When I was 12

April 10, 2008

Large rocks, severed heads, and flaming pots of oil rained down on Baghdad, capital of the vast Islamic Empire, as its weary defenders scrambled to reinforce gates, ditches, and the massive stone walls surrounding the fortress city’s many brick and teak palaces. Giant wooden manjaniq catapults bombarded distant structures while the smaller, more precise arradah catapult guns pelted individuals with grapefruit-sized rocks. Arrows flew thickly and elite horsemen assaulted footmen with swords and spears. “The horses . . . trample the livers of courageous young men,” lamented the poet al-Khuraymi, “and their hooves split their skulls.” Outside the circular city’s main wall—100 feet high, 145 feet thick, and six miles in circumference—soldiers pressed forward with battering rams while other squads choked off supply lines of food and reinforcements. Amid sinking boats and burning rafts, bodies drifted down the Tigris River.

The impenetrable “City of Peace” was crumbling. In the fifty years since its creation in A.D. 762, young Baghdad had rivaled Constantinople and Rome in its prestige and influence. It was a wildly fertile axis of art, science, and religion, and a bustling commercial hub for trade routes reaching deep into Central Asia, Africa, and Europe. But by the late summer of A.D. 813, after nearly two years of civil war (between brothers, no less), the enlightened Islamic capital was a smoldering, starving, bloody heap.

In the face of disorder, any human being desperately needs order—some way to manage, if not the material world, at least one’s understanding of the world. In that light, perhaps it’s no real surprise that, as the stones and arrows and horses’ hooves thundered down on Baghdad, the protected core of the city hosted a different sort of battle. Within the round city’s imperial inner sanctum, secure behind three thick, circular walls and many layers of gate and guard, under the luminescent green dome of the Golden Gate Palace, Muhammad al-Amin, the sixth caliph of the Abbasid Empire, spiritual descendant of (and distant blood relation to) the Prophet Muhammad, sovereign of one of the largest dominions in the history of the world, was playing chess against his favorite eunuch Kauthar.

A trusted messenger burst into the royal apartment with urgently bad news. More inglorious defeats in and around the city were to be reported to the caliph. In fact, his own safety was now in jeopardy.

But al-Amin would not hear of it. He waved off his panicked emissary.

“O Commander of the faithful,” implored the messenger, according to the medieval Islamic historian Jirjis al-Makin. “This is not the time to play. Pray arise and attend to matters of more serious moment.”

It was no use. The caliph was absorbed in the board. A chess game in progress is—as every chess spouse quickly learns—a cosmos unto itself, fully insulated from an infant’s cry, an erotic invitation, or war. The board may have only thirty-two pieces and sixty-four squares, but within that confined space the game has near-infinite depth and possibility. An outsider looking on casually might find the intensity incomprehensible. But anyone who has played the game a few times understands how it can be engrossing in the extreme. Quite often, in the middle of an interesting game, it’s almost as if reality has been flipped inside out: the chess game in motion seems to be the only matter of substance, while any hint of the outside world feels like an annoying irrelevance.

The messier the external world, the more powerful this inverted dynamic can be. Perhaps that is why Caliph al-Amin, who sensed that his hours were numbered, preferred to soak in the details of his chess battlefield rather than reports of the calamitous siege of his city. On the board he could see the whole action. On the board he could neatly make sense of significant past events and carefully plan his future. On the board he still might win.

“Patience my friend,” the caliph calmly replied to his messenger standing only a few feet away and yet a world apart. “I see that in a few moves I shall give Kauthar checkmate.”

Not long after this, al-Amin and his men were captured. The sixth Abbasid caliph, victor in his final chess game, was swiftly beheaded.

Chess lived on. The game had been a prominent court fixture of Caliph al-Amin’s predecessor, and would voraciously consume the attention of his successor—and the caliph after that, and the caliph after that. Several centuries before it infected feudal Christian Europe, chess was already an indelible part of the landscape adjoining the Tigris and Euphrates. This simple game, imbued with a universe of complexity and character, demanded from peasants, soldiers, philosophers, and sovereigns an endless amount of time and energy. In return it offered unique insights into the human endeavor.

And so, against all odds, it lasted. Games, as a general rule, do not last. They come and go. In the eighth century, the Irish loved a board game called fidchell. Long before that, in the third millennium B.C., the Egyptians played a backgammonlike race game called senet. The Romans were drawn to duodecim scripta, played with three knucklebone dice and stacks of discs. The Vikings were obsessed with a game called hnefatafl in the tenth century, in which a protagonist King attempted to escape through a ring of enemies to any edge of the board. The ancient Greeks had petteia and kubeia. These and hundreds of other once popular games are all now long gone. They caught the public imagination of their time and place, and then for whatever reason lost steam. Generations died off, taking their habits with them; or conquering cultures imposed new ideas and pastimes; or people just got bored and wanted something new. Many of the games fell into such total oblivion that they couldn’t even make a coherent mark in the historical record. Try as they might, determined historians still cannot uncover the basic rules of play for a large graveyard of yesterday’s games.

Contrast this with chess, a game that could not be contained by religious edict, nor ocean, nor war, nor language barrier. Not even the merciless accumulation of time, which eventually washes over and dissolves most everything, could so much as tug lightly at chess’s ferocious momentum. “It has, for numberless ages,” wrote Benjamin Franklin in 1786, “been the amusement of all the civilized nations of Asia, the Persians, the Indians, and the Chinese. Europe has had it above 1000 years; the Spaniards have spread it over their part of America, and it begins lately to make its appearance in these States.”

The game would eventually pass into every city in the world and along more than 1,500 years of continuous history—a common thread of Pawn chains, Knight forks, and humiliating checkmates that would run through the lives of Karl Marx, Pope Leo XIII, Arnold Schwarzenegger, King Edward I, George Bernard Shaw, Abraham Lincoln, Ivan the Terrible, Voltaire, King Montezuma, Rabbi Ibn Ezra, William the Conqueror, Jorge Luis Borges, Willie Nelson, Napoleon, Samuel Beckett, Woody Allen, and Norman Schwarzkopf. From Baghdad’s Golden Gate Palace to London’s Windsor Castle to today’s lakeside tables at Chicago’s North Avenue Beach, chess would tie history together in a surprising and compelling way.

How could a game last so long, and appeal so broadly across vast spans of time, geography, language, and culture? Endurance is not, of course, a magnificent accomplishment in itself, but a compelling sign that something profound is going on, a catalytic connection between this “game” and the human brain. Another sign is that chess was not just played but also integrated into the creative and professional lives of artists, linguists, psychologists, economists, mathematicians, politicians, theologians, computer scientists, and generals. It became a popular and pliable metaphor for abstract ideas and complex systems, and an effective tool through which scientists could better understand the human mind.

The remarkable scope of this game began to infect my own brain after a visit from an old family ghost in the fall of 2002. My mother had sent on some faded newspaper clippings about her great-grandfather, my great-great-grandfather, a diminutive Polish Jew named Samuel Rosenthal who immigrated to France in 1864 and became one of its legendary chess masters. Family lore had it that Rosenthal had impressed and/or somehow secured the gratitude of one of the Napoleons, and had been awarded a magnificent, jewel-encrusted pocket watch. No one in the family seemed to have actually seen this watch, but they’d all heard about it. Four generations down the line, this story, retold to a boy from the Ohio suburbs, was just exotic enough, and just hazy enough, to set the mind racing. I had begged Mom for years to tell me more about the great S. Rosenthal and his lost watch.

As I combed through the records on my mother’s mother’s father’s father’s achievements, wondering what spectacular (if still hidden) intelligences had filtered down through the generations, I also became reacquainted with the game itself, which I had not played since high school (and then only a handful of times). Stumbling through a few dozen games with friends at home and with strangers over the Internet, I found that I was just as ambivalent about chess as I’d been twenty years earlier—charmed by its elegance and intrigued by its depth, but also put off by the high gates of entry to even moderately serious play. Graduating from patzer to mere competence would require untold hundreds of hours of not just playing but studying volumes of opening theory, endgame problems, and strategy. Years of obsessive attention to the game might—might—eventually gain me entry into reasonably serious tournaments, where I would no doubt be quickly dispatched by an acid-tongued, self-assured ten-year-old. Chess is an ultimately indomitable peak that gets steeper and steeper with every step.

I was also repelled, frankly, by the forbidding atmosphere of unforgiving rules, insider jargon, and the general aggressiveness and unpleasantness that seemed to accompany even reasonably casual play. I recalled one of Bobby Fischer’s declarations: “Chess is war over the board,” he proclaimed. “The object is to crush the opponent’s mind.” Fischer was not alone in his lusty embrace of chess’s brutality. The game is often as much about demolishing your opponent’s will and self-esteem as it is about implementing a superior strategy. No blood is drawn (ordinarily), but the injury can be real. The historical link between top chess play and mental instability stands as yet another intriguing feature about the game and its power. “Here is nothing less,” writes recovering chess master Alfred Kreymborg, “than a silent duel between two human engines using and abusing all the faculties of the mind. . . . It is warfare in the most mysterious jungles of the human character.”

Still, much to my wife’s dismay, I got hooked. It is an intoxicating game that, though often grueling, never grows tiresome. The exquisite interplay of the simple and the complex is hypnotic: the pieces and moves are elementary enough for any five-year-old to quickly soak up, but the board combinations are so vast that all the possible chess games could never be played—or even known—by a single person. Other parlor games sufficiently amuse, entertain, challenge, distract; chess seizes. It does not merely engage the mind; it takes hold of the mind in a way that suggests a primal, hardwired connection.

Even more powerfully, though, I became transported by chess’s rich history. It seemed to have been present in every place and time, and to have been utilized in every sort of activity. Kings cajoled and threatened with it; philosophers told stories with it; poets analogized with it; moralists preached with it. Its origins are wrapped up in some of the earliest discussions of fate versus free will. It sparked and settled feuds, facilitated and sabotaged romances, and fertilized literature from Dante to Nabokov. A thirteenth-century book using chess as a guide to social morality may have been the second-most popular text in the Middle Ages, after the Bible. In the twentieth century, chess enabled computer scientists to create intelligent machines. Chess has also, in modern times, been used to study memory, language, math, and logic, and has recently emerged as a powerful learning tool in elementary and secondary schools.

The more I learned about chess’s peculiarly strong cultural relevance in century after century, the more it seemed that chess’s endurance was no historical accident. As with the Bible and Shakespeare, there was something particular about the game that made it continually accessible to generation after generation. It served a genuine function—perhaps not vital, but often far more than merely useful. I often found myself wondering how particular events or lives would have unfolded in chess’s absence—a condition, I learned, that many chess haters had ardently sought. Perhaps the most vivid measure of chess’s potency, in fact, is the determination of its orthodox enemies to stamp it out—as long ago as a ruling in 655 by Caliph Ali Ben Abu-Talib (the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law), and as recently as decrees by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1981, the Taliban in 1996, and the Iraqi clergy in post-Saddam Iraq. In between, chess was tamped down:

in 780 by Abbasid Caliph al-Mahdi ibn al-Mansur
in 1005 by Egypt’s al-Hakim Bi-Amr Allah
in 1061 by Cardinal Damiani of Ostia
in 1093 by the Eastern Orthodox Church
in 1128 by St. Bernard
in 1195 by Rabbi Maimonides
in 1197 by the Abbot of Persigny
in 1208 by the Bishop of Paris
in 1240 by religious leaders of Worcester, England
in 1254 by King Louis IX of France (St. Louis)
in 1291 by the Archbishop of Canterbury
in 1310 by the Council of Trier (Germany)
in 1322 by Rabbi Kalonymos Ben Kalonymos
in 1375 by France’s Charles V
in 1380 by Oxford University’s founder William of Wickham
in 1549 by the Protohierarch Sylvester of Russia
and in 1649 by Tsar Alexei

But like the Talmud, like the theory of natural selection, like any organized thought paradigm that humans have found irresistibly compelling, chess refused to go away. Why were sixty-four squares and a handful of generic war figurines so hard to erase from the human imagination? What was it about chess that drew simultaneous devotion and disgust, and sparked so many powerful ideas and observations over many centuries?

This is what I set out to understand, through a close survey of chess’s history and a fresh look at the game.

Excerpted from The Immortal Game by David Shenk Copyright © 2006 by David Shenk.

Well it starts earlier than aged 12 for me really.

When I was in Primary School I had a fascination with Chess, I was indeed Chess champion back then.

Then I went off to Secondary School where peer pressure and trying to fit in made me lose my love of the game.  However I found out soon after starting there that my skills had not been totally lost.

I went to Germany with school as part of my German class and stayed with a family there for a week.  During that time the father of the household asked me if I would play with him.  The best of three as it turns out.  I lost the first, but won both of the next, much to the fathers displeasure I might add, proving to myself, as most kids that age think, that I was master of the universe.

I have lost any proper knowledge I had of the game from back then, even to the point of being afraid to really sit and think about playing someone who knows a little of the game. But being settled and content as I am with my life now, I think it is time to renew the love affair with the game.  So here I am writing this blog having placed a book about the history of Chess next to me and I am about to delve back into my childhood and much further into the human mind apparently.


Is the biofuel dream over?

December 14, 2007
  • 15 December 2007
  • From New Scientist Print Edition.
  • Fred Pearce
  • Peter Aldhous

Can biofuels help save our planet from a climate catastrophe? Farmers and fuel companies certainly seem to think so, but fresh doubts have arisen about the wisdom of jumping wholesale onto the biofuels bandwagon…….

About 12 million hectares, or around 1 per cent of the world’s fields, are currently devoted to growing biofuels. Sugar cane and maize, for example, are turned into bioethanol, a substitute for gasoline, while rapeseed and palm oil are made into biodiesel. That figure will grow because oil is so costly, and because biofuels supposedly emit fewer greenhouse gases than fossil fuels.

But a slew of new studies question the logic behind expanding biofuel production. For a start, there may not be enough land to grow the crops on or water to irrigate them, given other demands on global agriculture. Worse, any cuts in carbon dioxide emissions gained by burning less fossil fuels may be wiped out by increased emissions of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide from fertilisers used on biofuel crops.

In parts of the world, shortage of water is already putting a brake on agricultural productivity. According to Johan Rockström, executive director of the Stockholm Environment Institute in Sweden, switching 50 per cent of the fossil fuels that will be devoted to electricity generation and transport by 2050 to biofuels would use between 4000 and 12,000 extra cubic kilometres of water per year. To put that in perspective, the total annual flow down the world’s rivers is about 14,000 km3.

A more modest target of quadrupling world biofuel production to 140 billion litres a year by 2030 – enough to replace 7.5 per cent of current gasoline use, would require an extra 180 km3 of water to be extracted from rivers and underground reserves, calculates Charlotte de Fraiture at the International Water Management Institute, based near Columbo in Sri Lanka.

That target may be manageable across much of the globe. But in China and India, where water is in short supply and most crops require artificial irrigation, de Fraiture argues that there is not enough water even to meet existing government plans to expand biofuel production.

Another contentious issue is how much land is available to grow biofuels (New Scientist, 25 September 2006, p 36). And the answer appears to be not much, a point that Sten Nilsson, deputy director of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria, makes using a “cartographic strip-tease” based on a new global mapping study.

Beginning with a world map showing land not yet built upon or cultivated, Nilsson progressively strips forests, deserts and other non-vegetated areas, mountains, protected areas, land with an unsuitable climate, and pastures needed for grazing (see Maps). That leaves just 250 to 300 million hectares for growing biofuels, an area about the size of Argentina.

Even using a future generation of biofuel crops – woody plants with large amounts of cellulose that enable more biomass to be converted to fuel – Nilsson calculates that it will take 290 million hectares to meet a tenth of the world’s projected energy demands in 2030. But another 200 million hectares will be needed by then to feed an extra 2 to 3 billion people, with a further 25 million hectares absorbed by expanding timber and pulp industries.

So if biofuels expand as much as Nilsson anticipates, there will be no choice but to impinge upon land needed for growing food, or to destroy forests and other pristine areas like peat bogs. That would release carbon now stashed away in forests and peat soils (New Scientist, 1 December, p 50), turning biofuels into a major contributor to global warming

De Fraiture is more optimistic. Her modest projection for a quadrupling of biofuel production assumes that maize production will be boosted by 20 per cent, sugar cane by 25 per cent and oil crops for biodiesel by 80 per cent. Assuming future improvements in crop yields, de Fraiture estimates that this might be done on just 30 million hectares of land – or 2.5 times the area now under cultivation.

Even today’s biofuel yields depend on generous applications of nitrogen-containing fertiliser. That contributes to global warming, as some of the added nitrogen gets converted into nitrous oxide, which is a potent greenhouse gas. Over 100 years it creates 300 times the warming effect of CO2, molecule for molecule. And now researchers led by Paul Crutzen of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany, who won a share of a Nobel prize for his work on the destruction of the ozone layer, claim that we have underestimated these emissions. Factor in their revised figures, and cuts in CO2 emissions as a result of replacing fossil fuels may be wiped out altogether.

“Fertilisers contribute to global warming, as some of the added nitrogen gets converted into a potent greenhouse gas”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that between 1 and 2 per cent of nitrogen added to fields gets converted to nitrous oxide, based on direct measurements of emissions from fertilised soils. But nitrogen from fertiliser also gets into water and moves around the environment, continuing to emit nitrous oxide as it goes. To estimate these “indirect” emissions, Crutzen and his colleagues calculated how much nitrogen has built up in the atmosphere since pre-industrial times, and estimated how much of this could be attributed to the use of fertilisers.

This suggested that between 3 and 5 per cent of the nitrogen added to the soil in fertilisers ends up in the atmosphere as nitrous oxide. Crucially, that would be enough to negate cuts in CO2 emissions made by replacing fossil fuels. Biodiesel from rapeseed came off worse – the warming caused by nitrous oxide emissions being 1 to 1.7 times as much as the cooling caused by replacing fossil fuels. For maize bioethanol, the range was 0.9 to 1.5. Only bioethanol from sugar cane came out with a net cooling effect, its nitrous oxide emissions causing between 0.5 and 0.9 times as much warming as the cooling due to fossil fuel replacement.

These simple calculations, which set increased nitrous oxide emissions against reductions in CO2 emissions caused by replacing gasoline or diesel with biofuels, do not account for all the greenhouse gas emissions associated with producing, processing and distributing the various fuels. Now Michael Wang of the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois has taken Crutzen’s upper estimate for nitrous oxide emissions and plugged it into a sophisticated computer model which does just that. When he did so, bioethanol from maize went from giving about a 20 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions, compared to gasoline, to providing no advantage at all. Still, Wang suspects that Crutzen’s method may overestimate nitrous oxide emissions. “It is a very interesting approach,” he says. “But there may be systematic biases.”

Crutzen stresses that his paper is still being revised in response to comments he has received since August, when a preliminary version appeared online. “Here and there the numbers may change. But the principle doesn’t,” he says. “It’s really telling us about a general problem with our lack of knowledge about the nitrogen cycle.”

With governments and businesses backing biofuels as part of a “green” future, that represents a disturbing gap in our knowledge.

From issue 2634 of New Scientist magazine, 15 December 2007, page 6-7

So the biofuel solution is running into problems, well its an emerging technology and it isn’t the only solution / possibility for humans to switch away from fossil fuels and other green house contributors.

Onwards, always onwards 🙂


Some Science

December 12, 2007

The best of science, the worst of creationism

In 2000, a popular school textbook called Biology reluctantly dropped it’s prime example of evolution in action – industrial melanism in the peppered moth. Nothing in evolutionary biology had forced the change. The decision was entirely political,made in response to creationist attacks.

The loss of the peppered moth was a blow to science education in the US, as it is one of the easiest to understand examples of evolution by natural selection. So it is heartening to hear that biologists are fighting back. Thanks to their efforts, evidence that the moth is an example of evolution in action is more robust than ever.

This tawdry tale reveals much of what is good about science – and rotten about creationism. Creationists went gunning for the moth after a scientific disagreement over the fine detail of a seminal experiment done in the 1950s. They used the debate to portray the science behind industrial melanism as hopelessly flawed, if not fraudulent.

In response, one scientist patiently redid the experiment – it took him seven years. It is hard to think of another system of thought that is so stringently self-critical and self-correcting.

In science, everything is provisional . There are no preordained answers and fresh ideas are always welcome, so long as their proponents are happy for them to be tested.

That is not how creationists work. They already know the answer. They seek only evidence that confirms their conclusion, and distort or ignore the rest. Such an unreasoned approach is worthless. Creationists will keep trying to undermine the theory of evolution.

All science can do is continue, with dignity, to stick to it’s guns. As with the peppered moth, the best testable explanation will win out.

Conspiracy? Not in China

There’s no stopping a good conspiracy theory. For over 30 years, NASA has faced allegations that it faked the moon landings, and now it is the turn of the Chinese.

In October, the Chinese spacecraft Chang’e 1 entered lunar orbit, and last week the country released its first image of the lunar surface. Within hours of the picture’s release the internet rumour mill leapt into action on various Chinese blogs and forums, casting doubt on it’s validity and saying it bore an uncanny resemblance to a picture released by NASA in 2005.

The Chinese space agency replied that the pictures are similar because they are of the same part of the moon. NASA’s experience with conspiracy theories suggests that denying the rumour will only serve to keep it running. Ouying Ziyuan, chief scientist for the lunar probe, more or less guaranteed this by adding: “There is absolutely no forgery.”

 

Our solar future

In theory, solving the world’s energy problems should be pretty straightforward. Locate a piece of sun-drenched land about half the size of Texas, find a way to capture just 20 per cent of the solar energy that falls there and bingo – problem solved. You have enough power to replace the world’s entire energy needs using the cleanest, most renewable resource there is.

Can it really be that easy? For years, supporters of solar power have heralded every new technological breakthrough as a revolution in the making. Yet time and again it has failed to materialise, largely because the technology was too expensive and inefficient and, unlike alternatives such as nuclear and wind power, no substantial subsidies were available to kick-start a mass transition to solar energy. This time things are different. Aconfluence of political will, economic pressure and technological advances suggests that we are on the brink of an era of solar power.

The prospect of relying on the sun for all our power demands – conservatively estimated at 15 terawatts in 2005 – is finally becoming realistic thanks to the rising price of fossil fuels, an almost universal acceptance of the damage they cause, plus mushrooming investment in the development of solar cells and steady advances in their efficiency. The tried-and-tested method of using the heat of the sun to generate electricity is already hitting the big time but the really big breakthroughs are happening to photovoltaic (PV) cells.

Ever since the first PV cell was created by Bell Labs in 1954, the efficiency with which a cell can convert light into electricity has been the technology’s Achilles’ heel. The problem is rooted in the way PV cells work. At the heart of every PV cell is a semiconducting material, which when struck by a photon liberates an electron. This can be guided by a conductor into a circuit, leaving behind a “hole” which is filled by another electron from the other end of the circuit, creating an electric current.

Photons from the sun arrive at the semiconductor sporting many different energies, not all of which will liberate an electron. Each semiconducting material material has a characteristic “band gap” – an energy value which photons must exceed if they are to dislodge the semiconductor’s electrons. If the photons are too weak they pass through the material, and if they are too energetic then only part of their energy is converted to electricity, the rest into heat. Some are just right, and the closer the photons are to matching the band gap, the greater the efficiency of the PV cell.

Bell Labs discovered that silicon, which is cheap and easy to produce, has one of the best band gaps for the spectrum of photon energies in sunlight. Even so, their first cell had an efficiency of only 6 per cent. For a long time improvements were piecemeal, inching up to the mid-teens at best, and at a cost only military and space exploration programmes could afford. The past decade has seen a sea change as inexpensive cells with an efficiency of 20 per cent have become a commercial reality, while in the lab efficiencies are leaping forward still further.

Last year, Allen Barnett and colleagues at the university of Delaware, Newark, set a new record with a design that achieved 42.8 per cent energy conversion efficiency. Barnett says 50 per cent efficiency on a commercial scale is now within reach. Such designs, married to modern manufacturing techniques, mean costs are falling fast too.

As a result, in parts of Japan, California and Italy, where the retail price of electricity is among the world’s highest, the cost of solar-generated electricity is now close to, and in some cases matches, that of electricity generated from natural gas and nuclear power, says Michael Rogol, a solar industry analyst with Photon Consulting, based in Aachen, Germany. For example, in the US the average price of conventionally generated electricity is around 10 cents per kilowatt-hour. The cost of solar-generated electricity has fallen to roughly double that. This has created a booming market for PV cells – now growing by around 35 per cent annually – and private investors are starting to take a serious interest. The value of stocks in companies whose business focuses primarily on solar power has grown from $40 billion in January 2006 to more than $140 billion today, making solar power the fastest-growing sector in the global marketplace.

George W. Bush has acknowledged this new dawn, setting aside $168 million of federal funds for the Solar America Initiative, a research programme that aims to make the cost of PV technology competitive with other energy technologies in the US by 2015. Rogol thinks Bush’s target is achievable. He says the cost of manufacturing PV equipment has fallen to the point where, in some places, PV-generated electricity could already be produced for less than conventional electricity. Manufacturing PV cells at $1 per watt of generating capacity and the cost should be competitive everywhere.

Perhaps surprisingly, given its less than cloudless skies, one of the countries leading the solar revolution is Germany. In November 2003, amid rising oil and gas prices and growing concern over global warming, its parliament agreed a “feed-in-tariff” programme, which guarantees a market for solar power. Anyone who produces electricity from solar power can sell it to the national grid for between €0.45 and €0.57 per kilowatt-hour, which is almost three times what consumers pay for their electricity, roughly €0.19 per kilowatt-hour. Germany’s power-generating companies are required by law to pay this premium which is guaranteed until 2024. This guarantee has spurred enterprising individuals to invest in solar panels, confident of earning back the cost of their systems.

Source:  New Scientist


Germany Commits to Steep CO2 Cuts

December 7, 2007

The plan is forecast to cost Germany, Europe’s top polluter, $45.5 billion (that’s about what the U.S. spends on the Iraq war every seven months).

Germany yesterday sent a strong message to the 10,000 delegates discussing global warming in Bali: Change is possible, and we’re going to get started.

The German cabinet agreed to a 36% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, below 1990 levels, by 2020 through improvements in energy efficiency, better building insulation and investments in new renewable energy sources. (A report released last week found the U.S. could make a similar, or even steeper reduction, mostly by investing in energy efficiency; the report was produced by both environmentalists and leaders of industry, including major utilities and energy companies.)

Other notable news out of Bali, where the United Nations is convening an important meeting designed to produce a roadmap for reducing greenhouse gas emissions past 2012, when the Kyoto Protocol expires:

  • Because 16 of the 36 nations that ratified the Kyoto Protocol have failed to meet the targets set out for them, many are looking to buy carbon offsets, according to Reuters. That is drawing ire, even as most nations are focused on the future.
  • China is pushing for a new world fund that rich nations would contribute to, and developing nations would draw from, according to Reuters. It would pay for renewable and clean energy technology projects.
  • Yvo de Boer, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, urged nations to boost spending on so-called “adaptation,” according to China’s state-run media, because long-lived carbon in the atmosphere makes many effects from global warming inevitable.
  • After ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called on the United States — now, the only industrialized nation that is holding out — to follow suit, according to Asia Pulse. De Boer said Australia’s action sends a powerful message.
  • The United States, Canada and Japan are throwing up repeated roadblocks to even small steps on global warming, like setting up a working group to discuss the transfer of technology from rich to poor nations, Friends of Earth has said, according to Deutsche Presse-Agentur.
  • Harlan Watson, a U.S. envoy, was quoted in Asia Pulse, however, as saying that the United States wants to support adaptation, mitigation, transfer of technology and funding, and possibly a mechanism for preserving forests in Indonesia and other developing countries. One roadblock to transferring technology from rich to poor nations is that the technology isn’t owned by the government, but the private sector, according to Watson.
  • The leaders of Pacific Islands warned the delegates that their nations would be swamped if nothing is done to stop sea-level rise due to global warming, according to the Australia Broadcasting Corporation. The Global Governance Project will recommend creating an international fund to resettle “climate refugees,” according to the New Zealand Herald.
  • Japan pledged to give $10 million to preserve forests through a World Bank program designed to combat global warming, according to Asia Pulse.
  • China is warming to the idea of binding emissions reductions, according to The Australian Financial Review.

Two Long Sleepless Nights

September 28, 2007

So baby CJ is settling well here at home though she hasn’t settled during the night. Both me and Olly are quite tired but we may have found the solution.

I bottle fed her some expressed milk for the first time today and she has settled like magic. We have one content baby. It’s the first time she has been fed by bottle and the first time I have fed her. What a magical experience. We’ll see if a bottle settles her tonight at bed time.

On a more serious note:

Nutrient pollution from farms and livestock hurts amphibians

Remember the uproar in 1995 when school kids in Minnesota began finding frogs with extra limbs? The mutated amphibians looked like props in some sci-fi movie, and scientists quickly began searching for the culprit behind the deformities. Speculation centered on pesticides, increased UV radiation, and infection from parasites—which ultimately turned out to be the “villain.”

But the question remained: why were these parasites—called trematodes—increasing in number and preying on frogs? According to a study published earlier this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the leading cause of the problem is the runoff of phosphorous and nitrogen fertilizer, originating from agriculture (likely the monoculture corn and soybean farms of the Midwest), cattle grazing, and domestic runoff.

What’s the connection? Through a process called eutrophication, the excess nutrients from animal manure and fertilizers cause more algae to grow in surface waters, like the pond where the kids first found the mutated frogs. The extra algae helps increase populations of snails (which feed on algae), as well as populations of the microscopic parasites (trematodes), which the snails eat and release into ponds. The trematodes form cysts on developing tadpoles, which can cause frogs to develop missing, or in some cases multiple, limbs. The frog’s predators then eat the frogs and the parasites, spreading the trematodes back into the ecosystem and relaunching the cycle.

But don’t think you’re safe from the effects of this pollution just because you’re not an amphibian. “Since most human diseases involve multiple hosts, understanding how increased nutrient pollution affects freshwater and marine food webs to influence disease is an emerging frontier in ecological research,” says Pieter Johnson, a water scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the lead author of the study.

Organic farming is the way forward as I have said many times, along with getting rid of farmed animals totally.

Arctic thaw may be at “tipping point”

Fri Sep 28, 2007 9:24am EDT

 

By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent

OSLO (Reuters) – A record melt of Arctic summer sea ice this month may be a sign that global warming is reaching a critical trigger point that could accelerate the northern thaw, some scientists say.

“The reason so much (of the Arctic ice) went suddenly is that it is hitting a tipping point that we have been warning about for the past few years,” James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told Reuters.

The Arctic summer sea ice shrank by more than 20 percent below the previous 2005 record low in mid-September to 4.13 million sq km (1.6 million sq miles), according to a 30-year satellite record. It has now frozen out to 4.2 million sq km.

The idea of climate tipping points — like a see-saw that suddenly flips over when enough weight gets onto one side — is controversial because it is little understood and dismissed by some as scaremongering about runaway effects.

The polar thaw may herald a self-sustaining acceleration that could threaten indigenous peoples and creatures such as polar bears — as Arctic sea ice shrinks, the darker ocean soaks up ever more heat than reflective snow and ice.

In Germany, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research says Arctic sea ice has “already tipped.”

Among potential “tipping elements” that are still stable, it lists on its Web site a melt of Siberian permafrost, a slowdown of the Gulf Stream and disruptions to the Indian monsoon.

“I’d say we are reaching a tipping point or are past it for the ice. This is a strong indication that there is an amplifying mechanism here,” said Paal Prestrud of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo.
“But that’s more or less speculation. There isn’t scientific documentation other than the observations,” he said.

SHIPPING, POLAR BEARS

Many experts now reckon Arctic ice may disappear in summer before mid-century, decades before earlier forecasts. The thaw would open the region to oil and gas exploration or shipping.

Reuters will host a summit of leading newsmakers on Oct 1-3 to review the state of the environment. Speakers will include Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the U.N. Climate Panel and Michael Morris, chief executive of American Electric Power.

“All models seem to underestimate the speed at which the ice is melting,” said Anders Levermann, a Potsdam professor.

“I do not believe that this is alarmist… not all tipping points are irreversible,” he said. And societies can weigh up remote risks, such as planes crashing or nuclear meltdowns.

Hansen said he is seeking more study of causes of the melt, widely blamed on greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels but perhaps slightly stoked by soot from forest fires or industries in Russia and China. Ice darkened by soot melts faster.

“It is a very good lesson, because the ice sheets (on Greenland and Antarctica) have their own tipping points, somewhat harder to get started but far more dangerous for humanity around the globe,” he said.

A melt of floating Arctic sea ice does not affect sea levels but Greenland has enough ice to raise oceans by 7 meters and Antarctica by about 57 meters, according to U.N. estimates.
Pachauri’s authoritative climate panel, in a summary report due for release in November, does not use the phrase “tipping point” but does say: “Climate change could lead to abrupt or irreversible climate changes and impacts.”

It says, for instance, that it is “very unlikely” that the Gulf Stream bringing warm water north to Europe will switch off this century. That could bring a big regional cooling.

And it says that a melt of ice sheets could lead to big sea level rises over thousands of years. “Rapid sea level rise on century time scales cannot be excluded,” it adds.

From the bits and pieces I have read it is going to take a long while for us to notice a difference in Global Warming even if we were to stop polluting now, maybe up to 10 to 20 years. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop, because the longer we continue the worse it is going to get. Fact. Hopefully the summit happening shortly will come up with some strong concrete goals and objectives that will be kept rather than spotlighted for a short period of time and then brushed under the carpet. A certain North American country and a treaty beginning with K springs to mind.