Saturday, April 18, 2015
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Nashua;50.0;;2015-04-18 22:56:28

Some big investors getting worried that fossil fuels might be a financial risk

We're avoiding the dull topic of politics today (see previous post) but we're not going to avoid another dull topic - finance - because it's important.

As FierceEnergy reports, "Institutional investors representing nearly $2 trillion in assets have called on the Securities and Exchange Commission to push for better disclosure by oil and gas companies of critical climate change-related business risks (carbon asset risks) that will "profoundly affect the economics of the industry." "

In other words, some big-money folks are getting nervous that oil and coal, and maybe even natural gas, might not be the road to easy riches that has been assumed for decades. If that thinking spreads and it gets harder for the funding to pull burnable dinosaur remains ("carbon asset" is the more formal term, but I like mine better) out of the ground, that would do more for a transition to renewable energy that all the scolding in the world.

There are five main reasons why investors are concerned with the current state of disclosure for fossil fuel companies. Those include oil prices, demand, stranded assets, physical risks and the growth of renewables.

Some existing unproduced coal reserves will become stranded assets due to declining demand, pollution and efficiency standards, and competition with natural gas and renewables. In the oil and gas sector in the coming years, new investment in high-cost, high-carbon assets could be stranded as global demand for fossil fuels slows.

"Stranded" is a scary term for investors in utilities and energy (Seabrook Station fought over "stranded costs" for years) but stranding carbon is a necessity if we have any hope of not destroying the world.

A lawn-mowing Roomba has got radio astronomers angry

Today Nashua is the scene of a large spontaneous clustering effect - although it doesn't involve lattice gas or genetic drift in competing populations, which might be interesting. This one involves politicians, an unpleasant side effect of what people sometimes call FITN, for first-in-the-nation presidential primary. There are times when I wished I had moved to Vermont.

Happily, we at GraniteGeek get to ignore such silliness and consider interesting topics instead. How about a great Wired article, discussing the dispute between radio astronomers and iRobot, which wants to sell a lawn-mowing Roomba. The problem is that iRobot wants to control these devices via signals in a particular portion of the spectrum:

The frequency band proposed for the lawnbot (6240-6740 MHz) is the very same one several enormous radio telescopes operate on. Astronomers want the FCC to protect their share of the radio spectrum so their telescopes continue observing methanol, which abounds in regions where celestial bodies are forming.

The Federal Communications Commission will have to decide. I love iRobot, but I think I have to side with scientists on this one.

Here's the whole story, which doesn't include a single political candidate.

Wikipedia can't be trusted, redux redux redux 

I've been a regular editor/contributor to Wikipedia for a dozen years - my first Telegraph piece about the site is so old it's not part of our digital archive - and for the entire time people have been saying that the site isn't trustworthy. As this Washington Post piece about long-running wikipedia hoaxes confirms, that concern has only grown.

The issue was a nichey geek debate for a while but became a real concern a half-dozen years ago when wikipedia swamped any other encyclopedia-ish information source online. Now wikipedia errors can become revealed truth through sheer repetition. (As is so often the case, xkcd nailed the issue with the "citogenesis" cartoon.)

The Post article, prodded by a wikipedia hoax about a fake Australian Aboriginal god that lasted nine years, is a good synopsis of the issue as it currently stands. It notes that part of the problem is that most wikipedia editors are, like me, Western males with a tech interest, which means that articles about topics that don't interest such folks (Aboriginal mythology being a good example) are particularly suspect.

From the very beginning, there was concern that the idea of crowd-sourcing an encyclopedia wouldn't scale. In many ways it hasn't - although in many ways, of course, it has. I never, ever would have guessed that wikipedia would have grown and thrived the way it has. I assumed it would be gone by now.

There's a reason nobody frets about errors in Nupedia.

We wondered if archaeology would be a good draw for Science Cafe - now we know

We wondered if archaeology would be a good draw for Science Cafe NH in Nashua. Well, last night's session "Who was here before the Europeans, and how do we know?" with state archaeologist Richard Boisvert and Linda Feurderer, president of the NH Archaeologal Society, drew an overflow crowd - sorry those of you who had to sit in the hall. Now we know.

Discussion ranged from the difficulty of estimating populations (how many people lived in New England before contact? Estimates range from 75,000 to many hundreds of thousands) to the mechanics of radio carbon dating (open-air atomic bomb tests screwed up measurements for anything after 1950 or so) to, yes, America's Stonehenge. It was a measure of the level of knowledge and interest in the Science Cafe crowd that the tourist draw just took up a few minutes of the two-hour session; we had more interesting fish to fry.

Tonight's Science Cafe: Who lived here before the Europeans, and how do we know?

After four years, Sciene Cafe takes its first foray into anthropology/archaeology tonight - 6 p.m., Killarney's, free (you know the drill). The state archaeologist and the head of the New hampshire Archaeological Society will the there to answer questions about "Who lived here before the Europeans arrived, and how do we know?"

I'm going to ask about invasive trees.

Portland starts charging 5 cents for non-reusable grocery bags, paper or plastic

In the U.S., what economists call market signals - price - often work better than regulation, which is why Portland, Maine, has instituted a 5 cent charge for all non-reusable shopping bags, paper or plastic. These things create a cost for society, so the customers who benefit from them should cover that cost.

The city will also ban styrofoam packaging; apparently no market signal was considered big enough.

The full story is in the Portland Press-Herald.

The city’s Green Packaging Working Group initially considered a 10-cent per bag fee, with as much as 6 cents being paid to the city for educational programs and environmental cleanup efforts. But that fee was reduced to 5 cents by a City Council subcommittee and businesses were allowed to keep the revenue, compromises that were considered necessary to ease opposition to the proposal.

Mutated blister rust found in N.H., poses a threat to white pines

From UNH Cooperative Extension and the U.S. Forest Service (full report here):

DURHAM – A mutated pathogen feared to pose a threat to white pines has been positively confirmed as infecting those trees in New Hampshire, a recent joint study reported.

White pine blister rust (WPBR), Cronartium ribicola, is infecting white pines in Epsom and Concord, and possibly elsewhere in the Northeast. It’s considered a major forest health threat and affects all North American five-needle pines.

The results were unfortunately expected and are a cause for concern, according to lead author and U.S. Forest Service Northeastern Area State and Private Forestry Plant Pathologist Isabel Munck.

“In North America, we have several five-needle pine species susceptible to WPBR, and most of them occur in the West. White bark pine is also very susceptible to WPBR,” she added. “The pathogen causes cankers that can girdle a tree if they occur on the main stem. How long it takes the tree to die depends on the size of the stem. Smaller trees die more quickly because they have smaller stems.”

The Forest Service announced in October 2013 that a mutated race of the fungal pathogen was recently observed on black currant plants said to be immune in New Hampshire.

You can no longer plant a Cr-type Ribes plant in New Hampshire. Cr Ribes are European black currants with the Cr dominant gene for white pine blister rust resistance. Cr is the name of that gene.

WPBR requires both currants and pines to complete its life cycle. Munck said they had to wait until the following spring to look at the pines, because that’s when spores come out.

Some varieties of ribes are more resistant to WPBR than others, but varieties that were not showing any signs of WPBR before are now found heavily infected.

“Most of the growers in this state use resistant varieties of Ribes,” said Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station Plant Pathologist Yonghao Li. “As such, there have not been many cases here of WPBR before this new strain appeared.”

“We suggest Ribes growers monitor their fields for WPBR infection,” Li added. “If they appear infected, they should contact their university extension office to report it.”

“It’s not a huge concern for the present generation,” said Massachusetts Dept. of Conservation and Recreation Forest Health Program Director Ken Gooch. “But for future generations, it will become a huge concern. We need to work together with the ribes community on this issue.”

NHPR: Estimate animal numbers in the wild with poop-sniffing dogs, hunters, and math

Sam Evans-Brown at NHPR has a great piece on the methods used to estimate wild animal populations. You can read it or listen to it right here. A taste to whet your appetite:

By releasing and recapturing animals, you get a sense of how many there are out there that you don’t see. Which of course you can use to estimate how many you have total. “Basically the tools are the math,” says Litvaitus.

The way you get that count depends on what you’re after. Salamanders are easy enough to funnel into a bucket, but for other animals, you can just find little traces of DNA they’ve left behind.

We’ve done this a lot with New England cottontail, it’s a very efficient technique for that animal because the average rabbit, believe it or not defecates 600 pellets a day, and they’re not very picky about where they leave their samples.

You can get more technical detail here, with some of the math explained.

Don't hide a gun in the toilet to take out your opponent - hide a chess-playing iPhone

You know that scene in The Godfather where Michael Corleone hides a gun in the cistern of a toilet so he can sneak it out during a meeting and kill an opponent? Replace the gun with a chess-playing iPhone and you've got the latest scandal in high-level chess.

From the Washington Post:

On Saturday, Gaioz Nigalidze, the 25-year-old reigning Georgian champion, was competing in the 17th annual Dubai Open Chess Tournament when his opponent spotted something strange. “Nigalidze would promptly reply to my moves and then literally run to the toilet,” Armenian grandmaster Tigran Petrosian said. “I noticed that he would always visit the same toilet partition, which was strange, since two other partitions weren’t occupied.”

Turns out, he had an iPhone running chess analysis software.

“The basic problem is that it’s incredibly easy to cheat with a phone,” says Nigel Short, an English chess grandmaster who once was ranked 3rd in the world and is now 60th. “You can have some application running on your phone, and it’s quite easy to conceal… My dog could win a major tournament using one of these devices. Or my grandmother. Anybody could do this.”

“A friend of mine recently joked that his mobile phone will beat Magnus Carlssen,” Short said, referring to the Norwegian chess prodigy who is currently the world’s number one player. “I said, ‘What are you talking about? My microwave could beat Magnus Carlsen.'”

UNH math prof won a Grammy, now he's a National Academy of Inventors fellow

Kevin Short, the UNH math professor who came to national attention in 2010 when he won a Grammy for signal-processing work that helped clean up the sound on a 1949 Woody Guthrie album, has been named a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors. He was recognized for a body of work over decades that includes nine patents covering hearing aids and the first music downloads to phones as well as musical signal processing.

For irritating search-engine reasons I can't link to my column about his Grammy, but I can link to a short piece I did for UNH Magazine about others parts of his signal-processing research.

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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: Wednesday, April 15

TOPIC: Who was here before Europeans arrived - and how do we know?

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



March: How roads are designed. February: The science of sugar. January: Geothermal energy.


November: Medical screening; how much is too much? October: Flexible and printed electronics. September: The science of marijuana. June: Fluoridation in public water. May: Organic gardening. April: Tele-medicine, or doctoring from afar. March: Bitcoin - what is it? February: The science of allergies. January: Electric cars.

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"


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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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