Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "Marcus Stern and Sebastian Jones report on Bloomberg that as federal regulators continue investigating why tank cars on three trains carrying North Dakota crude oil have exploded in the past eight months, energy experts say part of the problem might be that some producers are deliberately leaving too much propane in their product, making the oil riskier to transport by rail. Sweet light crude from the Bakken Shale formation has long been known to be especially rich in volatile natural gas liquids like propane and while there's no way to completely eliminate natural gas liquids from crude, well operators are supposed to use separators at the wellhead to strip out gases before shipping the oil. The worry is that some producers are adjusting the pressure settings to leave in substantial amounts of natural gas liquids and purposefully selling their crude "fluffed up" with propane to maximize their profits. "There is a strong suspicion that a number of producers are cheating. They generally want to simply fill up the barrel and sell it—and there are some who are not overly worried about quality," says Alan J. Troner. "I suspect that some are cheating and this is a suspicion that at least some refiners share." As an oil train shakes, rattles and rolls toward the refinery, the propane begins to separate from the liquid and turning into gas. If one of those cars ruptures, the propane gas inside will likely make contact with outside air. If the gas is ignited—perhaps by a spark thrown off when the car rips open or maybe a spark thrown up from steel wheels scraping over steel tracks—the car can explode. Then the burning car can act like a blowtorch on the tanker next to it and at that point, railcars can explode in domino fashion. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) recently issued a safety alert that recent derailments and resulting fires indicate that the type of crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil. "It's typical of this type of oil. So it's not surprising. There's no mystery to it especially if it were in a tanker not meant to carry that type of fluid," says Ramanan Krishnamoorti referring to the much-criticized DOT-111, a black, torpedo-shaped railcar designed in the 1960s that has become the workhorse of the crude-rail industry. Washington doesn’t appear to be in a rush to address the problem. On January 23, investigators at the US National Transportation Safety Board made broad recommendations that would have big consequences: They said crude oil should meet the same restrictions as toxic chemicals, which must be routed on tracks away from population centers. “The large-scale shipment of crude oil by rail simply didn’t exist 10 years ago, and our safety regulations need to catch up,” says NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman. “While this energy boom is good for business, the people and the environment along rail corridors must be protected from harm.”"
Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "Dick Ahlstrom reports that Irish researchers have discovered a previously unknown model of the universe written in 1931 by physicist Albert Einstein that had been misfiled and effectively “lost” until its discovery last August while researchers been searching through a collection of Einstein’s papers put online by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “I was looking through drafts, but then slowly realised it was a draft of something very different,” says Dr O’Raifeartaigh. “I nearly fell off my chair. It was hidden in perfect plain sight. This particular manuscript was misfiled as a draft of something else.” In his paper, radically different from his previously known models of the universe, Einstein speculated the expanding universe could remain unchanged and in a “ steady state” because new matter was being continuously created from space. “It is what Einstein is attempting to do that would surprise most historians, because nobody had known this idea. It was later proposed by Fred Hoyle in 1948 and became controversial in the 1950s, the steady state model of the cosmos,” says O’Raifeartaigh. Hoyle argued that space could be expanding eternally and keeping a roughly constant density. It could do this by continually adding new matter, with elementary particles spontaneously popping up from space. Particles would then coalesce to form galaxies and stars, and these would appear at just the right rate to take up the extra room created by the expansion of space. Hoyle’s Universe was always infinite, so its size did not change as it expanded. It was in a ‘steady state’. “This finding confirms that Hoyle was not a crank,” says Simon Mitton. “If only Hoyle had known, he would certainly have used it to punch his opponents." Although Hoyle’s model was eventually ruled out by astronomical observations, it was at least mathematically consistent, tweaking the equations of Einstein’s general theory of relativity to provide a possible mechanism for the spontaneous generation of matter. Einstein's paper attracted no attention because Einstein abandoned it after he spotted a mistake and then didn’t publish it but the fact that Einstein experimented with the steady-state concept demonstrates Einstein's continued resistance to the idea of a Big Bang, which he at first found “abominable”, even though other theoreticians had shown it to be a natural consequence of his general theory of relativity."
Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "Amanda Solliday reports at Symmetry that six months ago, organizers of a biweekly forum on Large Hadron Collider physics at Fermilab banned PowerPoint presentations in favor of old-fashioned, chalkboard-style talks. “Without slides, the participants go further off-script, with more interaction and curiosity,” says Andrew Askew. “We wanted to draw out the importance of the audience.” In one recent meeting, physics professor John Paul Chou of Rutgers University presented to a full room holding a single page of handwritten notes and a marker. The talk became more dialogue than monologue as members of the audience, freed from their usual need to follow a series of information-stuffed slides flying by at top speed, managed to interrupt with questions and comments. Elliot Hughes, a Rutgers University doctoral student and a participant in the forum, says the ban on slides has encouraged the physicists to connect with their audience. “Frequently, in physics, presenters design slides for people who didn’t even listen to the talk in the first place,” says Hughes. “In my experience, the best talks could not possibly be fully understood without the speaker.”"
Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "Bloomberg reports that the oil industry is pressuring President Barack Obama to end the 41-year-old ban on most crude exports but British Petroleum (BP) isn’t waiting for a decision. The British oil giant has signed on to take at least 80 percent of the capacity of a new $360 million mini-refinery in Houston that will process crude just enough to escape restrictions on sales outside the country. “It’s a relatively inexpensive way around the export prohibition,” says Judith Dwarkin “You can lightly ruffle the hydrocarbons and they are considered processed and then they aren’t subject to the ban.” Amid a flood of new US oil, the demand for simple, one-step plants capable of transforming raw crude into exportable products such as propane is feeding a construction boom along the Gulf Coast. The first such mini-refinery, built for 1/10 the cost of a complex, full-scale refinery, is scheduled to open the first phase of its 100,000 barrel-a-day crude processing plant in July, The mini-refineries take advantage of the law that allows products refined from oil to be sold overseas, though not the raw crude itself. "The international buyers of these products will likely need to refine them further, so this is basically a veiled form of condensate exports,” says Leo Mariani."
Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "Kimberly Hefling reports from AP that the SAT college entrance exam is undergoing sweeping revisions in the first major update since 2005 which College Board officials say is needed to make the exam more representative of what students study in high school and the skills they need to succeed in college and afterward. The test should offer "worthy challenges, not artificial obstacles," says College Board President David Coleman. Scoring will return to a 1,600-point scale last used in 2004. (Fun Fact: Microsoft co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen earned scores of 1590 and 1600.) There will be a separate score for the optional essay and students will have the option of taking the test on computers. One of the biggest changes in the SAT is that the extra penalty for wrong answers, which discouraged guessing, will be eliminated and some vocabulary words will be replaced with words such as "synthesis" and "empirical" that are used more widely in classrooms and in work settings. Some high school and college admissions counselors say eliminating the penalty for wrong answers and making the essay optional could make the test less stressful for some students. According to Jeff Rickey "it will encourage students to consider the questions more carefully and to attempt them, where before if a cursory glance at a question made it seem too complex to them, they may go ahead and skip that question." College Board is also partnering with Khan Academy to address one of the greatest inequities around college entrance exams, namely the culture and practice of high-priced test preparation which critics call a tool to protect the interests of the elite. "For too long, there's been a well-known imbalance between students who could afford test-prep courses and those who couldn't," says Sal Khan, founder and executive director of Khan Academy. "We're thrilled to collaborate closely with the College Board to level the playing field by making truly world-class test-prep materials freely available to all students.""
Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "Dick Ahlstrom reports that Irish researchers have discovered a previously unknown model of the universe written in 1931 by physicist Albert Einstein that had been misfiled and effectively “lost” until its discovery last August while researchers been searching through a collection of Einstein’s papers put online by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “I was looking through drafts, but then slowly realised it was a draft of something very different,” says Dr O’Raifeartaigh. “I nearly fell off my chair. It was hidden in perfect plain sight. This particular manuscript was misfiled as a draft of something else.” In his paper, radically different from his previously known models of the universe, Einstein speculated the expanding universe could remain unchanged and in a “ steady state” because new matter was being continuously created from space. “It is what Einstein is attempting to do that would surprise most historians, because nobody had known this idea. It was later proposed by Fred Hoyle in 1948 and became controversial in the 1950s, the steady state model of the cosmos,” says O’Raifeartaigh. Hoyle argued that space could be expanding eternally and keeping a roughly constant density. It could do this by continually adding new matter, with elementary particles spontaneously popping up from space. Particles would then coalesce to form galaxies and stars, and these would appear at just the right rate to take up the extra room created by the expansion of space. Hoyle’s Universe was always infinite, so its size did not change as it expanded. It was in a ‘steady state’. “This finding confirms that Hoyle was not a crank,” says Simon Mitton. “If only Hoyle had known, he would certainly have used it to punch his opponents." Although Hoyle’s model was eventually ruled out by astronomical observations, it was at least mathematically consistent, tweaking the equations of Einstein’s general theory of relativity to provide a possible mechanism for the spontaneous generation of matter. The fact that Einstein experimented with the steady-state concept demonstrates Einstein's continued resistance to the idea of a Big Bang, which he at first found “abominable”, even though other theoreticians had shown it to be a natural consequence of his general theory of relativity."
Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "Thomas Kienzle reports at AP that a study has found that public health campaigns touting vaccines' effectiveness and debunking the links between autism and other health risks might actually be backfiring, and convincing parents to skip the shots for their kids. "Corrections of misperceptions about controversial issues like vaccines may be counterproductive in some populations," says Dr. Brendan Nyhan. "The best response to false beliefs is not necessarily providing correct information." In the study, researchers focused on the now-debunked idea that the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella (or MMR) caused autism. Surveying 1,759 parents, researchers found that while they were able to teach parents that the vaccine and autism were not linked, parents who were surveyed who had initial reservations about vaccines said they were actually less likely to vaccinate their children after hearing the researchers messages. Researchers looked at four methods designed to counter the myth that the MMR vaccine can cause autism. They gave people either information from health authorities about the lack of evidence for a connection, information about the danger of the three diseases the MMR vaccine protects against, pictures of children who had one of those three diseases, or a story about an infant who almost died from measles. At the study's start, the group of parents who were most opposed to vaccination said that on average, the chance they would vaccinate a future child against MMR was 70 percent. After these parents had been given information that the MMR vaccine does not cause autism, they said, on average, the chance they would vaccinate a future child was only 45 percent — even though they also said they were now less likely to believe the vaccine could cause autism. Nyhan says the exact reason for this phenomenon is unclear, but past research gives some hints. "We suggest that people are motivated to defend their more skeptical or less favorable attitudes towards vaccines." Given the range of groups with some impulse against vaccination, it likely won't be simple to find a message that works for everyone and also as vaccination rates are currently high, it's important that any strategies should focus on retaining these numbers and not raise more concerns, tipping parents who are willing to vaccinate away from doing so. "We shouldn't put too much weight on the idea that there's some magic message out there that will change people minds.""
Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "Randall Munroe's XKCD cartoon on the ICE/ISEE-3 spacecraft inspired me to do a little research on why Nasa can no long communicate with the International Cometary Explorer. Launched in 1978 ISEE-3 was the first spacecraft to be placed in a halo orbit at one of Earth-Sun Lagrangian points (L1). It was later (as ICE) sent to visit Comet Giacobini-Zinner and became the first spacecraft to do so by flying through a comet's tail passing the nucleus at a distance of approximately 7800 km. ICE has been in a heliocentric orbit since then, traveling just slightly faster than Earth and it's finally catching up to us from behind, and will return to Earth in August. According to Emily Lakdawalla, it's still functioning, broadcasting a carrier signal that the Deep Space Network successfully detected in 2008 and twelve of its 13 instruments were working when we last checked on its condition, sometime prior to 1999. Can we tell the spacecraft to turn back on its thrusters and science instruments after decades of silence and perform the intricate ballet needed to send it back to where it can again monitor the Sun? Unfortunately the answer to that question appears to be no. "The transmitters of the Deep Space Network, the hardware to send signals out to the fleet of NASA spacecraft in deep space, no longer includes the equipment needed to talk to ISEE-3. These old-fashioned transmitters were removed in 1999." Could new transmitters be built? Yes, but it would be at a price no one is willing to spend. "So ISEE-3 will pass by us, ready to talk with us, but in the 30 years since it departed Earth we've lost the ability to speak its language," concludes Lakdawalla. "I wonder if ham radio operators will be able to pick up its carrier signal — it's meaningless, I guess, but it feels like an honorable thing to do, a kind of salute to the venerable ship as it passes by.""
Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "Elizabeth Howell reports at Space.com that a Canadian team exploring Antarctica this month is testing Astroskin, a garment that fits over a person's upper body and is embedded with wireless sensors. The eight crewmembers of the the XPAntarctik expedition, who have vowed to use no motorized vehicles during their trek, are spending 45 days in a previously unexplored region of the continent and beaming their medical information back to the University of Quebec at Montreal while wearing Astroskin. Doctors can see each explorers' vital signs, including blood pressure, blood oxygen levels, heart rate, breathing rate, and skin temperature, as well as how well the they are sleeping and how they are moving. "The great thing about this technology is since it's wireless, it can be monitored at a distance," says CSA chief medical officer Raffi Kuyumijian. "People who live in remote communities, for example, will have an easy access to a doctor. They can have these shirts on them all the time. It can trigger alarms if something wrong is happening, and alert the doctors following at a distance." The Canadian team has not indicated when Astroskin could fly in space, but says it could be used on the International Space Station during future missions."
Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "Jon Butterworth has an interesting article at The Guardian about the idea of standpoint-independence in physics and the absence of “privileged observers.” The ASACUSA experiment at CERN plans to make a beam of antimatter, and measure the energy levels as the beam travels in a vacuum, away from the magnetic fields and away from any annihilating matter. The purpose of the experiment is to test CPT (Charge/Parity/Time) inversion to determine if the universe would look the same if we simultaneously swapped all matter for antimatter, left for right, and backwards in time for forwards in time. In string theory for example it is possible to violate this principle so the ASACUSA people plan to measure those antihydrogen energy levels very precisely. Any difference would mean a violation of CPT inversion symmetry. Physicist Ofer Lahav has some interesting observations in the article about how difficult it is these days for physicists to develop independent points of view on cosmology. "Having been surrounded by a culture in which communication is seen as generally a good thing, this came as a surprise to me, but it is a very good point," writes Butterworth. "We gain confidence in the correctness of ideas if they are arrived at independently from different points of view." A good example is the independent, almost simultaneous development of quantum electrodynamics by Richard Feynman, Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga. They all three had very different approaches, and Tomonaga in particular was working in wartime Japan, completely cut off from the others. Yet Freeman Dyson was able to prove that the theories each had provided for the quantum behavior of electrons and photons were not only all equally good at describing nature, but were all mathematically equivalent — that is, the same physics, seen from different points of view. Whether we are using thought experiments, antimatter beams, sophisticated instrumentation, or sending spaceships to the outer solar system, Butterworth says the ability for scientists to loosen the constraints of our own point of view is hugely important. "It is also, I think, closely related to the ability to put ourselves into the place of other people in society and to perceive ourselves as seen by them — to check our privilege, if you like. Imperfect and difficult, but a leap away from a childish self-centeredness and into adulthood.""
Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "BBC reports that when Dana Snay learned her father had been awarded an $80,000 cash settlement in an age-discrimination lawsuit against his former employer, she couldn't resist bragging about it on Facebook. "Mama and Papa Snay won the case against Gulliver," the teen posted to her 1,200 Facebook friends. "Gulliver is now officially paying for my vacation to Europe this summer. SUCK IT." Trouble was her father had signed a confidentiality agreement so the school refused to pay a dime and a Florida appeals court has found in the school's favor. “Snay violated the agreement by doing exactly what he had promised not to do,” wrote Judge Linda Ann Wells. “His daughter then did precisely what the confidentiality agreement was designed to prevent.” Snay's father said in depositions that he and his wife knew they had to say something to their daughter because she suffered “psychological scars” from issues during her enrollment at the school and was aware that they were in mediation with Gulliver attorneys. Attorneys say it's unlikely confiding in Dana Snay would have jeopardized the settlement — it was the facebook post that did them in. "Remember when all you had to worry about was your daughter posting naked selfies of herself on Facebook?" writes Elie Mystal at "Above the Law". "Now, things are worse.""
Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "Emily Sohn reports at Discovery Magazine that high levels of air pollution in Beijing, where levels of pollution have spiked above 750 micrograms per cubic meter, have caused a run on face masks as people look for ways to protect themselves from the smog while the capital is on its sixth day of an "orange" smog alert — the second-highest on the scale — with the air tasting gritty and visibility down to a few hundred meters. But experts say that under the hazards they’re facing the masks are unlikely to help much. In fact, images of masked citizens navigating the streets of Beijing highlight the false confidence that people put in face masks in all sorts of situations, including flu outbreaks and operating rooms . “For so long, people have worn these and believed they are effective,” says industrial hygienist Lisa Brosseau. “But I believe they give people a false sense of protecting themselves when they are really not getting much protection.” For a step up in protection, consumers can buy a category of mask known technically as N95 respirators, which are generally available at hardware stores. N95 facemasks are often used in industrial workplace situations to protect against things like lead dust and welding fumes, and they are certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to trap 95 percent of particles sent through them in testing situations. But in order to work N95 respirators need to be professionally fitted to each person’s individual face (PDF) to make sure there is a tight seal with no leaks and if they truly fit right, they are uncomfortable to wear. “If it’s going to work, it has to fit your face,” says Donald Milton. “If you buy a box of these things at the hardware store, it’s not clear you’re getting anything that’s going to work for you.”"
Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "Nick Statt reports at Cnet that at Apple's annual shareholder meeting Friday, Apple CEO Tim Cook shot down the suggestion from a conservative, Washington, DC-based think tank that Apple give up on environmental initiatives that don't contribute to the company's bottom line. The National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR), hasn't taken kindly to Apple's increasing reliance on green energy and said so in a statement issued to Apple ahead of the meeting. "We object to increased government control over company products and operations, and likewise mandatory environmental standards," said NCPPR General Counsel Justin Danhof demanding that the pledge be voted on at the meeting. "This is something [Apple] should be actively fighting, not preparing surrender." Cook responded that there are many things Apple does because they are right and just, and that a return on investment (ROI) was not the primary consideration on such issues. "When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind. I don't consider the bloody ROI," said Cook. "We do a lot of things for reasons besides profit motive, We want to leave the world better than we found it." Danhof's proposal was voted down and to any who found the company's environmental dedication either ideologically or economically distasteful, Cook advised "if you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock.""
Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "Pete Spotts reports at the Christian Science Monitor that about 44 minutes into a 6.5-hour spacewalk last July, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano noted that water was building up inside his helmet – the second consecutive spacewalk during which he reported the problem. As Parmitano worked his way back to the air lock, water covered his eyes, filled his ears, disrupted communications, and eventually began to enter his nose, making it difficult for him to breathe. "I know that if the water does overwhelm me I can always open the helmet," wrote Parmitano about making it to the airlock. "I’ll probably lose consciousness, but in any case that would be better than drowning inside the helmet." Later, when crew mates removed his helmet, they found that it contained at least 1.5 quarts of water. In a 122-page report released Wednesday, a mishap investigation board identified a range of causes for the near-tragedy, including organizational causes that carried echoes of accident reports that followed the loss of the shuttles Challenger and Columbia and their crews in 1986 and 2003. Engineers traced the leak to a fan-and-pump assembly that is part of a system that extracts moisture from the air inside the suit and returns it to the suit's water-based cooling system. Contaminants clogged holes that would have carried the water to the cooling system after it was extracted from the air. The water backed up and flowed into the suit's air-circulation system, which sent it into Parmitano's helmet (PDF). The specific cause of the contamination is still under investigation but investigators also identified deeper causes, one of which involved what some accident-investigation specialists have dubbed the "normalization of deviance" – small malfunctions that appear so often that eventually they are accepted as normal. In this case, small water leaks had been observed in space-suit helmets for years, despite the knowledge that the water could form a film on the inside of a helmet, fogging the visor or reacting with antifogging chemicals on the visor in ways that irritate eyes. NASA officials are not planning on resuming non-urgent spacewalks before addressing all 16 of the highest priority suggestions from the Mishap Investigation Board. "I think it's a tribute to the agency that we're not hiding this stuff, that we're actually out trying to describe these things, and to describe where we can get better," says William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate said today. "I think that's how we prevent Columbias and Challengers.""
Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "Joseph Stromberg writes in Smithsonian Magazine that although the practice of solitary confinement has been largely discontinued in most countries, it's become increasingly routine over the past few decades within the American prison system and now it's estimated that between 80,000 and 81,000 prisoners are in some form of solitary confinement nationwide. Once employed largely as a short-term punishment, it's now regularly used as way of disciplining prisoners indefinitely, isolating them during ongoing investigations, coercing them into cooperating with interrogations and even separating them from perceived threats within the prison population at their request. "We really are the only country that resorts regularly, and on a long-term basis, to this form of punitive confinement," says Craig Haney. "Ironically, we spend very little time analyzing the effects of it." Most prisoners in solitary confinement spend at least 23 hours per day restricted to cells of 80 square feet, not much larger than a king-size bed, devoid of stimuli (some are allowed in a yard or indoor area for an hour or less daily), and are denied physical contact on visits from friends and family, so they may go years or decades without touching another human, apart from when they're placed in physical restraints by guards. A majority of those surveyed experienced symptoms such as dizziness, heart palpitations, chronic depression, while 41 percent reported hallucinations, and 27 percent had suicidal thoughts and one study found that isolated inmates are seven times more likely to hurt or kill themselves than inmates at large. But the real problem is that solitary confinement is ineffective as a rehabilitation technique and indelibly harmful to the mental health of those detained achieving the opposite of the supposed goal of rehabilitating them for re-entry into society. "We are all social beings, and people who are in environments that deny the opportunity to interact in meaningful ways with others begin to lose a sense of self, of their own identity," says Haney. "They begin to withdraw from the little amount of social contact that they are allowed to have, because social stimulation, over time, becomes anxiety-arousing." Rick Raemisch, the new director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, voluntarily spent twenty hours in solitary confinement in one of his prisons and wrote an op-ed about his experience in The New York Times. "If we can’t eliminate solitary confinement, at least we can strive to greatly reduce its use," wrote Raemisch. "Knowing that 97 percent of inmates are ultimately returned to their communities, doing anything less would be both counterproductive and inhumane.""