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High Gasoline Prices Start to Bite into Driving, SUV Ownership

With U.S. gasoline prices at an all-time high, having climbed in fits and starts for five years, the logical results appear to be finally showing up in lower gasoline consumption and a distaste for large cars and light trucks. According to a report in the May 5 issue of Business Week, the number of vehicles on the roads dropped 1.4 percent last year, and gasoline consumption is expected to dip 0.7 percent this year. Sales of SUVs and pickup trucks plummeted 27 percent in the first quarter of 2008, with total auto sales down 8 percent.

Will oil and gasoline prices continue to trend upward and stay there, or is the current situation just a blip? That is the question. If high prices are here to stay, then of course those who immediately replace their big cars with smaller ones will come out ahead of the game, and those automakers who anticipate that behavior will be the winners. Ford Motor, which reported a surprisingly large first-quarter profit last week, is among those betting that high prices are here to stay, says Business Week.

Ironically, if gasoline prices stay in the stratosphere, the United States may be off the hook when it comes to the atmosphere. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that if one wanted to halve carbon emissions from the U.S. automotive sectorâ''enough to get the country into step with international efforts to reduce greenhouse gasesâ''gasoline prices would have to double from their average levels of the past few years, which have been around $2.50. That calculus underlay a blue-ribbon report sponsored by Princetonâ''s Woodrow Wilson School last year, which recommended increasing gasoline prices by $2.50 per gallon over a period of 10 years--in effect doubling the gasoline price as a matter of policy.

Of course that's a far cry from any policy being discussed out on the campaign trails. McCain, joined by Clinton, has proposed suspending the Federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents for the summer months, to help out drivers and give the economy a little boost. Obama has dismissed the idea as ineffectual.

If however market forces were allowed to drive the gasoline price to $5, and American consumers started to believe it was really going to stay that high, thenâ''arguably!â''policy wouldnâ''t be necessary. Over time, if econometric studies are to be believed, American drivers would spontaneously use half as much gasoline and emit half as much carbon.

Thereâ¿¿s New Climate Science Under the Sun

To hear some climate skeptics say it, youâ''d think the greenhouse effect was just a theory, concocted by dangerous radicals to undermine the American way of life; and to hear some of the climate alarmists, youâ''d think 100 percent of the science was nailed down, with nothing new to learn and nothing left to argue about. Well, a report by French and Russian scientists in Physical Review Letters, the worldâ''s premier publisher of new physics discoveries, finds that the mechanisms responsible for trapping the Sunâ''s radiation in the Earthâ''s atmosphere have been imperfectly understood. (Journalists can obtain pre-publication copies of the article at the American Institute of Physicsâ'' physics news/select.)

As every basic textbook in atmospheric science will tell you on page 1, the greenhouse effect is something of a misnomer: in an actual greenhouse, warming occurs because the glass roof stops the convection currents that normally carry warmer air up and away; in Earthâ''s atmosphere, warming occurs because the infrared radiation reflected back from the Earthâ''s surface is trapped by the greenhouse gases in the atmosphereâ''natural water vapor is by far the most important among them but human-generated carbon dioxide is increasingly significant.

Michael Chrysos and colleagues at the University of Angers and collaborators at the University of Saint Petersburg confirmed that absorption of IR radiation by triatomic carbon dioxide molecules is governed by the laws of quantum physics, involving their internal vibrations. But they found that IR absorption also occurs in collisions between CO2 moleculesâ''and in collisions of diatomic molecules such as O2 and N2 as wellâ''and that this kind of absorption is explained by Newtonian mechanics.

The Chrysos team estimates that the collisional IR absorption accounts for about 10 percent of the total greenhouse effect on Earth. On Venus, which has a super-hothouse climate, they believe the collisional absorption explained by classical mechanics may account for more than half the effect.

Navy Retreats From Astronaut Program After 50 Years

In a sign of cautiousness in uncertain times, the U.S. Navy has ordered most of its officers to refrain from volunteering for the nation's astronaut training program.

According to a report in The New York Times, the Navy has advised its astronaut corps applicants from several specialties that they will no longer be considered for nomination to the elite space-flight school.

The move comes, ironically, as the U.S. celebrates the 50th anniversary of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

It also marks a retreat from an historic embrace of the American space exploration program that began with the Navy's participation in the Mercury Seven project, begun 49 years ago, in which three of the first astronauts, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, and Alan Shepard, were naval officers.

Shepard was America's first astronaut to fly into space, in 1961.

In the Times article, Navy officials said the reason for the new restriction lies in a desire by the service to ensure that its mission critical officers are retained in traditional combat roles during time of war.

Vice Admiral J. C. Harvey Jr. last month wrote a memo saying that applications for Navy nominations to the space program from 10 specialties would not be accepted "due to critical inventory shortfalls and/or priority global war on terrorism skill set requirements," according to the Times. The specialties specifically mentioned include special forces, combat engineers, and academics, among others. Navy aviators, however, are not among the specialties affected.

Over the past 15 years, the Navy has nominated as many as 211 and as few as 105 candidates per year for consideration by NASA, though groups from earlier years numbered as low as 34. This year, the service allowed 5 applications to be submitted originally, but that number was expanded to 50 after reconsideration by Adm. Wright.

William M. Shepherd (Capt. USN-Ret.), who served as the first commander aboard the International Space Station, told the Times he was concerned whether the decision marked a shift in America's attitude toward space travel.

"This is the first tick of the needle," he noted. "Our commitment to doing this might be changing. This is important beyond the Navy, beyond NASA."

Officials from the Air Force, Army and Marine Corps told the Times their services were not restricting astronaut training applications.

It may be only a small course correction by the Navy (for the best of reasons), but it definitely has the outward appearance of a sea change for a military branch that has long taken pride in the helmsmanship of its officers voyaging to the ocean of space.

Out of Africa: IBM sees opportunity

IBM is getting serious about sub-Saharan Africa -- both as a consumer and producer of high-end computing.

For the past year, Mark Dean, an IBM Fellow and vice president of the company's venerable Almaden Research Center in San Jose, has traveled widely across the region, looking for new opportunities for the computer company. In the process, Dean brokered a donation of an IBM supercomputer to the Center for High Performance Computing in Cape Town and helped to launch a mentoring program that pairs IBM researchers with African university students.

Dean, who will give a public talk on new African opportunities in information technology on May 8 at Almaden, is helping to give sub-Saharan Africa a higher profile at IBM. In a recent op-ed in the San Jose Mercury News, he said that the cell phone is emerging as the central information device in the region.

In an interview, Dean told me he hopes IBM will double its number of employees in sub-Saharan Africa over the next three to five years. Today, the company employs about 2,000 people, mostly in South Africa, a traditional stronghold for IBM. Dean says gets about $2 billion in revenue from the region, with about half coming from South Africa.

IBM isn't only selling into Africa. Dean envisions African engineers and codewriters creating a new-generation of cell phone applications. While Dean thinks Africans need to raise their skill levels, IBM isn't waiting to give talented Africans a chance at creating products. The company recently opened a "software solutions lab" in South Africa to create products. IBM also wants to sell more back-end computer systems to support digital services offered over cell phones.

"We're taking baby steps," Dean says. But he's convinced that "IBM should invest more and develop our brand" in the region.

Smog Blog: Mega Mexico City in Tough Pollution Fight

Vacationing here in Mexicoâ''s Federal District, one of the worldâ''s biggest of megacities, you canâ''t ignore the bad air. Last year, in IEEE Spectrum magazineâ''s special issue about megacities, Erico Guizzo drew attention to the innovative way Sao Paulo has introduced special reserved bus lanes to make bus travel speedier and discourage private cars. In Mexico Cityâ''s Insurgentes, the main thoroughfare that traverses the city much as Broadway cuts diagonally all the way up Manhattan, lanes reserved for express buses also are to found.

Those dedicated bus lanes are just one of the many ways that Mexico City keeps a lid on inner-city traffic and automotive emissionsâ''this splendid city has an outstanding subway system that the French and which costs just 20 pesos to ride (two U.S. cents) and ubiquitous minibuses (including the lovely new Volksbus built by VW). But in a sprawling metropolitan area of close to 20 million people, at a high altitude where the air is thin to begin with and catalytic converters work poorly, and where so many antiquated cars and trucks belch putrid fumes, curtailing air pollution is an uphill battle.

Five years ago, before Guizzo graced IEEE Spectrum with his presence, he wrote an article for a competitor publication (that we naturally prefer not to name) about how Luisa T. Molina and her husband the Nobelist Mario Molina had organized a program at MIT and Harvard to study air pollution in major urban areas worldwide; they have done closely related work in a joint program in La Jolla. Erico described how the Molinas had vans equipped with state-of-art monitors drive around Mexico City to test air and identify mobile and point sources of pollution.

That article came vividly to mind two days ago as I drove back into the city with my wife and son from Teotihuacan, the spectacular 2000-year-old complex of pyramids and temples northwest of the Federal District. We had the bad luck to get caught in a highway bottleneck, where a superhighway was being extended. For close to an hour and a halfâ''resulting finally in a little burst of road rage on my part, a minor moving violation, the threat of a ticket, and the usual bribe paid to a well-organized group of extortionist traffic copsâ''we sat nearly motionless behind decades-old trucks belching black diesel smoke.

With some feeling of chagrin we thought and talked about how when the superhighway was completed, there would be fewer trucks sitting motionless spewing pollutantsâ''but there also would be all the more trucks and cars speeding along the new highway into and out of the city.

That night we were blessed with a gigantic thunderstorm, and when we woke the next morning, the sky over Mexicoâ''s downtown was miraculously clear blue. I took my son up to the top of the television tower, to catch a rare glimpse of the two sacred volcanoes that loom over the city, almost always invisibly.

Astonishingly and yet not so astonishingly, when we got to the top of the tower, everything right under us in the inner city was beautifully clear. But all around there was a doughnut of pollution so dense, we not could see through or over it to Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl (Popo and Ixta). In the inner city with its fabulous subway system, adorable VW minibuses, and dedicated express bus lanes, the air was almost pristine. But all around, where the city is sprawling cancerously in every direction, the air was perhaps worse than ever.

Out of Africa: largest hydro-electric project in history

My son Liam, who is a high school junior in Berkeley, California, volunteers every Tuesday afternoon in the offices of the International Rivers, the world's leading advocacy group on the perils and economic problems associated with large dams. IR's chief, Patrick McCully, is one among the most knowledgeable people on the planet on the subject -- so tuned into trends in dams and hydro-electricity that my nickname for Paddy is "Doctor Dam."

I count McCully as a close friend, and I even share many of his environmental forebodings about large dams -- and especially his considered view that many dams don't make economic sense. But I am not anti-dam, or even categorically opposed to dams. I even think that some hydro-electric projects, so long as they generate economic benefits, ought to proceed even if they adversely impact the surrounding environment.

I'm especially sensitive about criticisms of planned dams and associated hydro-electric projects in sub-Saharan Africa, where poverty and high energy costs are serious obstacles to democratic development. Dams and hydro-electricity are greatly needed in Africa -- of all shapes and sizes.

I have elsewhere written with sympathy about small hydro-electric projects -- micro-, pico- and mini-dams that generate electricity from almost any amount of flowing water. I am hardly a bigot about size. I'm even suspicious of especially large infrastructure projects, of any kind in Africa, because they are more likely to fall prey to mismanagement and corruption.

I got to thinking about all this when I read the news about efforts to push forward the controversial Inga dam project in the central African country of Congo. Inga, in all its permuations, calls for a vast expansion of two existing dams on the Congo River, the world's second largest. The estimated cost of the full project -- which would generate twice as much electricity as China's Three Gorges complex, today the world's largest -- is upwards of $80 billion. The cost alone gives many pause, and not the least because large foreign investments in Congo -- among the least stable countries in the world, with a history of extreme corruption -- are exceedingly rare. And actually there are no examples of substantial foreign investments in the country outside of the mining industry.

Yet demand for electricity is no high, relative to supply, in Africa that even the astronomical price-tag on Inga does not frighten its advocates. The "grand" Inga expansion would not provide power for the people of Congo alone but for a half-dozen surrounding countries. Even countries far away, such as Nigeria and South Africa, might use the electricity, according to the project's advocates, who claim the full-blown expansion would double the total electricity generated in Africa.

Last week, the pro-Inga forces met in London. Little was settled at the meeting, but the visible enthusiasm for the project -- at a time of strong economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa and wrenching electricity shortages in many of the region's most important countries -- gave the impression that, if hardly a done deal, the Inga expansion was a live possibility.

That alarms McCully and his staff at IR. The organization's Africa field director, Terri Hathaway, declared that the project "would be a magnet for corruption" and ultimately an economic "white elephant."

I am not so sure that Inga is a grand delusion. For the forseeable future, however, there are many more practical and beneficial African hydro schemes. Talk of Inga is irresponsible and should cease, pending some clear watershed in the Congo's own stability. The country is riven by civil wars, badly governed and fatally wounded by its own sprawling geography. Supporters of Inga should be forced to shelve any financing maneuverings until the Congo sorts out politically and socially. Today, the country is essentially a fiction, propped up by the armed forces of the United Nations and the money of foreign donors.

That will take years -- maybe even decades. In the meantime, hydro-electric enthusiasts in Africa have no shortage of other projects to fund. Let them explore, study, improve, fund and build those projects that ultimately prove worthy -- and forget Inga for now.

When Spectrum says it's a loser, it's a loser: Microsoft's SPOT watch

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Microsoft finally, officially, killed off its SPOT watch, a big, bulky, clunker of a device that could bring in bits of data (weather, sports scores) for you to read on its tiny screen. As long as you paid a subscription fee. We called it a loser when it was introduced back in 2004, but Microsoft doesn't give up easily. And now the three people that own them (that would be Bill, Steve, and...well, they must have sold at least one, no?) can auction them off on eBay...or does the Computer History Museum have an exhibit for dumbest smart products ever?

HAARP: not just death beams and mind control!

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PHOTO:Edward Kennedy/ U.S. Naval Research Laboratory

Nature magazine has what might be the first-ever definitive report on the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) facility that the U.S. Department of Defense runs up near Gakona, Alaska.

HAARP has been a magnet for conspiracy theorists since the Pentagon started building it about 2 decades ago. Its purpose is to defend, by way of radio waves, against hypothetical killer electrons released by an even more hypothetical nuclear blast by, say, North Korea. Of course the researchers there mostly undertake much more reasonable experiments, but visions of nuclear armageddon helped fund the ionospheric research lab.

Part of the reason HAARP is shrouded in mystery is that the Naval Research Lab, one of the entities that runs the show, is an impenetrable fortress-- for years, all you could glean about the place was what the conspiracy theorists were telling you.

The reason for this silence, as usual, was secrecy for secrecy's sake, as is often the case with government. Apart from occasional press blitzes, NRL has refused for years to do interviews, answer questions, or do anything more than maybe toss a few insults at the few journalists who have dared to ask why there's a giant space heater sitting in Alaska.

The good news? The government is not trying to control your mind. The bad news? They made me type that.

DOE's Small Business Conference to Focus on Veterans

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced today that its upcoming Small Business Conference will emphasize opportunities for military veterans this year. Scheduled for 24-26 June at the Grand Hyatt in San Antonio, Tex., the annual exposition is one of the federal government's biggest procurement forums on the calendar. DOE bills itself as the largest civilian contracting agency within the federal government, buying over $22 billion in goods and services a year from businesses large and small.

This year's conference will also stress the importance to finding environmentally responsible solutions to the needs of the energy department. Titled "Small Business, Big Ideas: Think Clean Energy," the ninth annual meeting will feature sessions on contracting opportunities, teaming, and small business research. It will also offer a special Matchmaking Forum in which government officials can meet one-on-one with entrepreneurs seeking assignments.

The last week of June this year has been declared Small Business Week by President George W. Bush. And the DOE said in a press release today it hopes to reach out to as many as 1500 businesses at the San Antonio event.

"The conference is a great opportunity for small businesses to learn more about doing business with DOE by talking to federal procurement officials and networking with our prime contractors from across the country," said Theresa Speake, director of DOE's Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization.

"This is a tremendous marketing opportunity for any small business interested in working with DOE," she noted.

The special co-sponsor for the upcoming meeting is the Veterans Corp., a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating and enhancing entrepreneurial business opportunities for veterans of the nation's armed forces. The DOE said today the spirit of this co-sponsorship supports Executive Order 13360 of 2004, where the President asked for greater federal contracting and sub-contracting opportunity for service-disabled veteran-owned businesses.

To register for the 2008 DOE Small Business Conference, please visit the website highlighted above or call 888-246-2460.

Remember, it's your tax dollars at work.

There Is No Such Thing As A Nanotechnology Industry, Even If Youâ¿¿re An Environmentalist

The Mercury News recently ran an editorial authored by Sheila Davis, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), which had all sorts of interesting little ideas.

For one, it proposes that if todayâ''s environmental policies are not updated, nanotechnology will cause big problems for our health and the environment.

So, by that logic if the EPA figures out a way to determine the toxicity of a substance based on its size rather than its chemistry, then nanotechnology wonâ''t hurt us. But until that time, it will.

Why do these screeds always end up chasing their tails? Why isnâ''t it just sufficient to say, â''We donâ''t know as much as we should about the toxicity of nanoparticles, and we should be endeavoring to know more.â''? Why must legitimate concern be ratcheted up to â''11â'' on the volume and come out as an ideological rant?

Well, I decided I would visit the SVTCâ''s website to learn more, and I was immediately faced with this: â''On April 2nd, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) released a report exposing the potentially catastrophic impact on your health and environment of a nanotechnology industry that runs unchecked.â''

Where I work, the term â''nanotechnology industryâ'' always puts a smirk on our face, and a familiar refrain: â''There is not and never will be a â''nanotechnology industryâ''.â''

I know this will disappoint the activists out there who find it far more satisfying to rail against big, bad industry rather than an enabling technology. But maybe it will allay their fears somewhat. Probably not.

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