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NSA, The More We Know The More We Fear – For a Reason

The recent opinion piece (below) by Amy Zegart and Marshall Erwin of the conservative Hoover Institution suggests the NSA spy agency’s real problems are caused by our not knowing how well they protect us from terrorists.  They think the NSA should focus on this rather than correcting our  “misperceptions” about how they use our email and telephone data. They wrote that, “…there is no evidence the NSA is engaged in any illegal domestic snooping,” even though such evidence requires transparency and everything the NSA does is secret.

Setting aside recent proof that NSA employees do sometimes breach security protocols, we know the NSA maintains a database of electronic “envelope”  information from all our calls and emails. From this information they create their meta-data analysis that reveals how closely each of us is linked to anyone else. But the NSA also has yet to deny that they are storing the content of our emails, and possibly our phone calls, in huge data storage facilities such as the recently built Utah Data Center, officially called the Intelligence Community Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative Data Center. The NSA may not be previewing all this content data, but saved records can be accessed and reviewed in the future if they choose to look. By any stretch of meaning, saving private electronic content by government, even if it is never opened, is still an unreasonable government seizure prohibited by the Fourth Amendment.

So, is it reasonable for government to seize all our private emails or phone conversations providing they don’t peek? If so, then what’s to stop state or local law enforcement from doing the same. And what’s to stop the NSA from making secret allegations, obtaining secret FISA court access to stored communications or even altering those files to persecute citizens perceived as a threat? Our founding fathers would not have consented to this and neither should we. Protecting us from terrorist threats doesn’t justify suspending Fourth Amendment rights protecting us from tyranny at home.

Shedding light on NSA's snooping

The NSA’s image problem

To know the spy agency is not necessarily to love it.

http://www.latimes.com/opinion/commentary/la-oe-zegart-nsa-effectiveness-20131101,0,1883353.story#axzz2jMeD4paf

By Amy Zegart and Marshall Erwin

November 1, 2013

In the wake of Edward Snowden‘s ongoing revelations about U.S. surveillance programs, the National Security Agency is facing the worst crisis in its 60-year history. Today, too many Americans mistakenly believe the NSA is listening to their phone calls and reading their emails. But misperception is only part of the agency’s problem. In an Oct. 5-7 YouGov national poll we commissioned, we also found the more that Americans understand the NSA’s activities, the less they support the agency. [snip]

Our poll results found the part about the public’s ignorance was true. But we did not find that ignorance bred greater distrust of the agency. [snip]

For example, Americans who accurately understood the NSA’s telephone metadata program were no more favorable toward the agency than those who mistakenly thought metadata involved snooping on the content of calls. [snip]

NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander [has said]: “And so what’s hyped up in a lot of the reporting is that we’re listening to your phone calls. We’re reading your emails. That’s just not true.” [snip]

The NSA needs to win this debate on the merits. What we need to know is whether the agency’s telephone and Internet surveillance programs are wise and effective.

Though legal scholars will continue to debate endlessly just what “relevance” or “targeting” means, the message from these disclosures for the rest of us is this: There is no evidence that the NSA is engaged in any illegal domestic snooping operations.

For national security, the more important question now is whether these programs are good counter-terrorism policy. We have lost sight of that.

[read more at http://www.latimes.com/opinion/commentary/la-oe-zegart-nsa-effectiveness-20131101,0,1883353.story#axzz2jMeD4paf ]

A Word About My Free Rooftop Solar

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Let me tell you about my free rooftop solar energy system which I recently had installed.

Solar panel installation

I’ve wanted solar energy for a long time, mostly because my wife and I are concerned about the global warming. We didn’t convert years ago because of the high cost and slow rate of return on the initial investment.  We live in Northern New Jersey which has considerably less sunlight than, say, Arizona. When I first looked into it, solar panels were far less efficient than they are today so the cost/benefit  for us couldn’t be justified.

 Now  we are retired and improved solar panels have really lowered investment recovery times, but we may want to downsize or relocate in the next few years. We  don’t want a solar energy project that won’t be paid off before we sell.

The solution for us was one of the new solar energy lease program that installs and maintains the entire system for free over a period of years. The solar panels send power  directly to the power grid in an arrangement with the utility companies know as “net metering”.  The solar electricity generated is deducted by the utility company from the power that I use.  When we generate more power than we use the utility company gives us a credit. On months when we use more power than we generate we apply the accumulated credits and pay for any difference.  

There is a catch, of course. The company who owns the system on our roof also owns the electricity it generates. We pay them for the solar electricity that we use, power which the original utility company no longer supplies. In effect, the solar energy company becomes our energy provider.  For the use of our roof the solar company sells us this electricity at a discounted rate.  In our case we paid nothing for the system, we will pay nothing for its maintenance over the next 20 years and we will save on our electricity bill each month.  Our solar electric rate is structured to increase the amount we will save each year over time relative to our current provider. We were told that over twenty years we should save about eighteen-thousand dollars by switching to solar through this lease program.   

The real beneficiary in all this is the environment. Over the course of one month we prevent over a quarter ton of carbon from entering the atmosphere.  That’s three tons a year or sixty tons over the next twenty years.  Through conservation measures our electric use is already half what a typical  homeowner uses, so most people would save even more on carbon emissions.  If everyone on our block had rooftop solar the atmosphere would be spared well over 3,000 tons of carbon a year.   

How did we pick a solar energy company? I would like to say we shopped and compared, but  it didn’t happen that way. I stopped to talk with a person offering information on rooftop solar at a kiosk in Home Depot. This lead me to invite a sales representative from Rooftop Diagnostic to come to our home.  The representative explained how the lease option worked and confirmed that our house was a candidate for a solar based on our homes orientation and the amount of sunlight it gets. Rooftop Diagnostics only designs, installs and maintains the system for a company called Enphase Energy and neither of these two companies are affiliated with Home Depot. 

Under a net metering arrangement homeowners are not allowed to produce more power than they use.  This means that rooftop solar installations can’t be designed to produce more than 100% of the homeowners average annual energy use. The initial electricity rate the solar company charges is somewhat negotiable, but it should be at or slightly below what the utility company charges now. Under our Enphase Energy contract our initial electric rate will increase by 3.5% per year, which they say is half of the historic rate increase for our current energy provider. That might sound like a lot, but the inflation rate over the past 10 years is 2.3%, so inflation alone accounts for most of the increase. In our specific case, our energy charge would start at about $36.00 per month and it will end up about $67.00 per month in twenty years. The power utilities also charges a delivery service charge each month based on energy use. Since about 96% of our electricity will come from the electricity generated on our roof, our delivery service charge will be 96% less per month as well.  Also, while our current electric rates vary seasonally, our solar energy rates remain the same each month. 

After I first met with the solar representative, I searched the internet for more information to comparison shop, but didn’t find what I was looking for.  I wanted a database listing companies that provide solar leasing options but there are none at present.  A lot of companies on the internet offer solar instillations but important details are lacking. Unfortunately, internet information about  solar electric companies is not as organized as is information about the sham alternative energy retailers that “compete”  to sell you lower electric rates.  These companies are wholesale purchasers of electricity who offer crazy gimmicks and low introductory rates to get you to buy power from them.  It is a dog and pony show masquerading as a competitive energy market, but the only real competition the utility companies face is from the nascent “distributed energy” alternatives such as rooftop solar and wind power systems.  Even though these true alternative energy sources are a tiny fraction of the energy market, the big utility companies are already organizing to protect their business model and market shares. If you think you might be interested in a rooftop solar system, to buy or lease, it would be wise to act soon because the current financial incentives will disappear if the energy industry has its way.  

[PS: If you live in New Jersey and already have a rooftop system from Rooftop Diagnostics, they will pay you a referral fee for any new customers you refer to them. Other companies might offer similar incentives,so if you are thinking about getting a system, check with friends and family members who might benefit from this incentive program. To be clear, I am not soliciting referrals and I have no pecuniary motivation in writing this post.]

Solar Success Generating Friction With Utility Companies

The rapid growth of rooftop solar in the US has caught the attention of electric utilities companies who now see distributed power as a threat to their business model.  In the past ten years the number of rooftop solar instillations taking advantage of net metering (explained below) has grown 60 fold to cover over 300,000 homes nationwide.  The following graph from the U.S. Energy Information Administration depicts the growth of rooftop solar. The full EIA report can be viewed here: http://www.eia.gov/electricity/monthly/update/?scr=email

Res_Net_Meter_small

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Electric Power Industry Report (Form EIA-861)

While the number of homes with rooftop solar is still less than 1% of all residential customers, the trend suggests this mix will rapidly change in the coming years. At present, all but four states have passed laws permitting net metering incentives for homeowners. California presently leads the nation in the number of homes with rooftop and other home based power generation. The next graph shows how net metering  instillations are distributed among the states.

 Participation_Rates_small

 Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Electric Power Industry Report (Form EIA-861)

 The economics behind the jump in solar instillations is largely influenced by an 80% decline in the cost of solar panels over the last 10 years and by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which requires all public utilities to offer net metering to customers upon request.

Net metering allows consumers to directly subtract the kilowatts they generate from the kilowatts they use at the retail rate they pay for electricity. If they generate slightly more electricity than they use they are credited and can carry over that positive balance for a time so they can use it to  offset periods where they use more power than they generate. Additionally, net metering requires that rooftop solar systems may not be designed to generate more power than the average use for a given home. In other words, a rooftop solar system cannot be used to generate more power than the homeowner typically uses in a year. The exact details of how net metering works varies from state to state, but the concept is the same.

The problem, as framed by the energy companies, is that they are buying back electricity from customers at the same retail rate that they are selling it rather than buying it at the wholesale rate they pay power generation companies. The marginal difference between the wholesale rate and retail rate includes the expenses associated with transmission, distribution and maintenance of the electrical infrastructure (in addition to the utility company’s administrative expenses and profits). They claim that rooftop solar customers are no longer contributing their fair share towards these essential costs, shifting this burden to the utility companies and their non-solar customers. In their view, the per/customer cost of maintaining the power system will rise as the number of non-solar customers fall. Additionally, grid operators say they face additional costs associated with modifying the distribution system that allows electricity to flow both directions.

Solar and renewable energy advocates say the energy companies arguments are specious and disingenuous. They say that the utility companies their real agenda from the beginning has been to preserve their profits and basic business model.

 In a recent article by EE News’s Climate Wire, Bryan Miller of the Alliance for Solar Choice is quoted as saying the alleged cost burden for upgrading the utility grid for two way transmissions isn’t true because solar companies are already paying for any legitimate circuit upgrades needed to connect solar customers to the grid. He also pointed out that the peak hours of solar generated power corresponds with periods of peak demand.  This relives transmission congestion which saves money utility companies money.  Peak shaving more than offsets grid interconnection costs, according the Mr. Miller.

Other advocates have pointed out other value added savings for utility companies.  Distributed generation by rooftop solar customers reduces line transmission losses.  According to one source, in California, the largest solar market, distributed generation is cutting transmission losses by up to six-percent.  Because solar generation peaks during  peak demand periods, utility companies need to buy less electricity on the spot markets at higher wholesale prices.  Additionally, customer based solar instillations improve the renewable energy mix for utilities relieving them of costs related to meeting federal guidelines for improved efficiency and greater use of renewable energy over time.  On balance, advocates claim that rooftop solar delivers more value than it uses while utility companies argue that government grants and tax breaks offering up front incentives for solar conversion are better than ongoing rate-based incentives.

The net metering debate in California could set a precedent for the rest of the nation.  In a recent article published by Greentech Solar, both sides in the net metering debate seem to be coming together in a bill ( AB 327 ) that would modify net metering for future rooftop solar customers. In the case of California, the net metering regulations passed in that state were set to expire. Also, a provision in the law specified that the net metering would not be available to customers once the total of distributed generation reached 5% of the utilities total electricity.  The agreement that is emerging would keep in place the net metering arrangement for those who already have it and preserve their rate structure. It would also remove the 5% cap on the net metering arrangements, but establish a different rate structure for new net metering customers going forward. If passed, AB 327 would require the California Board of Public Utilities to come up with a new  rate structure that is more acceptable to the energy utility companies.  The bill states that after January of 2017:

 […] all new eligible customer-generators shall be subject to the standard contract or tariff developed by the commission and any rules, terms, and rates developed pursuant to subdivision (b) of this section, and shall not be eligible to receive net energy metering pursuant to Section 2827. There shall be no limitation on the number of new eligible customer-generators entitled to receive service pursuant to the standard contract or tariff after January 1, 2017″.

Early adaptors of rooftop solar or other consumer based energy generation systems are likely to have an financial advantage over those who come later. In general, net metering based on retail energy rates is considered an incentive program to encourage development of solar, wind and other renewable energy sources. The upfront conversion expenses for consumers will remain substantial in the near term. Government grants, tax breaks and current net metering structures are designed to overcome these barriers. Just how much value distributed solar energy has for utilities is still an open question complicated by the fact that laws and regulations vary from state to state. Advocacy groups are needed in every state to balance the interests of consumers and environmentalists against the interests of the big utility corporations.

Correctional note of 9/6/2013: The emerging agreement on California’s AB327 bill would keep the net metering rate structure in place, not eliminate it as I mistakenly stated prior to this update.  Also, a few technical corrections were made to the net metering paragraph.

FUKUSHIMA – An Unstopable Slow Motion Disaster

The image below is the most recent Fukushima radioactivity distribution map of the Pacific ocean. It speaks for itself of the scale of this disaster. Why isn’t this more in the news?  What is our government doing for us?

FukushimPacific Map 2013

TEPCO, the operators of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, can’t stop radiation from leaking into the Pacific Ocean. They are keeping the melted cores cool by pumping in fresh water, then storing the radioactive hot water in storage tanks. There are about a thousand tanks holding this radioactive cooling water on site, and they just keep adding more tanks.  Meanwhile, there appear to be things happening to these tanks. Radiation levels in some tanks are rising.  TEPCO had eight workers assigned to inspect and manage the tanks. That means, if they each took 15 minutes to inspect a tank, it would take over a week to inspect all the tanks. Now, as a result of the radiation levels being 18 times higher than they thought it was, they have hired 50 more people to look after these storage tanks. (See article below)

In addition to the storage tank problems and the unending addition of more tanks to capture the radioactive cooling water being pumped in and out of the reactor cores, there are cracks in the floor of the containment buildings leaking radioactive material directly into the Pacific. There are no viable plans to stop these leaks.  There is also the impending disaster of the elevated spent fuel rod storage tanks that are at risk of collapsing.

ADDENDUM: One day after this post a new BBC news story [ http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-23940214 ] reported Japan will spend $470 million on a plan to freeze the ground between the reactor and the Pacific Ocean. It is hoped this frozen wall will contain the radio active water leaking from the reactor containment tanks. Well holes would be drilled into the ground at certain intervals and cooling pipes connected to a massive refrgeration plant would be inserted into the holes to freeze the ground along the shore.  If the heated water leaking from the reactors doesn’t defeat the cooling system, it seems to me that the wall would actually function more like a damn and would only work if the geology under the plant is just perfect for this containment method. Being a seismically active area, this seems unlikely, but we shall see.

Fukushima radiation levels 18 times higher than previously thought

Operator of Japanese nuclear power plant claims there has been no leak but has yet to discover cause of radiation spike

theguardian.com, Sunday 1 September 2013 05.22 EDT

water tanks at the Fukushima nuclear power plant leak

A Tepco employee in protective clothing works around water tanks at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in June. Photograph: Noboru Hashimoto/EPA

Radiation levels 18 times higher than previously reported have been found near a water storage tank at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, causing fresh concern about the safety of the wrecked facility.

The plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), said radiation near the bottom of the tank measured 1,800 millisieverts an hour – high enough to kill an exposed person in four hours. Tepco said water levels inside the tank had not changed, indicating there had not been a leak. But the company said it had yet to discover the cause of the radiation spike.

Last month Tepco said another storage tank – of the same design as the container causing concern at the weekend – had leaked 300 tonnes of radioactive water, possibly into the sea.

Japan‘s nuclear watchdog confirmed last week it had raised the severity of that leak from level 1, an “anomaly”, to level 3, a “serious incident”, on an eight-point scale used by the International Atomic Energy Agency for radiological releases.

Earlier, the utility belatedly confirmed reports that a toxic mixture of groundwater and water being used to cool melted fuel lying deep inside the damaged reactors was seeping into the sea at a rate of about 300 tonnes a day.

Experts said those leaks, which are separate from the most recent incidents, may have started soon after the plant was struck by a powerful tsunami on 11 March 2011.

The tsunami smashed into the plant after Japan’s north-east coast was rocked by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake. The waves killed almost 19,000 people, while the resulting triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi forced 160,000 people to abandon their homes.

The high radiation levels announced on Sunday highlighted the dangers facing thousands of workers as they attempt to contain, treat and store water safely, while preventing fuel assemblies damaged in the accident from going back into meltdown.

Japan’s nuclear workers are allowed an annual accumulative radiation exposure of 50 millisieverts. Tepco said radiation of 230 millisieverts an hour had been measured at another tank, up from 70 millisieverts last month. A third storage tank was emitting 70 millisieverts an hour, Tepco said. Radiation near a pipe connecting two other tanks had been measured at 230 millisieverts.

Tepco admitted recently that only two workers had initially been assigned to check more than 1,000 storage tanks on the site. Neither of the workers carried dosimeters to measure their exposure to radiation, and some inspections had not been properly recorded.

The firm responded to growing criticism of its handling of the water problem by increasing the number of workers patrolling the tanks from the current total of eight to 50.

The firm’s inability to safely store contaminated water and prevent more damage to the environment has prompted doubts about its ability to lead the Fukushima Daiichi cleanup. Decommissioning the plant is expected to cost tens of billions of dollars and last around 40 years.

Tepco recently set up a committee to focus on the water leaks and said it would seek advice from foreign decommissioning experts. The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has said the government will play a bigger role in preventing water contamination.

The chairman of the country’s Nuclear Regulation Authority, Shunichi Tanaka, said: “We cannot fully stop contaminated water leaks right away. That’s the reality. The water is still leaking in to the sea, and we should better assess its environmental impact.”

Tepco’s handling of the leaks has drawn an angry response from local fishermen, who had to abandon plans to conduct a trial catch at the end of August. Fishermen south of Fukushima Daiichi have not been able to fish commercially since the disaster, while those north of the plant can catch only octopus and whelks.

“We think that contaminated water management by your company has completely fallen apart,” Hiroshi Kishi, chairman of the Japan Fisheries Co-operative, told Tepco’s president, Naomi Hirose, during a meeting in Tokyo last week.

“This has dealt an immeasurable blow to the future of Japan’s fishing industry, and we are extremely concerned.”

Canadian Tar Sands Leak Still a Mystery

Canadian Tar Sands Leaking a Mystery Still

Here is another reason why we shouldn’t be anxious for approve pipe lines for Canadian Tar Sands oil.  I haven’t read this yet in the US main stream media.  I suppose they’ll get around to it.  For pictures and more information, please go to the The Star’s website at the URL provided below.  What is causing this spill is a mystery as is everything else surrounding it.

News / Canada

‘Nobody understands’ spills at Alberta oil sands operation

Oil spills at an oil sands operation in Cold Lake, Alberta have been going on for weeks with no end in sight, according to a government scientist.

 By: Emma Pullman and Martin Lukacs Special to the Star, Published on Fri Jul 19 2013

Oil spills at a major oil sands operation in Alberta have been ongoing for at least six weeks and have cast doubts on the safety of underground extraction methods, according to documents obtained by the Star and a government scientist who has been on site.

Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. has been unable to stop an underground oil blowout that has killed numerous animals and contaminated a lake, forest, and muskeg at its operations in Cold Lake, Alta.

The documents indicate that, since cleanup started in May, some 26,000 barrels of bitumen mixed with surface water have been removed, including more than 4,500 barrels of bitumen.

The scientist said Canadian Natural Resources is not disclosing the scope of spills in four separate sites, which have been off bounds to media and the public because the operations are on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range, where there is active weapons testing by the Canadian military.

The company says it is effectively managing and cleaning up the spills.

“The areas have been secured and the emulsion is being managed with clean up, recovery and reclamation activities well underway. The presence of emulsion on the surface does not pose a health or human safety risk. The sites are located in a remote area which has restricted access to the public. The emulsion is being effectively cleaned up with manageable environmental impact,” the company said in a statement.

The documents and photos show dozens of animals, including beavers and loons, have died, and that 30,600 kg of oily vegetation has been cleared from the latest of the four spill zones.

The company’s operations use an “in situ” or underground extraction technology called “cyclic steam stimulation,” which involves injecting thousands of gallons of superhot, high-pressure steam into deep underground reservoirs. This heats and liquefies the hard bitumen and creates cracks through which the bitumen flows and is then pumped to the surface.

The scientist, who asked not to be named for fear of losing their job, said the operation was in chaos.

“Everybody (at the company and in government) is freaking out about this,” said the scientist. “We don’t understand what happened. Nobody really understands how to stop it from leaking, or if they do they haven’t put the measures into place.”

In response to emailed questions from the Star, Canadian Natural Resources said it was co-operating with the regulator.

“We are investigating the likely cause of the occurrence, which we believe to be mechanical,” the company said.

“Canadian Natural has existing groundwater monitoring in place and we are undertaking aquatic and sediment sampling to monitor and mitigate any potential impacts. As part of our wildlife mitigation program, wildlife deterrents have been deployed in the area to protect wildlife.

“We are saddened that unfortunately some animal fatalities occurred between the time of the incident and the deployment of our animal deterrent systems. All of the fatalities have been reported to the Alberta Energy Regulator.”

The company added that it has “taken appropriate steps to ensure no additional impact to wildlife or the environment and that the incident site is reclaimed.”

Canadian Natural Resources did not respond to the charge that they aren’t disclosing the scope of the spills.

Oil companies have said in situ methods are more environmentally friendly than the open-pit mining often associated with the Alberta oil sands, but in situ is more carbon and water-intensive.

“In the course of injecting steam they’ve created fractures from the reservoir to the surface that they didn’t expect,” said the scientist, who is speaking out over concern that neither the company nor Alberta’s regulatory bodies would properly address the situation.

On Thursday, the Alberta Energy Regulator confirmed there were four spills in the last few months, and ordered Canadian Natural Resources to restrict its steam injections and enhance monitoring at the operations in Cold Lake.

Regulator official Bob Curran said the latest spill is spread across 40 hectares.

Canadian Natural Resources disputed that figure Friday. “We have the mapped area impacted to be significantly less than 40 hectares with the area being reduced daily through effective cleanup efforts,” the company said.

Critics say such spills raise questions about the safety and viability of in situ extraction, which by 2020 is expected to account for as much as 40 per cent of Canada’s oil sands production, because many of Alberta’s deposits cannot be mined.

“This is a new kind of oil spill and there is no ‘off button,’ ” said Keith Stewart, an energy analyst with Greenpeace who teaches a course on energy policy and environment at the University of Toronto. “You can’t cap it like a conventional oil well or turn off a valve on a pipeline.

“You are pressurizing the oil bed so hard that it’s no wonder that it blows out. This means that the oil will continue to leak until the well is no longer pressurized,” which means the bitumen could be seeping from the ground for months.

The company said the process is sound and has a good track record over 30 years in Alberta. It said that nevertheless it is reviewing its wellbores “to enhance wellbore integrity and modify steaming strategies to prevent the remote possibility of these events in the future.”

The Cold Lake operations are on the traditional territory of the Beaver Lake Cree First Nation, which is pursuing a constitutional challenge that argues the cumulative impacts of oil sands industrial development are infringing their treaty rights to hunt, fish and trap.

As well, the First Nation says there are graves alongside the lake in the area affected by the spills, and that band members have been unable to access that area.

Micro Drones and the Future of Spying

Unlike the current unconstitutional practice of scooping up every phone call made in the US, at least a swarm of micro drones would need to have a specific target for their spying and reconnaissance work.  This story brings new meaning to the expression, “I’m being bugged!”

US military surveillance future: Drones now come in swarms?

Published: 20 June, 2012, 19:47
An image from NetworkWorld.com
An image from NetworkWorld.com

A small insect or a mosquito over your ear may now be much more than simply annoying. Those could easily be micro drones which now come in a swarm of bug-sized flying spies.

In an effort to create a hard-to-detect surveillance drone that will operate with little or no direct human supervision in out of the way and adverse environments, researchers are mimicking nature.

The University of Pennsylvania GRASP Lab showed off a network of 20 nano-quad rotors capable of agile flight, which could swarm and navigate in an environment with obstacles.

This is another step away from bulky heavily armed aerial vehicles or humanoid robots to a much smaller level of tiny remote-control devices. While current drones lack manoeuvrability, can’t hover and move fast enough, these new devices will be able to land precisely and fly off again at speed. One day the military hope they may prove a crucial tactical advantage in wars and could even save lives in disasters. They can also be helpful inside caves and barricaded rooms to send back real-time intelligence about the people and weapons inside.

A report in NetworkWorld online news suggests the research is based on the mechanics of insects, which potentially can be reverse-engineered to design midget machines to scout battlefields and search for victims trapped in rubble.

In an attempt to create such a device, scientists have turned to flying creatures long ago, examining their perfect conditions for flight, which have evolved over millions of years.

Zoologist Richard Bomphrey has told the British Daily Mail newspaper he has conducted research to generate new insight into how insect wings have evolved over the last 350 million years.

“By learning those lessons, our findings will make it possible to aerodynamically engineer a new breed of surveillance vehicles that, because they are as small as insects and also fly like them, completely blend into their surroundings,”the newspaper quotes him as saying.

The US Department of Defense has turned its attention to miniature drones, or micro air vehicles long ago.


Image from video of a swarm of Nano Qardrotors, posted at GRASP Laboratory website

As early as in 2007 the US government was accused of secretly developing robotic insect spies when anti-war protesters in the US saw some flying objects similar to dragonflies or little helicopters hovering above them. No government agency has admitted to developing insect-size spy drones though some official and private organizations have admitted that they were trying.

In 2008, the US Air Force showed off bug-sized spies as “tiny as bumblebees” that would not be detected when flying into buildings to “photograph, record, and even attack insurgents and terrorists.”

The same year US government’s military research agency (DARPA) conducted a symposium discussing ‘bugs, bots, borgs and bio-weapons.’

Around the same time the so-called Ornithopter flying machine based on Leonardo Da Vinci’s designs was unveiled and claimed they would be ready for roll out by 2015

Lockheed Martin’s Intelligent Robotics Laboratories unveiled “maple-seed-like” drones called Samarai that also mimic nature. US troops could throw them like a boomerang to see real-time images of what’s around the next corner.

The US is not alone in miniaturizing drones that imitate nature: France, the Netherlands and Israel are also developing similar devices.

An image from NetworkWorld.com
An image from NetworkWorld.com

Male Contraception Could Mute Abortion Debate

Bio-technology may one day mute the abortion debate by curtailing the number of unintended pregnancies. The possibility of developing an effective male contraceptive just improved.

Scientists from Monash University, the University of Newcastle, John Curtin School of Medical Research and Garvan Institute of Medical Research, in Australia; and the University of Cambridge, in the UK have advanced research that could lead to a male contraceptive.  They discovered a genetic mutation in a protein (RABL2) that shortens a sperm cell’s tail and limits its ability to swim.   According to an  article published October 8, 2012 in Genetics (Medical Xpress), “In laboratory tests, the team found that a mutation in RABL2 resulted in sperm tails that were 17 per cent shorter than normal. Dysfunctional RABL2 also negatively affected sperm production, resulting in a 50 per cent decrease. “

http://medicalxpress.com/news/2012-10-closer-male-contraceptive-pill.html 

According to the report, RABL2 also works with other molecules known as intraflagellar transport proteins that carry genetic cargo along the sperm tail.  Dysfunctional RABL2 results in lower sperm counts as well as sperm structure that reduces a its potency as well as its motility.  With these insights it may be possible in the future to develop a pill that inhibits this protein. The prospect is not straight forward, however, because lower concentrations of  RABL2 is also found in other organs.  The trick would be to find a way to inhibit it only in the testes.

DATA DRIVEN VIEWPOINT:

The development of a male contraception should be a welcome, even an urgent goal for pro-life advocates.  A male contraceptive pill would greatly reduce the number of abortions in the United States and bypass most religious based objections to post-fertilization contraceptives methods currently available for woman.

As it stands now, people have been fruitful and have multiplied to the point where human population is creating enormous stress on the planet’s ecosystems.  There are more people alive today than have already died in the past.  And population growth is still rising exponentially.  It is a mathematical certainty that we either take control of our population growth or nature will do it for us in ways that could lead to our extinction.  Any advances in contraception and increased ability of families to control reproduction is welcome news.