Satellite images shed light on the impact of the Syrian conflict

In recent years darkness has enveloped Syria, not only metaphorically but also literally.


The results indicate that night-time light and lit area in Syria declined by about 74% and 73%, respectively, between March 2011 and February 2014. In 12 of 14 provinces, night-time light declined by >60%. Damascus and Quneitra are the exceptions, with night-time light having declined only by about 35%. Notably, the number of internally displaced persons IDPs of each province shows a linear correlation with night-time light loss, with an R2 value of 0.52. [ . . . ] These findings lend support to the hypothesis that night-time light can be a useful source for monitoring humanitarian crises such as that unfolding in Syria.

via Satellite images shed light on the impact of the Syrian conflict (h/t Colonel Cassad)

Monsanto moves into ‘natural’ plant breeding | Wired Science

Monsanto computer models can actually predict inheritance patterns, meaning they can tell which desired traits will successfully be passed on. It’s breeding without breeding, plant sex in silico. In the real world, the odds of stacking 20 different characteristics into a single plant are one in 2 trillion. In nature, it can take a millennium. Monsanto can do it in just a few years.

And this all happens without any genetic engineering. Nobody inserts a single gene into a single genome. They could, and in fact sometimes do, look at their crosses by engineering a plant as a kind of beta test. But those aren’t intended to leave the lab. Stark and his colleagues realized that they could use these technologies to identify a cross that would have highly desirable traits and grow the way they wanted. And they could actually charge more for it—all the benefits of a GMO with none of the stigma.

via Monsanto Is Going Organic in a Quest for the Perfect Veggie – Wired Science.

A ‘gas bridge’ too far? | Business Spectator

Many see shale gas as a saviour, the “bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change” as Obama put it recently.

Examined more closely, its merits are doubtful. An article in “Business Spectator” laid out the two principal downsides.

First, the greenhouse gas emissions

The Environmental Protection Agency has pegged natural gas leakage from production at 1.5 per cent. But the agency tends to rely on industry-provided numbers. A separate study by 15 scientists from institutions including Harvard, NOAA and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab looked at comprehensive atmospheric data and models, and concluded the leakage was at least 3 per cent. At 2.7 per cent or more, natural gas loses any advantage over coal in terms of its greenhouse effect.

That finding is backed up by other, more local studies by NOAA, which found a 4 per cent leakage rate from natural gas production around Denver, a 6-to-12 per cent rate from production in Colorado’s Uintah Basin, and a 17 per cent rate in the Los Angeles basin. Continue reading

The US has 43 nuclear power plants’ worth of solar energy in the pipeline |Quartz

The boom in solar energy in the US in recent years? You haven’t seen anything yet. The pipeline of photovoltaic projects has grown 7% over the past 12 months and now stands at 2,400 solar installations that would generate 43,000 megawatts MW [equal to Australia’s total current generating capacity], according to a report released today by market research firm NPD Solarbuzz.

via The US has 43 nuclear power plants’ worth of solar energy in the pipeline – Quartz.

Stuxnet’s Secret Twin | Foreign Policy

The sober reality is that at a global scale, pretty much every single industrial or military facility that uses industrial control systems at some scale is dependent on its network of contractors, many of which are very good at narrowly defined engineering tasks, but lousy at cybersecurity. While experts in industrial control system security had discussed the insider threat for many years, insiders who unwittingly helped deploy a cyberweapon had been completely off the radar. Until Stuxnet.

And while Stuxnet was clearly the work of a nation-state — requiring vast resources and considerable intelligence — future attacks on industrial control and other so-called “cyber-physical” systems may not be. Stuxnet was particularly costly because of the attackers’ self-imposed constraints. Damage was to be disguised as reliability problems. I estimate that well over 50 percent of Stuxnet’s development cost went into efforts to hide the attack, with the bulk of that cost dedicated to the overpressure attack which represents the ultimate in disguise – at the cost of having to build a fully-functional mockup IR-1 centrifuge cascade operating with real uranium hexafluoride. Continue reading

AWS revolutionised startup economics | GigaOM

I had a ringside seat for the startup creation during the 1990s Internet boom and it was clear that in order for a web-based company to exist, the table stakes were about $2-to-$3 million. That money was spent on servers, storage systems, networking gear, database licenses and web server software. And that’s before taking into account the data center space rentals and bandwidth costs.

In short, if you didn’t have venture capitalists backing you, then getting going was a monumental task. A lot of that money went to line the pockets of Sun Microsystems, Oracle, Microsoft, IBM, EMC, Dell and Compaq/HP.

Today, all it takes to hang up a shingle is the proverbial dollar and a dream. It’s more like a credit card, Amazon account and an idea. In Silicon Valley, it is fashionable to laud and celebrate the accelerators and new funding tools such as AngelList, but to be fair, none of those would have much to do had it not been for AWS.

via New startup economics: Why Amazon (web services) and Dropbox need each other — GigaOM.


A recent Reuters article (“After disaster, the deadliest part of Japan’s nuclear clean-up”) proved something of a rabbit hole. Having ventured down into this unfamiliar terrain, new tunnels kept opening up.

The 2011 earthquake and tsunami left 400 tons of “highly irradiated spent fuel” more or less hanging in the sky 30 metres up in Reactor Building No 4. Its roof, and much else, was pulverised by a hydrogen explosion so there’s no containment structure left. Only desperate efforts in the immediate aftermath when all power sources were knocked out kept the pool in which the fuel rods are stored covered with water.

It wasn’t alone in suffering severe damage. Reactor Nos 1, 2 and 3 (which were all online when disaster struck) are now in permanent shutdown with their reactor cores largely or entirely melted down and sitting in intensely hot lumps at the bottom of their containment chambers. Vast quantities of water keep their temperature within tolerable bounds but much of it is leaking into the groundwater and, eventually, the Pacific.

What sets No 4 apart is three things. First, it has far more spent fuel in its cooling pond then any of the others because for maintenance purposes the entire fuel contents of its reactor had been transferred to the pond only four months previously. Second, because of that transfer, some 550 of the 1231 used fuel rod assemblies were much more radioactive than normal. And, finally, the building itself is structurally unsound. Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) have done some shoring up, but it wouldn’t take too much of a shake to crack it, or maybe even tip it over.

D-Day for TEPCO’s plan to move this spent fuel to a safer location is nigh. Since the infrastructure to handle spent fuel was destroyed, they’ve had to recreate that capacity from scratch. Handling fuel rod assemblies is a delicate business and no one can know if they’ll succeed. The plan is to start in November and finish within a year. It’s just one (particularly important) piece of the winddown of Fukushima, estimated by a spokesman “to take about 40 years and cost $11 billion.” The total cost for Japan may range up to $100 billion.

There were some alarming scenarios raised in the article.

No one knows how bad it can get, but independent consultants Mycle Schneider and Antony Froggatt said recently in their World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2013: “Full release from the Unit-4 spent fuel pool, without any containment or control, could cause by far the most serious radiological disaster to date.”

And Arnie Gunderson talked about a few ways that sort of release could happen. Continue reading