Resources

High-Frequency Traders Push Closer To Light Speed With Cutting-Edge Cables

High-frequency traders are using an experimental type of cable to speed up their systems by billionths of a second, the latest move in a technological arms race to execute stock trades as quickly as possible. From a report:
The cable, called hollow-core fiber, is a next-generation version of the fiber-optic cable used to deliver broadband internet to homes and businesses. Made of glass, such cables carry data encoded as beams of light. But instead of being solid, hollow-core fiber is empty inside, with dozens of parallel, air-filled channels narrower than a human hair. Because light travels nearly 50% faster through air than glass, it takes about one-third less time to send data through hollow-core fiber than through the same length of standard fiber. The difference is often just a minuscule fraction of a second. But in high-frequency trading, that can make the difference between profits and losses. HFT firms use sophisticated algorithms and ultrafast data networks to execute rapid-fire trades in stocks, options and futures. Many are secretive about their trading strategies and technology.

Hollow-core fiber is the latest in a series of advances that fast traders have used to try to outrace their competition. A decade ago, a company called Spread Networks spent about $300 million to lay fiber-optic cable in a straight line from Chicago to New York, so traders could send data back and forth along the route in just 13 milliseconds, or thousandths of a second. Within a few years the link was superseded by microwave networks that reduced transmission times along the route to less than nine milliseconds. HFT firms have also used lasers to zip data between the data centers of the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq, and they have embedded their algorithms in superfast computer chips. Now, faced with the limits of physics and technology, traders are left fighting over nanoseconds. “The time increments of these improvements have gotten markedly smaller,” said Michael Persico, chief executive of Anova Financial Networks, a technology provider that runs communications networks used by HFT firms. High-frequency trading is controversial, with critics saying that some ultrafast strategies amount to an invisible tax on investors. Industry representatives say such criticism is unfounded.

How the Nature Conservancy, the World’s Biggest Environmental Group, Became a Dealer of Meaningless Carbon Offsets

At first glance, big corporations appear to be protecting great swaths of U.S. forests in the fight against climate change. JPMorgan Chase & Co. has paid almost $1 million to preserve forestland in eastern Pennsylvania. Forty miles away, Walt Disney has spent hundreds of thousands to keep the city of Bethlehem, Pa., from aggressively harvesting a forest that surrounds its reservoirs. Across the state line in New York, investment giant BlackRock has paid thousands to the city of Albany to refrain from cutting trees around its reservoirs. JPMorgan, Disney, and BlackRock tout these projects as an important mechanism for slashing their own large carbon footprints.

By funding the preservation of carbon-absorbing forests, the companies say, they’re offsetting the carbon-producing impact of their global operations. But in all of those cases, the land was never threatened; the trees were already part of well-preserved forests. Rather than dramatically change their operations — JPMorgan executives continue to jet around the globe, Disney’s cruise ships still burn oil, and BlackRock’s office buildings gobble up electricity — the corporations are working with the Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest environmental group, to employ far-fetched logic to help absolve them of their climate sins. By taking credit for saving well-protected land, these companies are reducing nowhere near the pollution that they claim. […]

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Status Lowered To ‘Critical’ and Deteriorating

The health status of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has officially declined from “significant concern” to “critical” for the first time, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) announced this week. CBS News reports:
It said climate change is now the biggest threat to natural World Heritage sites, including the world’s largest and most spectacular coral reef. According to the new report, one-third of the 252 natural World Heritage sites are now threatened by climate change. Previously, invasive species were listed as the top threat.

The Great Barrier Reef must contend with ocean warming, acidification and extreme weather to stay alive amid record heat waves. It has lost half of its coral to climate change since 1995, with its status now listed as “critical” — the most urgent designated status in the classification system of the UNESCO advisory board. Sites listed as critical are “severely treated and require urgent, additional and large-scale conservation measures,” the report said. Additionally, the report warns that plans to protect the reef long-term have been slow to implement, failing to stop or reverse the reef’s deterioration.
The report adds that four other Australian world heritage sites have also deteriorated and received lowered statuses — the Blue Mountains, the Gondwana rainforests, the Ningaloo Coast and Shark Bay. “Overall, more sites have deteriorated than improved since 2017,” reports CBS News.

Human ‘Stuff’ Now Outweighs All Life on Earth

It’s not just your storage unit that’s packed to the gills. According to a new study, the mass of all our stuff — buildings, roads, cars, and everything else we manufacture — now exceeds the weight of all living things on the planet. And the amount of new material added every week equals the total weight of Earth’s nearly 8 billion people. “If you weren’t convinced before that humans are dominating the planet, then you should be convinced now,” says Timon McPhearson, an urban ecologist at the New School who was not involved with the research. “This is an eye-catching comparison,” adds Fridolin Krausmann, a social ecologist at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna, who also was not involved in the work. There are many measures of humanity’s impact on the planet. Fossil fuels have sent greenhouse gases soaring to levels not seen in at least 800,000 years. Agriculture and dwellings have altered 70% of land. And humans have wiped out untold numbers of species in an emerging great extinction. The transformations are so great that researchers have declared we’re living in a new human-dominated age: the Anthropocene.

Exxon’s Plan for Surging Carbon Emissions Revealed in Leaked Documents

Exxon Mobil Corp. had plans to increase annual carbon-dioxide emissions by as much as the output of the entire nation of Greece, an analysis of internal documents reviewed by Bloomberg shows, setting one of the largest corporate emitters against international efforts to slow the pace of warming.

The drive to expand both fossil-fuel production and planet-warming pollution has come at a time when some of Exxon’s rivals, such as BP Plc and Royal Dutch Shell Plc, are moving to curb oil and zero-out emissions. Exxon’s own assessment of its $210 billion investment strategy shows yearly emissions rising 17% by 2025, according to internal projections.

The internal estimates reflect only a small portion of Exxon’s total contribution to climate change. Greenhouse gases from direct operations, such as those measured by Exxon, typically account for a fifth of the total at a large oil company; most emissions come from customers burning fuel in vehicles or other end uses, which the Exxon documents don’t account for.

That means the full climate impact of Exxon’s growth strategy would likely be five times the company’s estimate—or about 100 million tons of additional carbon dioxide—had the company accounted for so-called Scope 3 emissions. If its plans are realized, Exxon would add to the atmosphere the annual emissions of a small, developed nation, or 26 coal-fired power plants.

How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled

NPR and PBS Frontline spent months digging into internal industry documents and interviewing top former officials. We found that the industry sold the public on an idea it knew wouldn’t work — that the majority of plastic could be, and would be, recycled — all while making billions of dollars selling the world new plastic. NPR:
The industry’s awareness that recycling wouldn’t keep plastic out of landfills and the environment dates to the program’s earliest days, we found. “There is serious doubt that [recycling plastic] can ever be made viable on an economic basis,” one industry insider wrote in a 1974 speech. Yet the industry spent millions telling people to recycle, because, as one former top industry insider told NPR, selling recycling sold plastic, even if it wasn’t true. “If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment,” Larry Thomas, former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry, known today as the Plastics Industry Association and one of the industry’s most powerful trade groups in Washington, D.C., told NPR.

In response, industry representative Steve Russell, until recently the vice president of plastics for the trade group the American Chemistry Council, said the industry has never intentionally misled the public about recycling and is committed to ensuring all plastic is recycled. […] Here’s the basic problem: All used plastic can be turned into new things, but picking it up, sorting it out and melting it down is expensive. Plastic also degrades each time it is reused, meaning it can’t be reused more than once or twice. On the other hand, new plastic is cheap. It’s made from oil and gas, and it’s almost always less expensive and of better quality to just start fresh. All of these problems have existed for decades, no matter what new recycling technology or expensive machinery has been developed. In all that time, less than 10 percent of plastic has ever been recycled. But the public has known little about these difficulties.

David Attenborough Delivers Stark Warning In BBC Doc ‘Extinction: the Facts’

At 94 years old and with over 60 years of wildlife documentary-making under his belt, Sir David Attenborough is well-placed to share his thoughts about the future of our planet. And on Sunday, in the new BBC documentary Extinction: The Facts, the legendary presenter had a warning for all humans about the creatures we share the Earth with. “Over the course of my life, I’ve encountered some of the world’s most remarkable species of animals,” Attenborough says at the start of the hour-long film. “Only now do I realize just how lucky I’ve been. Many of these wonders seem set to disappear forever. We’re facing a crisis, and one that has consequences for us all. It threatens our ability to feed ourselves, to control our climate — it even puts us at greater risk of pandemic diseases such as COVID-19.”

With the help of a number of academics and experts, Attenborough goes on to explain that extinction is now happening much faster than it used to — with 570 plant species and 700 animal species disappearing since the year 1500. “Studies suggest that extinction is now happening a hundred times faster than the natural evolutionary rate,” Attenborough says. “And it’s accelerating.” A follow-up to Attenborough’s 2019 explainer documentary, Climate Change: The Facts, Extinction: The Facts delves into some of the main causes of extinction and disastrous biodiversity loss today, including habitat destruction (either caused by land use or human-induced climate change or both), unsustainable agricultural and fishing practices, and poaching. The documentary examines a number of species across the world that are at risk, from the two remaining northern white rhinos in Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy to the 25 percent of assessed plant species currently at risk of disappearing forever.
Although the documentary is a heavy and often bleak watch, it does end with a message of hope. “One thing we do know, is that if nature is given the chance, it can bounce back,” concludes Attenb

Installing Air Filters in Classrooms Has Surprisingly Large Educational Benefits

An emergency situation that turned out to be mostly a false alarm led a lot of schools in Los Angeles to install air filters, and something strange happened: Test scores went up. By a lot. And the gains were sustained in the subsequent year rather than fading away.

That’s what NYU’s Michael Gilraine finds in a new working paper titled “Air Filters, Pollution, and Student Achievement” that looks at the surprising consequences of the Aliso Canyon gas leak in 2015. The impact of the air filters is strikingly large given what a simple change we’re talking about. The school district didn’t reengineer the school buildings or make dramatic education reforms; they just installed $700 commercially available filters that you could plug into any room in the country. But it’s consistent with a growing literature on the cognitive impact of air pollution, which finds that everyone from chess players to baseball umpires to workers in a pear-packing factory suffer deteriorations in performance when the air is more polluted.

If Gilraine’s result holds up to further scrutiny, he will have identified what’s probably the single most cost-effective education policy intervention — one that should have particularly large benefits for low-income children. And while it’s too hasty to draw sweeping conclusions on the basis of one study, it would be incredibly cheap to have a few cities experiment with installing air filters in some of their schools to get more data and draw clearer conclusions about exactly how much of a difference this makes.

‘I Oversaw America’s Nuclear Power Industry. Now I Think It Should Be Banned.’

Friday the Washington Post published an essay by Gregory Jaczko, who served on America’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 2005 to 2009 and was its chairman from 2009 to 2012. He says he’d believed nuclear power was worth the reduction they produced in greenhouse emissions — until Japan’s 2011 nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima power plant.

“Despite working in the industry for more than a decade, I now believe that nuclear power’s benefits are no longer enough to risk the welfare of people living near these plants…”

The current and potential costs — personal and economic — are just too high…. The technology and the safety needs are just too complex and demanding to translate into a facility that is simple to design and build. No matter your views on nuclear power in principle, no one can afford to pay this much for two electricity plants. New nuclear is simply off the table in the United States….

Fewer than 10 of Japan’s 50 reactors have resumed operations, yet the country’s carbon emissions have dropped below their levels before the accident. How? Japan has made significant gains in energy efficiency and solar power…. What about the United States? Nuclear accounts for about 19 percent of U.S. electricity production and most of our carbon-free electricity. Could reactors be phased out here without increasing carbon emissions? If it were completely up to the free market, the answer would be yes, because nuclear is more expensive than almost any other source of electricity today. Renewables such as solar, wind and hydroelectric power generate electricity for less than the nuclear plants under construction in Georgia, and in most places, they produce cheaper electricity than existing nuclear plants that have paid off all their construction costs…

This tech is no longer a viable strategy for dealing with climate change, nor is it a competitive source of power. It is hazardous, expensive and unreliable, and abandoning it wouldn’t bring on climate doom. The real choice now is between saving the planet or saving the dying nuclear industry. I vote for the planet.

Facing Unbearable Heat, Qatar Has Begun To Air-Condition the Outdoors

It was 116 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade outside the new Al Janoub soccer stadium, and the air felt to air-conditioning expert Saud Ghani as if God had pointed “a giant hair dryer” at Qatar. Yet inside the open-air stadium, a cool breeze was blowing. Beneath each of the 40,000 seats, small grates adorned with Arabic-style patterns were pushing out cool air at ankle level. And since cool air sinks, waves of it rolled gently down to the grassy playing field. Vents the size of soccer balls fed more cold air onto the field. Ghani, an engineering professor at Qatar University, designed the system at Al Janoub, one of eight stadiums that the tiny but fabulously rich Qatar must get in shape for the 2022 World Cup. His breakthrough realization was that he had to cool only people, not the upper reaches of the stadium — a graceful structure designed by the famed Zaha Hadid Architects and inspired by traditional boats known as dhows. “I don’t need to cool the birds,” Ghani said.

Qatar, the world’s leading exporter of liquefied natural gas, may be able to cool its stadiums, but it cannot cool the entire country. Fears that the hundreds of thousands of soccer fans might wilt or even die while shuttling between stadiums and metros and hotels in the unforgiving summer heat prompted the decision to delay the World Cup by five months. It is now scheduled for November, during Qatar’s milder winter. The change in the World Cup date is a symptom of a larger problem — climate change. Already one of the hottest places on Earth, Qatar has seen average temperatures rise more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) above preindustrial times, the current international goal for limiting the damage of global warming. The 2015 Paris climate summit said it would be better to keep temperatures “well below” that, ideally to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 F).

[…] To survive the summer heat, Qatar not only air-conditions its soccer stadiums, but also the outdoors — in markets, along sidewalks, even at outdoor malls so people can window shop with a cool breeze. “If you turn off air conditioners, it will be unbearable. You cannot function effectively,” says Yousef al-Horr, founder of the Gulf Organization for Research and Development. Yet outdoor air conditioning is part of a vicious cycle. Carbon emissions create global warming, which creates the desire for air conditioning, which creates the need for burning fuels that emit more carbon dioxide. In Qatar, total cooling capacity is expected to nearly double from 2016 to 2030, according to the International District Cooling & Heating Conference. And it’s going to get hotter.

Killing tourist destinations for an Instagram photo

Overtourism is taking a toll across the globe, with closures of popular destinations in Thailand and the Philippines, and backlash from residents in cities like Venice and Barcelona. Closer to home, places like Bali, Byron Bay and parts of Tasmania have also been feeling pressure from skyrocketing visitors.

“The problem we’ve got is that we’re all congregating on the same places at the same time of the year,” says Justin Francis, CEO of the UK-based Responsible Travel.

Mr Francis says part of the problem is that the “ethos of travel” is changing: in the social media era, it’s now more about “where you want to be seen”. “Getting the photo and getting it on Instagram or Facebook is becoming the purpose of the trip — it’s the reason for going,” he says.

Travellers have also been drawn to places from their favourite films or TV shows, in a trend known as “set jetting”.

Energy cost of ‘mining’ bitcoin more than twice that of copper or gold

The amount of energy required to “mine” one dollar’s worth of bitcoin is more than twice that required to mine the same value of copper, gold or platinum, according to a new paper, suggesting that the virtual work that underpins bitcoin, ethereum and similar projects is more similar to real mining than anyone intended.

One dollar’s worth of bitcoin takes about 17 megajoules of energy to mine, according to researchers from the Oak Ridge Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio, compared with four, five and seven megajoules for copper, gold and platinum.

Other cryptocurrencies also fair poorly in comparison, the researchers write in the journal Nature Sustainability, ascribing a cost-per-dollar of 7MJ for ethereum and 14MJ for the privacy focused cryptocurrency monero. But all the cryptocurrencies examined come off well compared with aluminium, which takes an astonishing 122MJ to mine one dollar’s worth of ore.

Bitcoin Mining Now Accounts For Almost One Percent of the World’s Energy Consumption

It is well-established established that Bitcoin mining — aka, donating one’s computing power to keep a cryptocurrency network up and running in exchange for a chance to win some free crypto — uses a lot of electricity. Companies involved in large-scale mining operations know that this is a problem, and they’ve tried to employ various solutions for making the process more energy efficient.

But, according to testimony provided by Princeton computer scientist Arvind Narayanan to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, no matter what you do to make cryptocurrency mining harware greener, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the overall network’s flabbergasting energy consumption. Instead, Narayanan told the committee, the only thing that really determines how much energy Bitcoin uses is its price. “If the price of a cryptocurrency goes up, more energy will be used in mining it; if it goes down, less energy will be used,” he told the committee. “Little else matters. In particular, the increasing energy efficiency of mining hardware has essentially no impact on energy consumption.”

In his testimony, Narayanan estimates that Bitcoin mining now uses about five gigawatts of electricity per day (in May, estimates of Bitcoin power consumption were about half of that). He adds that when you’ve got a computer racing with all its might to earn a free Bitcoin, it’s going to be running hot as hell, which means you’re probably using even more electricity to keep the computer cool so it doesn’t die and/or burn down your entire mining center, which probably makes the overall cost associated with mining even higher.

The Ultra-Pure, Super-Secret Sand That Makes Your Phone Possible

Alex Glover is a recently retired geologist who has spent decades hunting for valuable minerals in the hillsides and hollows of the Appalachian Mountains that surround Spruce Pine, North Carolina. The wooded mountains surrounding it, though, are rich in all kinds of desirable rocks, some valued for their industrial uses, some for their pure prettiness. But it’s the mineral in Glover’s bag — snowy white grains, soft as powdered sugar — that is by far the most important these days. It’s quartz, but not just any quartz. Spruce Pine, it turns out, is the source of the purest natural quartz — a species of pristine sand — ever found on Earth.

This ultra-elite deposit of silicon dioxide particles plays a key role in manufacturing the silicon used to make computer chips. In fact, there’s an excellent chance the chip that makes your laptop or cell phone work was made using sand from this obscure Appalachian backwater. Most of the world’s sand grains are composed of quartz, which is a form of silicon dioxide, also known as silica. High-purity silicon dioxide particles are the essential raw materials from which we make computer chips, fiber-optic cables, and other high-tech hardware — the physical components on which the virtual world runs.

Stare Into The Lights My Pretties

The Hidden Environmental Cost of Amazon Prime’s Free, Fast Shipping

Amazon has changed the way Americans shop. This year, the e-commerce giant said its annual Prime Day sale was “the biggest shopping event in Amazon history.” During the 36-hour event, people bought over 100 million products, crashed the website, and signed up for more Prime memberships than ever before. The behavior is indicative of the buying culture Amazon created. The company’s ease, speed, and savings — underscored by killer perks like free, expedited shipping and simple returns — has encouraged more people to shop online, more often.

But these free benefits come with a hidden environmental cost that doesn’t show up on the checkout page, experts say. Expedited shipping means your packages may not be as consolidated as they could be, leading to more cars and trucks required to deliver them, and an increase in packaging waste, which researchers have found is adding more congestion to our cities, pollutants to our air, and cardboard to our landfills.

“People are consuming more. There’s more demand created by the availability of these cheap products and cheap delivery options.”

Almost 45 million tons of e-waste discarded last year

A new study claims 44.7 million metric tons (49.3 million tons) of TV sets, refrigerators, cellphones and other electrical good were discarded last year, with only a fifth recycled to recover the valuable raw materials inside.

The U.N.-backed study published Wednesday calculates that the amount of e-waste thrown away in 2016 included a million tons of chargers alone.

The U.S. accounted for 6.3 million metric tons, partly due to the fact that the American market for heavy goods is saturated.

The study says all the gold, silver, copper and other valuable materials would have been worth $55 billion had they been recovered.

The authors of the Global E-waste Monitor predict that e-waste, defined as anything with a battery or a cord, will increase to 52.2 million metric tons by 2021.

The “Surprisingly” Large Energy Footprint of the Digital Economy

“Our computers and smartphones might seem “clean,” but the digital economy uses a tenth of the world’s electricity—and that share will only increase, with serious consequences for the economy and the environment.

The global Information-Communications-Technologies (ICT) system now uses approximately 1,500 terawatt-hours of power per year. That’s about 10% of the world’s total electricity generation or roughly the combined power production of Germany and Japan. It’s the same amount of electricity that was used to light the entire planet in 1985. We already use 50% more energy to move bytes than we do to move planes in global aviation.

Reduced to personal terms, although charging up a single tablet or smart phone requires a negligible amount of electricity, using either to watch an hour of video weekly consumes annually more electricity in the remote networks than two new refrigerators use in a year. And as the world continues to electrify, migrating towards one refrigerator per household, it also evolves towards several smartphones and equivalent per person.”

“Does reading an e-book, or watching a streaming video, use more energy than reading it on paper, or buying a DVD? Does playing a video game use more energy than playing Monopoly? Does a doctor using an iPad for diagnostic advice from artificial intelligence in the Cloud use more energy than, what? Traveling for a second opinion?  The answer involves more than knowing how much electricity one iPad, PC or smartphone uses. It requires accounting for all the electricity used in the entire ICT ecosystem needed to make any of that possible, and the energy characteristics of the ICT ecosystem are quite unlike anything else built to date. Turning on a light does not require dozens of lights to turn on elsewhere. However, turn on an iPad to watch a video and iPad-like devices all over the country, even all over the world, simultaneously light up throughout a vast network. Nothing else in society operates that way. Starting a car doesn’t cause dozens of cars elsewhere to fire up.”

Stare Into The Lights My Pretties

A “shocking” amount of e-waste “recycling” is bogus

“Forty percent of all U.S. electronics recyclers testers included in [a study that used GPS trackers to follow e-waste over the course of two years] proved to be complete shams, with e-waste getting shipped wholesale to landfills in Hong Kong, China, and developing nations in Africa and Asia.

Rather than recycle them domestically, the recycling companies sell them to junkyards in developing nations, either through middlemen or directly. These foreign junkyards hire low-wage employees to pick through the few valuable components of often toxic old machines. The toxic machines are then left in the scrapyards or dumped nearby. Using GPS trackers, industry watchdog Basel Action Network found that 40 percent of electronics recyclers it tested in the United States fall into this “scam recycling” category.”