Thursday, March 29, 2012

Time to hibernate



Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Landless Liberation Movement

Many in the U.S. consider being arrested for a vocal protest or sit-in as an extreme - even heroic - bit of activism. In many other parts of the world, standing up and acting for what you believe is often a matter of life and death. (GW)

Brazilian activists' murders may be linked to land dispute


Police investigate whether shooting of three rural activists was linked to efforts to win land also contested by sugar mill owners

Associated Press in Sao Paulo
Guardian
27 March 2012 03.31 EDT

Brazilian police are investigating whether the fatal shooting of three rural activists was linked to their effort to win rights to land also contested by owners of a sugar mill.

The activists were shot on Saturday as they got out of a car near a landless workers' camp in the south-western Minas Gerais state.

A five-year-old girl, the granddaughter of two of those who were killed, survived the attack. No one has been arrested, a police spokesman said.

Watchdog groups said police were questioning land activists about the possibility the killings could have resulted from an internal conflict within their movement. The groups rejected that idea and accused landowners of paying gunmen to shoot the activists.

Carlos Calazans, head of the Minas Gerais branch of the federal department of land reform, known as Incra, said police were looking into the land dispute as a possible motive.

"It's definitely one of the theories for the motive behind this barbarous crime," he said. "I've no doubt these activists were summarily executed. But police have to follow all leads until they find the truth."

Calazans said the killed couple approached Incra last year seeking support in various land conflicts in the region, including the one with the mill owners. He said Incra tried to get the owners and activists to agree on the issue a few weeks ago, but the effort was unsuccessful.

Killings over land in Brazil are common, and people rarely face trial for the crimes.

The watchdog group Catholic Land Pastoral says more than 1,150 rural activists have been murdered in Brazil over the past 20 years. The killings are mostly carried out by gunmen hired by loggers, ranchers and farmers to silence protests over illegal logging and land rights, it says. Most of the killings happen in the Amazon region.

Fewer than 100 cases have gone to court since 1988, Catholic Land Pastoral says. About 80 of the hired gunmen have been convicted, while 15 of the men who hired them were found guilty, and only one is currently in prison.

According to Incra, those killed on Saturday were Clestina Leonor Sales Nunes, 48; Milton Santos Nunes da Silva, 52; and Valdir Dias Ferreira, 39.

The girl was apparently the only witness to the killings, which were carried out along a highway near the camp, about 25 miles (40km) south-east of Uberlandia. She told police a car cut off the one she was riding in with the victims, forcing it to stop. Either one or two gunmen then opened fire.

A statement on the Catholic Land Pastoral's website described the three victims as state leaders of the Landless Liberation Movement, one of several rural activist groups that invade land and set up camp, living on what they say is unproductive ground.

Brazil's agrarian reform laws allow the government to seize fallow farmland and distribute it to landless farmers. Nearly 50% of arable land belongs to 1% of the population, according to the government's statistics agency.

The latest killings come just before the month that landless worker movements typically step up invasions of what they say is unused land. The seizures are meant to mark the April 1996 killing of 19 landless activists in Para state.

Monday, March 26, 2012

"Being a farmer in California is worse than going to Las Vegas"

This story could very well be a preview of one of the scariest climate change scenarios that could unfold in the not-to-distant future. (GW)

California Farmers Feel Pain


Water Allowance Cut Amid Unusually Dry Winter, Choking Key Region's Rebound

By Jim Carlton
Wall Street Journal
March 25, 2012

FIVE POINTS, Calif.—Sharp cutbacks in water for farmers threaten to trigger renewed layoffs in a large swath of California, eating into the state's $40 billion-a-year agriculture industry and damping its nascent economic recovery.

Amid an unusually dry winter, managers of the federal Central Valley Project, which delivers mountain water for agriculture, late last month announced an initial reduction in farmers' water allowance for this year to 30% of the allotment in the driest southern reaches of the valley, down from 85% last year. Now farmers and local agriculture officials are taking in the economic impact they face.

"Being a farmer in California is worse than going to Las Vegas," said Mark Borba, as he inspected a barren field he may leave without crops this year because of the water reductions. Mr. Borba, co-owner of Borba Farms, which gets water from the district, expects to reduce his cotton crop by 38% to 1,480 acres from 2,400 last year.

The Central Valley, which is 450 miles long and about 50 miles wide, is home to most of California's agriculture industry. With much of the valley semi-arid, farms there for decades have depended on irrigated water from the Northern California mountains, but those supplies have long been subject to sharp fluctuations. Environmental regulations have made the water supplies from year to year even more unpredictable.

The mountain snowpack stood at 45% of normal as of last Wednesday, compared with 139% a year ago, according to official estimates. Reservoirs remain full enough from 2011 precipitation so that restrictions aren't expected to spread to the household water tap yet, officials said.

But cutbacks to farms could slow the state's overall recovery. While agriculture accounts for only a fraction of California's roughly $1.9 trillion economy, the sector employs hundreds of thousands of workers, whose spending ripples out to the broader economy.

CALFARM

The Central Valley —which became the epicenter of California's real-estate crash and still stands in contrast to the improving coastal cities—will take the biggest hit. The valley's farm belt was so badly damaged by recession and drought that its unemployment rate remained as high as 19.5% in January, compared with 10.9% for the state and 8.3% for the nation, according to Labor Department estimates.

Farmers, who have some of the weakest water rights in the state, say the system is inadequate, without the storage facilities to bank enough water in wet years. Some also blame federal restrictions like the one on pumping in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to protect species such as the endangered smelt. Meanwhile, some environmentalists say farmers could conserve more and shouldn't be growing water-guzzlers like cotton.

During the last drought, in 2009, a cutback in water allocations to as low as under 10% of the allotment resulted in 285,000 acres going fallow and the loss of 9,800 agricultural jobs, for a $340 million loss in farm-related revenues, according to a study by the University of California at Davis.

Here in Fresno County, farmer Todd Allen said he was able to plant only 40 of his 600 irrigated acres with wheat that year, leaving the rest fallow. In 2011, there was enough water to plant all 600 acres with wheat, cotton and onions. But he said with the new cutbacks he will reduce his acreage to 450 this year, and perhaps to zero in 2013, which would force him to lay off his four employees.

Harris Farms plans to reduce its cotton crop to zero this year from 2,003 acres last year, said John Harris, chairman and chief executive of the 14,000-acre operation. That would translate into 68,696 fewer work hours this year, a loss of $755,480 in wages, according to estimates by Harris Farms. After receiving more water in 2011, payroll jumped 46% to $12.97 million from $8.87 million in 2010, the family-owned company said.

Businesses that depend on farms also are bracing themselves. At Kern Machinery in Bakersfield, general manager Clayton Camp said sales of tractors and other farm equipment could fall "20% to 25%" this year from 2011, when they had increased by single digits from 2010. Less water "will be a direct hit on our sales," Mr. Camp said.

In Firebaugh, Cathy Jones, a saleswoman at Westside Ford, said the dealership's revenues probably will drop this year after an increase in the sales rate to 25 vehicles a month from 16 in 2009. She said the sales rate had been 35 to 40 vehicles a month in 2008. She said the sales rate had been 35 to 40 vehicles a month in 2008. "Next year will be the rough year for us," Ms. Jones said.

Mr. Allen, the farmer, offered a starker assessment. "Without water," he said, "I'm worth nothing, basically."

Write to Jim Carlton at jim.carlton@wsj.com

Friday, March 23, 2012

Northeast enegy vulnerability

The most densely populated region in the U.S. is also the most vulnerable when it comes to energy. (GW)

Why Next Winter’s Heat Could Be Costly in New York

By David Bird
Wall Street Journal
March 23, 2012

State energy officials in New York aren’t planning to delay the July 1 switch to ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel for use as heating oil, but they are monitoring the fallout from refinery shutdowns that have triggered warnings of price spikes.

New York’s switch to ultra-low sulfur diesel, now used to power trucks and trains, would boost demand by 70,000 barrels a day, according to an estimate from the Energy Information Administration, with the demand spiking in the winter.

States throughout the Northeast are requiring the move from higher-sulfur heating oil in order to reduce pollution, and New York has the earliest implementation date.

Kate Muller, spokeswoman for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, said the agency picked July 1 to allow a build up of heating oil supplies during the summer-time off-season for heating demand. ”NYSERDA will monitor fuel supplies prior to the heating season to determine [ultra-low sulfur diesel] availability,” she said in an email.

According to the state law requiring the switch to ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel, suspension of the requirement would need an executive order from the governor, Muller said.

Prices of ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel — already at record highs for this time of year — could spike higher if Sunoco goes ahead with plans to shut its 335,000-barrels-a-day Philadelphia refinery in July if no buyer is found, federal forecasters warned this week.

The plant made up 24% of the refining capacity on the densely populated East Coast as of August, the EIA said. Its closure, combined with other changes at plants elsewhere, would reduce refining capacity in the Northeast by 50%.

The EIA also warned that logistical problems caused by refinery closures will present difficulties in getting petroleum-product supplies to markets in western New York and could potentially push prices up sharply.

The Northeast can’t add much more volume. Potential for tanker shipments from the Gulf Coast to the New York Harbor region are limited, due to a law allowing only vessels that are U.S.-built and U.S.-crewed to ply the coast. Just 1% of global tankers meet that requirement, and costs to charter such ships are two to three times more than foreign-flag vessels.

New York state’s switch to ultra-low sulfur diesel for heating oil, beginning in July, is leading a change that will take place in the coming years throughout the region. Other states such as New Jersey, Massachusetts and Vermont are making the switch beginning in 2014.

Heating oil use in New York has averaged around 70,000 barrels a day, but seasonal winter spikes lift demand to as much as 170,000 barrels a day. The EIA said last month the number of homes in the Northeast using heating oil is expected to drop 3% this winter, amid a switch to natural-gas fired heating.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Water stall

When China announced that it was entering the offshore wind energy arena and set some ambitious goals, it was assumed by many that they would simply do whatever it took to meet them. The assumption underlying that assumption being, the "Chinese government" can do whatever it wants to do - wherever and whenever it pleases. Apparently, that's not exactly how things get done there. (GW)

Longyuan's 200MW China offshore project stuck in limbo

Recharge
March 17, 2012

Longyuan, China’s largest wind developer, is still waiting for government approval for a 200MW offshore project awarded in 2010, says the company’s chief engineer.

The company won a tender for the project at Dafeng, Jiangsu province in the first round of offshore concessions issued by China’s National Energy Administration.

However the wind farm has been severely delayed by objections to the proposed location raised by the State Ocean Administration (SOA).

Discussions with the SOA are still ongoing, Yang Xiaosheng, Longyuan’s chief engineer tells a conference in Beijing.

“We changed to a new place, and then to another place, and now a year has lapsed and it seems we have to find another new place,” he says.

None of the four offshore concession projects have started installation though two are expected to start soon, adds Yang.

The delays have raised concerns that China will not meet its goal of installing 5GW of offshore wind power by 2015.

China has only installed just over 200MW of offshore wind power to date. This includes the 102MW Shanghai Donghai bridge project completed in 2010 and Longyuan’s 99MW inter-tidal demonstration project at Rudong, Jiangsu province, connected early this year.

Yi Yuechun, deputy chief engineer at China Water Resources and Hydropower Planning and Design Institute, says the country has 43GW of offshore wind resources that could be exploited. So far, 16.5GW, or 38 projects, are in early stage development.
“If we don’t make it clear soon where the other 3GW will come from, it will be hard to reach the target for 2015,” he says.

Analysts at Bloomberg New Energy Finance expect China to significantly increase offshore installations from next year, when it will install around 400MW, before reaching cumulative capacity of just over 4GW by 2015.

However this depends on additional national concession projects being awarded this year, says Demi Zhu, BNEF analyst.

The National Energy Administration (NEA) was scheduled to hand out another 1.5GW - 2GW of tenders last year but the process has been delayed. It is scheduled to be released in the first half of this year.

Yang also cautioned against rushing development of China’s offshore market, urging the government to control the pace of new installations.

“There’s still a long way to go to reach maturity. We need to build large offshore construction bases to create economies of scale. Otherwise projects will be too small and the costs too high and there will be disorderly development,” he says.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Udderly challenging

Ahh.. remember the good old days when the price of milk was determined, in part, by the distance you were from Eau Claire, Wisconsin? Some thought that was a pretty complicated pricing system. Now milk is sold in the global marketplace and it's truly a miracle that small dairy farmers still exist. (GW)

Even Dairy Farming Has a 1 Percent

By ADAM DAVIDSON
New York Times
March 6, 2012

Last month, after immersing myself in Brooklyn’s artisanal-food scene, I felt the need that many in my home borough have these days: to get out on a farm and smell the manure. So I drove an hour and a half southwest of New York City to spend the day with three generations of dairy farmers.

Bob Fulper, 85, was born on what is now Fulper Farms in West Amwell Township, N.J. So was his son, Robert, 54, who currently runs the place with the help of his brother, Fred, who is 51. Robert’s daughter, Breanna, 24, recently graduated from Cornell with a degree in dairy management. Breanna would like to lead the family business into the next generation, but she realizes it might not be financially possible. The modern dairy farm, it turns out, represents many of the volatile and confusing trends that have roiled the U.S. economy over the last decade.

This, despite the fact that dairy farming has become shockingly more productive. When Bob was a kid, during the Depression, he and his 10 siblings milked the family’s 15 cows by hand and produced 350 pounds’ worth of milk per day. By the time Robert was a teenager, in the 1970s, the farm had grown to 90 cows — all of which were milked automatically through vacuum technology — and sold around 4,000 pounds of milk per day. Now the Fulpers own 135 cows, which produce more than 8,000 pounds of milk.

So the farm should be more lucrative, right? Robert showed me exactly how much money he and his brother made last year, an unusually profitable one for the dairy industry. He asked me not to reveal the number, but let’s put it this way: Robert and Fred start work at 4:30 a.m., finish at 7 p.m. and trade Sundays off. If you divide their 2011 profit by their weekly hours, they earn considerably less than minimum wage. Unlike in their father’s day, they have little money left over to invest in new equipment. One of their computers runs on MS-DOS.

How could Robert and Fred — who produce so much more milk than their dad — end up making less money? There are a number of reasons, some obvious, others less so. Milk went from a local industry to a national one, and then it became international. The technological advances that made the Fulpers more productive also helped every other dairy farm too, which led to ever more intense competition. But perhaps most of all, in the last decade, dairy products and cow feed became globally traded commodities. Consequently, modern farmers have effectively been forced to become fast-paced financial derivatives traders.

This has prompted a significant and drastic change. For most of the 20th century, dairy farming was a pretty stable business. Cows provide milk throughout the year, so farmers didn’t worry too much about big seasonal swings. Also, at base, dairy-farming economics are simple: when the cost of corn and soybeans (which feed the cows) are low and milk prices are high, dairy farmers can make a comfortable living. And for decades, the U.S. government enforced stable prices for feed and for milk, which meant steady, predictable income, shaken only by disease or bad weather. “You could project your income within 5 to 10 percent without trying too hard,” says Alan Zepp, a dairy-farm risk manager in Pennsylvania.

But by the early aughts, to accommodate global trade rules and diminishing political support for agricultural subsidies, the government allowed milk prices to follow market demand. People in other parts of the world — notably China and India — also became richer and began demanding more meat and dairy products. Animal feed, especially corn and soybeans, became globally traded commodities with all the impossible-to-predict price swings of oil or copper. Today Robert can predict his profit or loss next month with all the certainty that you or I can predict the stock market or gas prices. During my visit, Robert said that his success this year will be determined by, among other things, China’s unpredictable economic growth, the price of gas (influenced, of course, by events in Iran and Syria) and the weather in New Zealand (a major milk exporter), where a drought can send prices skyrocketing.

There are ways to manage, and even profit from, these new risks. The markets offer a stunning range of complex agricultural financial products. Dairy farmers (or, for that matter, anybody) can buy and sell milk and animal-feed futures, which allow them to lock in favorable prices, hedge against bad news in the future and so forth. There’s also a new product that combines feed and milk futures into one financial package, allowing farmers to guarantee a minimum margin no matter what happens to commodity markets down the road.

The Fulpers, like most people, are too busy with their day jobs to truly monitor the markets. But dairy farming has its own 1 percent: that tiny sliver of massive farms, with thousands of cows, that make the biggest profits and are better equipped to pay agriculture-futures experts to help them manage risk. They continue to invest and grow. Unable to keep up with the changes, many smaller farms have gone out of business in the past decade.

Robert Fulper says that he and his brother have done a good job keeping their farm alive and healthy during this chaotic time, just as their father transformed the tiny, Depression-era farm into a solid, modern business. Now “the next generation is going to have to figure some things out,” Robert says, looking at his daughter, Breanna. The good news is that she’s already trying. While at Cornell, Breanna used her family farm as a case study and developed a business plan to profit from their proximity to New York City and northeastern New Jersey. She began a summer camp in which kids spend a week caring for cows, learning about agriculture and running around a huge open space for $425 per week. Now the camp is almost as profitable as a year of milking cows. “That summer-camp program put me through Cornell,” Breanna says with a laugh. She’s also negotiating with a cheesemaker to turn their milk into high-value Fulper-branded cheese.

Bob, her grandfather, told me a number of hysterical, unprintable farm jokes during my visit, but he turned pensive when it came to his farm’s future. When times were bleak, he said, it used to be possible to work your way out of the problem. “You just stay in the cowshed longer, work harder,” he says. Now, he realizes, “if you don’t use your head, your hands aren’t gonna help you.” And even then, you might not make it.

Adam Davidson is the co-founder of NPR's Planet Money, a podcast, blog, and radio series heard on “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered” and “This American Life.”

Monday, March 19, 2012

Crowdsourcing the classification of galaxies

When I was in junior high school I belonged to a group of 'amateur variable star observers'. Our charge was to help astronomers determine if the magnitude (brightness) of certain stars varied over time. I thought it was pretty cool that non-professionals could actually make meaningful contributions to science. Of course, quite a few amateur stargazers have actually discovered astronomical objects like meteors and comets.

That tradition continues thanks to Galaxy Zoo. (GW)

Galaxy Zoo and the new dawn of citizen science


Galaxy Zoo has enabled hundreds of thousands of amateur astronomers to map the obscure corners of the universe since 2007. Tim Adams meets some of them and discovers that Charles Darwin once relied on similar crowd-sourcing methods


By Tim Adams

The Observer

March 17, 2012


For the past few nights, while the whole wide world has been fast asleep, I have been examining corners of the universe that perhaps no human eye has ever seen, and reporting the shape of unknown galaxies. The images I've been studying have been supplied by Nasa's Hubble telescope, and the galaxies at the centre of each picture range from chaotic-looking swirls to glorious Catherine wheel spirals and unlikely cigar-shaped flashes of light. Each galaxy takes a few minutes to get the sense of, and briefly describe; then I am on to the next.


The task is compulsive, and surreal; once you have classified your first 20 or 30 impossibly distant star swirls, you have to remind yourself that the images on your computer exist, or once existed, beyond the square of your screen at a scale you cannot comprehend. It makes you want to reach for your Hitchhiker's Guide (as Douglas Adams trenchantly observed: "Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space"). Since space is an idea that your tiny mind can't quite hold on to, or at least mine can't, you reassure yourself with the attempt to get your classification straight: elliptical or spiral? Smooth or fuzzy? And, my favourite prompt: "Is there anything odd in this image?" (You mean, odder than a rotating mass of a trillion stars billions of light years away?)


In gazing at these unnerving and beautiful photographs there is curious comfort in the fact you are not alone. You are, in fact, one of thousands of similarly sleepless souls, engaged in just the same task of compare and contrast in a hundred or so countries across the world. The Hubble images are the latest to be posted on a website called Galaxy Zoo, which in the five years of its existence has become perhaps the greatest mass participation science project ever conceived. There are more than 250,000 active "zooites" of all ages, and between them these volunteer "citizen scientists" have classified images from the world's most powerful telescopes numbering in the hundreds of millions – in doing so creating a more detailed map of the known universe than once thought possible. Their work has given rise to more than 30 peer-reviewed science papers, at least one game-changing discovery, countless online friendships and perhaps even a few star-crossed lovers.


Galaxy Zoo, of course, comes complete with a creation myth of its own. Like all the best ideas, it sprang to life late one evening in the back room of a pub. The pub was the Royal Oak on Woodstock Road in Oxford, local to the habitués of the Radcliffe Observatory across the way. One Friday night in July 2007 a young researcher in astrophysics called Kevin Schawinski met his friend and colleague Chris Lintott in the Royal Oak for a beer. Speaking on the phone from his current home at Yale University last week, Schawinski recalled how he had been moaning to Lintott that evening about his grim week. In the course of his research into star formation, Schawinski had formed a theory that, contrary to conventional wisdom, stars could be formed in more ancient (10 billion-year-old) elliptical galaxies as well as younger spiral ones. To prove the theory he was faced with the task of examining a million galaxies using images from the Alfred P Sloan digital sky survey. Since no computer could accurately recognise the patterns he was looking for, there had seemed only one thing for it: he would have to sift through the images himself. Working 12 hours a day non-stop for a week, Schawinski had managed the not inconsiderable task of detailing the characteristics of 50,000 galaxies. He needed a pint.


"The amount of data was just huge," he tells me. "It had been rough work." Between them Lintott and Schawinski wondered aloud if they might recruit some volunteers to help them in the project, and as the evening wore on an idea formed that maybe they could create a website where the images would be posted and interested amateurs might enjoy the challenge of classification. If they had a model it was Nasa's Stardust@Home project. Beginning the previous year, 2006, Nasa had begun posting grainy pictures from its "stardust interstellar dust collector", asking people to look for tiny solid particles. "We figured if you could get lots of people looking for dust," Schawinski recalls, "it might not be too hard to find people to classify galaxies."


With the help of a couple of programmers, Lintott and Schawinski wrote the site in the next day or two, and on 14 July opened up for business. When I meet Lintott in London he smiles when he tells me what they had envisaged. "With so many galaxies to look at, we had thought it would probably take Kevin a couple of years to get through them all," he says. As it turned out, it took a few weeks. Within 24 hours of it being announced on Lintott's website, Galaxy Zoo was receiving 70,000 classifications an hour. They still measure their hit-rate in "Kevin weeks" – a unit of 50,000. "Soon after that we were doing many Kevin weeks per hour," Schawinski says. And what was more surprising was that the quality of the interpretation was extremely accurate. By using their new modelling army, the Zookeepers (as Lintott and Schawinski quickly became known on the message boards) could duplicate observations enough times to effectively eliminate error. "We thought about giving people tutorials and so on," Lintott says, "and monitoring responses, but we quickly saw it would be more effective – and fun – to have people just get going straight away, and use the sheer volume of observers to ensure accuracy."


The website quickly took on a life and character of its own. "Quite early on a strange thought dawned on us," Schawinski recalls. "We had succeeded in creating the world's most powerful pattern-recognising super-computer, and it existed in the linked intelligence of all the people who had logged on to our website: and this global brain was processing this stuff incredibly fast and incredibly accurately. It was extraordinary."


The other surprise was that the zooites spontaneously formed themselves into complex communities (much in the way that groups are established around Wikipedia pages). Almost from the beginning the Zoo was almost entirely self-organising. Interest groups were established, moderators emerged to oversee message boards, the networks developed games and jokes and obsessions of their own around what they were seeing on screen. The Zoo has a reputation, Schawinski suggests, for being the most polite place on the internet. "It is the only website where people say please and thank you."


According to the zooites I spoke to, and Lintott and Schawinski themselves, a good deal of that character was formed by Alice Sheppard, who was the first volunteer to put her stake in the heavens. Sheppard recalls the moment very well. "In July 2007 I was a very bored graduate of environmental studies," she says. "I hadn't been able to get a job after university and I was messing about on the internet a lot and I heard of a book called Bang! that Chris Lintott had published with Patrick Moore. It revived an old childhood interest of mine, in astronomy, that had begun when my mother bought me a book about stars, aged six."


She wrote to Lintott with a couple of questions about his book and, after he replied, stayed in touch. When Lintott mentioned the idea of Galaxy Zoo on his website, Sheppard was ready. "And of course when it went live, I jumped straight in." She has never looked back. "When he saw I was involved I got a message from him saying, 'Would you mind having a look at the message boards for us?


Just keep an eye out for swearing and spam.'" Sheppard hasn't missed a day since. A novice astronomer at the outset, she is currently working on a masters degree in astrophysics ("The astronomy is revoltingly simple," she says. "The maths is more of a challenge…"). And she still maintains the good humour of the ever-expanding zooite universe. "We had no troublemakers on the site for a couple of weeks," she says. "And when we did we had no real flame wars [deliberate wrecking], we just had a few who weren't prepared to work with other people."


She spent a bit of time moderating and blocking but mostly it was a voyage of discovery. The other zooites I speak to concur. Some are retired, some use the site as a way of unwinding after work, some are students, some are teachers. Lintott and Schawinski recently commissioned some research to see what motivated their citizen scientists. Nearly half suggested their primary motivation was a desire to be involved in useful research. Others cited "wonder" and "beauty" and "community" in about equal measure. Hanny van Arkel, a 28-year-old Dutch schoolteacher became a zooite for a different reason. She was a keen guitarist and she joined up because her hero, Brian May, of Queen, suggested she should in a blog. (May, a long time stargazer, is something of a guiding force among the Zoo community. Sheppard later sends me a version of the Queen song "39" with its lyrics rewritten in tribute to the rock star influence over the community, one of several: "Yes, we heard your call, though we're many miles away/Through websites and news from you,/All the stars across the sky, mysteries to satisfy/In the land of our Galaxy Zoo…")


Having heard May's call herself, Van Arkel quickly became hooked on the site, and just a week after she had been looking at galaxies, she noted a startling green cluster on one image. A few other zooites had looked at the same picture, presumably not known what to make of the cluster and moved on. Van Arkel did not do that. "Some friends have suggested to me that the curiosity or the need for the answer is very much part of my personality," she tells me on the phone, with a laugh. She put a note on the messageboards, and wondered if anyone knew what the bright green cluster might be. It became "Object of the Day", an ongoing series. But in this case no one, not Chris, not Kevin, not anyone had ever seen anything like it before. "Hanny's Voorwerp" (object) quickly became a cause célèbre in the wider astronomical universe. And after much debate it was suggested that the voorwerp was indeed unique – it captured the moment that a quasar, a light beacon powered by a black hole, illuminated a gas cloud. The "quasar mirror", the size of the Milky Way, could yet provide a biography of one of the more mysterious processes in the universe.


Van Arkel still spends a lot of time on the site – she was also partly responsible for identifying other remarkable and unexplained patterns, the so-called "green pea" galaxies – but these days, she says, she has become more of a roving ambassador for the possibilities of armchair discovery, talking to children and students across Europe. She is generally met with the same question: what is it like to have a vast area of time and space, 650 million light years distant, named after you? She thinks it is "pretty cool".


If zooites such as Hanny worry about anything it is that the source of their obsession will dry up, that they will run out of visible galaxies to classify. "In the beginning," Alice Sheppard said, "we all were enjoying it so much that we didn't like the idea of getting to the end." As it has worked out, despite the insatiability of the zooites, more data sets have kept becoming available just as one tranche of images has been classified; now Sheppard believes that the work will continue to expand like the objects of its attention, "though no one seems quite sure how many galaxies are in the Hubble database…"


If they ever run out of galaxies, citizen scientists will certainly have plenty of other projects to satisfy their after-hours cravings. Galaxy Zoo itself has created a little solar system of related projects – Zooniverse – based on the original model, that include a moon mapping site (with photographic definition that would allow you to see an astronaut's footprint); an extraordinary project called Old Weather that reproduces millions of pages of scanned ship's logbooks, written in the cursive script of navy captains, from which thousands more volunteers have been painstakingly extracting weather records, to extend our understanding of climate change to the era before meteorological stations were established (along the way, Old Weather is also revealing the spread of infectious diseases, port to port); there are also growing armies of more specialist enthusiasts translating papyri, and cataloguing whale noises. The crowdsourcing of amateur enthusiasts now extends to the search for extraterrestrial life, in the SETI project, to the imaginative classification of all oil paintings in public ownership in Britain (the Public Catalogue Foundation), to all kinds of botanical mapping opportunities.


In some senses, this openness to mass collaboration, particularly in biology, is nothing new; the internet has simply given it an exponentially greater scale and reach. Professor Jim Secord is in charge of the Darwin Project at Cambridge, which is labouring to produce the definitive scholarly edition of the great man's letters. The project has been collating and footnoting for 37 years so far and has completed 16 volumes of a proposed 30. Secord agrees that citizen science, the huge network of amateur botanists and ornithologists and rural vicars and pigeon fanciers, on whom Darwin relied for a good deal of his observational data, was a model for the dispersed pattern-makers of Galaxy Zoo.


"Darwin would have loved the internet," Secord says, "but even as it was, a great deal of what he achieved was made possible by the arrival of the international penny post. He was corresponding with people all over the world who were experts in particular species." Very few of these correspondents were professional scientists or academics, most were amateurs who knew something of Darwin's work and felt they had something to contribute. Darwin encouraged them by replying meticulously to letters (hence the 30-volume lifetime's work).


One thing Secord has been struck by, in poring over these letters, is Darwin's encouragement of women in this scientific endeavour: in 1872, for example he wrote to Mary Peat, an amateur naturalist from New Jersey: "Your observations and experiments on the sexes of butterflies are by far the best, as far as known to me, which have ever been made. They seem to me so important, that I earnestly hope you will repeat them & record the exact numbers of the larvæ which you tempt to continue feeding & deprive of food, & record the sexes of the mature insects. Assuredly you ought then to publish the result in some well-known scientific journal…"


Another thing that seems to characterise this network is the range of backgrounds of the people to whom Darwin wrote. Amateur science was deep-rooted in working men from the 18th century, when pubs in northern cities would host informal meetings of Linnean societies, and there would be informed debate about the taxonomy of local flora and fauna. The spirit of these part-time data-gatherers persisted into the last century in ornithology in particular, even as science itself became professionalised within universities, and increasingly specialised. The latter trend put up barriers between the amateur and the professional, and career scientists have protected their data, and in turn their funding and promotion prospects, until published and peer-reviewed. As Secord, a historian of science, points out: "We are in the strange position where you are currently probably more likely to find a paywall around an academic science website than almost anywhere else."


In this respect the great and growing enthusiasm for citizen science is allied to the open science movement, which calls for a spirit of collaboration and data-sharing and free web publication of papers among professional scientists, to the benefit of wider humanity. The model was established by the successful collaborative approach of the Large Hadron Collider, and the Human Genome Project, both of which serve as telling examples of what can be achieved. It is tempting to see this call for openness as a generational shift in attitudes, but as Chris Lintott of Zooniverse points out: "It is unfortunately generally the younger research scientists who have most to lose by not being published in the traditional way."


The most persuasive voice in the call for openness, for "information wanting to be free" in Stewart Brand's famous phrase, is Michael Nielsen. A physics prodigy and great supporter of Galaxy Zoo, Nielsen's acclaimed book Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science was sponsored by the financier George Soros to advance his knowledge-sharing philosophy.


Nielsen makes an unarguable ethical case for the abandonment of the various barriers to sharing knowledge: economic, egotistical and expedient, without ever quite proposing alternative funding models. He makes the point that from the Enlightenment forwards science was aligned with common good. That purpose shifted in the last century; it is possible that the internet will reverse that trend. "We have an opportunity to change the way knowledge is constructed," Nielsen suggests. "But the scientific community, which ought to be in the vanguard, is instead bringing up the rear."


While its crowdsourcing methods are clearly not appropriate to all specialised fields, the advance of citizen science across the globe will no doubt accelerate this revolution. Government funding for scientific research in both Britain and the US now makes mandatory the inclusion of provision for engagement with the wider public, the necessity to let us know how our money is being spent. And there is, as Zooniverse reveals, no surer way to engage the public than to involve people in the research itself. As Alice Sheppard, moderator-in-chief of the known universe, points out: "There are always going to be shoulder shruggers who say this can't or won't happen, but look, it's happened already!"

Sunday, March 18, 2012

'The mentality here is changing'

Economic crises have a way of getting people to focus on things that really matter. The challenge is making the awareness stick once we're told by politicians that there's been a "recovery". We won't be able to fully recover by returning to the old system based on growth and consumerism. (GW)

After Spain's Construction Bust, Gardens Bloom

By Lauren Frayer
NPR
March 18, 2012

Spain is littered with vacant lots and half-built apartment complexes, where developers ran out of money when the construction bubble burst.

But in one Madrid barrio, neighbors are putting an abandoned tract of urban space to creative use.

Behind a chain link fence, in a dusty weed-filled lot between two soaring apartment blocks, Emilio de la Rosa is planting vegetables.

"Different types of products — garlic, beans, tomatoes, lettuce," he says. "We're teaching our children where tomatoes come from — not from the grocery store, but the ground."

A generation ago, this was farmland just outside Madrid's city center. But Spain's economy boomed in the 1990s, and municipalities sold off land to developers. Credit and labor were cheap, and condos went up fast.

Then the bubble burst, leaving Spain littered with half-built houses, or land cleared for construction that never began. That's allowed de la Rosa and his neighbors to obtain a one-year permit to create an urban garden, on land slated for development.

"The idea is, with this type of land — OK sure, it might be built on tomorrow, but today it's not going to be, because look around at all the empty housing here," he says. "So this is a timely project. This land has spent a ton of years empty. So fine, if they want to build a commercial center here, go for it. Just give me one year to grow my seeds."

More Houses Than Families

People here joke that Spain's construction boom left the country with at least two houses for every family. More than 600,000 homes are for sale nationwide. But the real surplus could be much larger. Most aren't on the market. They're owned by banks, or developers who've gone under.

We're teaching our children where tomatoes come from — not from the grocery store, but the ground.

Jesus Maldonado, who teaches urban planning at a university in Madrid, uses this example of open land and half-built houses to teach his students what not to do in the future. "With the already-built houses, if developers can no longer pay, they get transferred to banks, which will eventually sell them," he says. "Sure, they'll lose money on the deal. But it's better to lose a little bit — even half your money — than the whole thing."

House prices have fallen 22 percent since their peak here. But with that surplus hitting the market, they're forecast to fall even more. Maldonado says the even bigger problem is abandoned land.

"What happened in the housing bubble is that too much land was classified for urban development. And that land was even more expensive than the houses," he says. "So when that derelict land now falls to the banks, they won't be able to sell it. Because no one wants it. Nobody wants it because nobody is looking to build. There's no more demand."

Gardens Prove Popular

And with no demand for yet another apartment block in this Madrid neighborhood, de la Rosa's garden looks safe.

Watering some spinach seeds, he reflects on what he says could be a silver lining to Spain's debt crisis — at least in his little barrio — a change in people's values.

"Before, the mentality was, 'On Sundays, let's go to a big shopping mall and spend the whole day there.' But now people are starting to think, 'Maybe we should spend a day in the countryside, in a garden or a park.' The mentality here is changing. We were too focused on consumerism before the crisis," he says.

Amaro Lopez, 24, has lived all his life across from the empty lot. He admits he was curious about maybe a new coffee shop or arcade being built there. But he's unemployed now, and can't go shopping anyway. So he walks his grandmother's dog over to the new garden.

"People love it. Every Saturday and Sunday there are a lot of people here, the whole neighborhood is here. I'm happy that they're doing something with it." Better than another building? "Yes, yes! Everyone is sure of that now."

Saturday, March 17, 2012

“I’m not displeased that Einstein was right again”

Einstein's discovery that the speed of light is an eternal, universal Truth is supported by mathematics, experimental confirmation, imagination and intuition.

No surprise he was proven right again! (GW)


Einstein Proved Right in Retest of Neutrinos’ Speed


By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
March 16, 2012

GENEVA (AP) — Einstein may have been right after all.

European researchers said Friday they had measured again the speed of a subatomic particle that a September experiment suggested traveled faster than the speed of light, violating Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which underlies much of modern physics.

The research team, led by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Carlo Rubbia, found that the particles, neutrinos, do not travel faster than light.

Mr. Rubbia’s team, called Icarus, measured the speed of neutrinos fired from CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Switzerland, to a detector 453 miles away in Italy.

“The results are very convincing,” Mr. Rubbia said, “and they tell us essentially that there was something not quite right with the results of Opera.”

Opera was the team that reported in September that its tests appeared to show neutrinos speeding faster than light, prompting widespread disbelief among scientists.

Einstein’s theory of relativity, a pillar of modern physics, says nothing in the universe can travel faster than the speed of light in a vacuum, approximately 186,282 miles per second.

That speed factors into all kinds of calculations, from estimates about the size and age of the universe to the radius of black holes.

Doubts about the Opera results were heightened last month when researchers said they had found a flaw in the technical setup that could have distorted the experiment’s figures.

Antonio Ereditato, a member of the Opera team and the head of the Albert Einstein Center for Fundamental Physics, said he welcomed the latest results.

“These results are in line with our recent findings about the possible misfunctioning of some of the components of our experimental setup,” he said.

Asked whether he was disappointed, he said: “This is the way science goes. What matters is the global progress of scientific knowledge.”

The Icarus team’s results came from a trial run for a longer experiment planned to take place in April or May. The Opera team, too, will repeat its experiment, this time with the technical glitches ironed out.

“The evidence is beginning to point toward the Opera result being an artifact of the measurement,” CERN’s research director, Sergio Bertolucci, said in a statement. “Whatever the result, the Opera experiment has behaved with perfect scientific integrity in opening their measurement to broad scrutiny.”

The Icarus team confirmed that, as Einstein predicted, neutrinos travel at the speed of light.

“I’m not displeased that Einstein was right again,” Mr. Rubbia said.

Friday, March 16, 2012

We are losing our first-line antimicrobials

In their fascinating book entitled "Microcosmos" Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan remind us four billion years of evolution has created some very resourceful and resilient microbes. In fact:
"...microbes invented all of life's essential chemical systems, all of its rules for living and change. Microbes put oxygen into the atmosphere, they built huge structures of rock that changed the face of the earth, and through symbiosis -- the process by which two unlike and even hostile organisms merge to form new life forms -- they created us."
What makes us think we can outsmart them? (GW)

Health chief warns: age of safe medicine is ending

Antibiotic crisis will make routine operations impossible and a scratched knee could be fatal

Jeremy Laurance
The Independent
March 16, 2012

The world is entering an era where injuries as common as a child's scratched knee could kill, where patients entering hospital gamble with their lives and where routine operations such as a hip replacement become too dangerous to carry out, the head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned.

There is a global crisis in antibiotics caused by rapidly evolving resistance among microbes responsible for common infections that threaten to turn them into untreatable diseases, said Margaret Chan, director general of the WHO.

Addressing a meeting of infectious disease experts in Copenhagen, she said that every antibiotic ever developed was at risk of becoming useless.

"A post-antibiotic era means, in effect, an end to modern medicine as we know it. Things as common as strep throat or a child's scratched knee could once again kill."

She continued: "Antimicrobial resistance is on the rise in Europe, and elsewhere in the world. We are losing our first-line antimicrobials.

"Replacement treatments are more costly, more toxic, need much longer durations of treatment, and may require treatment in intensive care units.

"For patients infected with some drug-resistant pathogens, mortality has been shown to increase by around 50 per cent.

"Some sophisticated interventions, like hip replacements, organ transplants, cancer chemotherapy, and care of preterm infants, would become far more difficult or even too dangerous to undertake."

Britain has seen a 30 per cent rise in cases of blood poisoning caused by E. coli bacteria between 2005 and 2009, from 18,000 to more than 25,000 cases. Those resistant to antibiotics have risen from 1 per cent at the beginning of the century to 10 per cent.

The most powerful antibiotics are carbapenems, which are used as a last line of defence for the treatment of resistant infections.

In 2009, carbapenem-resistant K. pneumoniae, a bug present in the gut, were first detected in Greece but by the following year had spread to Italy, Austria, Cyprus and Hungary.

The European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the percentage of carbapenem-resistant K. pneumoniae had doubled from 7 per cent to 15 per cent. An estimated 25,000 people die each year in the European Union from antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.

In the UK, the Government pledged £500,000 for research into the threat last month.

Dr Chan was speaking as the World Health Organisation launched The Evolving Threat of Antimicrobial Resistance: Options for Action, a book which warns that breakthrough treatments discovered in the last century for flu, tuberculosis, malaria and HIV may become ineffective in the coming years.

She called for action to restrict the use of antibiotics in food production and a crackdown on counterfeit medicines. "Worldwide, the fact that greater quantities of antibiotics are used in healthy animals than in unhealthy humans is a cause for great concern," she said.

Discovering new medicines to treat resistant superbugs has proved increasingly difficult and costly, as they are taken only for a short period and the commercial returns are low.

Dr Chan continued: "In terms of new replacement antibiotics, the pipeline is virtually dry. The cupboard is nearly bare.

"From an industry perspective, why invest considerable sums of money to develop a new antimicrobial when irrational use will accelerate its ineffectiveness before the investment can be recouped?"

She called for measures to tackle the threat by doctors prescribing antibiotics appropriately, patients following their treatment and restrictions on the use of antibiotics in animals.

But she said attention was "still sporadic" and actions "inadequate".

"At a time of multiple calamities in the world, we cannot allow the loss of essential antimicrobials, essential cures for many millions of people, to become the next global crisis," she said.