What I Learned Today – Feb. 18, 2014

We don’t know what happens to most of the wastewater from fracking.

With the escalating use of fracking for natural gas extraction in the United States, the potential for groundwater contamination is a growing concern. While millions of gallons of water are pumped underground, only 8% of that water is recovered, and research teams were only able to track 38% of that resulting wastewater. Practices for storing and treating wastewater have improved in recent years, but growing scarcity of drinking water in fracking-heavy states such as Texas means that much of this must be recycled. The potential for accidents or bad actors weighs heavily. What’s worse, a 2005 law makes the water pumped underground in hydraulic fracturing exempt from regulation by the EPA under the Underground Injection Control program (UIC).

What I Learned Today – Feb. 12, 2014

1. Scientists are producing nuclear fusion with giant lasers.

The laser is known as the National Ignition Facility, or NIF. Constructed at a cost of more than $3 billion, it consists of 192 beams that take up the length of three football fields. For a brief moment, the beams can focus 500 trillion watts of power — more power than is being used in that same time across the entire United States — onto a target about the width of a No. 2 pencil.

Omar Hurricane, a researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, says that for the first time, they’ve produced significant amounts of fusion by zapping a target with their laser. “We’ve gotten more energy out of the fusion fuel than we put into the fusion fuel,” he says.

Wow, that is awesome. Maybe the coolest thing I’ve heard this year. This dude’s name is Omar Hurricane? Obviously, it’s pretty cool that they have produced nuclear fusion. But I can’t get over the fact that this guy’s name is Omar Hurricane.

2. Endangered wildlife is in danger from organized crime.

The high price of ivory and other animal products have encouraged the slaughter of endangered animals. The number of rhinos poached has gone from 100 to 1,000 in the last decade, and the culprits seem to be gangs and organized crime. Conservationists are simply no match for these criminal organizations, who see little risk in poaching.

In many cases, the people who traffic these products are the same people who sell illegal drugs, weapons and even humans. But the consequences for selling wildlife products are far less severe, notes Jonathan Bailey, director of conservation programs at the Zoological Society of London.

3. Canadians are still awesome.

What I Learned Yesterday – Feb. 10, 2014

1. Scientists can keep organs alive outside the body.

A team of doctors and engineers have invented a device that keeps lungs and hearts functioning outside the body by pumping blood and oxygen through them. The current method of putting them in an ice cooler gives doctors a limit of 5 to 10 hours before the organ starts to shut down, which means the organs must be transported and quickly placed into a new body. This new invention has the potential to save lives by extending that time frame, and increasing the success rates of transplants.

“On an annual basis, more than 30 or 40 hearts in Hawaii go unused,” Ardehali says. “Because of the distance, these hearts cannot be transported to the mainland.”

2. Family planning funding in danger in California.

Due to the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, Planned Parenthood clinics in California will take a hit in their funding. Most of these clinics are now almost entirely funded by the Family PACT (Planning Access Care and Treatment) program, which covered 2 million uninsured men and women in California. However, under the Affordable Care Act, many of these patients will become eligible for Medicaid, which has much lower reimbursement rates.

“Providers are looking at 2014 with a great deal of trepidation,” Kneer says. “Our landlord’s not going to take a rate cut, our utilities aren’t going to take rate cuts, our staff are already undercompensated. It’s very difficult. We just have to reduce services.”

3. Some Texans are having to pay more for using less water.

Many towns in Texas undergoing severe drought have issued restrictions on water usage, which in turn has resulted in lost revenue from water sales from those towns. The public utilities are forced to raise their rates, meaning consumers are paying more money for using less water.

“We’re paying to save water, is what we’re doing,” Mr. Dockery said. He added that the city has had to defer important maintenance projects because of the lost revenue.

Citizens forced to use less water, and towns forced to delay maintenance projects as a result of shortages are serious consequences. What’s worse, it’s oil and gas companies who have been exacerbating this issue with hydraulic fracturing, accounting for up to 25% of the water use in some communities. Of the 97 billion gallons of water used in fracking wells since 2011, half of that was used in Texas.

What I Learned Today – Feb. 5, 2014

1. Nigeria’s state oil firm somehow lost $20 billion.

Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil producer, but the vast majority of its 166 million inhabitants live on less than $2 a day.

It’s interesting, because I was at an Associated SAP User Group (ASUG) meeting today and was speaking with a few women about their work on this very issue. They work at the Financial Services Volunteer Corps, which sends volunteers to advise governments in emerging economies about handle problems such as these. They were seeking to learn more about SAP HANA to find out if more complicated financial auditing software could help prevent the systemic fraud and corruption often found in African state-run industries.

2. There might have been a terrorist attack on a power grid in California last April?

I guess that’s quite a headline to be buried at #2, but this story strangely hasn’t received a lot of attention. This NPR article picks up on a Wall Street Journal feature that follows up a report by Foreign Policy magazine. The report details a sniper attack that knocked out 17 transformers in San Jose, CA last April. Although the FBI stated that it believes terrorists are not responsible, there are doubts among others. It will be interesting to see whether any more details emerge, although it’s very odd that it hasn’t received more airtime already.

What I Learned Today – Feb. 4, 2014

1. Congressmen with varying degrees of legislative success are retiring.

It’s safe to say Congress will get along just fine without Robert Andrews (D-NJ), who has written 646 bills, and passed exactly 0. The same cannot be said of Henry Waxman (D-CA), who had a hand in writing important legislation involving public health, safety, and particularly environmental issues, co-authoring Cap-and-Trade legislation and adding important amendments to the Clean Air Act..

2. Being a journalist in Egypt is more dangerous now than under Mubarak.

After removing the Muslim Brotherhood from power, the military leadership has cracked down on dissident voices, and journalists who have been supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood may find themselves charged with support for terrorism. It is a disturbing turn for a country that looked to be headed away from oppression.

On Friday, the state media office released a statement seeking to reassure journalists that “constructive criticism” would not be criminalized. But it also warned them that freedom of “thought and opinion” is not protected under Egyptian law, and that some forms of contact with the Brotherhood might still be criminal, “if this contact is a sort of assisting or inciting.”

3. We have a new world record holder.

A river of ice in Greenland has become the fastest-flowing glacier currently known in the world, a study suggests.

In summer, the Jakobshavn Glacier – widely thought to have spawned the iceberg that sank the Titanic – is moving about four times faster than it was in the 1990s.

Call me a cynic, but I find it hard to believe there aren’t performance-enhancing drugs in this story. If not though, fastest-moving glacier is quite the record to have. A bit like the world’s tallest dwarf, isn’t it?

What I Learned Today – Feb. 3, 2014

1. Robots are becoming poets.

There is the twitter bot @pentametron, which culls and organizes tweets into iambic pentameter.

Other examples abound: A bot that mines New York Times articles for haikus. Designed by the Times resident software architect, it spins haikus like this from articles like “The Fear of Surrendering Again,” it produced this particularly poetic gem:

He has a mind as

fascinating to me as

the city itself.

And then of course, there’s also the Chinese rover Jade Rabbit, whose broadcasted messages to Earth became philosophical and oddly existential after it suffered a fatal breakdown.

I am but a tiny dot in the vast picture of mankind’s adventure in space.

-Jade Rabbit

2. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is open to an occupation by NATO.

The Palestinian leader sat down with the NY Times and suggested that a NATO force could occupy a Palestinian state indefinitely, to guarantee both their security and that of the Israelis.

“We will be demilitarized,” he added. “Do you think we have any illusion that we can have any security if the Israelis do not feel they have security?”

While there are still large differences between the two sides, these types of statements give one optimism for a two-state solution. It’s not often someone suggests that NATO should occupy their territory.

3. The Keystone pipeline is believed to have little impact on climate change. 

That is the conclusion of a U.S. State Department environmental review which was released this weekend. Since Canada’s oil sands will be developed, the oil will find its way to market regardless. The study concluded that the pipeline would not speed development of the oil sands, and so would not contribute to greenhouse-gas emissions in a meaningful way.

What I Learned Today – Jan. 30, 2014

I learned a few things today, and I want to share them.

1. Congress is still sending weapons to Syrian rebels

This is something I feel very conflicted about. On the one hand, we are fueling a civil war in which allegiances are murky and neither side is above committing savage and appalling acts. On the other hand, it keeps pressure on a tyrannical regime which is well behind schedule on eliminating its chemical weapons arsenal, and has apparently been carrying out the mass-demolition of thousands of homes, another war crime. There are no good answers. At this point one can only hope the two sides would rather continue talking than shed more blood.

2. North Dakota is setting natural gas on fire.

Oil and natural gas produced from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota has provided a lot of jobs for the state. But the infrastructure to store and ship natural gas has not been able to keep up with production, and natural gas is being burned because it cannot be used.

“People are estimating it’s about $1 million a day just being thrown into the air,” says Marcus Stewart, an energy analyst with Bentek Energy. Stewart tracks the amount of gas burned off — or flared — in the state, and his latest figures show that drillers are burning about 27 percent of the gas they produce.

The economics of energy extraction are interesting, but  North Dakotans who would obtain royalties from the energy produced are losing money, and that’s not to mention the questionable environmental impacts of drilling for natural gas. 


That’s what I learned today.