Blue Marble

Monitor Your Health With A Cell Phone

| Wed Dec. 24, 2008 12:27 AM EST

Mobile_phone.png Here's the house call of the future. A prototype cell phone that monitors HIV and malaria patients and tests water quality in undeveloped areas or disaster sites. Data is then be sent via the cell phone to a hospital for analysis and diagnosis.

The imaging platform is already here. It's called LUCAS and has been experimentally installed in a cell phone and a webcam, each of which then takes an image of blood, saliva or other fluids using short-wavelength blue light. LUCAS can identify and count the microparticles instantly by using a decision algorithm to compare the captured images to a library of images.

The technology is the brainchild of electrical engineer Aydogan Ozcan of UCLA. His latest version, called holographic LUCAS, is described in the journal Lab On A Chip. Holographic LUCAS can identify smaller particles than before, such as E. coli. Ozcan's next step is to build a handheld device for people in remote areas to use to monitor the spread of disease, allowing doctors to know where they're most needed fast.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the PEN USA Literary Award, the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal.

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The Best Chocolate You've Never Heard Of

| Mon Dec. 22, 2008 9:00 PM EST

kallari.gif
Kallari, released at Whole Foods in October, is the world's first widely-available chocolate bar made and marketed by actual cacao farmers. It also might be the best chocolate I've tasted, and I'm a big chocolate fan. It's produced with a rare, highly-celebrated bean grown in the Ecuadorian Amazon by 850 enterprising Quichua families who receive 100 percent of the profits. It probably doesn't hurt that they got a little bit of help from Robert Steinberg, the founder of Berkeley's renowned Scharffen Berger chocolate. If you're looking for a holiday gift, Kallari's 75% cacao bar might be a good bet. In these depressing times, you'll get to talk about how it was made by farmers who until recently couldn't even afford to ship their beans from the jungle to Quito but who now run the show--true role models for us children of the recession. And then you can suggest opening it right away so you can snap off a big chocolatey chunk for yourself.

Methane Leaking Into Arctic Ocean

| Fri Dec. 19, 2008 7:56 PM EST

800px-East_Siberian_Sea_map.png The carbon pool beneath the Arctic Ocean is leaking. A study on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf found an increase in methane bubbles rising from chimneys on the seafloor in 2008. In fact more than 1,000 measurements registered the highest dissolved methane concentrations ever seen in the summer Arctic Ocean. Methane is a greenhouse gas 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

These new data from the International Arctic Research Center indicate the underwater permafrost is thawing in one of two (or both) ways. First, thawing permafrost initiates the decomposition of previously-frozen organic material, releasing methane and carbon dioxide. Second, ice-like methane hydrates trapped underneath the permafrost seep out when the permafrost thaws.

The East Siberian Arctic Shelf is a shallow continental shelf stretching 900 miles into the Arctic Ocean from Siberia. It's known to be a year-round source of methane to the globe's atmosphere. But until recently scientists believed that much of its carbon pool was safely insulated by underwater permafrost. Not anymore. Now the fuse is lit on the methane time bomb. . . . And we're still talking about drilling for new sources of oil? WTF? Listen up Barack Obama: The promised change has gotta be faster than the melting methane.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the PEN USA Literary Award, the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal.

Carbon Storage Models Get Realer

| Wed Dec. 17, 2008 10:17 PM EST

Carbon_sequestration.jpg Two new modeling studies are tackling simulations of long-term CO2 storage. The first examines leakage of stored CO2 from abandoned oil wells. The second attempts to simulate the big picture, starting with capture and leading to injection and storage, evaluating costs and risks of potential sites.

Both papers are published online at Environmental Science & Technology. Both simulate projects that aim to capture CO2 from power plants and store it underground in aquifers or sedimentary deposits. Pilot carbon capture and storage projects are currently underway in Germany, Norway, Canada, Algeria, and the U.S.

The first paper from the U of Bergen, Norway, and Princeton finds that abandoned wells have created a Swiss-cheese pattern of holes across North America. CO2 can escape from these wells. Undersea storage would avoid the Swiss cheese problem, the authors note. But an ocean solution is more expensive.

What Environmentalists Really Think of Ken Salazar

| Wed Dec. 17, 2008 4:03 PM EST

As you may have read, Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) has been tapped as President Obama's Secretary of the Interior. And as we've reported previously, the Interior secretary post is a major one in terms of the nation's environmental health. The Interior (and by default, its secretary) governs the management of public lands, national parks, oil and gas resources, and even the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey.

Environmentalists were pushing for Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a staunch conservationist. So what's their consensus on Salazar? You can read their various statements, below. Overall, they seem cautiously optimistic. But then, it would be hard not to be buoyed by Salazar when you're comparing him to predecessors like mining advocate and former chemical company lobbyist Gale Norton.

Center for Biological Diversity: "He is a right-of-center Democrat who often favors industry and big agriculture... He is very unlikely to bring significant change to the scandal-plagued Department of Interior. It's a very disappointing choice..." --Kieran Suckling, executive director, via New York Times.

Sierra Club: "He has been a very vocal critic of the Bush administration's reckless approach to rampant land development in the West." --Josh Dorner, a spokesman, via the UK Guardian.

Wilderness Society: "He's going to be an honest broker... He is trying to manage conflicts in a way that reaches resolution. I'm not sure he's articulated a grand vision for the public lands." --Bill Meadows, president, via Washington Post.

"On a personal level, our experience has been that there is a genuine openness to [Salazar] considering different ideas.." --David Albersworth, senior policy analyst, via Rocky Mountain News.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility: Salazar is a "sympathetic soul" who will be a refreshing change because "the past eight years with the Bush administration have felt like a battle, then it became total despair." --Karen Schambach, California coordinator, via the Los Angeles Times.

"Salazar has a disturbingly weak conservation record, particularly on energy development, global warming, endangered wildlife and protecting scientific integrity," --Daniel R. Patterson, southwest regional director, via New York Times.

Environmental Working Group: "We're encouraged by it... he recognizes the importance of the food programs, and he's very good on conservation." --Ken Cook, president, via the Washington Post.

Environment Colorado: "We hope he continues to play a role in insuring that, as we develop our mineral rights in these incredibly sensitive areas, we require industry to put in place safeguards that protect our health, environment, water and air quality," --Pam Kiely, program director, via New York Times.

The Gift of Nature

| Tue Dec. 16, 2008 10:16 PM EST

399px-Eaglecreek-28July2006.jpg Walking in a park in any season or even viewing pictures of nature helps improve memory and attention by 20 percent. All it takes is 30 minutes. Even when it's cold. Even when we don't enjoy it. The study by U of Michigan researchers found that effects of interacting with nature are similar to meditating.

Participants were sent on walking routes through urban streets as well as through a botanical garden and arboretum. The city strolls provided no memory boost but the parks improved short-term memory. Interestingly, the test subjects didn't need to enjoy the walks. They received the same cognitive benefits when it was 80 degrees and sunny as when it was 25 degrees in winter.

Participants were also tested sitting inside and looking at pictures of either downtown scenes or nature scenes. The results were the same: about 20 percent improvement in memory and attention scores from looking at photos of nature.

The study appears in Psychological Science and dovetails with some of the researchers' earlier work suggesting that people will be most satisfied with their lives when their environment supports three basic needs: the ability to understand and explore; the ability to make a difference; and ability to feel competent and effective.

Best holiday present? Take someone out into nature. Truly the gift that gives forever. Or at least for 20 percent longer.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the PEN USA Literary Award, the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal.

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Oceans Need a Rescue Package

| Tue Dec. 16, 2008 3:58 PM EST

"It's time for a bailout for the oceans," declared Oceana's chief scientist Michael Hirschfield at today's National Press Club press briefing. Hirschfield, along with three of the country's top marine scientists, urged the Obama administration, namely recent energy appointees Carol Browner and Lisa Jackson, to abandon the ideology of the past eight years and take science seriously.

Overfishing, climate change, pollution, and increasing acidity were cited as the most ominous threats. But these threats are hardly new. Mother Jones examined the plight, the players, and the solutions in our 2006 special report "The Last Days of the Ocean." Check it out here.

China Jumps To Hybrid

| Mon Dec. 15, 2008 9:11 PM EST

277211.jpg China's first mass-produced hybrid electric car hit the market today. The car is made by BYD Auto and backed by Warren Buffett who owns 9.9 percent of the company. The F3DM (if you say so, C-3PO) can be charged from powerpoints at home or at electric car charging stations. That's a first for mass produced. The hybrid runs 62 miles on a full battery and costs under $22,000 dollars.

BYD Auto says it doesn't expect the F3DM will succeed with Chinese customers initially because of the high price, reports AFP. Instead the company is focusing on sales to company fleets. The strategy is to leapfrog past traditional cars—where Chinese technology lags badly—straight to hybrids.

Smart strategy. Remind me again why exactly we're bailing out our own loser car companies? BYD already specialized in producing rechargeable batteries and only started making cars in 2003 when it bought a bankrupt state-owned car company. Since then it's beaten Toyota and General Motors to the punch as those companies won't launch home-chargeable hybrids cars before 2009 and 2010 respectively. Can't we leapfrog past the traditional car companies straight to hyperdrive mass transit? Can't we, as the Chinese say, transform the current mass chaos into mass opportunity?

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the PEN USA Literary Award, the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal.

Post-Mortem Plastic Surgery? Yech.

| Fri Dec. 12, 2008 8:48 PM EST

According to Essence, we narcissists are now paying morticians to do plastic surgery on our corpses.

How, I wonder? Are folks leaving aside money with an attorney directing him to have our boobs lifted while we're on the slab? I can't imagine my loved ones caring enough to spend their own cash on my huge pores and even huger butt. I've often wondered about my own death, but never, until now that is, how'd I'd look when dead. Thanks Essence.

Good thing I'm going for cremation, because my kids would probably have me 'Petie-eyed' for my funeral.

Will Obama's Agriculture Pick be a Stinker?

| Fri Dec. 12, 2008 1:58 PM EST

Nicholas Kristof's Times column on Obama's potential Secretary of Agriculture picks has generated a manure storm in the blogosphere. At issue is the fact that he may pick a typical agribusiness guy like Georgia Rep. Sanford Bishop. This is ironic, and perhaps a bit duplicitous, given that Obama recently professed to reading, and being down with, Michael Pollan's sun-food agenda piece in the Times Magazine. Many liberals have not protested Obama's other less-than-progressive cabinet picks in part because they believe that Obama himself will balance them. But the problem with applying that theory to agriculture is that the Democratic Party is not really much more progressive on ag than Republicans. Indeed, opposition to the most recent farm bill was an odd coalition of California progressives and the Bush Administration. There will be so much institutional inertia to overcome on agriculture within the Democratic Party that it's hard to see how the system will ever change without a secretary who is truly committed to shaking it up. Obama might have the will, but he certainly won't have the time or energy.

Update: More on potential Obama picks. And this petition to encourage Obama to make a progressive Secretary of Agriculture pick has been gaining steam.

Update II: The names of possible Ag Secretary contenders keep shifting, indicating that the criticism might be having an effect. According to the AP, as of Monday December 15th the contenders are:

Dennis Wolf (PA Secretary of Agriculture)
Tom Buis (President of the National Farmers Union)
Charles Stenholm (Former West Texas Congressman and ranking member of Ag Comittee)
Stephanie Sandlin (Congresswoman from South Dakota and Ag Committee member)
Jill Long Thompson (Former Undersecretary of Ag under Clinton)

Still, none of these names are picks that have been circulated by activists in the Food Democracy petition.