(yay! internet finally restored!)

Why 50 million smart meters still haven’t fixed America’s energy habits

The upshot: Right now, smart meters aren’t waking Americans up and making them conscious of their energy use — because they aren’t being paired with what behavioral research shows us is needed for that to happen.

This is the story of why the smart meter revolution has, thus far, fallen short — and how we can better use one of the most pivotal innovations in the electricity sphere to save energy, cut greenhouse gas emissions and save a lot of money.

I can vouch for the notion of immediate feedback being an important component to changing behavior — something that’s discussed in the article. My new-ish car tells me my instantaneous gas efficiency and reminds me of things that I know but would not necessarily be thinking about, such as how wasteful it is to romp on the gas when speeding up, or how hitting the brakes means you are bleeding away your kinetic energy as heat. So it’s modified how I drive — smaller accelerations. Less gas when speeding up and coasting to slow down, when it’s appropriate to do so. So I can see how this would work for home energy use, too.

Curious About Curies

Radiation from Fukushima is reaching the West Coast — but you don’t need to freak out

In fact, what’s truly amazing about the work is that scientists are able to actually measure these very low levels of radiation at all — as well as to chemically fingerprint them and thereby prove that certain radioisotopes of the chemical element Cesium, which arise as a by-product of nuclear fission, actually arrived off of North American waters after traveling all the way from Fukushima.

The big non-news is that the radiation levels are small — hence the amazement at being able to measure them. But say “radiation” and some fraction of the population freaks right the hell out. So that’s the take-home message, even if there are a few subtle things missing in the story.

The activity (how radioactive a sample is, measured these days in Becquerels, or number of decays per second) is not the whole story, because not all radiation damages the body the same amount, and it matters greatly if the contamination accumulates in the body or not. Their example is swimming in the ocean, but I think people might also be concerned about eating fish, who would effectively be filtering out and accumulating radioactive material. Are they twice as radioactive as the water? Ten times? Is the internal dose more damaging than an external dose (that’s true of alpha and beta radiation)? Cs-137 is a beta emitter, and in humans it accumulates in the body, with a biological half-life of 70 days. So I imagine it accumulates in fish, as well. But with such low starting levels, probably not anything to worry about.

Another nit is with the picture down near the end, the “helpful figure from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution” is somewhat less helpful than it could be. First of all, it doesn’t have the Fukushima incident on it as a comparison. I’ve seen a few links, and their estimates vary by around an order of magnitude, but it’s between ~4 million and ~40 million curies of Iodine and Cesium into the atmosphere, and one link had an additional amount going into the water of half of the atmospheric discharge. So there’s your comparison. (A curie is 3.7 x 10^10 decays per second, as that was Marie Curie’s favorite number is that activity of a gram of Ra-226. But it’s a huge number and not normally useful for everyday discussion — you are usually talking about picocuries or nanocuries, or something like that.)

Another nit is that comparing activities between different isotopes is a tad dicey, for a couple of reasons. The activity is a rate, not the total amount of potential dose. 1 curie of a contaminant that has a half-life of a day is very different than a curie of something else that has a half-life of a million years — in 10 days, the one-day half-life isotope is down to 0.1% of the activity (a millicurie), while the other is still basically the same. When you look at the Uranium and Potassium numbers on that infographic, keep in mind that K-40 has a half-life of 1.3 Billion years, and Uranium-238 is 4.5 Billion years. Their respective activities aren’t going to perceptibly change in the next 30 years, while any contaminant Cs-131 will drop in half. Further, Uranium is an alpha decayer, which is the most damaging internal source (though if it’s external is pretty harmless — an alpha won’t penetrate your clothes or through the dead layer of skin on your body). Uranium also decays through a chain of radioactive daughters, which have their own decays to contribute. So the activity doesn’t tell the whole story — the reason the ocean’s Uranium and Potassium aren’t a big issue is that the ocean is huge. Fukushima’s release was concentrated, but owing to time and dilution, it’s not a problem for those of us in the US.

MAD is not a Viable Strategy

How anti-vaccination is like a nuclear bomb

How quickly the disease spreads, if it spreads at all, depends on the number of people vaccinated. Again, we find very simple math: if, on average, an infected person encounters less than one unvaccinated person while he/she is contagious, the disease will die out. If, however, an infected person encounters more than one unvaccinated person while he/she is contagious, the disease will multiply: each new infected person infects new ones.

A fairly decent analogy (even if I have a terminology nit: induced reactions are not decays)

Dr. Cookie

I’ve long held that the usual approach to cooking/baking (merely following a recipe) isn’t science. Unless you do some kind of systematic investigation of the result of different approaches. Like this:

The Science Behind Baking Your Ideal Chocolate Chip Cookie

“Even though I can describe what I like,” says Nyberg, “I didn’t know the role of each ingredient in the texture and shape of cookies.” So she looked into it — as only a scientist can.

Remember, Dr. Cookie is the scientist, and Dr. Cookie’s Monster is the creation.

The Ocean and its Toys

The Cornish beaches where Lego keeps washing up

[T]he container ship Tokio Express was hit by a wave described by its captain as a “once in a 100-year phenomenon”, tilting the ship 60 degrees one way, then 40 degrees back.

As a result, 62 containers were lost overboard about 20 miles off Land’s End – and one of them was filled with nearly 4.8m pieces of Lego, bound for New York.

No-one knows exactly what happened next, or even what was in the other 61 containers, but shortly after that some of those Lego pieces began washing up in both the north and south coasts of Cornwall. They’re still coming in today.

Reminiscent of the Friendly Floatees rubber ducks, turtles and frogs.