The West’s coal giant is going away

Click to enlargeAlex/Creative Commons

❝ The smokestacks of the Navajo Generation Station rise 775 feet from the sere landscape of the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona, just three miles away from the serpentine, stagnant blue wound in sandstone known as Lake Powell. Red rock cliffs and the dark and heavy hump of Navajo Mountain loom in the background. Since construction began in 1969, the coal plant and its associated mine on Black Mesa have provided millions of dollars to the Navajo and Hopi tribes and hundreds of jobs to local communities, as well as electricity to keep the lights on and air conditioners humming in the metastasizing cities of Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Yet they’ve also stood as symbols of the exploitation of Native Americans, of the destruction of the land, and of the sullying of the air, all to provide cheap power to the Southwest.

But coal power is no longer the best energy bargain. And…the plant’s four private utility owners, led by the Salt River Project, voted to shut down the plant at the end of 2019, some 25 years ahead of schedule. When the giant turbines come to a halt and the towers topple in the coming years, the plant will become a new symbol, this one of a transforming energy economy and an evolving electrical grid that is slowly rendering these soot-stained, mechanical megaliths obsolete.

❝ Salt River Project officials have been very clear…They note that it’s now cheaper for them to buy power for their 1 million customers from other sources than it is to generate power at Navajo, thanks mostly to low natural gas prices. A November 2016 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that the Central Arizona Project pays about 15 percent more for electricity from the power plant — of which it is part owner — than it would if it bought power wholesale from the Mead trading hub located near Las Vegas.

❝ None of this will change even if President Donald Trump rolls back the Clean Power Plan or other regulations put in place by the Obama administration. In fact, if a drill-heavy energy policy is put into place, it will increase natural gas supplies, thus increasing the spread between natural gas and coal.

It’s a sign of the times. We will continues to see pimps like Trump – owned body and soul by the US Chamber of Commerce – run their collective mouths, beat the drums of war and obedience, demand resurrection of backwards methods that will only serve to further slow our national economy.

Science and technology will continue to forge ahead.


Fiery tribute to a crap product — Samsung battery factory bursts into flame

❝ The factory tasked with producing and later recycling the batteries for the self-detonating Samsung Galaxy Note 7 has itself fallen victim to a fire.

Defective batteries and other faulty hardware stored in a recycling center went up in smoke at the Samsung SDI facility in Wuqing, Tianjin, in China. No injuries were reported, although environmental protection workers have been called in to monitor air quality. The plant is snuggled in a suburban area. Some 19 fire engines and more than 110 firefighters turned up shortly after 6am to tackle the flames…

❝ Apparently, the fire occurred in an area dedicated to housing waste and defective batteries marked for recycling. The rest of the factory, including its production lines, was not significantly damaged and normal operations will resume…

❝ The Tianjin factory is one of two that had manufactured the ill-fated battery pack for the Note 7 phablet. Shortly after release, the battery pack was found to be prone to exploding without warning…

The cause of the exploding packs was eventually pinned on a combination of poor design and rushed assembly that resulted in widespread defects and failed safety measures.

Phew. Good thing I ain’t superstitious. Might be some mysterioso revenge shade at work, eh?

Is Your Vizio TV Spying on You?

❝ This week, Vizio, one of the biggest makers of internet-connected televisions, agreed to pay $2.2 million to settle charges that it has been collecting and selling viewing data from millions of TVs without the knowledge or consent of the sets’ owners. The charges, brought by the Federal Trade Commission and the New Jersey attorney general’s office, have some serious implications for consumers and smart TV makers.

❝ Here’s what you should know.

Vizio, which has sold more than 11 million internet-connected TVs since 2010, and its data arm earns money by licensing people’s TV viewing information in three main ways, according to a complaint from the agencies.

One is through audience measurement — showing what programs and commercials people watched, along with how and when they viewed it. Another is from gauging the effectiveness of advertisements, including the ability to “analyze a household’s behavior across devices,” using the IP address attached to all the internet-enabled gadgets in a home. That could mean tracking whether someone visited a website on their laptop after seeing a fast food commercial, or if an online ad motivated them to watch a TV show. The third is by targeting ads to people on other devices, like phones or tablets, based on what they watched on TV.

❝ The complaint says that Vizio has manufactured TVs since at least February 2014 with software turned on by default that collects “information about what a consumer is watching on a second-by-second basis.” It also was said to have remotely installed the software…onto TVs sold without it. Data…are sent to Vizio servers and matched to a database of TV shows, movies and commercials. Vizio called the tracking “Smart Interactivity,”…and portrayed it as a feature for program suggestions.

❝ When TVs were updated with the software, people were notified through a brief pop-up, above, saying “Smart Interactivity has been enabled on your TV,” without disclosure on the data collection. In March 2016, once the F.T.C. and the New Jersey attorney general’s ’s office investigations were pending, the complaint said that a new pop-up appeared that referred to the data collection for the first time.

RTFA. More about the sleaze so common to much of the tech industry.

And, yes, I turned off the “feature” on my Vizio TV.

Siemens cuts development time, produces 3D-printed turbine blades

Siemens AG

❝ Siemens has successfully completed a test of 3D-printed blades to be used in gas turbines, the latest development in a technology that has become increasingly popular with automakers, rival General Electric, Nike and aerospace giants like Boeing.

According to Reuters, Siemens said the test, which it called a “breakthrough,” was the first of its kind. The test took place under full-load engine conditions at temperatures above 2,282 degrees Fahrenheit…

❝ The blades, composed of a polycrystalline nickel superalloy, were made by U.K. manufacturer Materials Solutions, Reuters said. Siemens bought Materials Solutions last year.

The 3D-printing technology allowed Siemens to bring the gas turbine blades from the design phase to the testing phase within two months, a process that typically takes two years…It was unclear when the blades might go into production

❝ General Electric last year also purchased two European 3D printing companies, and has developed a jet engine via 3-D printing. Boeing has also used the technology, also known as additive manufacturing, to make tools and parts. Nike has also used the technology to design shoes.

Still no summation of cost vs time in a production process. I remain willing to be convinced that 3D printing is useful especially for prototyping – as in this case. Long-term production needs? Not so certain.

Human-Pig chimera is a step towards replacement organs

Human cells (green) differentiated into endoderm progenitors (red)

Every day, 22 people in America die while waiting for an organ transplant. But when scientists can grow replacement livers or kidneys or pancreases inside of animal hosts, medicine’s organ shortage may end. That’s the hope anyway—and this week there’s more reason to hope than ever that it might become reality.

❝ The key to producing human organs in other animals is the chimera, a mixture of cells from more than one species growing together as a single animal. For decades, researchers have struggled to coax Petri dishes of stem cells into functional, three-dimensional tissues and organs, hampered by technical challenges and political stonewalling. Now, two milestone papers have taken two big steps toward solving the chimeric riddle. Will you be ordering up a homo-porcine gallbladder on Amazon this time next year? No. No, definitely not. But researchers have done two things they’ve never done before: 1. Combine two large, distantly-related species into one embryo. And 2. Use organs from one species grown in another to actually treat disease…

❝ With other advances, scientists are hoping to do away with artificial insulin altogether. About 30 million Americans have diabetes; more than 3 million of them rely on artificial insulin to stay alive. Chimeras could potentially help those patients make their own insulin—and Hiromitsu Nakauchi, a stem-cell biologist at the University of Tokyo and Stanford, showed you can do just that in a paper published yesterday in Nature. At least, you can in rats. His team used genetic tweaks to prevent rats from making their own pancreases. Then they injected mouse stem cells (complete with all the necessary pancreas-making genes) into the developing pancreas-less rat embryos. The rats grew normally. The only thing different was their pancreases were made almost entirely of mouse cells.

Then they went a step further. From those rat-mouse chimeras, Nakauchi’s team took out tiny clusters of pancreatic cells that make insulin (called islets) and transplanted them into diabetic mice. The islets settled in and made enough insulin to keep the host mice’s blood glucose levels in a normal range for more than a year. In layman’s terms? The mice were cured. It’s the first time a chimera-created organ has ever treated a medical condition.

❝ …Scientists will have to improve human stem cells’ colonization of their animal hosts. The Salk team’s next hurdle is trying to embed one human cell in 1,000, or even 100 pig cells. “That’s when we can start thinking about practical applications,” says Wu. But that’s also when ethical questions start to become more urgent.

More urgent, that is, for people who consider religious ideology more important than keeping someone alive. Folks more concerned with the creation of new species or sub-species and the uses thereof – instead of reducing numbers in the thousands and more of individuals who have to die – are socially, criminally out of touch with human needs.

NOAA’s GOES-16 satellite sends down its first images of Earth

Click to enlarge

Since the GOES-16 satellite lifted off from Cape Canaveral on November 19, scientists, meteorologists and ordinary weather enthusiasts have anxiously waited for the first photos from NOAA’s newest weather satellite, GOES-16, formerly GOES-R.

The release of the first images today is the latest step in a new age of weather satellites. It will be like high-definition from the heavens

The pictures from its Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) instrument, built by Harris Corporation, show a full-disc view of the Western Hemisphere in high detail — at four times the image resolution of existing GOES spacecraft. The higher resolution will allow forecasters to pinpoint the location of severe weather with greater accuracy. GOES-16 can provide a full image of Earth every 15 minutes and one of the continental U.S. every five minutes, and scans the Earth at five times the speed of NOAA’s current GOES imagers.

Remember when our government and pretty much every American citizen was proud of our science, our achievements in space? Think about the creeps in charge of the White House and Congress who would rather shut this work down and go back to forecasting weather events with the entrails of chickens. Think about the fools who vote for even bigger fools who don’t want your kids to learn any science.

“Robots? We don’t serve their kind here!”

❝ For the time being, robots don’t need civil rights — they have a hard enough time walking, let alone marching — but the European Union doesn’t expect that to be the case forever. The European Parliament’s committee on legal affairs is considering a draft report, written by Luxembourg member Mady Delvaux, that would give legal status to “electronic persons.”

❝ Delvaux’s report explores the growing prevalence of autonomous machines in our daily lives, as well as who should be responsible for their actions. It’s not intended to be a science-fiction thought experiment…but rather an outline of what the European Commission should establish: what robots are, legally; the ethics of building them; and the liability of the companies that do so.

“Robots are not humans, and will never be humans,” Delvaux said. But she is recommending that they have a degree of personhood — much in the same way that corporations are legally regarded as persons — so that companies can be held accountable for the machines they create, and whatever actions those machines take on their own.

Robots can donate to Super-PACs!

❝ Delvaux’s report does suggest that the more autonomy a machine has, the more blame should fall with it over its human operators. But robots are generally only as smart as the data they learn from. It might be difficult to determine what a robot is responsible for, and what was because of its programming — a sort of robot version of the “nature versus nurture” argument.

Nice to see that some political beings, public political forums, have the foresight to consider potential problems before they arise. Of course, that can be taken to extremes.

But, in the United States? We’re lucky if Congress considers, say, flood protection before rising waters reach the top step.