English: Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles a...
English: Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles as seen from Los Angeles City Hall. Photographed and uploaded by user:Geographer Category:Images of Los Angeles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Los Angeles is the second largest city in the ...
Los Angeles is the second largest city in the United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

California was wet all over as March began: torrential rain, heavy snow, mudslides. The drought barely noticed.

The water crisis there is now in its third year; some scientists believe 2013 was the driest year in California since 1580. The state, the most populous in America, gets 75 percent of its water from snow, and this year, 70 percent of its usual snowpack is missing.

Britain’s problem has been exactly the opposite: biblical flooding. The Thames has been flowing at its highest level, for the longest period, since 1883. Storms across south western England have left Brits kayaking through their towns. According to Britain’s weather service, the rain across England and Wales is the heaviest in 240 years.

There have always been floods and droughts. But water problems of all kinds seem more common and more urgent because they are.

In 2013, the world had a record number of $1 billion weather disaster – 41, topping the previous high from just three years earlier. Almost all 41 involved water-flooding, drought or damage from cyclones.

There are three reasons we’re seeing more water issues.

The first is population growth. The drought in California is made worse by the fact that the state’s population is one-third bigger than in 1990. Ten million more people live there today. Their added water use drains the equivalent of a 40-hectare lake, 15 meters deep, every day. The challenge of supplying water to growing populations is acute in mega-cities like Beijing, Delhi and Los Angeles.

Living standards have also been rising in developing nations like India, China and Brazil. The more people rise to the middle class, the more water they use- for toilets, for clothes washers, for daily showers. People with modern plumbing often use five or 10 times the water as those without it.

Finally, climate change is likely to make routine cycles of weather more severe and perhaps more frequent. The Thames Barrier, a mechanical dam that protects London from flooding, was used 35 times during the 1990s. This January alone, it was used 17 times. And this year’s flooding comes just two years after another natural disaster in the same part of England: the worst drought in 100 years.

The consequences ripple widely. The American drought has crippled California farmers, who grow 60 percent of the country’s produce, and has left the nation with its smallest cattle herd in 60 years, sending beef prices to record highs. Economists estimate that the flooding in Britain could shave a full point off of its G.D.P.

Often, what we do about the weather is tough it out and hope things go back to “normal.” But what we’ve seen with water over the last decade is a warning. Tumult may be the new normal.

There are two secrets to understanding and addressing water problems. The first is that all water problems are local. Whatever the connections to weather patterns over the Pacific, England’s flooding has to be fixed in England. The drought is California’s problem – conservation in Kansas won’t help. But that’s actually good news. Communities – cities, states, multistate watersheds – have the ability to solve problems right where they are happening.

The second thing to remember is that water doesn’t respond to wishful thinking. It responds to careful, permanent changes in how we live, how we farm, how we build and what we charge for the water itself. The British government has a nine-year-old report about preparing for increased flooding. The title:

“Making Space for Water.” You’re not going to hold back the flood. You have to anticipate it, and adapt.

Most big communities in California have yet to mandate water-use reductions. In part, that’s because water use has already changed there, slowly but dramatically. In 1972, the average resident of Los Angeles used 715 liters a day. Today, the average is 465 liters.

Here’s what the change means: The Los Angeles metro area has 50 percent more people than it did 20 years ago, but it uses the same amount of water. The drought, bad as it is, would have been far worse if people were still using so much water. Thinking ahead matters.

The amount of water on Earth doesn’t change-no “new” water is being created, no water is being destroyed. It simply is used, evaporates and is used again. But we’re being reminded that water doesn’t end up where we want it, when we want it.

In a world of big problems, water problems are among the biggest. But unlike many other big problems – climate change, economic inequality – most water problems are solvable. There’s usually enough water, and even enough money. What we need is time and the realism to tackle the problems.

In that sense, the current water tumult is doing us a favor. If we pay attention, water is giving us fair warning.

Charles Fishman is the author of “The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water.”

Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, March 8, 2014
NIF flashlamps
NIF flashlamps (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Laser Bay 2, one of NIF's two laser bays
English: Laser Bay 2, one of NIF's two laser bays (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Mockup of a gold-plated hohlraum designed for ...
Mockup of a gold-plated hohlraum designed for use in the National Ignition Facility (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Upper portion of the NIF's target cha...
English: Upper portion of the NIF's target chamber under construction. The large square beam ports are prominent. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: The Beamlet laser, a scientific proto...
English: The Beamlet laser, a scientific prototype of one of the NIF’s 192 beamlines, that has been operating at LLNL since 1994. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Outside view of the Tokamak Fusion Te...
English: Outside view of the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Layout of the NAtional Ignition Facil...
English: Layout of the NAtional Ignition Facility. Image taken from a LLNL publication. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This is taking years, but nuclear energy research has always taken years. There is the over-arching question of sustainability and safety - and health hazards to top it all.
Not to sound scientist-like, I stop here.
Read on...


LIVERMORE, CaliforniaFusion, the process that powers the sun, is the dream of many – safe, nonpolluting and almost boundless. Here at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where the primary focus of fusion work involves nuclear weapons, many scientists talk poetically about how it could end the world’s addiction to fossil fuels.

“It’s the dream of the future, solving energy,” said Stephen E.Bodner, who worked on fusion at Livermore in the 1960s and ‘70s, recalling that the military focus then was a ruse to keep government money flowing to the lab for energy research. “Everyone was winking,” he said. “Everyone knew better.”

The basic concept behind fusion is simple: Squeeze hydrogen atoms hard enough and they fuse together in helium. A helium atom weighs slightly less than the original hydrogen atoms, and by Einstein’s equation E=mc2, that liberated bit of mass turns into energy. Hydrogen is so abundant that unlike fossil fuels or fissionable material like uranium, it will never run out.

Scientists have never figured out a way to keep a fusion reaction going long enough to generate usable energy. The running joke is that “fusion is 30 years in the future – and always will be.”

Now, however, scientists here have given the world some progress. In February, a team headed by Omar A. Hurricane said it had used giant lasers to fuse hydrogen atoms and produce flashes of energy, like miniature hydrogen bombs. The amount of energy produced was tiny – the equivalent of what a 60-watt light bulb consumes in five minutes.

The fusion occurred at the National Ignition Facility, which has cost $5.3 billion to build and operate. The key to the facility is ignition. For government purposes, ignition was defined as a fusion reaction producing as much energy as the laser beams that hit it. To achieve that, an initial smidgen of fusion has to cascade to neighboring hydrogen atoms.

The center of NIF is the target chamber, a metal sphere 10 meters wide with gleaming equipment radiating outward. It looks like something from “Star Trek” – in fact it doubled as the engine room of the Enterprise in last year’s “Star Trek Into Darkness” movie.

Each blast starts with a small laser pulse that is split via mirrors into 192, then bounced through laser amplifiers that fill two warehouse-size rooms. The beams are then focused into the chamber, converging on a gold cylinder the size of a pencil eraser. In a brief moment, the imploding atoms fuse together.

The scientists call it bang time.

Each shot is so short that the cost in electricity is just $5.

Livermore officials were confident enough that NIF would achieve ignition soon after it was turned on that they laid out a plan for building a demonstration power plant they said could be ready for electrical grids by the 2030s.

Dr. Bodner, who had left Livermore in 1975 and set up a competing program at the Naval Research Laboratory, was a critic of NIF. In 1995, he predicted that instabilities in the imploding gas would thwart ignition. He championed a different laser fusion concept in which the lasers shine directly on the fuel pellets. That creates other technical difficulties. Dr. Bonder, who retired in 1999, said his team was able to show those could be overcome.

The sun’s immense gravity provides the squeeze that enables fusion. On earth, there are two main possibilities: powerful lasers to jam the hydrogen together, as at NIF, or magnetic fields to contain a hot hydrogen plasma until the atoms collide and fuse.

Most fusion energy research has focused on the magnetic approach, particularly doughnut-shaped machines known as tokamaks.

In 1994, the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor at Princeton University in New Jersey generated 10.7 million watts of power for a brief moment. Three years later, the Joint European Torus in England topped that, at 16 million watts.

The next step in the magnetic route is a mammoth international collaboration known as Iter. Construction on Iter has begun in southern France, with the first operations expected to begin in the 2020s – if it comes together. Under a complex management structure, the partners in the project (the European Union, Japan, China, Russia, the United States, India and South Korea) agreed to contribute pieces of the reactor, with the central Iter organization attempting to coordinate.

But the recent progress has come in the laser path to fusion.

Dr. Hurricane adjusted the laser pulse to warm the gold cylinder initially. That reduced the implosion pressure that had been tearing the pellet apart, but calmed some of the instabilities, yielding a higher rate of fusion.

In September, Dr.Hurricane’s team had its first shot that showed signs of the fusion reaction spreading through the fuel.

Jeff Wisoff, NIF’s acting director, said, “Now we at least have a sparking match.”

Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, March 29, 2014
Estonian national costumes: 5. Muhu 6. Karja 7...
Estonian national costumes: 5. Muhu 6. Karja 7. Tõstamaa 8. Pärnu-Jaagupi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

TALLINN, Estonia – The centuries-old city center here looks quaintly antique, with cobbled streets lined by medieval buildings at nearly every turn. But the people have fully embraced the digital world, enthusiastically adopting public and private online services.

Estonians, using national identity card embedded with a microchip, gain access to some 4,000 services, including banking, business registration and even fishing licenses. They review medical records on smartphones. Almost everyone files taxes on the web within minutes, and about a third of voters now cast their ballots online.

While Europe and the United States debate the role of technology in people’s daily lives, Estonia has welcomed it as a fact of life, shooting away concerns about data privacy. In the last 23 years, Estonia, a Baltic country, has transformed from being a member of the Soviet bloc to one of the most connected countries, using technology built primarily within its borders.

The rest of the world has taken notice. The country’s former prime minister, Andrus Ansip, is the new European Commission vice president in charge of Europe’s digital future. “I know from personal experience that paperless government can work,” he said.

With a population of 1.3 million, Estonia faces fewer challenges than bigger countries like Britain and the United States when introducing online services. The transformation has been made on a small budget. The country spends about 50 million euros a year on information technology.

Its decision to go digital also has been driven by the fact that, at independence, it had few financial resources and a small population to jump-start its economy.

Local policy makers soon realized that they could not offer Western-style services without using new technology that could keep costs to a minimum.

Estonia relies on a government-run technology infrastructure, called X-Road that links public and private databases into the country’s digital services. All personal information is kept on separate servers and behind distinct security walls of government agencies, but the system allows the state and businesses like banks to share data when individuals give consent.

Estonians say the online services are more secure and more convenient than traditional methods of dealing with the government.

“Digital services have changed our lives,” said Taavi Roivas, who recently succeeded Mr. Ansip as prime minister.

About 98 percent of Estonians file their income taxes online, taking about five minutes, said Marek Helm, who leads Estonia’s tax and customs authority. That has increased overall tax compliance, cut his agency’s staff in half, and made tax refunds possible within a week.

There were some problems. Estonia’s online medical portal routinely crashed after digital prescriptions were introduced in 2010 because retirees kept signing into the system to renew their medication on the day they all received their pensions. And some local politicians have alleged fraud in online voting.

But the country now wants to take its digital services global by signing up people living outside Europe for so-called “e-residencies “that would give them access to Estonia’s public and private online services.

The upside, Estonians say, is convenience. “I can’t imagine doing things the old-fashioned way,” said Priit Heinla, 27, a project manager for an energy company who uses digital signatures. “You don’t have to sign a mountain of paperwork. It’s just one signature and you’re done.”

Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, November 1, 2014

20 Slovak korún coin from 1939 - obverse
20 Slovak korún coin from 1939 - obverse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
20 Slovak korún coin from 1941 - reverse
20 Slovak korún coin from 1941 - reverse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is a year-old article, but its relevance is still in the present age, and in the age to come. Here is my take on matters such as this: In pacifying the godless, God is removed. And He is always a gentleman who doesn't force Himself into people's lives.
Read on...


BRATISLAVA, Slovakia – Late last year, the National Bank of Slovakia announced that the European Commission, the union’s executive arm, had ordered it to remove halos and crosses from its commemorative euro coins due to be minted this summer.

The coins, designed by a local artist, were intended to celebrate the 1,150th anniversary of Christianity’s arrival in Slovak lands but have instead become tokens of the faith’s retreat from contemporary Europe. They featured two evangelizing Byzantine monks, Cyril and Methodius, and violated European diversity rules that ban any tilt toward a single faith.

At a time when Europe needs solidarity and a unified sense of purpose, religion has become yet another source of discord. It divides mostly secular Western Europe from profoundly religious nations in the east and those in between both in geography and in faith, like Slovakia.

The European Commission is under attack from all sides, denounced by atheists for even mild engagement with religion and by nationalist Christian fundamentalists as an agent of Satan.

Asked about such criticism, Katharina von Schnurbein, the commission official who reaches out to both religious and secular groups, smiled and said,” I can assure you that the European Commission is not the Antichrist.”

Europe is suffused with Christianity. Even the European Union’s flag-a circle of 12 yellow stars on a blue background-drew upon from an image of the Virgin Mary wearing a crown with 12 stars.

Throughout its modern history, however, the “European project” has sought to avoid religion and the unruly passions it can stir.

Ms. Von Schnurbein dismissed accusations of an anti-Christian agenda. “We deal with people of faith and also people of no faith,” she said.

The department that ordered Slovakia to redesign its coins said it had no real problem with halos and crosses, but demanded that they be deleted in the interest of “religious diversity” because of complaints from countries like France and Greece.

Several of the union’s most senior figures are Catholic. Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, has told supporters that “we don’t have too much Islam, we have too little Christianity.”

The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe slowed the secular tide somewhat as the European Union began to admit new and sometimes deeply religious countries like Poland, Romania, and Croatia, a largely Catholic country of 4.4 million and the latest to be admitted.

The 2007 Treaty of Lisbon, which reformed the original two treaties on which the European Union was founded, skipped any reference to Christianity and instead paid tribute to the “cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe.” It mandated dialogue with religious groups. But it also ordered equal treatment for “philosophical and non-confessional organizations,” which include groups whose principal philosophy is hostility to organized religion.

Stanislav Zvolensky, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Bratislava, said that efforts at European unity are doomed unless the union gives a bigger place to God. “Religion should be the inner strength of the union,” he said.

He does see one encouraging sign: Slovakia’s national bank has decided to stick with its original coin design, and the European Commission has gone along with the plan. The commemorative coins was minted in June – two months later than planned, but with halos and crosses.

Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, July 6, 2013

English: Microsoft XBOX 360 Kinect Sensor. Vid...
English: Microsoft XBOX 360 Kinect Sensor. Video Kinect: Make live video chats with your Xbox LIVE users under the Standard kinect camera. Video Kinect (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
While this article is a year old, there is still the truth and value in it. That's what things of worth - they stand the test of time. And even more so, because many of the things that were mentioned here are looking into the future - things still to come. A year old, but still not outdated.

Read on...


Artificial intelligence is creeping into our lives at a steady pace. Devices and apps can anticipate what we need, sometimes even before we realize it ourselves.

So why shouldn’t they understand our feelings? If emotional reactions were measured, they could be valuable data points for better design and development. Emotional artificial intelligence, also called affective computing, may be on its way.

But should it be? After all, we’re already struggling to cope with the always-on nature of the devices in our lives. Yes, those gadgets would be more efficient if they could respond when we are frustrated, bored or too busy to be interrupted, yet they would also be intrusive in ways we can’t even fathom today.

Companies like affectiva, a start-up spun out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are working on software that trains computers to recognize human emotions based on their facial expressions and physiological responses. A company called Beyond Verbal, which has just raised close to $3 million in venture financing, is working on a software tool that can analyze speech and, based on the tone of a person’s voice, determine qualities like arrogance or annoyance, or both.

Microsoft recently revealed the Xbox One, the next generation version of its flagship game console, which includes an update of Kinect, its motion-tracking device that lets people control games by moving their hands and bodies. The new Kinect, which goes on sale later this year, includes a higher-definition camera capable of tracking fine skeletal and muscular changes in the body and face .The machine can already detect the physics behind bodily movements, and calculate the force behind a punch or the height of a jump.

In addition, one of the Kinect’s new sensors uses infrared technology to track a player’s heartbeats. That could eventually help the company detect when a player’s pulse is racing during a fitness contest – and from excitement after winning a game. The possibilities for more immersive, interactive play are mind-boggling.

Albert Penello, a senior director of product planning at Microsoft, says the company intends to use that data to give designers insight into how people feel when playing its games – a kind of feedback loop that can help shape future offerings and experiences. He says Microsoft takes privacy very seriously and will require game developers to receive explicit permission from Xbox One owners before using the data. Microsoft says games could even adapt in real time to players’ physical response, amping up the action if they aren’t stimulated enough, or tamping it down if it’s too scary. “We are trying to open up game designers to the mind of the players,” Penello said. “Are you scared or are you laughing?”

Eventually, he said, the technology embedded in the Kinect camera could be used for a broader range of applications, including tracking reactions while someone is looking at ads or shopping online, in the hope of understanding what is or isn’t capturing the person’s interest. (Some companies have experimented with technologies like eye-tracking software to see what parts of commercials draw the most attention from viewers.)

Endless sets of data points can be used to track moods.

Online media companies like Netflix, Spotify and Amazon already have access to real-time consumer sentiment, knowing which chapters, parts of songs, movies and TV shows people love, hate, skip and like to re-watch. Such data were used to engineer the popular online Netflix series “House of Cards,” whose creators had access to data about people’s television viewing habits.

So it is not much of a leap to imagine Kinect-like sensors being used to create new entertainment experiences.

The possibilities go far beyond that. Prerna Gupta, chief product officer at Smule, a development studio that makes mobile games, spoke about the subject at South by Southwest, the conference in Austin, Texas, in March. She called her talk “Apps of the Future: Instagram for Cyborgs,” and gazed far into the future of potential applications.

She says she thinks industries like health care may be revolutionized by emotionally aware technology.

“Tracking how our bodies are responding throughout the day could allow you to tailor your life according to what’s happening to your body throughout the day,” she said. It could allow nutritionist to carefully build meal plans for clients, or for doctors to come up with more efficient medical treatments. Of course, the range of ethical and privacy concerns is enormous.

Clive Thompson, author of a forthcoming book, “Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better,” says that these exciting possibilities need to be explored very carefully.

He said an insurance company, for example, might want to know its customers’ moods – so it can raise their fees if they show signs of becoming depressed or sick. And employers might want to know when their staff members are bored, so they can give them more work or reprimand them if their attention wanders during an important meeting. He wondered whether we would all become better at masking our emotions if we knew that we were being watched and analyzed.

“We are talking about massive archives of personal data that are really revealing,” Mr. Thompson said. “Not to mention that there is definitely something unsettling about emotion recognition becoming another part of our lives that is archived and scrutinized.”

Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, June 15, 2013