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John Upton's Posts


People save more energy when they know they’re being watched

Light switch
We're watching you.

How do you prevent someone from wasting electricity? The same way you prevent them from picking their nose -- make them think they are being watched.

Carnegie Mellon University researchers wanted to see whether the Hawthorne effect could be used to change energy-use patterns. The Hawthorne effect refers to the way people tend to alter their behavior when they sense they are being observed. The effect can be a pain in the ass for scientists trying to study human behavior, but it can also be a powerful tool for influencing that behavior.

The researchers sent postcards to a group of utility customers notifying them that their electricity usage was being tracked for one month as part of an experiment. The series of postcards offered no incentives or instructions to reduce energy use -- they just let the customers know that they were being, in effect, watched. A control group of utility customers got no postcards.

Sure enough, the Hawthorne effect arose to work its magic. According to results reported Tuesday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, people who received the postcards reduced their electricity consumption by an average of 2.7 percent.


Coal company accidentally turns a creek into concrete

Global mining giant Xstrata sent contractors with truckloads of grout to repair gaping cracks and chasms it created on a hilly ridge in an Australian conservation area while mining for coal.

You're probably wondering to yourself, "How could this possibly go wrong?"

When the contractors got there, they made a blunder that would be hilarious were it not so devastating.

Sugarloaf's concrete creek. Reproduced with permission of The Newcastle Herald © Copyright 2013
Darren Pateman
Sugarloaf's concrete creek. Reproduced with permission of The Newcastle Herald © Copyright 2013

As grout was being poured into a crack at the top of the cliff, it was gushing out of another crack at the bottom. An estimated 200 tons of grout -- enough to fill 12 cement trucks -- flowed into a creek. There it hardened, turning what had been a tranquil waterway in the Sugarloaf State Conservation Area into a 370-yard concrete pathway. From the Newcastle Herald:


We can’t blame everything on climate change: Soot melts glaciers too

Say goodbye to the the Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland.
Frank Paul, University of Zurich
The Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland.

The world's glaciers are wasting away at a cracking pace -- but it's not just because the climate is warming.

Soot and other black carbon is settling on ice and snow, absorbing the sun's rays and causing frozen water molecules to melt. It can be hard to tell how much of the melt to attribute to warming and how much to soot.

But researchers have pinpointed a period shortly after the Industrial Revolution when black carbon alone appears to have caused glaciers to melt in the European Alps.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Safety inspectors target oil-hauling trains

oil cars on train
Federal officials are trying to keep railway safety on track amidst a boom in oil hauling.

All that combustible fuel being produced by America's fracking boom has federal transportation safety officials on edge.

Inspectors have started scrutinizing train manifests and tank car placards on trains departing from North Dakota’s Bakken region. The region is producing copious quantities of fracked oil, which is being carried to refineries in railway cars -- many of them in a railcar model that's prone to explode.

Operation Classification, aka the Bakken Blitz, was launched last month, just weeks after one such train carrying Bakken oil derailed and exploded in Quebec, killing 47 people and leveling much of the formerly scenic town of Lac-Mégantic. The U.S. Department of Transportation says it began planning the inspections in March after officials noticed discrepancies between the contents of rail cars and the hazardous warnings they bore. From Reuters:

"We need to make sure that what is in those tankers is what they say it is," Cynthia Quarterman, administrator of the Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, told reporters.

Highly combustible, light crude from the Bakken region is particularly dangerous, Quarterman said, and inspectors will make sure the fuel is properly labeled and handled with care.


Levitating train breaks speed record in Japan

Japanese maglev train
P.S. Lu
This train goes fast.

It sounds like something from a Japanamated techno-fantasy. But a real-life maglev train in Japan just passed its latest real-life test, levitating using magnets as it surpassed speeds of 310 miles per hour -- faster than any other train in the world.

Journalists aboard last week's 27-mile test run could see on overhead screens how fast the train was traveling, but they said they could barely feel a thing. From

The train does have wheels -- it rides on them when the train is at low speed -- then rises up above the track when it reaches approximately 93 mph. On the test run, the train reached its peak speed just three miles into the trip, which would suggest riders would feel pushed back into their seats, but those on board reported no such sensation. ...


Crop-munching pests are traveling north as the climate changes

Gypsy moth caterpillar
Sergey Yeliseev
Gypsy moth larva, a pest in America's forests, is even more pesky these days.

Pests are packing their metaphorical bags and heading for fresh starts nearer the North Pole as the climate warms around them.

Beetles, moths, fungi, and other pests that afflict forests and crops in the Northern Hemisphere are expanding their ranges northward by an average of 24 feet every day.

That's according to British scientists who studied the records of infestations of 470 pests around the world since 1960 and measured the rate at which their ranges appeared to be shifting. They say their findings reveal a potential threat to food security posed by global warming.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food


Farm kills millions of bees with illegal pesticide spraying, gets slap on wrist

An orange grove
Orange you glad you aren't a bee in Florida?

A huge Florida citrus farm is being fined by state officials for poisoning millions of honeybees to death -- but it's not being fined very much.

Ben Hill Griffin Inc., one of the state’s largest growers and a supplier to Florida’s Natural orange juice, is accused of illegally spraying pesticides (i.e., not following the directions on the labels) in ways that led to the deaths of bees kept by nearby beekeepers. One apiarist told officials that the farm used crop-dusters to douse its groves at least a dozen times — presumably to control Asian citrus psyllid, which spreads the devastating citrus greening disease. He estimated his losses at $240,000 worth of bees and reduced honey production. Another beekeeper says he is down $150,000.

So how much is the Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Department fining the company? A paltry $1,500.

"That laughable penalty has environmentalists and beekeepers fuming," reports the Miami New Times.


Antarctic moss a charming but chilling sign of warming

Antarctic Peninsula moss
Peter Convey, British Antarctic Survey
The world's southernmost moss bank began growing around 1860.

A fleecy clump of moss growing on the Antarctic Peninsula might not seem like much of a sight to behold, but it's a sign of a climate in flux.

The patch of Polytrichum moss, sampled in 2008 by scientists at Alexander Island's Lazarev Bay, either did not exist or was slumbering beneath ice when the peninsula was first spotted by Russian sailors in 1820.

But now it is flourishing on ice-free rock -- the world's southernmost such moss bank.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Climate denier Ron Johnson denies denying climate change

Ron Johnson
Gage Skidmore
Sen. Ron Johnson: He was for climate denial before he was neutral about it.

An ad campaign targeting climate-denying politicians appears to be having something of an effect.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), under fire for being a climate denier in a world ravaged by climate change, this week denied believing that humans are not warming the planet. Yet the senator still will not acknowledge the basic fact that humans are warming the planet.

Confused? So are we. But we'll try to explain.

Johnson is one of four members of Congress being targeted by a $2 million TV advertising campaign funded by the League of Conservation Voters. LCV went after Johnson because of statements he's made denying climate science, like in 2010 when he told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "I absolutely do not believe in the science of man-caused climate change," and speculated that sunspots or "something in the geologic eons of time" might instead be responsible for the changing weather.

But on Wednesday, Johnson stepped back from such strong assertions. During a Madison Rotary Club luncheon, he said he's a "strong environmentalist." (What is this -- 1984?) Here were his comments to the group when asked about climate change, as reported by the Isthmus Daily Page:

"I don't have a belief one way or the other," he told the crowd of some 300 Rotarians. "I'm willing to accept the science. I'm willing to accept the facts. What I'm not willing to accept is that until we know conclusively what's doing it and if any action we take would have any kind of measurable impact, I don't think we should be spending trillions of dollars unilaterally."


To avoid diabetes, eat fruit, don’t drink fruit juice

Blueberries are bloomin' delicious -- and they can help stave off type 2 diabetes.

Another study has shown that fruit is good for you. Just be sure to eat it in solid form.

Research published Thursday in the British Medical Journal analyzed the results of long-term health studies that tracked the diets of nearly 200,000 people over two decades, some of whom developed type 2 diabetes.

The scientists found that those who ate at least a couple of servings per week of certain whole fruits -- notably blueberries, grapes, and apples -- were 23 percent less likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those who avoided them.

Click to embiggen.
This graph from the paper shows that blueberries are particularly good at staving off type 2 diabetes. Cantaloupe -- not so much. (Click to embiggen.)

On the other hand, those who drank at least one serving of fruit juice daily were 21 percent more likely to develop the disease. The BBC breaks it down:

The study calculated that replacing weekly fruit juice consumption with whole fruits could bring health benefits.

For example, replacing fruit juice with blueberries could reduce the risk of contracting type-2 diabetes by 33%, with grapes and raisins by 19%, apples and pears by 13% - and with any combination of whole fruit by 7%.

Read more: Food, Living