Thursday, July 31, 2014

Re: [tt] NS 2979: California's Katrina? The great delta dilemma

http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/science-scope/earthquake-could-threaten-californias-water-supply/

----- Original Message -----
From: "Frank Forman" <checker@panix.com>
To: "Transhuman Tech" <tt@postbiota.org>
Sent: Thursday, July 31, 2014 2:03:48 AM
Subject: [tt] NS 2979: California's Katrina? The great delta dilemma

"The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and
hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series
of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary" (H.L. Mencken, _In Defence of
Women_).


NS 2979: California's Katrina? The great delta dilemma
http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22329790.400-californias-katrina-the-great-delta-dilemma.html
* 24 July 2014 by Michael Brooks

[Leader: "A six-state California faces a water war" added.]

Drought is not the only threat to California's water supply - the
state's single biggest source of water is a catastrophe waiting to
happen

IT COULD happen tomorrow. As California is sweltering through
another hot, dry summer, the ground in the Sacramento-San Joaquin
delta begins to shake as a large earthquake strikes. Here, a network
of river channels wend their way around dozens of "islands" as they
flow down to San Francisco Bay. The locals call them islands but
that's not quite right, for the land in between the rivers has sunk
well below the water level - in places by as much as 8 metres. In
reality, they are immense pits, protected only by often-fragile
earthen levees.

Geologists had warned that a big earthquake nearby might liquefy the
levees and cause them to fail. Within minutes of the quake, they are
proved right. The levees give way in dozens of places, and the fresh
water in the river channels begins to pour down onto 40 of the
region's 60 or so islands. With little fresh water flowing through
the delta after years of drought, saltwater from the tidal zone
starts to flow upstream towards the breaches in the levees, deep
into the heart of the delta. Within hours, brackish water is
flooding across vast areas of farmland and thousands of delta
residents and farmworkers are forced to flee. Almost all survive,
but many lose their homes and livelihoods.

It's a major disaster, and it has only just begun. On the seaward
side of the delta are massive pumps that usually work ceaselessly
every day, transferring vast quantities of fresh water from the
delta into canals and aqueducts heading for the farms and cities of
southern California. A significant proportion of the water for the
19 million people living in California's Metropolitan Water District
comes from the delta, but as saltwater rushes in, the pumps have to
be shut off. It will be a year or more before the levees can be
repaired and the saltwater flushed from the channels. Only then can
pumping resume.

This would be a serious problem at the best of times. The green of
Southern California is only sustained by extraordinary feats of
water engineering - no wonder some have called the state a
"magnificent illusion". But California is already suffering its
worst drought in history. The loss of the delta water could not have
come at a worse time and threatens to destroy the illusion
completely.

Even before the quake, farmers had begun abandoning their crops and
laying off workers. More are soon forced to follow suit. The US
relies on the state for much of its fresh produce, so fruit and
vegetable prices soar across the country and beyond. As the drought
continues and the pumps remain silent, reserves dwindle, and water
supplies to homes and factories have to be rationed. The economy
shrinks even further and unemployment rises as the world's 8th
largest economy runs dry. The effects are felt across the nation and
the rest of the world...

California's Katrina

This is the worst case scenario. Let's hope it doesn't come to pass
but as we saw with hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Sandy two years
ago, the worst can happen. If California's Department of Water
Resources (DWR) is to be believed, it is only a matter of time
before an earthquake or large flood causes multiple breaches in the
1800 kilometres of levees. If it happens at a bad time, this really
could be California's Katrina.

Much depends on the precise circumstances. "There is no simple
answer to how water supply disruption in the delta would affect the
state," says Nancy Vogel of the DWR. If the levees fail when water
reservoirs are full and plenty of fresh water is flowing through the
delta, much less seawater will penetrate inwards and the pumps will
not have to be turned off for long, if at all. But the risk of
disruption to the supply of water from the delta is one of the
reasons why the DWR says California needs to spend $25 billion on an
immense tunnel project to bypass the fragile levees and guarantee
the supply of fresh water to southern California, come earthquake,
flood or storm. Many delta residents are fiercely opposed to the
idea. They see the project as an attempt to steal their water, and
dismiss talk of catastrophe as scaremongering. So who is right? It
really is a billion-dollar question.

Strictly speaking, the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta is not a delta
at all but a tidal estuary formed where the Sacramento and San
Joaquin rivers meet. Much of it once flooded with every high tide.
Starting around 160 years ago, gold rush pioneers and farmers began
to build levees to hold back the water. Without fresh deposits of
mud, the land has been sinking as the organic matter within it rots
away - as is happening in many other places around the world. Were
it not for the levees most of the delta would be covered by several
metres of water.

From the mid-20th century, huge quantities of water began to be
taken from the southern side of the delta for cities and farms. "The
water pumped down from the delta is the backbone of the California
water system," says Vogel. Yet only 22 per cent of Californians have
even heard of the delta region.

The system may have served the state well for decades, but the one
thing almost everyone agrees on is that things can't go on as they
are. Sea level is slowly rising and is set to rise much more over
the coming century. One consequence is higher pressure on the
levees, which means a greater risk of breaches if they are not
raised.

Another is an increasing problem with saltwater incursions: not only
is the sea rising, but less fresh water is flowing into the delta,
due to increasing extraction upstream and climate change. When the
rivers are low, seawater is pulled upstream from the bay by the huge
pumps that supply the south.

These incursions are bad both for native wildlife and for people.
They cause pollutants to accumulate as well as adding salts such as
bromides, making the delta water costly to purify for drinking.
"Over time, the cost of treating the water for urban purposes is
only going to increase," says Jay Lund, a civil engineer at the
University of California, Davis. The current drought is causing such
severe incursions that the DWR may install rock barriers to hold the
saltwater back.

Meanwhile, what little native wildlife remains in the region is
struggling to cope. Extinction is a real possibility for the
salinity-sensitive delta smelt, for example, a tiny fish that was
once a linchpin of the region's ecosystem. "This is the canary in
the coal mine," says local resident Robert Pyke.

Also in trouble are the Chinook salmon that migrate through the
delta. The reversals of river flow caused by the pumps can confuse
them. And although the pumping stations are equipped with screens
that are meant to prevent large fish such as salmon from being
sucked in, they don't work well when little water is entering the
delta and river flows are slow. Fish can get trapped and killed in
the intakes, or become sitting ducks for predators. Not all wildlife
is suffering, though. Many invasive species, from quagga mussels to
water hyacinths, are thriving.

Then there is the issue of the levees failing. One or two breaches
happen most decades. The last was in 2004, when a levee failed on a
fine day, flooding Jones island (pictured above). There have been
some close calls since, like when waves overtopped some levees
during winter storms in 2005 and 2006. Such storms are expected to
become more intense as a result of global warming. And in 2009, a
ship came close to breaching a levee.

Occasional breaches are costly but manageable. The big question is
whether a major flood or earthquake could breach many levees
simultaneously. Flooding increases the pressure on the earthen
structures, and can rapidly erode them if water starts flowing over
them. Could the levees withstand a megaflood like the one that hit
California in 1861, when it rained every day for more
than six weeks? They might fail in part, but not wholly, reckons
Pyke, who is a geotechnical engineer with experience of levee
construction and repair in Europe and in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Raising the levees

For one thing, he points out, every island that floods reduces the
pressure. What's more, for the last three decades, state and local
engineers have been working to bring the levees up to a standard
known as PL 84-99 - making them 15 centimetres higher and reducing
the slope of the inside wall to increase stability. Levees built to
this standard are resistant to the kind of flooding event that
happens once a century. Roughly half of the network is now at that
standard, Pyke says. "Within a couple of years it will all be
there."

The upgraded levees will still be vulnerable to a large earthquake,
though. "A magnitude 6 or 7 quake would probably do for all of
them," says Lund. Their resilience has yet to be tested, perhaps
because the 1906 San Francisco earthquake relieved much of the
stress in the region. But the US Geological Survey (USGS) has
estimated that there is a 62 per cent chance of an earthquake of
magnitude 6.7 or greater in the Bay Area between 2003 and 2032. A
separate 2009 report for the DWR concluded that "there is a 40 per
cent probability of a major earthquake causing 27 or more islands to
flood at the same time in the 25-year period from 2005 to 2030".
This is the basis for the "doomsday" scenario used to help justify
the twin tunnel project.

It's not quite that simple, however. The delta is 50 kilometres from
the nearest fault, the Hayward fault, and the risk of a major
earthquake here is thought to be low. Even if it happened, Pyke
thinks the effects will die off significantly 50 km away, so the
threat is overblown. Is he right?

The 2009 report made certain assumptions about how seismic tremors
would travel to the delta and what effect they would have on the
levees. Though it took the composition of local soils into account,
the report used what Joe Fletcher of the USGS calls "a fairly
standard attenuation model". This is not the best way to do it,
Fletcher says, and he and his colleagues are trying to do better.
"We are making progress but are a ways from actually producing a
model."

So the odds of an earthquake bringing down dozens of levees at once
could be lower than the 40 per cent figure suggests. But it could
also be higher: there is a chance that the local topography could
amplify some seismic wave frequencies, says Fletcher. Even if it
does turn out to be lower, what level of risk is acceptable, given
the importance of the delta water to millions in southern
California? Even Pyke thinks something must be done. He helped write
a 2010 report recommending that half of the system be built up to
the "fat levee" standard, which means making levees so wide that
they cannot fall over when shaken by a quake. "That would
effectively flood and earthquake-proof all the islands that are
below sea level," he says.

At a cost of between $1 and 2 billion, this would be relatively
cheap. But fat levees would not solve the problems of saltwater
incursions and the resulting interruptions to the water supply. "The
water deliveries continue to get more erratic," says Vogel. "We have
tens of millions of people who depend upon them." That's where the
twin tunnels come in. The idea is to build two earthquake-proof
tunnels that would run side by side and carry water from supplies
further upstream on the Sacramento river down to where the pumping
stations are now. This would provide purer, fresher water for
southern Californian even when river levels fall in the delta or
levees fail. But at $25 billion it will not come cheap.

The tunnels are the central plank of a package of measures being put
forward as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. The plan is supposed to
benefit wildlife as well securing the water supply, but an
independent scientific review found that the DWR "tends to overreach
conclusions of positive benefits" and "needs to be reconsidered and
revamped". Hardly a ringing endorsement.

With growing and conflicting demands for a shrinking supply of
water, no scheme can satisfy everyone. Delta residents, however, see
themselves as the big losers. "If they build the tunnel they will
suck this region dry," says Jeff Hart, who used to conduct eco-tours
of the delta and now runs a farm there. "We're being treated like
we're a colony."

That's not the only worry for residents. Once the tunnels are
complete, there will be less reason to protect the "islands", or
restore them after floods. Several have already been abandoned after
levee failures, from Frank's Tract in 1938 to Liberty Island in
1998. Those parts of the delta that are home to important
infrastructure such as state highways as well as farms, though, are
unlikely to be abandoned. So California may well decide both to
build the tunnels and continue to strengthen most of the levees.

When that will happen is another matter. Even if the plan's
proponents get their way, the tunnels would not be completed until
2027 at the earliest. And political wrangling over the plan and its
funding could cause endless delays. "We have been debating, arguing
and litigating over the delta for the last 40 years," Vogel says.
What happens here, though, could ripple across the rest of the
world. The rest of us can only hope that the "magnificent illusion"
does not crumble to dust.

Michael Brooks is a consultant for New Scientist. His latest book is
At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 discoveries taking science by
surprise (Profile)
---
Leader: A six-state California faces a water war
http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22329791.400-a-sixstate-california-faces-a-water-war.html
* 25 July 2014

CALIFORNIA has a long history of trying to tear itself apart. Since
it joined the Union in 1850, there have been dozens of proposals to
break up the state. The latest, put forward by technology investor
Tim Draper, envisages dividing it into six separate states.

Nobody is giving the plan much chance. But if Draper wins enough
backers to force a vote, California may end up debating an issue
that really does have the potential to destroy the Golden State:
water.

Southern California depends heavily on water from further north.
This arrangement has served the state well, but is now unsustainable
(see "California's Katrina? The great delta dilemma").

Tensions are building over plans to build pipelines to guarantee the
south's water supply, with residents further north resentful of
"their" water being taken away and fearful of being bled dry
themselves.

These people may find the six-states plan appealing. As residents of
newly created North and Central California, they would have much
more control over their water. Prospective citizens of West and
South California are likely to be less enamoured.

It is probably not what Draper had in mind when he hatched his plan.
But if it raises the profile of California's water woes, his idea
will have achieved something.
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Re: [tt] Nasa validates 'impossible' space drive

On Thu, Jul 31, 2014 at 04:53:55PM +0200, Eugen Leitl wrote:
>
> (if it sounds too good to be true...)
>
> http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2014-07/31/nasa-validates-impossible-space-drive
>
> Nasa validates 'impossible' space drive
>
> SCIENCE 31 JULY 14 by DAVID HAMBLING

Yeah cool. This EmDrive was a novelty back in Feb 2013 too, and
delivered by wired...

EmDrive: China's radical new space drive

http://postbiota.org/pipermail/tt/2013-February/012974.html

See, fish propulsion (also called fish tail) works great in water, and
after some mods it might even work in the air (not for fish, they are
too heavy). But in space, i.e. pure vacuum? Nope. I wonder if 18
months from now there will be another wired "news" about this
invention again. Seems like its biggest value lays in being recurrent
news item and nobody wants to raise few bucks to test it in
space. Which is astonishing neglect for something so promising, isn't
it? Or maybe it's not so promising.

From previous reads, seems like Russians actually launched a micro-sat
but then closed their lips tightly.

I may be wrong about this, of course, but I see no reason to open
champagne before something up there in orbit comfirms the results.

--
Regards,
Tomasz Rola

--
** A C programmer asked whether computer had Buddha's nature. **
** As the answer, master did "rm -rif" on the programmer's home **
** directory. And then the C programmer became enlightened... **
** **
** Tomasz Rola mailto:tomasz_rola@bigfoot.com **
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[tt] Nasa validates 'impossible' space drive

(if it sounds too good to be true...)

http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2014-07/31/nasa-validates-impossible-space-drive

Nasa validates 'impossible' space drive

SCIENCE 31 JULY 14 by DAVID HAMBLING

Nasa is a major player in space science, so when a team from the agency this
week presents evidence that "impossible" microwave thrusters seem to work,
something strange is definitely going on. Either the results are completely
wrong, or Nasa has confirmed a major breakthrough in space propulsion.

British scientist Roger Shawyer has been trying to interest people in his
EmDrive for some years through his company SPR Ltd. Shawyer claims the
EmDrive converts electric power into thrust, without the need for any
propellant by bouncing microwaves around in a closed container. He has built
a number of demonstration systems, but critics reject his relativity-based
theory and insist that, according to the law of conservation of momentum, it
cannot work.

According to good scientific practice, an independent third party needed to
replicate Shawyer's results. As Wired.co.uk reported, this happened last year
when a Chinese team built its own EmDrive and confirmed that it produced 720
mN (about 72 grams) of thrust, enough for a practical satellite thruster.
Such a thruster could be powered by solar electricity, eliminating the need
for the supply of propellant that occupies up to half the launch mass of many
satellites. The Chinese work attracted little attention; it seems that nobody
in the West believed in it.

However, a US scientist, Guido Fetta, has built his own propellant-less
microwave thruster, and managed to persuade Nasa to test it out. The test
results were presented on July 30 at the 50th Joint Propulsion Conference in
Cleveland, Ohio. Astonishingly enough, they are positive.

The Nasa team based at the Johnson Space Centre gave its paper the title
"Anomalous Thrust Production from an RF [radio frequency] Test Device
Measured on a Low-Thrust Torsion Pendulum". The five researchers spent six
days setting up test equipment followed by two days of experiments with
various configurations. These tests included using a "null drive" similar to
the live version but modified so it would not work, and using a device which
would produce the same load on the apparatus to establish whether the effect
might be produced by some effect unrelated to the actual drive. They also
turned the drive around the other way to check whether that had any effect.

DON'T MISS

EmDrive: China's radical new space driveEmDrive: China's radical new space
drive

Back in the 90s, Nasa tested what was claimed to be an antigravity device
based on spinning superconducting discs. That was reported to give good test
results, until researchers realised that interference from the device was
affecting their measuring instruments. They have probably learned a lot since
then.

The torsion balance they used to test the thrust was sensitive enough to
detect a thrust of less than ten micronewtons, but the drive actually
produced 30 to 50 micronewtons -- less than a thousandth of the Chinese
results, but emphatically a positive result, in spite of the law of
conservation of momentum:

"Test results indicate that the RF resonant cavity thruster design, which is
unique as an electric propulsion device, is producing a force that is not
attributable to any classical electromagnetic phenomenon and therefore is
potentially demonstrating an interaction with the quantum vacuum virtual
plasma."

This last line implies that the drive may work by pushing against the ghostly
cloud of particles and anti-particles that are constantly popping into being
and disappearing again in empty space. But the Nasa team has avoided trying
to explain its results in favour of simply reporting what it found: "This
paper will not address the physics of the quantum vacuum plasma thruster, but
instead will describe the test integration, test operations, and the results
obtained from the test campaign."

The drive's inventor, Guido Fetta calls it the "Cannae Drive", which he
explains as a reference to the Battle of Cannae in which Hannibal decisively
defeated a much stronger Roman army: you're at your best when you are in a
tight corner. However, it's hard not to suspect that Star Trek's Engineer
Scott -- "I cannae change the laws of physics" -- might also be an influence.
(It was formerly known as the Q-Drive.)

Fetta also presented a paper at AIAA on his drive, "Numerical and
Experimental Results for a Novel Propulsion Technology Requiring no On-Board
Propellant". His underlying theory is very different to that of the EmDrive,
but like Shawyer he has spent years trying to persuade sceptics simply to
look at it. He seems to have succeeded at last.

Shawyer himself, who sent test examples of the EmDrive to the US in 2009,
sees the similarity between the two.

"From what I understand of the Nasa and Cannae work -- their RF thruster
actually operates along similar lines to EmDrive, except that the asymmetric
force derives from a reduced reflection coefficient at one end plate," he
says. He believes the design accounts for the Cannae Drive's comparatively
low thrust: "Of course this degrades the Q and hence the specific thrust that
can be obtained."

Fetta is working on a number of projects which he is not able to discuss at
present, and Nasa's PR team was not able to get any comments from the
research team. However, it's fair to assume that the results will be picked
over very closely indeed, like CERN's anomalous faster-than-light neutrinos.
The neutrino issue was cleared up fairly quickly, but given that this appears
to be at least the third independent propellant-less thruster to work in
tests, the anomalous thrust may prove much harder to explain away.

A working microwave thruster would radically cut the cost of satellites and
space stations and extend their working life, drive deep-space missions, and
take astronauts to Mars in weeks rather than months. In hindsight, it may
turn out to be another great British invention that someone else turned into
a success.
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[tt] WSJ: To Unplug on Vacation, Your Own Tech Can Help

To Unplug on Vacation, Your Own Tech Can Help
http://online.wsj.com/articles/to-unplug-on-vacation-your-own-tech-can-help-1406657145

July 29, 2014 2:05 p.m. ET

Personal Tech columnist Joanna Stern shares how she learned to
unplug on her summer vacation. Photo/Video: Drew Evans for The Wall
Street Journal.

I wanted to write this column over my vacation last week, but my
laptop stopped me. "Your time is up," it flashed after 30 minutes
online. Begrudgingly I closed the lid, sipped my coffee, looked out
at the sailboats on the ocean, then opened a real printed paperback
book. I was having a tech timeout.

I've never been good at unplugging--not from work, not from social
media, not from any screen. Of course, I've heard the advice:
Disconnecting is good for the mind, body and soul. Yes, but in my
guide to Zen, so is aimlessly scrolling through Twitter

This summer I vowed to myself and my family to spend more of my
vacation and weekend time with the screens off. I didn't promise to
go cold turkey. Our phones are so core to our personal lives, that
almost seems impossible. Instead, ironically, the best way I found
to control myself and my screen time was to use the devices I was
trying to take a break from.

Set Up Timers or Parental Control Apps

Two hundred and fifteen minutes. That's how long I spend on my phone
most days of the week, according to a new time-tracking app called
Moment.

For my week off, I decided to cut that time in half and limit myself
to 30 minutes in the morning, 30 minutes throughout the day and then
another 30 in the evening.

When I hit my 90-minute daily limit, Moment sounded "the most
annoying sound in the world"--a.k.a. Jim Carrey's high-pitched
screech from "Dumb and Dumber." While you can choose from a
selection of other equally infuriating alarms, too, the $5 app
failed to accurately track my usage. And I often squandered precious
minutes going into the app to see how much remaining time I had.

For a real tech timeout, I did what any screen-addicted overgrown
child ought to do: Turn to the plethora of parental-control apps. A
$2 iOS app called Parental TimeLock worked like a charm, accurately
clocking my tablet or phone use, and displaying my remaining minutes
right on the app icon. For Android, Trustlook's free Screen Time
Control similarly displays the remaining time right in the
notification tray. It even tracks which apps you spend your time in.

Both apps lock you out of the devices once your time is up, and the
only way to get back in is to enter a four-digit passcode.
Obviously, unlike your kids, you'll know the code, but for time
awareness, the lockouts were unexpectedly effective. If you really
lack self-discipline, you could always have someone else set it up
for you.

Disable Notifications and Hide Tempting Apps

With the time blocks in place, I then removed or hid the
distractions on my phone and tablet so I could break my usual
dillydallying digital routine: First I scan Twitter, then I hit
Instagram and then, if nothing's really going on, I head over to
Facebook

Turning off work email and Twitter notifications brought on the
agita. The "fear of missing out"--FOMO in teenspeak--bubbled up:
What if I miss some big news or an important email chain? But not
hearing the constant chime of new messages or seeing the red bubble
of unread emails was the best thing I did for myself all week.

I even hid my Facebook and email apps in a folder on my home
screen's third pane so I could break my natural scrolling reflexes.
And one day I did the unthinkable: I deleted the Twitter and
Instagram apps entirely.

With nothing keeping my brain mindlessly occupied, I was suddenly
having deeper thoughts about my long-term work goals, my
relationships with parents and friends, and, yes, the fact that I'm
about to get married.

It wasn't always comfortable. And neither was the fact that no one
even noticed I had digitally disappeared when I returned. "I didn't
realize you were gone. So, uh, welcome back?" someone tweeted when I
returned. The snarky comment brings up one of the reasons many of us
are scared to unplug.

When people step away from email and social networks, many "feel
undone, that they are not as important or needed as they thought
they were," Catherine Steiner-Adair, clinical psychologist and
author of "The Big Disconnect," told me. "It can make people feel
very insecure."

I certainly felt a tug of insecurity at the beginning of my week
off, and again when I returned to work feeling so out of the loop.
But I sure didn't think much about it while I was enjoying my
vacation.

Bring Back Paperbacks and Clock Radios

Naturally, with all those digital fences erected, I had to avoid
some of the digital recreation I rely on, and call on some trusty
old analog devices.

I read a real book with pages you have to turn, not swipe. I wore a
watch so I wouldn't check my phone for the time. I dug up my Sony
Dream Machine clock radio so that my phone didn't end up in my hand
first thing in the morning. Instead of texting and Facebook, I had
face-to-face conversations in my real-life social network.

Replacing my phone's camera, GPS and music-streaming apps was much
harder. I may have been committed to the task, but not enough to
dust off my old Canon, Garmin or iPod.

That's the reality for many of us: Our lives are so entwined with
our phones and tablets that fully unplugging isn't an option--not
even for a weekend. But I was able to find a good balance of online
and offline time that made me feel like I had unplugged from my
hectic digital life.

Sadly, just as I was really getting a handle on it, my vacation time
ran out.

--Write to Joanna at joanna.stern@wsj.com and on Twitter at
@joannastern.
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[tt] New Scientist Technology Blog (covers 2007.5.18-2008.5.2)

New Scientist Technology Blog (covers 2007.5.18-2008.5.2)
http://www.newscientist.com/blog/technology/labels/social-networking.html
A technology blog from Heading - NewScientist Blogs

Friday, May 02, 2008
Visualising your social networks
We've blogged before about tools for visualising [6]social networks,
for instance [7]who met who at a conference and [8]this tool to
visualise election donations, and written about [9]analyses of whole
country's social networks. It was only a matter of time before these
technologies made their way onto sites like Facebook and MySpace,
and sure enough there's now a piece of software called [10]Nexus
which draws network graphs of your Facebook friends.
Each friend is represented by a black dot, and the software draws
lines showing who is friends with who, then darkens the lines when
people also have interests in common. Another app called
[11]Visualiser does something similar, but with a far less useful
display and fewer options.
Baring my soul, here are Nexus' representations of my friendset:
I find the second style much more intuitive, but the first one
throws up some interesting results. You can see that there are
several big clusters, which are unsurprising: schoolfriends,
university friends and so forth.
However it splits my university friends into several clusters, which
as far as I can see don't correspond to their real-life groupings.
In other words it's good at pinning down which groups of people all
know each other, but despite taking loads of data on activities and
interests it can't spot the strong friendship groups within those
clusters.
I would really like to apply this sort of network analysis to a
Facebook group (the [12]New Scientist group for instance). I'm
interested to find out how linked the members are, and what shape
the network takes.
Is the group spreading by word of mouth (and thus strongly linked)
or just by people searching for us? Unfortunately none of the apps
I've found can be applied to a group, so I'm thwarted
([13]FriendWebs claims to, but I can't get it to work). If anyone
knows a way to do this, let us know!
Lastly, while playing with these applications I discovered one that
should appeal to scientists everywhere. [14]MyTypicalFriend runs
through your list of friends, their interests and so forth, and
calculates your average friend, simplifying the whole complicated
socialising thing no end. This is apparently my typical friend:
Michael Marshall has reduced friendship to a list of
middle-of-the-road attributes

Friday, April 18, 2008
Is 150 friends the human limit?
British anthropologist Robin Dunbar calculated in 1992 that the
human brain's size should lead to our social groups naturally
[22]averaging at around 150. [23]What does that mean in an era of
online social networking, ponders one blogger.
One good point he makes is that we have always been capable of
remembering many more contacts than that.
The tendency to converge on the 150 number is really a product of
our not being able to maintain active relationships with more people
than that, rather than a limit to our mental database of all
possible contacts.
So do social networking sites and technologies that make it easier
to communicate allow us to brush Dunbar's number aside?
According to the founder of Facebook, [24]in this video, his site's
users average number of friends is "like around 125 or 130 or so."
He says the closeness of that figure and Dunbar's number is evidence
Facebook friends are as valid as real-life ones. But you might
expect him to say that.
As for the blogger I linked to above, he concludes that the
technological future of socialising will in the end only change what
we do as far as "Human Hardware" allows.
That seems sensible. Yet given the history of social diversity and
upheaval in humanity's short history, those limits are not likely to
be very tight.
Tom Simonite, online technology reporter

Thursday, March 20, 2008
Are we all internet addicts now?
The debate about the risks posed by internet addiction has begun
again with the publication of [31]an editorial in the American
Journal of Psychiatry on the topic.
Let's take a look at what Jerald Block said. He identifies three
"subtypes" of internet addiction: excessive gaming, sexual
preoccupations, and e-mail/text messaging (not strictly internet, I
know).
Want to know if you're addicted? He provides these four criteria:
1. Excessive use, often associated with a loss of sense of time or a
neglect of basic drives
2. Withdrawal, including feelings of anger, tension, and/or
depression when the computer is inaccessible
3. Tolerance, including the need for better computer equipment, more
software, or more hours of use
4. Negative repercussions, including arguments, lying, poor
achievement, social isolation, and fatigue
Ignoring the sex and gaming addicts, aren't rather a lot of people
email/text messaging addicts according to this scheme?
Modern life revolves around the two - and increasing around online
social networking as well. We use at all times of the day (excessive
use), get stressed when a low battery stops us messaging
(withdrawal), constantly buy new devices (tolerance) and would
probably get more done if we showed more restraint (negative
repercussions).
Those communication methods are becoming ever more central to
everyday life - part of nearly every social, commercial and business
transaction. Is society driving us all into addiction, or have the
doctors got ahead of themselves and medicalised social and
technological trends?
I'm no psychologist. But I do not think there is anything inherently
dangerous or addictive about internet technologies and applications.
The reported increases in addiction are still preliminary results,
and likely mostly an effect of growing medical attention to the
"problem".
Some people certainly will suffer genuine problems with addiction to
online activities. But surely those that do are susceptible to such
problems, even in the web's absence? I struggle to believe that the
web could shove lots of otherwise healthy people over that
particular edge.
Tom Simonite, online technology reporter

Friday, February 08, 2008
Towards the Facebook phone
[40]cellphone Social networking online is grabbing all of the
headlines. But huge numbers of people have been using cellphones to
socialise electronically for much longer. Surely the mobile platform
is a better one for social networking.
Computer scientist [41]Vassilis Kostakos certainly thinks so. He
recently told me about some FaceBook plugins he is developing that
can connect people you meet in real life with their online profiles.
It uses software installed on your phone to look for nearby devices
using Bluetooth.
One of his plugins, called [42]CityWare, was launched last summer.
If you get close enough to another person who is also running the
plugin on their phone, you are provided with a link to their profile
the next time you login to Facebook. It was developed as part of a
research project also called [43]CityWare, partly funded by HP,
Nokia and Vodafone.
Kostakos is working on more plugins, one of which really brings
social networking and phones together.
Called Little Bird, it gets your phone to update you with
information from your friends' profiles whenever you meet them.
"When you walk into a room, a message on your phone tells you what
events your friends in the room are attending in the near future,"
explains Kostakos.
I think we'll be seeing more applications like this. It makes sense
to help people get at this information on their phones; for example,
telling you when contacts stored on your phone come online.
Kostakos says that since [44]gaining publicity last year for his
first Facebook application, he has spoken with several large
European mobile operators interested in bringing social networking
and phones together.
I imagine the handset makers will also be interested. I wonder how
long it'll be before the first 'Facebook phone' appears. Perhaps the
first wave of devices based on [45]Google's 'open' Android platform
will see that happen.
Tom Simonite, online technology reporter

Tuesday, January 22, 2008
High-tech badges log human networks
Surveillance badges that lay bare the social details of people's
everyday lives have been developed at the [52]Human Dynamics lab at
[53]MIT. The high-tech badges recognise each other using infrared,
then record your speech, note your distance from other people, and
track your movement.
We ran a feature last year about how such tags have been used to
reveal that [54]we are not fully in control of our own lives ? many
of our actions are simply predictable reactions to external events.
Now one of the researchers, Ben Waber, has [55]blogged about handing
out the badges to delegates meeting with their corporate sponsors.
The badges were set to record face-to-face interactions between the
people wearing them, and displayed a social network illustrating all
recorded meetings on a screen.
You can see in the image posted here that most people wearing the
badges were linked in some way, with a few people left unconnected.
Over at the [56]original post, you can see images showing how, over
the course of the day, more people became connected within the
network as they met more people.
Apparently, people began competing to become the centre of the
network, by meeting as many people as possible. If installed into
the standard name tags of conferences, perhaps these 'sociometric
badges' could make networking more interesting.
Tom Simonite, online technology reporter

Monday, December 17, 2007
The Facebook of yore
Ever wondered who Albert Einstein would "[65]poke", or what Charles
Darwin would write on creationists' "[66]walls" - had such famous
characters lived in an era obsessed with social networking sites
like Facebook.
Even the Facebook-phobic would surely be interested to see the
underlying social connections between these historical luminaries.
Two computer scientists working for [67]Philips Research in the
Netherlands - Gijs Geleijnse and Jan Korst - have attempted to
produce a retrospective social network of famous people of yore.
The researchers used search engines to trawl the web for information
about famous folk, then analysed this data to "learn" relevant facts
about each individual. Finally, they used this to generate a social
network of connections between different people.
The software developed by Geleijnse and Korst determines a person's
profession, gender, nationality, and much more by performing
repeated web searches and seeing how many times certain phrases
appear together in close proximity. For example, "Napoleon
Bonaparte" and "emperor".
These details were used to link people together, based on what they
have in common. According to the resulting social network, Albert
Einstein and Charles Darwin are the 4th and 10th most popular
historical persons. The most contemporary person to make the top 25
was Ronald Reagan, who scraped in at number 17. And who are the top
users? Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van
Beethoven (1,2 & 3). I guess it just goes to show that musicians are
always popular.
Of course, it isn't a real social network they've created, so much
as a network of similarity. But it's an interesting example of how
useful information can automatically be extracted from the web. And
this is something that could be crucial to building the[68] semantic
web - an issue we've touched on before, most recently in an
[69]article about a semantic start-up called Twine.
For more detail, see their paper [70]Creating a Dead Poets Society:
Extracting a Social Network of Historical Persons from the Web
(pdf), presented at the [71]6th International Semantic Web
Conference, held in Korea this November.
Will Knight, online technology editor

Tuesday, October 23, 2007
This ad goes out to all the liberal 26 year olds in Utah
The search for social network gold continues. [77]Facebook has
released the latest version of its advertising system, which lets
companies target users by country, city, age, sex, relationship
status, political leaning, educational institutions, workplace and
search keywords.
[78]Have a go for yourself - you can choose exactly which kind of
people you want to target. If you're a Facebook user, it even tells
you how many people your ad will reach. Starting with 6+ million
when the form is blank for a UK user, you can whittle it down to
numbers it says are 'less than 20', or place an ad targeting
currently non-existent users (click the image on the left for an
example).
You might be able to have some fun with this. If you carefully
select, say, the age, city, company and keywords perhaps you could
place an advert on the page of a select few friends. From $0.10 per
click on your advert, it could even cheaper than the official
'gifts' which cost a dollar each.
The main question being asked in the blogosphere is [79]will this
compete with Google's ad-words advertising system. While some think
yes, others disagree. I think it's too early to tell - the debate
will be more productive in a few months.
As for whether users will mind, I don't think many people will be
shocked. Ads will appear at the side of pages - only if they start
to appear more obtrusively will people be bothered. The way ads are
focused on people is also nothing new. If you are a member of a
supermarket reward card scheme, you're already being targeted in a
similar way.
Tom Simonite, online technology reporter

Wednesday, October 03, 2007
What are Facebook friends worth?
Updated 18:18
What are you worth? About $256 if you are a member of Facebook,
based on Microsoft's [86]rumoured bid for the ever-growing social
network and media phenomenon. Microsoft is said to have offered $500
million for a 5% stake of the network and its 39 million members -
valuing the whole thing at $10 billion.
But don't start feeling too valued - perhaps you are actually worth
far less than that. A Facebook add-on called [87]I Am Hungry
[88]recently auctioned for over $20,000, valuing its [89]150,000
users at $0.13. The lucky buyer gains control of a widget those
users keep on their homepage that lets them signal when they are
hungry with a single click. They also get some profile information
about each user.
The auction page even has a few suggestions of what the buyer could
do with I Am Hungry. Number 4 was "Use E-mail notifications to
communicate with I am Hungry users" - i.e. spam them. How much
longer will the golden age of social networking last, before the
need to make money from it leaves users dodging adverts at every
poke?
As for the creators of I Am Hungry, they've moved onto other
Facebook add-ons, including one called "Naughty Gifts". You know
what they say - where there's muck there's brass.
Tom Simonite, online technology reporter

Thursday, August 30, 2007
Unions say bosses should allow social networking at work
Employers should respect their employees right to use social
networking sites like [96]Facebook and [97]MySpace on the job,
according to the [98]Trades Union Congress (TUC) - a federation of
most unions in the UK.
The TUC has issued [99]guidelines for employees, as well as [100]for
employers (pdf), designed to encourage tolerance of such sites in
the workplace. It's an interesting example of the consequences of
online living - we increasingly take our personal lives into what
used to be impersonal spheres.
As I noted in a previous post, some research has suggested that
[101]employers should tolerate non-productive use of the web at work
to maintain overall happiness and productivity.
The TUC notes that a "number of employers have moved to ban use of
Facebook at work". But I know of at least one example that shows how
an employer can benefit from social networking.
A friend works for a '[102]magic circle' city law firm in London.
Because all web-based email sites are blocked, employees have piled
into using Facebook instead. The IT department blocked that too,
only to unblock it quickly at a senior lawyer's request. Apparently
Facebook had become a useful way to maintaining client
relationships.
Is that just the exception that proves the rule? Or have other
people encountered employers willing to tolerate, or even promote,
online social networking?
The TUC's advice page tries to answer this question: "Should I
accept a Facebook friend request from my boss?" It also suggests
that "this is going to become one of the big battlegrounds of office
etiquette". So, how long until we see the first strike action over
social networking?
Tom Simonite, online technology reporter


Monday, August 13, 2007
Facebook code leaks out
Some of the source code that powers the popular social-networking
site [110]Facebook found its way onto the web over the weekend. I'm
not about to cancel my account, but I do find it a bit worrying.
The source code was published on Saturday to a blog called
[111]Facebook secrets and several news sites were alerted. A
spokeswoman for Facebook confirmed that the code was genuine, but
stressed that it had been revealed accidentally - by a misconfigured
web server - and not through a security breach.
The reason the leak is concerning is that, by studying the leaked
code, a canny computer hacker might be able to figure out some
critical security vulnerabilities and thus gain access to tonnes of
personal information.
Having the source code is not the same as finding a vulnerability,
however, so I don't think there's much cause for alarm right now. On
the other hand, the story raises two important and worrying issues.
The first is that social networks place an awful lot of personal
information in one location, raising the risk of identity theft - as
several security experts have [112]already warned.
The second point, which is connected to the first, is that social
networking services are becoming an ever more enticing target for
computer hackers. Only last week we ran a story about a
[113]computer expert cracking into MySpace accounts.
So while Facebook may be a safe place for your data right now, I
think it is worth thinking carefully about just what sensitive
information you keep there in future.
Will Knight, New Scientist online technology editor
Source: [114]Techcrunch.
* Posted by Will Knight, online technology editor at 2:33 PM

Tuesday, July 17, 2007
What are your embarassing Facebook pics?
Right now, hundreds of students at Oxford University are no doubt
logging onto [123]Facebook to remove incriminating pictures of
themselves. This is after discovering that the university's
disciplinary body [124]has been using the site to catch them
"trashing" each other, in contravention of the university's rules.
In case you wondered, "trashing" is a post-exam tradition at Oxford
that involves covering your friends with champagne, flour, confetti
or even raw meat or octopus.
It doesn't sound so bad, but apparently the proctors at Oxford don't
like it one bit. And so, when they found flour-stained images of
third-year mathematics student Alex Hill on the site (see left),
they decided to discipline her with a £100 fine.
"I don't know how this happened, especially as my privacy settings
were such that only my friends and students in my networks could
view my photos," Hill told The Guardian. "It's quite unbelievable
and I am very pissed off, [I] just hope that no-one else gets
'caught' in this way."
In fact, plenty of people are being "caught" in similar ways
already. This story comes just a day after the newly crowned "Miss
New Jersey" was [125]embroiled in a scandal because of a some mildly
racy pictures she'd also posted to her Facebook page.
About a year ago, a feature in New Scientist magazine - [126]Living
online: The end of privacy? - warned about this very issue. I'll
definitely think twice in future before posting images of a drunken
night out for everyone to see.
For the record though, I'd like to point out that if you join our
brand new [127]New Scientist Facebook group we definitely won't tell
anyone about your incriminating pics.
Will Knight, online technology editor
* Posted by Will Knight, online technology editor at 4:38 PM

Thursday, July 12, 2007
Is Facebook doomed?
If your office is anything like mine, then it's probably gone a bit
Facebook crazy over the past month or so. I currently spend a
worrying amount of desk-time responding to messages, group invites,
pokes and the like.
The decision to [134]open the service up to non-college-students and
to [135]release programming tools for outside developers both seem
to have been important tipping points for this success.
But earlier this week, I read a very interesting blog post by Jason
Kottke, a well-known expert on web programming, in which he
[136]compares Facebook to the old AOL. What Kottke means is that
Facebook resembles the walled garden, forcing developers to tie
their tools to the Facebook platform. You might wonder why this
matters, and this [137]Guardian [138]story concludes that it
doesn't, providing Facebook users keep on coming back to the site.
But I think that's just the point. In the long term, as social
networking gets more important and popular, surely the best social
apps are likely to be open, connecting different web sites and web
services in one almighty social mash-up.
That is, unless Facebook doesn't supersede the internet itself. And,
at the rate things are going, that doesn't seem out of the question.
Will Knight, technology editor
* Posted by Will Knight, online technology editor at 5:10 PM

Friday, May 18, 2007
Is it just me or is everything great?
Here's an interesting factoid [146]from Prospect Magazine: product
reviews on Amazon give an average rating of 4.2 out of five.
Does this mean that quality of life has risen so high that
electronics, office products, books, films and everything else are
generally near-perfect?
Or perhaps it is an effect of self-selection. Maybe people are more
likely to review things they like, than those they don't. Or perhaps
people who like reviewing think everything is great. It could be
more sinister, with marketeers distorting the ratings. Or maybe
pranksters like the author of [147]this review are skewing things.
Maybe politicians should be tracking the average review over time as
an indicator of the public mood and upcoming shifts in the state of
the economy.
Whatever the truth, I think Amazon is probably happy. How many
undecided purchasers are pushed into buying the sight of a positive
review? I know I have been. In future, I think I'll try not to look.
Tom Simonite, online technology reporter.

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[tt] NS 2979: Baxter the robot brings his gentle touch to novel jobs

NS 2979: Baxter the robot brings his gentle touch to novel jobs
http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22329793.700-baxter-the-robot-brings-his-gentle-touch-to-novel-jobs.html
* 23 July 2014 by Hal Hodson

A robot designed to work alongside humans in factories is finding a
range of unusual alternative applications - from treating patients
to farming in space

A PAIR of chunky robot arms connected to a computer brain rides a
motorised wheelchair over to a jar of peanut butter. The red arms
reach out and grab it. The right gripper holds the jar still, while
the left unscrews the top.

The arms belong to Baxter, an industrial robot with a twist - it is
designed to work right next to humans on factory floors. Launched in
2012 by Boston-based Rethink Robotics, founded by pioneering
roboticist Rodney Brooks, hundreds of Baxters already work on
assembly lines and packing stations in factories across the US.

But Baxter is now stepping out of the factory and into
quirkier projects. The robot isn't opening peanut butter jars for
kicks, but at the behest of David Whalen, who was left quadriplegic
as a young man following a skiing accident in 1981. Whalen is
working with John Wen of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in
Troy, New York, to turn Baxter into a mobile assistive robot.

To do this, Baxter's circuits have been combined with those of an
electric wheelchair. Whalen can control the whole chimeric apparatus
using a device he originally developed to allow him to play music
without the use of his arms. The digital, breath-controlled device,
called Jamboxx, looks like a cyborg harmonica. With various sips and
puffs, Whalen can direct Baxter around on the wheelchair and also
control its arms.

"Imagine being alone in your house for 8 hours, not able to get a
drink when you need one or pick up something you dropped," he says.
His work with Wen on Baxter, due to be presented in August at the
Conference on Automation Science and Engineering in Taiwan, is
helping to solve that problem. "I've used it to pick up dropped
items, retrieve items from shelves and push things around," Whalen
says.

Wen's lab owns three Baxters. He is working with David Hornick of
Albany Memorial Hospital to turn the others to another application
that Rethink Robotics can hardly have anticipated: being remotely
controlled by a doctor to carry out medical examinations. Because
Baxter is designed to be safe around people, with additional sensing
and arms that stop when they meet resistance, Wen and Hornick think
they can safely let it perform physical tests.

The team is initially teaching Baxter to use an electronic
stethoscope, operated remotely. Baxter can be taught new movements
simply by physically grasping its pliant arms and manoeuvring them
into the desired positions. The system works by having the doctor
control a "master Baxter" in this way, while an identical remote
robot mimics these movements to carry out the patient examination
while the doctor watches by video link.

Other researchers have an even loftier ambition for Baxter - space
farming. Nikolaus Correll at the University of Colorado in Boulder
(UCB) is using a Baxter to explore how robots could tend to plants
in space. His work is funded by NASA as part of a project to grow
food autonomously in space, which would allow astronauts to spend
longer away from Earth.

Robots are awful at handling plants because they tend not to have a
sense of touch and the flexible nature of plants makes them
difficult to manipulate. But Baxter has the skills for this close
work, and Correll and his graduate student Dave Coleman are
exploring how to help the robot handle plant-like material. "The
veggie growth chamber was just launched to the International Space
Station in April this year," says Correll. The plan is to show what
they can do on Earth with Baxter, then transfer those skills to the
International Space Station's on-board automaton, Robonaut.

Baxter is even turning its grippers to lab work. Correll is working
with UCB's Rob Knight to teach Baxter the job of preparing faeces
samples for research.

Correll sees huge potential in the $25,000 robot, even if some
others take persuading. "When I went to NASA they said bad things
about Baxter, and I said, 'You know what? Your robots cost
millions.'"
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[tt] NS 2979: California's Katrina? The great delta dilemma

"The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and
hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series
of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary" (H.L. Mencken, _In Defence of
Women_).


NS 2979: California's Katrina? The great delta dilemma
http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22329790.400-californias-katrina-the-great-delta-dilemma.html
* 24 July 2014 by Michael Brooks

[Leader: "A six-state California faces a water war" added.]

Drought is not the only threat to California's water supply - the
state's single biggest source of water is a catastrophe waiting to
happen

IT COULD happen tomorrow. As California is sweltering through
another hot, dry summer, the ground in the Sacramento-San Joaquin
delta begins to shake as a large earthquake strikes. Here, a network
of river channels wend their way around dozens of "islands" as they
flow down to San Francisco Bay. The locals call them islands but
that's not quite right, for the land in between the rivers has sunk
well below the water level - in places by as much as 8 metres. In
reality, they are immense pits, protected only by often-fragile
earthen levees.

Geologists had warned that a big earthquake nearby might liquefy the
levees and cause them to fail. Within minutes of the quake, they are
proved right. The levees give way in dozens of places, and the fresh
water in the river channels begins to pour down onto 40 of the
region's 60 or so islands. With little fresh water flowing through
the delta after years of drought, saltwater from the tidal zone
starts to flow upstream towards the breaches in the levees, deep
into the heart of the delta. Within hours, brackish water is
flooding across vast areas of farmland and thousands of delta
residents and farmworkers are forced to flee. Almost all survive,
but many lose their homes and livelihoods.

It's a major disaster, and it has only just begun. On the seaward
side of the delta are massive pumps that usually work ceaselessly
every day, transferring vast quantities of fresh water from the
delta into canals and aqueducts heading for the farms and cities of
southern California. A significant proportion of the water for the
19 million people living in California's Metropolitan Water District
comes from the delta, but as saltwater rushes in, the pumps have to
be shut off. It will be a year or more before the levees can be
repaired and the saltwater flushed from the channels. Only then can
pumping resume.

This would be a serious problem at the best of times. The green of
Southern California is only sustained by extraordinary feats of
water engineering - no wonder some have called the state a
"magnificent illusion". But California is already suffering its
worst drought in history. The loss of the delta water could not have
come at a worse time and threatens to destroy the illusion
completely.

Even before the quake, farmers had begun abandoning their crops and
laying off workers. More are soon forced to follow suit. The US
relies on the state for much of its fresh produce, so fruit and
vegetable prices soar across the country and beyond. As the drought
continues and the pumps remain silent, reserves dwindle, and water
supplies to homes and factories have to be rationed. The economy
shrinks even further and unemployment rises as the world's 8th
largest economy runs dry. The effects are felt across the nation and
the rest of the world...

California's Katrina

This is the worst case scenario. Let's hope it doesn't come to pass
but as we saw with hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Sandy two years
ago, the worst can happen. If California's Department of Water
Resources (DWR) is to be believed, it is only a matter of time
before an earthquake or large flood causes multiple breaches in the
1800 kilometres of levees. If it happens at a bad time, this really
could be California's Katrina.

Much depends on the precise circumstances. "There is no simple
answer to how water supply disruption in the delta would affect the
state," says Nancy Vogel of the DWR. If the levees fail when water
reservoirs are full and plenty of fresh water is flowing through the
delta, much less seawater will penetrate inwards and the pumps will
not have to be turned off for long, if at all. But the risk of
disruption to the supply of water from the delta is one of the
reasons why the DWR says California needs to spend $25 billion on an
immense tunnel project to bypass the fragile levees and guarantee
the supply of fresh water to southern California, come earthquake,
flood or storm. Many delta residents are fiercely opposed to the
idea. They see the project as an attempt to steal their water, and
dismiss talk of catastrophe as scaremongering. So who is right? It
really is a billion-dollar question.

Strictly speaking, the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta is not a delta
at all but a tidal estuary formed where the Sacramento and San
Joaquin rivers meet. Much of it once flooded with every high tide.
Starting around 160 years ago, gold rush pioneers and farmers began
to build levees to hold back the water. Without fresh deposits of
mud, the land has been sinking as the organic matter within it rots
away - as is happening in many other places around the world. Were
it not for the levees most of the delta would be covered by several
metres of water.

From the mid-20th century, huge quantities of water began to be
taken from the southern side of the delta for cities and farms. "The
water pumped down from the delta is the backbone of the California
water system," says Vogel. Yet only 22 per cent of Californians have
even heard of the delta region.

The system may have served the state well for decades, but the one
thing almost everyone agrees on is that things can't go on as they
are. Sea level is slowly rising and is set to rise much more over
the coming century. One consequence is higher pressure on the
levees, which means a greater risk of breaches if they are not
raised.

Another is an increasing problem with saltwater incursions: not only
is the sea rising, but less fresh water is flowing into the delta,
due to increasing extraction upstream and climate change. When the
rivers are low, seawater is pulled upstream from the bay by the huge
pumps that supply the south.

These incursions are bad both for native wildlife and for people.
They cause pollutants to accumulate as well as adding salts such as
bromides, making the delta water costly to purify for drinking.
"Over time, the cost of treating the water for urban purposes is
only going to increase," says Jay Lund, a civil engineer at the
University of California, Davis. The current drought is causing such
severe incursions that the DWR may install rock barriers to hold the
saltwater back.

Meanwhile, what little native wildlife remains in the region is
struggling to cope. Extinction is a real possibility for the
salinity-sensitive delta smelt, for example, a tiny fish that was
once a linchpin of the region's ecosystem. "This is the canary in
the coal mine," says local resident Robert Pyke.

Also in trouble are the Chinook salmon that migrate through the
delta. The reversals of river flow caused by the pumps can confuse
them. And although the pumping stations are equipped with screens
that are meant to prevent large fish such as salmon from being
sucked in, they don't work well when little water is entering the
delta and river flows are slow. Fish can get trapped and killed in
the intakes, or become sitting ducks for predators. Not all wildlife
is suffering, though. Many invasive species, from quagga mussels to
water hyacinths, are thriving.

Then there is the issue of the levees failing. One or two breaches
happen most decades. The last was in 2004, when a levee failed on a
fine day, flooding Jones island (pictured above). There have been
some close calls since, like when waves overtopped some levees
during winter storms in 2005 and 2006. Such storms are expected to
become more intense as a result of global warming. And in 2009, a
ship came close to breaching a levee.

Occasional breaches are costly but manageable. The big question is
whether a major flood or earthquake could breach many levees
simultaneously. Flooding increases the pressure on the earthen
structures, and can rapidly erode them if water starts flowing over
them. Could the levees withstand a megaflood like the one that hit
California in 1861, when it rained every day for more
than six weeks? They might fail in part, but not wholly, reckons
Pyke, who is a geotechnical engineer with experience of levee
construction and repair in Europe and in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Raising the levees

For one thing, he points out, every island that floods reduces the
pressure. What's more, for the last three decades, state and local
engineers have been working to bring the levees up to a standard
known as PL 84-99 - making them 15 centimetres higher and reducing
the slope of the inside wall to increase stability. Levees built to
this standard are resistant to the kind of flooding event that
happens once a century. Roughly half of the network is now at that
standard, Pyke says. "Within a couple of years it will all be
there."

The upgraded levees will still be vulnerable to a large earthquake,
though. "A magnitude 6 or 7 quake would probably do for all of
them," says Lund. Their resilience has yet to be tested, perhaps
because the 1906 San Francisco earthquake relieved much of the
stress in the region. But the US Geological Survey (USGS) has
estimated that there is a 62 per cent chance of an earthquake of
magnitude 6.7 or greater in the Bay Area between 2003 and 2032. A
separate 2009 report for the DWR concluded that "there is a 40 per
cent probability of a major earthquake causing 27 or more islands to
flood at the same time in the 25-year period from 2005 to 2030".
This is the basis for the "doomsday" scenario used to help justify
the twin tunnel project.

It's not quite that simple, however. The delta is 50 kilometres from
the nearest fault, the Hayward fault, and the risk of a major
earthquake here is thought to be low. Even if it happened, Pyke
thinks the effects will die off significantly 50 km away, so the
threat is overblown. Is he right?

The 2009 report made certain assumptions about how seismic tremors
would travel to the delta and what effect they would have on the
levees. Though it took the composition of local soils into account,
the report used what Joe Fletcher of the USGS calls "a fairly
standard attenuation model". This is not the best way to do it,
Fletcher says, and he and his colleagues are trying to do better.
"We are making progress but are a ways from actually producing a
model."

So the odds of an earthquake bringing down dozens of levees at once
could be lower than the 40 per cent figure suggests. But it could
also be higher: there is a chance that the local topography could
amplify some seismic wave frequencies, says Fletcher. Even if it
does turn out to be lower, what level of risk is acceptable, given
the importance of the delta water to millions in southern
California? Even Pyke thinks something must be done. He helped write
a 2010 report recommending that half of the system be built up to
the "fat levee" standard, which means making levees so wide that
they cannot fall over when shaken by a quake. "That would
effectively flood and earthquake-proof all the islands that are
below sea level," he says.

At a cost of between $1 and 2 billion, this would be relatively
cheap. But fat levees would not solve the problems of saltwater
incursions and the resulting interruptions to the water supply. "The
water deliveries continue to get more erratic," says Vogel. "We have
tens of millions of people who depend upon them." That's where the
twin tunnels come in. The idea is to build two earthquake-proof
tunnels that would run side by side and carry water from supplies
further upstream on the Sacramento river down to where the pumping
stations are now. This would provide purer, fresher water for
southern Californian even when river levels fall in the delta or
levees fail. But at $25 billion it will not come cheap.

The tunnels are the central plank of a package of measures being put
forward as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. The plan is supposed to
benefit wildlife as well securing the water supply, but an
independent scientific review found that the DWR "tends to overreach
conclusions of positive benefits" and "needs to be reconsidered and
revamped". Hardly a ringing endorsement.

With growing and conflicting demands for a shrinking supply of
water, no scheme can satisfy everyone. Delta residents, however, see
themselves as the big losers. "If they build the tunnel they will
suck this region dry," says Jeff Hart, who used to conduct eco-tours
of the delta and now runs a farm there. "We're being treated like
we're a colony."

That's not the only worry for residents. Once the tunnels are
complete, there will be less reason to protect the "islands", or
restore them after floods. Several have already been abandoned after
levee failures, from Frank's Tract in 1938 to Liberty Island in
1998. Those parts of the delta that are home to important
infrastructure such as state highways as well as farms, though, are
unlikely to be abandoned. So California may well decide both to
build the tunnels and continue to strengthen most of the levees.

When that will happen is another matter. Even if the plan's
proponents get their way, the tunnels would not be completed until
2027 at the earliest. And political wrangling over the plan and its
funding could cause endless delays. "We have been debating, arguing
and litigating over the delta for the last 40 years," Vogel says.
What happens here, though, could ripple across the rest of the
world. The rest of us can only hope that the "magnificent illusion"
does not crumble to dust.

Michael Brooks is a consultant for New Scientist. His latest book is
At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 discoveries taking science by
surprise (Profile)
---
Leader: A six-state California faces a water war
http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22329791.400-a-sixstate-california-faces-a-water-war.html
* 25 July 2014

CALIFORNIA has a long history of trying to tear itself apart. Since
it joined the Union in 1850, there have been dozens of proposals to
break up the state. The latest, put forward by technology investor
Tim Draper, envisages dividing it into six separate states.

Nobody is giving the plan much chance. But if Draper wins enough
backers to force a vote, California may end up debating an issue
that really does have the potential to destroy the Golden State:
water.

Southern California depends heavily on water from further north.
This arrangement has served the state well, but is now unsustainable
(see "California's Katrina? The great delta dilemma").

Tensions are building over plans to build pipelines to guarantee the
south's water supply, with residents further north resentful of
"their" water being taken away and fearful of being bled dry
themselves.

These people may find the six-states plan appealing. As residents of
newly created North and Central California, they would have much
more control over their water. Prospective citizens of West and
South California are likely to be less enamoured.

It is probably not what Draper had in mind when he hatched his plan.
But if it raises the profile of California's water woes, his idea
will have achieved something.
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