The science of smog

I thought this was a very interesting article about a current research project that is investigating the effect of industrial flares from refineries and chemical plants on ozone levels, but one bit of it really amazed me.

Industrial flares burn off pressurized gases but also can shoot out massive amounts of noxious emissions. The Houston area has about 400 flare stacks, and they are among the largest and least- understood sources of pollution in the region, researchers said.

A recent University of North Carolina study found that formaldehyde from flares may increase Houston's ozone by as much as 30 parts per billion. In tandem with the pollution that blows into the region from elsewhere, that might be enough to keep Houston from meeting the new federal ozone limit of 75 parts per billion, scientists said.

The state's current plan for reducing Houston's smog doesn't consider formaldehyde and other precursors.

"If there is a problem with flares, it upends the entire regulatory strategy," said Harvey Jeffries, an atmospheric chemist who conducted the UNC study.

How is it that we're just now getting around to studying this? I mean, anyone looking at one of those flares blazing away would automatically assume that's putting a lot of nasty stuff into the atmosphere. I have a hard time understanding how come we don't have a better handle on just how nasty the effects are. Am I missing something?

Oh, and by the way, living in the suburbs is no escape.

Twice in the past week, the Fort Bend County city has exceeded the federal limit for ozone, a critical threshold under the nation's Clean Air Act.

And the forecast calls for more heavy smog today.

"Ozone obviously isn't stopping at the Harris County line," said Barry Lefer, an assistant professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Houston.

Until this smog season, which began in March, Fort Bend was the most populous county in Texas without a monitoring station to measure air pollution. At the request of County Judge Bob Hebert in January, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which is responsible for fighting ozone in smog-prone places including Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth, agreed to help pay for a monitor at UH's Sugar Land campus.


Some smog watchers said the early readings from the Sugar Land monitor underscore the need for more on the outskirts of the eight-county Houston region.

"These folks don't know that they could have air-quality problems," said Matthew Tejada, executive director of the clean-air advocacy group Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention.

I'm thinking the politics of clean air change considerably when places like Fort Bend start seeing it as their problem as well. You can run away from some problems, but you can't hide from them forever.

05/30/09 | permalink | comments [0]

But I'm not

I just want it to be known that I solved the puzzle in today's Foxtrot in about five minutes. I had to dust off some pretty long-dormant brain cells to do the integral, but I got it. The first comment at the link above has the answer, if you're still scratching your head.

04/19/09 | permalink | comments [3]


Ah, memories.

As hot new servers have grabbed more attention, mainframes have been plugging away behind the scenes. For decades, they have been the technological backbone for banking, finance, insurance, defense, health care, education, government and other industries.

"The perception is we're old and gray," said Jim Porell, an engineer who works on mainframes at IBM, the only company that still makes them.

Lately, more software has been written for mainframes, and they support everything from ATMs to Web-hosting to cell phones, not exactly ancient technology.

But while mainframes are evolving to handle more applications, the number of mainframes is shrinking, said John Phelps, the lead mainframe analyst for technology research firm Gartner. IBM has lost more than 75 customers who left mainframe platforms, and it has gained about 50 new ones. Mainframes are operating more efficiently, handling more MIPS -- millions of instructions per second -- year after year.

"The actual number of mainframes has shrunk, but the capacity has gone up," he said. Better efficiency has become more important as users' sensitivity to electrical usage, both for financial and environmental reasons, has increased, he said.

I haven't used or supported PROFS in a decade, but I could still split a message file if I needed to. And don't tell anyone, but the expense statement program we had on VM back in the day was easier to use than any of the PC and web-based programs I've had to use since then. There are many things about this environment that I don't miss. But it had its good points, too.

04/09/09 | permalink | comments [1]

Algae in our future

This is cool.

When San Antonio researcher Kyle Murray peers into the future, he sees the land of black gold turning bright green. Algae green.

Murray, an assistant professor of geology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, thinks the city is perfectly poised to become a research and production hotbed for literally one of the greenest fuels around, mined from the slippery marine life that thrives in the shallow ponds and warm, sunny weather that are hallmarks of this region.

Rather than punching holes into the ground to find petroleum, Murray envisions a shift to commercial production of native algae species and processing that harvest into biodiesel, which then would power the massive trucks that roar through San Antonio along the NAFTA corridor from Mexico.

Most species of algae are very efficient at producing oil. Unlike corn or other feedstocks for biofuel, algae can be grown year-round in warm climates, and an abundant crop can be produced on a relatively small amount of land, Murray noted.

"I think the potential is huge for San Antonio to get into this, and everybody would benefit," Murray said. "Biofuel is something we should be studying in San Antonio."

Makes more sense than corn, that's for sure. Hope it works out.

03/22/09 | permalink | comments [1]

Green clean

This is amazing.

It's a kitchen degreaser. It's a window cleaner. It kills athlete's foot. Oh, and you can drink it.

Sounds like the old "Saturday Night Live" gag for Shimmer, the faux floor polish plugged by Gilda Radner. But the elixir is real. It has been approved by U.S. regulators. And it's starting to replace the toxic chemicals Americans use at home and on the job.

The stuff is a simple mixture of table salt and tap water whose ions have been scrambled with an electric current. Researchers have dubbed it electrolyzed water -- hardly as catchy as Mr. Clean. But at the Sheraton Delfina in Santa Monica, some hotel workers are calling it el liquido milagroso -- the miracle liquid.

That's as good a name as any for a substance that scientists say is powerful enough to kill anthrax spores without harming people or the environment.

Just read the whole thing, it really is something. Tiffany sent me the link, so I presume I'll be seeing this in the house sometime soon. Very cool stuff.

03/15/09 | permalink | comments [1]

To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations

It's not quite boldly going, but it's still pretty darned cool.

The universe may be filled with Earth-like planets -- worlds where extraterrestrials might flourish.

But these planets were once considered too small to spot, even with the latest in space technology.

Now, many astronomers believe NASA's $600 million Kepler telescope, which is scheduled to shoot into space this week, will help to clear up the mystery.

Named for Johannes Kepler, a 17th-century German astronomer who studied planetary motion, the telescope is designed to search 100,000 stars in the Milky Way for Earth-sized rocky planets where water could flow and form streams, lakes and oceans.

Some astronomers believe the spacecraft could eventually find about 50 Earth-like planets.

"If we find that many, it will certainly mean life may well be common throughout our galaxy," said William Borucki of NASA's Ames Research Center, the astronomer who leads the Kepler science team.

"On the other hand, if we don't find any, that is still a profound discovery," he said. "It will mean that Earth must be very rare. We may be the only life in our universe.

"It will mean there will be no Star Trek."

Dude. There will always be Star Trek. It just may be a little different. Regardless, I look forward to hearing of Kepler's discoveries.

03/03/09 | permalink | comments [1]

CSI: Needs Improvement

Looks like Gil Grissom got out at just the right time.

Crime labs nationwide must be overhauled to prevent the types of mistakes that put innocent people in prison and leave criminals out on the street, researchers have concluded.

A 255-page report from the National Academy of Sciences is urging creation of national standards of training, certification and expertise for forensic criminal work, much of which is currently done on a city or state level.

The report's authors say the lack of consistent standards raises the possibility that the quality of forensic evidence presented in court can vary unpredictably.


In particular, the report's authors point out that, with the lone exception of DNA evidence, similar analysis of bite marks, tool marks, or hair samples, cannot provide a conclusive "match" in the common understanding of the term.

Such evidence can show similarities between a suspect and evidence left at a crime scene, but does not provide absolute certainty.

Peter Neufeld, co-founder of The Innocence Project which helps free wrongly convicted prisoners, said the findings marked nothing less than a "seismic shift" in criminal forensic science.

"It's going to take a national undertaking, a massive national overhaul, to make our forensic science community sufficiently robust," argued Neufeld.

Peter Marone, the director of Virginia's forensic lab, acknowledged "there are some issues that need to be addressed" within the profession, but said by and large the report's recommendations echo what he and other experts have been saying for years.

"We need better education, we need better standardization, and we do need accredited universities," he said.


The NAS report recommends Congress create and fund a new, national institute of forensic science to help establish consistent standard for forensic science, certification of experts, and development of new technology. It also recommends that forensic science work be moved out of the offices of law enforcement agencies to foster more unbiased analysis.

Those recommendations were made for the HPD Crime Lab as well, and were an issue in the District Attorney's race last year. It's great to issue a report like this, and I agree it's a huge shift in how we think about these things, but it'll be little more than interesting bathroom reading unless there's a federal funding mechanism to make this happen. It'll also presumably require action in state legislatures as well, to create the replacement labs. So consider this to be the first step on the thousand-mile journey. Grits has more.

02/20/09 | permalink | comments [0]

Reading and writing and social networking

From the "You kids don't know what it was like!" files:

Studying on your laptop is so 2007. A group of biology students at Houston Community College's southeast campus just turns on iPhones.

"Instead of bringing your book to class, you bring your phone," said Lisa Jackson, one of 15 students enrolled in Anatomy and Physiology II as part of a pilot project to deliver course work on Apple's trendy smart phones.

Lifang Tien, a biology professor, and Roger Boston, who teaches computer science and business technology, received $100,196 from a fund created by HCC Chancellor Mary Spangler to encourage innovation, then used the money to buy phones and pay the monthly bills. Students have to give the phones back at the end of the semester.

In return, Tien and Boston are studying whether delivering instruction on a phone that can connect to the Internet anytime and anywhere makes a difference in how students learn.

Tien's students like the convenience. Tiffany DeBurr Brewer has studied in her car while her three kids raced noisily around the house.

"I can study in my spare time," she said. "I don't have to lug a laptop around. It makes my life easier."

There's the cool factor, too, giving students one of the hottest gadgets.

"Our kids, they are so into this," Tien said.

That's very cool. Even if it does make me feel very old. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go yell at a cloud.

02/19/09 | permalink | comments [0]

Apparently, the sky really is falling

See here and here. If you'll excuse me, I'm going to duck and cover. Let us all hope that this isn't a prelude to this:

Look to the sky!

02/15/09 | permalink | comments [1]

Close enough for computer work

Very cool.

Engineers have long lived by a simple, seemingly obvious rule when designing new computers: The machines have to deliver correct answers.

If asked to compute two plus two, a computer should answer four. But what if computers didn't always have to answer correctly?

Nearly a decade age, a Houston computer scientist posed this heretical question. Today, it's led to a movement dubbed "probabilistic computing," which he believes will revolutionize the future of computing.

On Sunday, Krishna Palem, speaking at a computer science meeting in San Francisco, will announce results of the first real-world test of his probabilistic computer chip: The chip, which thrives on random errors, ran seven times faster than today's best technology while using just 1/30th the electricity.

Just think: One need never again worry about draining an iPhone battery in a day or even a week.

"The results were far greater than we expected," said Palem, a Rice University professor who envisions his chips migrating to mobile devices in less than a decade.

And hopefully some of the companies that will arise to design, manufacture, and use those chips will be located right here. Regardless, this is an exciting development.

02/11/09 | permalink | comments [1]

Evolution in action

02/02/09 | permalink | comments [1]

Chron coverage of yesterday's SBOE actions

01/24/09 | permalink | comments [1]

Update on yesterday's evolution happenings

01/23/09 | permalink | comments [1]

Evolution remains legal in Texas

01/22/09 | permalink | comments [7]

Study claims smoking ban leads to fewer heart attack deaths

01/04/09 | permalink | comments [1]

More on e-waste recycling

01/01/09 | permalink | comments [1]

E-waste recycling

12/27/08 | permalink | comments [1]

Shift? What shift?

12/15/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Mammoth DNA update

11/24/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Let scientists be scientists

11/19/08 | permalink | comments [0]

New Mersenne prime found

10/05/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Olivia meets Leonardo

09/29/08 | permalink | comments [1]

The dinosaur mummy rescheduled

09/23/08 | permalink | comments [0]

The dinosaur mummy

09/12/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Has anyone seen my cloak of invisibility?

08/17/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Send a text to 9-1-1

08/11/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Voice mail

07/17/08 | permalink | comments [1]

RIP, Michael DeBakey

07/12/08 | permalink | comments [1]

Bob Curl to retire at Rice

07/01/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Good news: We're not doomed!

06/30/08 | permalink | comments [2]


06/19/08 | permalink | comments [2]

A different model for delivering WiFi

06/18/08 | permalink | comments [3]

SBOE to review science curriculum

06/03/08 | permalink | comments [1]

New math, Russian-style

05/30/08 | permalink | comments [2]

A new front in the war on mosquitoes

05/27/08 | permalink | comments [0]

The top ten science hoaxes

05/16/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Plug pulled on Philly wi-fi

05/14/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Put that BlackBerry down!

05/07/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Geothermal and solar

05/05/08 | permalink | comments [0]

No creationism degree

04/24/08 | permalink | comments [2]

Technology Growth: Are We Preparing Today's Students?

04/20/08 | permalink | comments [0]

That's a lot of carbon

04/19/08 | permalink | comments [2]

"It's the end of the world." "Again!?!"

04/03/08 | permalink | comments [3]

The cancer research panel

03/24/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Our broken math curriculum

03/22/08 | permalink | comments [1]

Death of the Internet predicted: Film at 11

03/16/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Screwing up email the White House way

03/09/08 | permalink | comments [1]

San Marcos balks at municipal WiFi

01/27/08 | permalink | comments [1]

That's really dark

01/15/08 | permalink | comments [0]

The big tech stories of 2007

01/01/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Gulf "Dead Zone" grows with corn prices

12/17/07 | permalink | comments [2]

Setting the record straight on stem cells

12/06/07 | permalink | comments [0]

Houston WiFi, the next stage

12/05/07 | permalink | comments [2]

Philly Wi-Fi network hits a snag

11/26/07 | permalink | comments [0]

Why were you printing them in the first place?

11/25/07 | permalink | comments [3]

Fall back report

11/05/07 | permalink | comments [4]

The Daylight Savings Time shuffle

10/31/07 | permalink | comments [1]

Citywide WiFi

10/26/07 | permalink | comments [0]

The phantom vibration menace

10/25/07 | permalink | comments [1]

How to avoid computer viruses in one easy lesson

10/04/07 | permalink | comments [0]

Mammoth DNA

10/01/07 | permalink | comments [0]

When A Meter Is A Natural Disaster

09/23/07 | permalink | comments [3]

NASA's Urban Legend Problem

09/07/07 | permalink | comments [1]

EarthLink pays for delay in citywide wi-fi

08/30/07 | permalink | comments [0]

Some intelligence on "intelligent design"

08/25/07 | permalink | comments [3]

Does EarthLink want out?

08/18/07 | permalink | comments [1]

Corpus Christi citywide WiFi rollout completed

08/09/07 | permalink | comments [0]

Another report on voting machine problems

08/04/07 | permalink | comments [2]

Maybe not so Comcastic for some

07/28/07 | permalink | comments [1]

Have you been Comcasted yet?

07/24/07 | permalink | comments [2]

Don't wear your iPod in a thunderstorm

07/13/07 | permalink | comments [3]

I do not have an iPhone

06/29/07 | permalink | comments [5]

Philly's WiFi experience so far

06/18/07 | permalink | comments [0]

Mammoth extinction: Not our fault

06/13/07 | permalink | comments [0]

Offshore wind farms are a no go

06/13/07 | permalink | comments [2]


06/10/07 | permalink | comments [2]

Comcast: We hope we don't suck

06/05/07 | permalink | comments [3]

How to speak to global warming skeptics

05/31/07 | permalink | comments [1]

Another Corpus Christi WiFi update

05/29/07 | permalink | comments [0]

Earthlink passes test in Philadelphia

05/27/07 | permalink | comments [0]

WiFi woes?

05/24/07 | permalink | comments [0]

Ten years of camera phones

05/21/07 | permalink | comments [0]

A pocketful of Kryptonite

04/25/07 | permalink | comments [0]

Light pollution

04/25/07 | permalink | comments [2]

The day without BlackBerry

04/19/07 | permalink | comments [1]

The good, the bad, and the annoying

04/19/07 | permalink | comments [1]

Not the sort of headline I like to wake up to

04/18/07 | permalink | comments [0]

Why you can't use your cellphone on an airplane

04/10/07 | permalink | comments [2]

What the city hopes to do with its WiFi

04/09/07 | permalink | comments [1]

The 50 best tech products of all time

04/04/07 | permalink | comments [1]

What if the dinosaurs had survived?

03/16/07 | permalink | comments [2]

King versus Kenedy over wind farms

02/27/07 | permalink | comments [1]

Wind energy followup, and geothermal leases

02/07/07 | permalink | comments [0]

Wind farms

02/06/07 | permalink | comments [2]

You may or may not already be late

01/28/07 | permalink | comments [1]


01/24/07 | permalink | comments [0]

Cellphone surcharges

01/16/07 | permalink | comments [1]

Email from beyond the grave

01/10/07 | permalink | comments [0]

EarthLink to do San Francisco's WiFi

01/10/07 | permalink | comments [3]