Saturday, February 14, 2015

Land Prices in Chicago Fed District Dip for First Time in 28 Years


That's a mighty high peak right there.  It's a long way down toward 100.

Valentine's/Presidents Day Weekend Links

 Some interesting stories for the weekend, which is shaping up to be fairly cold here:

GGG Genesis: The History of Kazakh boxing part one, part two and part three - Bad Left Hook.  Gennady Golovkin fights Martin Murray next Saturday with Golovkin's middleweight title on the line.

A Life on the Line - ESPN.  On sports gambler Billy Walters (seen here).

In Kremchek They Trust - Cincinnati Magazine

Snow Removal In Montreal Is Cool As Heck - Deadspin

Should We Continue To Feed Antibiotics To Livestock? - National Geographic

USDA Just Approved Apples That Don't Turn Brown - Bloomberg

US harvest threatened by water-intensive oil and gas boom - The Guardian

NDIC Oil and Gas Division Director's Cut 2/13/15 -  As of the end of the year, production is still growing, up to almost 1.25 million barrels a day.

Homeward - California Sunday Magazine

Why Europe's Experimental Spaceship is Shaped So Weirdly - Wired

The man who invented the lithium-ion battery at the age of 57 has an idea for a new one at 92 - Quartz

Love in the Time of Science - Scientific American.  A run-down of stories involving love and attraction. I definitely believe this one works, at least for a while.

The hatred and the courage - Philadelphia Inquirer.  Just a reminder that it wasn't only the south where blacks were terrorized in this country.  Also, a backgrounder on white flight and suburbanization.

 Ruth Bader Ginsburg: I wasn't "100% sober" at the State of the Union - Vox.  No one attending should be 100% sober.

An Open Letter to Governor Walker - The Marquette Educator.  At least, since Walker never graduated college, he would be ineligible to teach in Wisconsin schools based on his proposed reform to allow anyone with a college degree to take an exam to get a teaching license.

Should the Victor Share the Spoils - The Atlantic.  On proportional representation. In larger states, this would give third-parties a pretty good chance of getting somebody elected.

Monarch Population Status - MonarchWatch.  See also, The monarch massacre: Nearly a billion butterflies have vanished - Washington Post

Thursday, February 12, 2015

St. Francis Looks for First NCAA Bid

The New York Times visits the Brooklyn school with the fourth smallest gym in Division I:
The Pope Physical Education Center resides on the second floor of St. Francis College’s main building in Brooklyn, just above the student center, below the library, past the community fish tank, and near enough to the swimming pool that when the gym doors are ajar the smell of chlorine washes over the entire arena.
Close those doors, however, and suffer the stifling misery of a cinder-block oven, which forces players to pick their poison: stench or swelter.
In this cubby-size gymnasium with no concession stands or video boards, where the cheerleaders pound the padded wall behind them on the baseline for emphasis, the Terriers are quietly staking their case as New York’s darling college basketball team....
The Terriers are 16-9 over all and alone atop the Northeast Conference standings at 10-2.
Off to its best start in a decade, St. Francis is approaching uncharted territory. It is one of only five eligible programs to have never qualified to play in the N.C.A.A. tournament. The closest it came in recent years — reaching the conference championship game in 2001 and in 2003 — ended bitterly both times.
Then last season, the Terriers held a 19-point lead over Mount St. Mary’s with 10 minutes left in the first round of the conference tournament but ended up losing, 72-71, on a last-second shot. Although it went unnoticed at the time, Mount St. Mary’s had six players on the court when Rashad Whack’s buzzer-beater went through.
The unfortunate ending — which was investigated but not overturned — served only to reinforce St. Francis’ star-crossed image.
St. Francis might well be the oldest men’s basketball program in New York City (founded in 1896), but the Terriers amassed only four winning seasons between 1967 and 1998.
In 1969, they opened the bandbox gym (capacity 1,200) that would remain their home for the next 46 years. In an age when several Division I college teams play in N.B.A. arenas, with plush locker rooms, private cafeterias and other enticing amenities, the Pope is a throwback, renouncing almost every modern conveyance.
There are no timeout trivia games because there is no video board. There are two archaic scoreboards displaying little more than the game time, the score and the uniform numbers of the players on the court. The halftime show during a recent game against Long Island University-Brooklyn consisted of a five-minute performance by the dance team, an announcement about a 50-50 raffle and 10 vacant minutes.
Tickets cost $15.
Actually, a lot of programs haven't made the NCAA tournament, although most are newcomers to Division I.  The five teams mentioned above have played in Division I since it was created in the 1947-1948 season:
The first NCAA Tournament was contested in the 1938-39 season, but the NCAA didn't begin its Division 1 designation until the 1947-48 season. Entering this year, there are a total of 54 current Division 1 schools that have never appeared in the NCAA Division 1 men's basketball tournament, many of whom have been in Division 1 for fewer than ten years. Only five schools who have been members since the 1947-48 season have never made the Big Dance. They are Army, The Citadel, Northwestern, St. Francis (NY) and William & Mary. Two of those schools are noteworthy.
I knew Northwestern was on the list, but had no idea who else was.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

If I Die on Mars

If I Die on Mars from Guardian News & Media Ltd on Vimeo.
Three volunteers are on the shortlist to be among four people on the Mars One programme, the first manned space flight to Mars – a one-way trip that's effectively a suicide mission. A physics student in the UK, a young doctor from Mozambique and an Iraqi-American woman, all happy to sacrifice their futures for a place in history. Why do they want to leave Earth, and who are they leaving behind? As the list of potential Mars explorers is whittled down further on 16 February, meet those competing to be the first to land on the Red Planet.
No, thanks.

The Off-Court Life of Dean Smith

I knew a lot about Dean Smith's coaching career, but I forgot how politically active Smith was:
There was perhaps no issue more important to Smith than civil rights. Most famously, in 1966, he recruited Charlie Scott to Chapel Hill, making Scott the first black scholarship athlete in the University of North Carolina’s history and the first black basketball star in the Atlantic Coast Conference. But Smith wasn’t like other pioneering coaches, who broke college sports’ color barrier for purely pragmatic reasons. (Alabama football coach Bear Bryant famously started recruiting black players to Tuscaloosa only after the University of Southern California—and its fullback Sam Cunningham—had run over the Crimson Tide in a 1970 contest.) To Smith, racial justice was about much more than winning and losing. “It was simply the correct thing to do,” he wrote. Smith understood this far sooner than many other white Americans.
As a teenager in Topeka, Kansas, he’d persuaded his high school principal—five years before the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education—to integrate the school’s basketball team. Nine years later, as an assistant basketball coach at UNC, he took it upon himself to help integrate Chapel Hill when he and his pastor invited a black theology student with them to dinner at the town’s finest restaurant, which was then still segregated. Since the Tar Heels ate many team meals there, Smith was betting that the restaurant wouldn’t want to jeopardize that regular business by refusing to serve him and his guest. Still, back in 1958, it was a gamble. As Smith’s pastor later recalled for John Feinstein: “Back then, he wasn’t Dean Smith. He was an assistant coach. Nothing more.” Smith and his guests were served and a bastion of segregation reluctantly fell.
Even after Smith became a brand name—when many of his similarly accomplished colleagues began to shy away from doing or saying anything controversial for fear of damaging their own brands—he continued to act on his convictions. A staunch and unswerving liberal, Smith protested against the Vietnam War, campaigned in favor of a nuclear freeze, and supported gay rights. He was such an avowed opponent of capital punishment that he’d frequently take his teams to visit North Carolina’s death row at Central Prison in Raleigh and once told North Carolina’s governor, “You’re a murderer.”
Smith was similarly outspoken on behalf of his players: He was an early advocate for paying college athletes and he used to set aside a portion of his $300,000 annual salary from Nike—for putting the company’s sneakers on his players’ feet—to a fund that helped players who didn’t graduate pay for their degrees. (He also divided up half of that Nike paycheck between his assistant coaches and administrative staff.) Once, when Duke’s Cameron Crazies student section questioned the intelligence of UNC’s black star J.R. Reid with the sign “J.R. Can’t Read”—a sign that Smith and others considered racially motivated—Smith boasted to reporters that Reid and Scott Williams, another black UNC player, had higher combined SAT scores than two white Duke stars, Danny Ferry and Christian Laettner. All the while, Smith was a fervent booster of the university that employed him, frequently lamenting that it was a sign of society’s skewed values—“a Kierkegaardian ‘switching of price tags’ ”—that he received more praise and attention than UNC’s professors.
I especially enjoyed the Duke story.  God, how I hate Duke.  I do remember Dean Smith speaking out to defend a women's college player's right to turn her back on the flag during the national anthem as an Iraq war protest, but I forgot about all the other things he did. 

Canada From Above

The Atlantic features photos of the human impact on the land in Canada.  Not surprisingly, several of the photos are of farmland, and the differences are pretty interesting.  First up are the long and narrow fields of Quebec (see more about this here):

then a photo in the rectilinear survey of Manitoba:

next, a photo from the prairie pothole region of Manitoba, not too far from the photo above:

There are several other interesting farm photos, and a bunch of other cool pictures here.

A Welding Breakthrough?

Wall Street Journal:
Austrian welder Alois Leitner fuses strips of steel and aluminum alloys in what could be part of a historic breakthrough.
“They taught us in engineering school this was impossible,” said Mr. Leitner, who works for Linz-based Voestalpine AG , Europe’s third-biggest steelmaker.
Mr. Leitner’s work in a small lab on the outskirts of this industrial town near the Czech border seems simple enough—but these two basic metals are famously incompatible. Solving the riddle of how to combine them has long been considered a Holy Grail for big metals and auto companies.
Voestalpine’s process is neither easy nor cheap. The company uses a special solder and torches just hot enough to melt aluminum but not steel. The process, called cold metal transfer, employs an argon gas to avoid oxidation. Finally, the steel is coated with zinc to bind the steel, solder and aluminum.
“You need to hit all the parameters in the right way to achieve the right properties,” said Voestalpine spokesman Peter Felsbach. The company said its technique is two to three times as expensive as the riveting and gluing techniques now used. It hopes to shave costs by a third to make the process suitable for high-end autos....
For decades, steel and aluminum makers have competed for car parts—from hoods to engine blocks—touting their metal as stronger, cheaper and lighter, and the other as inferior. Being able to readily combine the two would increase auto makers’ portfolio of parts, adding a palette that benefits from steel’s strength and aluminum’s lightness.
Luxury-car maker Audi AG first contacted Voestalpine to help it join “materials like steel and aluminum or fiber-reinforced plastics,” according to the auto maker. “Welding aluminum and steel is a very promising technology development,” it said.
“We had always said it can’t be done,” said Dick Evans, chairman of Constellium NV, a major producer of aluminum sheet for the auto industry that doesn’t currently have a hybrid product on the market....
On a recent day, Mr. Leitner, whose services also are used by a welding company called Fronius International GmbH, a partner in the development, applies a special solder to two car parts—one zinc-coated steel and one aluminum—and fires up his torch. Slowly running down the joint, the 1,000 degree Fahrenheit flames melted the two pieces together.
What resulted was a part so cohesive it can be stamped as if it were once piece. “We could use this for exposed, outside parts of the car,” said Voestalpine’s Mr. Eder. “You could exchange today’s laser-welded steel parts with steel-aluminum parts.”
Interesting.  The place I work is all about welding, but I'm not sure how much use this technology would be to us.  Usually, our weldments are all steel, aluminum, stainless or fiberglass, depending on what atmosphere they will operate in.  I'm not sure how much benefit we would see from being able to weld hybrid parts. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

America's Crumbling Infrastructure: Bridge Edition


Structural deficiency sounds scary, and it is, sort of. Deficient bridges are, broadly speaking, safe to drive across. In an interview last year with CBS, former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that structurally deficient bridges "need to be really either replaced or repaired in a very dramatic way." He went on: "I don't want to say they're unsafe. But they're dangerous."
Not unsafe, but dangerous: that's the paradox of structural deficiency in a nutshell. When bridge engineers evaluate a bridge, they grade the condition of each of its major components -- its supports, the deck that vehicles travel across, etc. -- on a 0 to 9 scale. If any of these components receive a grade below a given threshold, the bridge is deemed structurally deficient. It needs some repair work to get back up to snuff.
Looking at the map above, it's immediately clear that some states have a bigger structural deficiency problem than others. Twenty two percent of Pennsylvania's 23,000 highway bridges are deficient, which, if you've ever had the misfortune of driving up I-81 in that state, you know in your heart to be true. Twenty one percent of Iowa's bridges don't make the grade. Same goes for 20 percent of South Dakota's, and 18 percent of Oklahoma's. These percentages are all considerably higher than the nationwide average of about 10 percent.
On the other hand, Nevada is doing the best job of keeping its bridges up to code -- fewer than 2 percent of that state's bridges are deficient. Likewise only 2 percent of Florida and Texas bridges are deemed deficient, and 3 percent of Arizona and Utah's.
There's another measure of bridge quality that the FHA tracks, and that's "functional obsolescence." This sounds even scarier than structural deficiency, but is in many respects more benign. It simply means that a bridge was built to specifications that no longer meet modern requirements. It may be too narrow, or too light, or unable to deal with the heavier weights of today's vehicles. Obsolete bridges don't necessarily need to be repaired, but they do need to be replaced -- nobody wants to drive an 18-wheeler across a span built to accommodate Model Ts.

The geography of bridge obsolescence is distinct from the geography of deficiency. Obsolete bridges are strongly clustered in the Northeast, which makes sense: older cities = older bridges. More than a quarter of New York's bridges are obsolete, as are a third of Rhode Island's, 43 percent of Massachusetts', and a whopping 65 percent of DC's. Nationally, only about 14 percent of bridges are obsolete.
So you can start to see what's at stake when we talk about our bridge infrastructure. Overall, about one quarter of our nation's bridges are either obsolete or deficient. This means that roughly 1 out of every 4 bridges you drive over is in need of work done. The American Society of Civil Engineers -- who, let's face it, have a vested financial interest in making this work happen -- estimates that it would take a $20.5 billion annual investment to eliminate our deficient bridge backlog by 2028.
I seriously doubt that the states are all rating their bridges in the same way (which the post does discuss).  Personally, I believe we will never be able to maintain all the constructed infrastructure currently in place, and we continue adding new infrastructure as our metropolitan areas sprawl out.  Even worse, that new infrastructure serves a much less dense population than the existing infrastructure.  We are going to face some extremely challenging funding problems in the near future.  I'm sure rural areas will suffer when the decisions are made for which problems get fixed.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

NASA Photo of the Day

February 7:
An Aurora of Marbles
Image Credit & Copyright: Babak Tafreshi (TWAN)
Explanation: It looks like a fine collection of aggies. But this grid of embedded swirls and streaks actually follows the dramatic development of planet Earth's auroral substorms. The sequence of over 600 horizon-to-horizon fisheye images was taken over a 2 hour period near the artic circle in March of 2012 from Lapland, northern Sweden. It begins at upper left in evening twilight and ends at lower right, covering two activity peaks with bright coronae forming overhead. While exploring space between Earth and Moon, NASA's fleet of THEMIS spacecraft discovered that these explosions of auroral activity are driven by sudden releases of energy in the Earth's magnetosphere. Even if you're not playing for keepsies, you can follow this link to check out the sequence in a full timelapse video (vimeo).
Love me some auroras.

Aurora in Motion (Full Dome) from Babak Tafreshi on Vimeo.

Environmental Regulations Work

Here's an encouraging environmental trend that not many people know about. Between 1990 and 2008, US manufacturing output grew by one-third. Yet pollution from US factories declined by about two-thirds.
So what happened? One possibility is that by cracking down on pollution, we simply forced our dirtiest factories to go overseas, to countries like China. If so, that would actually be gloomy news — it would mean we're offloading pollution elsewhere rather than genuinely cleaning it up.
How could he tell? Levinson created an index of pollution from more than 400 different manufacturing industries between 1990 and 2008. This allowed him to see what would have happened if the composition of US manufacturing had stayed the same — in essence, factoring out any effects from offshoring. Even in this counterfactual, pollution still would have dropped nearly as much as it actually did.
That implies this isn't an offshoring story. US factories were genuinely finding ways to cut emissions. In fact, the industries that saw the biggest drops in pollution intensity actually grew as a share of output. Insofar as environmental regulations were behind this, they worked by getting companies to clean up their act — not simply by pushing the dirtiest factories overseas.
Fortunately, that gloomy story doesn't appear to be true. In a recent working paper, Georgetown economist Arik Levinson found that more than 90 percent of the decline in US factory pollution since 1990 was due to companies adopting cleaner production techniques — switching fuels, boosting efficiency, recycling, adopting pollution-capture technology, and so on.
I'd wager that most of the changes in the graph above come from new emission controls on coal power plants and the rise of natural gas power plants, the decrease in steel production from integrated mills and the increase from electric arc furnaces, and the use of ultra low sulfur diesel fuel.  The Clinton administration got settlements from a number of major utilities requiring them to add pollution controls to old coal-fired plants, while Chinese imports, the impact of regulations and age took out a number of century-old steel mills.  Despite all the griping that businesses do, most of these improvements wouldn't have been made without being forced on industry by regulations.  And also contrary to business complaints, the world didn't come to an end.

A Primer on Phages

A group of phages, in green, attacks an E. coli cell, injecting their DNA through the cell membrane. Credit Image from Eye of Science / Science Source 

Phages, more formally known as bacteriophages, are viruses that infect bacteria. They are easily as ubiquitous, universal, and essential to life on Earth as light and soil, and yet they are largely unknown. “It’s kind of phenomenal, really,” Rohwer told me recently, sounding cheerful. “The thing that even most biologists don’t get—let alone most of the rest of the world—is that phages are the most diverse things on the planet, and there are more of them than anything else, and we really don’t have a clue”—he giggled—“what they’re doing.”
Rohwer and his colleagues recently published a book, “Life in Our Phage World,” that serves as a field guide to the tiny portion of phagedom that has so far been explored. (A PDF version is available online for free.) As the book’s handsome illustrations, by the artists Ben Darby and Leah Pantéa, show, phages possess a wide array of forms and functions. They are all incredibly small; at just a few nanometres across, they lie on the border of measurability between quantum and classical physics, all but impossible to see without a scanning electron microscope. Like their hosts, phages are everywhere—in dirt, water, intestines, hot springs, Arctic ice cores. They float about, awaiting a microbial encounter, then attach themselves to their preferred targets using a remarkable array of equipment—arms like grappling hooks, tails like hypodermic needles, fibres like teeth—each of which is perfectly adapted to bind to, and then sneak genetic material through, the bacterial membrane. Once inside the cell, some phages replicate at speed, destroying the host by bursting out of it, like a fungus dispersing its spores. Others are parasitic, integrating their DNA with that of their host. Sometimes they even provide it a benefit of some kind.
The book is full of astonishing phage statistics. There are, for example, an estimated 1031—ten million trillion trillion—phages on Earth, more than every other organism, including bacteria, put together. The average teaspoon of seawater contains five times as many phages as there are people in Rio de Janeiro. According to researchers in Vancouver, these tiny viruses cause a collective trillion trillion successful infections per second, in the process destroying up to forty per cent of all bacterial cells in the ocean every single day. Following their deaths at the hands of phages, those carbon-containing microorganisms sink down into the marine sediment, effectively removing greenhouse gases from circulation.
Anything that bacteria do, from breaking down the carcasses of dead animals to converting atmospheric nitrogen into plant food, is at the mercy of the phages that infect, kill, or otherwise transform them. Phages are the puppet masters; they insure that essential biochemical processes run smoothly. But, given how recent much of the research on the importance of bacteria is—look at the flurry of excitement around the human microbiome, or the much heralded “second green revolution”—it stands to reason that our understanding of phages is even less developed. Rohwer is bullish on the possibilities. Forget the probiotic, he says; the future lies with the prophage. “We’re going to hack the human microbiome with our phages,” he says. “You are going to see people manipulating individual bacteria species in someone’s gut with a bacteriophage before too long, because it’s not very hard to do.”
It is amazing how little we really know about how nature works.  That photo above looks like some kind of viral pornography.  I didn't know these things were infecting bacteria everywhere.  It will be interesting if the science of the microbiome can live up to the expectations of some scientists going forward.

Work Underway on NYC's Delaware Aqueduct

Images from Water Technology:

Times Herald-Record:
Workers are planning to go under the river and through the rocks to replace part of a massive tunnel leaking New York City's drinking water.
They're blasting through hundreds of feet of shale and building a shaft on each side of the Hudson River, about 60 miles north of New York City. Once they reach about 600 feet below the river next year, they will begin building a 2.5-mile bypass tunnel between the shafts to replace a profusely leaking section of the 85-mile Delaware Aqueduct.
The work on the World War II-era tunnel illustrates the ingenious complexity of a water supply system for 9 million people and the intricate efforts to keep water flowing smoothly as the sprawling network of tunnels ages. The Delaware Aqueduct carries about half the city's water and will have to be temporarily drained for repairs in 2022 during the end stage of the project. A portion of the $1.5 billion price tag is devoted to making sure other water sources continue to flow smoothly during the shut-off.
"The goal of the city in constructing the waterworks was to construct something comparable to the great works of Rome, to last through the ages," said Paul Rush, deputy commissioner of New York City's Department of Environmental Protection.
The Delaware Aqueduct carries 500 million gallons of water a day from four reservoirs in the Catskill Mountains in southeastern New York state to a distributing reservoir at the city's doorstep. The tunnel, wide enough to drive a car through, is one of two major arteries that carry unfiltered water from bucolic areas of the Catskill and Delaware watersheds.
The aqueduct, which the city says is the longest continuous tunnel in the world, relies solely on pressure and gravity. It's an engineering marvel, but it's aging.
The aqueduct is so leaky in one stretch through rural Wawarsing that New York City is buying dozens of homes above it that were plagued with flooded basements and squishy lawns. The leaks are far worse where the tunnel travels under the Hudson by Newburgh, but homes are not affected. Between 15 million and 35 million gallons of water seep through cracks each day, enough to quench a small city.
The bypass will permanently replace the leakiest portion of the tunnel. The other cracked stretch will be repaired. Before workers begin digging the bypass tunnel next year, they first need to complete the entry shafts on opposite sides of the Hudson River at Newburgh and Wappinger.
Since late 2013, workers have been drilling into the shale, scooping up the blasted rocks with a crane and then repeating the process. The result is a deep, 30-foot diameter shaft in Wappinger. Workers in hard hats guide giant buckets of rock from the dark, drizzly bottom to the disc of daylight high above.
The massive project, scheduled to finish in 2023, is just one big-ticket item needed to keep water flowing smoothly through the massive system. A filtration plant in the Bronx will cost $3.5 billion, and $4.7 billion has been spent to build a third water tunnel beneath the city.
The work that will repair, rather than replace, the other leaky stretch is especially tricky because the aqueduct carrying half the city's water will have to be shut down for six months starting in 2022.
15 to 35 million gallons per day in leaks?  That's all the water produced by the water systems in my county.  The scale of the New York water system is just amazing.