Saturday, August 30, 2008

The real problem in Afghanistan

This always struck me as the real problem Afghanistan: The drug trade. Unbelievably, Afghanistan supplies a full 93 percent of the world's opium. There are billions of narcodollars floating around Afghanistan, and these profits are used to fund and arm the escalating insurgency there.[1]

My question is this: why don't they just overfly and spray the fields? It sure looks like an obvious solution. The trend of agricultural drug harvesting is not friendly:
"The last report showed a 17 percent rise in poppy cultivation from 2006 to 2007, and a whopping 34 percent rise in opium production, a level expected to be maintained in this year's harvest."[1]
More crops equal more guns, and thus more headaches for U.S. policy. I suspected, and a recent Newsweek article confirms, that it's really about allowing the only available cash-crop on the market to bolster the non-economy there in Afghanistan:
"[B]oosting eradication efforts in unstable areas could prove disastrous, depriving farmers of their only source of income, alienating a key swing demographic and driving large numbers of people to side with the insurgency. None of Afghanistan's legal crops can compete with the income generated from poppies, estimated by the U.N. at $5,000 per hectare. As a result, they say, most farmers are stuck between a rock and a hard place, with warlords demanding taxes on one side and eradicators on the other. Analysts say removing a main source of income before stable governance is established could make last week's resistance a harbinger of many more battles to come."[1]
So the U.S. is apparently holding back its eradication efforts; because, we'd rather have 93% of the world's opium floating around, and a dangerous trend in terrorist funding continue than risk the farmers in Afghanistan voting in ways that might not support a puppet government there. One can see the alternative to the Iraq philosophy in this case: Instead of going in with a big occupying surge, we wait outside and prop-up the drug crop industry, all the while hoping we can by-off (or knock-off) a few key cartel-warlord bosses. Maybe then, apparently, the whole system will magically collapse or make the nascent government suddenly popular and competent. Obviously, I'm not impressed by this line of reasoning. Again, it's the economics. Consider how much of the opium trade is tied to Afghanistan's economy:
"An estimated 500,000 Afghan families support themselves by raising poppies, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. Last year those growers received an estimated $1 billion for their crops -- about $2,000 per household. With at least six members in the average family, opium growers' per capita income is roughly $300. The real profits go to the traffickers, their Taliban allies and the crooked officials who help them operate. The country's well-oiled narcotics machine generates in excess of $4 billion a year from exports of processed opium and heroin -- more than half of Afghanistan's $7.5 billion GDP, according to the UNODC."
The key item is the last sentence: this crop is half their GDP! Obama claims that if elected president he will redistribute troops into Afghanistan, but I'd be more impressed if he'd commit to a schedule to eliminate opium growth, which is the real financial backing of terrorist activity.

Just this week, U.S. News and World Report noted that Afghanistan is by far still the world's #1 opium producer, even though the northern half of the country has virtually stamped out opium production. [3] But the southern part of the country is a problematic as ever. The U.N. just reported that "98% of the opium is grown in just seven provinces in the south-west (Hilmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Farah, Nimroz, and to a lesser extent Daykundi and Zabul), where there are permanent Taliban settlements and organized crime groups profit from insecurity."[4] Fortunately, there has been a slow-down in production due to bad weather. Furthermore, this allows wheat to be much more attractive as a substitute crop. Normally, the profit margin of opium to wheat is 10:1, but this year's weather has made it merely 3:1, [4] alleviating some of the pressure on the farmers who might consider wheat an option. We'll see. A year from now will be the next harvest, and there will be a new president in office. Watch and see how troop deployments are used. If the opium fields are cut down, then the U.S. is serious about change; otherwise, it will end up be another drawn-out, bumbling military occupation.


[image] Brent Stirton Photojournalist Accessed (August 27, 2008)

[1] Katie Paul |"Opium Wars: Afghanistan's narcotics trade is back with a vengeance. Washington's latest antidrug plan is unlikely to curb it." Newsweek (online) March 8, 2008. (Accessed August 27, 2008)

[2] "Opium Brides on the Rise in Afghanistan as Government Moves to
Eradicate Opium Production
" Reuters March 30, 2008 (Accessed August 27, 2008)

[3] Sam Dealy "Time to Target the Taliban Drug Cartel" U.S. News and World Report August 29, 2008. (Accessed August 30, 2008)

[4] "Opium cultivation in Afghanistan down by a fifth" UN Office on Drugs and Crime August 26, 2008 (Accessed August 30, 2008)


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Friday, August 15, 2008

Digital actors and living paintings.

I've been surveying the site of professor Voker Blanz, from the University of Siegen, who does a host of work on facial animation and on automated animation in photographs and paintings. As computing power continues to increase, I can envision whole archives of old movies being bought for "animation rights" to the actors. Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Marlon Brando, Fred Astaire -- they could all appear again, duly directed by the talents of the day. This will be especially easy if the data files for the current camera system which creates the sophisticated 3-D effects for digitizing actors are permanently archived at the big corporate studios.

Also, as the following video shows, producers could even cast Mona Lisa and other figures of fine arts:

I wonder how the original artists would view these developments. Of course, it's well known that the classic masters often worked on commission for wealthy families. It was common to paint, for example, medieval Dad's head on one of the people observing the crucifixion, so that his heirs to the painting would appreciate his piety long after he's turned to dust. I can't see much difference today if an ad exec is willing to pay digital actor creators enough cash to pitch their products to the appropriate markets. You can see the nascent start of this work in the video below:

Note that in this video, one set of emotions is troweled upon three different demographics. No doubt children and people of various ethnic backgrounds would be equally easy to animate for advertising purposes. With the mandate of digital television starting this year, and with a bit of database cross-checking, advertisers will eventually be able to statistically place the right "persons" within the advertisements for maximum psychological -- and, of course, monetary -- effect.


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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Life, meaning, and the cockroach

In my mind's eye, I have imagined a cockroach – but, interestingly enough, a dead cockroach. Is there really any difference between us and the cockroach? Of course, one argues, there are a host of differences that come immediately to mind! Consider all the important essentials that mark humans from all other mammals, much less from this loathsome insect. “We are as gods when compared to the cockroach!” a traditionalist might proclaim.

Yet are we so distinct from the cockroach, from any insect really, to require such transcendental comparisons? I think not. There's reason to be humbled:
Humans possess 100,000,000,000 brain cells. A cockroach has nearly 1,000,000 brain cells; a fruit fly, only 250,000. Still, insects exercise impressive information management: They pack neurons into their brains 10 times more densely than mammals do. They also use each brain cell more flexibly than mammals. Several far-flung tendrils of a single neuron can each act independently—boosting computing power without increasing the number of cells. Somehow that circuitry allows a honeybee, with barely a million neurons on board, to meander six miles from its hive, find food, and make a beeline directly home. Few humans could do the same even with a map and a compass.[1]
And there's the host of biological similarities, left-over insults stemming from our species common descent with modification from the cockroach 500 million years ago or so.

Decades ago, as a teenager, my brother and I were helping my father completely remodel a dilapidated house. A bit too casually we chained the base of the semi-rotting front porch to the hitch of a working man's, no nonsense white pick-up truck. When, slowly, the wooden structure stripped away with all the dignity of a crusted scab being peeled from the face of a room temperature corpse, what jittery army crawled from the now gaping mouth below front door and foundation was a site to behold. Hundreds of brownish-red, Jelly Belly-sized eggs tumbled about while thousands, maybe even millions of shiny, brown-shell shielded cockroaches jiggled about chaotically, pouring out of every nook, slot, and concrete cranny of the house and porch. To the delighted disgust of our boyish curiosity, dotted here and there among the brown shimmering mass were even a few white specimens – albino cockroaches, or so we thought – appearing as some priestly class of cockroach, somehow specially separated, holy exceptions to their otherwise more unclean, tainted-colored brethren.

Moving a shovel above them to get in a good smash was difficult. And that day certainly marked the record for me being perceived by more minds at one time than at any since. Each 18-jointed insect, madly trying to escape to anywhere but there, was training no less than 4,000 individual lenses upon its monstrous primate invaders.[2] Even their rear-ends sported finely-tuned perceptors, motion detectors which allow them to determine the most efficient escape trajectory.[3]

Cockroaches don't live that long, two-and-a-half years at most.[4] So my brother and I have been long forgotten by our zillion viewers. But while alive cockroaches learn from experience and draw from memory just as do higher mammals, Japanese researchers assure us:
Cockroaches have a memory and can be taught to salivate in response to neutral stimuli in the way that Pavlov's dogs would do when the famed Russian doctor rang his bell [....] Such "conditioning" can only take place when there is memory and learning, and this salivating response had only previously been proven in humans and dogs. Now, cockroaches appear to have that aptitude too.[5]
In a world of brains, numbers of neurons count for something, even if not everything. I think I saw more than one hundred thousand cockroaches that day. So the amount of neural mass controlling all those cockroaches was heaver than the neural mass inside my head. I have heard estimates that there are six trillion cockroaches on the planet, but I think that's probably too small. There are only about six billion people, so for each person, there would be such an unfair allotment of but one-thousand cockroaches for each. Could I have gotten so lucky that day to have seen so many? I doubt it. “Scientists estimate that there are one quadrillion (1,000,000,000,000,000) ants living on the earth at any given time,”[6] so I'm guessing cockroaches are at least right up there in such large numbers.

The cockroach -- so many of them; so few of us. Perhaps the law of supply and demand establish our value to nature. There are far fewer people, far more cockroaches. So we are worth more, rare beings that we are. The Baji River dolphin and friends would surely agree with such an assessment.


[image] “The Gokiburi Wars” Kyonoki June 21, 2007 (Acessed August 14, 2008)

[1] “Consciousness in a Cockroach” Discover January 10, 2007. (Accessed August 14, 2008)

[2] “The cockroach & amazing facts” Essortment (Accessed August 14, 2008)

[3] “Roach Anatomy: The Inside Story” Wendell's Yucky Bug World (Accessed August 14, 2008)

[4] “Cockroaches and Their Control” College of Agriculture and Home Economics, New Mexico State University. July 1998 (Accessed August, 14, 2008)

[5] Tan Ee Lyn “Cockroaches can learn -- like dogs and humans” Reuters June 13, 2007 (Accessed August 14, 2008)

[6] “Number of Ants in the World“ They Physics Fact Book (Accessed August 14, 2008)

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

ACT scores and college readiness

The ACT is an examination used in college admissions. It's been around since 1959, and was conceived as an alternative to the SAT. As a professor, I prefer the ACT; because, in my experience, it identifies students who seem to have natural talent for academic work -- and even for what kinds of academic work. The SAT, another college admissions test, seemingly tells me if the student is generally intelligent, but it's much harder for me to translate that into predictive performance in a specific major (such as in Philosophy). Granted, the SAT does have subject tests, but these must be taken in addition to the standard SAT test. Such an addition is inconvenient for those who want curriculum-based testing already in place; and, of course, for the poor student who has to pony up the extra money, study, and brain-labor to trudge through yet another set of admissions tests.

Also, I see a lot of college-age people arrive from home schooling situations, and from low population counties where the public schools are seriously underfunded. Moreover a person in the top 10% of their High School graduating class means one thing in a class of 20, quite a another in a class of 300. The ACT gives gives me a fairly objective assessment of comparison for various students.

The Washington Post reports that the total number of students taking the ACT jumped by 9% last year. The article further notes that 43% of this year's high school graduates took the ACT, and that three in four test-takers will likely need remedial help in at least one subject to succeed in college. As the above chart shows, the average ACT score is just over 21. (The test range runs from a minimum of 1 to a maximum of 36) Surprisingly, only 22 percent met a benchmark score for college readiness in all four subjects (i.e. in English, math, reading and science.) Another finding of interest is that "among 2008 graduates who took the minimum core curriculum in math -- algebra I and II, plus geometry -- just 14 percent met the math benchmark."[1]

Naturally, there is plenty of room for debate about standardized scoring for college admissions. The original idea of entrance exams was to help evaluate a student's potential and to determine if that student was academically ready to attend college. Yet with computerized study guides, the ability to take the test multiple times, and (in 2010) the choice of which among the scores to send where, it looks like the process could be manipulated, especially if the student comes from a well-to-do family that can afford multiple takes and study helps. With all that artificial test-prep, just what is being measured?



[image] Washington Post

[1] Justin Pope "ACT scores down, but more students college-ready" Washington Post Aug. 13, 2008 (Accessed August 13, 2008).

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Property, microprocessors, and the future of ownership

When GPS- enabled microprocessors are as pervasive as paper and just as cheap, what then?

What is 'property'? I got stuff; you got stuff. But which stuff is mine and which is not mine? At work I have two or three staplers. They have sat in my office, being punched now and then, for about 14 years. But I don't consider them mine; they are the school's property. I'm moving the pointer around on this MacBook by means of (ironically) a USB Microsoft mouse. I bought it just yesterday at Walmart, yet it's not Walmart's property -- it's my property. If one night I caught the school president, red-handed, sneaking out of my office carting away my staplers and school envelopes within a burlap bag, I'd call him a jerk. But if I caught him likewise carting off my books and coffee maker, I'd call the cops.

The above thought experiments get at some of our intuitions on the matter, but do not identify all the types of property. Typically, property is classified in three genera: land, items of a personal kind, and (the ever-nebulous category of) intellectual property. Here we will be concerned only with personal property.

1. Property and 'rights'

In biology, 'genera' is a taxonomic category consisting of a group of species exhibiting similar characteristics. So too, all the different genera of property seem to share something concerning rights. Certain rights are accorded to the owner of the property. Once explicitly stated, property rights are pretty much in accord with our common sense: (1) The owner gets to use or control the property. (2) The owner gets to buy or sell the property as s/he sees fit. (3) The owner gets to keep others from using it. And, most importantly, (4) the owner gets to collect benefits from the property.

Consider an example to bring out some of the implications of these property rights. Suppose I go to the store and buy a can of Campbell's mushroom soup. Along with some greasy German sausage and my propane BBQ grill, I pack-up my soup and head-out to a much over-grown campsite in a state park for a nite's stay. Now, Douglas R. Conant, President and Chief Executive Officer of Campbell Soup Company, happens to be in the camp site next to me. He curiously watches as I pull out a couple of sturdy wool socks and double-cover the soup can. At this point, I begin to wildly swing the can-n-sock apparatus around, knocking flat all the overgrown switch grass and cat tails. I then remove the soup can, open it, and begin trying to shake the gelatinous, mushroom soup contents out, so as to use the can as a grease trap for my BBQ grill. (Fortunately a hungry, but well-financed, boy comes along with an empty styrofoam soda cup, and I sell him the contents for a handsome profit of five bucks.) Finally, I then peel off the label, and, with the help of a magnifying glass, use it to start the grill's fire. Mr. Conant has had enough. He runs over. "Excuse me," he says, "I happen to know a bit about Campbell's soup products, and these shenanigans of yours are definitely not what the company had in mind for that particular item." Admittedly, he lectures me with some authority on the matter.

How might I answer him in light of my property rights? Quite straightforwardly, I may say that, as the owner, I get to use the can of mushroom soup anyway I please. If I want to sell its contents at a profit, then so be it; or, I could have kept the soup for myself and dumped it on the ground. It's my decision as the legal owner. Furthermore, not only was part of its contents to my advantage financially, but the tin can is highly temperature resistant, so as to be adapted to my ends. Thus, again as the rightful owner, I may enjoy both benefits.

However, sometimes property rights are not as straightforward as the above example makes them appear. I happen to own a house in Oklahoma oil country. I bought the land, and some kind man took my money and built me a house upon it. Also, there is a well on the land, which means I can draw water from the ground. But I can't draw just anything from the ground. Owning the property gives me the right to the water, but I don't have what's called 'mineral rights' -- which is "the ownership of minerals (coal, oil, gas, etc.) under a given surface and the legal right to enter that area and mine and remove them." Ownership of mineral rights also "includes the right to use as much of the land surface as may be reasonably necessary for the conduct of mining operations."[Calf] This means that Mr. Golden Driller and his heinously dusty trucks could make dirt-scar roads into my backyard so as to access one of his many oil derricks. Admittedly, an eye sore, but too bad for me.

2. Property and 'ownership'

2.1. Just what is owned?

One way of seeing the situation is that maybe Mr. Driller and I are not co-owners of the same piece of property; instead, we own two separate properties, but as a practical matter they are (inconveniently) inter-twined. But another way of seeing the situation is that I own one set of attributes of the property, while Mr. Driller owns another set of attributes of the same property. Which is right? Imagine two minor deities proclaiming their respective areas of authority. One says, "I am the god of circles!" The other says, "I am the god of triangles!" A troublesome worshiper comes along and asks, "Uh, who's the god of cones?" In philosophy, arguments like this fall under a topic called 'material constitution'

I predict that the continued (and eventually complete) penetration of microprocessors into the mundane objects of the world will exacerbate issues like those seen in the mineral rights case. Before showing this, there is related issue about property which must be addressed.

2.2. Tracking what is owned

Last week, Intel introduced the first products of a new generation of system-on-a-chip (SoC) designs that will target markets in
"consumer electronics, mobile Internet devices, and embedded systems. Currently, these new products each contain four chips -- a CPU core, memory controller, input/output controller, and acceleration technology -- integrated into one system. Intel claims the SoCs are 45% smaller and uses 34% less power than other Intel chips with similar capabilities."[InfoWeek]
One of the declared uses for SoCs is telephony and wireless infrastructure. The full version of SoCs will hit when there is mass production of Atom, which is "one of Intel's latest 45-nanometer-scale manufactured processors. The low-power chip available with one or two cores is expected to have a clock speed ranging from 800 MHz to 1.87 GHz and is aimed at ultramobile PCs, smartphones, mobile Internet devices, and other portable and low-power applications." Later, even graphics processing will be added to the die. In the longer run, Intel is banking on what many futurists have been predicting for years -- that there will be "an emerging market that will someday encompass billions of next-generation Internet-connected devices, ranging from handheld computers in people's pockets to home health-monitoring devices sending patient data to doctors in a medical center."[InfoWeek]

Actually, the idea of billions of devices understates things, since any given item that can be given a barcode could just as well be given a full system-on-a-chip, if the price of such systems were as cost effective as barcodes -- that is to say, if such systems were as cheap as paper. A single sheet of paper costs about one-half cent, and many minimum-sized barcodes can fit on a single sheet of paper; thus, the area of a sheet of paper divided by the minimum barcode size gives a pretty good approximation of the significant raw materials cost of affixing a barcode on a label. I am unclear how many barcodes are actually present on currently marketed products, but I do know that over 330 billion barcoded manufacturer paper coupons are issued in the US annually.[Barcode]

And it is an accepted truism that computing hardware gets smaller at a known rate, and that processing power also advances at a known rate. But the interaction between computers is now being seen as also of importance. 'Cloud computing', seen as a common pool, becomes more powerful when additional processors are added as resources. As whole systems become cheaper and more ubiquitous, the costs of storing and processing data become all the more cheaper. For now, wireless devices do not lend their unused cycles to The Cloud, but eventually this would seem to be in the interests of everyone. The reason this does not happen is probably based on risk assessment: there's a worry about privacy, spam, and firewall mischief. But such risk might not matter when there are so many devices with computing power that no single one stands out as worthy of cyber-attack. Books used to be chained to iron bars because they were so rare and valuable. Now, they are freely available to the public in libraries, and loaned out to the most shady commoners. Soon enough, wireless computing resources will find a similar nonchalant role in everyday life.

Eventually a can of mushroom soup can report its date to the refrigerator, which might be a grocery-monitoring clearing house for when things have spoiled, sat on the shelf unused for months (or years), and for how money is spent on what food consumption. Indeed, virtually every piece of property will be in wireless dialogue with many other pieces of property. The exact state and location of each duly and continually reported. All of this has been noted before by observers of technology.

Such a world of self-reporting property brings up many questions. So akin to the question of land rights and mineral rights is another: Are there wireless rights?

3. Wireless property rights

In some ways, issues of privacy are really just another way of thinking about property. A person wants the ability to control what information s/he reveals about him or herself in the public space, whether it be print, media, or Internet. Ultimately, a person wants to control access to information, albeit of a personal variety in the case of privacy. Thus, information can be productively thought of as a kind of personal property.

Some kinds of property are shared in common. For example, clean air is a good which is desirable for everyone; it is shared, and offers benefits to the community. Sometimes, however, what is desirable for one set of people is not desirable for another set. Suppose after his camping trip, Mr. Conant realizes he's been quite shaken by my strange usage of his product, and decides to propose a most peculiar agenda item at the next meeting of the Grocery Manufactures Association (GMA). The association will equip a fleet of trucks with wireless routers and surveyors, and drive through my neighborhood to see what other sort of GMA associated products I have sitting on my shelves. (Remember, this is the future where microprocessors in products are now as cheap and ubiquitous as bar codes.) It might be quite desirable and useful for the GMA to see what sorts of products are in my possession, and also for how long I've had them. But this is information I do not want them to have about me.

The GMA might argue that such information, like air, is free to all. Just as one steps out on a cold morning and breaths in an open lung-full of air; so too, they are merely taking advantage of the open spectrum of detection. After all, they might further argue, the Brick Industry Association (BIA) recently drove through the neighborhood and took pictures of all the houses, and then ran these photos through an advanced color spectrum scanner. The BIA company then determined what the most popular preferences were for bricks. And no one charged them with invasion of privacy, since they kept on public streets and acquired information which was accessible from a public area. We are doing the same thing, the GMA concludes, but instead of using light spectrum, we are using radio frequency spectrum to determine popular grocery preferences.

Here the allusion to mineral rights becomes straightforward. Once again, owning the property gives me the right to use and store things as I will upon it (or within it), but perhaps I don't have 'information rights' -- which, perhaps, is the ownership of radio spectrum within a given area and the legal right to exclude that spectrum to common use.

Like mineral rights, ownership of information rights could perhaps be bought by others, or simply not excluded to others, so that they have the right to inventory spectrum-emitting devices in ways that are reasonably necessary for the conduct of information gathering for commercial reconnaissance. Thus, the GMA and their modified router campers could cruise up and down my street all day long so as to record the inventory reporting of my products.

Again, Mr. Conant, as a member of the GMA, and I, as a private purchaser, are not co-owners of the same piece of property -- say, a soup can; instead, we own two separate properties, but as a practical matter, they are (inconveniently for my privacy, at least) inter-twined. Or, maybe the soup can is a single item, but I own one set of attributes (i.e., its contents, container, and function for use), while GMA members, among others, could buy another set of attributes (i.e., its reporting information) of the same property.

4. Conclusion

When GPS-enabled microprocessors are as pervasive as paper and just as cheap, I think a second round of discussion of property rights will be forced upon us. The questions unfold in ways parallel to the common sense notions of property outlined earlier: (1) Will the wireless information associated with the property of an owner be controlled or used solely by that owner? (2) Will the owner get to buy or sell that information as s/he sees fit? (3) Shall that owner get to keep others from using that information? And, finally, (4) Does the owner alone get to collect benefits from the information associated with property?

Just as the patent office wrestles with the subtleties of what abstract structures can and cannot be patented -- e.g., formulas cannot, software can; likewise, what counts as common goods, public goods, and private goods will also force society to delineate what kinds of abstractions can be controlled by individuals, corporation, and government.


[image] CMEA Ventures

[infoWeek] Antone Gonsalves "Intel Revamps Its System-On-Chip Design" Information Week July 24, 2008 (Accessed July 24, 2008).

[calf] "Mineral Rights" Glossary The California Forest Products Commission (Accessed July 24, 2008)

[Barcode] "Coupons" GS1 US Barcodes and eCom - The Global Language of Business (Accessed August 8, 2008)


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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Paris Hilton's common sense energy policy advice

Just when I thought she'd dropped out of the pop cultural consciousness, McCain comes along and throws gasoline on the Hilton pilot light. Boom! She missiles herself right back to center of popular attention. Hilton has no obvious talent, but I think the woman does have extraordinary META-talent. In her recent satiric video, she makes a very interesting both-and statement about energy policy which, apparently, she chose to memorize outright:
Barack wants to focus on new technologies to cut foreign-oil dependency, and McCain wants offshore drilling. Well, why don’t we do a hybrid of both candidates’ ideas? We can do limited offshore drilling with strict environmental oversight, while creating tax incentives to get Detroit making hybrid and electric cars. That way, the offshore drilling carries us until the new technologies kick in, which will then create new jobs and energy independence. Energy crisis solved.
It's really an appeal to common sense, that one should do both things if each is considered having a reasonable chance of success. The Christian Science Monitor's blogsite, Bright Green Blog, actually gives it some analysis to see if it might work, and it's a short, fun read.


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Sunday, August 03, 2008

Mars, Moon, and Earth soils at issue

Recently, the internet has been alive to rumors of a big announcement to come on a major Mars discovery, something to do with one of its chemical detectors. Since those detectors have been doing analysis on soil, I thought I might take a moment to familiarize myself with the basic soil composition of the Moon and of Mars to see how they differ.

The above pie-chart shows the basic elemental make-up of Lunar soil. Mars soil, however, has many similarities, but a noticeably different weighting of some of the elements:
The make-up of Mars soil (by percent) is approximately as follows[2]:

  • oxygen 40 - 45
  • silicon 18 -25
  • iron 12- 15
  • potassium 8
  • calcium 3 - 5
  • magnesium 3 - 6
  • sulphur 2 - 5
  • aluminium 2 - 5
  • cesium 0.1 - 0.5
The earth's basic composition is as follows:

By percent, the Earth breaks down as follows[3]:

Oxygen O2 46.6%
Silicon Si 27.7%
Aluminum Al 8.1%
Iron Fe 5.0%
Calcium Ca 3.6%
Sodium Na 2.8%
Potassium K 2.6%
Magnesium Mg 2.1%
others 1.6%

I'm sure all the big issues will revolve around the "others" category. Carbon is the element that virtually all living things require, and marks the major difference of earth. Maybe they found some of that, or perhaps something to do with the odd source of methane that's been noted in Mars. If nitrogen were found in the soil, this might make things much easier to grow for future missions. The soil has already been found hospitable to certain earth plants. As for now, who knows what NASA will say.



[1] "Lunar Soil Composition" University of Wisconsin-Madison (Accessed Aug 3, 2008)

[2] "Martian Soil" CSA - Mission to Mars (Accessed Aug 3, 2008)

[3] "Elements in the Earth's Crust" Windows to the Unviverse (Accessed Aug 3, 2008)

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