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It’s all in your head

May 23, 2008 2 comments

Neurophilosophy delivers a number of x-rays of penetrating brain injury, including one chap who over a period of weeks drove 11 nails into his own head. Another whose cranium was penetrated by a large chunk of asbestos.  And another who wound up with a paintbrush inside his his head.  And more.  Analysis of treatment and outcome is included.

It’s always nice to learn something new from a post and here’s something I did not realize: intentional self-inflicted nail gun injuries are actually quite common.

Friday Technology Funnies

April 4, 2008 6 comments

I love failed failed projects, from the FBI’s $170m computer-system scrappage, to baggage-handling systems that don’t work in Denver and London, to the International Space Station (cost $Bns & counting, while they produce soap-bubbles and boomerangs up there).  To say nothing of the Illinois State Building in Chicago.  They just make me feel better when I buy a piece of software at work that doesn’t pan out. 

MrsDoF knows about my weird fascination with failure and sent me; Fancy computers spell trouble for 2010 census.  It seems the Harris corporation was awarded a $600m contract to produce handheld computers and the operating system for the census. 

Woah! Stop right there, mister government project-manager!  Handheld computers already exist, you can buy them on Amazon.  I bet you could get the operating system for a million bucks – just make it an X-Prize for the Open-Source community – and it would be bulletproof.  Let Google review the interface for simplicity.  Or look around and see if any other countries are running successful digital census’ programs and steal their ideas.

Anyway, back to the highly entertaining article:

“What we’re facing is a statistical Katrina on the part of the administration,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-New York.  “Will they leave this mess for the next administration?”

Yes, Carolyn.  Yes they will.  It’s what they do. 

And may I compliment you on the introduction of a new unit of measurement: “The Katrina”.  It’s a unit of bureaucratic screw-uppage, like the “football-field” is a unit of distance and the “crashing 747” and “9-11s” are units of fatality from whatever hazard of the day.  The current administration, with it’s apparent total disinterest in competence as a criteria for contract-granting, is a rich source of ‘Katrinas’.

The computers proved too complex for some temporary workers who tried to use them in a test last year in North Carolina. Also, the computers were not initially programmed to transmit the large amounts of data necessary.
“This is a management problem. It’s an organizational problem,” Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said in testimony this month before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

No, Carlos, it’s a “stupid” problem.  As in: “It was a stupid idea to build a special computer for this.” 

Most people have trouble programming their VCR’s to tape this week’s episode of “American Idol” and you’re going to teach more than a half-million temporary workers to operate a made-to-purpose data-gathering computer?  But here’s my favorite part, the contractor’s denial that there is really a problem:

Harris Corp. spokesman Marc Raimondi said the company is committed to working with the Census Bureau to resolve any issues involving the handheld computers or the operating system.

He also said the computers actually are easy to use, with a failure rate of less than 1 percent when tested in the field.

“After you spend about 30 minutes to an hour familiarizing yourself with it, it’s as easy to use as a modern cell phone,” Raimondi said.

ROTFL – Stop it!  You’re killing me!  Most people can’t use ten percent of the features of their cell phones!  BWA-HA-HA-HA-HA!!….

Congress is trying to figure out what to do now.  Suggestions include “scaling back” the use of the computers themselves, or going entirely to pencil and paper.  Op-Scan forms are very simple and extremely reliable.

Guest post by Lucas:  Kurzweil, “exponential thought”, and gee-whiz numbers

March 27, 2008 4 comments

Ok, you can call me pedantic, but this article on Ray Kurzweil (link at end) has an error which should have been caught at the copyediting stage:

“But Kurzweil had a special confidence that grew from a habit of mind he’d been cultivating for years: He thought exponentially. To illustrate what this means, consider the following quiz: 2, 4, ?, ?.

“What are the missing numbers? Many people will say 6 and 8. This suggests a linear function. But some will say the missing numbers are 8 and 16. This suggests an exponential function. (Of course, both answers are correct. This is a test of thinking style, not math skills.) ”  [It’s probably more a test of how much experience the reader has with computers. -LW]

“Look at it this way: If the series of numbers in the quiz mentioned earlier is linear and progresses for 100 steps, the final entry is 200. But if progress is exponential, then the final entry is 1,267,650,600,228,229,400,000,000,000,000. Computers will soon be smarter than humans.”

Based on that mistake, maybe not.  He probably calculated this in some calculator program, which gave him a result in scientific notation.  Instead of just saying “…is approximately 1.26*10^(whatever),” he decided to write that the entry is that number.  This number is clearly divisible by 10, and no power of two is divisible by 10.  Of course, his computer did *exactly what he told it too*, and nothing more. It wasn’t smart enough to realize “Oh, I’m being asked this so that my owner will have a lengthy number to write down verbatim to prove a rhetorical point.  I surmise that he wants this number in arbitrary precision rather than the customary approximation I would normally give his feeble human mind.”

According to my Python interpreter, the correct answer is exactly:
1267650600228229401496703205376L

Wait, “L” isn’t a number.  Oh well, I guess the computer knows what it’s doing…  (L stands for “long”, the data type Python uses to handle integers that are longer than a certain number of bits.)

I swear, every article written about Ray Kurzweil pisses me off.  The blog that linked to it had this quote:

“Many computer scientists take it on faith that one day machines will become conscious. Led by futurist Ray Kurzweil, proponents of the so-called strong-AI school believe that a sufficient number of digitally simulated neurons, running at a high enough speed, can awaken into awareness. Once computing speed reaches 10^16 operations per second — roughly by 2020 — the trick will be simply to come up with an algorithm for the mind.”

The blogger commented: “Which is a bit like saying “once we have the technology to travel to another galaxy, all we have to do is get there”.”  Not the best analogy, since it makes it sound like computers are like the technology to travel to another galaxy.  I would say that this is more like saying “Once we can make enough aluminum to build a rocket, we can go to the moon.”
- Lucas

 

 

Science Friday: credential inflation, denialism, and philosophy of science

January 4, 2008 5 comments

If the selectivity employed by climate denialists in choosing their ‘authorities’ were made into an industrial process, it could be used to filter gold from seawater.  Of course if their sources can sound sort of “sciencey” while pretending some expertise in current climate science, they can depend on a lot of attention from journalists whose ability to distinguish real experts from fake ones approximates the value of their journalism degree.

Jeffrey Shallit at Recursivity discusses one important climate-denialist’s tool in : “Credential inflation”. (Thanks to my son for the link) And while we’re on the subject, Tim Lambert at Deltoid. gives us assurance that “You too can be a distinguished climate scientist”.  Of course the techniques work equally well no matter what reality you’re denying, be it anthropogenic climate change, evolution, or the poor track record of “abstinence-only” sex education.

As understanding climate change is a problem for the layman, the surrounding meta-problem is understanding just what constitutes “scientific expertise”.  This is not as simple as it sounds.  To the rescue (from Framing Science) is this wonderful, ongoing 10-part CBC radio series, “How to think about science”.  You can listen online or download .mp3 files.  So far I’ve listened to

Which leads me to the most extraordinary scientific find of the week: a relevant “Cathy” cartoon.  I noticed it by accident in today’s paper.  Believe it or not, here’s the usually lame comic strip “Cathy” exhibiting what Daston would call “mechanical objectivity” in accordance with 19th century science…

Man, the world just keeps getting stranger and stranger.

Science Friday: Silly video games and other dumb toys

December 28, 2007 1 comment

I seem to have been born without the “computer gaming” gene but I’ve watched the computing industry grow on that diet.  Serious stuff only goes so far; our entertainments have brought about many revolutions.  The versatility of today’s Internet owes a lot to capabilities driven by online porn and games.  The drive for faster, more capable computers is very much driven by games and video; typical desktop systems were fast enough to run spreadsheets a long time ago.  Now some incredibly exciting developments are around the corner driven by video games:

  • Neurophilosophy reports that Sega is developing toys controlled by brainwaves.  My prediction is this will promote development of brain interfaces on a heretofore unimagined scale.  It will be a revolution for people with Lou Gherig’s disease, people with artificial limbs, and people who work using remote robot avatars in hazardous environments. It could have applications in education.  And that’s just the applications that (pardon the expression) pop into my head.  The unexpected ones are always what turns out to have the biggest economic impact.  (Oh yeah, I think you will be able to play video games with it too)

  • And speaking of unexpected applications: check out the WiiMote Multitouch Display.  An extremely clever grad student hacked a Nintendo Wii to produce an extremely sophisticated way of interacting with screen information.  It won’t replace a multi-thousand $$ system but I bet it will fire up some imaginations to drive creation of less expensive multitouch interfaces.  Nintendo would be crazy not to hire this guy.
  • The first time I handled a Rubik’s cube, I figured out how to take it apart and simply reassembled it with solved sides.  Took me about a minute.  I doubt I’ll be doing that with the Fentix Game Cube, a visual/electronic version.  You can see it in action on YouTube to get the idea.  It reminds me of a science fiction story I once read that featured a deceptively simple game put on the market clandestinely by aliens to train humans to make telepathic interstellar jumps.  But this one may help with spatial logic development.  What the heck, start small.
  • Intel has come up with an ultrasmall flash hard drive that will soon change the amount of storage tiny portable devices can have.  I think in the next two or three years we’re going to see portable computers the size of paperback books with big-system power.  You’ll carry them around and drop them in a cradle wherever you work, or just use them by themselves.  This will be a big part of that puzzle.  The other effect will be super-fast computer hard drives.  Who knows, we might even make Microsoft Windows run acceptably fast. 

But technologies converge, and computers will be fading into other devices.  Take prosthetic limbs for example: already some are first-generation cybernetic devices.  In the future, figure the use of Stanford Batteries (last week’s SciFri), a redeveloped Sega brain interface for control, and Intel flash chips built in.  You might not realize someone has an artificial arm until they start recording video with it.

Trouble with SciFri posts is that they’re fun to write and there’s no logical stopping point.  I’m writing this one at 4 in the morning due to some discomfort, which has faded a little. So I’m going to post and try that sleep thing again.

Science Friday: exciting energy news.  Yes, I said exciting.

December 21, 2007 11 comments

I enjoy NPR’s Science Friday and also like the idea of blogs pitching in.  But my SciFri post tends to wander in ‘round Saturday or Sunday.  This is consistent with the fact that we usually send our Christmas cards (if at all) just as Spring gives way to Summer.  So I hope you’ll cut me some slack.

Anyway my son sent me some truly exciting energy news this week.  It seems that Stanford university has found a way to use silicon nanofibres to multiply the storage capacity of Li-Ion batteries by a factor of TEN.

Yeah, I know; that’s a pretty nerdy thing to get excited about, but think about it a minute.  A tenfold increase in energy storage density means a lot more freedom in the storage vs. weight equation.  For instance, it means high-performance electric cars with 400-mile range.  It means electric ‘bicycles’. It means lighter laptops.  It means far more practical prosthetic limbs.  It means Segway technology becomes a practical base for advanced wheelchairs.  It means a lot of stuff we haven’t thought of yet.

See, there really is no shortage of energy; it’s all around us.  We know how to get it from wind, sun, and water, but the trouble is we can’t store it.  That’s the main advantage of fossil fuels over renewable energy; it’s already stored and we can use it anytime. 

There are lots of good reasons to abandon fossil fuels but it will be an uphill battle until one simple change occurs.  The moment it is a penny cheaper per kilowatt hour to use renewable energy over fossil fuel, the world will change almost overnight.  You’ll see people who hate environmentalism buying electric cars because they’ll be so much cheaper to drive. 

The Stanford battery (as I predict it will be called) will mainly affect “things that move” so it’s just one piece in the puzzle that is the future of energy technology.  But it’s a big piece.

In other energy news…

Many technologies are first used in military settings, and then go on to revolutionize civilian life.  A few not-so-trivial examples: Jet engines, trauma medicine, GPS, the Internet…

2) The Pentagon will soon be buying portable refineries to make jet fuel from waste.  The idea is to make fuel where they need it, solving both supply and waste problems.  It is not a new idea but the implementation is very clever (and practical).

Imagine if this application scales up.  Cities could generate a large chunk of their own electricity (reducing dependency on the grid) in turbine generators burning carbon-neutral jet fuel made from sewage and organic garbage.  Mega hog farms would sell electricity, too.

3) Here’s a wind generator that has no rotating parts.  It could power remote monitoring devices – perhaps charging up a Stanford battery.

4) Finally, it may be heresy here in Illinois to speak ill of corn ethanol, but Shifting Baselines reports: Corn kills fish, dead zone widens.  Thank you ethanol!

It’s a non-trivial problem.  We grow the corn here, but the price is distorted by the avalanche of money coming out of agricultural subsidies in general and the Ethanol subsidy in particular.  Result?  Corn production skyrockets, while crab and shrimp production in Louisiana dies a suffocating death.  And in the bargain, most of the studies on corn ethanol that I have seen show that it’s break-even at best in carbon production.  There seems to be no way to stop it, however.

Science Saturday: 3 energy stories

December 16, 2007 Comments off

This should actually be a Science Friday story but hey, that’s the breaks;

  • Cajun describes his latest project, a 9.000 horsepower pump station (one of many) that sends natural gas from Louisiana to our frozen region.  Among other fascinating aspects of the project is the reason you shouldn’t take flash pictures inside a pump house.  A hint: “no spectrographic analysis”  And while the CPU chip in your computer has a few million very small transistors, imagine the circuit regulated by a single transistor the size of a paperback book.  Also, while you might think industrial equipment from big German companies would be uber-reliable, well…

  • Calling Moses, or at least Charlton Heston:  Science Daily reports we could Dam The Red Sea And Release Gigawatts.  I didn’t realize there was a suitable hydro site there.  But if it can be done, power output might be in the range of 50 gigawatts. (That’s really quite a lot)  This isn’t like just damming some river; on this scale it requires a different ethical frame than a normal dam – it really is big enough to raise global effects and global questions.  For one thing, it might offset enough greenhouse gas production to make countries weigh it against the massive local environmental damage it would do.  Could part of the cost be covered by selling carbon offsets? A similar project is under study in the Strait of Hormuz.
  • 1.21 gigawatts, Dr. Brown?  Noooo problem.  It looks like the huge wind energy resource off the Mid-Atlantic Coast might be worth exploiting.  “…the wind over the Middle Atlantic Bight, the aquatic region from Cape Cod, Mass., to Cape Hatteras, N.C., could produce 330 gigawatts (GW) of average electrical power if thousands of wind turbines were installed off the coast.”  That’s about double the region’s total energy use now.  No word on how much energy would be produced if a single gigantic turbine were set up in front of Ted Kennedy, however.

I’m still workin’ on that story about bionic limbs.  Major new development this week from (of all places) a video game company.

Science Friday: creation, pain, plastics, energy technology and disaster preparedness

November 16, 2007 10 comments

Just a few unrelated cool items this week:

  • John Scalzi visited the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, and suffice to say, he had a lot of fun.  Oh, you could probably skip the first few paragraphs where he compares it to equine excrement, but it was apparently worth every penny of the $27m they spent trying to present the first chapter of Genesis as a science textbook. Be sure to take the photo tour.

  • Of considerable interest to me is the use of brain imaging studies to understand chronic pain.  Of course this is early stuff but it turns out there are structural differences in the brains of chronic pain sufferers.  It might suggest future research directions.  Maybe they’ll come up with really effective treatments by the time it just doesn’t matter anymore, at least to me.
  • What to do with all that excess carbon dioxide?  How about make plastic with it?  Someone found out how to use a zinc-based catalyst to use CO2 as a feedstock at low temperatures and pressures.  Thing is, even if we made all our roads and buildings and trains and cars and houses out of CO2 plastic, it would hardly make a dent.  At least it’s biodegradable, which I assume means it would produce methane.  Oh well, it is still a very cool technology and may lead to other things.  A startup has venture capital to build a pilot program using the new process.
  • In a country where ‘high ground’ means getting up on top of a car, it looked like cyclone Sidr was going to cause mass casualties like the one in the 1970’s that killed a half-million people.  But preparations have been made since then and even though huge destruction is occurring, it looks like loss of life will be much less this time around.  Maybe FEMA could learn something from them about preparation, since the agency started economizing on preparedness when the current administration took over from Clinton.
  • BBC has a neat animated page on hurricanes and cyclones (same thing).  On slide 8 you can see the damage differential for different levels.  Sidr made landfall as a 5 and dropped to a 3 inline – still no joke where high ground is rare and reinforced structures in the minority.
  • Here’s an idea I just love – spherical solar cells.  Tiny ones, each in its own itty-bitty scale hexagonal reflector.  It uses one-fifth the amount of silicon as conventional cells, should have better efficiency, and goes on a flexible foil substrate.  They are going on sale now, and the goal is to make them half the price of conventional cells by 2010. 
    Why is this so cool?  First because using less silicon will reduce the carbon imprint and lower costs.  But also because they can be shaped to anything, like the roof of a car or tiles on a house.  The sun has been dumping free energy on us all this time, and we should start snagging it.
  • Oh, one other thing: the new IPCC report is due out soon and it looks bad.  But hey, let’s keep denying and evading and stalling. 

Science Friday: a global computing project, vaccination follies, and - ! - daylight saving time

October 26, 2007 7 comments

Middle son suggests:

“You should check out WorldCommnityGrid.org if you haven’t already.  It’s a distributed computing site which has a number of projects which you can choose from.  Right now, my computer is crunching the numbers of the binding of protease inhibitors in both Dengue fever and the HIV virus (in the Discovering Dengue Drugs Together and Fighting AIDS At Home projects—DDDT and FAAH, respectively).  I guess the biochemists didn’t really want to come up with cool acronyms.  There’s also folding@home, a hugely successful project which has resulted in the publication of more than 50 scientific papers.

I think these projects are really neat, and you can set them to only be active while the computer has been inactive for a certain period of time.

I think I’m going to get our home file server working on one of those when I get it running.  An easy way to help towards important work.

BBC reports that British “Schoolgirls to get cancer jab” as the new HPPV vaccine goes online.  Parents who worry that granting their daughters protection from a dangerous STD would make them promiscuous, however, can opt out.  On our own shores, by the way, presidential candidate Ron Paul is an anti-vaxxer, a group of particularly dangerous denialists whose short memory of what it was like before vaccines poses a threat of revisiting some of our old plagues.

Just in time for the bi-annual enforced wrench-in-the-gears, comes a chronobiologist’s post: Daylight Savings Time is worse than previously thought.

That’ll have to do for today; I’m off to get my car from the mechanic.  It’s a new thing for me, letting someone else work on my car.

Science Friday: a great resource, notes from all over, and a think-piece

October 19, 2007 4 comments
Department of unintended consequences:
Ban complex drugs for children, official says.  The idea is that multi-symptom OTC cold-meds are inappropriate for the under-six set, because they can cause liver damage and have been implicated in several deaths.  A big problem to be sure, but if the kid-dosed cold medicines are banned, how much you want to bet parents will start trying to measure out adult meds for their sick kids, and even more kids will die?  I’m not suggesting a course of action, only predicting a likely outcome.
Bookmark this: Basic Concepts In Science
John at Evolving Thoughts is keeping a totally bitchin’ List of basic concepts in science covering a range of topics from statistics to chemistry, molecular biology to astronomy – just about everything imaginable.  Written by a growing cast of science bloggers, it’s a fantastic resource for teachers and for any interested person.
Computer evolution: say goodbye to desktop boxes
I’ve been saying for a while, computers that sit on desks while we sit in front of them will eventually be an anachronism.  Instead of us going where the computer is, the computer will go where we do.  The The Nokia N810 is a step in that direction.  It’s only a matter of time before devices like this let you take a large subset of your computing environment with you as a portable utility.  For serious large-scale input, expect wireless contact with full-size keyboards, or even non-physical ‘projection’ keyboards.  Then a roll-out screen of any desired size.
And a trip to the bookstore is in order…
I am so getting Evolution: What the fossils say and why it matters, maybe for Christmas.  Geologist Donald Prothero is author, and oh-happy-day, Carl Buell is the illustrator – check out his blog for an amazing sample of his work.
“Hey, stop worring, it’ll be fine” dept:
NASA says no delay in shuttle launch despite recommendations from an independent safety group that damaged panels on wings’ leading edges should be replaced.  Sure, whatever, guys.  One question: is “O-rings” one word, or two?
Think-piece of the week
Can science save the planet?  Previous theoretical modelling has been pretty much single-phenomena modelling, like gravity and insulin.  Now we’re trying to model planetary systems in which every component is interrelated to every other.  This is not exactly a new idea; Thoreau understood it back when.  But stakes are too high to shy away from the hard problems.