Trouble around the world

May 14, 2008

A cyclone in Burma and an earthquake in China.

Natural disasters are just that.  Natural.

It doesn’t mean that we should be any less sympathetic or charitable.  Luckily China has, in it’s own ways, the resources to deal with a disaster of this scale.  However, with possibly hundreds of thousands dead or dying and damage to infrastructure beyond comprehension hopefully they will be more open to outside help than the dictatorship that is Burma.

I have been reading in newspapers, online and hearing over the radio how this secretive state is blocking foreign aid at almost every turn.  Either simply not letting aid and aid workers in, or placing unreasonable conditions on the aid agencies involved.  The ruling military power is taking the abuse of human rights to new levels and we as a civilised world should not take their ‘no’ for an answer.  Forcing aid in via peaceful means should be considered.

The world is at a stage in it’s life, with us as the dominate species, where nobody should go hungry, nobodies human rights should be infringed on and we should be looking after our fragile planet.  Even more so in a time where millions of litres of water has to be shipped in to Spain, just for people to be able to drink, due to never before seen levels of drought.  Sceptics beware, global warming may just be rearing it’s head enough to bite.

Sadly, even in times of desperate need, lives that could be saved through the goodness and charity of others is refused and the human race suffers needlessly.

Our evolution stutters in the face of adversity and our right to call ourselves civilized should be called in to question more often than not.

We fail to act over atrocities like genocide in Africa.  Yet fall over ourselves to initiate a wars over oil and imaginary WMD and terrorists, killing those we profess to save.

I hope with all my heart that the influential Super Powers of the world are subject to the political changes necessary to rip up the rotten foundations of our political morality and that grass roots voters open their eyes and minds to the reality of our existence.

We are one species, one human race on one small planet.


Games consoles reveal the supercomputer within

February 16, 2008

WHEN Todd Martínez broke his son’s Sony PlayStation he didn’t realise this would change the course of his career as a theoretical chemist. Having dutifully bought a PlayStation 2 as a replacement, he was browsing through the games console’s technical specification when he realised it might have another use. “I noticed that the architecture looked a lot like high-performance supercomputers I had seen before,” he says. “That’s when I thought about getting one for myself.”

Six years on and Martínez has persuaded the supercomputing centre at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, to buy eight computers each driven by two of the specialised chips that are at the heart of Sony’s PlayStation 3 console. Together with his student Benjamin Levine he is using them to simulate the interactions between the electrons in atoms. Scaled up over entire molecules, the results could pave the way to predicting how a protein will interact with a drug.

Martínez and Levine are not the only researchers who have turned to gaming hardware to do their number crunching. That’s because the kinds of calculations required to produce the mouth-wateringly realistic graphics now seen in high-end video games are similar to those used by chemists and physicists as they simulate the interactions between particles in systems ranging in scale from the molecular to the astronomical. Rotating, enlarging or reflecting an object from one frame to the next in a game, for example, requires a technique called matrix multiplication. Modelling the interactions between thousands of electrons in a molecule calls for similar techniques.

Such simulations are usually carried out on a supercomputer, but time on these machines is expensive and in short supply. By comparison, games consoles are cheap and easily available, and they come with the added bonus of some innovative hardware. For example, the Wii, made by Nintendo, has a motion-tracking remote control unit that is far cheaper than a comparable device would be if researchers had to build it from scratch.

One key advance is the ease with which scientists can now program games consoles for their own purposes. Although consoles do a great job of rendering images, games programs don’t require software to save data once it has been used to render the image. Scientists, by contrast, need to be able to store the results of the calculations they have fed into their machines.

Things started to get easier in 2002, when demand from computer enthusiasts who wanted to use their PlayStations as fully fledged desktop machines prompted Sony to release software that allowed the PlayStation 2 to run the Linux operating system. That allowed scientists to reprogram the consoles to run their calculations. Then in 2006 came the big breakthrough, with the launch by IBM, Sony and Toshiba of the Cell chip that now drives Sony’s PlayStation 3 (see Timeline). With one central processor and eight “servant” processors (New Scientist, 19 February 2005, p 23), it is vastly more powerful than the PS2 chip, and was designed from day 1 to run Linux.

The release of the Cell has accelerated  research into black holes by Gaurav Khanna, an astrophysicist at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. He has strung together 16 PS3 consoles to calculate the properties of the gravity waves that are expected to be produced when two black holes merge. Meanwhile, a collaboration between IBM and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, is using the Cell’s ability to render high-resolution video graphics to do the same with data gathered by MRI and other medical scanning techniques. The aim is to make diagnosis easier and faster – by using the images to determine whether a tumour has grown or shrunk, for example.

Other researchers are pushing for even more speed. One of Martínez’s students, Ivan Ufimtsev, is experimenting with the NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GTX graphical processing unit (GPU) for PCs, which was released in November 2006. The GPU has 128 processors – compared to the Cell’s eight – and when slotted into a PC, helps turn it into a high-quality gaming engine. To start with, these cards were hard to program, just like the PS2 without the Linux add-on, but NVIDIA soon cottoned on to the sales opportunities that scientists like Martínez could offer for its product. In February 2007 it released the Compute Unified Device Architecture, a software package that allows the C programming language to be used to program the GPUs.

The results were staggering. When Martínez used it to simulate the repulsion between two electrons in an atom, he found that the calculation ran 130 times faster than it did on an ordinary desktop computer (Journal of Chemical Theory and Computation, DOI: 10.1021/ct700268q). He is now calculating the energy of the electrons in 1000 atoms, which add up to the size of a small protein. “We can now do the things we were killing ourselves to do,” he says.

Martínez predicts that it will soon be possible to use the GPU to predict more accurately which drug molecules will most strongly interact with a protein and how they will react, which could revolutionise pharmaceutical research. Similarly, Koji Yasuda at Nagoya University in Japan reported in a paper published this month (Journal of Computational Chemistry, vol 29, p 334) that he used the same GPU to map the electron energies in two molecules: the anti-cancer drug paclitaxel and the cyclic peptide valinomycin.

Games hardware still isn’t perfect for science. The Cell’s eight processors and the NVIDIA GPUs are forced to round decimal numbers to seven decimal places. As numbers are repeatedly multiplied together, this small error becomes magnified. In a game, the result might be nothing more serious than a car appearing slightly closer to a wall than it should, but in research such inaccuracies can be show-stoppers.

It’s not just the chips that researchers can usefully borrow from gaming hardware. Take the Wii’s hand-held remote control, which contains an accelerometer that can sense in which direction it is being moved, and how vigorously. It transmits this information via a Bluetooth link to the console, where it is used to adjust the graphics to respond to the player’s movements in real time.
Monitoring Parkinson’s

The device recently grabbed attention as a tool for surgeons to improve their technique (New Scientist, 19 January, p 24). Meanwhile, neurologist Thomas Davis at the Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, is using it to measure movement deficiencies in Parkinson’s patients. By attaching up to four Wii remotes to different limbs, Davis captures data for tremor, speed and smoothness of movement, and gait. This data is then sent via the Bluetooth link to a laptop running software that allows Davis to assess quantitatively how well a patient can move. Davis hopes this can be used in clinical trials for Parkinson’s drugs to replace the scoring scales now used, which are based on a doctor observing a patient’s condition.

Others are using the console to assess the progress of patients who have had a stroke or a head injury by monitoring their performance as they play Wii games. Johnny Chung Lee at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is using the Wii remote as a virtual reality research tool. As the wearer’s head moves, the Wii tracks it and displays images dependent on where the wearer is looking. Meanwhile, a team at the University of Valladolid in Spain hopes to use the Wii remote to rotate and manipulate ultrasound images more intuitively.

Computer gamers have always hankered after the latest console or PC hardware to run ever more realistic-looking games. Now scientists are lining up right beside them.

From issue 2643 of New Scientist magazine, 16 February 2008, page 26-27

And not an xbox360 in sight….


Conservation

September 15, 2007

I have been reading an article in The New Scientist:

Innovate or watch them die

Radical measures are required if we are to prevent thousands of species from becoming extinct

It is one of the most depressing lists ever created. Species by species, the World Conservation Union’s Red List, published this week, details the huge swathe of life being driven towrards oblivion.

According to the list, 16,306 species are now defined as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. According to the best available data, 51 per cent of invertebrate species, 39 per cent of fish, 31 per cent of reptiles and amphibians, 20 per cent of mammals and 12 per cent of birds are threatened. “We’re losing the battle on almost every front,” says Gretchen Daily of Stanford University, California.

However, while the Red List details a biodiversity crisis that is all too familiar, the tactics required to tackle it are not. “Traditional approaches on their own are utterly doomed to failure,” says Daily. So she and other conservationists are introducing a raft of innovative policies in a bid to save as many species as they can.

New Scientist #2621

It’s a nightmare situation really. One of the solutions seems novel and something that could work.

The idea is to put a monetary value on the services that healthy ecosystems provide for human populations – from the role of forest cover in preventing soil erosion and flooding, to the pollination of crops by insects, and revenues from ecotourism. Conservationists would then work with local governments, industry and the finanical markets to set up incentives encouraging measures for the protection of ecosystems and the vital services they provide.

It sounds like a tax, and people hate taxes, but when current methods fail and things reach a point of no return these kind of measures may be the only way forward, and when you think about it the companies and areas that the money is diverted from reap the rewards. I like the idea.

Large Scale Solar Plants are here

 

Is solar a viable alternative energy source on a mass scale? Spain’s opening of a commercial solar power plant and a test facility with another plant due to open this month. Powering 5000 homes from its 11 megawatt production.

With the number of commercial solar plants growing at a rapid rate and the huge investment into research and development to make solar energy more affordable it seems that yes, solar has the potential to become a viable alternative energy source on a mass scale. Solar is a particularly attractive option for countries with vast expanses of uninhabitable desert. With the sun being one of our few freely available, infinite resources, it will be vital to our future survival to harness the power of the sun and alleviate our current reliance on finite resources which are fast running out.

Hog Futures
How the meat industry thrives, even as costs rise

[spoiler]

When corn prices spiked last fall, things looked dire for industrial meat processors.

These enormous companies thrive by confining (or contracting with farmers to confine) livestock into tightly packed quarters and stuffing them with corn. Pricier corn — in this case, pushed up by the government-backed surge in ethanol production — seemed to translate to lower profits for the industrial meat giants. On cue, Big Meat executives like Tyson’s Richard Bond complained bitterly about the end of cheap corn.

I, for one, looked forward to a slowdown in one of the globe’s most environmentally destructive industries. (As the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization pointed out last fall, feedlot meat production spews more greenhouse gases even than automobile use.)

If nothing else useful came out of the ethanol boom, I thought to myself, at least industrial meat would take a hard hit. But a funny thing has happened on the way to my industrial-meat schadenfreude: the meat titans are shaking off higher corn prices and thriving. And now I’m the one complaining bitterly.

Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork processor and among the largest beef and poultry producers, recently reported that its earnings for the May to July 2007 quarter more than doubled

Its rival Tyson — the world’s largest chicken producer, and a leader in pork and beef — also reported

What happened?

No Bones About It

For one thing, Smithfield and Tyson have managed to raise meat prices, forcing consumers to carry the costs of pricier corn. As the investment site Motley Fool put it, “It’s been relatively easy for Tyson to push price increases through to its customers [i.e., large food retailers like Wal-Mart], who in turn have pushed through food inflation to consumers.”

The second factor propping up the meat giants is that they have entered what seems like the early stages of a long-term export boom: They’re swamping Eastern Europe and parts of Asia with U.S.-raised meat. In the most recent quarter, Tyson increased its export sales by nearly a third. Smithfield, meanwhile, reported a jump in operating profit for its international unit — and promptly announced a sizable sale of U.S.-grown pork to China.

Note the contrast to the plight of large-scale U.S. vegetable farmers, which I laid out in the previous Victual Reality. Like meat processors, vegetable farmers have also seen the price of a key input rise: in their case, labor costs are up because of a crackdown on undocumented workers.

But unlike meat processors, vegetable growers can’t easily pass higher costs onto the big buyers like Wal-Mart and other food retailing giants. Those buyers can simply reject pricier U.S.-grown goods and buy produce from other countries where labor costs are lower, such as Mexico and China.

Meat is a different story. Whereas thousands of U.S. vegetable farmers compete among themselves and foreign rivals for space in Wal-Mart’s produce section, a precious few companies control the meat trade. Just two companies — Smithfield and Tyson — process 43 percent of pork consumed in the U.S. Their three largest competitors, Swift, Cargill, and Hormel, have together sewn up another 27 percent of the pork market. When players this big experience higher costs, not even a giant like Wal-Mart can say no to higher prices.

Moreover, while U.S. vegetable farmers rightly fear cheap imports from foreign competitors, the opposite holds true with meat. The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization projects that U.S. producers will “dominate” the growing global pork market over the next decade. By 2016, the FAO predicts, nearly one of every three pounds of pork traded globally will originate in the U.S. The FAO also expects the nation’s beef and poultry production to thrive in the global market.

The lowly state of the U.S. dollar — widely projected to remain weak over the next decade — explains part of the power of the U.S. meat-exporting machine. A weaker dollar makes our exports cheaper, and thus more competitive, overseas.

But an even more important factor, I think, is that our huge and highly consolidated meat giants have managed to establish classic “Third World” labor and environmental conditions right here in the United States.

Have You Seen the Little Piggies?

In Iowa, the nation’s leading pork-producing state, confined-hog operations churn out 50 million tons of excrement each year, the great bulk of which festers in massive lagoons, belching putrid fumes into surrounding communities and leaking into groundwater. In Hardin County, where I visited this summer, 18,000 residents live amid more than a million confined hogs and hundreds of manure lagoons. The county’s once-teeming creeks and waterways have become dead zones, and an eye-stinging stench hangs in the air. It reminds you who benefits from the arrangement — not the remaining residents or the hogs, but rather the confinement owners and the companies they work for under contract: Smithfield and its few meat-packing peers.

In North Carolina, the No. 2 hog-producing state, similar conditions hold sway. And there, just as in the “Third World,” the poor pay dearest for highly profitable environmental banditry. According to a University of North Carolina study, “There are 18.9 times as many hog operations in the highest quintile of poverty as compared to the lowest.” People of color get it worst of all: “The excess of hog operations is greatest in areas with both high poverty and high percentage non-whites.”

Labor conditions, too, resemble those that might hold sway under a miserable dictatorship run by blinkered elites in thrall to foreign investors. In 2005, Human Rights Watch issued a blistering report on labor issues in U.S. slaughterhouses. “Meat-packing is the most dangerous factory job in America,” the report declared. “Dangerous conditions are cheaper for companies — and the government does next to nothing.” The report also documents meat-packers’ heroic efforts to squash unions.

Indeed, in its anti-unionism, the meat industry takes a hint from practices used during the 1980s-era heyday of death squads in Central America. Speaking of a Smithfield plant in North Carolina, one Salvadoran worker told Human Rights Watch that, “The company has armed police walking around the plant to intimidate us … It’s especially frightening for those of us from Central America. Where we come from, the police shoot trade unionists.”

Thus, it turns out, it will take much more than pricy corn to cut down the U.S. industrial-meat behemoth. Global demand for meat is rising, and U.S. producers are well positioned to dominate the market. But why let the U.S. become manure lagoon to the world?

Without access to exploitable labor and comically lax environmental codes, the industrial-meat complex would surely wither away — and the world would be a better place. What can ordinary citizens do? Rejecting industrial meat is a necessary but insufficient step. Efforts to organize meat-packing workers deserve broad public support, as does the movement to force the industry to take responsibility for the extraordinary environmental costs now being borne by people who live near its feedlots.
over the same period a year ago. what analysts hailed as a “stellar” quarter, handily exceeding Wall Street’s performance expectations.

http://www.grist.org/[/spoiler]

I really dislike the meat industry as a whole. It’s exploitive in every aspect of it’s operation. I make a point of trying to just state the facts and use my opinions in this blog without trying to say ‘You must do this, and you should do that.’ But in some cases the I wouldn’t even need to. The brute facts speak for themselves.