Around the web 1/29/2011

Credit: Missouri Department of Conservation

Mountain lion in St. Louis County! — This doesn’t happen too often. A night-time wildlife camera captured a mountain lion in suburban St. Louis, less than ten miles from our home. We’re a little more used to opossums, raccoons, deer, and wild turkeys around here.

I don’t worry too much about mountain lions when hiking in Missouri. I’ve never seen one in the wild while hiking in the West (I’ve lived in Montana, Utah, and Colorado), but I suspect they have seen me.

From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Mountain lion spotted in suburban St. Louis.

From the Missouri Department of Conservation: Chesterfield sighting confirmed to be a mountain lion.

Yellowstone Supervolcano eruption NOT imminent — From National Geographic: Yellowstone Has Bulged as Magma Pocket Swells. The ground within the Yellowstone Caldera has swelled upwards up to ten inches (25 centimeters) as magma slowly intrudes into a magma chamber 10 kilometers beneath the surface.

“At the beginning we were concerned it could be leading up to an eruption,” said [University of Utah geologist] Smith, who co-authored a paper on the surge published in the December 3, 2010, edition of Geophysical Research Letters.

“But once we saw [the magma] was at a depth of ten kilometers, we weren’t so concerned. If it had been at depths of two or three kilometers [one or two miles], we’d have been a lot more concerned.”

Apparently, intrusion into the magma chamber is somewhat cyclical:

Based on geologic evidence, Yellowstone has probably seen a continuous cycle of inflation and deflation over the past 15,000 years, and the cycle will likely continue, Smith said.

Surveys show, for example, that the caldera rose some 7 inches (18 centimeters) between 1976 and 1984 before dropping back about 5.5 inches (14 centimeters) over the next decade.

IBM Supercomputer wins Jeopardy — The 1997 computer victory over chess champion Garry Kasparov was nothing compared to this one. Chess is complex, but the logic of chess is nothing compared to the complexities of language as expressed in the TV gameshow Jeopardy. reports that the Watson supercomputer defeated two Jeopardy champions at the game, which means that the computer could understand the nuances of the categories and questions (actually the answers). The author believes that artificial intelligence (AI) will operate at human levels within two decades, and adds “I for one would then regard it as human.” He continues, “By the time the controversy dies down and it becomes unambiguous that nonbiological intelligence is equal to biological human intelligence, the AIs will already be thousands of times smarter than us.”

From PC Magazine: Why IBM’s Jeopardy Victory Matters (three parts) by Ray Kurzweil.

My questions:

  • Is there more to being human than being able to process information? (The Christian answer is “yes.” Humans are created in the image of God, and some things such as genuine emotions just cannot be programmed.)
  • How long will it be until someone falls in love with a computer? Until someone gets married to a computer?
  • What will stop the Episcopal Church or ELCA from ordaining computers as pastors? (Too bad these denominations don’t require baptism by immersion; that would prevent computers from being eligible for ordination).

HT: John C

Ski Joring Championship — Huh? From the Billings Gazette: World Ski Joring Championships in Whitefish.

The event involves horses and riders pulling a skier who navigates a course with a series of jumps and gates.

Somehow I missed that in the last Winter Olympics.

Stairs are more fun — I almost always take the stairs at work, rather than the elevator. I figure that I climb about 40,000 feet per year, which is more than climbing Mount Everest. But the stairs at work are not this fun…

Grace and Peace

Renewable by 2030?

From National Geographic: Going “All the Way”: With Renewable Energy?

In a world where fossil fuel provides more than 80 percent of energy, what would it take to go completely green? Could the world switch over to power from only the wind, sun, waves, and heat from the Earth in only a few decades?

The article explores what it would take to get 100% of the world’s energy needs by 2030, and looks at a few of the obstacles. The researchers highlighted in the article propose doing all of this without reliance on biofuels or nuclear energy.

I believe that we must switch to renewable energy sources, and the sooner the better. Our present over-dependence on fossil fuels is bad for the economy, bad for the environment, and bad for national and world security. The solution isn’t “drill baby drill,” and it isn’t just sitting around and letting the market take care of our problems (the market tends to be rather blind to the future on things like this). We need energy policies that have our great-great-great grandchildren in mind, not just the next election.

Here are a few of my thoughts and questions:

  • Why try to go 100% without biofuels?
  • Why try to go 100% without nuclear? I’m not a huge fan of nuclear energy, but recognize it as a useful transitional energy source.
  • Being that wind/solar/waves/geothermal only account for 3% of our energy now, is it realistic to aim for 100% renewable by 2030?
  • For a more realistic target, could we aim for 50% (or some other number) dependence on renewable energy sources by 2030?
  • Many of these renewable technologies require other resources that are in short supply, such as rare earth elements. What will the negative consequences of a rapid move to 100% renewable be? (And what are the negative consequences of the status quo?)

Grace and Peace

HT: The Green Life

Arthur C. Clarke and GPS

Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke was not only one of the first persons to conceive of geostationary communications satellites, he may have also been the first to come up with the idea of the Global Positioning System (GPS). From the Winter 2010/2011 issue of ArcNews: Rendezvous with Reality — Arthur C. Clarke Sees the Future.

Author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke was known worldwide for his science fiction writings, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rendezvous with Rama, but he was also one of the most important visionaries of the last century-most notably, he originated the concept of the geostationary communications satellite in 1945. In 1956, however, Clarke wrote a letter to Andrew G. Haley, president of the American Rocket Society, where he described one potential use for a geostationary communications satellite, to create a “position-finding grid whereby anyone on earth could locate himself by means of a couple of dials on an instrument about the size of a watch”-what we now know as GPS.

The print edition of ArcNews contains a copy of the origin letter along with a transcription. Here’s part of what Clarke wrote:

My general conclusions are that perhaps in 30 years the orbital relay system may take over all the functions of existing surface networks and provide others quite impossible today. For example, the three stations in the 24-hour orbit could provide not only an interference and censorship-free global TV service for the same power as a single modern transmitter, but could also make possible a position-finding grid whereby anyone on earth could locate himself by means of a couple of dials on an instrument about the size of a watch. (A development of Decca and transistorisation.) It might even make possible world-wide person-to-person radio with automatic dialling. Thus no-one on the planet need ever get lost or become out of touch with the community, unless he wanted to be. I’m still thinking about the social consequences of this!

I like that: “No-one on the planet need ever get lost… unless he wanted to be.”

For some reason, the PDF version of ArcNews has a couple of advertisements on page 27 in place of the article on Clarke.

Grace and Peace

P.S. Note that the link to Global Positioning System above takes you to a U.S. Government site written in Chinese. A sign of the times.

Bad fish, bad Wikipedia

I use Wikipedia quite a bit, mainly for getting public domain images for classroom PowerPoint lectures. I occasionally run across vandalism, such as this:


That is the entire article on “Fish.” I guess that is what you get when you have a “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.”

Ninety percent of the time, Wikipedia is pretty good, but I look forward to whatever eventually replaces “Wikipedia” as a better, massive online source of information.

Grace and Peace

All the computer I’ll ever need

mac.pngSpeaking of 1980s computer technology, I wrote my thesis for my Master’s degree on the first Macintosh computer, which came out in 1984. It had an internal 3.5 inch floppy drive, and no hard drive. I remember thinking, “I can write a report, edit it, and even draw pictures. What else would I ever want to do?” And I could do it with style; the PC guys in the office were staring at green or amber text on their little screens. I guess I can do more on my present PC laptop or iMac desktop, but that first Mac (it wasn’t mine, it was the Geology department’s) was wonderful.

Grace and Peace