Wednesday, July 30, 2014
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Nashua;61.0;;2014-07-30 03:00:22

New England has a lot more tornadoes than I thought


New Hampshire's tornado history. The numbers reflect the Fujita scale, a measure of damage: 3 means "roofs and some walls torn off well-constructed houses; trains overturned; most trees in forest uprooted; heavy cars lifted off the ground." Source:

Massachusetts has had 159 tornadoes since 1951, according to the Tornado History Database, and New Hampshire has had 87 of them. Most were small, of course - this isn't Kansaa - but such storms are more common in this part of New England than you'd think.

A tornado did a lot of damage in Revere, Mass., yesterday, hence the interest.

I learned about the database from this Slate post.

California says: For crying out loud, don't fly drones over wildfires we're fighting! 

The LA Times reports that folks fighting wildfires in California "encountered a civilian-piloted drone over the weekend for the first time while fighting a large wildfire" and "banished ir from the sky to keep it from disrupting flight operations."

Logarithms turn 400 this year (that's 10^2.6020599913)


My slide rule is so rarely used, I didn't realize that the cursor (in pre-digital usage) has fallen off.

Logarithms are a way to do multiplication by adding, which is a lot less work than doing multiplication by multiplying. Scottish mathematician John Napier presented them to the world 400 years ago in a book called "A Description of the Admirable Table of Logarithms" with a wonderful subtitle: "With a Declaration of the most plentifil, easy and speedy use thereof in both kindes of Trigonometrie, as also in all Mathematicall calculations." Science News has a nice piece of the birthday of this valuable mathematical tool.

A logarithm tells you how many times you have to multiply one number, such as 10, times itself to get another number, such as 100. In that case the answer is easy (it's 2 - as in, 10^2 = 100), but if you wanted to know how many times you multiplied 10 by itelf to get 90, you'd be stumped without a log table to show you the answer of 1.9542425094 ... . This sounds clumsy but it was an incredibly useful calculating tool for centuries - you can multiply 90 by 90 just by adding their logarithms and then taking the anti-log. OK, so that isn't a very good example, but still, the joke is that logarithms doubled the lifespan of mathematicians by increasing their productivity.

Logariths are best known to those of a certain vintage for being the basis of slide rules, the ubiquitous calculating device of the pre-computer era. Slide rules let you slide one logarithmic scale over another one to do various calculations (but not addition or subtraction, despite a geekily famous error from the move "Apollo 13").

I learned to use slide rules in high school, but mostly as a novelty. They were already dying as Texas Instruments calculators began infiltrating our lives.

I still use a slide rule's cursor (the sliding glass window whose hairline let you see the answer more easily) as the icon for the Twitter feed of GraniteGeek.

Hopefully, it's in the nonfiction section


A screenshot from the Merrimack Library seismograph.

The Merrimack town library has the state's first public seismograph. We're not exactly California in New England (or even fracking-quake-spurred Oklahoma) but it's interesting.

I leanred about it from this NH Public Radio story, which notes:

The library partnered with the Weston Observatory at Boston College, which has been working for the past decade to get publically-available seismographs into schools and libraries across Massachusetts. “And now we’re expanding out to New Hampshire and there is so much good data already flowing. It’s incredible,” said Marilyn Bibeau, administrator of the Weston Observatory and associate director of the Boston College Educational Seismology Project.

Liquified natural gas plant for NH on hold

This is more a business story than a geek story, but I just got back from 10 days vacation WITH NO INTERNET (aaaaah ... delightful) so I'm a little behind. It will have to do!

The Union-Leader reports that plans for a liquified natural gas plant in Groveton are "on hold." It's hard to know what that means, since the phrase is business-speak for anything from "I need a little more money" to "this was the stupidest idea since CueCat." Read the whole story here.

It seems this would have been a plant to liquify natural gas brought in by pipeline, not to accept LNG from truck/tanker and put it into the pipeline, which is really what New England needs.

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

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

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

See you then.

Electricity from leaky landfills is bigger than solar power in NH


Staff photo by Don Himsel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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About this blog

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

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

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


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

NEXT CAFE: September (we take the summer off)

TOPIC: To be decided

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


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

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

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

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


Alternative power map

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

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