, since it's a fungal infection that causes death by secondary means, but you know what I mean …



Neat-o unit of measure of the week: The "thrown cord"


I had a story last week about how hard it is to not get ripped off when you buy firewood, because the unit of measure is so hard to determine.


The only legal unit of cordwood in NH and most places is the cord, defined as 128 cubic feet of split or whole logs stacked parallel (not criss-cross, which increases the amount of air space) - usually in a 4-by-4-by-8-foot parallelpiped. The problem is that firewood is usually delivered in a heap, dumped from the back of a truck. Until you stack it you don't know if you've got what you paid for, and by then the dealer is usually long gone.


I just got a call from a retired forester named George Franz in Salisbury, N.H., who pointed me to Maine's attempts to establish a "thrown cord" - the equivalent of a stacked cord but in a pile. (Here's the University of Maine report, in PDF) To quote:


A thrown cord of 12-inch or 16-inch (long) wood will occupy 180 cubic feet, 24-inch wood will require 195 cubic feet to contain a cord.


That means a pile has between 40 percent and 52 percent more air space that a stack! I wouldn't have guessed it was so high.


The regulations don't tell you how to measure a pile of wood to determine its cubic feet. Assume that the pile is a cone; the volume of a cone is 1/3 the area of the circular base, times the cone's height. So a 4-foot-high pile would have to be about 12 feet in diameter to contain 180 cubic feet of pieces. That's a lot of wood.


Franz had a better suggestion: measure the truck bed before they dump it. That will give you a rough idea of the volume.


Here's my Telegraph story.


ADDENDUM: Kevin Young, the NH Weights and Measures guy I quote in my story, says Maine is the only state to have "thrown cord" as a unit. He is not a fan: "This method is not accurate and is used to short and deceive customers in NH."



Did WikiLeaks want NH firm to shut its DNS as a ploy for sympathy?


Wired of UK says in an article that WikiLeaks was incompetent or maybe even devious in using EveryDNS, the free service from Manchester, N.H., as its DNS provider rather than a more "bulletproof" DNS service. They also call its reaction to the EveryDNS shutdown (caused, the company says, because they faced collapse by a DDOS attack) surprisingly feeble. (EveryDNS agrees, saying they gave WikiLeaks plenty of notice.)


Wired also notes that WikiLeaks didn't even tweet its IP address to help people get past DNS problems, but only tweeted requests for donations.


If nothing else, Wired says, the moves "seem to clash with WikiLeaks' reputation as a tech-savvy and cautious enterprise hardened to withstand any concerted technical attack on its systems."


The article is here.


My Saturday article on the shutdown - complete with an embarrassing correction (I called it EasyDNS!) - is here. There is, of course, a ton of WikiLeaks news online since then.


FYI, I found the Wired article because of an email exchange between an NH resident and the parent of EveryDNS, that the resident forwarded to the Telegraph.




December 9, 2010


Globe test says Verizon Wireless 4G is the best - for now


Here's the "nut graf" for the Globe article testing Verizon Wireless' new 4G service in Boston:


Verizon Wireless 4G is much faster than Sprint's. Fast enough to supplant today's wire-based Internet services, just as Verizon's cellphones have replaced millions of wired telephones. There's no telling whether Verizon's network will run this fast once it gets lots of users, or if it allowed unlimited downloads.


No word on when it will come north of the state border, since it doesn't seem to have even gotten as far out as Waltham yet.


Here's the review.



Discovery Center Friday: Exobiology for teens


I wonder whether arsenic-based life forms will be mentioned Friday when a Goddard College sophomore leads the monthly Teen Night at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center? Here's the description of the talk, which was written up well before th maybe-yes-maybe-no discovery of arsenic-based bacteria:


Ever wondered about the possibility of life on other planets, what life needs to survive, or how we'd even recognize life on other worlds if we saw it? Take a look at astrobiology – the exploration of life outside of Earth. Goddard College sophomore and amateur astrobiologist Molly Milazzo will lead this discussion focusing on the planet Mars and the moons Titan and Europa. Enjoy pizza and soda after the presentation.


It runs from 7 to 8 p.m., cost $8 per teen (ages 13-19).


For more information, wander through the Web site at




December 10, 2010


Larvacide is cutting lamprey numbers in Lake Champlain (that's a good thing)


A program attacking the parasitic sea lamprey in Lake Champlain by applying a pesticide that kills lamprey larvae in rivers that feed the lake seems to be working, judging from the number of wounds found on lake trout and salmon this fall.  This year's wounding rate fell to 15 per 100 salmon, half the 30 per 100 found last year.


Read the story in the Portland Press-Herald here.


This FAQ in the Lake Champlain Basin Atlas says there's debate whether the snake-ish beasts are native or not. It also notes that making a couple of dams lamprey-proof has removed the need for pesticide in those rivers.



This photo, probably taken in the late 1950s or early 60s when the New Boston Air Force Station satellite tracking station was being built, shows the entrance and the huge domes that house antennas. (The red lines are old crop marks on the print from when it was run in the newspaper, long ago.)


Unexploded bombs off Nantucket beaches (and in NH woods)


One of the most interesting places in the Nashua region is the New Boston Air Force Station, a satellite-tracking facility in the midst of 2,800 wooded, hilly acres northwest of Nashua. It's interesting because it was a bombing practice range for Army Air Corps planes out of Manchester during World War II.  I did a story about it years ago and interviewed folks living next to the site who remembered spent casings falling from the sky and hitting their roof as pilots practiced firing machine guns at the ground. Here's the state Environmental Services page on the station.


Most of the property remains closed off because of unexploded bombs. (They can't even fish in the lovely pond in the center of the station any more, out of fear that hooks will snag something dangerous.) One man in my town who has now passed away lost an eye many years ago when he was a kid playing in the woods and came across something interesting that blew up. The annoying thing is that  the range includes the gorgeous Joe English Hill, which has terrific wild blueberries and some fine hawk-watching locations during fall migration. We used to sneak up there, but after 9/11 they really fenced it off.


I'm reminded of all this because of a Globe story about attempts to find unexploded bombs in the waters off Nantucket beaches. (Read it here) I like this quote: "The biggest threat is just cutting yourself on the metal. … You also could conceivably lose a foot or a hand, but you'd have to be messing with it.''



NH web-hosting firm says: We're not the ones who shut WikiLeaks DNS!


The WikiLeaks controversy that erupted when EveryDNS in Manchester shut down the site's free DNS service has enveloped another New Hampshire company. Web-hosting firm Dynamic Internet in Salem sent out a relaese today saying it is "receiving inquiries and complaints regarding the Wikileaks domain name being shut down by another N.H.-based business with a similar name, Dynamic Network Services."


The press release contains what I read as a veiled shot at EveryDNS for turning off WikiLeaks, a move that EveryDNS' parent company said was forced on them by a DDOS attack, not as a result of any government pressure.


"Existing clients who host political content were concerned and asked about our policies…" said (Dynamic Internet) CEO James Dogopoulos. "We assured them that we would do everything in our capacity to keep sites running, would not shrink from controversy and would expect due process be followed in order to shut down any political web sites."


Note that he's not necessarily talking about DNS service but about web hosting, which is a different beast. Here's the entire press release.


This confusion comes after a Canadian firm called EasyDNS complained that many people - including me, alas - mistakenly put their name in press reports, rather than EveryDNS.


This confusion explains why companies spend lots of money to develop corporate names and logos, and often end up with goofy-sounding terms; avoiding confusion is important. My employer, the Telegraph of Nashua, demonstrates the problem: Online we're confused with the Telegraph of London newspaper, and locally we're confused with the Telegram of Worcester, Mass.




December 11,  2010



Our electricity use has been cut in half, but has bottomed out


As shown in this chart of the 12-month running average for our household electricity usage, our various efficiency moves and the fact that our kids are now at college has cut our power use by almost exactly half in four years. This saves us about $1,000 a year at 15.5 cents/kWh (which includes stranded cost recovery and transmission charge and other things which, if I'm reading my PSNH bill right, are usage dependent).


The chart also shows that we've leveled out at between 18-19 kWh/day. If I want to cut electricity use further, I'm going to have to do something drastic such as replace the washer/dryer or fridge, except they're still chugging along fine, or install solar panels, except that's still pretty pricey.


Electricity isn't our only energy source, of course. The addition of a pellet stove for the living room a year ago has cut our heating oil roughly from 2 1/2 tank fillups per year to 1 fillup per year (I'm guessing a bit). That's a saving of about 220 gallons or another $650, minus roughly $200 spent on pellets. This also trimmed our electricity use, since the pellet stove's fan and auger use surprisingly little power, compared to the fan in the basement furnace.


Since the stove cost less than $2,000 installed, that implies a payback of just 4-5 years, which is pretty impressive.


On the other hand, we've spent many thousands over the past four years to cut our electricity usage, including installing solar hot water on the roof; that payback will be longer, I think.




December 13, 2010


Almost 3 inches of rain yesterday


I measured 2.82 inches of rain in the past 24 hours - and since the rain started almost exactly as I was taking Sunday's measurement (of 0 inches) and ended a little while ago, that seems to be our whole storm.


I measure this as part of the CoCoRaHS volunteer precipitation-measurement system. Six Hillsborough County stations have checked in and so far I have the most rain - the totals so far as 0.77, 1.23, 1.62, 2.02, 2.13, and me. That's a fourfold variation, which seems excessive for such a relatively small area.


If we'd only gotten 2.82 melted-equivalent of snow - that would be a good 18 inches!


On the other hand, I was able to go ice skating on a local pond this weekend; the ice was like glass. I stayed away from a few squishy-looking places because it's still early, but I probably was being too cautious. With temperatures in the 40s and even 50s for a few days, however, I don't think I'll try it again.



Geminid meteors (peaking tonight) are weird and defy explanation


I didn't realize that the Geminid meteor shower is different that the other big showers because the debris isn't produced by a comet, but by "a weird rocky object named 3200 Phaethon that sheds very little dusty debris, not nearly enough to explain the Geminids" as NASA says in this news item. There is debate whether the debris field was caused by a collission, by solar heating that causes Phaethon to "boil" when it's close to the sun, or maybe something else.


The Geminids peak Dec. 13 and 14 - as always, the later at night the better, because of the way the Earth turns into debris fields. The weather is cloudy for the next two days for us, alas.


As an extra tidbit, here's a piece from BoingBoing by Mike Brown, author of How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, professor of Planetary Astronomy at the California Institute of Technology, on the best way to spot meteor showers: Read it here.



Electric cars are coming, but not for a while hereabouts


My column in the Telegraph today notes that neither Chevy nor Nissan plans to sell their electric/semi-electric cars in New Hampshire until at least next summer, and that our one electric-car dealer, the Wheego, is moving down to Mass. to be closer to Boston. Read it here.



UNH studies 'satellite drag' over auroras (with awesome pix)


The December 12 RENU launch taken from downtown Andenes, Norway. Photo by Kolbjørn Blix Dahle, Andøya Rocket Range.


Kjell Henriksen Observatory provides downrange support for many sounding rocket missions launched from the Andøya Rocket Range. KHO is on the island of Svalbard. Photo by Njål Gulbrandsen.

From David Sims, UNH News Service:


A team of scientists led by Marc Lessard of the University of New Hampshire Space Science Center launched an instrument-laden, four-stage sounding rocket from Norway's Andøya Rocket Range into aurora about 200 miles above Earth early Sunday morning (Dec. 12), just before the two-week launch window slammed shut. For the 10-minute flight, a 65-foot-long Black Brant XII rocket arced through a funnel-shaped region of Earth's magnetic field lines before landing some 900 miles downrange in the Norwegian Sea. The science data were transmitted to a ground station during the short flight.


Funded by NASA, the Rocket Experiment for Neutral Upwelling, or RENU, aimed to measure the complex, underlying physics behind the phenomena of "satellite drag." The launch required conditions that enhance the transfer of solar wind energy to Earth's magnetic field and, eventually, into our atmosphere to create the stunning northern lights or aurora. With the Sun becoming increasingly active after an unusually long quiet cycle, the researchers were banking that aurora would occur to allow a launch during the November 28 – December 12 window.


Neutral upwelling has been known to exist since the earliest days of the space program when observers noted increased "drag" on Earth-orbiting satellites during periods of solar activity. At the time, the effect was largely attributed to a complex heating process that causes the upper part of the Earth's atmosphere, or thermosphere, to swell up horizontally on a scale of hundreds of kilometers.


More recent observations have shown that neutral upwelling can also occur on much smaller scales and more localized in the cusp region – two "funnels" of magnetic field lines that allow a small amount of solar wind to reach the top of the atmosphere and produce the auroral glow. This upwelling process is more vertical in nature and appears to be associated with auroral processes.


The RENU instrument payload was designed to take an array of measurements, including those for neutral gas, electric and magnetic fields, and precipitating particles, and the new data acquired during the flight will provide information essential for the advancement of understanding the process. The launch location in the far northern polar region was chosen so that the experiment could take place in total darkness.


Although the effect of satellite drag can negatively impact a spacecraft's orbit over time, which is a concern for certain low-orbit, strategic satellites, Lessard stresses this was not the primary motivation for the experiment.


"From NASA's point of view this is a mission of pure science, we're trying to understand the processes behind neutral upwelling and how it is associated with visible aurora phenomena," says Lessard, associate professor at the UNH Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space (EOS) and department of physics. He adds that RENU is taking a new scientific approach and is attempting to test, measure, and quantify "electron precipitation" that brings energetic particles down from high above the Earth and delivers energy into the upper atmosphere via Earth's magnetic field lines.


"This is the first time anyone has tried to measure these neutral particle enhancements at these altitudes and with this combination of instruments," Lessard says. He adds that it appears the team was successful in getting the rocket to transit a region of neutral density enhancement but because so much data is gathered during rocket launches (unlike satellites, vast amounts of data can be transmitted quickly back to Earth) it could take months to analyze the results.


The team of investigators also includes colleagues from the Aerospace Corporation, Dartmouth College, Cornell University, the U.S. Air Force Academy, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, and other collaborators, including those at the Kjell Henriksen Observatory (KHO), which is operated by the University Center of Svalbard.


An array of ground-based instrumentation located at KHO in the northernmost part of Norway complemented the rocket measurements. The data will be used to quantify neutral density enhancement, or regions of higher neutral atom density, and will also be used by theorists on the team to run mathematical models to gain insight into the heating and precipitation processes. Notes Lessard, "The instrumentation and science support provided from our colleagues at KHO has been invaluable."


The UNH Space Science Center and department of physics has a rich history of sounding rocket development and launches dating back to the early 1960s. As Lessard notes, rocket work is ideal training ground for graduate students, as it was for him at UNH, because, unlike satellite missions, rocket missions generally offer "soup to nuts" involvement from design, construction, launch, and data analysis. Rockets also offer relatively quick and inexpensive access to space compared to satellite missions.




December 14, 2010


NH does well in national broadband survey, for pretty slow broadband


The FCC has released its annual survey of broadband subscriptions around the country. I'm still poking through it, but as a good newspaperman I immediately tried to localize the findings, and here's the statewide take:


New Hampshire is tied for first among states in terms of percentage of homes with access to better-than-dialup (at least 200 Kbps download) and is in the top five for broadband (at least 3 Mbps download). In general, the Northeast does quite well, which I think is at least partly a factor of population density.


Here's the FCC report, which makes it clear that cable modem is the dominant Net provider around the country, but wireless/mobile is growing the fastest: PDF is here.


The geeky take on the national survey is that broadband is slow in the U.S., since 4 Mbps down/1 Mbps up is supposed to be the minimum standard. I sure don't get that speed on my cable modem at home very often.




December 15, 2010


Contract-less 4G launches in Boston


MetroPCS, a cut-rate wireless service, has launched a high-speed data service in Boston that they've give the slippery label 4G, joining Verizon Wireless, AT&T and Sprint. Here's a short Globe article, which notes that only one phone handles it, and that the service does not require a long-term contract; you can quit any time.




December 16, 2010


Discovery Center Friday: Wright Brothers flight turns 107

Friday, Dec. 17, markes the 107th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight. This quest, which had been sought after for thousands of years, came down to a rivalry between the Wright Brothers and Samuel Langley. On Friday, as its weekly Super Stellar event, the McCaulliffe-Shepard Discovery Center will host New Hampshire Aviation and Space Education Council representative David Price to discuss how heavier-than-air flight was developed. Wright is Bridgewater State University's Associate Dean of Aviation


The event starts at 7 p.m. The programs are recommended for ages 8+, children under 13 must be accompanied by an adult. Cost: $9/adults, $8/seniors & students, $6/children.


Check the website ( for more information.




December 17, 2010


A drawback of biomass energy: wood dust can explode


A fire at a wood-pellet factory in Barnstead, NH, (read Concord Monitor story here) is a reminder of a big safety drawback of biomass heating: dust.


Wood dust is incredibly dangerous stuff, capable of burning so quickly that it's virtually an explosive. The problem is the good old area-to-volume ratio. A pine two-by-four can't burn too quickly because only a small portion is exposed to oxygen at one time; a two-by-four turned into dust has, for all practical purposes, its entire volume exposed to oxygen at once, so it can completely ignite at once.


And it isn't just dust from obviously combustible products like wood and coal that's dangerous: anything becomes explosive when turned into lots of dust that's fine enough to float in the air. Even flour can burn in the right (or, I suppose, wrong) conditions.


Here's an entire site devoted to "dust explosion news", run by a company that sells spark-supression equipment, which is a very big deal in any sawmill or pellet factory.


The Barnstead fire was apparently caused by a buildup of dust in a vent, not floating dust, but it's a reminder that There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch - replacing the dangers of coal mining and oil drilling with biomass fuel won't get rid of all the dangers.


There is, you won't be surprised to hear, and entire wikipedia article about dust explosion: Here.



Art can be practical


I was looking at some cast iron flywheels from salvaged equipment recently. Thinking about industrial age machines, we also have to think about the limitations of the materials that were used. The flywheels are heavy items that usually have nicely curved arms connecting the shaft to the outer rim. These arms or spokes aren't curved because they look nice, it's because during the casting process, the metal will shrink or contract when the metal cools off. If the arms are straight, there is a tremendous strain resulting in distortion or even breaking of the wheel.


By introducing a curve in the arms, the strain is able to bend and conform when the wheel is cooled.


Some very large steam engines that I saw in England we assembled from segments. They were very slow running machines that didn't need extreme strength in the rotating members.


Flywheels that are proposed for energy storage rotate at very high RPMs and are now built up from carbon fiber and other composite materials. Large ones, not used in city buses are built in a pit in the ground so that if something does let go, the debris is contained.


Earle Rich - Mont Vernon




December 19, 2010


No snow is annoying - but it means the ice skating is great


We have yet to get any snow this year at my house, aside from one small dusting. Pathetic.


On the other hand,it means that the outdoor ice-skating is fabulous - no snow to mess up the surface. The big rain we had a week ago froze solid and has made the swamp/wetland/pond where we skate as smooth as glass. Quite astonishing. (ADDENDUM: A big portion is clear black ice, and today we saw various insects crawling around, upside-down, on the bottom of ice - including a couple of 3-inch-long bugs shaped like dead leaves and a good sized spider. What the heck do they eat? How do they breathe?)


But we really, really need snow soon. A brown Christmas would be too depressing for words.




December 20, 2010



Lunar eclipse after midnight, during the winter solstice


If this isn't a harmonic convergence, I don't know what is: a lunar eclipse on the winter solstice! The last time that happened was 1638, says NASA. Time for pagans to sacrifice unneutered goats on stone altars, or something like that.


Phil Plait's blog has a nice talk about lunar eclipses, with pointers to lots of other information: Check it out here. It doesn't start until 1:30 am. Tuesday and is in totality from 2:40 a.m. to 3:50 a.m.



Calculating the size of Santa's workshop


In the age of Internet permance, where old Christmas newspaper columns live forever online, it's kind of silly to recycle them … but hey, it beats working! So my column in the Telegraph today examines, as I have examined before, the size of Santa's workshop according to a few back-of-the-envelope calculations. (It has changed slighly over the years: I now assume a few more presents, because the population has grown, and compared the final size fo the Dubai International Airport rather than the Pentagon.)


Read it here. And don't forget to click on all the advertisers



Watching the Sun


I have a glass prism on a south facing windowsill. I like viewing the intense colors of the spectrum as its projected across the room. In the summer, with the sun high in the sky, the far wall gets the color treatment. As the days get shorter towards winter solstice, the color patch moves higher and higher from the wall to the ceiling. If I was to get ambitious, I could mark the position of the projection and use it as a rough calendar.


Today is the shortest day, but sadly, no sun to provide entertainment for my simple senses.


Earle Rich -  Mont Vernon



Using game theory to determine patent royalties


I got all excited when I saw that a couple of UNH students had won an inaugural "Samsung-Standford Patent Prize Competition", with visions of really cool patentable technology developed in some obscure local lab.


However, the award actually when to a couple of folks in the law school (formerly the Franklin Pierce Law School, not part of UNH) for a paper titled "Game Theory: A Zooming and Sliding Method for the Determination of Reasonable Royalties in Patent Damages." It's not an invention, but it still sounds pretty intriguing, unless you're one of those folks who regards all patents as inherently evil. They're among 15 or so winners, who'll get $5,000 each and a chance to present their work at a symposium.


The winners - Kanav Hasija and T. Paul Tanpitukpongse - are students in the Franklin Pierce Center for Intellectual Property, which was only created this fall and doesn't really have a building yet: it is designed so "faculty, researchers, students, and partners will work at the intersections of law, business, and technology to improve the rate of innovation in the global economy."


Here's the press release from UNH. This blog posting from Stanford Law School has all the winners.



AT&T buys spectrum for 4G in Boston area


AT&T is buying specvtrum licenses from Qualcomm so it has more bandwidth to do 4G stuff. The $1.95 billion deal includes Boston, taking spectrum that Qualcomm used for its FLO TV, a mobile TV product.


Here's an NY Times story about the deal. Here's a Globe review of Flo TV a year ago, when it first came out.




December 21, 2010


Publicity-seeking anti-science politician targets UNH cow study


Some political hack has decided that Sen. whats-his-name did pretty well with his Golden Fleece Awards, which got attention by poking fun at research he didn't bother to understand, and that the current anti-science mood in Washington DC will embrace similar publicity efforts. So he has put out a list, which I would guess was compiled by a staffer paid by taxpayers dollars and is based on focus group polling paid by tax-exempt political contributions - all in the name of trimming government spending, of course, not in scarfing up cheap publicity.


UNH's attempt to quantify greenhouse gas emissions from dairy farms made the list, because heavens knows we don't want to  understand and measure the problems we're facing - we'd much rather make up our minds in advance and then insult anybody who disagrees with us.


The U-L has a story about it, but darned if I'm going to link to it …



More Tools


As yet another hobby, turning writing pens has turned into another excuse to make more tools to support the craft. The lathe is built and works very well, probably as well or better than general purpose small wood lathes.


I want to be able to load up and travel with this equipment in our fifth wheel RV, so normal sized tools just won't do. The pen blanks have to be cut, drilled and prepared before turning, so I made a table saw, drill press and tool sharpening grinder that will go along with us.


I've posted the pen lathe link to Flickr before, but I'll include it again.


Making stuff went through a period of decline during the 70's and 80's but is experiencing quite a comeback now. Magazines like Popular Science, Popular Mechanics and the best of them all, Make, have empowered young people to dive in and get their hands dirty with wood and metal and electronics again. There are periodic Make festivals all over the country that attract thousands of people who learn basic skills like soldering. Television shows like the DIY channel and Mythbusters are very popular.


All this is to the good for the country. We have lost so much talent to the soft industries where moving money or information is the only goal. I've done my share of program writing but looking back, the real satisfaction came at the end of the day was when I could look at a physical device that had never existed before. I love seeing kids light up when they use hand or power tools to make a toy. Once they've done that, there is no turning them off. I've mentored a few, sending them home with a bag of gadgets with instructions to take them apart completely, to think about how the telephone or mechanism was constructed, to see what design constraints the engineer had to work with, either cost or material limitations. Even a simple toaster can reveal a lot about engineering and manufacturing processes.


Our local dump/recycling center is a great place to find interesting stuff. I've seen too many parents growl at their kids who are attracted to some little gadget that probably doesn't work. Let them take it and give them some basic tools that are theirs. They may make a mess but that isn't the point. Girls or boys, it doesn't matter. Every kid is a potential mechanic and engineer.


So, to end this rambling post, get your kids subscriptions to Make  and watch them acquire skills that will give them so much joy and satisfaction in life.


Earle Rich - Mont Vernon



If Congress was like the NH House, it would have 94,769 members


The Census Bureau has released the 2010 census population figures for the nation and for each state, as required for reapportionment of Congress. (Texas and Florida gained, while Massachusetts, NY, and other Northeast states lost.) More data will come out next year.


Here's my quick writeup of the announcement, highlighting the fact that NH grew more slowly this decade than at any time since the Great Depression.


Here's the Census Bureau animated map, which at the moment isn't updated.


This news led a colleague to a thought experiment: New Hampshire's enormous lower house has one representative for every 3,250 people, according to the new census figures. If the U.S. Congress had a similar ratio, it would consist of 94,769 members, instead of 435. (ADDENDUM: Actually, it would be 93,558 members of Congress; my NH population was slightly off.)


The mind boggles.




December 22, 2010


How many times can paper be recycled?


Between four and seven times, says this Q&A in the NY Times.


(I can't find anything newsy today, so I thought I'd answer a question I've often wondered about.)



Four solar sites worth 3.4 megawatts turned on in Mass.


National Grid officially turned on three new Massachusetts solar facilities - in Revere, Haverhill and Everett - making the company the largest owner of solar generation in New England, with 3.4 megawatts of maximum output. By my estimate, that's about twice the total solar power in all of New Hampshire.


A ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday held at the Revere solar site drew a host of energy officials and politicians. In October 2009, National Grid received approval from the Mass. Department of Public Utilities to design, build, own and operate five solar generation facilities that would yield approximately 5 megawatts of power. National Grid's Whitinsville solar site, completed in June 2010, was the first utility-owned solar generation facility in service under the Commonwealth's 2008 Green Communities Act, which allows utilities to own up to 50 megawatts of solar generation. The fifth site, for Dorchester near National Grid's Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) rainbow tank, is expected to come online in early summer of 2011.


A GraniteGeek note: Adding these to my alternative-energy Google Map means I had to remove the Brockton Brightfield, since it is just 425 kilowatts, and I don't want to overwhelm the non-N.H. components. I was a little sorry, though, since that was the nation's first "brightfield" - solar plant built on poluted industrial "brownfield" land - and had a wonderful name




December 23, 2010


1.5 inches of snow is .09 inches of water


I did my first snow measurement today as part of the volunteer precipitation-measuring project CoCoRaHS - 1.5 inches of snowfall on the board, and snow in the tube melted down to just .09 inches of water. That's a pretty low ratio of moisture to snow - 16-1 - which shows how fluffy our first snow of the year was.



Liquified natural gas is the big energy question mark


Boston Gas LNG tank


The talk about energy, at least here in GraniteGeek land, tends to concentrate on the small funky stuff like solar or the big nasty stuff like coal. I don't mention natural gas much, yet it is likely to become the dominant energy form in the Northeast in years to come if, as expected, its price falls due to the increased production of gas from the Marcellus Shale formation underlying much of the Eastern U.S.


A sideline of that question is liquified natural gas or LNG - natural gas turned into a liquid so it can be shipped long distances by boat. As the Portland Press-Herald's Tux Turkel reported recently (read the story here), for years shippers have been trying to build an LNG terminal in Maine. The plans keep getting shot down for environmental, safety and cost reasons, and there's just one left, near Calais is the easternmost tip of the state.


Opponents say the terminal isn't needed because we'll get more natural gas from domestic shale. Opponents note that the pipelines to carry such gas don't exist, and who wants a big gas pipline running through their town.


The story says the U.S. has 9 LNG terminals, including the oldest in Everett, Mass., which holds 42 billion gallons of the stuff. A dozen more a proposed, but only the one in Maine would readily serve New England.


FYI, I found an item about the famous stripes painted on an LNG tank in Boston, which said they were initially controversial because somebody thought one of them showed Ho Chi Minh's profile! (read it here)




December 24, 2010


If you have to run into a moose, is it better to do it fast or slow?


N.H. Fish & Game photo by John Mosesso


Mythbusters is one of my favorite TV shows - yours, too, I bet. So as news slows down over the holiday weeks, let me take a moment to point to one of their tests that involves an event far too common in our neck of the woods: Car-moose collisions.


These are deadly to both man and beast, both because moose are such big creatures and because they're so tall that their bodies tend to be thrown right into the windshield and then front seat. Deer, by contrast, have a center of gravity that is low enough to be pushed aside by the vehicle. The danger is why the region has a "Brake for Moose" warning program, as you can see here.



Mythbusters tested whether it is effective to speed up if you can't avoid hitting a moose, in hopes that the body will be thrown clear over your vehicle. As this writeup on makes clear, this myth was busted using a moose standin made of 600 pounds of rubber and steel. If you're going to hit a moose, it's better to slam on the breaks and reduce the energy involved in the crackup.

Now you know.




December 25, 2010


Merry Christmas



Bats living in abandoned WWII bunkers seem disease-free


Big brown bats living in an old World War II bunker somewhere in New Hampshire seem free of white nose syndrom, as reported back in March in this blog post by a U.S. Fish & Game biologist. I didn't notice it at the time, but for some reason the story was picked and distributed today by AP in this story. The bunkers (there are more than one) seem to provide a sort of refuge from the fungus, providing a sanctuary where if nothing else scientists can study it.


The best-known WWII bunkers in the state are at Odiorne Point, leftover from the days when we worried about the Nazis landing on the Seacoast. They were open to the public years ago but I haven't visited in a while, so I'm not sure any more.


I don't know if these are the bunkers involved, since the locations are (understandably) not mentioned. The story says they're not open to the public.




December 28, 2010


Telegraph (maybe), Union-Leader to drop Associated Press


NOTE: I may have jumped the gun; the paper is still debating whether to drop AP - the problem being national sports and scores.

ANOTHER NOTE: I forgot to mention that the Keene Sentinel dropped AP a year ago, so this isn't entirely uncharted N.H. territory. But Keene is an afternoon paper, so its deadline issues are different.


As of Jan. 1 (actually Jan. 2, since we don't publish on New Year's Day) the Telegraph will no longer use the Associated Press. We're been preparing for a while; I hadn't realized the Union-Leader made the same decision until they announced it yesterday. This is a money saving move (we're using several other wire services in its place) that reflects the way the Internet has made much wire copy a commodity available everywhere, and how all papers have been trying to emphasize local stories.


This is almost as big a change for the Telegraph as getting somebody else to print our paper, as we discussed recently. It's a whole new world out there.


On a side note, if you want to see a ridiculous comment thread, check out the U-L story (here). As with almost every story they run, the comments ignore the issue and fall into predictably frenzied, partisan political bashing. We shouldn't complain about how politicians act in Washington, because given a chance, normal citizens do the same thing: Conversational gridlock.



UMass-Lowell contributes to "1000-core" chip design


Folks at UMass-Lowell are part of a team, lead by the University of Glasgow, that has developed a "1,000-core" chip which may (note the use of that crucial word) lead to much faster computers.


Here's a story out of the UK.*  Key points:


Scientists used a chip called a Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) which like all microchips contains millions of transistors …. But FPGAs can be configured into specific circuits by the user, rather than their function being set at a factory. This enabled the team to divide up the transistors within the chip into small groups and ask each to perform a different task. By creating more than 1,000 mini-circuits within the FPGA chip, the researchers effectively turned the chip into a 1,000-core processor - each core working on its own instructions.


*hat tip to ex-telegrapher Damon Kiesow, now a Digital Media Fellow at Poynter Institute




December 29, 2010


Boy, it takes a long time to melt snow


As part of my volunteer precipitation-measuring with CoCoRaHS, I gathered a "core sample" of snow on the ground last night - I have 8 inches of it in my yard, which is OK but we definitely need more. I gathered the core in a 4-inch-diameter tube and then put it near the pellet stove to melt. Two hours later, I went to bed, with the snow still half there.


Note that this is a pellet stove, not a traditional wood stove, so the radiant heat wasn't much. Still, it never ceases to amaze me the amount of energy needed to break the bonds of snow crystals - to create a phase change, in physics-speak.


As an example (stolen from this site), it takes 26 BTU per square foot to raise 5 pounds of snow to 32 degrees, but it takes 750 BTU per square foot to actually melt the snow, without even raising the temperature further. That's 24 times as much energy needed to break the molecular bonds as is needed to change the temperature - wow.


The snow had already been settling for almost a day when I took the core, so it was pretty dense. I got 1.57 inches of water out of the 8 inches of snow, a ratio of roughly 5-1, which seems quite high. I've always heard 10-1 water/snow as the rule of thumb, although it varies widely.




December 30, 2010


Car-charging stations coming to parts of Vermont


Green Mountain Power in Vermont says it will install some car-charging stations in Vermont. A short AP story (read it here) calls them solar powered, but it would take a freaking ton of solar panels to provide the boost needed by electric or hybrid cars, so I'm not sure what that means.


Another Vermont utility, Central Vermont Public Service, says it has charging stations for its hydbrid vehicles and expects to open "one or more" for the public next year.


I think we're still in the arena of gestures more than serious infrastructure, but you've got to start somewhere.


More details in this next-day Free-Press story. It also implies that they're solar-powered: "Green Mountain Power has been searching for sites to play host to the stations in Chittenden, Addison and Washington counties. The host will be responsible for the cost of the electricity, but that cost will be offset by the solar power generated at the site, Schnure said."




December 31, 2010


Last night, the Telegraph printed its own paper for the last time


Thursday night, the presses ran at the Telegraph for the last time, after 132 years of printing our own paper. As I've noted before (Telegraph story here), for cost reasons we have outsourced printing to Portsmouth as of Sunday's paper. (There's no newspaper Jan. 1.)


A sad, weird moment … a newspaper without a press doesn't seem right, somehow, even if the decision makes sense from financial planning point of view. About 40 people lost jobs, too.



Alan Shepard to be on a U.S. stamp - finally


As the Union-leader notes (read their story here), our space-faring pioneer Alan Shepard has been on stamps in 30 countires, but never in the U.S. because Americans have to be dead five years before they can be stamp-ified.


Shepard's stamp will be sold as a pair with another honoring NASA's unmanned Messenger mission, which in March is expected to become the first spacecraft to enter Mercury's orbit.


The stamp's May 4 release coincides with the 50th anniversary of Shepard's Freedom 7 flight on May 5, 1961.


Shepard, of course, was one of the original 7 astronauts who went up in Project Mercury, a half-century ago.