Monthly Archives: August 2009

Algae-coated buildings and artificial trees touted as climate fix

CNET | Aug 28, 2009

by  Martin LaMonica

The future of green technology is algae-cultivating buildings, artificial trees, and lots of white roofs, according to the U.K.’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

The group on Thursday released a report that recommends governments fund research on geoengineering, or large-scale fixes for climate change. The report, a year in the making, is targeted at policymakers and is meant to inspire engineers to develop ways to cut greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.

As concern grows over climate change, a number of geoengineering ideas have been proposed, including placing mirrors in space to reflect sunlight or shooting sulfur particles into the stratosphere, which would also have a cooling effect.

However, in its analysis, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers found that most promising geoengineering techniques can be done on Earth. It argues that a handful of technologies be deployed at large scale, along with other strategies, to mitigate the effects of climate change.

At the top of the list are artificial trees, which are mechanical devices that can absorb carbon dioxide from the air faster than trees and then sequester that gas underground.

The institution’s report refers to the research done by Columbia University Professor Klaus Lackner, who is researching the concept and materials to absorb large amounts of CO2. Also required are underground storage formations, such as depleted oil wells. At a cost of $20,000 per tree, the institution concludes that it’s the most practical approach.

Cultivating algae to make liquid fuel is one of the most active areas of research in biofuels. The institution recommends that algae be incorporated into buildings so algae can be grown at a large scale.

Engineers envision that long plastic tubes, called photobioreactors, be integrated into building designs or retrofitted onto existing skyscrapers.

Algae would grow from pumped-in carbon dioxide and sunlight and be harvested for use either as a liquid fuel to run in a combined heat-and-power unit or turned into biochar, or charcoal used as a soil conditioner that also sequesters carbon from the air.

Finally, the institution says that buildings should be retrofitted with reflective roofs to deflect the sun’s rays. In the past months, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu has publicly touted this relatively low-tech approach, which was studied in-depth at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory last year.

Although proposing billions of white roofs doesn’t appear to be controversial, many other geoengineering ideas are. For example, scientists have warned about the environmental impact–or effectiveness–of “seeding” the ocean with iron to spur growth of plankton to sequester carbon.

In anticipation of a report on geoengineering from the U.K.’s Royal Society next week, watchdog ETC Group warned against unintended consequences from large-scale projects. “Even the most careful computer models won’t be able to predict what will happen if an experiment is scaled-up and moved out of doors,” the group said in a statement Friday.

The eye in the sky

melbourne big brother camera

Photo: Louie Douvis

Surveillance is a gradual and incessant creep, the House of Lords warns. Unchecked, we march towards a mark where every detail about an individual is recorded and pored over by both the state and private sectors.

By then, though, it will be no use asking who is watching us – because everyone will be.

The Age | Aug 30, 2009

THE all-seeing eye was once seen as a divine force, surrounded by dazzling rays of light from on high. Its eyelid heavy but gaze unwavering, the eye was the protective stare of a supreme being watching over us from above.

Now, though, it simply watches, often from the shadows. Peering down from security cameras as we walk the city streets, buy bread at the corner store, fill the car with petrol, or catch a taxi or tram. Tracking us through our mobile phone or when driving through a tollway to Melbourne Airport, which last year trialled “virtual strip search” security scanners. Someone’s watching while we’re surfing online, sending an email, or updating our Facebook profile to paranoid. Melbourne once held pretensions of being the city that never sleeps. Now, at least, it is the city that never shuts its eyes.

A locked, windowless room within the Town Hall has become the city’s high priestess of surveillance. Endless CCTV footage screens along the wall, fed from cameras looking over Melbourne’s streets, laneways and dark corners. The latest tilt-and-zoom cameras rotate 360 degrees, so few crannies escape unseen. They can pick out a face in the crowd from a kilometre away.

Lord Mayor Robert Doyle this month announced the city had installed a further 31 “Safe City cameras” in the CBD – bringing the total to 54 – to combat rising street violence. Specially trained security contractors monitor the cameras without respite from the small control room, the exact location of which is secret and off-bounds to media. One sanctioned visitor told The Sunday Age it was like stepping into a reality TV control booth, where you’re the producer deciding who should be seen on the big screen.

“There will be groups that say this is Big Brother. I say, ‘Bad luck, city safety comes first’,” Doyle declared. “The message is now clear to those who wish to commit a crime in our streets: the likelihood is that now you will be seen.”

But then, so will everyone else. Former UK information commissioner Richard Thomas, whose term ended in June, once warned Britain was sleepwalking into a “surveillance society”. Two years later, in 2006, they woke up “to a surveillance society that is already all around us”. The UK is the most-watched patch on Earth, boasting an estimated four million CCTV cameras, and leads the world in building a national DNA database, with more than 7 per cent of the population already logged.

Australia has been more restrained. But the pressure to deploy new and more affordable surveillance technologies is constant. This month, La Trobe University academics proposed installing tracking devices in cars, similar to those used in truck fleets, to charge drivers more for using busier roads during peak hours. In Sydney tomorrow, the city council will debate proposals giving police more access to its CCTV network for general ”intelligence gathering”, and releasing footage to the media to discourage antisocial behaviour.

Access to the City of Melbourne’s CCTV system is restricted to police and lawyers for alleged offenders and victims, and unused footage is destroyed after 30 days. An external audit committee monitors compliance of the program with various protocols. But still there are concerns over the all-seeing eye. We can no longer assume activities performed in public places will pass unobserved and unrecorded, the Victorian Law Reform Commission says. Ours is a surveillance society, too.

”It really is no longer possible to be anonymous in most public places. We are very quickly losing the capacity to blend in as part of the crowd,” says the commission’s chairman, Professor Neil Rees. ”Any time you have been into the city of Melbourne your image will have been captured on one of these systems and stored.

”We all have a shared interest in blending in, in having a private conversation in a quiet corner. Now, with all the surveillance equipment out there, that is really not possible to do with confidence.”

The commission will advise the Attorney-General early next year on whether regulation of surveillance technologies is needed to protect people’s privacy. Early suggestions include appointing an independent regulator to monitor surveillance of public places.

In a consultation paper released in March, the commission said such surveillance was likely to become more widespread as devices became more affordable and invisible. ”The Surveillance Devices Act in Victoria is 10 years old and the technology has exploded over the last 10 years,” Rees says. ”It is a profound issue for us as a community. As the equipment gets more and more sophisticated, more and more people will retreat behind high walls. Others are going to have to live with the fact that their every moment is capable of being monitored by somebody.

”We need to strike a balance between getting the best out of technology and not being made to feel we are being intruded on, perhaps overzealously, in public places. That balance is not going to be easy to achieve.”

The commission also highlighted an increase in the use of tracking devices such as GPS, radio frequency identification, automatic number plate recognition, mobile phone surveillance and biometrics. Behavioural modelling by online companies such as Google is another growing concern. The popular online search engine is testing ”interest-based advertising” in the US that will pitch ads at individual consumers based on ”de-identified” surveillance of their internet use.

The new technology, which could be in Australia by next year, is part of what The New York Times last month called a sea change in the way consumers encounter the web. People will start seeing customised ads, different versions of websites, even different discounts to other users when shopping, based on what retailers know about their tastes and budget. ”On the old internet, nobody knew you were a dog,” the article’s author wrote. ”On the new targeted internet, they now know what kind of dog you are, your favourite leash colour, the last time you had fleas and the date you were neutered.”

MAGNUM sniffs me as I walk inside Victorian Detective Services, on a violent day in Carnegie. He’s a Weimaraner – a gundog – named after the 1980s TV crime series Magnum P.I. Going on 11, his hunting days past, he now acts as a genial mascot of sorts for this party of private investigators.

Over a cup of white tea in his corner office, beneath framed photographs of James Bond and a Scarface montage, general manager Mark Grover talks the surveillance game. ”There is always a reason why someone is under surveillance,” he says. ”It could be a salesman that is playing the back nine every second day instead of working. It could be an airline pilot who has put in that they are sick or ill but might be flying a cargo plane now in Nigeria, while receiving benefits here. Maybe it’s a truck driver knocking off a couple of dozen bottles of red on his delivery … All employers typically are curious about what some of their staff who are no good are up to.”

Grover, a former president of the World Investigators Network, has been in the game for 22 years. Back in the day, his car was his office and a long-lens camera his friend. ”It’s tiring, boring, you put on weight after a long time – 14, 15-hour days sitting in the car, standing in the cold. Nobody loves you. No TV. Just watching.”

Technology has since changed the way he watches. He might track targets through their telephone or email, lift revealing photographs from social networking websites or log into CCTV camera footage in Paris or Amsterdam. Surveillance is now in the hands of anyone with a mobile phone camera, he says.

On a table in his office are other tools of his trade: a spy-pen camera small enough to film from your top pocket; a wristwatch camera and a teeny black-box listening device with a SIM card that can be used to eavesdrop on conversations undetected.

”Everything is possible, it’s just a matter of asking how it’s done,” he says. ”And staying within the law as well,” he adds, after a pause.

Surveillance technology has grown so pervasive and inexpensive, anyone might fancy themselves an amateur snoop. Retailers such as OzSpy sell high-resolution spy pens, which record video and audio, from $129, and spy watches with colour video and audio for $199. Spy cameras are hidden inside smoke detectors ($359), desktop clocks ($219), power points ($299) and motorcycle helmets ($189). CCTV cameras sell for as little as $159.

Full Story

Fort Worth family talks about witnessing son’s Taser death

‘You’re killing my son!’

Star Telegram | Aug. 29, 2009

By MITCH MITCHELL

FORT WORTH — Her son’s death in April happened in less than a minute, but Charlotte Jacobs said Friday that that minute seemed to last for an eternity.

On April 18, three police officers surrounded Michael Jacobs Jr., 24, on the front lawn of the family’s home in far east Fort Worth. Other officers and firefighters had been there earlier but had left, she said.

As Michael cursed at the officers, a female officer flanked by two male officers shouted at him to calm down. The officer told Michael that if he didn’t want to, he didn’t have to go to the hospital.

“I did not hear any commands she gave my son, and I don’t know what caused her to fire her Taser,” Charlotte Jacobs said.

But as she watched from her front porch, twin electrodes buried themselves in her son’s body. Her husband, Michael Jacobs Sr., came outside soon after their son fell to the ground, Charlotte Jacobs said.

“Every day I come out here, I still see my son lying on this grass,” she said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be right after this.”

Michael was shocked twice by the officer’s city-issued stun gun, known officially as a Taser X26 Electronic Control Device. It is designed to incapacitate people without causing lasting harm.

On Thursday, Tarrant County Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani ruled that Michael Jacobs’ death was a homicide caused by the officer’s use of the Taser.

His parents said that before being shocked, their son raised his hands in a sign of surrender.

‘You’re killing my son’

Earlier that morning, the family had called 911 to ask for help getting Michael medical care. The mother said she explained that her son had stopped taking medication for the bipolar disorder and schizophrenia that had affected him since he was 18.

Police had come to the house in the 6600 block of Ava Court Drive many times before, the parents said. Sometimes Michael went with them peacefully. Other times, officers handcuffed him, the parents said.

But the police had never used a Taser on him before.

During an interview Friday before a news conference at her home, Charlotte Jacobs said she told police: “You’re killing my son. You’re killing my son.”

Jacobs said she moved toward her son with outstretched arms but the female officer told her to back away, that she knew what she was doing. One of the other officers touched the holster holding his revolver and also told her to get back, the mother said.

So she did. The Taser was still discharging, Jacobs said.

By that time, Michael was face down, his arms crossed against his chest. Drool spilled from his mouth, and a police officer wiped it away, the parents said.

Family seeks answers

Michael Jacobs Sr. said Friday that he is pleased that Peerwani’s report supported some of what they had seen. After four months of no news, the family was beginning to believe that a cover-up was in the works, he said.

“The medical examiner surprised me,” he said. “He made the right call.”

On Thursday, Police Chief Jeff Halstead said police shootings have dropped 30 percent in the eight years that Tasers have been in use.

“The use of these devices provided a safer environment for officers dealing with possibly violent situations,” Halstead said.

City Councilman Frank Moss, whose district includes the Jacobses’ home, said in a statement that the case will be turned over to a grand jury.

“It will be put in the hands of the citizens,” Moss’ statement said. “I believe this independent body will be able to provide a rational judgment on what actions should be taken to address this tragedy. Our police officers have a duty to provide a high level of service that our citizens deserve.”

Brian Eberstein, a civil attorney representing the Jacobs family, said he plans to sue the city next week. A suit is necessary to answer some of the family’s questions, he said

Michael Jacobs Jr. had a 4-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter, who live with their mothers, Charlotte Jacobs said.

“I would like to see justice done for my son. I would like this to never happen to another family. If the police had just come to me after this happened and said, ‘I’m sorry,’ none of this would be needed. The police are supposed to be here to protect and serve. Not to kill.”

Fort Worth police officer says she ‘unknowingly’ held down Taser’s trigger, medical examiner’s report says

Star Telegram | Aug. 28, 2009

By ELIZABETH ZAVALA

FORT WORTH — A Fort Worth police officer said she “unknowingly” held the trigger down on her Taser when she fired the first of two shots at a mentally ill man, according to a report released Friday by the Tarrant County medical examiner.

The man, Michael Jacobs Jr., 24, died after being shot twice with the Taser — the first hit lasted 49 seconds — and Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani has ruled the death a homicide.

Police have said they will turn their investigation over to the Tarrant County district attorney’s office so prosecutors can prepare a case for the grand jury.

According to the report, police Cpl. Stephanie A. Phillips told a detective after the incident that she “unknowingly kept the Taser trigger engaged for an unknown amount of time when she first applied the Taser, thus increasing the pre-programmed shock duration cycle of five seconds.”

The report states that when Jacobs “continued to struggle,” Phillips warned him again that if he did not “cease fighting and comply with officers’ requests, she would shock him again. When [Jacobs] failed to cooperate, Phillips shocked him a second time,” according to the report.

Fort Worth lawyer Jim Lane, who is representing Phillips, said Friday that “we will present our case to the grand jury, and I believe she will be exonerated.”

Lane declined to comment on specifics of the case, but he noted that the medical examiner’s homicide ruling “is not the same thing as murder, and I want people to realize that before they judge the officer,” he said.

The incident

According to a police statement released after Jacobs’ death, his parents called 911 about 10:30 a.m. April 18 to report that their son was being uncooperative.

Police arrived first. Then MedStar arrived at 10:36 a.m., but police turned the crew away, a MedStar official has said.

At 11:04 a.m., police called paramedics back after Jacobs had been subdued with the Taser.

According to Peerwani’s report, Jacobs was warned by Phillips that she was going to fire the Taser at him and he replied: “Go ahead, I’ve always wanted to see what that feels like anyway.”

Phillips then shocked him twice with a city-issued Taser X26 Electronic Control Device.

Peerwani said that after the first Taser deployment of 49 seconds, the second deployment, after an interval of one second, lasted five seconds.

“Jacobs fell face down with his arms across under his chest. There were repeated verbal commands made to Jacobs to pull his arms behind his back, which Jacobs failed to comply,” according to the report.

“After handcuffing, Jacobs was turned over, when he was noted to progress to respiratory difficulty. He began to drool, then he quit breathing and became unresponsive.”

Officers at the scene “did not initiate cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Attempts by paramedics from MedStar and the emergency room staff at John Peter Smith to revive failed and Jacobs was pronounced dead” at noon, according to Peerwani’s report.

Jacobs died of “sudden death during neuromuscular incapacitation due to application of a conducted energy device,” Peerwani ruled.

“Although there was a history of drug abuse, repeat postmortem toxicology studies were negative for all drugs including psychomotor stimulant drugs and ethanol,” Peerwani’s report states.

Alternative to guns

Tasers are marketed as a safer alternative to guns for law officers.

Agencies nationwide use them, and the Fort Worth Police Department began using them in 2001.

Although law enforcement agencies say the devices are safe, critics have contended that a Taser can be as deadly as a gun.

Tasers deliver a 50,000-volt shock that can temporarily immobilize a person.

But the company that manufactures and markets the devices says “voltage becomes irrelevant without a discussion of the corresponding amount of electric current,” which is measured in amperes, according to Taser International.

The average current delivered by a Taser X26 ECD is less than that of an average Christmas tree light bulb, according to Taser International.

No charges for officer in teen Taser death

No charges for officer in Taser case

Taser not ‘definitively excluded as … factor’ in death

martinsvillebulletin.com | Aug 28, 2009

By DEBBIE HALL – Bulletin Staff Writer

A Martinsville police officer was cleared of any wrongdoing in the case of a teenager who died after a Taser was used to subdue him, according to Botetourt County Commonwealth’s Attorney Joel Branscom.

Derek Jones, 17, died Jan. 8 of “acute cardiac dysrhythmia of uncertain etiology (cause),” Branscom said the autopsy determined. That means “basically, his heart quit,” he added.

The autospy also stated that the Taser cannot be “definitively excluded as a causative or contributive factor” in Jones’ death, Branscom said.

The teen “died suddenly about the same time” the Taser was used, but “the officer did nothing inappropriate to contribute to his death,” Branscom said.

The officer involved in the case was Martinsville Police Officer M.L. Wray.

Can Bill Gates stop hurricanes? Scientists doubt it

bill_gates_talking_about_windows_vista

Hurricane experts doubt feasibility of Bill Gates-backed weather-control idea

CNN | Aug 28, 2009

By Ayesha Tejpar

(CNN) — Hurricane experts are throwing cold water on an idea backed by billionaire Microsoft founder Bill Gates aimed at controlling the weather.

Gates and a dozen other scientists have raised eyebrows by submitting patent applications for a technology to reduce the danger of approaching hurricanes by cooling ocean temperatures.

It’s a noble idea, given the horrible memories from Hurricane Katrina, which slammed into the Gulf Coast four years ago this week.

The storm, which rated a frightening Category 3 when it made landfall in Louisiana, was blamed for $81 billion in damaged and destroyed property and the deaths of more than 1,800 men, women and children.

Skeptics applaud the motive of the concept but question its feasibility.

“The enormity of it, in order to do something effective, we’d have to do something at a scale that humans have never really done before,” said Gabriel Vecchi, a research scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Hurricanes are fueled by warm water, and cooling the waters surrounding a storm would slow a storm’s momentum.

According to the patents, many tub-like barges would be placed directly in the path of an oncoming storm. Each barge would have two conduits, each 500 feet long.

One conduit would push the warm water from the ocean’s surface down. The other would bring up cold water where it lies deep undersea.

World reknowned hurricane expert William Gray, who’s been studying and predicting the storms for a half-century, also doubts whether the proposal would work.

“The problem is the storms come up so rapidly,” said Gray, a professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University. “You only get two to three days warning. It’s very difficult to bring up enough cold water in two to three days to have much effect.”

The idea itself isn’t groundbreaking, according to Gray, who said it could only be feasible if the barges were put into place at the beginning of hurricane season with the idea that storms will come.

“But you might do all that, and perhaps no storms would come. That’s an economic problem,” Gray said.

Even if the technology does work, Gray said it won’t completely halt a hurricane.

“There is no way to stop it. The storm might weaken in the center, but the outer areas wouldn’t be affected much.”

And flooding and storm surges are determined by these outer winds, Gray said.

When word of Gates’ five patent applications first made headlines in July, alarmed bloggers lit up the Internet, expressing fears that playing with ocean temperatures could lead to catastrophe, possibly forcing a storm in a different direction.

That’s not likely, said Kerry Emanuel, a professor in atmospheric sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“You’re doing something to the ocean that the hurricane would have done anyway,” Emanuel said.

Cold water that churns up during a storm slows down a hurricane naturally. But the coldest water is usually at the rear of the storm, so sometimes it’s too late to weaken [the storm], Emanuel said.

“The key is doing it a little sooner than the storm itself does it and make [the hurricane] weaker than it would have been,” he said. “There are enough experiments to find out whether hurricanes’ natural cooling could steer the storm in a different location, and the answer is no, or it’s a very small chance.”

While Emanuel believes the physics are conceivable, he says the cost of implementing the system shouldn’t outweigh the benefit.

“This would only be practical if the amount [of money] you spend doing this would be less than the damage caused by the hurricane,” Emanuel said.

Gates and scientist Ken Caldeira, both listed as inventors on the patents, did not respond to CNN’s requests to comment about their venture.

The patents, which were only made public last month by the U.S. Patent and Trade Office, were filed in January by Searete LLC. The company is a subsidiary of Intellectual Ventures, an invention firm run by Microsoft’s former chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold.

A spokeswoman for Intellectual Ventures, which holds about 27,000 technology patents, didn’t elaborate on the cost associated with the patent.

“At this point, there are no plans for deployment, so there is no talk of funding,” she said, adding that it could take up to 18 months for the patent application to be approved.

Regardless, inventors say that this technology is not something they’ll be rushing to use anytime soon.

“This type of technology is not something humankind would use as a ‘Plan A’ or ‘Plan B,'” Paul “Pablos” Holman, an inventor in the Intellectual Ventures laboratory, wrote on the company blog.

“These inventions are a ‘Plan C,’ where humans decide that we’ve exhausted all our behavior changing and alternative energy options and need to rely on mitigation technologies. If our planet is in this severe situation, then our belief is that we should not be starting from scratch at investigating mitigation options.”

Hurricane expert Gray agrees.

“I don’t think this is anything that’s going to be done in the next few decades in a practical sense, but maybe further down the line,” Gray said. “I would love to see Bill Gates, with all his money, use some of it to experiment.”

Summer has gone AWOL, record chill possible

The Capital Times | Aug 30, 2009

A record chill is possible in the Madison area Sunday night, as August comes to an end with weather more fit for late October.

Sunny skies are forecast with a high of 66 degrees — up a bit from Saturday’s high of 61 — but it will get substantially colder as the night progresses. Weather Central meteorologist Brandon Swedlund is calling for an overnight low of 37 degrees, which would match the all-time record low for Aug. 31, set in 1967.

“It doesn’t feel like August at all, for sure,” Swedlund said.

The normal low for Madison does not dip to 37 degrees until Oct. 20.

Swedlund said that the missing-in-action summer may return by midweek, as temperatures are forecasted in the mid-70s, back in their normal range. Saturday’s high temp of 61 was 16 degrees below normal.

The summer revival should begin in earnest Monday, with patchy fog in the morning giving way to sunny skies and temps around 70.