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The Vatican Goes Green

In a wonderful example of leading by example, the Catholic Church this past week took its first steps into the foray of “green power” with the activation of a new solar energy system. The massive grid of 2,400 photovoltaic panels sits atop the Vatican’s “Nervi Hall,” where the Pope holds general audience and concerts are performed. The system will save 80 tons of oil per year, or 225 tons of CO2.

The efforts to advance renewable energy sources for the Catholic church have been lead by none other than Pope Benedict XVI himself, who has long stated his church’s commitment to the environment. It’s a remarkable example of an ancient institution taking a progressive stance to attack a problem head on, and I applaud the effort whole-heartedly. In addition, since the summer of 2007, the Vatican has also been involved with an eco-restoration company to restore an ancient forest in Hungary, and more projects are in the works.

By far, the most hopeful part of the Vatican’s efforts have been its willingness to spread the word about climate change. The Vatican has hosted a scientific conference to discuss the ramifications of global warming, blamed on human use of fossil fuels. If a conservative organization such as the Catholic Church can spearhead protection and education of the environment, then perhaps the right can take its first steps to realizing that climate change isn’t a liberal or a progressive issue. It effects us all and we need to start dealing with it. Thankfully, the Vatican, led by Pope Benedict XVI, realized this a long time ago. Now it’s time for other conservatives to catch up.

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Sunshine Day

In what may turn out to be one of the best examples of timing in the last quarter century, researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have made a major breakthrough in the field of solar energy. The scientists there have invented a coating that not only boosts the amount of light rays able to be absorbed by photovoltaic cells, but that also allows light to be absorbed from almost any angle.

An untreated solar cell only absorbs 67.4 percent of sunlight that strikes it. In terms of efficiency, this wasted energy is one of the major reasons why solar power has not had widespread adoption. Once a silicon panel is treated with the new coating, researchers say the amount of light absorbed is boosted to an incredible 96.21%. Not only that, but the energy captured was consistent across the entire spectrum of sunlight, from UV to visible light and infrared. Because of the wide angle of absorption, the discovery could instantly make panels that automatically track the sun obsolete. Non-automated panels mean less expense, more energy is harvested and solar power becomes more viable.

The best bit is that this discovery comes just as a new administration is about to take office. One of Obama’s initiates as President will be to boost production of renewable energy sources including solar power. Rensselaer’s coating most likely would have fallen on deaf ears during Bush’s tenure at the White House, but now this new discovery could be a key component on road to U.S. energy independence. I love it when a plan comes together!


It’s a Science Experiment!

Inspired by a recent episode of Mythbusters, I’ve decided to undertake a small science experiment. I want see how many more miles I can get out of a full tank of gas simply by changing my driving habits. It’s a documented fact that the more aggressively you drive, the more gas you waste. As Kari, Grant and Tori showed on Mythbusters, driving stressed out or angry used up to as much as 1/3 more gasoline as when speed limits, traffic signs, etc. are obeyed. Now, I wouldn’t call myself an overly aggressive driver, but I do exceed posted speed limits from time to time, and if you ask my wife, she’ll gladly tell you that I take corners rather hard. So when I filled my tank on August 8th, I made a mental note that I was going to “go to my happy place” while driving around town. I would then compare my average milage during my experiment with what I’ve been getting over the last 10 fill-ups. Fortunately, I’ve been keeping track of my average miles per gallon since May for just such an occasion.

Using the data I’ve collected over the last ten weeks I’ve determined that I get an average of 258 miles to a single tank of gas which is about 21 miles per gallon. I rarely do highway driving so my around-town trips fall squarely at the low end of Honda’s 21-23 MPG rating for the Civic. It will be interesting to see how much, if any, I can increase my average miles per gallon simply by becoming a more responsible driver. Even if I don’t manage to get much more bang for my mileage buck, I can say without a doubt that I’ve actually enjoyed driving more these past few days than I usually do. Since I know I can’t speed, I plan my departure accordingly and give myself plenty of time to be places. This results in a more relaxed pace and a more enjoyable experience behind the wheel.

One unexpected side-effect of my experiment is that I can see how I must have been driving. When not on my bumper or passing me at dizzying speeds, other motorists have been generally cranky as I obey traffic signs and speed limits. It’s funny because I drive along and think “there but for the grace of God, go I”. As of today, my fuel gauge is reading half empty and my odometer says I’ve gone 153 miles. Pretty good, but as a friend pointed out to me, my car’s fuel tank is not symmetrical so the lower half of the tank probably holds less than the upper. This means we’ll have to wait for the experiment’s conclusion to see just how I did. I’ll be sure to do an update when I have the final results.

When this trial is over, I’ll probably go back to my lead-footed ways, but if I can get 10-20 more miles out of a tank of gas simply by obeying posted speed limits, I may take up permanent residence in my driving “happy place”. Stay tuned!

UPDATE: Well the results of my experiment are in. After running all the way past “E”, with no extra highway driving, I managed to get a full 278 miles out of my fill-up. That means that simply by obeying speed limits and curbing my aggressive driving, I managed to get a full 20 more miles from my car than normal. I increased my average miles per gallon from 21 to 23 which just about equaled an extra gallon of gas. Hooray for science!


New Pieces of the Climate Puzzle

News out of Moscow this morning that Russian scientists are evacuating a research station near the North Pole early due to the increasing effects of climate change. Usually the floating ice station is abandoned in late August, but this year the 21 researchers and two dogs will leave now, in mid July.

Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the earth, satellite photos of the Wilkins Ice Shelf in Antarctica reveal that the huge tract of ice is “hanging by a thread”. Neal Young who is a glaciologist with the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre in Hobart, says the breakup of the Wilkins Ice Shelf is inevitable and could lead to the de-stabilization of the entire peninsula.

Just two more examples of what is happening around the globe due to climate change. And while the ice caps melt, species die and we continue to pump out millions of tons of pollutants, George Bush has decided that his administration can’t be bothered to do anything about it. Not only that, but we have discovered that Vice President Dick Cheney edited a recent EPA report on greenhouse gasses, and just today Bush lifts the executive ban on off-shore oil drilling. Instead of funding new research into alternative and clean energy sources, this administration continues its long conflict of interest with big oil and the fossil fuel industry to help pollute our environment while contributing to global warming.

Worst. President. Ever.

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Ridley Scott Breeds New “Strain”

I’m pleased to report one of my favorite science fiction films of all time is the latest flick to get the Hollywood make-over treatment. Airing over two nights, beginning tonight at 9pm est on the A&E network, The Andromeda Strain, tells the tale of a particularly nasty alien microbe that threatens to wipe out all life on earth. Director Ridley Scott’s new version of the classic 1971 picture promises to be full of action, suspense and smart science and features a solid cast including Benjamin Bratt, Viola Davis & Andre Braugher.

Based on the best-selling novel by Michael Crichton, the original version of Andromeda gave audiences of the 70’s a realistic look at what just might happen if an alien microorganism fell to earth. The movie’s deliberate pacing, cold electronic soundtrack by Gil Mellé and use of multiple simultaneous shots (spoofed in Austin Powers and made famous today by FOX’s 24) builds suspense and impending dread even when viewed today. If the original Andromeda Strain had a weak point, it was surely the rushed ending which bottled things up neatly, without deliberate action from Wild Fire’s team of sequestered scientists. Somehow I doubt Scott will let his version go out with a whimper, and if he plays his cards right, this new version just might be a classic for the ages. High hopes to be sure, but coming from the director of Black Hawk Down, Blade Runner and Alien, I would expect nothing less. Should be a fun couple of nights, check it out.

UPDATE: After having watched both parts of the new version, I can see my hopes were sorely misplaced. Ridley Scott should stick to directing real films instead of producing made for TV movies cause this version couldn’t hold a candle to the original. The plot gets wrapped up in the meaningless exploits of an addict reporter whose actions ultimately don’t amount to squat. The effects were second rate and all of the great scientific detective work at Wild Fire felt rushed. Save yourself four hours of your life and don’t bother to tune in to the repeats OR purchase the DVD. Go buy the original 1971 version instead. At least Andromeda is actually creepy in that version.


Mini Them!

A bizarre and slightly frightening report out today tells of a new breed of ant that has infiltrated five of the counties around Houston, Texas by way of a cargo ship. The little buggers (no pun intended) are small (a little bigger than fleas), travel in erratic lines and are called “crazy rasberry” ants. The good news is they eat the dreaded Texas fire ant. The bad news is they are attracted to electrical equipment and have wreaked all kinds of havoc on phone and computer systems in the Houston area.

“They have ruined pumps at sewage pumping stations, fouled computers and at least one homeowner’s gas meter, and caused fire alarms to malfunction. They have been spotted at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and close to Hobby Airport, though they haven’t caused any major problems there yet.”

If I didn’t know better, it seems as though nature is throwing yet another monkey wrench into our civilization. So far this year we’ve seen the devastating natural disasters in Myanmar and central China, the thinnest arctic sea ice ever recorded and now computer eating ants. You’d almost think the marketing folks behind M. Night Shyamalan’s latest flick, The Happening, met Mother Nature in a dark alley and made a deal for free PR. Now where’s my bug spray?

An Inconvenient Update

This week the excellent TED conference posted a video segment with Al Gore regarding an update to his famous climate crisis slide show. The piece is just about 1/2 hour long and provides updates to several key points made famous in his Academy Award winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Gore gives the latest info regarding warming at the north and south poles, increases in carbon emissions from developing nations and the grassroots campaign to change the hearts and minds of Australians toward Kyoto.

He also focuses on the need to do more than just change light bulbs, and makes a plea to get laws changed. Some parts are a bit overly dramatic for my taste, but I agree with his core tenet. The climate crisis is going to continue to worsen unless people start demanding change, particularly of the presidential candidates. Seeing how much the U.S. depends on gasoline, and how little attention the main stream media has devoted to the topic, it’s easy to see why Al’s upset.

Take time on your lunch break or after work and watch this video. After all, knowledge is power.


Zombies in Plain English

March isn’t what I would typically categorize as “zombie season”, but none-the-less this helpful video from the good folks at Common Craft is just what I’ve been looking for. There’s never a Charlton Heston, Will Smith or Simon Pegg around when you need one so I think it’s best to be prepared. On a related note, be sure to check out the Twitter in Plain English video too. Think of it as a helpful teaching tool for those morlocks who still don’t “get” Twitter.


Climate Denier’s Day of Reckoning

At some point (hopefully in the very near future) politicians, skeptics and blowhards who deny that human beings are altering the Earth’s climate will have to snap out of their right-wing fantasy lands and face facts. For Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina, that day finally came, thanks in part to his children:

Once a skeptic of global warming, Inglis got a hint that the political winds might be shifting when a longtime supporter warned that he might vote against Inglis if he “didn’t clean up his act on the environment.”

The warning came from Inglis’ eldest son, Robert Jr., now 22.

His daughter was no less blunt about the congressman’s refusal to embrace the view that global warming was being caused by human actions and that a serious response is needed. “I have three more kids coming up — and they seem to share the same view,” Inglis said.

Family pressure worked. Inglis traveled to Antarctica and, most recently, to Greenland to witness the effects of rising CO2 levels and temperatures. He now believes the science behind global warming. And he believes the politics are equally conclusive: Republicans will “get hammered” if they do not reckon with the issue soon.

Imagine that. A representative does a little research, takes a trip to see the effects of climate change first hand, and realizes that the bullshit climate critics have been force-feeding him for years was wrong. Perhaps there’s hope for us yet. In the meantime, Al Gore continues to fight the good fight and come to the aid of whales everywhere.


Climate Deniers’ Heads Explode

You really have to hand it to Al Gore. First he wins an Academy Award for his groundbreaking work on An Inconvenient Truth with Davis Guggenheim. Next he stages the largest entertainment event in the history of the planet, and now he wins the Nobel Peace Prize along side the IPCC. All of this was done in the name of raising awareness to the growing problem of man-made climate change, and his efforts seem to be paying off. People everywhere are starting to list climate change as one of the most important problems facing our nation and the world. With record temperatures being set, hurricanes that strengthen in record times and ever shrinking glaciers, the general public is starting to feel global warming’s effects directly.

Of course, this doesn’t stop the climate deniers from insisting that there really isn’t a problem. It seems that even when faced with overwhelming scientific evidence, from thousands of leading scientists across the planet, it’s just not enough. Well, today we learned that one man’s hard work and perseverance, along with the dedicated research of thousands of climate professionals, may just help to save us all. Bravo Al, from all of us who happen to think our pale blue dot matters.


Behold the Power of Kids!

One night when I was five years old (as the story is told to me), I sat at dinner with my parents. Aside from mom’s wonderful cooking, was the typical helping of cigarette smoke from my parents’ ash trays which were perched on the dinner table in their usual spots. That night, out of the blue, I asked mom and dad to quit smoking. I’m not sure if mom had smoked while she carried me, but both her and dad had smoked all through my first years in our home. Right up until that night at the dinner table. One simple plea from their only son did what multiple doctor visits, a modified diet and even a hypnotist could not do… change their behavior for the better. After that small request from me, they got serious, worked hard and threw away the cigarettes forever.

So when I read an article in last week’s Wall Street Journal about how kids are starting to influence their parents in matters related to the environment, I knew exactly what was going on. Our public school system has stepped up and is teaching kids beneficial practices like remembering to turn off lights when you leave a room, or how to switch from wasteful incandescents to compact fluorescents to help lower carbon emissions. Children all across the country are mobilizing families to help do their part for the future. Parents now think twice about not recycling or buying that big SUV. According to the article, one boy even convinced his family not to just replace their failing roof, but to upgrade it with solar panels. I say, if it takes your kid to convince you to do the right thing when it comes to how to treat the environment, so much the better.

Parents have always wanted what’s best for their children. It’s the reason why my mom and dad quit smoking when I asked them to, and it’s the reason why so many parents are now re-insulating, recycling and reusing around the house. We want our kids to grow up in a world that is just as good, if not better than the one we got from our parents. We all want to do what’s best, not just for our children, but for our friends and neighbors as well. It makes perfect sense to plant a tree, turn off extra lights or promote alternative energy sources, but all too often things like these are overlooked. Sometimes all we need is a gentle nudge from those we love to make everything crystal clear once again. Call it kid power for the 21st century, and just in time too.


Another Reason RFID Sucks

As if massive privacy concerns and identity theft were not enough reasons to worry about the wide spread use of radio frequency identification technology, now comes word that it it may also cause cancer. It seems that a series of veterinary and toxicology studies from the mid-1990s, found that RFID chip implants had “induced” malignant tumors in some lab mice and rats. Although the FDA has officially approved the chips for implanting in pets and limited use in humans, these studies found that lab mice and rats injected with microchips sometimes developed subcutaneous “sarcomas”, or malignant tumors, most of them encasing the implants.

Although the research is ongoing, I’m seriously thinking about having the RFID chips in our pets removed. Some people think all this FUD is hogwash, and that RFID is perfectly safe and secure. To them I say, have you ever had chemotherapy? I have, and let me just say it’s no day at the beach. If you’d like to gamble with an aggressive form of cancer that can kill you in as little as 3-6 months just to prove your pet theories, be my guest! The chips are even mentioned by bible enthusiasts as one of the signs of the end times for Pete’s sake! Do you really want to portend the apocalypse AND go through localized radiation therapy? No, I didn’t think so.

Earlier this month, California passed a law forbidding companies from forcing their employees to have RFID chips implanted in them. I plan on writing our representatives and asking them to support the very same measure here in NC. The chips pose serious threats to security, personal liberty and now, health. As far as I’m concerned, they can’t be banned fast enough. Now excuse me while I finish that Book of Revelations.

He’s Pissed, and I Don’t Blame Him

I love how this ad takes Bush’s “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists” rhetoric and turns it on its head. The climate deniers seem to respond to black and white vs. levels of gray, so maybe spots like this will penetrate their thick, thick skulls. We can only hope and pray. There isn’t much time left.

Nothing to See Here

Global warming is a hoax. Just remember that simple “fact” as you watch the news this week. Temperatures in parts of the United States have hit triple digits for the second straight week, California is suffering rolling blackouts due to the extreme heat and Felix grew from a tropical storm to a category 5 hurricane in just 27 hours. None of this matters you see, because evidently there is no empirical evidence to suggest that man is causing climate change.

I know what you’re thinking. You thought the argument was that the climate wasn’t changing AT ALL, not that man was causing it. Well, those skeptics seem to have given up on that lame defense and are now admitting that climate change is real, it’s just not humans who are causing it. It has to do with the wobble of the earth, or sun spots, or water vapor or cycles or… or… whatever! Just not increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. No, there is no evidence of that what-so-ever.

So as you bake in your blacked out or windswept home in the days and weeks ahead, just keep repeating to yourself that man isn’t to blame and there is nothing we can or even should do about it. If you say it enough times, it will be true. At least in your own head.


China’s Choking

Interesting, if distressing story today from the New York Times about China and its rush toward industrialization. It seems that China’s pollution levels are reaching staggeringly bad proportions thanks to a heavy increase in coal fired power plants. China has lots of coal, maybe more than any other nation on Earth and they intend to use it. The problem of course, is that coal is dirty, both for the environment and human health. The increase in China’s pollution output has created an environmental disaster and has made cancer their leading cause of death. This bit is especially distressing:

“China’s problem has become the world’s problem. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides spewed by China’s coal-fired power plants fall as acid rain on Seoul, South Korea, and Tokyo. Much of the particulate pollution over Los Angeles originates in China, according to the Journal of Geophysical Research.

More pressing still, China has entered the most robust stage of its industrial revolution, even as much of the outside world has become preoccupied with global warming.

Experts once thought China might overtake the United States as the world’s leading producer of greenhouse gases by 2010, possibly later. Now, the International Energy Agency has said China could become the emissions leader by the end of this year, and the Netherlands Environment Assessment Agency said China had already passed that level.”

Back in 2005, Al Gore touched on the challenges facing China and its increasing number of coal fired plants in his award winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. I’ve captured the segment dealing with China and posted it on YouTube as an interesting tangent to the NYT piece. It seems that China’s pollution problems have only grown worse since the movie was made which doesn’t bode well for China or the U.S.

Given the problems the United States has had dealing with greenhouse gasses and our lack of global responsibility in regard to the climate crisis, it seems unlikely that the Chinese will fare better any time soon. It most likely will be decades before the communist government there decides to do something about their nation’s contribution to global warming. Given the rate at which things are changing around the world, I don’t think any of us can afford to wait that long.

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“24″ Goes Green

Here is a bit of news from the Washington Post that is sure to bristle the spines of climate change critics everywhere. As part of Fox’s company wide Cool Change directive, spokesman Chris Anderson says that the entire production of their hit show, 24, is going green. The Post reports that when production starts on season 7 this month, both vehicles and generators will run on a more “planet-friendly” biodiesel blend of fuel which will start at 5% and gradually increase as filming continues. In addition, the show’s electricity bill will be spent toward renewable-energy credits that will bring shares of wind, solar and water power to the power grid of Los Angeles.

As the face of 24, actor and producer, Kiefer Sutherland stars in a short video on Fox’s website that talks about the production’s initiative as well as tips that people at home can take to heart to help fight climate change. More web installments are planned once the show begins airing in January, and the concept of climate change is even said to be being worked into this season’s plot lines (don’t laugh, anything is better than last season). Sutherland has high hopes that by making 24’s production carbon neutral, they will lead by example and demonstrate that the problem of global warming is solvable.

Perhaps the most positive thing to come out of this development isn’t that 24 will be using less fossil fuels or even that it will spread the word about the genuine danger of climate change. No, the real news here is that a show with such deep conservative roots, on a partisan network like Fox, is taking a position on an issue that is in direct opposition to main stream right-thinking. The show’s co-creator and executive producer, Joel Surnow is an unabashed “right-wing nutjob“. Recently he helped to create Fox’s answer to The Daily Show, the 1/2 Hour News Hour and has taken flack for 24’s casual treatment of torture and abuse of civil liberties. Indeed, 24 has even been used by some GOP candidates as a talking point to illustrate how America should deal with terrorists.

So when a staunch conservative like Surnow can set aside his partisan beliefs and see climate change for what it is – a global issue that threatens all of us, I feel hope. We must look beyond party loyalties, face scientific facts and get to work. The Cool Change initiative at Fox, and 24’s efforts specifically, speak to a mind set that is spreading. Unfortunately, as is often the case on 24, the clock is ticking. Now is the time when we, not Jack Bauer, swing into action and make a difference. Let’s just hope we’re in time.


The $27 Mil. Temple to Ignorance

Here are some scientific facts that I bet you were never taught in school:

• The Earth is only 6000 years old

• The Grand Canyon was carved by Noah’s flood

• Dinosaurs and man roamed the Earth together

These are just some of the amazing “scientific facts” that are presented to children and adults alike at the new Creation Museum opening today in Petersburg Kentucky. The center is the brainchild of Ken Ham who founded the nonprofit ministry Answers in Genesis, originally in Australia. Ham wanted to give believers a rallying point to help support “Creation Theory” as an alternative to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and raised a staggering $27 million dollars in donations from like-minded Christians to help him do it.

After learning more about the center (I refuse to call it a museum), I can fully understand why many nations around the globe have come to think on the United States as one big joke. No other place in the world allows such assaults on scientific consensus and reason as we do. Long established facts, like the 4.5 billion year old age of the Earth, are allowed to be tossed aside in favor of religious doctrine. Children are encouraged to roam the exhibits of this place and learn that fossils are not the remains of animals dead for many millennia, but were all created by the massive flood detailed in the book of Genesis.

What year is this again, 1492 or 2007? I forget.

The so-called “Creation Museum” is just one symptom of something dangerous that has taken hold in this country. It’s called the assault on science. There are a wave of fundamentalists that see it as their duty to fight the growing tide of secularism in the United States. People in local, state and federal government have begun pushing their agendas and they will use any platform to do it. It takes many forms including the school board battles for Intelligent Design in Kansas, the so-called “attack on Christmas” and the fight against scientific consensus regarding global warming. The slow maturing of the nation and our growing intellectual understanding of the world is evidently too much for these fundamentalists to take. So we get this:

• The Bible must be taken literally.

• Christmas must never become just another “holiday”.

• Humans can’t possibly effect Earth’s climate.

I was born and raised a Catholic. I was baptized a Christian, attended Catholic school, had my first Communion and became an alter boy at a young age. I love God, Jesus and Mary, and when I pray it isn’t to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. However, I don’t believe in the story of Adam and Eve, and I don’t take the story of Noah and the Flood as a historical account. Does this make me a bad Christian? To me, being a Christian is more about how you treat your fellow man than about how old the Earth is. It means you have a special place in your heart for Christ’s teachings, and as such I try to make “Do unto others…” the guiding principal in my life.

“I believe in a God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.” – Albert Einstein

Does the scientific belief in the “Big Bang” mean that God could not have caused it? Of course not, all things are possible in God. Couldn’t Evolution be just another one of God’s intricate and wondrous plans for how the natural universe works? And why must the Bible be taught as a literal account rather than a guiding collection of parables? Science and religion can co-exist, as long as they play on their own, separate turfs. I think I speak for a great many people who have had their faith hijacked, when I say I don’t want Noah in my museum any more than Ken Ham would want Darwin in his church.

UPDATE: This has all been said before, and brilliantly I might add, by none other than that uniquely American creation – The Simpsons. Perhaps there is hope for us yet.

UPDATE II: Seems like something of a minor sex scandal has hit the center. Could be a tempest in a tea cup, but I always find it interesting how those who claim the moral high ground are often found wallowing in the mud.

UPDATE III: A blog called BlueGrassRoots posted a walk-through of the center and the images and experiences shown are nothing less than startling. This place is full on, 100% religious propaganda pure and simple. After checking out this post, I actually felt sick to my stomach for all the parents who think substituting religion for science is acceptable behavior. Disturbing to say the least.