April 25, 2009

Khan Academy Economy  Science/Technology

Baseline Scenario links to a wonderful site, the Khan Academy, at which a young man named Salman Khan has posted more than 700 instructional YouTube videos on math and physics, as well as banking and money, the credit crisis, and finance. Everything I've watched so far has been quite good. And it's all free.

Khan has a Harvard MBA, a BS and MS in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT, and a BS in math from MIT. So he knows his stuff. But much more importantly, he's an excellent teacher, with a friendly, unintimidating manner. He keeps the videos short and simple. Many are aimed at children.

Great stuff. And did I mention that it's free? Internet generosity. I love it.

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April 04, 2008

Pre-Chemo Fasting May Protect Healthy Cells Health  Science/Technology

One of the reasons it's hard to kill cancer is that it's hard to create treatments that distinguish between cancer cells and normal cells, so it's hard to kill cancer without also killing the patient. Most chemotherapy agents broadly target all cells that are dividing, on the theory that cancer cells divide more often than most normal cells so you'll kill more cancer cells on average. But lots of normal cells become collateral damage in the process, leading to the well-known toxic side-effects of chemo. Hair follicle cells and cells lining the intestinal tract divide especially rapidly, which is why hair loss and nausea are common.

Ideally, the body's own immune system would kick in and selectively kill cancer cells, but there's a problem. The immune system is very good at detecting foreign invaders, but cancer cells are the body's own cells — good cells gone bad — so their external markers are largely indistinguishable from those of normal cells. A lot of research has gone into finding ways to differentiate between normal cells and cancer cells in the hopes of creating "targeted" therapies — chemotherapy agents that attack only cancer cells — but success, so far, has been very limited.

Some researchers have taken an entirely different tack: instead of trying to detect which cells are which and attack only cancer cells, find instead a way to protect healthy cells against chemotherapy. And it turns out there may be a very simple, drug-free way to pull this off. USN&WR:

Fasting for two days before chemotherapy might protect cancer patients against the toxic side effects of these powerful drugs by shielding healthy cells while dooming malignant cells to destruction, new research suggests. [...]

Although not yet replicated among patients, the preliminary animal research is encouraging: As little as 48 hours of starvation afforded mice injected with brain cancer cells the ability to endure and benefit from extremely high doses of chemotherapy that non-starved mice could not survive.

The finding was published in the March 31 online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Longo noted that the idea first came from a different field of research: anti-aging science.

"We had found that healthy cells have a 'shield mode' -- a kind of protective strategy that allows the organism to be resistant to not just one but dozens of threats and stresses, including starvation," he said. "So we thought this characteristic might be a way to distinguish between normal cells and cancer cells when applying chemotherapy. And it turns out that it works for yeast, for human cells in test tubes, and here, in mice."

Following genetic manipulation of yeast to show that mimicking starvation could confer a life-prolonging protection against stress, the researchers induced glucose deprivation among a series of rat and human cell lines, some cancerous, some healthy.

This protected the healthy cells against exposure to toxic compounds, while leaving cancer cells unprotected.

In turn, the researchers then tested mice injected with brain cancer cells to see how they faired upon exposure to a high dose of the chemo drug etoposide. Noting that just one-third of this amount is considered to be the maximum for what is allowable for human treatment, Longo and his team compared results among mice starved for 48 hours and 60 hours pre-treatment with mice that were not starved.

While 43 percent of the non-starved mice died within 10 days of treatment, only one of the 48-hour starved mice died in that time. As well, while starved mice had lost 20 percent of their weight before treatment, most regained it back within four days of chemo exposure while the non-starved mice actually lost 20 percent of their weight post-treatment.

Non-starved mice also suffered toxic side effects, such as impaired movement, ruffled hair and poor posture. The 48-hour starved mice displayed no such problems.

Mice starved for 60 hours were exposed to even higher chemo doses. At that level, all non-starved mice died by the fifth day, at which point all the starved mice continued to survive. Again, almost all starvation weight loss was regained post treatment, and no signs of toxicity were evident.

Longo and his colleagues concluded that short-term starvation does appear to guard healthy cells and allow cancer treatment to attack only diseased cells. They said they are now organizing a human trial.

"We hope this works with patients, and we have reason to think it will," he said. "I think I'm more enthusiastic about this than anything else I've done. And you can see the potential for this being turned into something very, very useful. But we won't know until we do it."

Dwayne Stupack, an assistant professor of pathology with the Moores Cancer Center at the University of California, San Diego, described the current effort as a "reasonable" approach toward mitigating the undesirable effects of chemotherapy.

"We all know that people can go for a few days without eating, and it's not going to kill them, because the cells in our body are able to adjust and make do," he noted. "It's an intrinsic evolutionary stress response that is designed to keep those cells alive. And it turns out that this response also works to keep those healthy cells alive during chemotherapy."

"So, I think what they've done is very interesting and exciting, in the sense that the tumor they looked at is very aggressive, very lethal, and they were able to use what I would call relatively high chemotherapy without causing toxicity -- because the cells have already been conditioned to sort of shut down," Stupack said.

Stupack cautioned, however, that the starvation technique might not work for everyone. "There are certain tumors that may already be altering metabolism to normal tissue, and certain populations of cancer patients among whom an intrinsic stress response to the cancer is already under way," he noted. "In these cases, this approach might not achieve anything further. Those are the kinds of limitations that should be considered."

Very interesting, obviously. And it's free, non-toxic, and largely harmless. It will be interesting to hear what my oncologist has to say about it. One possible issue: getting chemo is an unpleasant process as it is. How much worse will it feel when one is ravenously hungry? Still, if it works...

[Thanks, Maurice]

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March 14, 2008

A Stroke Of Insight Future  Science/Technology

It's Friday afternoon, you've got a little time. Do yourself a favor and watch this fascinating, deeply moving, and finally ecstatic talk by neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor at this year's TED Conference. In 1996, she suffered a massive stroke that pretty much shut down the left hemisphere of her brain, bit by bit, over a four hour period. She tells what she learned, and it's much bigger and more beautiful than you think.

[Source]

Watch it.

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December 21, 2007

Plug-In Hybrids Energy  Peak Oil  Science/Technology

Go here and click for a great little video on plug-in hybrids. The technology works. So Cal Edison has been running an all-electric fleet of big repair trucks and over 200 cars for 10 years or more. Batteries are rapidly getting smaller and more powerful. What's needed now are economies of scale.

What are we waiting for?

[Thanks, Miles]

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November 19, 2007

Amazon's Kindle Science/Technology

Kinda interesting. Someday soon somebody will get this right, but Amazon looks to be well wide of the mark. Too expensive, too clunky, too limited. An over-priced novelty.

Bezos dreams of making the next iPod, but the iPod lets me do something I couldn't do before: shuffle among thousands of songs wherever I go. Kindle lets me carry hundreds of books, but people don't read books like they listen to songs. People listen while they're doing other things; hard to read a book that way. Besides, iPod without shuffle would be a lot less interesting; what's the shuffle equivalent for books? And what's with that keyboard? I want a touch screen and a stylus so I can write and highlight and create links freehand. I want easy interoperability with my computers and with the Internet. Basically, I want a tablet PC that really works, with a great screen, a low price tag, and access to all the world's books (including full text search). For starters.

Or what I've already got: books.

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October 30, 2007

The World Awakes Science/Technology

Interesting article about a visit to Google headquarters, which is pretty much a paradise for its employees. I found this passage striking — and beautful:

In the lobby area of Building 43, a flat-screen monitor features a fancy, gorgeous representation of the planet Earth, revolving on its axis. As the world turns, fountains of variously colored sparkly light shoot up from the earth's surface. The efflorescence is a real-time representation of Google search activity. The different colors represent different languages. As the United States rotates by, an explosion of red streams into the stratosphere. Mexico is a slightly less busy yellow. China is mostly asleep, Europe a riotous rainbow. Sub-Saharan Africa, nearly completely dark.

I stood with two Google employees and watched the world go round, mesmerized, once again, at the sheer spectacle of human curiosity. All over the world, people wake up, log on, and start searching. This is what we do. If one of the quintessential traits of humanity is an endless quest for more knowledge (or porn), then here is how it can look — a technicolored extravaganza, an endless tsunami of fireworks. The world as giant brain, with each search a synapse firing. [...]

Staring at that globe, I found it easy to dream of a profusion of color so thick and intense as to drench every inhabited spot on the planet. That there would be no darkness, that surely, with all the world so busily engaged in trying to find things out, that we would end up, somehow, figuring things out. I know we want to.

Bearing that image in mind, how crazily archaic it seems, the way we invest so much political and economic power in so few hands. It's like we think we're still a small band of primates living in the forest somewhere. But it's a big world out there, and it's waking up.

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October 22, 2007

Tests Show High Chemical Levels In Kids' Bodies Environment  Science/Technology

As increasingly sensitive tests become available for monitoring the levels of industrial chemicals in people's systems, the results are cause for alarm. CNN:

Michelle Hammond and Jeremiah Holland were intrigued when a friend at the Oakland Tribune asked them and their two young children to take part in a cutting-edge study to measure the industrial chemicals in their bodies.

"In the beginning, I wasn't worried at all; I was fascinated," Hammond, 37, recalled.

But that fascination soon changed to fear, as tests revealed that their children -- Rowan, then 18 months, and Mikaela, then 5 -- had chemical exposure levels up to seven times those of their parents.

"[Rowan's] been on this planet for 18 months, and he's loaded with a chemical I've never heard of," Holland, 37, said. "He had two to three times the level of flame retardants in his body that's been known to cause thyroid dysfunction in lab rats."

The technology to test for these flame retardants -- known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) -- and other industrial chemicals is less than 10 years old. Environmentalists call it "body burden" testing, an allusion to the chemical "burden," or legacy of toxins, running through our bloodstream. Scientists refer to this testing as "biomonitoring."

Most Americans haven't heard of body burden testing, but it's a hot topic among environmentalists and public health experts who warn that the industrial chemicals we come into contact with every day are accumulating in our bodies and endangering our health in ways we have yet to understand.

"We are the humans in a dangerous and unnatural experiment in the United States, and I think it's unconscionable," said Dr. Leo Trasande, assistant director of the Center for Children's Health and the Environment at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.

Dr. Trasande says that industrial toxins could be leading to more childhood disease and disorders.

"We are in an epidemic of environmentally mediated disease among American children today," he said. "Rates of asthma, childhood cancers, birth defects and developmental disorders have exponentially increased, and it can't be explained by changes in the human genome. So what has changed? All the chemicals we're being exposed to." [...]

Dr. Trasande said children up to six years old are most at risk because their vital organs and immune system are still developing and because they depend more heavily on their environments than adults do.

"Pound for pound, they eat more food, they drink more water, they breathe in more air," he said. "And so [children] carry a higher body burden than we do."

Studies on the health effects of PBDEs are only just beginning, but many countries have heeded the warning signs they see in animal studies. Sweden banned PBDEs in 1998. The European Union banned most PBDEs in 2004. In the United States, the sole manufacturer of two kinds of PBDEs voluntarily stopped making them in 2004. A third kind, Deca, is still used in the U.S. in electrical equipment, construction material, mattresses and textiles.

Another class of chemicals that showed up in high levels in the Holland children is known as phthalates. These are plasticizers, the softening agents found in many plastic bottles, kitchenware, toys, medical devices, personal care products and cosmetics. In lab animals, phthalates have been associated with reproductive defects, obesity and early puberty. But like PBDEs, little is known about what they do to humans and specifically children.

Russ Hauser, an associate professor of environmental and occupational epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, has done some of the few human studies on low-level phthalate exposure. His preliminary research shows that phthalates may contribute to infertility in men. A study led by Shanna Swan of the University of Rochester in New York shows that prenatal exposure to phthalates in males may be associated with impaired testicular function and with a defect that shortens the space between the genitals and anus. [...]

"I'm angry at my government for failing to regulate chemicals that are in mass production and in consumer products." Hammond says. "I don't think it should have to be up to me to worry about what's in my couch." [Emphasis added]

These kids weren't living on a toxic waste dump. The chemicals in their systems came from the normal stuff around them: their mattresses, pajamas, plastic bottles and toys. Sticking our heads in the sand won't fix it.

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October 08, 2007

The Secret History Of The War On Cancer Corporations, Globalization  Ethics  Science/Technology

Over the weekend, I picked up a new book called The Secret History of the War on Cancer by Devra Davis, an epidemiologist who heads the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh. It looked like something I'd want to write about on the blog, but who knows how soon I'll get to it. So many books, so little time. But today, Salon comes to the rescue with a review and interview. This is a long excerpt, but it's important:

Davis, who is a professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health and formerly served in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, argues that the United States' $40 billion "war on cancer" has focused far too much on treatment, and not nearly enough on prevention....For instance, in the late '60s, three years after the surgeon general declared that smoking causes cancer, the United States spent $30 million of taxpayer money to create a safer cigarette, essentially doing the tobacco companies' research and development for them. Needless to say, this effort failed, but it succeeded in giving the tobacco companies cover, assuring smokers that a safer cigarette was just around the corner.

Davis argues that again and again, from tobacco to benzene to asbestos, the profit motive has trumped concerns about public health, delaying, sometimes for decades, the containment of avoidable hazards. And, as in the current scientific "debate" about global warming, the legitimate need for ongoing scientific research about many possible carcinogens has been exploited by industry to promote the idea that there's really no need to worry.

In "The Secret History of the War on Cancer," we meet one of the foremost epidemiologists of the 20th century, who is revealed after his death to have been on the take from Monsanto to the tune of $1,500 a day, and we visit the site of former towns that have literally disappeared, like Times Beach, Mo., which since being declared a toxic waste site, has been incinerated, reduced to some grass, geraniums and tulips -- the only signs that anyone ever once lived there. [...]

Salon: In the U.S., one out of every two men and one out of every three women will develop cancer in their lifetimes....Testicular cancer in men under age 40 has risen 50 percent in a decade. What are the theories about why there might be such a radical increase?

Davis: In the United States and Japan, there has been a significant decline in the birth of baby boys. What does this have to do with testicular cancer? Well, there's a theory of testicular dysgenesis, which means that there is something on the Y chromosome that is transmitted to boys that is affecting their overall health, and it may affect whether or not a boy sperm works to fertilize an egg...And these things are likely to be related to early life exposures to hormone-mimicking chemicals....There's recently been a report from the Arctic Assessment of many more girls than boys being born. If something is affecting such an exquisitely sensitive part of human biology, then what else is it doing to us?

Salon: When we read about a study that says XYZ substance causes cancer in rats, how should we interpret it?

Davis: We differ from rodents by about 300 genes. That's it. The differences aren't nearly as big as some people would like you to think.

We use animal research to develop drugs. But when it comes to evidence that something causes cancer in an animal, something that might be used in our schools and homes, we say: "Well, wait. We better get proof of human harm." How can we say that we'll rely on animal studies when we're trying to invent drugs, and then deny their relevance to us when we're trying to predict, and prevent, human harms?

Salon: What's the alternative?

Davis: The alternative is to do experiments on people, or worse, which is what we are doing -- a vast uncontrolled experiment. We will never be able to answer many of these questions, because there is no control group. Who isn't exposed to cellphones? Who isn't exposed to aspartame? Who's not exposed to solar radiation? And that makes it very difficult to do studies of human health consequences. It really does. [...]

Salon: Why do you have concerns about aspartame, the artificial sweetener in many soft drinks and other low-calorie foods? [...]

Davis: In 1977, Richard Merrill, who later became dean of the University of Virginia Law School, was the chief counsel of the Food and Drug Administration, and he formally asked the U.S. attorney to convene a grand jury to decide whether or not to indict the producer of aspartame, G.D. Searle, for misrepresenting "findings, concealing material facts and making false statements" in aspartame safety tests.

This is not some left-wing group. This is the actual chief counsel of the FDA asking the U.S. attorney's office to convene a grand jury. It never happened, because by the time the grand jury was ready to be convened we had a new president. That president was Reagan, and within a month of Reagan taking office, he had a proposal from a guy you might have heard of named Donald Rumsfeld [who was then chief operating officer of Searle].

And Jan. 22, 1981, one day after Reagan's inauguration -- one day -- Searle reapplied for FDA approval. Prior to that, every single request for approval was turned down by all the scientists ever looking at the data. That's a fact. There's no dispute about that fact. And then, it gets approved May 19, 1981.

Remember what happened with the Reagan revolution? It was: "We need to get the government off our backs." One of the backs it got off of was suppressing the aspartame industry. Later, many of the people who worked at the FDA to evaluate aspartame ended up going to work for the company producing it. [...]

The thing that I'm most concerned about is the latest study from Italy. A typical rat study runs two years; that would be getting your rat to about my age: 60. People live now to their 90s. This study started their exposure when they were babies, like what we do now in the United States with aspartame, and let the rats live out their natural lifetimes until they were 3 years old.

And when they did that they found a significant increase in tumors that occurred only in that third year of life. Of course, the European Food Safety Authority, which sounds very independent, says the study is worthless. But I looked up the background on the people involved with the European Food Safety Authority, and many of them work directly for the food industry.

The Ramazzini Foundation, a toxicology institute, which did the study, is not known to be radical. Unlike most other sources of information in toxicology, it's truly independent. It is not funded by Monsanto. And what they found is that there is significant increase in lymphomas and leukemia, and that the increase comes not from consuming 800 cans of soda a day, but from consuming fairly moderate amounts of aspartame in these animals' lifetimes. They had 1,800 animals, and some of them were just consuming the equivalent of two cans of soda a day, two yogurts, 10 pieces of chewing gum. And at that level of consumption, there was a significant increase in cancer, and it only showed up in older rats.

Salon: How have recent court rulings made it harder to try to prevent cancer?

Davis: We have gone backward since the '70s. In the '70s, in the decision on lead in gasoline, the court said we could use experimental evidence that something was a threat to human health in order to prevent harm. The court repeatedly ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency could use theories, models and estimates to prevent harm.

Now, we have to prove that harm has already happened before taking action to prevent additional harm. In the area of cancer this is a travesty, since most cancer in adults takes five, 10, 20 or 30 years [to develop]. It means that we have no opportunity to prevent cancer, because we must prove through human evidence that it's already happened....Ninety percent of all claims now for toxic torts are denied. [...]

I'm very, very concerned about the overuse of diagnostic radiation, especially in children. For example, CT scans [CAT scans] of the head and the abdomen. Now, obviously if you have a child with a potentially fatal head injury or a stomach bleed, you can use a CT scan.

Most people don't realize that a CT scan to the head of a baby can give you between 200 and 4,000 chest X-rays at once. And therefore they should be used in a much more limited way. And guess who agrees with me? The American College of Radiology has called for reducing the use of diagnostic radiation in children. [...]

[P]olar bears in the Arctic are showing up as hermaphrodites with toxic waste in their bodies that would qualify them for burial in a hazardous waste site. How do you think that they're getting exposed to these pollutants? They don't work at factories. But they are at the top of the polar food chain, and pollutants go up through the food chain stored in fat from the little fish to the big fish to the walrus to the polar bear. Ultimately, they're making it very clear that pollutants don't need passports, and that you can't ban toxic materials in one nation. It has to be a global policy. [...]

I've developed a theory of Xeno estrogen, named for the Greek word for "foreign." Basically, all of the risk factors that have been identified for breast cancer, except radiation, are related to the total lifetime exposure to hormones. So, the earlier in life you get your period and the later in life you go through menopause, the more hormones you're exposed to in your lifetime, and the greater your risk of breast cancer. The more alcohol you drink in your lifetime -- alcohol is highly estrogenic -- the greater your risk of breast cancer. The less exercise you get -- exercise lowers the amount of circulating estrogen -- the more estrogen in your life. The more fat in your body, the more estrogen, because fat is estrogenic. [...]

Why are more young girls going into puberty at an earlier age? Why are more young girls developing breasts? There are several reasons to think that hormones in personal care products may be playing a role, particularly for breast cancer in young black women.

Some black baby girls were found to have breasts between ages 1 and 3, and when Dr. Chandra Tiwary, who was a pediatric endocrinologist with the Air Force at Brooks Air Force Base, interviewed the mothers he found out the mothers were all putting a cream on the girls' scalps. And we don't know what the hell for sure was in all those creams then, but Dr. Tiwary found when the mother stopped using the cream, the breasts went away.

If something is making the breasts grow in a baby, what is it doing to others in terms of promoting growth at the wrong time, or promoting an improper or excessive amount of breast growth that could lead to cancer?

Salon: Why are you concerned about cellphones?

Davis: I can't tell you that cellphones are safe, and I can't tell you that they are harmful. That's the problem. The reason I can't is that there isn't really independent information, and the cellphone industry has been so quick to spin information.

Studies that you hear about that don't find a risk are often extremely limited, like the Danish Cancer Study. That's a ridiculous study. Anybody who used a cellphone for work was kicked out of the study, which is crazy, because those are the highest users. And they put all of these people together who were not using it for business -- the high users, the low users -- and they didn't find anything.

A study just released from France showed that people who used a cellphone for 10 or more years have double the risk of brain cancer. And people who owned two or more cellphones had more than double the risk of brain cancer. The level of this increase wasn't what we call statistically significant, but that doesn't mean that it wasn't important. [Emphasis added]

Something I've been thinking about a lot lately is the way we all hear things that ought to fundamentally adjust our way of thinking about the world, but with all the other input that's flooding our attention, most of it utterly trivial, the important thing soon fades from awareness. It's not forgotten exactly, but it's no longer in the foreground, and it's certainly not acted on.

For example. We all know that cigarette companies worked for decades to suppress information linking smoking and cancer. But we don't fully take on board the implications. These actions were taken by ordinary human beings in a corporate setting. The group-think and peer pressure of the workplace, the desire to get ahead or even just to put food on the table, the boundless human capacity for denial and rationalization, these things were enough to cause ordinary people to conspire in activities that killed many thousands of their company's customers. But here's the thing: there was nothing special about tobacco companies. Any number of modern corporations have similar internal dynamics, with similar results. So we shouldn't be surprised to learn that any number of other corporations have knowingly downplayed or falsified information about the harmful effects of their products. This is what happens when you have powerful institutions whose sole guiding principle is to maximize profit. The tobacco company story is repeated over and over again. Connect the dots.

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August 31, 2007

Point, Click, Wiretap Black Ops  Rights, Law  Science/Technology

Documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation show that the FBI has developed a capability to instantly wiretap almost any communications device in the country. Wired:

The FBI has quietly built a sophisticated, point-and-click surveillance system that performs instant wiretaps on almost any communications device, according to nearly a thousand pages of restricted documents newly released under the Freedom of Information Act.

The surveillance system, called DCSNet, for Digital Collection System Network, connects FBI wiretapping rooms to switches controlled by traditional land-line operators, internet-telephony providers and cellular companies. It is far more intricately woven into the nation's telecom infrastructure than observers suspected.

It's a "comprehensive wiretap system that intercepts wire-line phones, cellular phones, SMS and push-to-talk systems," says Steven Bellovin, a Columbia University computer science professor and longtime surveillance expert.

DCSNet is a suite of software that collects, sifts and stores phone numbers, phone calls and text messages. The system directly connects FBI wiretapping outposts around the country to a far-reaching private communications network.

Many of the details of the system and its full capabilities were redacted from the documents acquired by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, but they show that DCSNet includes at least three collection components, each running on Windows-based computers.

The $10 million DCS-3000 client, also known as Red Hook, handles pen-registers and trap-and-traces, a type of surveillance that collects signaling information — primarily the numbers dialed from a telephone — but no communications content. (Pen registers record outgoing calls; trap-and-traces record incoming calls.)

DCS-6000, known as Digital Storm, captures and collects the content of phone calls and text messages for full wiretap orders.

A third, classified system, called DCS-5000, is used for wiretaps targeting spies or terrorists. [Emphasis added]

The article says that the telecom companies retain control of their switches and only turn on a wiretap when presented with a court order. But it also says that the system is highly insecure, especially against abuse by FBI insiders.

To my mind, the most significant revelation is the degree to which surveillance capabilities are baked into the system. It's set up to be tappable from end to end. Even if the FBI doesn't abuse it, even if the NSA and the CIA and all the other agencies whose names we don't even know don't abuse it, it all sounds eminently hackable. As one of the computer scientists said in the article:

Any time something is tappable there is a risk. I'm not saying, "Don't do wiretaps," but when you start designing a system to be wiretappable, you start to create a new vulnerability. A wiretap is, by definition, a vulnerability from the point of the third party. The question is, can you control it?

A hacker's playground.

[Thanks, Mark]

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August 23, 2007

Google Earth Looks Up Science/Technology

Google Earth now maps the sky, including Hubble images and lots else. Free download here.

Amazing and beautiful.

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July 03, 2007

Bad News On Climate — Again Environment  Science/Technology

Scientific papers tend to have a limited audience, but here's one that deserves to be front page news all over the world. James Hansen, head of NASA's Goddard Institute and one of the world's foremost climate scientists, is lead author of a new study that concludes that the recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), alarming as it was, may have been, in George Monbiot's words, "absurdly optimistic."

As we have noted here many times (for example, here), the most ominous global warming scenarios involve positive feedback loops that make GW self-reinforcing. The thawing of Siberian permafrost, for example, releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere — which causes further warming, which causes further thawing, and so on. Hansen et al look at the data on past ice ages and warming periods and conclude that such positive feedbacks make the earth's climate far more sensitive to climate "forcings" (i.e., things like greenhouse gases that upset the balance between the energy the Earth receives from the sun and the energy it radiates back out to space) than previously thought.

When major warming has occurred in the past, it has happened quite suddenly — on a scale of centuries or even decades, rather than millenia — because of the accelerating effects of positive feedback loops. A primary source of this abruptness is the sudden shift that occurs when ice changes phase — i.e., when it melts. When ice becomes wet, it suddenly reflects much less energy than before. The change in its reflectivity, or "albedo," means that more energy is absorbed, which causes more melting, in turn causing more of an "albedo flip," etc., etc. Self-reinforcing. Instead of a linear, gradual change, positive feedback creates a nonlinear system where change happens suddenly. Ice sheets melt, sea levels rise, and quickly.

The IPCC warned that sea levels could rise by as much two feet in the coming century as the West Antarctic ice sheet begins to melt. The melting of the entire ice sheet, though, they projected to take millenia. But according to Hansen et al, the IPCC view is inconsistent both with data on past climate changes ("paleoclimate" data) and with current observations. Ice sheets become unstable and break up suddenly. Hansen et al say it's "implausible" under a business-as-usual scenario (i.e., if humanity stays on its current course with respect to emissions) that the West Antarctic ice sheet would even survive the century. They're talking about the possibility of sea level rises of 75 feet or more.

Here's an excerpt from the paper's abstract:

Palaeoclimate data show that the Earth's climate is remarkably sensitive to global forcings. Positive feedbacks predominate. This allows the entire planet to be whipsawed between climate states. One feedback, the 'albedo flip' property of ice/water, provides a powerful trigger mechanism. A climate forcing that 'flips' the albedo of a sufficient portion of an ice sheet can spark a cataclysm. Inertia of ice sheet and ocean provides only moderate delay to ice sheet disintegration and a burst of added global warming. Recent greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions place the Earth perilously close to dramatic climate change that could run out of our control, with great dangers for humans and other creatures. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the largest human-made climate forcing, but other trace constituents are also important. Only intense simultaneous efforts to slow CO2 emissions and reduce non-CO2 forcings can keep climate within or near the range of the past million years.

"Whipsaw." "Cataclysm." Remarkably dramatic language for an article in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. But there's a lot at stake. I recommend you go read the paper. The evidence is persuasive, and the conclusions could hardly be more important.

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May 09, 2007

Simply Amazing Science/Technology

Amazing what some people can do. Makes you wonder about the brain's untapped potential.

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May 07, 2007

Colony Collapse Environment  Science/Technology

From GNN, a long survey article on Colony Collapse Disorder, the mysterious malady that's wiping out large numbers of honeybees. Excerpts:

[A] strange new plague is wiping out our honey bees one hive at a time. It has been named Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, by the apiculturalists and apiarists who are scrambling to understand and hopefully stop it. First reported last autumn in the U.S., the list of afflicted countries has now expanded to include several in Europe, as well as Brazil, Taiwan, and possibly Canada.

Apparently unknown before this year, CCD is said to follow a unique pattern with several strange characteristics. Bees seem to desert their hive or forget to return home from their foraging runs. The hive population dwindles and then collapses once there are too few bees to maintain it. Typically, no dead bee carcasses lie in or around the afflicted hive, although the queen and a few attendants may remain.

The defect, whatever it is, afflicts the adult bee. Larvae continue to develop normally, even as a hive is in the midst of collapse. Stricken colonies may appear normal, as seen from the outside, but when beekeepers look inside the hive box, they find a small number of mature bees caring for a large number of younger and developing bees that remain. Normally, only the oldest bees go out foraging for nectar and pollen, while younger workers act as nurse bees caring for the larvae and cleaning the comb. A healthy hive in mid-summer has between 40,000 and 80,000 bees.

Perhaps the most ominous thing about CCD, and one of its most distinguishing characteristics, is that bees and other animals living nearby refrain from raiding the honey and pollen stored away in the dead hive. In previously observed cases of hive collapse (and it is certainly not a rare occurrence) these energy stores are quickly stolen. But with CCD the invasion of hive pests such as the wax moth and small hive beetle is noticeably delayed.

Among the possible culprits behind CCD are: a fungus, a virus, a bacterium, a pesticide (or combination of pesticides), GMO crops bearing pesticide genes, erratic weather. [...]

[A]utopsies of CCD bees showed higher than normal levels of fungi, bacteria and other pathogens, as well as weakened immune systems. It appears as if the bees have got the equivalent of AIDS. [...]

Bees certainly are important, and it will get ugly if we lose them. “It’s not the staples,” said Jeff Pettis of the U.S. Agricultural Research Service. “If you can imagine eating a bowl of oatmeal every day with no fruit on it, that’s what it would be like” without honeybee pollination. [...]

Honey bees are used commercially to pollinate about one third of crop species in the U.S. This includes almonds, broccoli, peaches, soybeans, apples, pears, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, and strawberries. [...]

Recent military research at Edgewood Chemical Biological Center claims to have narrowed the likely cause of CCD to a virus, a micro-parasite or both. [...]

[A] suspicious fungus was also discovered in them, suggesting the possibility that the fungus is either an immunosuppressive factor or the fatal pathogen that kills the bees. [...]

Sharon Labchuk is a longtime environmental activist [in Canada]. In a widely circulated email, she wrote:

I’m on an organic beekeeping list of about 1,000 people, mostly Americans, and no one in the organic beekeeping world, including commercial beekeepers, is reporting colony collapse on this list. The problem with the big commercial guys is that they put pesticides in their hives to fumigate for varroa mites, and they feed antibiotics to the bees. They also haul the hives by truck all over the place to make more money with pollination services, which stresses the colonies.

Her email recommends a visit to the Bush Bees Web site at bushfarms.com. Here, Michael Bush felt compelled to put a message to the beekeeping world right on the top page:

Most of us beekeepers are fighting with the Varroa mites. I’m happy to say my biggest problems are things like trying to get nucs through the winter and coming up with hives that won’t hurt my back from lifting or better ways to feed the bees.

This change from fighting the mites is mostly because I’ve gone to natural sized cells. In case you weren’t aware, and I wasn’t for a long time, the foundation in common usage...produces a bee that is about half as large again as is natural. By letting the bees build natural sized cells, I have virtually eliminated my Varroa and Tracheal mite problems. [...]

Who should be surprised that the major media reports forget to tell us that the dying bees are actually hyper-bred varieties that we coax into a larger than normal body size? It sounds just like the beef industry. [...]

It is not an uncommonly held opinion that, although this new pattern of bee colony collapse seems to have struck from out of the blue (which suggests a triggering agent), it is likely that some biological limit in the bees has been crossed. There is no shortage of evidence that we have been fast approaching this limit for some time. [...]

This conclusion is not surprising, considering how the practice of beekeeping has been made ultra-efficient in a competitive world run by free market forces...Rare is the beekeeper that does not need pesticide treatments and other techniques falling under the rubric of "factory farming." [...]

Bees are finely tuned machines, much more robot-like than your average species. They operate pretty much like the Borg of Star Trek fame. A honey bee cannot exist as an individual, and this is why some biologists speak of them as super-organisms. They are sensitive barometers of environmental pollution, quite useful for monitoring pesticide, radionuclide, and heavy metal contamination. They respond to a vide variety of pollutants by dying or markedly changing their behavior....Some pesticides are exceptionally harmful to honey bees, killing individuals before they can return to the hive.

Not surprisingly, the use of one or more new pesticides was, and likely remains, on the short list of likely causes of CCD. But more than pesticides could potentially be harming bees. Some scientists suspect global warming. Temperature plays an integral part in determining mass behavior of bees. [...]

Erratic weather patterns caused by global warming could play havoc with bees’ sensitive cycles...[A Michigan beekepper] thinks CCD might stem from a mix of factors from climate change to breeding practices that put more emphasis on some qualities, like resistance to mites, at the expense of other qualities, like hardiness.

[A]nother possibility with CCD is that the missing bees left their hives to look for new quarters because the old hives became undesirable, perhaps from contamination of the honey. This phenomenon, known as absconding, normally occurs only in the spring or summer, when there is an adequate food supply. But if they abscond in the autumn or winter, as they did last fall in the U.S.,...the bees are unlikely to survive.

A bee colony is a fine-tuned system, and a lot could conceivably go wrong...[One] theory holds that radiation from mobile phones interferes with bee navigation systems, preventing them from finding their way home. German research has shown that bees behave differently near power lines. Now, a preliminary study has found that bees refuse to return to their hives when mobile phones are placed nearby. [...]

It should be noted that the CCD Working Group at Penn State believes cell phones are very unlikely to be causing the problem. Nor are they interested in the possibility that GMO crops are responsible. Although GMO crops can contain genes to produce pesticides, some of which may harm bees, the distribution of CCD cases does not appear to correlate with GMO crop plantings. [...]

[O]ther pollinators are facing problems too...[S]everal of the U.K.’s 25 species [of bumblebees] are endangered, and three have gone extinct in recent years....[T]he process is caused by “pesticides and agricultural intensification” which could have a “devastating knock-on effect on agriculture.” The disappearance of wildflower species has also been implicated in the British bumblebee decline. [...]

[In other words,] it’s an ecosystem thing. As with honeybees and CCD, the root of the bumblebee problem lies in our modern rationalist drive toward endlessly ordering the world around us. [...]

This truth may be generalized to most facets of our agricultural existence; the bees are just a warning. Wherever you look, pests are getting stronger as the life forms we depend on get weaker. Adding more chemicals isn’t going to help for much longer. [...]

“There used to be a lot more regulation than there is today,” says Arizona beekeeper Victor Kaur. “People import bees and bring new diseases into the country. One might be colony collapse disorder.”

“The bees are dying, and I think people are to blame,” is how Kaur puts it simply. “Bee keeping is much more labor intensive now than it was 15 years ago. It’s a dying profession,” he eulogizes. “The average age of a beekeeper is 62, and there are only a couple of thousand of us left. There are only about 2.5 million hives left...It’s too much work.” [Emphasis added]

Free market enthusiasts take note. Factory farming and other forms of profit-driven monoculture are, in the long term, suicidal. (Not to mention, murderous.) But the market rewards them in the short term. The big commercial monoculture players displace everyone else, and by the time we wake up and begin to realize what we have lost, it's gone. The fatal flaw of monoculture: when something goes wrong, it goes wrong everywhere, all at once.

The fundamental problem is a mindset that treats Nature as a dead thing to be engineered and manipulated, as if it were a machine to be pushed until it breaks, then thrown away. That mindset, together with the tunnel vision created by the ferociously single-minded pursuit of profit.

Greed kills. On a larger and larger scale. Inevitably.

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May 04, 2007

Using Nanotech To Heal Spinal Cord Injuries Science/Technology

An application of nanotech holds enormous potential for treating spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's. ABC:

Samuel Stupp has a bunch of mice that used to drag their hind legs behind them when they crawled around his Illinois lab, but they have miraculously regained at least partial use of their rear legs.

Astonishingly, their severed spinal cords have been repaired, at least partly, without surgery or drugs.

All it took was a simple injection of a liquid containing tiny molecular structures developed by Stupp and his colleagues at Northwestern University. Six weeks later, the mice were able to walk again. They don't have their former agility, but their injuries should have left them paralyzed for life.

Stupp is on the cutting edge of one of the most exciting fields in medical research: regenerative medicine. If he and others in the field are on the right track, one of these days tragic diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's will be a thing of the past. And the crippled will walk again as the human body repairs itself in ways that it cannot do today.

Preliminary results with lab animals have been encouraging, but what works for mice and rats frequently does not work for humans. But if it does, medicine will enter a new era.

Stupp's team concentrates on combining the incredibly small world of nanotechnology with biology, creating molecules that self-assemble into large molecular structures that can literally "hug" around cells in the human body. That allows them to take charge of key cells present in the body and dictate how they will perform, or, in the case of stem cells, what they will become. [...]

The mice in Stupp's lab can move about better these days because the designer molecules attacked the precise reason why a spinal cord is unable to heal itself. When the cord is severed, glial cells in the body create a scar called a "glial scar."

"The scar appears within weeks after the injury and this basically paralyzes the patient forever," Stupp said. "The scar is like a physical blockade that prevents axons from regenerating and growing."

Axons are fibers that extend out from nerve cells and attach to other cells, thus allowing the brain to command the body to carry out its functions, like moving its legs. Stem cells present in the body that have not yet developed into a specialized cell should be able to differentiate into new neurons, thus making regeneration possible, but often the stem cells become glial cells instead, making recovery that much more difficult by reinforcing the "blockade."

A couple of years ago, Stupp said, his team discovered that it could pack its nanostructure with a biological signal that commands the stem cells to turn into neurons, not glial cells. The same signal, he said, orders the axons to grow.

And that's just what Stupp and his colleagues found when they dissected the damaged spinal column in some of the mice.

"We see regenerated axons across the lesion," he said. "That's the exciting part. Regeneration of axons across the lesion is very significant."

What it means is that the spinal column is, indeed, healing itself, and without the aid of drugs.

But what happens to those nanostructures after they've done their work? [...]

"These nanostructures are completely biodegradable," Stupp said. "They disappear within weeks." [...]

Stupp is now expanding his research into Parkinson's disease.

"It's just the very beginning, so this is extremely early," he said. "We are introducing these nanostructures in the brain of mice that have Parkinson's disease. We have seen very interesting functional recovery." [Emphasis added]

Molecular biology and nanotech are two fields where knowledge is increasing at an exponential rate. That means that we can expect "miraculous" new developments to appear, seemingly out of nowhere, at an ever-accelerating rate. Nanotech's still in its infancy, but the next few decades will be revolutionary.

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May 01, 2007

Narrowcasting Ads Via Focussed Audio Corporations, Globalization  Media  Science/Technology

Hearing voices? Maybe this is why. Boston Globe (via Cryptogon):

Advertisers have a new way to get into your head.

Marketers around the world are using innovative audio technology that sends sound in a narrow beam, just like light, making it possible to direct messages right into consumers' ears while they shop or sit in waiting rooms.

The audio spotlight device, created by Watertown firm Holosonic Research Labs Inc., has been used to hawk everything from cereals in supermarket aisles to glasses at doctor's offices. The messages are often quick and targeted -- and a little creepy to the uninitiated.

Court TV recently installed the audio spotlight in ceilings of bookstores to promote the network's new murder-mystery show. A voice, whispering, "Hey, you, can you hear me? Do you ever think about murder?" was beamed toward customers as they browsed the mystery section in several independent bookstores in New York.

For advertisers, the audio spotlight is a way of marketing to consumers, sending tailored messages without disturbing an entire store with loudspeaker announcements such as Kmart's iconic "Blue Light Special." The flat disk speakers with precision targeting have made sound possible in unlikely places -- from Boston's Museum of Fine Arts to the New York Public Library -- and are increasingly attractive to merchants trying to improve the shopping experience with a peaceful environment. [...]

Unlike traditional speakers, which broadcast sound in every direction, sound from an audio spotlight speaker can be focused directly at one spot, so no one else can hear it, or projected against a surface so that sound appears to come from the surface itself.

For example, a box of Fruity Pebbles can advertise its nutritional content, heard by shoppers only as they walk by boxes in the cereal aisle. The audio spotlight uses ultrasound to stimulate the air into making sound, which is emitted in focused, laser-like beams. [Emphasis added]

What an awful idea. First time I encounter one of these things in a store, I'm going to boycott that store for life.

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April 28, 2007

Airborne Wind Farms Energy  Future  Science/Technology

An interesting review of concepts for flying wind farms. Whether or not these particular ideas turn out to be practical and scalable, it's encouraging to be reminded that there's a whole world full of inventors out there, and some of them are definitely thinking outside of the box.

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April 27, 2007

Unevolved Extremism  Politics  Religion  Science/Technology

This is disheartening, putting it mildly. The graph below shows public acceptance of human evolution in 2005. You'll find the US at second-to-last.

From National Geographic's description:

Adults were asked to respond to the statement: "Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals." The percentage of respondents who believed this to be true is marked in blue; those who believed it to be false, in red; and those who were not sure, in yellow.

A study of several such surveys taken since 1985 has found that the United States ranks next to last in acceptance of evolution theory among nations polled. Researchers point out that the number of Americans who are uncertain about the theory's validity has increased over the past 20 years. [Emphasis added]

Note that the question was just whether humans evolved from earlier animals. It said nothing about evolution being by purely natural means, via natural selection, or without participation by a deity. It's just: "did humans evolve?"

It would be hard to overstate how clueless you have to be to say no.

The study also found — no surprise here — that evolution deniers in the US tend to be Republicans:

The team found that individuals with anti-abortion, pro-life views associated with the conservative wing of the Republican Party were significantly more likely to reject evolution than people with pro-choice views.

The team adds that in Europe having pro-life or right-wing political views had little correlation with a person's attitude toward evolution.

The researchers say this reflects the politicization of the evolution issue in the U.S. "in a manner never seen in Europe or Japan."

"In the second half of the 20th century, the conservative wing of the Republican Party has adopted creationism as part of a platform designed to consolidate their support in Southern and Midwestern states," the study authors write.

Miller says that when Ronald Reagan was running for President of the U.S., for example, he gave speeches in these states where he would slip in the sentence, "I have no chimpanzees in my family," poking fun at the idea that apes could be the ancestors of humans. [Emphasis added]

It would be funny, in a sick sort of way, if it weren't so downright scary, considering the belligerence and military power of the US. People who have flipped the mental switch that lets them ignore the evidence of physical reality so they can be accepted by the herd are people who can be led into all sorts of mischief. And they're armed to the teeth. Superstitious primates with guns.

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April 25, 2007

Tesla Motors Energy  Science/Technology

Vanity Fair has a long feature article on Tesla Motors, maker of the world's coolest electric car:

There is no engine noise, because it is a 100 percent electric car—only an eerie whine of gears as the car accelerates. We turn onto an entrance ramp for Route 101 South. And then comes the money moment. Luk floors the accelerator, and the Roadster jumps forward so fast—as instantaneously as its inverter can send electricity to the motor that turns its wheels—that I'm pinned against that hard-shell seat. Zero to 60 in four seconds is Tesla's claim—faster than all but a few high-performance, gas-powered racecars—with a top speed of 135 miles per hour and a range of 250 miles. It's pretty cool.

Whoa.

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April 16, 2007

The Edge Culture  Future  Media  Science/Technology

Just wanted to make a plug for an extraordinary website called The Edge. It brings together world-class thinkers from a variety of fields and has them talk or write about what's on their minds: what's interesting and important to them right now, with an emphasis on leading edge ideas.

People like Lee Smolin, Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, Lisa Randall, Stuart Kauffman, Daniel Dennett, Freeman Dyson, Richard Dawkins, Marvin Minsky, Ernst Mayr, Brian Greene, Susan Blackmore, John Barrow, Ray Kurzweil, E. O. Wilson, Esther Dyson, and an old professor of mine, John Allen Paulos. And many more.

Check out the page of videos, lots of goodies there.

Most addicting, though, is the World Question Center. Each year, a hundred or so luminaries are invited to submit a short answer to a question like "What's your dangerous idea?" or "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" The variety of viewpoints and ideas is astounding and endlessly fascinating. Mind-expanding in the best sense of the word.

Well worth a bookmark.

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April 03, 2007

Wasp Neurosurgery Science/Technology

This isn't new, but it's one of the more amazing bits of biology trivia I've ever seen. Wow.

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March 13, 2007

Hacking RFID Passports Science/Technology

Passports with embedded electronic chips (RFIDs) are supposed to be unhackable. But they're not. Not even close. Daily Mail (via Bruce Schneier):

They are the "safest ever", according to the Government. But the Daily Mail has revealed how easily a person's identity can be stolen from new biometric passports.

In just four hours, the Mail hacked into a new biometric passport and stole the details a people trafficker or illegal migrant would need to set up a life in Britain.

A shocking security gap allows the personal details and photograph in any electronic passport to be copied from the outside of the envelope in which it is delivered to homes.

The passport holder is none the wiser when it arrives because the white envelope has not been tampered with or opened.

Using a simple gadget built from parts bought on the Internet, it took the Mail less than four hours to copy the details from one passport.

It had been delivered in the normal way by national courier company Secure Mail Services to a young woman in Islington, North London.

With her permission we took away the envelope containing her passport and never opened it.

By the end of the afternoon, we had stolen enough information from the passport's electronic chip - including the woman’s photograph - to be able to clone an identical document if we had wished. [...]

The Government says the biometric chips are protected by "an advanced digital encryption technique". [...]

Yet it took us no time at all to unravel the crucial code, using a relatively simple computer software programme and a scanning device.

The first flaw is that a hacker can try to access the chip as many times as he likes until he cracks the [access] code. This is different to putting a pin number into a bank machine, where the security system refuses access after three wrong combinations are entered.

The second is that there are easily identifiable recurring patterns in the [access] key codes issued. For example, the passport holder's date of birth always features, as does the passport’s expiry date, which is ten years after the issue date. [...]

Crucially, some banks, including the Post Office, no longer require to see a full passport as proof of identity from a new customer opening an account. They ask for a photocopy of the photo page to be sent in the post instead. [Emphasis added]

RFIDs are the kind of chips used for automatic toll collection. They operate by proximity, and that makes them a security nightmare. Your data can be grabbed without your ever knowing it, no physical contact required.

What's dumbfounding is that the responsible parties evidently didn't even try very hard to make the British passport RFID secure. It was hacked in an afternoon. But, as security guru Bruce Schneier points out, your passport needs to be secure for 10 years.

We might be able to take some cold comfort in Big Brother's cluelessness, were it not for the fact that there are plenty of black hats running around who are decidedly not clueless. Big Brother's just made it a lot easier for them to steal your identity.

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March 02, 2007

Change Blindness Science/Technology

How good are humans at noticing small changes? Check this out.

If you can't see what's changing, right-click and select a shorter gap time. Once you see it, you can't not see it. But until you do, it's dumbfounding.

The right mouse button also lets you select other scenes to try. Have fun.

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February 28, 2007

Windows For Warships Science/Technology

What's wrong with this picture? The Register (via Bruce Schneier):

The Type 45 destroyers now being launched [by the Royal Navy] will run Windows for Warships: and that's not all. The attack submarine Torbay has been retrofitted with Microsoft-based command systems, and as time goes by the rest of the British submarine fleet will get the same treatment, including the Vanguard class (V class). The V boats carry the UK's nuclear weapons and are armed with Trident ICBMs, tipped with multiple H-bomb warheads. [Emphasis added]

Nuclear weapons controlled by Windows boxes. Talk about nuclear terror.

But weapons system software gets thoroughly tested and debugged before deployment — right? The Register again:

Significant new capabilities have been added to the US Air Force's latest superfighter, the F-22 "Raptor". The USAF's Raptors cost more than $300m each, and are generally thought to be the most advanced combat jets in service worldwide. However, until recently they were unable to cross the international date line owing to a software bug in their navigation systems.

A group of F-22s heading across the Pacific for exercises in Japan earlier this month suffered simultaneous total nav-console crashes as their longitude shifted from 180 degrees West to 180 East.

Luckily, the superjets were accompanied by tanker planes, whose navigation kit was somewhat less bleeding-edge and remained functional. The tanker drivers were able to guide the lost top-guns back to Hawaii and the exercises were postponed. [Emphasis added]

It's funny, but it's not funny. Not at all, when you consider that the whole world's wired with weapons of mass destruction under software control. Are we nuts?

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February 22, 2007

Model Airplane Magic Science/Technology

Fun video of a battery-powered model airplane. Amazing what some people can do:

[Via LongTail]

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February 19, 2007

Starving Climate Science Environment  Politics  Science/Technology

From an interview with NASA climatologist Drew Shindell in yesterday's NYT:

Q: As a physicist and climatologist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, you recently testified before Congress about ways in which the Bush administration has tried to prevent you from releasing information on global warming. Can you give us an example? Sure. Press releases about global warming were watered down to the point where you wondered, Why would this capture anyone's interest? Once when I issued a report predicting rapid warming in Antarctica, the press release ended up highlighting, in effect, that Antarctica has a climate.

If your department is that politicized, how does that affect research? Well, five years from now, we will know less about our home planet that we know now. The future does not have money set aside to maintain even the current level of observations. There were proposals for lots of climate-monitoring instruments, most of which have been canceled.

By NASA? Well, it's a NASA decision following the directives from their political leaders. The money has been redirected into the manned space program, primarily.

Are you referring to President Bush and his plan to send Americans to Mars? The moon and Mars, yes. It's fine to do it for national spirit or exploring the cosmos, but the problem is that it comes at the cost of observing and protecting our home planet.

Why is NASA involved in climate research in the first place? There is no federal agency whose primary mission is the climate, and that's a problem, because climate doesn’t command the clout that it should in Washington. Since NASA is the primary agency for launching new scientific satellites, it has ended up collecting some of the most important data on climate change. [...]

Why do you think the federal government has been so phobic about adopting energy-efficiency regulations? "Phobic" is the right word, because it's irrational not to conserve when you think of all the advantages, such as keeping money in consumers' pockets instead of sending it to Middle Eastern countries that hate us. [Emphasis added]

It always seemed a little odd that the Bush White House took an interest in promoting manned spaceflight to Mars and the moon. It seemed out of character.

Pardon my cynicism, but could it just be their way of diverting funding away from research into the inconvenient truth of global climate change? Seems like just the sort of move that Bush, Cheney, and Rove might think was oh so very clever.

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February 08, 2007

Reconstructing Evolution Science/Technology

Until recently, biologists have had to infer the process of evolution from evolutionary outcomes. I.e., they could see from the fossil record and by anatomical inference that one form of an organism had evolved into another, but the step-by-step procession through genetic intermediates was unknowable. This lack of detailed evolutionary intermediates left the door open for Intelligent Design proponents who claim that magic must be involved. It was like the familiar cartoon of two scientists examining a blackboard on which the steps of a mathematical proof have been written out: somewhere in the middle of all the steps is one that says "Magic happens here".

Now, however, geneticists have laboratory tools capable of reconstructing the missing links.

A little background: DNA is a set of instructions for building protein molecules, plus associated instructions affecting when and in what quantities the protein molecules get built. I.e., DNA governs the production of proteins, one gene per kind of protein molecule. Changes in DNA lead to changes in proteins, which in turn lead to developmental and metabolic changes in the organism. At the microbiological level, then, evolution is about changes in DNA that produce changes in the structure of protein molecules: in the end, it's about proteins.

A recent paper in Nature describes how new lab techniques are helping biologists reconstruct the step-by-step pathways through a sequence of evolutionary intermediates leading from one protein to another.

To demonstrate how a sequence of mutations could have caused protein A to evolve into protein B, one needs to demonstrate a series of steps that take you from A to B, where each step can arise in a single DNA mutation and each step confers some evolutionary advantage. The latter requirement is crucial, because evolution proceeds by natural selection, weeding out the less advantageous adaptations, allowing the more advantageous adaptations to flourish.

Mike Dunford at Questionable Authority has an interesting post on all this. Dunford describes a recent paper in Science that illustrates this kind of reconstruction. Dunford:

There are some bacteria that have a version of a particular enzyme [a protein] that makes them 100,000 times more resistant to certain antibiotics (like penicillin). We know that there are five differences that separate this version of the enzyme from the basic version, and we know what those mutations are. In theory, if the mutations happened one at a time, there are 120 possible ways that the enzyme could go from the original form to the resistant form. (For example, mutation 1 could have happened first, mutation 2 second, mutation 3 third, mutation 4 fourth, and mutation 5 fifth, or mutation 2 could have happened first, mutation 1 second, mutation 3 third ... or mutation three could have happened first ... and so on until all the possibilities are exhausted.)

Scientists then were able to construct possible intermediate forms of the enzyme — varieties that contained some, but not all 5, of the mutations, and test their resistance to the antibiotic. What they found was that 12 of the 120 possible paths from the original form to the new form increased resistance with every additional mutation. That's pretty cool — it shows that not only could natural selection drive the changes in this enzyme, but also that there are 12 different ways it could have happened. [Emphasis added]

Ideas like Intelligent Design exist at the gaps in our knowledge. Those gaps are closing. Pretty soon, ID proponents will have no ground left on which to stand. Not that that will stop people from believing what they want to believe.

Meanwhile, it's worth nothing that Americans who deny evolution by natural selection are much more likely to be Republican than Democrat. As are people who think the world was created in seven days just a few thousand years ago, and people who think humans and dinosaurs coexisted in the past. I've often wondered how scientifically literate Republicans must feel when they look around at their party and realize who they're in bed with.

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January 24, 2007

Phaeton's Reins Environment  Science/Technology

MIT meteorologist Kerry Emanuel, one of Time's 100 most influential people in 2006, has published a superb overview of the science of global warming in the Boston Review [link via RealClimate].

Long, but lucid, and well worth the effort of working your way through. Excellent discussions of how the greenhouse effect actually works, how a variety of factors interact as climate changes, how climate scientists separate the effects of human activity from other sources of climate variability, and the most elegant description I've seen of how chaotic systems are sensitive to small changes in initial conditions.

Very highly recommended.

Posted by Jonathan at 04:07 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

January 23, 2007

Doctor Knows Best? Science/Technology

Do you think the US has the greatest health care system in the world? Do you drink diet sodas? If so (even if not), you'll want to read this. Very interesting.

[Via Cryptogon]

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January 18, 2007

What If Cancer Could Be Cured For Pennies? Corporations, Globalization  Science/Technology

Pharmaceutical companies' worst nightmare: a cheap, unpatentable drug that cures cancer. New Scientist reports on just such a drug. It kills cancer cells by restoring the normal process by which cells self-destruct:

It sounds almost too good to be true: a cheap and simple drug that kills almost all cancers by switching off their "immortality". The drug, dichloroacetate (DCA), has already been used for years to treat rare metabolic disorders and so is known to be relatively safe.

It also has no patent, meaning it could be manufactured for a fraction of the cost of newly developed drugs.

Evangelos Michelakis of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, and his colleagues tested DCA on human cells cultured outside the body and found that it killed lung, breast and brain cancer cells, but not healthy cells. Tumours in rats deliberately infected with human cancer also shrank drastically when they were fed DCA-laced water for several weeks.

DCA attacks a unique feature of cancer cells: the fact that they make their energy throughout the main body of the cell, rather than in distinct organelles called mitochondria. This process, called glycolysis, is inefficient and uses up vast amounts of sugar.

Until now it had been assumed that cancer cells used glycolysis because their mitochondria were irreparably damaged. However, Michelakis’s experiments prove this is not the case, because DCA reawakened the mitochondria in cancer cells. The cells then withered and died (Cancer Cell, DOI: 10.1016/j.ccr.2006.10.020).

Michelakis suggests that the switch to glycolysis as an energy source occurs when cells in the middle of an abnormal but benign lump don't get enough oxygen for their mitochondria to work properly. In order to survive, they switch off their mitochondria and start producing energy through glycolysis.

Crucially, though, mitochondria do another job in cells: they activate apoptosis, the process by which abnormal cells self-destruct. When cells switch mitochondria off, they become "immortal", outliving other cells in the tumour and so becoming dominant. Once reawakened by DCA, mitochondria reactivate apoptosis and order the abnormal cells to die.

It's a treatment that has the potential to be effective against many forms of cancer. And it will be cheap. That is the problem. AHN [via Digby]:

It is expected there would be no problems securing funding to explore a drug that could shrink cancerous tumors and has no side-effects in humans, but University of Alberta researcher Evangelos Michelakis has hit a stalemate with the private sector who would normally fund such a venture.

Michelakis' drug is none other than dichloroacetate (DCA), a drug which cannot be patented and costs pennies to make.

It's no wonder he can't secure the $400-600 million needed to conduct human trials with the medicine — the drug doesn't have the potential to make enough money.

Michelakis told reporters they will be applying to public agencies for funding, as pharmaceuticals are reluctant to pick up the drug.

At roughly $2 a dose, there isn't much chance to make a billion on the cancer treatment over the long term.

According to research on DCA, formerly used to fight metabolic disease in children, the drug apparently revitalizes damaged mitochondria in cancer cells, effectively triggering cell death and shrinking the cells.

"One of the really exciting things about this compound is that it might be able to treat many different forms of cancer," explained Michelakis. [Emphasis added]

It's not that drug companies are run by evil people, exactly. It's that drug companies, like all corporations, are machines programmed to follow a single prime directive: maximize (short-term) profits.

But here we see a stark illustration of the fatal flaw at the heart of the "free market" — it may be more profitable to destroy the world than to save it, and it may be more profitable to kill people than to make them well. When that's the case, we shouldn't be surprised when the market responds accordingly. Corporations see the world through a very narrow peephole. They have their sights set on one thing only — but profit is an exceedingly inadequate guide to what is good for people and for the world over the long term.

Posted by Jonathan at 09:37 PM | Comments (6) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

January 08, 2007

Bio-Weapons For The Masses Future  Global Guerrillas  Science/Technology  War and Peace

Computer technology advances exponentially, as described by Moore's Law, the observation that computing power per unit cost doubles every 18 months or so. Biotechnology is increasingly an application of computing, which is one of the reasons why it, too, advances exponentially. Nanotechnology, ditto.

The rapid evolution of biotech means that before long — within a decade, certainly — individuals and small groups worldwide will have the means to develop pathogens as weapons of terror. They won't need to get their hands on anything exotic — nothing comparable to trying to acquire fissile material for nukes — and the tools, skills, and knowledge will be readily available because of their importance to private-sector biotech.

John Robb, of Global Guerrillas, draws on Robert Carlson's work to make some of his usual congent observations about what's coming. Robb:

  • [Carlson provides] evidence that biotechnology is improving at rates equal or better than Moore's law. These "Carlson Curves" plot the reduction in cost and the improvements in productivity available to individual practitioners. This means that very soon, in less than a decade, the technologies necessary for individuals to build catastrophic pathogens will be cheap and widely available. "Labs on a chip" are in the offing.
  • The knowledge and information necessary for developing catastrophic pathogens will be globally dispersed. As Carlson points out, work that used to require a PhD a couple of years ago is now accomplished by lightly trained technicians. Further, the low capital costs of laboratory development and its importance to the private sector means that this training and technology will be widespread. Finally, most of the information necessary for even extremely dangerous pathogens is available online.
  • There are no material barriers to the production of biological weapons. While certain reagents are currently controlled, the manufacturing processes for these materials and their widespread usage pose few barriers to circumvention. Unlike nuclear proliferation, there aren't any natural choke points.
  • Robb suggests further that, analogous to what has been happening in the realm of Internet computer crime, criminal networks will arise that will "actively produce weapons of bioterror for profit, and thereby become critical contributors to the global open source war now underway."

    For centuries, states held a monopoly on the means of large-scale violence. Globalization is bringing that monopoly to an end. In an era when the collective knowledge of humanity is increasingly available to anyone with an Internet connection, when people and goods are free to move pretty much anywhere in the world, overnight, and when weapons of mass destruction suddenly can be microscopic applications of ubiquitously available technology — all bets are off.

    This is a recipe for scenarios with a potential lethality perhaps limited only by perpetrators' consciences. Given that large numbers of people have no conscience, it's not an encouraging picture.

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:56 PM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    December 10, 2006

    Ability To Digest Milk A Very Recent Adaptation Science/Technology

    Geneticists have determined that the human ability to digest milk in adulthood evolved just several millenia ago, soon after humans domesticated cattle. At least four different populations developed lactose tolerance independently, with a different mutation involved in each case. NYT:

    A surprisingly recent instance of human evolution has been detected among the peoples of East Africa. It is the ability to digest milk in adulthood, conferred by genetic changes that occurred as recently as 3,000 years ago, a team of geneticists has found.

    The finding is a striking example of a cultural practice — the raising of dairy cattle — feeding back into the human genome. It also seems to be one of the first instances of convergent human evolution to be documented at the genetic level. Convergent evolution refers to two or more populations acquiring the same trait independently.

    Throughout most of human history, the ability to digest lactose, the principal sugar of milk, has been switched off after weaning because there is no further need for the lactase enzyme that breaks the sugar apart. But when cattle were first domesticated 9,000 years ago and people later started to consume their milk as well as their meat, natural selection would have favored anyone with a mutation that kept the lactase gene switched on.

    Such a mutation is known to have arisen among an early cattle-raising people, the Funnel Beaker culture, which flourished some 5,000 to 6,000 years ago in north-central Europe. People with a persistently active lactase gene have no problem digesting milk and are said to be lactose tolerant.

    Almost all Dutch people and 99 percent of Swedes are lactose-tolerant, but the mutation becomes progressively less common in Europeans who live at increasing distance from the ancient Funnel Beaker region.

    Geneticists wondered if the lactose tolerance mutation in Europeans, first identified in 2002, had arisen among pastoral peoples elsewhere. But it seemed to be largely absent from Africa, even though pastoral peoples there generally have some degree of tolerance.

    A research team led by Sarah Tishkoff of the University of Maryland has now resolved much of the puzzle. After testing for lactose tolerance and genetic makeup among 43 ethnic groups of East Africa, she and her colleagues have found three new mutations, all independent of each other and of the European mutation, which keep the lactase gene permanently switched on. [...]

    Genetic evidence shows that the mutations conferred an enormous selective advantage on their owners, enabling them to leave almost 10 times as many descendants as people without them. The mutations have created "one of the strongest genetic signatures of natural selection yet reported in humans," the researchers write.

    The survival advantage was so powerful perhaps because those with the mutations not only gained extra energy from lactose but also, in drought conditions, would have benefited from the water in milk. People who were lactose-intolerant could have risked losing water from diarrhea, Dr. Tishkoff said.

    Diane Gifford-Gonzalez, an archaeologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said the new findings were "very exciting" because they "showed the speed with which a genetic mutation can be favored under conditions of strong natural selection, demonstrating the possible rate of evolutionary change in humans." [...]

    "There is a lot of genetic variation between groups in Africa, reflecting the different environments in which they live, from deserts to tropics, and their exposure to very different selective forces," she said. [Emphasis added]

    Somebody tell Kansas.

    Posted by Jonathan at 06:58 PM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    November 29, 2006

    Ms Whoey? Science/Technology

    This is so dumb, I'm speechless.

    What were they thinking? How does Microsoft stay in business?

    Posted by Jonathan at 11:19 AM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    November 27, 2006

    Money Makes Meanies Science/Technology

    Via Digby, an interesting psych experiment examining the link between money and selfishness. LA Times:

    Pictures of dollar bills, fantasies of wealth and even wads of Monopoly money arouse feelings of self-sufficiency that result in selfish and often anti-social behavior, according to a study published in the journal Science.

    All it took to discourage college students from contributing to a University Student Fund were 15 short phrases such as "a high-paying salary." Those primed by money-related phrases donated an average of 77 cents, compared with $1.34 for students exposed to neutral phrases like "it is cold outside."

    "The mere presence of money changes people," said Kathleen Vohs, a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota and lead author of the study.

    Money makes it possible for people to achieve their goals without asking for help. Therefore, Vohs and her colleagues theorized, even subtle reminders of money would inspire people to be self-reliant — and to expect such behavior from others.

    A series of nine experiments confirmed their hypothesis. For example, students who played Monopoly and then were asked to envision a future with great wealth picked up fewer dropped pencils for a fellow student than those asked to contemplate a hand-to-mouth existence.

    Money also influenced how people said they preferred to spend their leisure time. A poster of bills and coins prompted students to favor a solitary social activity, such as private cooking lessons, while students sitting across from posters of seascapes and gardens were more likely to opt for a group dinner.

    "Money changes people's motivations," said co-author Nicole Mead, a psychology graduate student at Florida State University. [Emphasis added]

    The root of all evil, and all that. Meanwhile, the Scrooges will scoff — but then they would, wouldn't they. Bah, humbug!

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:54 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    October 20, 2006

    The Net @ Risk Science/Technology

    Bill Moyers presents an examination of the Internet and the battle over net neutrality. Video. I haven't finished it yet, but so far it's excellent. Check it out.

    You will be amazed by, among other things, how backward US Internet service is compared to other advanced nations because the telecom industry here calls the shots.

    Posted by Jonathan at 06:46 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    October 11, 2006

    Let's Go For A Ride Science/Technology

    This is cool.

    Posted by Jonathan at 09:34 AM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    October 04, 2006

    Exponential Growth Cannot Last Environment  Essays  Science/Technology

    [Another repost of a piece from a couple of years ago, once again dealing with the meaning of exponential growth. I hope you'll make it to the punchline at the end.]

    I've written about exponential growth before, but the concept is so essential to understanding the future that awaits us that I want to revisit it.

    To say something grows exponentially is to say it grows at a constant percentage rate — for example, 3% per year. Anything that grows in this way doubles at a constant rate. You can estimate how long it takes to double by dividing the percentage growth rate into 72. So, for example, something that grows at a rate of 3% per year doubles every 24 years (72/3 = 24).

    So, you can think of exponential growth as growth by doubling at a constant rate.

    Doubling is an extraordinarily powerful process. Some examples (from M. King Hubbert):

    1. If you start with a single pair, say Adam and Eve, in just 32 doublings you’d have a population greater than the total population of Earth today. Just 14 doublings later you’d have one person per square yard over the entire land surface of the planet.

    2. If someone gives you a single grain of wheat for the first square of a chessboard, 2 for the second, 4 for the third, doubling at each square, by the time you finish the 64 squares of the chessboard you’d have more than a thousand times the total annual wheat production of Earth.

    3. If you play the chessboard game with automobiles instead of wheat, by the time you finish the 64 squares you’d have so many automobiles that if you stacked them uniformly over the entire land surface of the earth, you’d have a layer 1,200 miles deep. (Think of that the next time some economist says world GNP can grow at 3% per year forever.)

    What these examples show is that doubling (or exponential growth) is such a powerful process, that it takes only tens of “generations” of doubling — not hundreds, or thousands, or millions — to completely exhaust the physical environment of the planet. Put another way, in the physical world (as opposed to an idealized mathematical world) exponential growth cannot last for long.

    When any living species is placed in a favorable environment — meaning an environment that doesn’t limit growth because of the lack of some necessity (e.g. food), the presence of a predator, or for some other reason — its population grows exponentially. In Nature, over the long run, limitations in their environments prevent species from multiplying exponentially. Otherwise, the world would long ago have been engulfed.

    Why is all this important?

    Early in a doubling sequence, the numbers grow slowly. Likewise, until recently in human history, human population grew slowly. Use of energy and material resources by humans also grew slowly, and the resources used were entirely of the renewable variety, except for tiny amounts of coal and metals. Everything else (food, energy, shelter, clothing, etc.) came from animals and plants (renewable), plus a small amount of energy from wind and water (renewable). If humans had continued to rely on renewable resources, that fact would have put a ceiling on population size.

    Starting about two centuries ago, however, a revolution occurred in human life: people starting using non-renewable resources — hydrocarbon fuels and a variety of minerals — in a big way. This use of non-renewables removed the constraints on human population and activity, and exponential growth really kicked in. Not only has population grown exponentially, but human use of coal, oil, gas, iron, copper, tin, lead, zinc, etc. have grown exponentially as well, as has human damage to the environment. It’s the use of non-renewables — hydrocarbon fuels, especially — that has made this growth possible.

    But, inevitably, we’re going to hit the wall, and sooner than we think. Even if we had infinite resources to draw on, exponential growth would soon fill up a finite environment, as we've seen. But that hardly matters, since we do not have infinite resources to draw on. Non-renewables are a one-time gift to humanity. They are finite. We’re burning through them at an exponential pace, and when they’re gone they’re gone forever.

    Now, one of the really startling characteristics of growth by doubling is the following fact: if you consider the sequence of doubled numbers — 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc. — each number in the sequence is greater (by one) than the sum of all the numbers that precede it.

    Why do I call this startling? Consider oil. World oil consumption is now growing at a rate that will double it every 15-20 years. This means, as long as exponential growth continues, in the next 15-20 years the world will consume more oil than was used in all of human history up to this point. More than in the entire 19th and 20th centuries combined — in just 15-20 years — assuming exponential growth continues. I don't know about you, but I find that startling.

    I want to finish with a riddle I posed in the earlier post on exponential growth. I repeat it here because I’d really like this riddle to stay with you. If it does, you’ll understand exponential growth better than 99.9% of your fellow citizens.

    Suppose you put a small amount of bacteria in a Petri dish. Suppose further that the bacteria population grows exponentially (i.e., by doubling) at a pace that causes it to double each hour. Suppose finally that it takes 100 hours for the bacteria to completely fill the dish, thereby exhausting their supply of nutrients. (It's a large Petri dish.)

    Question: When is the dish half full?

    After 50 hours (half of 100)?

    No. Because the population doubles each hour (including the final hour), the dish is half full just one hour before it’s full. For the first 99 hours the bacteria have got it made. Then wham!

    To make this more vivid and memorable, imagine the following as an animated cartoon. For the first 99 hours the bacteria are just partying and congratulating themselves on how smart and successful they are. It’s party hats and noisemakers, Conga lines and champagne, the bacterial Dow Jones going through the roof. Woo hoo! No limits! After 99 hours, some of the bacteria start to worry, but the rest party on — after all, the dish is only half full. Plenty of room left, plenty of nutrients. The first half lasted 99 hours, and there's another whole half to go! Sure, somebody’s gonna have to figure something out eventually, but meanwhile life is good, and nonstop growth will only make it better! An hour later — the world ends.

    When growth is exponential, limits are sudden.


    Posted by Jonathan at 04:46 PM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    September 12, 2006

    Re-Greening The World Activism  Environment  Science/Technology

    I must confess that things have sometimes felt pretty hopeless to me of late. But this is an antidote. It's positively brilliant. Do yourself a favor, stop what you're doing, and watch it. Excerpt:

    We could re-green the Middle East. We could re-green any desert and we could de-salt it at the same time...You can fix all the world's problems in a garden. You can solve 'em all in a garden, you can solve all your pollution problems and supply-line needs in a garden. Most people today don't actually know that, and that makes most people today very insecure.

    How's it done? Watch the video.

    Anyone can do it; it's based on know-how, not massive capital investment. And it's based on humbly cooperating with Nature, not aggressively trying to dominate it.

    I love this kind low-tech, common-sense solution to problems.

    Posted by Jonathan at 09:58 PM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    August 12, 2006

    MIT To Go Full Bore On Energy Research Energy  Science/Technology

    Hopeful news for a nice change. Wired (via John Robb) reports that MIT is launching a multidisciplinary, university-wide "Manhattan Project" to develop new energy sources:

    Solar cells made from spinach. Algae-based biofuel fattened on greenhouse gas. Plasma-powered turbo engines. These are just some of the technologies being developed by a Manhattan Project-style research effort for new energy technologies at MIT.

    Scientists at MIT are undertaking a big, ambitious, university-wide program to develop innovative energy tech under the auspices of the school's Energy Research Council.

    "The urgent challenge of our time (is) clean, affordable energy to power the world," said MIT President Susan Hockfield.

    Inaugurated last year, the project is likened by Hockfield to MIT's contribution to radar — a key technology that helped win World War II.

    "As the example of radar suggests, when MIT arrays its capabilities against an important problem ... we can make an important contribution," said Hockfield in an e-mail.

    David Jhirad, a former deputy assistant secretary of energy and current VP for science and research at the World Resources Institute, said no other institution or government anywhere has taken on such an intensive, creative, broad-based, and wide-ranging energy research initiative.

    "MIT is stepping into a vacuum, because there is no policy, vision or leadership at the top of our nation," he said. "It's uniquely matched. MIT has tremendous strengths across the board — from science and engineering to management to architecture to the humanities. From that point of view, it's hugely significant."

    Below are some examples of the MIT research projects the Energy Research Council will be sponsoring and developing:

  • Spinach solar power: Tapping the secrets of photosynthesis — engineering proteins from spinach — to make organic solar cells whose efficiency could outstrip the best silicon photovoltaic arrays today.

  • Silicon superstrings: A novel approach to manufacturing conventional silicon photovoltaic arrays by pulling the chips in stringy ribbons out of a molten stew like taffy rather than slicing them from silicon ingots.

  • Laptop-powered hybrids: Using a new generation of lithium-based batteries (which power most portable electronics today) to cut the price and charge-time of hybrid and electric car batteries.

  • Tubular battery tech: Using "supercapacitors" made from carbon nanotubes to store charge — rather than the chemical reactions that power most batteries — resulting in a lightweight, high-capacity battery that could someday give even the laptop battery a run for its money.

  • Hold the A/C: Optimizing air and heat flow on a new computer-aided design system, before a building's construction begins, allowing for the building's air conditioning costs to be cut by as much as 50 percent.

  • Hybrid without the hybrid: Turbocharging an automobile engine with plasma from a small ethanol tank (which would need to be refilled about as often as the oil needs changing), reportedly increasing fuel efficiency almost to the level of a hybrid — but only adding $500-$1,000 to the car's sticker price.

  • More light than heat: Generating a car's electricity photoelectrically (using a gas-powered light and a small, specially designed solar panel) rather than mechanically (using an alternator), substantially increasing fuel efficiency.

  • Coal-powered biofuels: Bubbling exhaust from a coal-fired power plant through a tank of algae that's been bred to siphon off much of the exhaust's carbon dioxide — in the process, fattening the algae that can then be harvested as biodiesel.

    Many of these projects are ongoing and will continue under the Energy Research Council banner. Others, such as a new effort to make cheap ethanol using a biochemical technique called metabolic engineering, apply the expertise of faculty and staff who had never worked on energy problems before. [Emphasis added]

  • The multidisciplinary aspect of this is very cool. Everything from nanotechnologists to architects, bioengineers to city planners.

    Besides being good for us all, this has to be good for MIT as well. It should, for one thing, help them attract the very best and brightest. If you were a young science or engineering student, what could be better than getting an opportunity to help save the world?

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:34 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    August 10, 2006

    Time Fountain Science/Technology

    Let's take a little break from the world's cares.

    This is ingenious and fascinating. Watch the video. The download may be choppy, but once you've got it all, play it again smoothly. What'll they think of next?

    Posted by Jonathan at 12:38 AM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    August 03, 2006

    Tesla Motors' Master Plan Energy  Science/Technology

    This is absolutely, amazingly cool. 34-year-old Elon Musk, who's already made a couple of fortunes by co-founding Zip2 and PayPal, and who now runs space exploration company SpaceX, is chairman and principal investor in Tesla Motors, builders of a 100% electric high-performance roadster that goes 0 to 60 in 4 seconds while getting the equivalent of 135 mpg on a charge that lasts 250 miles. The Tesla Roadster ain't cheap ($89k), but Tesla Motors has a master plan. Elon Musk explains (via John Robb):

    As you know, the initial product of Tesla Motors is a high performance electric sports car called the Tesla Roadster. However, some readers may not be aware of the fact that our long term plan is to build a wide range of models, including affordably priced family cars. This is because the overarching purpose of Tesla Motors (and the reason I am funding the company) is to help expedite the move from a mine-and-burn hydrocarbon economy towards a solar electric economy, which I believe to be the primary, but not exclusive, sustainable solution.

    Critical to making that happen is an electric car without compromises, which is why the Tesla Roadster is designed to beat a gasoline sports car like a Porsche or Ferrari in a head to head showdown. Then, over and above that fact, it has twice the energy efficiency of a Prius. Even so, some may question whether this actually does any good for the world. Are we really in need of another high performance sports car? Will it actually make a difference to global carbon emissions?

    Well, the answers are no and not much. However, that misses the point, unless you understand the secret master plan alluded to above. Almost any new technology initially has high unit cost before it can be optimized and this is no less true for electric cars. The strategy of Tesla is to enter at the high end of the market, where customers are prepared to pay a premium, and then drive down market as fast as possible to higher unit volume and lower prices with each successive model.

    Without giving away too much, I can say that the second model will be a sporty four door family car at roughly half the $89k price point of the Tesla Roadster and the third model will be even more affordable. In keeping with a fast growing technology company, all free cash flow is plowed back into R&D to drive down the costs and bring the follow on products to market as fast as possible. When someone buys the Tesla Roadster sports car, they are actually helping pay for development of the low cost family car. [...]

    I wouldn’t recommend them as a dessert topping, but the Tesla Motors Lithium-Ion cells are not classified as hazardous and are landfill safe. However, dumping them in the trash would be throwing money away, since the battery pack can be sold to recycling companies (unsubsidized) at the end of its greater than 100,000-mile design life. Moreover, the battery isn’t dead at that point, it just has less range. [...]

    Note the term hybrid as applied to cars currently on the road is a misnomer. They are really just gasoline powered cars with a little battery assistance and, unless you are one of the handful who have an aftermarket hack, the little battery has to be charged from the gasoline engine. Therefore, they can be considered simply as slightly more efficient gasoline powered cars. If the EPA certified mileage is 55 mpg, then it is indistinguishable from a non-hybrid that achieves 55 mpg. As a friend of mine says, a world 100% full of Prius drivers is still 100% addicted to oil. [...]

    I should mention that Tesla Motors will be co-marketing sustainable energy products from other companies along with the car. For example, among other choices, we will be offering a modestly sized and priced solar panel from SolarCity, a photovoltaics company (where I am also the principal financier). This system can be installed on your roof in an out of the way location, because of its small size, or set up as a carport and will generate about 50 miles per day of electricity.

    If you travel less than 350 miles per week, you will therefore be "energy positive" with respect to your personal transportation. [...]

    So, in short, the master plan is:

  • Build sports car
  • Use that money to build an affordable car
  • Use that money to build an even more affordable car
  • While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options

    Don’t tell anyone.

  • Wow! There's lots more at the Tesla Motors site: specs and images of the roadster, energy calculations, engineering discussion, etc. Amazing stuff.

    The roadster's a rich man's toy, but the goal is to have a reasonably-priced family car reasonably soon. They'll sell you the car and a solar panel to charge it with. Sweet. Wonder if they'll take my Prius in trade?

    Posted by Jonathan at 11:33 PM | Comments (4) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    July 26, 2006

    Learning From Geckos Science/Technology

    Taking a little respite from the world's troubles. Here's a cool little tech story. BBC:

    Just one metre square of a new super-sticky material inspired by gecko feet could suspend the weight of an average family car, say its inventors. [...]

    Like the reptile's foot, the polymer is covered in millions of tiny mushroom-like hairs that provide grip.

    Future applications could include an adhesive to repair aircraft, skin grafts or even a Spiderman-style suit.

    "It would mean that your local window cleaner could dispense with his ladders and climb up the side of your house," says Dr Sajad Haq a principle research scientist at the company's Advanced Technology Centre in Filton, Bristol.

    "There's a whole host of applications. It's just a question of your imagination." [...]

    The cumulative attractive force of billions of setae allows geckos to scurry up walls and even hang upside down on polished glass.

    The grip is only released when the animal peels its foot off the surface. [...]

    Although the material has fantastic adhesive properties it does not feel "sticky".

    "It's only when you press the material to the substrate that it actually sticks," says Dr Haq. "It's the molecular interaction that causes it to stick." [...]

    So far, the team have manufactured several different materials with different sized mushrooms to try to optimise its "stickiness".

    They have produced several samples up to 100mm in diameter which stick to almost any surface, including those covered in dirt.

    However the team cannot quite match the performance of the nimble footed reptile.

    "The material we have made so far will hold a family car to a roof, or an elephant if you wish," says Dr Haq. "[But we're] not quite at the level of mimicking the sticking power of the gecko." [Emphasis added]

    The adhesion involves no liquids or gases, so it can be used in the vacuum of space.

    The technologies for studying and manipulating materials at nano scales are developing at exponential rates, so we can expect lots more of these kinds of stories. Nature has had a very long time to find optimal solutions to problems, and humanity increasingly is in a position to capitalize on Nature's "intellectual property".

    [Thanks, Maurice]

    Posted by Jonathan at 02:28 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    July 21, 2006

    Brain Food Economy  Environment  Science/Technology

    When I was a kid, I used to hear that fish is "brain food." I don't know if people still say that, but they should. George Monbiot:

    The more it is tested, the more compelling the hypothesis becomes. Dyslexia, ADHD, dyspraxia and other neurological problems seem to be associated with a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids, especially in the womb. The evidence of a link with depression, chronic fatigue syndrome and dementia is less clear, but still suggestive. None of these conditions are caused exclusively by a lack of these chemicals, or can be entirely remedied by their application, but it's becoming pretty obvious that some of our most persistent modern diseases are, at least in part, diseases of deficiency.

    Last year, for example, researchers at Oxford published a study of 117 children suffering from dyspraxia. Dyspraxia causes learning difficulties, disruptive behaviour and social problems. It affects about 5% of children. Some of the children were given supplements of omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, others were given placebos. The results were extraordinary. In three months the reading age of the experimental group rose by an average of 9.5 months, while the control group's rose by 3.3. Other studies have shown major improvements in attention, behaviour and IQ.

    This shouldn't surprise us. During the Palaeolithic, human beings ate roughly the same amount of omega-3 fatty acids as omega-6s. Today we eat 17 times as much omega-6 as omega-3. Omega-6s are found in vegetable oils, while most of the omega-3s we eat come from fish. John Stein, a professor of physiology at Oxford who specialises in dyslexia, believes that fish oils permitted humans to make their great cognitive leap forwards. [...]

    Stein believes that when the cells which are partly responsible for visual perception — the magnocellular neurones — are deficient in omega-3s, they don't form as many connections with other cells, and don't pass on information as efficiently. Their impaired development explains, for example, why many dyslexic children find that letters appear to jump around on the page.

    So at first sight the [British] government's investigation into the idea of giving fish oil capsules to schoolchildren seems sensible. The food standards agency is conducting a review of the effects of omega-3s on childrens' behaviour and performance in school. [...]

    There is only one problem: there are not enough fish. In March an article in the British Medical Journal observed that "we are faced with a paradox. Health recommendations advise increased consumption of oily fish and fish oils within limits, on the grounds that intake is generally low. However...we probably do not have a sustainable supply of long chain omega 3 fats." Our brain food is disappearing.

    If you want to know why, read Charles Clover's beautifully-written book The End of the Line. Clover travelled all over the world, showing how the grotesque mismanagement of fish stocks has spread like an infectious disease. Governments help their fishermen to wipe out local shoals, then pay them to build bigger and more powerful boats so they can go further afield. When they have cleaned up their own continental shelves, they are paid by taxpayers to destroy other people's stocks. The European Union, for example, has bought our pampered fishermen the right to steal protein from the malnourished people of Senegal and Angola. West African stocks are now going the same way as North Sea cod and Mediterranean tuna.

    I first realised just how mad our fishing policies have become when playing a game of ultimate frisbee in my local park. Taking a long dive, I landed with my nose in the grass. It smelt of fish. To the astonishment of passers-by, I crawled across the lawns, sniffing them. The whole park had been fertilised with fishmeal. Fish are used to feed cattle, pigs, poultry and other fish — in the farms now proliferating all over the world. Those rearing salmon, cod and tuna, for example, produce about half as much fish as they consume....Now I have discovered that the US Department of Energy is subsidising the conversion of fish oil into biodiesel...It describes them as "a sustainable energy supply".

    Three years after Ransom Myers and Boris Worm published their seminal study in Nature, showing that global stocks of predatory fish have declined by 90%, nothing has changed. The fish stall in my local market still sells steaks from the ocean’s charismatic megafauna: swordfish, sharks and tuna, despite the fact that their conservation status is now, in many cases, similar to that of the Siberian tiger. [...]

    If fish stocks were allowed to recover and fishing policies reflected scientific advice, there might just about be enough to go round. To introduce mass medication with fish oil under current circumstances could be a recipe for the complete collapse of global stocks. Yet somehow we have to prevent many thousands of lives from being ruined by what appears to be a growing problem of malnutrition.

    Some plants — such as flax and hemp — contain omega-3 oils, but not of the long-chain varieties our cell membranes need. Only some people can convert them, and even then slowly and inefficiently. But a few weeks ago, a Swiss company called eau+ published a press release claiming that it has been farming "a secret strain of algae called V-Pure" which produces the right kind of fatty acids. It says it's on the verge of commercialising a supplement...The oils produced by some species of algae...are chemically identical to those found in fish: in fact this is where the fish get from them from. [...]

    [The algae] had better work. Otherwise the human race is destined to take a great cognitive leap backwards. [Emphasis added]

    The race to deplete the fish of the sea is a stark illustration of a fundamental problem with unregulated capitalism: it may be more profitable to destroy the world than to save it. Destroying the world is bad business in the long run, of course. But a population of perfectly rational people out to maximize short term profit can bring about ultimate collapse, even though each of them acted in perfect accord with capitalist economic theory every step of the way.

    A combination of factors come into play. There's the "tyranny of small decisions" — the cumulative effect of a number of small decisions can lead to a result that no one wants. So I may think, what's a few fish more or less? But if everyone thinks that way, before long the fish are gone. Forever.

    There's the "tragedy of the commons" — when resources are "free", like the air, or the oceans, or the fish in the sea, there is no disincentive to overexploitation. There is, in fact, an incentive to exploit them as quickly as possible: if I don't take the fish, someone else will.

    There's the problem that money grows faster than trees, or fish, or what have you. A forest may grow at a rate of 2% per year. That means that if I cut only 2% of it a year, my forest lasts forever. But if I clear-cut it today and invest the proceeds, my forest may be gone, but my money will grow a lot faster than 2% per year. So the economically rational thing is to monetize everything. Right up until the moment when it's all gone.

    But, as Wendell Berry said:

    Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.

    It is rapidly changing from a privilege to a necessity.

    (See also this.)

    Posted by Jonathan at 04:31 PM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    July 16, 2006

    A Perfect Marriage Science/Technology

    You know those little flash memory gizzies that plug into your USB port? These are the ones I want. Very cool.

    [Thanks, Kent]

    Posted by Jonathan at 06:14 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    June 25, 2006

    Audi Diesel Wins At Le Mans Science/Technology

    Americans tend to think diesel engines are sluggish, stinky, and slow. As a result, diesel cars, despite their superior fuel efficiency, have never caught on here.

    Audi's out to change public thinking about diesels. Their R10 turbo direct-injection (TDI) diesel race car won the storied 24-hour race at Le Mans this past weekend. The Audi R10 also won the 12-hour race at Sebring earlier in the year.

    The Audi car benefits from greater fuel efficiency — which translates to fewer pit stops — but it's very fast as well. The winning R10 at Le Mans posted the fastest lap, had the fewest pit stops, and completed the most laps in the race's history.

    Posted by Jonathan at 02:57 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    June 21, 2006

    Neurons Regenerate After All Science/Technology

    This is a surprise. For as long as I can remember, I've read that adult humans don't grow new brain cells. Whatever we've got, going into adulthood, we're stuck with. Apparently, not so. It depends on your environment. Barbara Ehrenreich, in the current issue of The Progressive:

    [A] recent article in the new pop-science magazine, Seed, makes me think that our office environments [cubicles and windowless offices] may be more damaging than I suspected. The article is about neurogenesis, the generation of new neurons within adult brains. According to longstanding neuroscientific belief, this is impossible: Neurons cannot regenerate, and we are stuck with the number we were born with, minus those lost to alcohol or Alzheimer's. Princeton psychologist Elizabeth Gould has shown otherwise: Neurons can regenerate. The reason this hadn't been observed before is that the animals studied lived out their short lives in plain laboratory metal cages.

    Gould studies little rat-sized monkeys called marmosets. Put them in metal cages, kill them, and slice their brains for microscopy, and you find very little neurogenesis. But if you let them live in an "enriched enclosure" — the marmoset equivalent of Versailles, featuring "branches, hidden food, and a rotation of toys" — neurogenesis kicks in, along with an increase in the number and strength of synaptic connections.

    Another scientist, Fernando Nottebohm, working at my alma mater, Rockefeller University, has found a similar effect in birds. Keep finches and canaries in metal cages and you get listless, tuneless, birds with equally dull brain tissue. Only when studied in the wild do the birds sing and, not coincidentally, generate a profusion of new brain cells. [Emphasis added]

    Neurons being regenerated. That's a pretty fundamental thing to have been missed for all these years.

    Here's something to consider. Much of our understanding of biology and medicine comes from experiments involving animals held in the bleakest conditions of unhappy captivity. You have to wonder the extent to which that's skewed our understanding across the board. It's like trying to arrive at a balanced understanding of human organisms by studying only the inmates of Auschwitz. It's a measure of the erosion of our basic common sense that any of this comes as a surprise.

    Posted by Jonathan at 11:21 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    May 18, 2006

    Good News, Bad News Future  Peak Oil  Science/Technology

    On Point radio had an interesting show yesterday about tiny, high-mileage cars, some electric, some not. If you go to their page, you can see a gallery of photos. Some of them are concept cars, but others are already on the road.

    The stackable cars are especially cool. The idea is that people would use them kind of like you use luggage carts at the airport. You use it, then put it back in the queue for someone else. The cars are electric, and recharge while they're waiting in the queue. A car is returned at the end of the queue (these queues would be positioned at strategic places around the city), and by the time it reaches the front it's had a chance to charge up. If you go look at the photo, it'll be clearer what I'm talking about. To deal with the fact that people like their cars to have some individuality, the inventors are thinking of giving the car a means of recognizing you, so it could set up various features the way you like them. The car could have your radio station settings, for example, or your iTunes. They're for city use, obviously, but it shows people are thinking innovatively.

    Cause for some optimism, but this post at the Oil Drum puts things in a rather bleaker perspective. It describes the author's ongoing car trip cross country from Boulder to Pittsburgh. Everybody's speeding (which of course kills their fuel efficiency), there's exurban and suburban sprawl and traffic jams surrounding every city, the highways themselves are in rough shape. All in all, no signs yet of meaningful change out there on America's highways. And given the long lead times needed to make changes on the required scale, it's not looking good.

    Posted by Jonathan at 11:40 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    May 08, 2006

    TV, Junk Food, The Brain, And Crime Science/Technology

    George Monbiot has an astonishing piece about the evidence linking diet to violent behavior and crime. Excerpt:

    Let me begin...with a paper published in the latest edition of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. It provides empirical support for the contention that children who watch more television eat more of the foods it advertises. "Each hour increase in television viewing", it found, "was associated with an additional 167 [Calories] per day". Most of these extra calories were contained in junk foods: fizzy drinks, crisps, biscuits, sweets, burgers and chicken nuggets. Watching television, the paper reported, "is also inversely associated with intake of fruit and vegetables".

    There is no longer any serious debate about what a TV diet does to your body. A government survey published last month shows that the proportion of children in English secondary schools who are clinically obese has almost doubled in ten years. Today, 27% of girls and 24% of boys between 11 and 15 years old suffer from this condition, which means they are far more likely to contract diabetes and to die before the age of 50. But the more interesting question is what this diet might do to your mind. There are now scores of studies suggesting that it hurts the brain as much as it hurts the heart and the pancreas. Among the many proposed associations is a link between bad food and violent or anti-social behaviour.

    The most spectacular results were those reported in the Journal of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine in 1997. The researchers had conducted a double-blind, controlled experiment in a jail for chronic offenders aged between 13 and 17. Many of the boys there were deficient in certain nutrients. They consumed, on average, only 63% of the iron, 42% of the magnesium, 39% of the zinc, 39% of the vitamin B12 and 34% of the folate in the US government's recommended daily allowance. The researchers treated half the inmates with capsules containing the missing nutrients, and half with placebos. They also counselled all the prisoners in the trial about improving their diets. The number of violent incidents caused by inmates in the control group (those taking the placebos) fell by 56%, and in the experimental group by 80%. But among the inmates in the placebo group who refused to improve their diets, there was no reduction. The researchers also wired their subjects up to an electroencephalogram (which records brainwave patterns), and found a major decrease in abnormalities after 13 weeks on supplements.

    A similar paper, published in 2002 in the British Journal of Psychiatry, found that among young adult prisoners given supplements of the vitamins, minerals and fatty acids in which they were deficient, disciplinary offences fell by 26% in the experimental group, and not at all in the control group. Researchers in Finland found that all 68 of the violent offenders they tested during another study suffered from reactive hypoglycaemia: an abnormal tolerance of glucose caused by an excessive consumption of sugar, carbohydrates and stimulants such as caffeine. In March this year the lead author of the 2002 report, Bernard Gesch, told the Ecologist magazine that "having a bad diet is now a better predictor of future violence than past violent behaviour...Likewise, a diagnosis of psychopathy, generally perceived as being a better predictor than a criminal past, is still miles behind what you can predict just from looking at what a person eats."

    Why should a link between diet and behaviour be surprising? Quite aside from the physiological effects of eating too much sugar (apparent to anyone who has attended a children's party), the brain, whose function depends on precise biochemical processes, can't work properly with insufficient raw materials. The most important of these appear to be unsaturated fatty acids (especially the omega 3 types), zinc, magnesium, iron, folate and the B vitamins, which happen to be those in which the prisoners in the 1997 study were most deficient. A report published at the end of last year by the pressure group Sustain explained what appear to be clear links between deteriorating diets and the growth of depression, behavioural problems, Alzheimer's and other forms of mental illness. Sixty per cent of the dry weight of the brain is fat, which is "unique in the body for being predominantly composed of highly unsaturated fatty acids". Zinc and magnesium affect both its metabolism of lipids and its production of neurotransmitters — the chemicals which permit the nerve cells to communicate with each other. [...]

    As Graham Harvey's new book We Want Real Food shows, industrial farming, dependent on artificial fertilisers, has greatly reduced the mineral content of vegetables, while the quality of meat and milk has also declined. Nor do these findings suggest that a poor diet is the sole cause of crime and anti-social behaviour. But the studies I have read suggest that any government which claims to take crime seriously should start hitting the advertisers. [...]

    I spent much of last week trying to discover whether the Home Office is taking the research into the links between diet and crime seriously. In the past, it has insisted that further studies are needed, while failing to fund them. First my request was met with incredulity, then I was stonewalled. Tough on crime. To hell with the causes of crime. [Emphasis added]

    An observer from Mars would find us a pretty strange species indeed. We poison our own children's minds with advertising so we can poison their bodies with junk food, all in the name of profits for a few. Then we complain about skyrocketing costs of health care and crime, but all we can think to do are build more hospitals and prisons. Never mind actually taking seriously what we know about causes and prevention.

    A bad diet is a better predictor of future violent behavior than is past violent behavior or psychological pathology. What could be clearer than that? What are we waiting for?

    [For references to the studies cited, see Monbiot's piece.]

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:51 PM | Comments (5) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    May 05, 2006

    Americans Sicker Than Brits — By Far Science/Technology

    Whenever the local public radio station carries a discussion of a national health care system, you can count on men (it's always men) calling in to belligerently assert that "the US has the finest health care system in the world," and they don't want to have to stand in line like people (supposedly) have to do in Canada or the UK. Except the US doesn't have the finest health care system in the world. Americans pay far more than anyone else for their health care, but some two dozen other nations rank ahead of us in life expectancy.

    Now comes an astonishing new study that shows that White, middle-aged Americans — even rich ones — are less healthy than their counterparts in the UK — by far. The disparity is so great that rich Americans are no healthier than poor Brits. AP:

    White, middle-aged Americans — even those who are rich — are far less healthy than their peers in England, according to stunning new research that erases misconceptions and has experts scratching their heads.

    Americans had higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, strokes, lung disease and cancer — findings that held true no matter what income or education level.

    Those dismal results are despite the fact that U.S. health care spending is double what England spends on each of its citizens.

    "Everybody should be discussing it: Why isn't the richest country in the world the healthiest country in the world?" asks study co-author Dr. Michael Marmot, an epidemiologist at University College London in England.

    The study, based on government statistics in both countries, adds context to the already-known fact that the United States spends more on health care than any other industrialized nation, yet trails in rankings of life expectancy.

    The United States spends about $5,200 per person on health care while England spends about half that in adjusted dollars.

    Even experts familiar with the weaknesses in the U.S. health system seemed stunned by the study's conclusions.

    "I knew we were less healthy, but I didn't know the magnitude of the disparities," said Gerard Anderson, an expert in chronic disease and international health at Johns Hopkins University who had no role in the research.

    Just why the United States fared so miserably wasn't clear. Answers ranging from too little exercise to too little money and too much stress were offered.

    Even the U.S. obesity epidemic couldn't solve the mystery. The researchers crunched numbers to create a hypothetical statistical world in which the English had American lifestyle risk factors, including being as fat as Americans. In that model, Americans were still sicker.

    Smoking rates are about the same on both sides of the pond. The English have a higher rate of heavy drinking.

    Only non-Hispanic whites were included in the study to eliminate the influence of racial disparities. The researchers looked only at people ages 55 through 64, and the average age of the samples was the same.

    Americans reported twice the rate of diabetes compared to the English, 12.5 percent versus 6 percent. For high blood pressure, it was 42 percent for Americans versus 34 percent for the English; cancer showed up in 9.5 percent of Americans compared to 5.5 percent of the English.

    The upper crust in both countries was healthier than middle-class and low-income people in the same country. But richer Americans' health status resembled the health of the low-income English.

    "It's something of a mystery," said Richard Suzman of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, which helped fund the study.

    Health experts have known the U.S. population is less healthy than that of other industrialized nations, according to several important measurements, including life expectancy. The U.S. ranks behind about two dozen other countries, according to the World Health Organization.

    Some have believed the United States has lagged because it is more ethnically diverse, said Suzman, who heads the National Institute on Aging's Behavioral and Social Research Program. "Minority health in general is worse than white health," he said.

    But the new study showed that when minorities are removed from the equation, and adjustments are made to control for education and income, white people in England are still healthier than white people in the United States. [...]

    Marmot offered a different explanation for the gap: Americans' financial insecurity. Improvements in household income have eluded all but the top fifth of Americans since the mid-1970s. Meanwhile, the English saw their incomes improve, he said.

    Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health who was not involved in the study, said the stress of striving for the American dream may account for Americans' lousy health.

    "The opportunity to go both up and down the socioeconomic scale in America may create stress," Blendon said. Americans don't have a reliable government safety net like the English enjoy, Blendon said.

    However, Britain's universal health-care system shouldn't get credit for better health, Marmot and Blendon agreed.

    Both said it might explain better health for low-income citizens, but can't account for better health of Britain's more affluent residents.

    Marmot cautioned against looking for explanations in the two countries' health-care systems.

    "It's not just how we treat people when they get ill, but why they get ill in the first place," Marmot said. [Emphasis added]

    Is it really so clear that differences in the two countries' health care systems aren't a factor? Nobody seems to have considered the distorting effect of the profit motive.

    It could be, for example, that the British system, being a national, not-for-profit system, places a greater emphasis on preventive measures than here in the US. When was the last time your HMO doctor (here in the US) went out of his/her way to get you to come in for a physical, to check your diet and exercise progress, and so on? How about, never? The US medical culture generally downplays preventive medicine (the big bucks are in treatment), so even doctors who provide care to rich patients probably have a bias against spending their time on prevention. There's no money in it.

    For-profit medicine is inherently subject to a conflict of interest. There is a lot more money to be made treating people for cancer or heart disease than there is in getting them to live more healthily to prevent disease. It's not that doctors consciously want patients to get ill. It's that they spend their time performing the activities that provide the greatest financial rewards. That would be treatment, not prevention. Heart surgeons get rich. Providers of holistic preventive care do not.

    Posted by Jonathan at 12:08 AM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    May 01, 2006

    Walk Like A Man — Or Woman Science/Technology

    This is fun — and illuminating. Play with the sliders at upper left, click "Lines" on or off. Enjoy.

    Posted by Jonathan at 12:58 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    April 19, 2006

    Snake With Legs Science/Technology

    More bad news for foes of evolution. The "missing links" just keep coming. Pharyngula:

    It's a busy time for transitional fossil news — first they find a fishapod, and now we've got a Cretaceous snake with legs and a pelvis. [This fishapod is] in the process of gaining legs, the [snake] is in the early stages of losing them.

    Najash rionegrina was discovered in a terrestrial fossil deposit in Argentina, which is important in the ongoing debate about whether snakes evolved from marine or terrestrial ancestors. The specimen isn't entirely complete (but enough material is present to unambiguously identify it as a snake), consisting of a partial skull and a section of trunk. It has a sacrum! It has a pelvic girdle! It has hindlimbs, with femora, fibulae, and tibiae! It's a definitive snake with legs, and it's the oldest snake yet found. [Emphasis added]

    The oldest snake fossil still has legs. Later snakes don't. Evolution.

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:45 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    Peace Is Healthy Science/Technology

    Ohio State researchers inflicted small blister wounds on couples and measured how quickly they healed. They found that couples who were chronic quarrelers healed at only 60% the rate of couples with low levels of hostility. The stress of fighting causes unhealthy hormone levels in the blood, interfering with healing.

    Even a single 30-minute argument was enough to delay healing by a full day.

    Peace is good for you.

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:36 PM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    April 07, 2006

    Moving The Goalposts Religion  Science/Technology

    You may have seen the reports yesterday of the discovery of a rather spectacular fossil: a transitional form intermediate between a fish and the first four-legged land-dwelling vertebrates. Scientific American:

    Paleontologists working in the Canadian Arctic have discovered the fossilized remains of an animal that elucidates one of evolution's most dramatic transformations: that which produced land-going vertebrates from fish. Dubbed Tiktaalik roseae, the large, predatory fish bears a number of features found in four-limbed creatures, a group known as tetrapods. [...]

    Like all fish, Tiktaalik possesses fins and scales. But it also has a number of distinctly un-piscine characteristics, including a neck, a flat, crocodilelike skull, and robust ribs. As such Tiktaalik neatly fills the gap between previously known tetrapodlike fish such as Panderichthys, which lived some 385 million years ago, and the earliest tetrapods, Ichthyostega and Acanthostega, which lived about 365 million years ago. "Tiktaalik blurs the boundary between fish and land animals," Shubin observes. "This animal is both fish and tetrapod; we jokingly call it a 'fishapod.'"

    Especially significant is the anatomy of Tiktaalik's pectoral fin, which contains the makings of a proper tetrapod arm...."Most of the major joints of the fin are functional in this fish," Shubin notes. "The shoulder, elbow and even parts of the wrist are already there and working in ways similar to the earliest land-living animals." [...]

    Tiktaalik is already drawing comparisons to the iconic early bird, Archaeopteryx, for its explanatory power as a transitional fossil. But it certainly leaves room for more discoveries, especially those bridging the new gap between it and the first tetrapods, along with those that contain clues to the origin of the tetrapod hindlimb. [Emphasis added]

    Creationists have long pointed to the scarcity of such "missing links" in the fossil record as (allegedly) evidence against evolution. So how do they react when such fossils are found? Here's what Robert Crowther had to say on a blog of the anti-evolution Discovery Institute (via Pharyngula):

    "This latest fossil find poses no threat to intelligent design." So says Discovery Institute senior fellow and leading intelligent design theorist Dr. William Dembski, adding:

    "Intelligent design does not so much challenge whether evolution occurred but how it occurred. In particular, it questions whether purposeless material processes — as opposed to intelligence — can create biological complexity and diversity."

    The fossil poses no threat to Intelligent Design because nothing can pose a threat to ID. There is no conceivable finding that can disprove ID, because ID proponents can always say that whatever evolution did it did because the Intelligent Designer designed it that way. Which is why ID is not science. As Karl Popper pointed out long ago, the hallmark of a scientific theory is that it can be tested and disproved. Claims that cannot be falsified are necessarily unscientific.

    Crowther goes on to say:

    Even though this find does not challenge intelligent design, there may be good reasons to be skeptical about it.

    These fish are not neccesarily intermediates, explain Discovery Institute scientists I queried about the find. Tiktaalik roseae is one of a set of lobe-finned fishes that include very curious mosaics — these fishes have advanced fully formed characteristics of several different groups. They are not intermediates in the sense that have half-fish/half-tetrapod characteristics. Rather, they have a combination of tetrapod-like features and fish-like features. Paleontologists refer to such organisms as mosaics rather than intermediates. [...]

    According to DI Fellows a number of these fishes — Ichthyostega, Elpistostege, Panderichthys — have been hailed in the past as the "missing link." Maybe one is a missing link; maybe none are. What remains unexplained is how natural selection and random mutation could produce the many novel physiological characteristics that arise in true tetrapods. [Emphasis added]

    This is just plain dumb. First of all, transitional forms should be mosaics. That's what evolutionary theory predicts. Second, scientists don't talk about "missing links", Creationists do. Scientists certainly don't talk about the missing link. What would that even mean? There are any number of transitional forms — indeed, one could argue that all species are transitional forms, since species are constantly in flux — and the idea of the missing anything is absurd.

    But, that aside, the whole response shows how intellectually dishonest the Creationist position is. They decry the lack of "missing links," but whenever a transitional form is found they move the goalposts and say, you may have found that one, but there are still others you haven't found. But of course the fossil record will forever be incomplete. Only an infinitesimal fraction of creatures are fossilized when they die. Even so, the fossil record is constantly being added to and refined. You'd have to be a Creationist not to see that.

    Posted by Jonathan at 10:37 PM | Comments (3) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    April 05, 2006

    Green Tea Good, Loneliness Bad Science/Technology

    Two keys to healthy aging: green tea and friends/family.

    A study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (abstract) looked at a population of Japanese people 70 or more years old. After correcting for other factors, the study found that people who drank 2 or more cups of green tea (with all its anti-oxidants) daily were about as half as likely to develop cogitive impairment as were people who drank no more than 3 cups a week. An astonishing result.

    A study published in Psychology and Aging found that loneliness in elderly people is a killer: it is a more potent cause of high blood pressure than any other social or psychological factor. Live Science:

    In a new University of Chicago study of men and women 50 to 68 years old, those who scored highest on measures of loneliness also had higher blood pressure. And high blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease, the number one killer in many industrialized nations and number two the United States.

    Lonely people have blood pressure readings as much as 30 points higher than non-lonely people, said the study leaders Louise Hawkley and Christopher Masi. Blood pressure differences between lonely and non-lonely people were smallest at age 50 and greatest among the oldest people tested.

    Richard Suzman of the National Institute on Aging, which funded this research, said he was "surprised by the magnitude of the relationship between loneliness and hypertension in this well-controlled, cross-sectional study."

    The researchers separated loneliness out from depression, age, race, gender, weight, alcohol consumption, smoking, blood pressure medications, hostility, stress, social support and other factors. [...]

    Loneliness was worse for blood pressure than any other psychological or social factor the researchers studied.

    Weight loss and physical exercise reduce blood pressure by the same amount that loneliness increases it. Hawkley said this finding especially surprised her.

    "It's comparable to the effects you see for the health benefits that are so often advocated such as exercise [to] keep your blood pressure under control," Hawkley told LiveScience.

    About one in five Americans is lonely, a gnawing emotional state that is a patchwork of feeling unhappy, stressed out, friendless and hostile.

    The main psychological difference between lonely and non-lonely people is that the former perceive stressful circumstances as threatening rather than challenging and cope passively and withdraw from stress rather than trying to solve the problem, said study co-author John T. Cacioppo.

    Lonely people who are middle-aged and older tend to also have problems with alcoholism, depression, weak immune system responses to illness, impaired sleep and suicide.

    Some psychologists think that associations between loneliness and health or physiology are just part of a generic stress response, but this new research suggests loneliness has a unique impact.

    Social trends in the United States suggest a recipe for greater loneliness and thus higher blood pressure and risk of heart disease. The population is aging and more people move around and live alone than ever, contributing to greater separation from caring friends and family. [Emphasis added]

    So, as your blogger, I advise you to go have some green tea with friends.

    Posted by Jonathan at 08:58 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    March 18, 2006

    Bad Math Science/Technology

    Via Pharyngula, I've discovered an interesting new blog, Good Math, Bad Math, in which a computer scientist named Mark Chu-Carroll looks at ways that people — creationists, especially — misuse mathematics in their arguments. Several recent posts of his debunk an argument one hears all the time. It's an argument that happens also to be a pet peeve of mine, and I think it's worth looking at.

    The argument allegedly proves that life is too improbable to have arisen without a designer. It goes something like this. Proteins are constructed by chaining together amino acids (of which there are 20). Consider a relatively simple protein that consists of 100 amino acids. At each of the 100 positions in the chain, there are 20 possible choices, so the number of ways of constructing a 100-amino-acid protein is 20 to the 100th power, which is about 10 to the 130th power. So the probability of chaining together randomly selected amino acids and getting the given protein is 1 divided by 10 to the 130th power. Now 10 to the 130th power is a BIG number, MUCH bigger than the number of particles in the known universe, for example, so the construction of a protein is clearly too improbable (so the argument goes) to have happened by chance. QED

    There are a number of problems with this argument. For one thing, the geometry of amino acids is such that not all chains are possible. But let's leave that aside. Let's stipulate that the probability of constructing our 100-amino-acid protein is 1 divided by 10 to the 130th power. Does the extreme improbability of that construction prove anything?

    As you might have guessed, the answer is no. As Chu-Carroll points out, if you take two distinguishable decks of cards and shuffle them together, the number of possible shufflings is about 10 to the 160th power. So the probability of any given outcome when the decks are shuffled is about a million trillion trillion times less likely than the construction of our protein. It's a million trillion trillion times more miraculous, you might say. But that obviously doesn't mean that it's impossible to shuffle two decks of cards. The probability of a given outcome when shuffling is very, very small, but the probability of getting some outcome is 100%.

    The fallacy in the protein argument is the implied assumption that life requires exactly that protein for it to work. Trying to create exactly that protein by random chance is like shuffling the decks and trying to get a specific outcome. Almost impossible. But organisms can function with lots of possible protein configurations. There is nothing unique about the protein configurations that have arisen. Lots of others would do. You can't look at the one that happened to arise and declare that its improbability proves that it couldn't have happened randomly, any more than you can look at the particular outcome of card shuffling and say that it proves that card shuffling is an impossible act. In either case, you're taking the result that happened to have occurred and working backwards. You're placing a constraint on the outcome that wasn't there when you were doing the shuffling in the first place.

    What do you suppose happens when creationists play cards? Do they just sit there stumped, waiting for God to shuffle?

    Update: [3/19 2:01PM] If you found that interesting, check out this two-part post from last year that looks at the fallacious use of probability arguments against evolution from a different angle.

    Posted by Jonathan at 08:01 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    March 14, 2006

    Nanotech Induces Nerve Repair In Hamsters Science/Technology

    This is an amazing story, the stuff of sci-fi. And no doubt it's just the beginning. Since nanotech is progressing at an exponential rate, we're all going to be surprised as applications like this seem to appear out of nowhere. Our children are going to grow up in a very different world. BBC:

    Nanotechnology has restored the sight of blind rodents, a new study shows.

    Scientists mimicked the effect of a traumatic brain injury by severing the optical nerve tract in hamsters, causing the animals to lose vision.

    After injecting the hamsters with a solution containing nanoparticles, the nerves re-grew and sight returned. [...]

    Repairing nerve damage in the central nervous system after injury is seen as the ultimate challenge for neuroscientists, but so far success in this field has been limited.

    Nerve regeneration is set back by a number of factors, including scar tissue and gaps in brain tissue caused by the damage. And this can make treatment by medical and surgical methods very difficult.

    To find a novel way around these problems, the team based at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), US, and Hong Kong University looked towards nanotechnology — a branch of science involving the manipulation of atoms and molecules.

    The researchers injected the blind hamsters at the site of their injury with a solution containing synthetically made peptides — miniscule molecules measuring just five nanometres long.

    Once inside the hamster's brain, the peptides spontaneously arranged into a scaffold-like criss-cross of nanofibres, which bridged the gap between the severed nerves.

    The scientists discovered that brain tissue in the hamsters knitted together across the molecular scaffold, while also preventing scar tissue from forming.

    Importantly, the newly formed brain tissue enabled the brain nerves to re-grow, restoring vision in the injured hamsters.

    "We made a cut, put the material in, and then we looked at the brain over different time points," explained Dr Rutledge Ellis-Behnke, a neuroscientist at MIT and lead author on the paper.

    "The first thing we saw was that the brain had started to heal itself in the first 24 hours. We had never seen that before — so that was very surprising."

    The scientists looked at young hamsters with actively growing nerve cells, and also at adult hamsters whose nerves had stopped growing.

    Dr Ellis-Behnke said the team was surprised to find that the nerves in the adult hamsters had re-grown after the injection.

    "We found that we had got functional return of vision and orientating behaviour, which was very surprising to us because we thought we would have to promote cell growth, through the growth factors."

    The researchers found the peptides were later broken down by the body into a harmless substance and excreted in the animals' urine three to four week after first injected. [...]

    "Eventually what we would look at is trying to reconnect disconnected parts of the brain during stroke and trauma."

    Dr Ellis-Behnke said that stroke and traumatic brain injury could have a major impact on an individual.

    "In order to try to restore quality of life to those individuals you can try to reconnect some disconnected parts to try to give some functionality in the brain for communication and other things like that. And that's where we think that this might be very useful," he added. [Emphasis added]

    An especially interesting thing about this story is the way the technique blends biology and nanotech. The molecules that were introduced (molecules that were constructed using nanotech methods) were essentially biological molecules — peptides, which are basically pieces of protein. They were molecules that the body knows how to interact with and how to break down and excrete. They did their job, and then they were gone without a trace. Fantastic stuff.

    Knowledge of the details of biology at the molecular scale is increasing at an exponential rate, and so is the technical ability to construct synthetic molecules. Put those two things together, as in the technique described above, and the possibilities truly are staggering. We ain't seen nothing yet.

    [Thanks, Maurice]

    Posted by Jonathan at 08:35 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    March 09, 2006

    Poking Out Our Own Eyes Politics  Science/Technology

    AP reports that budget cuts are endangering the US fleet of remote-sensing satellites that monitor weather and the environment. Excerpts:

    Budget cuts and poor management may be jeopardizing the future of our eyes in orbit, America's fleet of environmental satellites, vital tools for forecasting hurricanes, protecting water supplies and predicting global warming.

    "The system of environmental satellites is at risk of collapse," said Richard A. Anthes, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. "Every year that goes by without the system being addressed is a problem." [...]

    Since [just last year], NASA has chosen to cancel or mothball at least three planned satellites in an effort to save money. Cost overruns have delayed a new generation of weather satellites until at least 2010 and probably 2012, leading a Government Accountability Office official to label the enterprise "a program in crisis." [...]

    NASA officials say that tight budgets tie their hands, forcing them to cut all but the most vital programs. The agency's proposed 2007 budget request contains $2.2 billion for satellites that observe the Earth and sun, compared to $6.2 billion for operating the space shuttle and International Space Station and $4 billion for developing future missions to the moon and Mars. [...]

    Meanwhile, the list of delayed, downsized and canceled satellites is a long one:

    NASA's Earth Observing System was conceived in the 1980s as a 15-year program that would collect comprehensive data about the planet's oceans, atmosphere and land surface. It was originally intended to send three generations of spacecraft into orbit at five-year intervals, but budget shortfalls limited the project to only one round of launches.

    Landsat, a series of satellites that have provided detailed images of the ground surface for more than 30 years, is in danger of experiencing a gap in service. Landsat 7, launched in April 1999, is scheduled to be replaced by a next-generation satellite in 2011. But if the existing satellite fails before that date and NASA has not developed a contingency plan, scientists, land managers and others who depend on Landsat images could be out of luck.

    The launch of a satellite designed to measure rainfall over the entire Earth, the Global Precipitation Measurement mission, has been pushed back to 2012. But the satellite it is designed to replace, the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, can't possibly last that long. That means there will be a period of several years when scientists have no access to the accurate global precipitation measurements that help them improve hurricane forecasts and predict the severity of droughts and flooding.

    In December, scientists working on the Hydros mission received a letter canceling their program. They were developing a satellite that would measure soil moisture and differentiate between frozen and unfrozen ground, an increasingly important distinction since melting of the Arctic permafrost has accelerated over the past several decades. The satellite also would have improved drought and flood forecasting.

    Last month Scripps' Valero was notified that the Deep Space Climate Observatory, a project he has led for more than seven years, would be canceled. The spacecraft has already been built, but NASA is reluctant to spend the $60 million to $100 million it would cost to launch and operate it. [...]

    The observatory would have provided valuable information about how clouds, snow cover, airborne dust and other phenomena affect the balance between the amount of sunlight Earth absorbs and the amount of heat energy it emits. And because it would have hovered between Earth and the sun at a distance of roughly a million miles, it would have been able to observe the entire sunlit surface of the planet constantly. Such observations could greatly enhance scientists' understanding how much the planet has warmed in recent years and help them predict how much warmer it will get in the future. [Emphasis added]

    This is so dumb, so ignorant, so monumentally irresponsible, that it beggars belief. At a time when the Earth is going through changes that pose a significant threat to human welfare — maybe even human existence — we are voluntarily poking out our own eyes. Ground the space shuttle, if necessary. Better yet, take some money from the DOD. But for God's sake, if we ever needed this data, it's now.

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:29 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    March 07, 2006

    Molly Saves The Day Saves The Day Ethics  Rights, Law  Science/Technology

    South Dakota can ban abortions, but they can't ban knowledge. In response to the South Dakota law, Molly Saves the Day has stepped up with the first installment of a manual for performing safe abortions. Excerpt:

    In the 1960s and early 1970s, when abortions were illegal in many places and expensive to get, an organization called Jane stepped up to the plate in the Chicago area. Jane initially hired an abortion doctor, but later they did the abortions themselves. They lost only one patient in 13,000 — a lower death rate than that of giving live birth. The biggest obstacle they had, though, was the fact that until years into the operation, they thought of abortion as something only a doctor could do, something only the most trained specialist could perform without endangering the life of the woman.

    They were deceived — much like you have probably been deceived. An abortion, especially for an early pregnancy, is a relatively easy procedure to perform. And while I know, women of South Dakota, that you never asked for this, now is the time to learn how it is done. There is no reason you should be beholden to doctors — especially in a state where doctors have been refusing to perform them, forcing the state's only abortion clinic to fly doctors in from elsewhere.

    No textbooks or guides existed at that time to help them, and the equipment was hard to find. This is no longer true. For under $2000, any person with the inclination to learn could create a fully functioning abortion setup allowing for both vacuum aspiration and dilation/curettage abortions. If you are careful and diligent, and have a good grasp of a woman's anatomy you will not put anyone's health or life in danger, even if you have not seen one of these procedures performed.

    For the detailed how-to, see Molly's post. Further installments are in the works. Hopefully, this will be just the start. The colloborative possibilities of the Internet could enable the "open-source" development of a truly first-rate how-to manual.

    It's obviously a controversial move by Molly, and probably some of you reading this think Molly's wrong to do it and I'm wrong to help publicize it. But the thing is, women will continue to have abortions no matter what the law says. That has been true for centuries, if not millenia, and it's true now. Surely it's better that it be done safely. And those of you who believe a fertilized egg is the moral equivalent of an adult human being, I invite you to reflect on this.

    Update: [11:02PM] As long as we're talking about abortion, this is an intriguing video (via The Talent Show). Someone's not thinking too clearly.

    Posted by Jonathan at 06:10 PM | Comments (9) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    Situational Science Humor & Fun  Science/Technology

    This is great. Does make me wince, though. If only it were just a joke.

    Posted by Jonathan at 12:07 AM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    February 19, 2006

    Klipsch iFi Science/Technology

    iPod owners, take note. Venerable audiophile speaker manufacturer Klipsch has a ridiculously good deal on a factory refurbished speaker system with iPod dock and remote for $200. I bought some and liked the sound quality so much I bought some more. Then I bought some for my daughter. It makes your iPod sound better than the typical home stereo, for a lot less than you paid for the iPod. Making recommendations for consumer electronics products is not exactly my métier, but IMHO this is too good a deal to pass up.

    Posted by Jonathan at 04:02 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    February 18, 2006

    Sleep On It Science/Technology

    This is interesting: researchers have confirmed the wisdom of "sleeping on it" when a complex decision needs to be made. BBC News:

    A Dutch study suggests complex decisions like buying a car can be better made when the unconscious mind is left to churn through the options.

    This is because people can only focus on a limited amount of information, the study in the journal Science suggests.

    The conscious brain should be reserved for simple choices like picking between towels and shampoos, the team said.

    Psychologists from the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands divided their participants into two groups and devised a series of experiments to test a theory on "deliberation without attention".

    One group was given four minutes to pick a favourite car from a list having weighed up four attributes including fuel consumption and legroom.

    The other group was given a series of puzzles to keep their conscious selves busy before making a decision.

    The conscious thought group managed to pick the best car based on four aspects around 55% of the time, while the unconscious thought group only chose the right one 40% of the time.

    But when the experiment was made more complex by bringing in 12 attributes to weigh up, the conscious thought group's success rate fell to around 23% as opposed to nearly 60% for the unconscious thought group. [Emphasis added]

    More examples in the article. As we moderns have grown increasingly dependent on conscious analysis and reason, it would seem that we've put ourselves in the position of making increasingly bad decisions, decisions that take too few variables into account. We think traditional methods of decision-making that leverage things like dreams, visions, meditation, hunches, aesthetic judgment, intuition, and "feel" are inferior. The laugh's on us.

    Posted by Jonathan at 08:46 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    February 16, 2006

    What's It Worth? Science/Technology

    Look up the estimated value of pretty much any home in the country, complete with satellite photo and values of surrounding homes. Amazing.

    Posted by Jonathan at 11:14 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    February 15, 2006

    Get Assimilated Science/Technology

    Dave Anderson of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing) and his team have developed technology that lets millions of personal computers chip in (so to speak) their spare processing power to tackle some of the truly huge computational problems, problems much too big even for supercomputers.

    BOINC lets you donate computer time to study everything from global warming, to protein folding, disease cures, and the search for ET. I myself have had a number of computers cranking away on these things for a while (over 6 years in the case of SETI), but up til now it's been kind of a geeks-only thing.

    climateprediction.net, one of the BOINC projects, has now joined forces with the BBC to bring voluntary distributed computing into the mainstream. If you're not already BOINC-ing, go check out the BBC's jazzed-up, simplified process for getting involved. It costs you nothing and only uses your computer when you're not. I love it myself; makes me feel useful. Plus you get a really cool screensaver, if you want, that shows the progress of the computation.

    From the BBC site:

    Take part in the largest climate experiment ever

    We need the computer power you're not using. Join in the largest climate prediction experiment ever, developed by climate scientists for the BBC using the Met Office climate model.

    Go do it. Chip in. Be a part of the solution.

    Posted by Jonathan at 09:40 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    February 03, 2006

    No More Telegrams Science/Technology

    As of January 27, Western Union discontinued telegram service. No fanfare, hardly any notice, but the age of the telegram is over. WU does still offer wire transfer of funds.

    Posted by Jonathan at 04:58 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    January 17, 2006

    Dogs Trained To Detect Cancer By Smell With 99% Accuracy Science/Technology

    California clinicians have trained five dogs to detect cancer by sniffing the breath of patients. The remarkable thing is that the reported accuracy is better than any lab test. NYT:

    In the small world of people who train dogs to sniff cancer, a little-known Northern California clinic has made a big claim: that it has trained five dogs — three Labradors and two Portuguese water dogs — to detect lung cancer in the breath of cancer sufferers with 99 percent accuracy.

    The study was based on well-established concepts. It has been known since the 80's that tumors exude tiny amounts of alkanes and benzene derivatives not found in healthy tissue.

    Other researchers have shown that dogs, whose noses can pick up odors in the low parts-per-billion range, can be trained to detect skin cancers or react differently to dried urine from healthy people and those with bladder cancer, but never with such remarkable consistency.

    The near-perfection in the clinic's study, as Dr. Donald Berry, the chairman of biostatistics at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, put it, "is off the charts: there are no laboratory tests as good as this, not Pap tests, not diabetes tests, nothing."

    As a result, he and other cancer experts say they are skeptical, but intrigued. Michael McCulloch, research director for the Pine Street Foundation in Marin County, Calif., and the lead researcher on the study, acknowledged that the results seemed too good to be true. (For breast cancer, with a smaller number of samples, the dogs were right about 88 percent of the time with almost no false positives, which compares favorably to mammograms.)

    "Yes, we were astounded, as well," Mr. McCulloch said. "And that's why it needs to be replicated with other dogs, plus chemical analysis of what's in the breath." [...]

    In Mr. McCulloch's study, the five dogs, borrowed from owners and Guide Dogs for the Blind, were trained as if detecting bombs. They repeatedly heard a clicker and got a treat when they found a desired odor in many identical smelling spots. [...]

    "The fact that dogs did this is kind of beside the point," he said. "What this proved is that there are detectable differences in the breath of cancer patients. Now technology has to rise to that challenge."

    The next step, he said, will be to analyze breath samples with a gas chromatograph to figure out exactly which mixes of chemicals the dogs are reacting to. [Emphasis added]

    I love these low-tech solutions.

    Posted by Jonathan at 11:00 AM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    January 13, 2006

    Nikon To Phase Out Film Cameras Science/Technology

    Digital cameras have a lot of advantages, but the ones I've used have one fatal flaw: the lag between shutter press and image capture makes candid photography a hit-or-miss proposition, at best.

    But venerable camera maker Nikon is joining the list of manufacturers who are obsoleting film-based equipment. That sure didn't take long.

    The adoption rate for new technologies continues to shrink.

    Posted by Jonathan at 11:52 AM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    January 09, 2006

    Just Breathtaking Future  Media  Science/Technology

    Google has a product called Google Earth that you can download for free.

    Thanks to WorldChanging, I'm discovering an absolutely breathtaking feature of Google Earth that I cannot recommend to you highly enough. Google has layered on top of the African continent hundreds of links to aerial photographs, National Geographic stories, videos, and interactive map features. Go explore.

    Click to enlarge

    Start by downloading and installing Google Earth. When you have it running, navigate to Africa, and zoom in until you see the yellow rectangles (links to National Geographic photos and stories) and red airplanes (links to aerial photographs). You have to zoom in quite a bit to see them all — i.e., keep zooming after you start to see them, and you'll see more.

    Don't miss the links to the various videos and multimedia features. For instance, each of the aerial photo links (the little red airplanes) has a link to "Sights and Sounds of Africa Megaflyover". Take that link, and check out the videos. Don't miss the "Aerial Footage" videos. Stunning.

    All-in-all, an astonishingly rich and beautiful resource — and these are no doubt just the very first baby steps. What's going to be available to us five years from now? Ten years? Twenty?

    Posted by Jonathan at 07:44 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    December 15, 2005

    Virtual Earth Science/Technology

    MSN Virtual Earth has closeup aerial views of selected US cities. Currently covered are New York, San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Seattle, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Albuquerque, Indianapolis, and Lexington, KY. They'll be expanding their coverage over time.

    Try this link, for example. It's a view onto the Penn campus, near Franklin Field. Drag the image around. You can see players on the football field, and you can clearly see cars and trucks on surrounding streets and parking lots, even make out the make and model in many cases. Besides dragging, you can zoom in and out.

    Here's Times Square in NYC. You can read every billboard, see every pedestrian, etc.

    Posted by Jonathan at 01:59 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    December 14, 2005

    BMW: New Steam Hybrid Engine System Energy  Science/Technology

    BMW has announced a new hybrid engine system that captures much of the heat generated by the internal combustion engine and uses it to power a steam engine. The system is said to boost normal engine efficiency by 15%. Gizmag:

    A large percentage of the energy released when petroleum is burned disappears out the exhaust system as heat. This has always been the case but the amount of energy released looks set to be cut by more than 80% thanks to a new system devised by BMW. BMW's announcement of the new technology is somewhat of a technological bombshell as it adds yet another form of hybrid automobile – a turbosteamer. The concept uses energy from the exhaust gasses of the traditional Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) to power a steam engine which also contributes power to the automobile – an overall 15 per cent improvement for the combined drive system. Even bigger news is that the drive has been designed so that it can be installed in existing model series – meaning that every model in the BMW range could become 15% more efficient overnight if the company chose to make the reduced consumption accessible to as many people as possible.

    Combining the innovative assistance drive with a 1.8 litre BMW four-cylinder engine on the test rig reduced consumption by up to 15 percent and generated 10 kilowatts more power and 20 Nm more torque. This increased power and efficiency comes for, well, ... nothing. The energy is extracted exclusively from the heat in the exhaust gases and cooling water so it is essentially a quantum leap in efficiency. [...]

    Ongoing development of the concept is focusing initially on making the components simpler and smaller. The long-term development goal is to have a system capable of volume production within ten years. [Emphasis added]

    Cool idea, though if it's really ten years off — well, a lot can happen in ten years. Still, it's intriguing that the same idea could be applied to any engine that wastes energy as heat.

    [Thanks, Kevin]

    Posted by Jonathan at 04:40 PM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    December 13, 2005

    TKDL Science/Technology

    For a decade or more, Westerners have been busy patenting traditional remedies — medicinal uses of plants, even yoga postures — that have been in use in India for centuries. Western patent law protects against the patenting of inventions that have previously been made public in a suitable form (as so-called "prior art"), but the ancient texts and oral traditions of India generally are not viewed as "real" prior art. To protect India's traditional knowledge against this kind of piracy via patent law, a project is underway to publish a 30-million-page encyclopedia called the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library. BBC (via WorldChanging):

    In a quiet government office in the Indian capital, Delhi, some 100 doctors are hunched over computers poring over ancient medical texts and keying in information.

    These doctors are practitioners of ayurveda, unani and siddha, ancient Indian medical systems that date back thousands of years.

    One of them is Jaya Saklani Kala, a young ayurveda doctor, who is wading through a dog-eared 500-year-old text book for information on a medicine derived from the mango fruit.

    "Soon the world will know the medicine, and the fact that it originated from India," she says.

    With help from software engineers and patent examiners, Ms Kala and her colleagues are putting together a 30-million-page electronic encyclopaedia of India's traditional medical knowledge, the first of its kind in the world.

    The ambitious $2m project, christened Traditional Knowledge Digital Library, will roll out an encyclopaedia of the country's traditional medicine in five languages - English, French, German, Japanese and Spanish - in an effort to stop people from claiming them as their own and patenting them.

    The electronic encyclopaedia, which will be made available next year, will contain information on the traditional medicines, including exhaustive references, photographs of the plants and scans from the original texts.

    Indian scientists say the country has been a victim of what they describe as "bio-piracy" for a long time.

    "When we put out this encyclopaedia in the public domain, no one will be able to claim that these medicines or therapies are their inventions. Till now, we have not done the needful to protect our traditional wealth," says Ajay Dua, a senior bureaucrat in the federal commerce ministry.

    Putting together the encyclopaedia is a daunting task.

    For one, ayurvedic texts are in Sanskrit and Hindi, unani texts are in Arabic and Persian and siddha material is in Tamil language. Material from these texts is being translated into five international languages, using sophisticated software coding.

    The sheer wealth of material that has to be read through for information is enormous - there are some 54 authoritative 'text books' on ayurveda alone, some thousands of years old.

    Then there are nearly 150,000 recorded ayurvedic, unani and siddha medicines; and some 1,500 asanas (physical exercises and postures) in yoga, which originated in India more than 5,000 years ago.

    Under normal circumstances, a patent application should always be rejected if there is prior existing knowledge about the product.

    But in most of the developed nations like United States, "prior existing knowledge" is only recognised if it is published in a journal or is available on a database - not if it has been passed down through generations of oral and folk traditions.

    The irony here is that India has suffered even though its traditional knowledge, as in China, has been documented extensively.

    But information about traditional medicine has never been culled from their texts, translated and put out in the public domain.

    No wonder then that India has been embroiled in some high-profile patent litigation in the past decade - the government spent some $6m alone in fighting legal battles against the patenting of turmeric and neem-based medicines.

    In 1995, the US Patent Office granted a patent on the wound-healing properties of turmeric.

    Indian scientists protested and fought a two-year-long legal battle to get the patent revoked.

    Last year, India won a 10-year-long battle at the European Patent Office against a patent granted on an anti-fungal product, derived from neem, by successfully arguing that the medicinal neem tree is part of traditional Indian knowledge.

    In 1998 the US Patent Office granted patent to a local company for new strains of rice similar to basmati, which has been grown for centuries in the Himalayan foothills of north-west India and Pakistan and has become popular internationally. After a prolonged legal battle, the patent was revoked four years ago.

    And, in the US, an expatriate Indian yoga teacher has claimed copyright on a sequence of 36 yoga asanas, or postures.

    Dr Vinod Kumar Gupta, who is leading the traditional wealth encyclopaedia project and heads India's National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources (Niscair), reckons that of the nearly 5,000 patents given out by the US Patent Office on various medical plants by the year 2000, some 80% were plants of Indian origin. [Emphasis added]

    Very cool. Hopefully, other areas of traditional knowledge around the world will be similarly documented. Protecting against patent piracy is only part of the story. Countless generations of traditional peoples have gathered and winnowed a vast treasure trove of knowledge about plants, animals, healing practices, and so on. TKDL projects will make that knowledge available to all of humanity, patent-free.

    Posted by Jonathan at 09:54 PM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    Drug Companies Ghostwrite Journal Articles Ethics  Science/Technology

    The Wall Street Journal reports today on what it calls "an open secret in medicine":

    Many of the articles that appear in scientific journals under the bylines of prominent academics are actually written by ghostwriters in the pay of drug companies. These seemingly objective articles, which doctors around the world use to guide their care of patients, are often part of a marketing campaign by companies to promote a product or play up the condition it treats. [...]

    Increasingly, though, editors and some academics are stepping forward to criticize the practice, saying it could hurt patients by giving doctors biased information. "Scientific research is not public relations," says Robert Califf, vice chancellor of clinical research at Duke University Medical Center. "If you're a firm hired by a company trying to sell a product, it's an entirely different thing than having an open mind for scientific inquiry. ... What would happen to a PR firm that wrote a paper that said this product stinks? Do you think their contract would be renewed?"

    Drug companies say they're providing a service to busy academic researchers, some of whom may not be skilled writers. The companies say they don't intend for their ghostwriters to bias the tone of articles that appear under the researchers' names. [...]

    Some health insurers have stopped taking what they read in the journals on faith and are employing analysts to scrutinize articles for negative data that are buried. [Emphasis added]

    And it doesn't stop with journal articles. Three years ago, the New York Times reported that major advertising firms are buying companies that perform clinical trials on drugs they advertise:

    Dentists leafing through The Journal of the American Dental Association last May found a study concluding that a new drug called Bextra offered relief from one of their patients' worst nightmares - the acute pain that follows dental surgery.

    Federal regulators had rejected that conclusion only six months before, leaving Bextra's marketers, Pharmacia and Pfizer, hard pressed to sell it as an advance over Celebrex, their earlier entry in a crowded market for pain drugs.

    The new study helped light a fire under Bextra. Its sales soared 60 percent over the three months that followed, according to industry data. But the research was not conducted by academics. Instead, the lead investigators were from Scirex, a little-known research firm owned partly by Omnicom, one of the world's biggest advertising companies.

    Madison Avenue — whose television ads have helped turn prescription medicines like Viagra, Allegra and Vioxx into billion-dollar products — is expanding its role in the drug business, wading into the science of drug development.

    The three largest advertising companies — Omnicom, Interpublic and WPP — have spent tens of millions of dollars to buy or invest in companies like Scirex that perform clinical trials of experimental drugs. One advertising executive calls it "getting closer to the test tube." [Emphasis added]

    Sickening. It's hard not to feel like you're drowning in a rising tide of corruption and lies everywhere you turn: a person can only tread water for so long.

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:19 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    December 09, 2005

    Google Transit Science/Technology

    Google is experimenting with a new tool that will tell you how to use public transportation to go from point A to point B (just for Portland OR, currently). Cool idea. Read about it here.

    Posted by Jonathan at 11:28 AM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    November 28, 2005

    Biotech, Nanotech, And The Transition Ahead Energy  Peak Oil  Science/Technology

    From time to time, I've suggested that the wildcards in our energy future may be genetic engineering and nanotechnology. Before too long, we may be able to create genetically-engineered organisms or nanomachines that synthesize fuels or that can efficiently extract fuels from the environment.

    Now CNet reports that Craig Venter, whose company Celera Genomics first mapped the human genome, is starting a company to genetically engineer organisms to produce fuels:

    J. Craig Venter, who gained worldwide fame in 2000 when he mapped the human genetic code, is behind a new start-up called Synthetic Genomics, which plans to create new types of organisms that, ideally, would produce hydrogen, secrete nonpolluting heating oil or be able to break down greenhouse gases.

    The initial focus will be on creating "biofactories" for hydrogen and ethanol, two fuels seen as playing an increasing role in powering cars in the future. Hydrogen also holds promise for heating homes and putting juice into electronic devices.

    The raw genetic material for these synthetic micro-organisms will come from a diverse set of genes from a variety of species, according to the company. While many of the genes will come from some of the aquatic micro-organisms that Venter and his colleagues discovered during extensive ocean voyages in the last two years, the company will also experiment with genes from large mammals such as dogs.

    "Rapid advances in high throughput DNA sequencing and synthesis, as well as high performance computing and bioinformatics, now enable us to synthesize novel photosynthetic and metabolic pathways," Venter said in a statement earlier this year. "We are in an era of rapid advances in science and are beginning the transition from being able to not only read genetic code, but are now moving to the early stages of being able to write code."

    A small but growing number of researchers are examining ways to tap the power of biology. At Stanford University, for instance, professor James Swartz has been conducting experiments on a soil micro-organism that uses energy absorbed from light to split water molecules, a chemical reaction that produces hydrogen. Typically, organisms that derive energy from the sun — look no farther than the oak tree or the grass in your backyard — exploit that energy to grow.

    In Cambridge, Mass., GreenFuel Technologies has created "bioreactors" filled with algae. The algae are fed with sunlight, water and carbon-carrying emissions from power plants. The algae are then harvested and turned into biodiesel fuel.

    Engineering organisms for the benefit of humanity creates obvious risks. Both Stanford and Synthetic Genomics have said they are aware of the potential ethical and environmental issues of their work and will take actions to prevent unwanted consequences. Lab-created species could escape into the wild and unpredictably alter the local habitat. [Emphasis added]

    Since genetic engineering and nanotechnology are both, to a great extent, applications of information technology (computation, data management, networking), and since information technology continues to advance at an exponential rate, we may well be surprised by the apparent suddenness of energy-related advances in genetic engineering and nanotech. They may one day seem to appear out of the blue.

    But worldwide energy use and fossil fuel depletion are also increasing at exponential rates. I.e., we have exponential depletion working against us, and the exponential advance of technology working for us. The race is on.

    Energy pessimists like James Kunstler think nothing will ever really replace oil, so we're headed into a "long emergency". Energy pollyannas think new technologies will automatically come online as rapidly as they are needed, making for a smooth and relatively painless transition. The pessimists make the mistake of assuming future technology won't be qualitatively different from current technology. The pollyannas make the mistake of failing to grasp the colossal scale and urgency of the transition that has to occur.

    My own view is somewhere in between: fossil fuel production is indeed peaking and we are in for a difficult, turbulent couple of decades as we transition out of our current way of doing things. But if we make it through the needle's eye (without, for example, blowing ourselves up in a world war over oil) genetic engineering and nanotechnology will almost certainly open up new sources of energy — or, rather, new ways of capturing the energy of the sun. The world isn't going to go dark. Genetic engineering and/or nanotechnology on the scale required to satisfy the world's energy appetite are likely to introduce dangerous new problems, but one way or the other we are likely to find ways to capture the sun's energy and make it available for human use. It's just not going to happen overnight, so there's rough sledding ahead in the near term, and success is far from guaranteed.

    Unfortunately, current US policy seems to combine the worst extremes of the positions of the pessimists and the pollyannas. On the pessimistic side, the administration appears to assume that the nations of the world teeter on the brink of a grim and deadly struggle for the oil that remains, so the solution is the military occupation of the world's oil-producing regions. Hence, Iraq. On the pollyanna side, the administration seems to assume that it has no responsibility to raise public awareness and foster the development of alternative energy sources and increased efficiency: the market will provide, all by itself. But the price signals that move the market will arrive too late. If we wait for a crisis, we will have waited too long.

    Better to take the middle path: cooperate with other nations in equitably distributing the fossil fuels that remain, while putting public resources to work in a crash program to develop solutions for tomorrow. Like grownups.

    Posted by Jonathan at 07:45 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    November 19, 2005

    Evolution And Ideology Science/Technology

    An interesting new poll shows Americans struggling to work out a conceptual compromise on evolution.

    A majority say they believe God created the earth in six days. (It would be fascinating to know what goes on in these people's heads. What about, you know, fossils?)

    Humans evolved from other animal species through natural selection23%
    God created the universe and humans in a six-day period54%
    God caused humans to evolve from other species17%
    Undecided6%

    But even though fewer than 1 in 4 think humans evolved via natural selection, more than 2 in 3 recognize that evolution is science and intelligent design and creationism are not, so evolution is what should be taught in science classes:

    Evolution is what most scientists believe, so it should be taught in public science classes69%
    Scientists are wrong, so evolution should not be taught in public science classes20%
    Both should be taught, or undecided11%

    As you might expect, religious and political conservatives are particularly clueless on the subject of evolution:

    Catholics were less likely than Protestants to believe in creationism while born-again Christians are the most likely to believe so.

    The sharpest divide was found among those with differing political ideologies: 74 percent of those who described themselves as "very conservative" interpret Genesis literally while just 22 percent of "very liberal" respondents did so. [Emphasis added]

    That organisms have evolved is utterly beyond dispute, even if one has questions about the mechanisms by which organisms evolved. The evidence for evolution is absolutely everywhere. It is biology's great unifying principle. Much of biology — not to mention paleontology — is unintelligible without evolution.

    It takes a special rigidity of mind, in the face of such overwhelming evidence, to let ideology trump the facts and cling to the ancient view that the world was created in six days. It is telling and significant that conservatives are so much more likely than liberals to do so. It says a lot about how conservatives' minds work — or don't. I don't say that just to be snarky or score political points. I think it's true.

    We see the same dynamic play out all over the place. When facts and ideology conflict, conservatives ignore or fix the facts; liberals amend the ideology. (Generalizing, of course.) This can make conservatives seem steadfast and free of doubt, which has a certain appeal, and liberals seem fuzzy and complicated. But it also means that ever-changing reality leaves conservatives far behind. In the case of evolution vs. Genesis, reality has left them several millenia behind.

    Conservativism worked when things changed only slowly. In today's world, however, change is rapid and ever-accelerating. A flexible mind, a non-ideological mind — a liberal mind — is essential.

    Posted by Jonathan at 12:18 PM | Comments (5) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    November 18, 2005

    Google World Science/Technology

    Google stock closed above $400 yesterday, giving the company a market capitalization of $117 billion, despite 12-month earnings of only $5.5 billion. Is Google worth it? See a very interesting article here by Robert Cringely, who says:

    [What Google is] going to do...is effectively take over the Internet. Oh they won't steal it or strong-arm us. They'll seduce us into giving it to them. And I am not at all sure that's a bad thing.

    How is Google going to do it? Go read Cringely to find out. The article's aimed at tech geeks, but non-geeks can still get the gist. Is Cringely right? I have no idea. But if he is, Google's just getting started.

    Posted by Jonathan at 02:11 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    November 16, 2005

    Seeing Is Believing Science/Technology

    We think of sight as an objective process of receiving hard, unfiltered data. But to what extent do our eyes and brains filter and massage what we see before we even see it?

    Check out this amazing optical illusion. Very cool.

    [Thanks, Kent]

    Posted by Jonathan at 09:29 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    November 08, 2005

    History's Worst Software Bugs Science/Technology

    If you're interested in software, you may want to check out this Wired article that lists the 10 worst software bugs of all time (so far). Some bugs have cost companies millions, others have cost patients their lives. One bug was intentional:

    1982 — Soviet gas pipeline. Operatives working for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency allegedly (.pdf) plant a bug in a Canadian computer system purchased to control the trans-Siberian gas pipeline. The Soviets had obtained the system as part of a wide-ranging effort to covertly purchase or steal sensitive U.S. technology. The CIA reportedly found out about the program and decided to make it backfire with equipment that would pass Soviet inspection and then fail once in operation. The resulting event is reportedly the largest non-nuclear explosion in the planet's history.

    Read the full list here.

    Posted by Jonathan at 01:38 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    November 07, 2005

    If This Is For Real... Science/Technology

    I'll believe this when I see it, but it is interesting. Guardian:

    It seems too good to be true: a new source of near-limitless power that costs virtually nothing, uses tiny amounts of water as its fuel and produces next to no waste. If that does not sound radical enough, how about this: the principle behind the source turns modern physics on its head.

    Randell Mills, a Harvard University medic who also studied electrical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, claims to have built a prototype power source that generates up to 1,000 times more heat than conventional fuel. Independent scientists claim to have verified the experiments and Dr Mills says that his company, Blacklight Power, has tens of millions of dollars in investment lined up to bring the idea to market. And he claims to be just months away from unveiling his creation.

    The problem is that according to the rules of quantum mechanics, the physics that governs the behaviour of atoms, the idea is theoretically impossible. "Physicists are quite conservative. It's not easy to convince them to change a theory that is accepted for 50 to 60 years. I don't think [Mills's] theory should be supported," said Jan Naudts, a theoretical physicist at the University of Antwerp.

    What has much of the physics world up in arms is Dr Mills's claim that he has produced a new form of hydrogen, the simplest of all the atoms, with just a single proton circled by one electron. In his "hydrino", the electron sits a little closer to the proton than normal, and the formation of the new atoms from traditional hydrogen releases huge amounts of energy.

    This is scientific heresy. According to quantum mechanics, electrons can only exist in an atom in strictly defined orbits, and the shortest distance allowed between the proton and electron in hydrogen is fixed. The two particles are simply not allowed to get any closer.

    According to Dr Mills, there can be only one explanation: quantum mechanics must be wrong. "We've done a lot of testing. We've got 50 independent validation reports, we've got 65 peer-reviewed journal articles," he said. "We ran into this theoretical resistance and there are some vested interests here. People are very strong and fervent protectors of this [quantum] theory that they use."

    Rick Maas, a chemist at the University of North Carolina at Asheville (UNC) who specialises in sustainable energy sources, was allowed unfettered access to Blacklight's laboratories this year. "We went in with a healthy amount of scepticism. While it would certainly be nice if this were true, in my position as head of a research institution, I really wouldn't want to make a mistake. The last thing I want is to be remembered as the person who derailed a lot of sustainable energy investment into something that wasn't real."

    But Prof Maas and Randy Booker, a UNC physicist, left under no doubt about Dr Mill's claims. "All of us who are not quantum physicists are looking at Dr Mills's data and we find it very compelling," said Prof Maas. "Dr Booker and I have both put our professional reputations on the line as far as that goes."

    Dr Mills's idea goes against almost a century of thinking. When scientists developed the theory of quantum mechanics they described a world where measuring the exact position or energy of a particle was impossible and where the laws of classical physics had no effect. The theory has been hailed as one of the 20th century's greatest achievements.

    But it is an achievement Dr Mills thinks is flawed. He turned back to earlier classical physics to develop a theory which, unlike quantum mechanics, allows an electron to move much closer to the proton at the heart of a hydrogen atom and, in doing so, release the substantial amounts of energy he seeks to exploit. Dr Mills's theory, known as classical quantum mechanics and published in the journal Physics Essays in 2003, has been criticised most publicly by Andreas Rathke of the European Space Agency. In a damning critique published recently in the New Journal of Physics, he argued that Dr Mills's theory was the result of mathematical mistakes.

    Dr Mills argues that there are plenty of flaws in Dr Rathke's critique. "His paper's riddled with mistakes. We've had other physicists contact him and say this is embarrassing to the journal and [Dr Rathke] won't respond," said Dr Mills.

    While the theoretical tangle is unlikely to resolve itself soon, those wanting to exploit the technology are pushing ahead. "We would like to understand it from an academic standpoint and then we would like to be able to use the implications to actually produce energy products," said Prof Maas. "The companies that are lining up behind this are household names."

    Dr Mills will not go into details of who is investing in his research but rumours suggest a range of US power companies. It is well known also that NASA's institute of advanced concepts has funded research into finding a way of using Blacklight's technology to power rockets.

    According to Prof Maas, the first product built with Blacklight's technology, which will be available in as little as four years, will be a household heater. As the technology is scaled up, he says, bigger furnaces will be able to boil water and turn turbines to produce electricity.

    In a recent economic forecast, Prof Maas calculated that hydrino energy would cost around 1.2 cents (0.7p) per kilowatt hour. This compares to an average of 5 cents per kWh for coal and 6 cents for nuclear energy.

    "If it's wrong, it will be proven wrong," said Kert Davies, research director of Greenpeace USA. "But if it's right, it is so important that all else falls away. It has the potential to solve our dependence on oil. Our stance is of cautious optimism." [Emphasis added]

    It would be world-shaking, obviously, if this turned out to be for real, especially since they're claiming the technology lends itself to small-scale, decentralized energy generation. But to say it's a long shot would be an understatement. Quantum theory is not likely to be this fundamentally wrong. The good news is that they claim we'll know soon — perhaps in a matter of months — whether there's anything to it.

    Wikipedia has more on Randell Mills and his Hydrino theory.

    [Thanks, Maurice]

    Posted by Jonathan at 06:45 PM | Comments (3) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    November 03, 2005

    China And The Internet Media  Science/Technology

    Ethan Zuckerman had an interesting post recently at WorldChanging on China and the Internet. Excerpt:

    China's become truly huge on the internet in recent years - while only 8% of Chinese citizens are online, that's 103m people, making China the world's second largest Internet userbase. They're the largest mobile phone market, with 385m users. And they're creating content - there are 50 blog hosting services in China, and 5m blogs.

    The Chinese government doesn't censor everything - they're trying to make sure that political leaders and political movements don't get built online the same way that pop stars do. Talk about an issue like Taishi and your site or service will get shut down. Talk about your sex life, and no one will make trouble for you.

    ...the Great Firewall of China - the Chinese firewall makes it impossible to search for certain terms on Google. On Chinese blogging sites - from Blogbus to MSN Spaces - certain terms (like "democracy" or "freedom of speech") will simply be blocked by the server. The server administrator protects you, the user, from getting into trouble with authorities by talking about forbidden topics. You're free to talk about what you're free to talk about, and protected from touching the third rail of politics. [...]

    The Chinese are moving ahead of the US in a number of internet spaces - podcasting, blogging via mobile phones, video blogging. But these new technologies have censorship baked in. Censorship isn't slowing down the growth of these companies - they're growing in ways that assume that certain speech will be censored.

    If China's the largest internet userbase in the future, what does this mean for the Internet? Are the tools we use going to prevent us from engaging in certain types of speech? Are other countries going to want to adopt a Chinese-style internet rather than a US style one? Are there things we can do to ensure we don't get censorship baked into the code and the business model? [Emphasis added]

    Fascinating on many levels. China is already leading the world in mobile phone users, podcasting, video blogging. Amazing. They're leapfrogging themselves right into the future. The pace of worldwide change just keeps accelerating.

    Zuckerman's final questions are important ones. Will China set a precedent that leads to widespread censorship on the Internet? The network effect of the Internet is an enormously important development in human history, connecting the people of the world, creating a new kind of group mind that harnesses the power of millions of brains and that opens millions of eyes. It is a positive boon to humanity. We would be fools to cripple it. We must not let the Few determine what the Many can think and say.

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:47 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    October 25, 2005

    The Car That Makes Its Own Fuel Science/Technology

    Hydrogen would be a clean fuel for cars, but there are enormous obstacles to overcome in manufacturing, transporting, storing, and dispensing the hydrogren. But what if a car could make its own hydrogen? From IsraCast (via KurzweilAI):

    A unique system that can produce Hydrogen inside a car using common metals such as Magnesium and Aluminum was developed by an Israeli company. The system solves all of the obstacles associated with the manufacturing, transporting and storing of hydrogen to be used in cars. When it becomes commercial in a few years time, the system will be incorporated into cars that will cost about the same as existing conventional cars to run, and will be completely emission free. [...]

    The Hydrogen car Engineuity is working on will use metals such as Magnesium or Aluminum which will come in the form of a long coil. The gas tank in conventional vehicles will be replaced by a device called a Metal-Steam combustor that will separate Hydrogen out of heated water. The basic idea behind the technology is relatively simple: the tip of the metal coil is inserted into the Metal-Steam combustor together with water where it will be heated to very high temperatures. The metal atoms will bond to the Oxygen from the water, creating metal oxide. As a result, the Hydrogen molecules are free, and will be sent into the engine alongside the steam.
    The solid waste product of the process, in the form of metal oxide, will later be collected in the fuel station and recycled for further use by the metal industry.

    Refuelling the car based on this technology will also be remarkably simple. The vehicle will contain a mechanism for rolling the metal wire into a coil during the process of fuelling and the spent metal oxide, which was produced in the previous phase, will be collected from the car by vacuum suction. [...]

    Beside the obvious advantages of the system, such as the inexpensive and abundant fuel, the production of Hydrogen on-the-go and the zero emission engine, the system is also more efficient than other Hydrogen solutions. The main reason for this is the improved usage of heat (steam) inside the system that brings that overall performance level of the vehicle to that of a conventional car. [...]

    The move to Hydrogen based cars using Engineuity's technology will require only relatively minor changes from the car manufacturer's point of view. Since the modified engine can be produced using existing production lines, removing the need for investment in new infrastructures (the cost of which is estimated at billions of dollars), the new Hydrogen cars would not be more expensive.

    Possibly the most appealing aspect of the system is the running cost. According to [Engineuity], the overall running cost of the system should be equal to that of conventional cars today. [Emphasis added]

    Engineuity is at least three years away from a full-scale prototype, so it's hard to say if the car will live up to the company's claims, but it sure sounds like a promising idea. Stay tuned.

    Posted by Jonathan at 10:19 AM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    October 23, 2005

    Taiwan To Ignore Flu Drug Patent Disasters  Rights, Law  Science/Technology

    With a possible Avian flu epidemic in the offing, Taiwan says it's going to ignore the patent on an anti-flu drug and start producing the drug on its own. BBC:

    Taiwan has responded to bird flu fears by starting work on its own version of the anti-viral drug, Tamiflu, without waiting for the manufacturer's consent.

    Taiwan officials said they had applied for the right to copy the drug — but the priority was to protect the public.

    Tamiflu, made by Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche, cannot cure bird-flu but is widely seen as the best anti-viral drug to fight it, correspondents say. [...]

    Several countries have asked Roche for the right to make generic copies of Tamiflu. [...]

    "We have tried our best to negotiate with Roche," Su Ih-jen told Reuters news agency.

    "It means we have shown our goodwill to Roche and we appreciate their patent. But to protect our people is the utmost important thing," he said. [...]

    Officials say they can make their version of the drug more quickly — and at a lower cost — than Roche does. [My emphasis]

    Even if you love the idea of patents on medicines, wouldn't it make sense for patent law to include an exception to cover cases where the patent holder is unable or unwilling to produce a patented item quickly enough (and cheaply enough), when that item is essential to the public health? Especially when R&D on new drugs is so heavily underwritten by US taxpayers (through tax deductions and publicly funded research) and the pharmaceutical industry remains one of the world's most profitable industries? When the lives of millions of people are on the line?

    [Thanks Kent]

    Posted by Jonathan at 03:18 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    September 30, 2005

    Holy Sh*t! Science/Technology

    The most amazing thing I've ever read? Maybe. Wired News:

    Genetically altered mice discovered accidentally at the Wistar Institute in Pennsylvania have the seemingly miraculous ability to regenerate like a salamander, and even regrow vital organs.

    Researchers systematically amputated digits and damaged various organs of the mice, including the heart, liver and brain, most of which grew back.

    The results stunned scientists because if such regeneration is possible in this mammal, it might also be possible in humans.

    The researchers also made a remarkable second discovery: When cells from the regenerative mice were injected into normal mice, the normal mice adopted the ability to regenerate. And when the special mice bred with normal mice, their offspring inherited souped-up regeneration capabilities. [...]

    Heber-Katz discovered the strain in 1998 accidentally while working with mice altered genetically for studying autoimmune diseases.

    She had pierced holes in the ears of the genetically altered mice to distinguish them from a control group, but they healed quickly with no scarring.

    She and her colleagues wanted to find out what other parts of this strain of mice would grow back, so they snipped off the tip of a tail, severed a spinal cord, poked an eye and cauterized various internal organs.

    The incredible wound-healing they observed abruptly shifted the focus of Heber-Katz's lab's research from autoimmune disease to regenerative medicine. The researchers began hunting for the specific genes that gave the mice their special powers. They are focusing on three specific genes at the moment, but she suspects that many more likely contribute to the regenerative abilities. [...]

    If the results can be translated to humans, it would be a dream come true for people who want to live forever. [My emphasis]

    Stunning.

    To put it mildly.

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:38 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    September 22, 2005

    It Is Global Warming Environment  Science/Technology

    With Hurricane Katrina, and now Rita, there's been a lot of discussion about whether global warming is to blame. Hurricanes seem to be increasing in intensity. Are they? Is normal cyclical variation to blame, or is it something else? Is it global warming?

    An article by Webster et al in Science (link via The Oil Drum) looks at the annual percentage of hurricanes that are Category 4 or 5 hurricanes over the past 30 years and finds that the percentage has more than doubled, from about 16% in 1970-74 to about 36% in 2000-2004. More importantly, the percentage of hurricanes that are Category 4 or 5 has increased in all six ocean basins where hurricanes occur.

    North Atlantic cyclical effects are often cited to make the case that what we are seeing is normal cyclical variation. The fact that the increased intensity is seen everywhere, though, not just in the North Atlantic, indicates a global cause. The only known candidate for such a global cause is global warming.

    Steven Stoft, at zFacts, graphed the observed percentages of Category 4 or 5 storms from Webster's paper:

    Stoft did a statistical analysis as well to determine the probability that all six hurricane basins would trend similarly due to random chance. The odds are less than 1 in a thousand.

    Posted by Jonathan at 10:19 AM | Comments (3) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    August 27, 2005

    Say Cheese Activism  Media  Science/Technology

    As personal computers, the Internet, cell phones, and wireless networks have taught us, technologies that facilitate the capture, processing, and sharing of information can have enormous, profound global impact, impact that emerges in often unexpected ways from the uncoordinated actions of millions or billions of individuals.

    These kinds of effects are becoming ever more rapid and profound as the world becomes ever more networked. It may well be that the wired (or more appropriately, the wireless) world that is emerging is some unfathomable global entity that we can scarcely comprehend, just as the body is unfathomable to the cells that comprise it.

    Jamais Cascio of WorldChanging has written a fascinating — and more than a little unsettling — vision of a phenomenon that is only now getting underway. He calls it the Participatory Panopticon. It's a long piece, but I've tried to edit it down. It's worth reading and pondering. Excerpts:

    Soon — probably within the next decade, certainly within the next two — we'll be living in a world where what we see, what we hear, what we experience will be recorded wherever we go. There will be few statements or scenes that will go unnoticed, or unremembered. Our day to day lives will be archived and saved. What's more, these archives will be available over the net for recollection, analysis, even sharing.

    And we will be doing it to ourselves.

    This won't simply be a world of a single, governmental Big Brother watching over your shoulder, nor will it be a world of a handful of corporate siblings training their ever-vigilant security cameras and tags on you. Such monitoring may well exist, probably will, in fact, but it will be overwhelmed by the millions of cameras and recorders in the hands of millions of Little Brothers and Little Sisters. We will carry with us the tools of our own transparency, and many, perhaps most, will do so willingly, even happily. [...]

    This day is coming not because of some distant breakthrough or revolution. The breakthroughs are already happening. The revolution has already taken place. [...]

    You may not be aware of it, but the cameraphone in your pocket is the harbinger of a massive social transformation, one already underway.

    This transformation could be at least as big as the ones triggered by television and by computers... [...]

    Thousands of so-called "moblog" sites have sprung up, dedicated to cameraphone shots of whatever captures the photographer's eye at that moment. And increasingly, cameraphones can do more than just take still images. A growing number of cameraphones can record — and send — video clips. With so-called 3G networks, bandwidth is sufficient to send live webcam-style video from a mobile phone. [...]

    [E]arlier this year, the medical journal Archives of Dermatology ran a paper by the University Hospital of Geneva comparing the ability of dermatologists to diagnose skin ulcers by examining the patient in person with their ability to do so via cameraphone images. In the study, the diagnoses were identical in nearly every case, supporting the idea that cameraphones can be another tool for telemedicine in remote areas.

    A few universities and activist groups are experimenting with applications allowing cameraphones to read bar codes, functioning like mobile networked bar code scanners. Users can snap a photo of a bar code on a product and get back information from a variety of websites on whether the product was produced sustainably, whether the company making it behaved ethically, even whether there's a better price to be had at a different store.

    But the panopticon aspect is really most visible in the world of politics and activism. In the US, in last November's national election, a group calling itself "video vote vigil" asked citizens to keep a watch for polling place abuses and problems, recording them if possible with digital cameras or camera phones. In the UK, the delightfully-named "Blair Watch Project" was an effort, coordinated by the newspaper The Guardian, to keep tabs on Prime Minister Tony Blair as he campaigns around the country. The project was prompted by the Labour party's decision to limit Blair's media exposure on the trail; instead he was covered by more cameras than ever.

    Efforts such as these make it clear that every citizen with a cameraphone can be a reporter. Citizens can capture a politician's inadvertent gesture, quick glance or private frown, and make sure those images are seen around the world. The lack of traditional cameras snapping away can no longer be an opportunity for public figures to relax. All those running for office have to assume that their actions and words are being recorded, even if no cameras are evident, as long as citizens are present.

    This notion of individual citizens keeping a technological eye on the people in charge is referred to as "sousveillance", a recent neologism meaning "watching from below" — in comparison to "surveillance," meaning "watching from above." Proponents of the notion see it as an equalizer, making it possible for individual citizens to keep tabs on those in charge. For the sousveillance movement, if the question is "who watches the watchmen?" the answer is "all of us." [...]

    Things change when you can send your exposé over the Internet. Speed and breadth of access are the best ally for transparency, and the Internet has both in abundance. Once damning photos or video have been released onto the web, there's no bringing them back — efforts to do so are more likely to draw attention to them, in fact.

    These days, sousveillance can be summed up with just one image:

    [A]nyone, anywhere, with a digital camera and a network connection has enormous power, perhaps enough to alter the course of a war or to shake the policies of the most powerful nation on Earth. [...]

    Digital devices and network connections can allow individuals to bypass chains of command and control. [...]

    New York City police arrested nearly two thousand people during last year's Republican National Convention. Protestors were condemned by authorities for "rioting," "resisting arrest," and the like. The city provided video tapes to the press and to the courts taken by police officers that seemed to show protestors out of control. [...]

    But it turned out that the police weren't the only ones armed with video cameras. Citizen video efforts show people swept up without cause and without resistance. It's become increasingly clear that police officers misrepresented the events at trial, and that prosecutors selectively edited the official video record to prove their cases. According to the New York Times, of the nearly 1,700 cases processed by early April, 91 percent ended with charges dropped or a verdict of not guilty. A startlingly large number of them have involved citizen video showing clearly that the police and prosecutors were lying. [...]

    Video phones and higher-bandwidth networks will transform activism. The next time around, we'll see the transmission of dozens, hundreds, thousands of different views from marches and protests live over the web. [...]

    It's easy to alter images from a single camera. Somewhat less simple, but still quite possible, is the alteration of images from a few cameras, owned by different photographers or media outlets.

    But when you have images from dozens or hundreds or thousands of digital cameras and cameraphones, in the hands of citizen witnesses? At that point, I start siding with the pictures being real.

    Now it's all well and good to think about the value of always-networked personal cameras as a tool for sousveillance, for "watching the watchmen," but really: how often do we attend political rallies or visit military prisons? Cameraphones as tools of political action, while certainly important, will not in and of themselves lead to the participatory panopticon.

    Your spouse will.

    It's inevitable. You'll want to recall a casual mention of his favorite movie, or the name and year of the wine she loved so much, or what he *really* said in that argument. You'll want to be able to share the amazing flock of birds you saw on the way home from work, or the enthralling street musician you passed while shopping. In the past, all you could rely upon was imperfect memory and whatever descriptive skills you possess. Now, and increasingly as the technology progresses, these tools will make it possible to retain and share those moments with perfect clarity. [...]

    As we become more accustomed to using cameraphones to capture the fleeing and unexpected, the more they will become integrated into our social discourse and personal relationships.

    But the problem with the fleeting and unexpected is that, well, it's fleeting and it's unexpected. If you don't have your cameraphone out and at the ready, it's hard to capture those moments in full. [...]

    What' the answer?

    Get rid of the mobile phone. [...]

    It's likely that rather than carrying around your networked camera as a hand-held phone, you'll wear it, probably built into glasses. The phone would be built in, as well, perhaps evolved into a networked computer. Everything you say, whether to someone in front of you or over the phone, and everything you see, can be captured. The display can be shown on the inside of the glasses' lenses. [...]

    In their respective labs, HP, Microsoft and Nokia are all working on variations of this idea. [...]

    A bigger step comes from a company called DejaView.

    DejaView is now selling a hat or glasses-mounted camera and microphone system connected to a small portable PC. It constantly buffers the last 30 seconds of whatever you're looking at, and can save the buffer to permanent storage at the press of a button. In the few seconds it takes you to realize you're looking at bigfoot or may have just passed an old friend from high school, the moment may have passed irrevocably. But as long as it hasn't been more than 30 seconds, the DejaView device can save it to a hard drive, holding onto it for good. [...]

    These are the progenitors of what will amount to Tivos for your everyday life. You can think of them as personal memory assistants. [...]

    Wearable personal memory assistants will be linked to wireless networks, and for good reasons: to let others see what you're seeing (so that they can help you); to access greater computing power for image-recognition (including, eventually, facial-recognition routines so that you never forget a face); and for off-site storage of what you're recording, giving you far greater capacity than what you could have on-camera. [...]

    A company called Colossal Storage claims that they'll have 10 petabyte drives on the market before the decade is out. 10 petabytes is ten million gigabytes. You could store more than a year's worth of high quality digital video, plus high fidelity audio, plus assorted other data, in space like that.

    Nobody has put them all together yet. How long do you think it will take?

    Now if you're in the intellectual property business, you're probably squirming in your seat right now. If everyone (or near enough) wears some kind of video and audio capture device connected to the net, doesn't that mean that everyone will be making copies of the movies they see, songs they hear, articles they read?

    Yep.

    Now the obvious immediate response is "well, stop it!" ...and we'll undoubtedly see, initially at least, regulations demanding that people shut off their memory assistants while in movie theaters and such...[but] the more that people feel like these tools are extensions of themselves, the less they’ll want to have them restricted. [...]

    There are some deeply difficult user interface issues involved here. Recording everything is not the same as recalling something specific. It's a big question how you’ll be able to find the interesting stuff in your terabytes or petabytes of life archives. [...]

    We're constantly checking with each other for useful insights. You stumble across a new restaurant, and want to know if any of your friends or any of their friends have been there before. You learn about a new politician, and want to know if anyone you know has heard her speak. You meet a new guy, and want to know if someone in your circle has dated him before...[W]as it *that* restaurant that had the bug in the soup? Was it *that* politician saying something about prayer in schools? Was it *that* guy my sister dated and dumped for cheating?

    In a world of personal memory assistants and a participatory panopticon, those questions are answered.

    Tools for social networks will be the killer app of the participatory panopticon. Imagine layering a friendster or epinions on top of this, where comments can be given instantly, observations compared automatically. Or imagine layering a "collaborative filtering" setup, like the comment filters on Slashdot, or the product suggestions on Amazon.

    These tools will form the basis of a reputation network, a social networking system backed up by unimaginable amounts of recorded evidence and opinion. You look at the person across the subway car and the system recognizes her face, revealing to you that she just completed a business deal with a friend of yours. Or that she just met your cousin. Or that she's known to be a good kisser or a brilliant writer.

    Clearly, the world of the participatory panopticon is not one of strong privacy and personal secrecy. Paris Hilton is not going to be happy here. It's going to be hard to escape past mistakes. It's going to be easy to find unflattering pictures or insulting observations. [...]

    But the world of the participatory panopticon is not as interested in privacy, or even secrecy, as it is in lies. A police officer lying about hitting a protestor, a politician lying about human rights abuses, a potential new partner lying about past indiscretions — all of these are harder in a world where everything might be on the record. The participatory panopticon is a world where accusations can easily be documented, where corporations will become more transparent to stakeholders as a matter of course, where officials may even be required to wear a recorder while on duty, simply to avoid situations where they are discovered to have been lying. It's a world where we can all be witnesses with perfect recall. Ironically, it's a world where trust is easy, because lying is hard.

    But ask yourself: what would it really be like to have perfect memory? Relationships — business, casual or personal — are very often built on the consensual misrememberings of slights. Memories fade. Emotional wounds heal. The insult that seemed so important one day is soon gone. But personal memory assistants will allow people to play back what you really said, time and again, allow people to obsess over a momentary sneer or distracted gaze. Reputation networks will allow people to share those recordings, showing their friends (and their friends' friends, and so on) just how much of a cad you really are.

    In the world of the Participatory Panopticon, it's not just politicians concerned about inadvertent gestures, quick glances or private frowns. [...]

    [We cannot] avoid it by simply deciding not to take this particular technological path. This is not a world we can decide simply to adopt or to reject. As I've shown, many of the pieces are already here or will soon be in place; more will come about as a side-effect of otherwise attractive innovations. It's unlikely that someone will set out to build the participatory panopticon, but it's very likely it will emerge nonetheless. It will be the troubling and fascinating result of the combination of a multitude of useful tools and compelling utilities.

    Personal memory assistants, always on life recorders, reputation networks and so on — the pieces of the participatory panopticon — will thrust us into a world that is both painful and seductive. It will be a world of knowing that someone may always be recording your actions. It will be a world where official misbehavior will be ever more difficult to hide. It will be a world where your relationships are tested by relentless honesty. It will be a world where you will never worry about forgetting a name, or a number, or a face. It will be a world in which it is difficult or even impossible to hide. It will be a world where you'll never again lose a fleeting moment of unexpected beauty. [My emphasis]

    If everybody's watching, and recording, and sharing what they've recorded, we all may have no choice but to finally learn that honesty truly is the best policy. Lying will become increasingly impossible to sustain. And we'll have to learn humility as well. Nobody's perfect — and now everybody's going to have proof. No point pretending.

    In twelve-step recovery programs they talk about taking a fearless personal inventory, a clear-eyed look at the ways one has deceived others and oneself. In Cascio's world, our personal inventory will all be out there on the network. Denial's going to be tough.

    What will be the impact on our collective psyche as truthfulness becomes a necessary virtue? The typical politician's tactic of making nothing but plain vanilla utterances may well come to be rejected as a form of disguised lying, as an all-to-obvious attempt to escape the pervasive scrutiny that the rest of us are all having to live with. People may just have to start coming clean. One can hope.

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:14 PM | Comments (3) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    August 23, 2005

    Now For Some Good News Science/Technology

    WorldChanging should be on your list of frequently visited sites. Especially if you've been wondering, "So what's the good news?" Here are a couple of their items from today.

    Kid Energy:

    South Africa's Roundabout has devised a way to harness the energy generated by kids playing (ingenious in itself), as they spin on an outdoor merry-go-round. Carrying water several kilometres per day results in hours of lost employment, and widespread use of poor-quality water; this is a win-win alternative... "The children push the merry-go-round again and again. As they run, a device in the ground beneath them begins to turn. With every rotation of the merry-go-round, water is pumped out of a well, up through a pipe, and into a tank high above the playground. A few feet away from all the fun, students in uniform turn on a tap. Clean, cold drinking water pours out."

    How cool is that?

    And, Zinc — a Silver Bullet? (excerpt):

    Childhood diarrhoea kills roughly 2 million children under age 5 each year. Pneumonia kills an additional 2 million. A recent study in The Lancet suggests that there's a simple, inexpensive technique that could radically reduce deaths due to these diseases: weekly doses of zinc.

    Bangladeshi doctors recruited 1600 poor, urban children between two and twelve months old; half received a weekly 70mg dose of zinc, the others, a placebo. Of the 800 infants receiving a placebo, over the course of 10 months, 14 died of diarrhoea and 10 of pneumonia; in the group receiving zinc, two died of diarrhoea and none of pnuemonia.

    What's it cost? Two cents a week, per child.

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:32 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    August 19, 2005

    Bringing African "Megafauna" To North America's Great Plains Environment  Science/Technology

    You may have seen various news stories in the past few days about a proposal to bring a variety of large African mammal species, including elephants, camels, and even cheetahs and lions, to live in the wild in the Great Plains of North America. The intent would be both to preserve species that are threatened by extinction in Africa and to restore a level of North American biodiversity that's been missing since the arrival of humans here some 10,000 years ago.

    I must confess my initial reaction was that the idea was a bit daft. It seemed likely we'd end up like the old lady who swallowed a fly: introduction of alien species would have side-effects that would necessitate further interventions, which would have new, more serious side-effects, etc. At the very least, the African species could bring with them diseases and parasites for which native North American species lack resistance. The scientists making the proposal, however, have thought through many of the likely objections (BBC):

    "If we only have 10 minutes to present this idea, people think we're nuts," said Harry Greene, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University, US.

    "But if people hear the one-hour version, they realise they haven't thought about this as much as we have."

    For one thing, the whole process would be undertaken very slowly and gradually, in tiny, controlled increments.

    Jamais Cascio at WorldChanging has a beautiful post up that discusses some of the deeper aspects of the proposal. As he points out, there's more at stake than preservation of the African species themselves (not a small thing). Introduction of the new species could have profound benefits for the Great Plains ecosystem as a whole, helping to keep it from degenerating into a "pest and weed" ecosystem.

    I suggest you read Cascio's whole post, but I want to focus particularly on one remarkable aspect. Recent posts here at Past Peak have pointed to the deeply disturbing news that the Siberian permafrost is melting, threatening to release into the atmosphere tens or even hundreds of billions of tons of methane, a greenhouse gas some twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide. In light of that news, this passage from WorldChanging is particularly striking:

    As startling as this proposal is, a North American "Pleistocene Park" would not be the first one, if it happens. Russia is well on its way to the re-introduction of animals in an ecosystem once dominated by Mammoth. While Elephants would not be part of this process, musk oxen initially and then Canadian bison would take on the role of the Mammoth; eventually Siberian Tigers would be imported to fill the predator niche. Interestingly, all of this would have a positive effect on the danger of melting permafrost.
    Northern Siberia will influence the character of global climate change. If greenhouse gas-induced warming continues, the permafrost will melt. At present, the frozen soils lock up a vast store of organic carbon. [...] As soon as the ice melts and the soil thaws, microbes will begin converting this long-sequestered soil carbon into carbon dioxide under aerobic conditions or into methane under anaerobic conditions. The release of these gases will only exacerbate and accelerate the greenhouse effect. Preventing this scenario from happening could be facilitated by restoring Pleistocene-like conditions in which grasses and their root systems stabilize the soil. The albedo — or ability to reflect incoming sunlight skyward — of such ecosystems is high, so warming from solar radiation also is reduced. And with lots of herbivores present, much of the wintertime snow would be trampled, exposing the ground to colder temperatures that prevent ice from melting. All of this suggests that reconstructed grassland ecosystems, such as the ones we are working on in Pleistocene Park, could prevent permafrost from thawing and thereby mitigate some negative consequences of climate warming.

    It's a dramatic vision. [My emphasis]

    How extraordinary. Introduction of large mammals may help prevent the melting of the permafrost. Such a beautifully unexpected beneficial consequence. It is reminiscent of this post regarding the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone.

    Cascio closes with an irresistibly lyrical vision:

    And who knows? Maybe at some point decades from now, people traveling cross-country may be excited to catch a glimpse of a herd of Elephants off in the distance, and thrill to the knowledge that Lions aren't just found in the zoo.

    Imagine such a moment — catching a glimpse of a distant herd of elephants grazing in the wild in Wyoming, say, or Nebraska. It would be like that moment in Jurassic Park when the paleontologists first catch sight of living dinosaurs. It would be magical.

    Compare that to what it would feel like to live on an Earth where many of the large mammals of Africa have gone extinct, never to be seen again, knowing that humans could have prevented it, but didn't.

    Posted by Jonathan at 03:31 PM | Comments (4) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    August 18, 2005

    Now For Some Good News: LifeStraw Science/Technology

    More than a billion human beings lack access to clean drinking water. All too often, the West's response has been to propose huge, multi-billion dollar water treatment projects (requiring lots of electricity, spare parts, and engineering and management expertise, not to mention money) that are wildly inappropriate for the countries in question.

    Small is beautiful, as E. F. Schumacher wrote. Here's a beautifully small solution to the problem of clean drinking water: a straw that purifies water as it's sucked through the straw. Cost: about $2 a year, per person. As Gizmag says, it could be the invention of the century. Excerpt:

    More than one billion people — one sixth of the world’s population — are without access to safe water supply. At any given moment, about half of the world's poor are suffering from waterborne diseases, of which over 6,000 — mainly children — die each day by consuming unsafe drinking water. The world's most prolific killer...is diarrhoeal disease from bacteria like typhoid, cholera, e. coli, salmonella and many others. [...]

    The aptly-named LifeStraw is an invention that could become one of the greatest life-savers in history. It is a 25 cm long, 29 mm diameter, plastic pipe filter and purchased singly, costs around US2.00. [...]

    LifeStraw is a personal, low-cost water purification tool with a life time of 700 litres — approximately one year of water consumption for one person. Positive test results have been achieved on tap, turbid and saline water against common waterborne bacteria such as Salmonella, Shigella, Enterococcus and Staphylococcus. [My emphasis]

    According to MedGadget, water purified using the LifeStraw, which is "composed of two textile filters, followed by a chamber with beads impregnated with iodine", has fewer bacteria "than tap water in many developed countries."

    This is exactly the kind of solution the world needs for any number of its problems: small-scale, decentralized, portable, inexpensive, and simple. A true 21st-century solution.

    Posted by Jonathan at 03:41 PM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    August 12, 2005

    Future Shock Science/Technology

    Whoa!!

    Check out these new bicycles coming from Specialized. Even if you don't ride a bike, I think you'll want to take a look. Be sure to scroll down.

    [Thanks, Kent]

    Posted by Jonathan at 11:01 AM | Comments (3) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    August 05, 2005

    Friday Afternoon Fun Humor & Fun  Science/Technology

    Take a break, it's Friday. Go here and check out these amazing optical illusions. Simply stunning. We think seeing is believing, without realizing how much our brains pre-condition our "raw" perceptions.

    More Friday fun: an inventory of possible ways to destroy the Earth. (Not just ruin it, but blast it to smithereens.) A whole lot funnier — and more interesting — than it sounds. Had me laughing out loud.

    TGIF.

    [Thanks, Kent]

    Posted by Jonathan at 04:42 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    The Wolves Return To Yellowstone Environment  Science/Technology

    For 70 years, there were no wolves in Yellowstone. A decade ago, a single mated pair of wolves were reintroduced into the park. From Orion (link via WorldChanging) comes a fascinating and beautiful account of the profound, outwardly-rippling effects of the wolves' return. Excerpt:

    There is color in the land again. How can the crimson blood of elk in the snow release a bluebird? How can black and silver wolves combine, like pigment, to unleash a new surge of yellow warblers and brilliant tanagers back into a landscape long absent such threads, such an abundance of colors?

    Upon the wolves' return, so sudden was the transformation, so quick the reparations, that it seemed a marvel that the landscape — brittle and fractured as it had become in the absence of even that one species — had been able to hold together as well as it had for those seventy or so years. [...]

    In the ten years since the wolves have been back they have reshaped huge sections of an awkwardly leaning ecosystem, one which in many places we did not even recognize as leaning, as if a homeowner were to summon an ornamental landscaping service only to have the workers discover termites in the house's walls and a crumbling foundation. And also as if the landscapers held the key to renewing the building itself.

    By pruning the wildly excessive elk numbers, and by forcing the elk to be elk again, the Yellowstone wolves kept the elk herds on the move, allowing overgrazed riparian areas to recover. The elk were no longer encamping in any one spot like feedlot animals, and the restored riverbanks served as nesting and feeding habitat for songbirds of different hues. Blink, and a howl equals the color yellow.

    Now, the elk are not living as long. Their trophic capacity — vessels of sunlight, vessels of grass-meat — is being redistributed with greater alacrity, greater vitality, throughout the Yellowstone ecosystem; there is greater turnover in the mortality game upon which wild nature, and what we think of as a healthier nature, relies so powerfully.

    Where previously the overcrowded and static elk and deer herds conspired to keep stands of aspen from regenerating, browsing with sharp teeth any and all young aspen suckers as soon as they emerged, the beautiful groves of aspen, snow-white bark and quivering gold leaves in the fall, are now prospering, flaring back up on the landscape like so many tens of thousands of autumn-lit candles. Entire mountain ranges are ultimately being painted anew — more color, more vitality, more light — by the arrival of, initially, a mated pair of wolves, an alpha male and female, followed by the next wave of other wolves, new wolves.

    Certainly the renewal of the aspen, and of streamside deciduous trees that had previously been repressed by the overabundance of elk — willow, cottonwood, ninebark, chokecherry — is not limited to showcase-only values of painterly aesthetics. As in all of wild nature, there is function everywhere — purpose, meaning, and a sophistication beyond our wildest dreams. Cerulean, sapphire, bordeaux, jade — the return of deciduous saplings to the hoof-cut, denuded riverbanks once abused by too many elk has been good for more than songbirds and artists. Beavers, too, have prospered, able now to access their requisite building and feeding materials without needing to venture so far into dangerous territory. This has resulted in the return of more backwater ponds and pools and eddies, the filtering and life-support systems for so much other river life, and provided a greater distribution of nutrients in the shallow sloughs that back up and create gentle floods behind the beaver dams. In these shallow areas of submersion young cottonwoods prosper — more flame color, and more beaver habitat. [My emphasis]

    An extraordinary glimpse into the unfathomably deep and delicate interconnections among all living things. Modern industrial humans tend to view life one-dimensionally — Vandana Shiva's Monocultures of the Mind — and so we thoughtlessly pull on one thread of the tapestry, not realizing what our ancestors once knew in their bones: that by so doing we may cause the whole thing to unravel.

    [Thanks, Kent]

    Posted by Jonathan at 10:48 AM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    August 04, 2005

    The Pathetic Truth About SUV-Driving, War-Supporting, Homophobic Men Science/Technology

    From researchers at Cornell, scientific proof that men are pinheads. From LiveScience (via Digby):

    Men whose masculinity is challenged become more inclined to support war or buy an SUV, a new study finds.

    Their attitudes against gays change, too.

    Cornell University researcher Robb Willer used a survey to sample undergraduates. Participants were randomly assigned feedback that indicated their responses were either masculine of feminine.

    The women had no discernible reaction to either type of feedback in a follow-up survey.

    But the guys' reactions were "strongly affected," Willer said today.

    "I found that if you made men more insecure about their masculinity, they displayed more homophobic attitudes, tended to support the Iraq war more and would be more willing to purchase an SUV over another type of vehicle," said Willer said. "There were no increases [in desire] for other types of cars."

    Those who had their masculinity threatened also said they felt more ashamed, guilty, upset and hostile than those whose masculinity was confirmed, he said. [My emphasis]

    So the next guy you see driving a big SUV with a Bush bumper sticker — well, you'll know what to think. Meanwhile, don't you think it's time women get a shot at running things?

    Posted by Jonathan at 09:46 PM | Comments (4) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    August 03, 2005

    Unprecedented Weirdness Along Pacific Coast Environment  Science/Technology

    Weird things are happening along the Pacific coast. AP:

    Marine biologists are seeing mysterious and disturbing things along the Pacific Coast this year: higher water temperatures, plummeting catches of fish, lots of dead birds on the beaches, and perhaps most worrisome, very little plankton — the tiny organisms that are a vital link in the ocean food chain. [...]

    Few scientists are willing to blame global warming, the theory that carbon dioxide and other manmade emissions are trapping heat in the Earth's atmosphere and causing a worldwide rise in temperatures. Yet few are willing to rule it out. [...]

    This much is known: From California to British Columbia, unusual weather patterns have disrupted the marine ecosystem.

    Normally, in the spring and summer, winds blow south along the Pacific Coast and push warmer surface waters away from shore. That allows colder, nutrient-rich water to well up from the bottom of the sea and feed microscopic plants called phytoplankton.

    Phytoplankton are then eaten by zooplankton, tiny marine animals that include shrimp-like crustaceans called krill. Zooplankton, in turn, are eaten by seabirds and by fish and marine animals ranging from sardines to whales.

    But this year, the winds have been unusually weak, failing to generate much upwelling and reducing the amount of phytoplankton.

    Off Oregon, for example, the waters near the shore are 5 to 7 degrees warmer than normal and have yielded about one-fourth the usual amount of phytoplankton, said Bill Peterson, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Newport, Oregon.

    "The bottom has fallen out of the coastal food chain, and there's just not enough food out there," said Julia Parrish, a seabird ecologist at the University of Washington in Seattle.

    Seabirds are clearly distressed. On the Farallon Islands west of San Francisco, researchers this spring noted a steep decrease in nesting cormorants and a 90 percent drop in Cassin's auklets — the worst in more than 35 years of monitoring.

    On Washington state's Tatoosh Island, common murres — a species so sensitive to disruptions that scientists consider it a harbinger of ecological change — started breeding nearly a month late. It was the longest delay in 15 years of monitoring.

    Researchers have also reported a sharp increase in dead birds washing up in California, Oregon and Washington.

    Along Monterey Bay in Central California, there are four times the usual number of dead seabirds, said Hannah Nevins, a scientist at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories. [...]

    Fish appear to be feeling the effects, too. NOAA found a 20 percent to 30 percent drop in juvenile salmon off the coasts of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia in June and July, compared with the average over the previous six years.

    And researchers counted the lowest number of juvenile rockfish in more than 20 years of monitoring in Central and Northern California. Fewer than 100 were caught between San Luis Obispo and Fort Bragg this year, compared with several thousand last year.

    Scientists have seen some of these strange happenings before during El Nino years, when higher water surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific alter weather patterns worldwide. But the West Coast has not had El Nino conditions this year. [My emphasis]

    The most disconcerting thing about these effects is their suddenness. Some climate models have predicted that global warming could, by disrupting ocean currents that are fundamental drivers of world climate, produce very sudden large-scale effects: on the scale of years, not decades or centuries. If this is happening already, we may be in for a wild ride.

    Posted by Jonathan at 08:28 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    Study: Hurricanes Rapidly Growing More Powerful Environment  Science/Technology

    One of the predictions of global warming climate models is that storms will become more frequent and more powerful. A new study of Atlantic hurricanes finds that hurricanes are doing exactly that, and quickly. Miami Herald:

    The accumulated power of Atlantic hurricanes has more than doubled in the past 30 years, with a particularly dramatic spike since 1995, and global warming likely is a major cause, according to a study to be published this week.

    Though a connection between global warming and hurricane ferocity might seem logical, the report by a reputable climatologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is the first to draw a statistical relationship between the two.

    "The large upswing in the last decade is unprecedented and probably reflects the effect of global warming," scientist Kerry Emanuel wrote in a study that will appear in the Thursday edition of the journal Nature. Copies of the article were made available Sunday. [...]

    "My results suggest that future warming may lead to an upward trend in tropical cyclone destructive potential and — taking into account an increasing coastal population — a substantial increase in hurricane-related losses in the 21st century," Emanuel wrote.

    He said his analysis of wind-speed reports by the National Hurricane Center and other sources show that the accumulated power of hurricanes in the Atlantic basin, which includes the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, has more than doubled since 1970.

    A particularly steep increase began in 1995, according to the study.

    "This large increase in power dissipation over the past 30 years or so may be because storms have become more intense, on the average, and/or have survived at high intensity for longer periods of time," he wrote.

    Emanuel said the trend is closely linked to an increase of about one degree in the average ocean surface temperature, which might not seem significant but can be crucial.

    "It sounds like a small amount, but we know that as waters get even a little bit warmer, the potential exists for hurricanes to get dramatically stronger," said Chris Landsea, an NOAA scientist on Virginia Key and one of the nation's leading hurricane researchers. [...]

    In October 2004, Tom Knutson, a hurricane researcher at the government's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, N.J., told The Herald he had noticed persistently high water temperatures in the main hurricane production zone of the Atlantic.

    "The latest 10-year average is warmer than anything else in the record" dating to 1870, he said. "More research is needed to try to figure out how much of this is attributed to natural fluctuations and whether any of it is related to a broad-scale, global warming factor." [My emphasis]

    No single study can provide the smoking gun that links changes in weather and climate to human-caused changes in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, but the evidence continues to pile up, piece by piece by piece.

    Posted by Jonathan at 08:05 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    July 29, 2005

    NASA Wasn't Required To Fix Foam Problem Science/Technology

    I don't know about you, but I certainly had the impression that NASA had used the two years between the Columbia disaster and Tuesday's launch of the Discovery to fix the problem of pieces of foam breaking away during launch. According to today's LA Times, though, NASA really didn't even try to fix the problem. Excerpt:

    [NASA's] finding that large pieces of foam fell off the shuttle Discovery's external fuel tank during Tuesday's launch shows that the space agency has failed to solve the cause of the Columbia accident that killed seven astronauts on their return voyage in February 2003.

    In the months after the Columbia disaster, NASA learned that foam debris falling off the external tank damaged the sensitive thermal protection system on the orbiter. Columbia burned up over Texas when superheated gases penetrated its wing. NASA then spent more than two years and $1.4 billion trying to improve safety.

    However, the recommendations made by Columbia's accident investigators did not force NASA to confront the problem head-on. The board told the space agency to "initiate" a program to eliminate foam debris and "initiate" a program to strengthen the orbiter's thermal protection system, but it did not make NASA adopt a 100% fix to either system.

    It also appears that in 2003, NASA rejected efforts by outside experts who proposed comprehensive fixes to the foam problem, because the proposals required aggressive redesigns or advanced foam technology that might have required significant investments.

    The path NASA took instead was to fix, at limited cost, an old launch system that it planned to get rid of by the end of the decade.

    Retired Navy Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., chairman of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, acknowledged Thursday that the recommendations to NASA left open a window that would have allowed the same scenario of foam debris falling off and damaging the orbiter's thermal protection system.

    "We had precious little faith that they could stop this stuff from coming off," Gehman said in an interview. "And lo and behold, they couldn't." [...]

    John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and another member of the Columbia board, acknowledged that he thought the board should have issued a tougher recommendation on fixing the foam.

    "Could we have been tougher? Hindsight is wonderful," Logsdon said. "We put together a set of recommendations that provided a context in which the shuttle program could move forward. They had budget and schedule constraints."

    Even NASA officials acknowledged that they erred. "We decided it was safe to fly as is. Obviously, we were wrong," Bill Parsons, manager of the shuttle program, said Wednesday.

    Instead of fixing the debris problem, the board focused many recommendations on allowing astronauts to survive such a foam strike. It required advanced photography of the launches to determine whether debris damaged the orbiter, a capability to repair wings in space and a rescue plan in case astronauts were marooned in orbit.

    While such measures might save the lives of astronauts, they would not save the space program from a debilitating loss of another shuttle or a delay in launches, as it is now facing. NASA officials say they do not know how long it will take to fix the new foam problems or how it could affect the future of the space program. Until those solutions are in hand, the shuttles are not supposed to fly. [My emphasis]

    I'm certainly in no position to judge whether NASA made a reasonable engineering decision, but it sure sounds like they took a hell of a risk. And then there's AP's report that the Discovery mission's commander thought the foam problem had been fixed. Excerpt:

    Discovery Commander Eileen Collins said from orbit Friday that she was surprised to learn a large piece of foam broke from the shuttle's external tank despite years of work to prevent such shedding in the wake of the Columbia tragedy.

    However, Collins said she's confident Discovery, which unlike Columbia wasn't hit by the large piece of foam, will get her crew home safely.

    "Personally, I did not expect any large pieces of foam to fall off the external tank," the commander said during her first interviews from space Friday morning. "I thought we had that licked."

    Collins and astronaut Andy Thomas described the setback to the program as a disappointment, but said they believe the problem must and can be fixed.

    "I don't think we should fly again unless we do something to prevent this from happening again," Collins said. [My emphasis]

    I wouldn't want to be an engineer at NASA right now.

    Posted by Jonathan at 04:24 PM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    July 25, 2005

    Global Warming And Vicious Circles Environment  Science/Technology

    Global warming may trigger various kinds of feedback loops ("vicious circles") that intensify and accelerate global warming's effects. Some of these feedback loops will be fed by human efforts to allay the harmful effects of warming. I.e., in trying to make things better, we may just make them worse. For a particularly alarming example, see this recent post.

    Here's a new example. As plants "breathe" they take carbon dioxide from the air and release oxygen back into it. Researchers looking at the genetic basis of plant respiration say that rising temperatures will cause plants to "breathe" more slowly:

    The pores on the surface of plant leaves, called stomata, function like little mouths that open and close in response to cues such as light, temperature, and water availability. [...]

    In hot temperatures, plants keep their mouths "shut" longer than usual, to avoid losing gases and water through evaporation. However, they must open their stomata at some point, both to pick up carbon dioxide needed for photosynthesis and to release oxygen back into the atmosphere. This new information will be important to plant breeders looking to improve crop resistance to drought, as well as to those seeking to understand plants' evolutionary responses to climate...

    "These genes are of paramount importance. They allow plants to adapt to changes in light, carbon and water availability. Ultimately, they shape the flux of carbon and water throughout entire ecosystems and affect the carbon cycle on a global-scale."

    The researchers have discovered a gene that plays a role in regulating plant respiration. Such genes will make it possible to genetically engineer plants that better withstand droughts caused by global warming.

    That's the good news. The bad news, as Jamais Cascio notes at WorldChanging, is that when plants slow their respiration in response to rising temperatures, they will remove less carbon from the atmosphere, and that, in turn, will accelerate global warming. A vicious circle. People will only exacerbate the effect by genetically engineering drought-resistant plants that respire even more slowly. Cascio:

    The article indicates that, as drought conditions worsen, plants "breathe" less in order to maintain internal moisture. But when plants breathe less, that means that they take less CO2 out of the atmosphere. This means that droughts decrease the carbon sequestration action of affected plants and engineered adaptations to enhance that resistance would very likely further decrease sequestration in plants. This, in turn, would slow the recovery of the atmosphere to pre-disruption conditions.

    That humans will react to global warming is a given. For example, as temperatures rise, people will use more air-conditioning, thereby consuming more energy and releasing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere: a vicious circle. How many more such vicious circles wait to surprise us remains to be seen. Meanwhile, it's full steam ahead toward the icebergs.

    [Thanks, Kent]

    Posted by Jonathan at 09:28 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    July 18, 2005

    Sustainable Ethanol Production From Plant Biomass Energy  Environment  Peak Oil  Science/Technology

    A recent post looked at the net energy loss involved in producing ethanol the way it's currently done in the US: by raising corn or other crops for the purpose of turning them into ethanol. This practice has a variety of drawbacks that make it a net loser in energy and environmental terms. For one thing, a great deal of fossil fuel is expended in growing and processing the corn, so the energy used up in manufacturing the ethanol is greater than what you get out when you burn it. You'd have been better off just burning the fossil fuels directly. For another thing, the expenditure of fossil fuels in manufacturing the ethanol produces a net increase in the CO2 emissions into the air. The upshot is that this kind of commercial ethanol production is just making things worse.

    That's the bad news. Here's some good news.

    A Canadian called Iogen (link via Xymphora) is pioneering a process that produces ethanol not from grains but from cellulose fibre that's generated as a waste by-product of agriculture (plant stalks, and so on). Cellulose is the most abundant organic molecule on the planet.

    The manufacturing process uses enzymes to break down (digest) the cellulose, producing sugars which are then fermented and distilled to produce ethanol. Since enzymes are used rather than fossil fuel inputs as in the usual commerical manufacturing process, no net CO2 emissions are produced. (I.e., the carbon in the plants is carbon that was taken out of the air. It is returned to the air when the ethanol is burned, but it's recycled carbon, not new carbon dug up in the form of petroleum or coal.)

    Also, since the cellulose is a non-food, waste by-product, extra energy is not being expended to produce it (i.e., it's already part of the normal cycle of food production) and it's not competing with food production for humans and livestock. Some energy is used to transport the cellulose for processing, but by locating processing close to where the cellulose is produced, that energy usage could be minimized.

    Iogen doesn't say what the net energy gain is, but they say the process has "a high level of sustainability". Here's more from Iogen's website:

    While cellulose ethanol, and conventional (grain derived) ethanol are the same final product that can easily be integrated into the existing fuel distribution system, they have several distinct differences. Conventional fuel ethanol is derived from grains such as corn and wheat.

    Cellulose ethanol, on the other hand, is an advanced new transport fuel with a unique combination of attributes. These include:

  • low life-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions;
  • a high level of sustainability;
  • made from the non-food portion of renewable feedstocks such as cereal straws and corn stover;
  • has the potential to have a large-scale, world-wide impact.

    Cellulose ethanol is also a cost-efficient way to reduce GHGs and gasoline use in transport, especially when compared to vehicle solutions. As a result, advanced new transport fuels and vehicle technologies are equally effective in addressing the market to reduce GHG emissions.

    Cellulose ethanol, and conventional (grain derived) ethanol are the same final product, but the production technologies are very different. The two types of ethanol also differ in the following ways:

    a) the manufacturing process does not consume fossil fuels, but rather uses plant byproducts to create the energy to run the process (this leads to a net zero greenhouse gas emissions profile),

    b) the technology is new and emerging and has only recently become practical, and

    c) the raw material does not compete as a food source for humans and is available today based upon existing farm practices.

    The agricultural industry produces vast amounts of [cellulose] residue that has little use today. Most is burned or some is left on the land to enrich the soil. The practice of burning has become a major environmental issue and many governments have established guidelines as to when burns can take place, or have banned burning altogether.

    Until recently, producing cellulose ethanol has been very costly because of the expensive and inefficient bioprocesses required to produce it. Recent innovations in both biotechnology and process technology have made large-scale cellulose ethanol production a reality.

    EcoEthanol™ is the patented name of Iogen’s cellulose ethanol process. The process uses an enzyme hydrolysis to convert the cellulose in agriculture residues into sugars. These sugars are fermented and distilled into ethanol fuel using conventional ethanol distillation technology.

    Commercial cellulose ethanol production facilities will be located in feedstock producing areas, and will provide a solution for the surplus residue, while at the same time, create substantial economic opportunities in these rural areas. [My emphasis]

  • Currently, Iogen only has a test plant in operation. They are seeking investors to build the first large-scale plant.

    I've mentioned before that biotechnology (and, eventually, nanotechnology) could be the wildcards in our energy future. Iogen's process is an early example, where biotechnology has been harnessed in the development and manufacture of the enzymes that break down the cellulose.

    Note also that since ethanol is already being used in vehicle fuels, no new distribution infrastructure has to be created.

    Another interesting point from Iogen's site: they have a graph that compares how much various solutions cost per litre of gas saved, amortized over five years — in other words, the cost-effectiveness, or bang for the buck, of various ways to save gas. Check it out. According to their data, cellulose ethanol is a clear winner over things like hybrid engines, and it doesn't require the replacement of the currently-existing fleet of cars. Interestingly, reducing aerodynamic drag turns out to be the most cost-effective gas-saving method of all the ones they looked at.

    This technology is in its infancy, and an enormous amount of investment will be required to ramp it up to a globally-significant scale. But it is also a technology that can be employed in the relatively near term in smaller-scale, decentralized, local solutions by communities making the commitment to sustainability. It is a hopeful sign at a time when hopeful signs are much needed.

    Posted by Jonathan at 01:40 PM | Comments (5) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    June 16, 2005

    The Cancer Cure That's Not A Drug Science/Technology

    Health journalist Bill Sardi has a fascinating article at LewRockwell.com. According to Sardi, an extract of rice bran known as IP6 has been shown to be an effective anti-tumor agent that is natural, non-toxic, and cheap. It works by depriving tumor cells of iron, without removing iron from red blood cells. Excerpts:

    Given that tumor cells utilize iron as a primary growth factor, cancer researchers are searching for a drug that would be able to attach to (chelate) iron molecules and remove them from the body, thus producing an effective anti-cancer drug. [...]

    Nature's most effective iron-chelating molecule is inositol hexaphosphate (IP6), found naturally in seeds and bran. IP6 is a selective agent against cancer cells. Because cancer cells are high in iron content, IP6 directs most of its attention to abnormal cells. IP6 selectively removes iron from tumors cells, which deprives them of their primary growth factor. IP6 does not remove iron from red blood cells which are tightly bound to hemoglobin. Unlike cancer drugs, healthy cells are not affected with IP6, so IP6 has very low toxicity.

    There have been numerous lab dish and animal studies that conclusively prove IP6 is an effective and non-toxic anti-cancer molecule. But the National Cancer Institute has never seen fit to conduct a human trial even though IP6 made it on a list of promising anti-cancer agents.

    Read the full article for further details and numerous citations from scientific and medical journals.

    If the claims are true, then IP6 is a perfect example of why it's dangerous to turn medicine into an exercise in maximizing profits: natural agents that are cheap and cannot be patented will never receive the backing required to take them into the mainstream.

    Posted by Jonathan at 12:37 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    May 19, 2005

    Cell Phone Cancer Link Stronger For Rural Users Science/Technology

    A new study supports the hypothesis of a link between cell phone usage and brain cancers. It finds that the link is much stronger for rural users of digital phones. The Independent:

    People who use mobile phones regularly in rural areas are three times more likely than city dwellers to suffer from brain tumours, a study has found. Scientists believe that rural users of mobile phones receive relatively large doses of microwave radiation from their handsets to compensate for the fact that base stations in the countryside are further apart than in the city.

    The findings are based on a sample of 1,400 patients with brain cancer who were compared against a further 1,400 healthy people who had also been interviewed about their use of mobile phones. [...]

    Professor Lennart Hardell, a cancer specialist at the University Hospital of Orebro in Sweden, said the results of the study...pointed to a link between the dose of microwave radiation from a mobile [phone] and the risk of developing brain tumours.

    "It's another piece of evidence, but of course we have to wait for further studies. This is a further step indicating that there is probably a problem and people should use the precautionary principle to limit their use of mobile phones, especially for children," Professor Lennart said. [...]

    The scientists found no link between the probability of developing a tumour and the time spent on the phone, but they did find a link between the risk of brain cancer and place of residence — rural or urban.

    Residents of rural areas who had been using a mobile digital phone for more than three years were three times more likely to be diagnosed with a brain tumour than those living in urban areas.

    For those rural residents who had used a mobile digital phone for five years or more, the risk quadrupled compared to city dwellers. Yet the scientists found no such increased risk when they looked at older, analogue mobile phones.

    Professor Hardell suggested the reason was that digital phones use a system called adaptive power control, which automatically boosts the power output of the handset signals when base stations are located farther away. [My emphasis]

    Anybody who uses a digital cell phone in a rural setting, especially, might want to start using a headset, rather than holding the phone to his/her ear. My rural friends, please take note!

    Posted by Jonathan at 02:29 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    May 18, 2005

    Clean Water From Clay, Coffee Grounds, And Cow Manure Environment  Science/Technology

    This is extremely cool. In much of the Third World, lack of clean drinking water is a cause of widespread disease. Now, an Australian scientist named Tony Flynn has shown that effective water filters can be created by hand from terracotta clay, coffee grounds, and cow manure. In tests, the filters removed between 94.6 and 99.8 per cent of E-coli bacteria from water. From a summary at treehugger.com:

    "They are very simple to explain and demonstrate and can be made by anyone, anywhere," says Mr Flynn. "They don't require any western technology. All you need is terracotta clay, a compliant cow and a match." The production of the filters is extremely simple. Take a handful of dry, crushed clay, mix it with a handful of organic material, such as used tea leaves, coffee grounds or rice hull, add enough water to make a stiff biscuit-like mixture and form a cylindrical pot that has one end closed, then dry it in the sun. According to Mr Flynn, used coffee grounds have given the best results to date. Next, surround the pots with straw, put them in a mound of cow manure, light the straw and then top up the burning manure as required. The manure makes a good fuel because it is very high in organic material that burns readily and quickly.

    In an interview with Radio Australia, Flynn explained how the filter works:

    [I]n the case of the addition of coffee grounds to the local clay, it does a couple of things. First of all it greatly increases the total volume of the tiny holes or pores within the filter structure and when it's fired...in the manure mound, the heat burns the coffee out, leaving the holes but which also contain small fractions of silica that aren't combustible and are a result of the combustion of the combustible fraction of the coffee grounds. Now these small voids or holes in conjunction with their silica content and the network of tiny holes that are joined in three dimensions within the clay particle mass, act as the filter structure and they are small enough to allow the simultaneous passage of water through them, while equally being small enough to remove bacteria that we tested for — in this case E-coli.

    This is the kind of ingenuity that's going to save the world.

    [Thanks, Kent]

    Posted by Jonathan at 12:35 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    May 10, 2005

    Junk Science Environment  Science/Technology

    On April 16th, New Scientist published a letter from famed British botanist David Bellamy. Bellamy claimed that many of the world's glaciers "are not shrinking but in fact are growing. ... 555 of all the 625 glaciers under observation by the World Glacier Monitoring Service in Zurich, Switzerland, have been growing since 1980." This claim was immediately taken up and cited by climate change deniers, and Bellamy's reputation seemed to lend it credence.

    In today's Guardian, however, George Monbiot traces Bellamy's statistic to its source and finds it to be based on a long chain of quackery crowned by a typographical error. It's a sobering example of the importance of checking one's sources, and shows just how easily bogus "facts" can take on a life of their own when several layers of citations separate them from the original source. Now that Bellamy's "statistic" is out there, it will continue to be cited as authoritative, even though it is utterly baseless and completely false.

    Monbiot concludes:

    It is hard to convey just how selective you have to be to dismiss the evidence for climate change. You must climb over a mountain of evidence to pick up a crumb: a crumb which then disintegrates in your palm. You must ignore an entire canon of science, the statements of the world's most eminent scientific institutions, and thousands of papers published in the foremost scientific journals. You must, if you are David Bellamy, embrace instead the claims of an eccentric former architect, which are based on what appears to be a non-existent data set. And you must do all this while calling yourself a scientist. [My emphasis]

    Worth reading in full.

    Posted by Jonathan at 08:19 AM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    May 06, 2005

    Coolest Stamp Ever Science/Technology

    As Greg says at The Talent Show, this could be the coolest stamp ever:

    Feynman diagrams go mainstream. And what a great choice for the photo.

    Posted by Jonathan at 09:57 AM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    May 05, 2005

    Dinosaur Missing Link Uncovered Science/Technology

    Critics of evolution often say the fossil record is devoid of examples of "missing links" — intermediate forms in the development of new species.

    Yesterday, however, paleontologists in Utah announced the discovery of the fossil remains of a dinosaur that is exactly that kind of missing link, a species in the midst of a major change: from meat-eating to plant-eating, in this case.

    Scott D. Sampson, chief curator of the Museum of Natural History at the University of Utah, said the new find "represents evolution caught in the act, a primitive form that shares much in common with its carnivorous kin, while possessing a variety of features demonstrating that it had embarked on the path toward more advanced plant-eating forms."

    Paleontologists "could only speculate on the reasons for the change, but noted that it occurred in a time of global warming and the arrival of flowering plants in profusion, a tempting new food source."

    Posted by Jonathan at 06:03 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    April 28, 2005

    The Thermodynamics of Life, Part 2 Essays  Science/Technology

    [Continued from Part 1, which should be read first]

    Nature "wants" to get rid of gradients. They're unnatural. Statistically improbable. What the new thermodynamics shows is that complex systems are more efficient than simple systems at wiping out gradients. Where gradients are pronounced, complex systems arise spontaneously. Extreme temperature/pressure gradients spontaneously produce thunderstorms, for example, and tornadoes. These large-scale storm systems are highly structured and complex compared to the usual random movements of individual air molecules and small wind currents. Many similar examples of spontaneous self-organization in open systems are known. Prigogine calls them "dissipative structures" — they are structures that dissipate gradients.

    Life, it turns out, is particularly effective at doing Nature's job of breaking down various physical and chemical gradients in the environment. One such gradient is the enormous temperature gradient between the earth and the cold, empty space that surrounds it.

    When I had a motorcycle, I used to love to take it out on a hot summer day and drive through the arboretum of the University of Wisconsin here in Madison. The arboretum contains a rich forest of deciduous trees, and as soon as I entered the forest, the temperature would drop a good ten degrees. On a motorcycle, it's dramatic and delightfully refreshing. And it's not just a question of shade. One rides in the shade of tall buildings, say, and feels no temperature drop at all.

    Forest ecosystems consume the sun's energy and turn it into chemical energy rather than heat. They are very good at so doing. The richer the ecosystem, the more energy it consumes. This can be measured. Margulis and Sagan:

    [T]he tendency to locally organize "in order to" get rid of the statistical anomalies incarnated by gradients is profound and organizes life at all scales. The superior efficiency of complex ecosystems at reducing gradients is measurable and has been measured, for example, by airborne thermometers that show the superior ability of tropical forests relative to grasslands and deserts to cool themselves, thereby reducing the solar electromagnetic gradient. This is no vague and abstract theory of complexity, but a tested hypothesis: As measured both by low-flying airplanes and by satellites [and bloggers on motorcyles], ecosystems are cooler when they are more mature and biodiverse. Ecosystems begin with fast-growing colonizing species and at first are relatively inefficient gradient reducers. But as they mature, the energy and material cycles become larger in scope. New organisms enter the system and establish new habitats. Growth slows down, but overall the integrated ecosystem is better than its predecessor at reducing the gradient between the sun and space. The fact that mature tropical ecosystems stay cool displays the system’s power of gradient reduction.

    Life feeds on gradients and, in the process, helps to reduce them. In so doing, life does Nature's work. The bottom line: thermodynamic principles do not oppose life, they practically command it into existence. Life is an integral part of the universe, completely consistent with the thermodynamic principles that unite both living and nonliving matter. Life belongs.

    Posted by Jonathan at 06:18 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    April 27, 2005

    The Thermodynamics of Life, Part 1 Essays  Science/Technology

    [Even if you have a mild allergy to science, I think you may find the following interesting. It's based on a passage in the book Acquiring Genomes by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan.]

    Hot coffee gets cold. Ice cream melts. Material structures fall apart. Things wear out and run down. These commonplace phenomena are illustrative (approximately) of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says that in a closed, isolated system (one where no energy or matter enters or leaves) entropy (disorder) spontaneously increases.

    Life, however — most especially the evolution of life — seems to fly in the face of this law. Living things not only maintain order and complexity, they evolve to become ever more complex individually and to participate in ever more complexly interconnected ecosystems. Life and evolution seem, therefore, to violate the Second Law. But do they really?

    The first thing that can be said is that the Second Law doesn't actually apply to the environment in which earthly life finds itself, because the earth is not a closed system. It receives an enormous, continuous input of energy from the sun.

    Discussions of how life coexists with the Second Law usually stop there: the Second Law isn't violated because the system's not closed. True enough, but not terribly satisfying. While it does explain how life is possible in the presence of the Second Law, it hardly explains what we see everywhere we turn: life spontaneously, aggressively, irrepressibly expanding to fill every available niche in the environment, creating ever richer and more complex ecosystems comprising an ever-expanding variety of increasingly complex life forms. We don't see life just getting by in the face of the Second Law; far from it. I.e., life isn't just side-stepping the laws of thermodynamics; somehow, life is actually favored by them.

    This is where it gets interesting. The closed systems covered by the Second Law are only an artificial and very limited case. They were, for many years, the one case that was well understood, so they were the one case people considered. They are not what occurs in nature, however. In recent decades scientists like Ilya Prigogine (in work that won him a Nobel Prize), James Lovelock, and others have studied the thermodynamics of the kinds of systems that do occur: open systems far from equilibrium. The new thermodynamics puts life in a new perspective.

    First, we need to take note of an important generalization of many everyday phenomena. Water runs downhill. Hot coffee cools to the temperature of its surroundings. Air rushes in to fill a vacuum. Nature abhors a vacuum, yes, but what unifies the foregoing examples is a much more general law: Nature abhors a gradient (where a gradient is a difference in some physical quantity across a distance). Water runs downhill because of a gravitational potential energy gradient. Hot coffee cools because of a temperature gradient. Air fills a vacuum because of a pressure gradient.

    [Don't miss the punchline in Part 2, tomorrow]

    Posted by Jonathan at 06:33 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    March 25, 2005

    Science News Science/Technology

    To take your mind off of Terri Schiavo, Iraq, Social Security, etc., two cool news items from the world of science.

    First, Purdue plant geneticists have announced that the laws of heredity may have to be revised, or at least supplemented. Since Mendel, geneticists have known that an offspring of sexually-reproducing organisms contains two copies of each gene, one copy from each parent. If both copies of a given gene are defective, Mendelian genetics says the organism is out of luck, unable to correct the defect. The Purdue geneticists have found, however, that the mustard plant Arabidopsis is able to correct such defects by somehow recovering copies of the gene as it existed in a grandparent or more distant ancestor. WaPo:

    The newly discovered phenomenon, which resembles the caching of early versions of a computer document for viewing later on, allows plants to archive copies of genes from generations ago, long assumed to be lost forever.

    The investigators found that the "cached" version of the gene is not contained in the plant's DNA, so they propose it may be contained in RNA, which had been thought to be too unstable to propagate genes in higher organisms. There is reason to believe also that the mechanism, whatever it is, applies to other organisms, possibly even to humans. When the exact mechanism is unraveled, it may be applicable in treating genetic diseases.

    Second, two separate teams of astronomers in the US, using the Spitzer orbiting telescope, have, for the first time, "seen" planets orbiting around other stars.

    Some 130 such planets, known as exoplanets, have been discovered over the past decade, but until now the evidence has been indirect: wobble in the motion of a star allows scientists to infer the presence of a planet whose mass is exerting a gravitational pull on the star.

    The new discovery marks the first time that infrared light emanating from exoplanets has been observed directly.

    Posted by Jonathan at 06:11 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    March 15, 2005

    Evolution And Randomness, Part 2 Essays  Science/Technology

    [Continued from Part 1, which should be read first]

    As we saw in Part 1, it's impossible that biological complexity was created via a purely random process. Some people try to turn that into an argument against evolution.

    But evolution is not a purely random process. Far from it. Yes, it has an element of randomness — mutations are random — but there is more to it than that. Much more:

    How much difference does that make? Let's see.

    To investigate, I wrote a little computer program that generates phrases according to rules that simulate the above characteristics of evolution. (Richard Dawkins did something similar in The Blind Watchmaker, which inspired this post.) This computer program generates the 39-character "target phrase"

    TO BE OR NOT TO BE THAT IS THE QUESTION

    according to the following rules. A random 39-character phrase is generated as the starting point. For example,

    DOBLF DAVPEHJCI RKCQTIMRRKHXCPBZAMEFSYC

    This random starting point is the first "generation." A sequence of generations is then created as follows:

    1. Starting with the outcome of the previous generation (the "parent"), the program creates some number (200, say) of "children".
    2. A child is created as follows: any characters of the parent that are correct (i.e., that match the target phrase) are retained in the child. (This is analogous to DNA’s ability to "remember" prior successful mutations.) So, for example, the phrase
      DOBLF DAVPEHJCI RKCQTIMRRKHXCPBZAMEFSYC

      happens to be correct in the 2nd, 6th, and 16th positions, so its children would keep those characters unchanged.

    3. The remaining characters (the incorrect ones) are replaced with a new random character, with the restriction that the random replacement must be within some number of letters (5, say) of the letter it's replacing. (This closeness requirement is roughly analogous to the fact that biological children don't stray too far from their parents in a single generation.) So from

      DOBLF DAVPEHJCI RKCQTIMRRKHXCPBZAMEFSYC

      we might get

      FO KF DFTNJDHFK NKCUOFRNWNEVGM UBLIKPYH

    4. From among the children, the "best" phrase, i.e., the one closest to the target phrase, is selected. This "best" child becomes the parent of the next generation. (This selection process is roughly analogous to natural selection.)

    The program lets this process run until the target phrase is reached. The number of generations required turns out to be astonishingly small — especially considering that, as we saw in Part 1, a fully random process would, on average, require far more steps than could be generated during the entire lifetime of the universe!

    The following is a typical set of results obtained when each generation consists of 200 children and random replacements are within 5 letters of the letters they replace:

    DOBLF DAVPEHJCI RKCQTIMRRKHXCPBZAMEFSYC
    FO KF DFTNJDHFK NKCUOFRNWNEVGM UBLIKPYH
    KO HC IAPNNCMCJ QG ZSFVKWN ZDP ZBGJNLXE
    MO GE GAKNNBMHO PG UOERHXQ VAK ZGGHRLZB
    NO GE KCGNMEKIO QB RODVCSV UDH XIILPQUA
    OO DE KDENMCFKO PB VQHY XZ SHD TGFHSLWA
    NO GE PD NPEAGO ND UMDW VW SHB YEFINKXA
    IO BE UH NUI HO JF UHDX TY PHG WIGNIMTC
    KO BE QG NQN MO GA XHCT TU OHE UMKJMJPE
    MO BE SL NOO NO FB VHFT OT THE UQFKJEQH
    RO BE RM NOS PO IC ZHGT LW THE UTDPKJPM
    WO BE SL NOR TO FC UHIT HT THE RUHUOHQN
    TO BE OP NOW TO GC ZHDT IS THE SUDPSLQN
    TO BE OS NOX TO CG VHCT IS THE UUERUGSN
    TO BE OT NOT TO DE RHBT IS THE RUEWQJON
    TO BE OS NOT TO AE UHCT IS THE OUESTHON
    TO BE OT NOT TO DE THAT IS THE OUESTHON
    TO BE OS NOT TO CE THAT IS THE QUESTION
    TO BE OR NOT TO BE THAT IS THE QUESTION

    19 generations. 19! A far cry from 1 with 55 zeroes after it.

    No magic. No intelligent design.

    Now, nobody's claiming that this little program is perfectly analogous to evolution. Of course not. (For one thing, evolution has no specific "target" that it's shooting for.) It does, however, give us a feel for what an enormous qualitative difference there is between evolution and a purely random process. Random mutations are the "raw material" of evolution, but evolution itself is not random. Or even "mostly" random. It is, in fact, almost the opposite of random.

    In a purely random process, each generation would be created from scratch, bearing no relation whatever to the generations that preceded it. There would be no development, no progress, no homing in on the target phrase, just a sequence of unrelated "guesses."

    In evolution, each generation takes the preceding one as starting point, changes are generally small, unsuccessful mutations are weeded out, and successful mutations are preserved and accumulated over time.

    And that makes all the difference.

    Posted by Jonathan at 09:11 PM | Comments (9) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    March 14, 2005

    Evolution And Randomness, Part 1 Essays  Science/Technology

    Arguments against the theory of evolution take many forms. Among them is an argument based on probability, which goes something like this:

    According to the theory of evolution, the particular DNA sequence that defines a gene is the result of a series of random mutations. The number of possible DNA sequences is so huge, however, that evolving a particular sequence would take far longer than the lifetime of the universe.

    To see why this argument appears to make sense and then why, when you look closer, it falls apart, let's examine an analogous problem: the problem of monkeys typing Shakespeare. You’ve no doubt heard it said that a group of monkeys banging away on keyboards could, given enough time, reproduce the complete works of Shakespeare.

    Bob Newhart used to do a comedy bit based on the premise that if anybody actually were to perform the experiment with the monkeys, there would have to be people whose job it was to go around and check what the monkeys had typed (and you think you have a boring job). The punch line had one such inspector excitedly calling out to his partner, "Hey, Ed, I think we may have something here!" He then proceeds to slowly read, "To be or not to be, that is the... gazornenplatt."

    Theoretically, the monkeys would eventually accomplish the task, though the length of time required would be unimaginably large. Suppose, for example, that we drastically simplify the task and require them to reproduce not Shakespeare's complete works but just the following phrase:

    TO BE OR NOT TO BE THAT IS THE QUESTION

    This phrase consists of 39 characters, each of which can be one of 26 letters or a space — i.e., there are 27 possibilities for each character. Let's say we have our typewriting monkeys banging out 39-character-long phrases using those 27 characters. How many such phrases are there?

    It's easy to calculate. There are 27 possibilities for the first character. For each of those 27, there are 27 possibilities for the second character. That means that there 27 x 27 = 729 possibilities for the first two characters taken together. For each of those 729 possibilities, there are 27 possibilities for the third character, and so on. Altogether, then, the total number of possible 39-character-long phrases is the product of 27 times itself 39 times — i.e., 27 to the 39th power — which is larger than 1 with 55 zeroes after it.

    How big of a number is that? If you created one such phrase per second, to create them all would take more than a trillion trillion trillion times the lifetime of the universe so far.

    Obviously, then, evolution can't be creating its DNA "phrases" via a purely random process. Does that mean the theory of evolution is wrong?

    [To be concluded tomorrow]

    Posted by Jonathan at 06:19 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    February 24, 2005

    Dark Matter Galaxy Discovered Science/Technology

    British astronomers have announced the discovery of an invisible galaxy made almost entirely of dark matter. The existence of such galaxies was predicted on theoretical grounds in 2001.

    It never ceases to amaze me how theorists sitting in a room somewhere on our little backwater of a planet, applying mathematics and logic — often taking as their starting point what we've managed to observe from our little window on the cosmos, but sometimes, as in the case of relativity, starting more from pure "thought experiments" — are able to formulate detailed predictions about the large-scale structure of the entire universe — which then turn out to be true.

    Breathtaking.

    Posted by Jonathan at 03:40 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    February 21, 2005

    Not-So-Intelligent Design Culture  Musings  Science/Technology

    The other day, Air America's Marc Maron, talking about opponents of the theory of evolution in general, and "intelligent design" proponents in particular, said that the essence of their analysis could be stated thus:

    It's all so complicated.

    I don't understand it.

    Therefore, it has to be... magic.

    Perfect! Had me laughing out loud in my car.

    But for a more, shall we say, reasoned critique of "intelligent design," consult yesterday's NYT Magazine. Excerpt [link via The Talent Show]:

    What can we tell about the designer from the design? While there is much that is marvelous in nature, there is also much that is flawed, sloppy and downright bizarre. Some nonfunctional oddities, like the peacock's tail or the human male's nipples, might be attributed to a sense of whimsy on the part of the designer. Others just seem grossly inefficient. In mammals, for instance, the recurrent laryngeal nerve does not go directly from the cranium to the larynx, the way any competent engineer would have arranged it. Instead, it extends down the neck to the chest, loops around a lung ligament and then runs back up the neck to the larynx. In a giraffe, that means a 20-foot length of nerve where 1 foot would have done. If this is evidence of design, it would seem to be of the unintelligent variety.

    Such disregard for economy can be found throughout the natural order. Perhaps 99 percent of the species that have existed have died out. Darwinism has no problem with this, because random variation will inevitably produce both fit and unfit individuals. But what sort of designer would have fashioned creatures so out of sync with their environments that they were doomed to extinction?

    The gravest imperfections in nature, though, are moral ones. Consider how humans and other animals are intermittently tortured by pain throughout their lives, especially near the end. Our pain mechanism may have been designed to serve as a warning signal to protect our bodies from damage, but in the majority of diseases — cancer, for instance, or coronary thrombosis — the signal comes too late to do much good, and the horrible suffering that ensues is completely useless.

    As the article notes, "intelligent design" is not a scientific theory at all, since it cannot be tested or refuted. Its proponents can simply assert that whatever exists exists because the Designer designed it that way. At the very least, though, the design cannot be said to be unfailingly intelligent.

    These days, ID proponents tend to avoid identifying the Designer as God, because they want to sneak the "theory" into school curricula, but we all know who they have in mind. But:

    It is hard to avoid the inference that a designer responsible for such imperfections must have been lacking some divine trait — benevolence or omnipotence or omniscience, or perhaps all three.

    Evolution, of course, has no problem explaining the various biological inefficiencies and blind alleys. So, in an ID world, why does all the evidence fit an evolutionary explanation so much better than an explanation by divine design?

    If you tell me that God rigged the evidence to support evolution because He/She wants to test our faith, then I'll give you the same reply the late Bill Hicks used to give: "I think God put you here to test my faith, dude!"

    Posted by Jonathan at 04:38 PM | Comments (5) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    February 20, 2005

    The Amazing Daniel Tammet Musings  Science/Technology

    From the Guardian, a remarkable account of autistic savant Daniel Tammet. Excerpt:

    Daniel Tammet is talking. As he talks, he studies my shirt and counts the stitches. Ever since the age of three, when he suffered an epileptic fit, Tammet has been obsessed with counting. Now he is 26, and a mathematical genius who can figure out cube roots quicker than a calculator and recall pi to 22,514 decimal places. He also happens to be autistic, which is why he can't drive a car, wire a plug, or tell right from left. He lives with extraordinary ability and disability.

    Tammet is calculating 377 multiplied by 795. Actually, he isn't "calculating": there is nothing conscious about what he is doing. He arrives at the answer instantly. Since his epileptic fit, he has been able to see numbers as shapes, colours and textures. The number two, for instance, is a motion, and five is a clap of thunder. "When I multiply numbers together, I see two shapes. The image starts to change and evolve, and a third shape emerges. That's the answer. It's mental imagery. It's like maths without having to think." [...]

    Tammet is creating his own language, strongly influenced by the vowel and image-rich languages of northern Europe. (He already speaks French, German, Spanish, Lithuanian, Icelandic and Esperanto.) The vocabulary of his language - "Mänti", meaning a type of tree - reflects the relationships between different things. The word "ema", for instance, translates as "mother", and "ela" is what a mother creates: "life". "Päike" is "sun", and "päive" is what the sun creates: "day". Tammet hopes to launch Mänti in academic circles later this year, his own personal exploration of the power of words and their inter-relationship. [...]

    Last year Tammet broke the European record for recalling pi, the mathematical constant, to the furthest decimal point. He found it easy, he says, because he didn't even have to "think". To him, pi isn't an abstract set of digits; it's a visual story, a film projected in front of his eyes. He learnt the number forwards and backwards and, last year, spent five hours recalling it in front of an adjudicator. He wanted to prove a point. "I memorised pi to 22,514 decimal places, and I am technically disabled. I just wanted to show people that disability needn't get in the way." [My emphasis]

    Tammet's abilities point to the extraordinary untapped potential of the human brain. Perhaps someday we will learn to unlock that potential through means other than brain injury or epileptic seizure.

    Tammet's description of the way he visually experiences mathematical computation is particularly fascinating. It certainly seems to suggest that elements of mathematics are hard-wired in the brain. Either that, or mathematics can be learned by the brain in some direct, unconscious, non-algorithmic fashion — by osmosis, so to speak. Or, as seems likely, some combination of the two.

    The "hard-wired" explanation raises all sorts of questions. For example, Tammet, like the rest of us, expresses numerical values in base-10 notation. He sees a computational result as an image, but somehow he knows the numerical value, in base-10 notation, corresponding to that image. No one taught him the base-10 "names" for the infinite variety of images he sees; somehow, he just knows them. Why should the brain have any hard-wired capability for expressing numbers in any particular notational form? For that matter, why should algorithms for multiplication or extraction of cube roots be hard-wired in the brain at all? What evolutionary pressure could conceivably result in a cube root capability?

    The learned explanation also seems, at least, incomplete. Assuming that Tammet demonstrated an ability to extract cube roots, for example, without anyone's having taught him a cube root algorithm, it's hard to see how the cube root ability could be described as learned. Yes, someone may have told Tammet what a cube root is and asked him to calculate one, but that's a far cry from supplying him with the algorithm, the method. Somehow, his brain just knew the answer.

    One is tempted to conclude that the connection between mathematics and the brain is deeper and more fundamental than just a collection of algorithms: that mathematics is itself a direct expression of the logic and form of the universe — the "music of the spheres", so to speak — and the brain is somehow tuned to that "frequency," metaphorically speaking. I.e., that from the brain's perspective, it's not a question of implementing a collection of individual algorithms, it's some kind of deeper and more wholistic connection to mathematics — or what mathematics expresses — as a whole that the brain groks. A vague notion, admittedly, but interesting to contemplate. And if there is such a connection, just imagine if we could make it conscious.

    [Thanks, Kent]

    Posted by Jonathan at 04:21 PM | Comments (12) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    January 14, 2005

    What Humans Are Capable Of Science/Technology

    The Cassini-Huygens mission to Titan, the largest of Saturn's 33 known moons, landed successfully and today began transmitting data and imagery back to Earth.

    It's a staggering technical achievement, the culmination of a 2.2 billion mile voyage. It's also an inspiring example of international cooperation for peaceful purposes, involving 19 nations. CNN:

    Huygens successfully transmitted its first packet of irreplaceable data from Saturn's moon Titan this morning as scientists at the European Space Agency's operations center in Germany erupted in applause. [...]

    [Scientists] called it a fantastic success for Europe and the spirit of international collaboration that brought together 19 nations, including the United States for the Cassini-Huygens mission. [...]

    "This data is for posterity," said David Southwood, director of science for ESA [European Space Agency]. "It's for mankind....Scientists are going to argue as we piece together our place in the universe, of how we came to be. It's just the beginning for our science teams."

    Earlier in the day, radio telescopes confirmed the probe survived reentry, successfully deployed its three parachutes and landed on the moon's icy surface. Cassini received information until it passed beyond the moon's horizon and out of contact. Now Cassini has turned toward Earth and is sending the data to scientists. [...]

    "It's going to be the most exotic place we've ever seen," said Candice Hansen, a scientist for the Cassini-Huygens mission. "We've never landed on the surface of an icy satellite. We know from our pictures that there are very different kinds of geological processes." [...]

    The Huygens probe, about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, spun silently toward Titan after it detached from the Cassini spacecraft on December 24. Cassini will remain in orbit around Saturn until at least July 2008.

    The mission "will probably help answer some of the big questions that NASA has in general about origins and where we came from and where life came from," Mitchell said.

    Titan's atmosphere, a murky mix of nitrogen, methane and argon, resembles Earth's more than 3.8 billion years ago. Scientists think the moon may shed light on how life began.

    Makes me proud of my species.

    Now let's figure out how to make a voting machine that works.

    Posted by Jonathan at 04:05 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    September 25, 2004

    Thinking About Stem Cells Ethics  Musings  Science/Technology

    Last night, I heard part of a radio interview with Dr. Steven Clark, an immunologist and medical ethicist on the University of Wisconsin faculty of Human Oncology. The topic was embryonic stem cell research. Clark’s in favor of it, including the cloning of human embryos that enables the process.

    What made the interview especially interesting was the fact that Clark is a political conservative and evangelical Christian. Yet he had that wonderfully refreshing attitude shared by all good scientists: you don’t fudge the data, and you think things through for yourself — logically, not dogmatically.

    On the question of whether human life begins at conception, he had this to say: Ultimately, the question isn’t when does life begin. The question is when does one have a moral obligation toward that life. Embryonic stem cell research involves taking cells from a five-day-old embryo, which, as he said, is smaller than the period at the end of this sentence and has no brain, no life history, no identity.

    But, opponents of stem cell research would say, that five-day-old embryo has the potential to become a fully-developed human being. Don’t we then have a responsibility to accord it the same moral status as a fully-developed human being?

    Clark offered a down-to-earth thought experiment that cuts right through the dogma. Imagine, he said, you are walking by a stem cell laboratory and you see that a fire is raging inside. You see a person lying unconscious on the floor inside and, nearby, a tank containing some number of five-day-old embryos. Which do you save, the person or the embryos?

    Let’s make the scenario even more clear-cut. Suppose what you see are a dozen trapped children and a petri dish containing 13 five-day-old embryos. There are more embryos than children. Which do you save, the children or the embryos? Faced with this choice, not even the staunchest fertilized-egg-equals-human-being dogmatist would hesitate to save the children.

    This thought experiment illustrates exactly the choice that faces us. I.e., there are living human beings with a variety of maladies who could be saved by research and therapy utilizing stem cells. Do we save them, or do we save the five-day-old embryos?

    Posted by Jonathan at 10:40 AM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    August 27, 2004

    Like Science Fiction Politics  Science/Technology

    A truly astounding hint of the power of stem cells.

    Just incredible.

    Now, somebody please explain this to Dubya.

    Posted by Jonathan at 11:34 AM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    August 06, 2004

    Feedback Loops and Exponential Growth Environment  Musings  Science/Technology

    There's an old story you've probably heard. Unless you understand this story, you won't understand many of the problems that face us in the coming century.

    In an ancient kingdom, a clever man saves the life of the king's daughter. The grateful king, wishing to reward the man, offers to grant him whatever he asks for, within reason. The man, being clever, says give me one grain of rice for the first square of a chess board, 2 for the second, 4 for the third, etc., doubling the number of grains of rice for each of the 64 squares on the board. The king, who's not so clever, thinks he's gotten off easy and readily agrees.

    How much rice has the king just agreed to give the man? If a sack of rice holds 18 million grains, the king has agreed to fork over more than one trillion sacks. The king is ruined. End of story.

    The king did not understand exponential growth, which is growth by a constant percentage (100% in our story) at each step. The number of grains starts small and grows slowly at first, but soon you're doubling larger and larger numbers:

    1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, 4096, 8192, 16384, 32768, 65536, 131072, 262144, 524288, 1048576, etc.

    20 squares yield about a million grains, 30 squares yield a billion, 40 squares a trillion, 50 a thousand trillion, 60 a million trillion.

    What makes the growth so explosive is the fact that the output of each step is fed back in as the input to the next step. This is what's known as a positive feedback loop. ("Positive" not in the sense of "good", but rather in the sense of "leading to increase".) Population growth is an example. Each generation's children (the output) become the next generation's parents (the input to the next step). In the absence of outside constraints, positive feedback loops give results like in the story of the rice.

    The idea of a positive feedback loop — and the kind of ever-accelerating growth that can result — can be applied in a variety of settings, from population growth, to global warming mechanisms, to the way the situation in Iraq is spinning out of control, with chaos leading to greater resistance leading to more chaos, etc. Positive feedback also explains the exponential growth of technical and scientific knowledge, since each new technical effort builds on what has been discovered or invented in the past.

    Unfortunately, we seem to have a built-in bias, either neurological or learned, that makes us extrapolate linearly into the future. I.e., we tend, instinctively, to estimate future change as involving the same size steps in absolute terms — not percentage terms — as in the past, so exponential growth always seems to take us by surprise. That's why, when the king saw that in the first several steps the change was just a few grains of rice, he unconsciously assumed that at every step the change would be just a few grains of rice. We all make this mistake. And it's a very dangerous mistake to make at this point in human history.

    Here's a riddle.

    Suppose someone puts a few bacteria in a petri dish at noon on Monday. Suppose further that the bacteria grow at a rate that causes their population to double every hour. Suppose finally that the growth is such that the petri dish is completely full of bacteria at noon on Wednesday.

    Question: When is the petri dish half full?

    Click the link below for the answer.

    Many people say Tuesday at noon — halfway between noon Monday and noon Wednesday. That's linear thinking, and it's incorrect. Since the population doubles each hour, the dish is half full just one hour before it's full, i.e., at 11 AM on Wednesday. From noon Monday to 11 AM Wednesday, the bacteria have plenty of room to spare. No worries. Then wham!

    What's the point? When growth is exponential, or when powerful feedback loops are present, we can think everything's going along fine until just before we hit the wall. Many of the problems that face us — problems of population growth, resource depletion, environmental degradation, political instability — involve exactly this kind of exponential growth caused by powerful feedback loops. If we don't have an appropriate mental model of what that means, we'll be complacent right up to the moment when we hit the wall — hard — and, like the king, lose everything.

    It's crucial that we overcome our linear bias. We're living in a world of exponential growth, and our petri dish is filling rapidly.

    Posted by Jonathan at 09:04 AM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    July 09, 2004

    What Good is a Large Brain? Essays  Science/Technology

    Human beings have large brains. Why? Presumably, because intelligence confers an evolutionary advantage. But then why hasn’t evolution endowed other species with larger brains? Wouldn’t a smart chicken beat a dumb chicken in the race for survival?

    As with so many other questions in biology, the key consideration is energy. As Richard Manning says in his book Against the Grain, on which the following discussion is based:

    A brain, energy-wise, is an enormously costly organ. That is, pound for pound, it takes far more energy to keep it running than any other organ. It accounts for about 3 percent of our body’s mass, yet close to 20 percent of our energy needs. The [evolutionary] quantum leap in [human] brain size brought with it a stiff increase in the individual’s need for calories. Thus, if that bigger brain did not bring with it at least a proportional leap in our ability to feed it, there would be no net gain, and it would not confer fitness, would not survive evolution’s merciless test.

    Several factors made big brains a worthwhile investment for human beings. Pre-human primates were already highly mobile, highly social creatures with versatile hands and were therefore uniquely capable of putting added intelligence to good use. A genius chicken would be hard-pressed to take real advantage of its extra intelligence; primates were all set to take the leap. As Manning says:

    The sudden leap in brain technology [put] a bigger, flashier engine in a chassis that was already engineered to handle it. We know this because our closest relatives that didn’t get this big brain are still fairly impressive animals, relying on a set of skills that would dovetail nicely with souped-up intelligence.

    What particular benefit did intelligence confer on early humans? This is where it gets interesting. Says Manning, they became generalists, developing a strategy of feeding on an enormous variety of plants and animals. This, in turn, allowed humans to flourish in almost any kind of environment and to adapt to change, culminating in the spread of humanity over the entire surface of the earth.

    Koala bears feed on eucalyptus leaves and little else. If eucalyptus trees die off in a region, the koalas die off as well. Hunter-gatherer humans, in contrast, typically eat a wide variety of foods. Indeed, when the well-preserved body of an early iron-age hunter-gatherer was unearthed in Denmark, his stomach was found to contain the remnants of sixty species of plants. And that’s just what he had eaten in his last day or two, at that particular season of the year!

    (By the way, koalas too were generalists long ago. At some point, though, they switched to their current strategy of relying on a single food source. What happened? Their once big brains, no longer needed, shrank. Today, koalas are dumb as a post, with “a tiny brain rattling around in a large brainpan.” The large brain was no longer needed, so evolution quickly down-sized it to eliminate the extra energy cost. The brainpan has a lower energy cost, so its down-sizing has proceeded more slowly.)

    Now, imagine what it would take to acquire the incredibly detailed knowledge of one’s environment and the requisite sensory mastery to be able to locate and consume as many as sixty species of plants in the wilderness, in a single day or two. You would have to know which plants are edible and which plants — or parts of plants — are poisonous, or are poisonous only in certain seasons, or aren't poisonous but look almost exactly like other plants that are. Add the corresponding knowledge required to hunt a variety of animals and avoid predators. Then factor in the need to constantly adapt to changing or new environments, and to pass all this knowledge and skill along from generation to generation. All of this requires exquisitely tuned senses, and lots of brain power.

    How much brain power? Manning offers a telling anecdote. His friend, the anthropologist Richard Nelson, lived for a number of years among the Koyukon people of the Yukon River basin. When he left the Yukon, Nelson settled on an island off of southeast Alaska, a very different environment from the one he had left. After several years, he invited a couple of his Koyukon friends to visit him. As Manning explains, this was “a big deal for them, in that they had never been outside their familiar surroundings.” The story continues:

    Nelson, of course, was curious as to how they would respond, but not quite prepared for the way this reunion with old friends worked out. It was silent. As with all reunions among friends, there was catching up to do, greetings to be made, stories to tell — but none of this happened, at least not right away. His friends simply lapsed into silence. They were so wrapped up in observing everything around them that there was no part of their brains left for speech. This went on for days. When finally they did speak, they revealed to Nelson all sorts of details about his closely observed island that he himself had never noticed.

    You and I, never having learned to observe our environment in this way, have no real idea of the enormous sensitivity, concentration, and sensory acuteness human beings are capable of when they depend solely on their wits and their powers of observation to survive in an untamed wilderness. What separated us from that world was the invention of agriculture, an invention that Manning says robbed us of much. That’s the main topic of his book, but it will have to wait for future posts.

    Posted by Jonathan at 12:12 AM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    June 14, 2004

    Follow the Carbon Energy  Environment  Essays  Science/Technology

    Last week, a trucker called in to Al Franken’s Air America Radio show. He said most of his fellow truckers ridicule the idea that greenhouse gas exhaust from internal combustion engines is a problem. Their “reason”: human beings and other living things supposedly emit far more carbon dioxide than engines do. The caller wanted someone to explain how to debunk this claim. For the next half hour or so, various people, including at least one environmental engineer, called in to explain that the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by a person is far less than that emitted by a truck.

    True enough, but totally beside the point. If we look at this question more closely, we can learn something very important about how our Earth works. We need to follow the carbon.

    The amount of carbon on earth is constant. Carbon atoms are neither created nor destroyed; they’re just recycled endlessly in what is known as the carbon cycle. In simplified form, this is what happens: Green plants take carbon (in the form of carbon dioxide) out of the air and combine it with water (using energy from sunlight) to create sugar and oxygen. Animals eat plants or other animals and do the reverse: they combine sugar and oxygen (that’s why we can’t live without oxygen) to create carbon dioxide and water, releasing the energy the plants got from sunlight. This cycle repeats endlessly. It seems like a perpetual motion machine, but it isn’t; what makes it work is the constant input of energy that plants receive from the sun.

    Animals do release carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) back into the air when they exhale. The key point, though, is that the carbon that animals release into the air is carbon that plants earlier removed from the air. There is no net increase in the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide. When we exhale, we’re not doing anything to increase global warming - not because the amount we exhale is negligible but because we're part of a balanced cycle.

    That’s the simplest expression of the carbon cycle. There are a couple of wrinkles, though. Some carbon is “stored” in forms that get recycled only very slowly. Limestone, for example. From a global warming perspective, the key forms of carbon storage are 1) the trees and other plants of the Earth’s great forests and 2) fossil fuels: oil, gas, and coal. When humans cut and burn the great forests, and when they dig up and burn fossil fuels, they are causing a net increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. They're taking carbon that was stored long ago – millions of years ago in the case of fossil fuels – and putting it back into the atmosphere. It is a qualitatively different act from breathing in and breathing out.

    Now think about this: Fossil fuels were created from organic matter that was deposited during brief periods of intense global warming in the geologic past. Back then, carbon, in the form of hydrocarbons, was buried in the earth, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was thereby reduced, and global warming subsided. What are we doing when we dig up and burn every last bit of fossil fuel we can get our hands on? Remember: it’s the same carbon that existed back then. Carbon atoms are neither created nor destroyed. We’re just locating all the carbon that once caused global warming, digging it up, and putting it back into the atmosphere. In other words, we’re recreating the conditions the caused global warming in the distant past.

    Still, an awful lot of people want to convince themselves that somehow the outcome will be different this time around.

    Posted by Jonathan at 08:56 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb