unrequited narcissism

Archives: science
Archives: science
August 02, 2006
August 02, 2006
'topes rule! science

Those of you who, like me, wish they understood chemistry should check out Derek Lowe's fascinating discussion of how anti-doping agencies can tell the difference between natural and artificial testosterone. I always assumed that for naturally-present performance enhancers, the amount present in the body was the only indicator of cheating — and presumably not a very accurate indicator, since different people naturally produce different levels of hormones/red blood cells/whatever.

But it turns out there are other ways to catch cheaters. For one thing, you can indentify an unnatural level of testosterone by examining the relative levels of its (inactive?) enantiomer. More interesting (and accurate) is the use of a technique (sort of) related to carbon dating. Lowe lays it out.

Speaking of carbon dating, I understood how it works, but never really got why it works — I get that carbon isotope levels have changed over time, but I always thought it was due to radioactive decay. But of course that doesn't make any sense, since an unstable isotope in a dinosaur bone should decay just as quickly as one in the atmosphere (assuming that cosmic rays aren't a big factor, which, as a non-Fantastic Four fan, I'm ready to do). Besides which, I guess C13 is a stable isotope, so the decay thing never made any sense anyway. Thankfully, Lowe fills in the gaps on all this, too. Good stuff.

UPDATE: Whoops! Forget what I said about carbon dating. Derek was kind enough to drop by in comments and lay out the actual reason that carbon dating works — it's unrelated to biological systems slowly filtering out C13, the phenomenon that's the basis for the artificial testosterone assay his post discusses.

The cosmic-rays-hitting-nitrogen business rings a bell, though, and I'm a little embarrassed to have forgotten it. Sorry for the confusion — I told you I was a dope when it comes to chemistry.

comments [1] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
July 14, 2006
July 14, 2006
bottlenecks science

When you're fretting about a server not having enough capacity — which is the root of the problems DCist is currently facing — you start thinking about bottlenecks. What's the slowest part of the system? That's where you need to direct your efforts, whether it be the connection, database, scripts or external services. Speed up the slowest thing, then hope that's enough. If it isn't, find the next-slowest thing and fix that. Repeat as necessary until you run out of patience or money.

This is the frame of mind I'm currently in. So it was pretty interesting to read this post of Jeff's, in which he discusses a book he's just read about the science of food production. According to the author, if you look at the global ecosystem — the growth and metabolic processing of life on this planet as a coherent whole — it turns out that you can locate the system's bottleneck: it's the rate at which nitrogen can be removed from the air and turned into a form directly usable by life.

We're past that bottleneck now, thanks to our ability to synthesize fertilizer. But Jeff reports that if we gave that up, reintroduced the bottleneck, and simply ran the system at peak efficiency — all organic farming, everywhere, all the time, in other words — a few billion people would have to quickly convert to Breatharianism.

Maybe I'm just in a weird mood, but I find all this pretty interesting. It's tough to see where these bottlenecks exist. In hindsight it's easy to see that advances like agriculture, sanitation, industrial manufacturing and digital technology all allowed rate-limited but otherwise ready systems to suddenly spring forward. Makes you wonder what's holding us back right now.

comments [1] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
July 03, 2006
July 03, 2006
brains are weird science

The McCollough Effect. Here's another good, if shorter-lived visual effect. And, if you're feeling like crossing sensory modalities (and why wouldn't you be!?), I provided some Shepard Tone links in this long, long post about audio compression.

Man. It seems so long ago that I could waste time writing thousands of words every day about nerdy stuff. Good times.

But back to my point: brains are weird, and terrifying. I love these sorts of demonstrations, where our inherent limitations are laid bare. If there's one thing humans are bad at, it's noticing our own shortcomings. And I don't just mean that in a dippy, navel-gazing, self-improving, let's-all-hold-hands-and-sing sort of way. I mean it in the you can go blind and not realize it sort of way. Hell, we've all got a gap in our visual fields where the optic nerve exits the retina — we just don't realize it (figuring out if/how the brain "papers over" this blind spot was a particularly tedious and thoroughly-investigated area of neuroscience, if I remember correctly).

Anyway, I've always thought that our inability to naturally recognize these sorts of limitations is a good thing to keep in mind — to whatever extent our puny human brains are capable of genuinely believing in their puniness, that is.

comments [3] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
April 07, 2006
April 07, 2006
less trash-talking, more science science

A few sites that I don't send people to enough:

  • Dan's Data is written by a crazy Australian skeptic*, and while it definitely has an unhealthy preoccupation with LED flashlights and comparative studies in PC cases, there's plenty of material for both geeks and nerds. Dan's writing is always sharp, and his columns are littered with delightful bits like this one, in which he discusses the feasibility of setting off a nuclear explosion by holding two pieces of plutonium in your hands and clapping them together like erasers. It's very, very hard to read one of Dan's columns without learning something about computing, electronics or physics.

  • Derek Lowe's blog In the Pipeline does a good job making the pharmaceutical industry seem non-evil, in a nice sort of triangulation between my own Marcia Angel-style piratical skepticism and Andrew Sullivan's calls for immediate and unconditional surrender to the forces of Merck and Pfizer. Best of all is his How Not To Do It series, which may be a big help to you if you've got access to a chemistry lab and the desire to die horribly, but aren't quite sure where to start.

  • Finally, via Lowe I've just discovered Dylan's TenderBlog, which is also alchemical in nature. It features insights like the following (on distilling a particularly carinogenic solvent): "Just wear two pairs of gloves and don't marinate your genitals in it". I'm no chemist, but that sounds like good advice.

* By which I mean he's skeptical about things like religion and alternative medicine. I'm pretty sure he believes in Australia.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
March 29, 2006
March 29, 2006
i thought you guys were cool... or uncool, i forget which science

It's pretty disappointing to see BoingBoing post about "electrosensitivity", an imagined allergy to electrical noise. People have been looking for a connection between electromagnetic fields and cancer for ages without much luck. Now I guess the kooks are retreating to claims that these mysterious (and therefore evil) rays are causing vague and difficult-to-quantify declines in quality of life and, I don't know, aura color, maybe?

All of that would be fine if it didn't seem so likely to be embraced, extended, and eventually put on the cover of Time with a big headline ending in a question mark. We've already got every nerd with a Perl book and a twin bed going around explaining to the world how he has Asperger's. I really, really don't need hypochondriacs seated next to me on airplanes to start asking me to shut off my laptop for the flight's duration.

None of this is to deny that some people might get headaches from the omnipresent 60 Hz hum that surrounds North American electricity users. But that's something different entirely from the high-tech animism that motivates this disease-of-the-week nonsense. Bah! Remember, BoingBoing: electricity good, patent regime bad...

comments [5] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
March 27, 2006
March 27, 2006
i don't understand it, but i know it's progress science

Scientists have run a complete simulation of a virus, down to the atomic level, for 50 ns. This seems like a pretty big deal. Admittedly, we already do really sophisticated modeling of the interplay between cell receptors and viruses. Without a complete model of a cell, a viral model doesn't seem likely to do you a whole lot of good, and cells are waaay more complicated than viruses. Still, it's encouraging just to know that this kind of thing can be done. It's going to be an amazing breakthrough when a complete viral lifecycle can be simulated on an atomic level.

And hey, maybe it wouldn't be that hard to build a complete model of a ribosome (here's where we overstep my knowledge of cell biology). That seems likely to do a lot of good in and of itself (although I have no idea if it'd let you sidestep the computation necessary to solve protein-folding problems or not — if not, you'd be headed from one supercomputing problem straight into another).

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
March 03, 2006
March 03, 2006
"It's like hooking the patient up to a car battery" science

An IEEE Spectrum article about electrical neural stimulation techniques? Yes! This is the type of article that my college-era self and my college-era housemate Jon Brookshire could both be fascinated by: neuroscience problems combined with capacitor-efficiency problems. Rockin'.

Admittedly, the things I used to know about this stuff have faded alarmingly quickly — I found an old exam while cleaning out my car a little while ago and was completely shocked at the things I had forgotten. My essay answers were gibberish — did I really once know which enzymes consumed which neurotransmitters? I'd forgotten that I'd forgotten that.

But what little I do remember makes me excited about these therapies. Solving psychological problems by manipulating neurotransmitters with drugs is like trying to solve a city's downtown traffic congestion problem by manipulating the number of taxis on the streets: it's possible, and not too hard to implement, but it's difficult to anticipate the total effect on other parts of the system. Sometimes the taxi system really will be the thing that's fucked up, and what ought to be fixed — but not always. These electrostimulation techniques are still (mostly) pretty inexact, but seem ultimately likely to provide much more targeted action than pharmaceuticals.

[Via BoingBoing]

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
February 21, 2006
February 21, 2006
ice worms: so hot right now science

via peter, a really kind of fascinating article on, of all things, ice worms!

Thriving in conditions that would turn most living things to Popsicles, these inch-long earthworm cousins inhabit glaciers and snowfields in the coastal ranges of Alaska, British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. They move through seemingly solid ice with ease and are at their liveliest near the freezing point of water. Warm them up slightly and they dissolve into goo.

Their life cycle remains a mystery.

But ice worms are beginning to yield their secrets to a few hardy scientists who see broad applications from understanding one of the planet's oddest inhabitants.

NASA anted up $200,000 last year to explore the worms' cold tolerance and what it might say about the possibility of life on Jupiter's icy moons and other planets. That work could also improve cold storage of organs and tissues for transplantation.

As glaciers shrink in the face of global warming, interest is growing in ice worms and other animals whose habitat could melt away within the next 50 years. National Geographic funded one of the first field surveys to focus on ice-worm ecosystems.

"They're kind of hot right now," Lee said as he and roommate Dave Eiriksson strapped on their gear and headed up the slopes above Paradise.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by catherine - link
January 25, 2006
January 25, 2006
dance dance resolution science  - tech

Nicole points me to news that West Virginia is installing DDR in its middle schools in order to fight childhood obesity. Neat. I remember seeing the news of the pilot study last April, but I never suspected it'd result in an actual, widely-deployed fitness program. Lucky fat kids.

comments [3] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
January 06, 2006
January 06, 2006
just crazy enough to work science

When I see an article on Slashdot with a title like "Warp Drives In Development", I automatically assume it's there because of editorial incompetence or as comment-inducing flamebait. I mean, yes, I remember from that one Star Trek movie that there was this guy who was going to invent the warp engine, but he was an alcoholic so time travelers had to yell at him to get his shit together (step 2 of 12). And I agree, it was the closest Star Trek has ever come to a so-called character arc, and therefore the greatest piece of drama ever, and therefore entirely plausible. But that doesn't mean engineering schools are going to start offering Advanced Nacelle Design anytime soon.

But it turns out that the physics behind it maybe, possibly, could be for real. Obviously I'm in no position to seriously comment, being a total moron at physics. But a new paper on the underlying theory won a "Best Paper of the Year" award from these guys, who are apparently reputable. And the DoE and DoD seem committed to sinking some money into testing the underlying science (they've done the same for cold fusion, of course). But most importantly: the backstory to the theory is incredibly entertaining. The theory ain't bad, either.

As this comment explains, the idea is that a sufficiently massive torus of matter rotated in a strong magnetic field deforms spacetime on one side of the torus, exerting a force that'd pull the whole contraption along. More importantly, physics magic means that, given a strong enough effect, the speed of light could be exceeded. In order to avoid violating general relativity, this happens by slipping into another dimension. Which is awesome.

This is all based on Heim Theory, a GUT put together by Burkhard Heim. As I said, all of this stuff is over my head, but Heim's story is fascinating. First and foremost, the dude had no hands. That's right, handless. He lost 'em in an explosive-handling mishap when he was working in a Nazi munitions factory. Right there: two strikes in his favor. First, it's clear that within the world of science more hands = more distractions. Just look at the scholarly output of Dr. Octopus — the man is an academic laughingstock. Second, everybody knows that Nazi scientists are tops when it comes to producing diabolical, earth-shattering science on a shoestring budget. If you need a lot of gorilla cyborgs for not a lot of money, you know who to call.

That explosion also left Heim blind and mostly deaf. He couldn't work in a collaborative setting — his handicaps were too much of an impediment. He holed himself up and worked on his theory, terrified of plagiarists. He only ever published one paper, at the urging of a friend. Finally, decades later, he tried testing it. With the assistance of other researchers, the theory was plugged into a computer. From its first principles, the masses of the elementary particles were calculated, and matched up very closely with experimental observation. Apparently this is a big deal.

But even though Heim died several years ago, the bulk of his work seems to still be in the process of being chewed over by the scientific community. It's all in German and uses some pretty nasty calculus, presumably just to be difficult. I guess I'd be in an antagonistic mood, too, if my hands were blown off. Also not helping attract scholarly sympathy: Heim was embraced by UFO crackpots. It sounds like he tried to keep his work separate and reputable, but didn't entirely eschew their company.

Of course I clearly shouldn't believe everything I read on Wikipedia, and I should believe even less of what I read on Slashdot (you should believe none of what you read here). But c'mon — we're talking about a handless, blind, deaf, reclusive ex-Nazi scientist. I can't comment on the physics, but this theory is clearly biographically sound.

comments [2] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
October 20, 2005
October 20, 2005
theoretical snacking science

Someone has brought donut holes in to the office this morning. I'm grateful for the free snack (even though they're making me feel pretty sick right now). But I can't approve of the basic donut hole design. The whole genius of the donut is the hole: not only does it allow for even cooking, but it affords more surface area. More surface area means more contact with the oil, which means more fat, which means more deliciousness. The donut hole is doomed to a poorer tastiness:mass ratio than its larger cousin.

One of the few things I remember from college math is that as a conventional geometric object is projected into more dimensions, a greater proportion of the points contained within that object exist on its surface. This seems a little counterintuitive, particularly since you can cram an infinite number of geometric points into any given space. But you'll just have to take my word for it (particularly since I don't remember how to understand the math that provides the justification): the ratio of points on a sphere's surface to those in its interior is higher than the ratio of points on a circle's circumference to those in its interior. This relationship holds until you get to seven dimensions and change, at which point it maxes out and begins to decline.

Two important conclusions follow. One, multi-dimensional string theory may hold the key to snack foods of unimagined delectability (the ideal hyperdonut exists in 7.25695 dimensions). And two, the donuts in Homer Simpson's 2D universe must be less tasty than those in our own. Dude must really like donuts.

comments [1] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
October 05, 2005
October 05, 2005
that's what i get for believing in you science

Well, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry has just been awarded, and yet again it's gone to somebody other than my friend Jeff.

Seriously, what's the problem here, Jeff? Get your ass in gear.

Anyway, the winners received the prize for inventing and refining a reaction called metathesis, which is apparently a big-deal reaction. I assume that's some sort of formal classification.

comments [1] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
October 02, 2005
October 02, 2005
try not to think about it science

This blogospheric singularity stuff is getting out of hand. Don't get me wrong, I find it all pretty interesting. But it's not a new idea, nor is it being pursued very thoroughly. Nerds have talked about this stuff for ages. I haven't ever bothered to delve into it very deeply, but even I realize that the current discussions (seemingly led by Kevin Drum) are fairly superficial (no offense, Kevin). This seems to be because they're being shaped by a single book. So, because I can't help myself, a few quick points in response to Drum's latest:

  • The word "singularity", at least in the formulations I'm familiar with, is used in a technical sense to denote a moment in history beyond which the future cannot be predicted. This is commonly expected to be the rise of machine intelligence, or the digitization of human consciousness — it doesn't really matter. The point of the term is that the consequences of the event for society cannot be predicted. This is where the name comes from — the analogy that provides the name is to matter that has entered a black hole (where its information was thought to be lost). Stephen Hawking has made this analogy probably incorrect, but still: trying to figure out the singularity's implications is incoherent by definition. That isn't stopping anyone, of course, so let's just plunge ahead.

  • Drum quotes Kurzweil citing Libet's experiments showing that motor planning for a voluntary action precedes our perception of the corresponding volition. I'm actually very sympathetic to Kurzweil's interpretation of this evidence, and think it does strongly suggest that traditional conceptions of free will are wrong. But it's worth pointing out that further investigation has shown that people may be able to, at the last minute, "short circuit" the motor program that formed before they become aware of their impulse. Some people grab onto this milliseconds-long window as a refuge for free will. I'm not a fan of that position, but (last I checked) the debate over Libet's work isn't as clear-cut as the quoted Kurzweil indicates. Now, if you consider consciousness to be an epiphenomenon, the problems presented by Libet's work recede. But then you have to decide what free will means in the context of a consciousness that is caused but doesn't cause anything else. I'm okay with that, but most people don't like it much.

  • Finally (and most germane to Drum's post), I'll point out that "if a) free will proves to be an illusion then b) humans will give up and cease trying to preserve their existence" isn't very well-justified. Drum realizes this, and admits that it wouldn't be a free-will-style choice. But he doesn't offer any compelling reason for the initial doubt — why should out hard-wired behavior lead us to existential defeat? If conscious will is out of the picture, what's going to counteract a strong inbuilt drive for self-preservation? So far as I can tell, the "give up" hypothesis really has nothing going for it.

Anyway, it's all probably irrelevant: as always when thinking about free will, the most important thing is to ignore your conclusions. If anything, that's what we're hard-wired to do.

comments [6] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
September 19, 2005
September 19, 2005
this is roughly what i have in mind for halloween science

This is pretty great. I just wish someone had handed him a fluorescent lightbulb.

Via Michael.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
August 29, 2005
August 29, 2005
dur D.C.  - media  - science

Yeesh. Via Atrios, check out this Post column, which is in the sports section, and about intelligent design. Cause, you know — athletes are impressive. Which means they're complex. Which means they're irreducibly impressively complex! I realize the argument is a little complicated, so I'll just cut to the end: Sally Jenkins is a fucking idiot. Q.E.D.

And she doesn't even live in the area! That's right, for the past several years she's been phoning it in from NYC. C'mon, Post editors. This column puts her well past "irrelevant" and deep into "embarassing" territory.

comments [3] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
August 23, 2005
August 23, 2005
bfd science

A new sleep wonder drug is making headlines after significantly improving the performance of sleep-deprived monkeys.

Color me unimpressed. Any number of stimulants can accomplish the same feat. The authors dismiss the equivalency of existing drugs by noting that caffeine and its compatriots

"...may be limited due to their potential for addiction and/or their potent stimulant actions, which can distort cognitive and sensory processes at doses required to counteract the effects of sleep deprivation."

But of course you can't ask a monkey whether the drug you just administered made him feel spaced-out. And despite its specific inclusion in the list that precedes this quote, Modafinil/Provigil is well-known for not producing any of those effects.

So basically we've got a novel stimulant that may offer advantages over existing drugs — but we don't really know that yet. I've got to say, the way the pop-science press chooses stories completely mystifies me.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
August 17, 2005
August 17, 2005
making the most of your puny human brain science

This is pretty neat: scientists at Vanderbilt have discovered that emotionally charged imagery can induce a split second of blindness. They've even got a flash application that lets you see for yourself.

I love this kind of stuff. Most folks have heard about blindsight -- it's intriguing, but I always found the complementary phenomenon more interesting. Blindsight patients aren't aware of the full extent of the information available to them; patients with anosognosia aren't aware of their limitations, which can include some pretty hard-to-miss deficiencies. Learning that you can go blind without knowing it made a big impression on me.

And hey, with that in mind, why not go do one of those blind spot experiments that you failed to pay attention to because of your furious preoccupation with Oregon Trail. Or, for a slightly more impressive but less relevant effect, have a look here.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
August 16, 2005
August 16, 2005
remedial science fiction science

I finished Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age over the weekend. I'm several years behind, I know. It's not bad, and certainly a nice, imaginative exercise in what kinds of consumer goodies might be possible with omnipresent nanotechnology. That's all Stephenson's really any good for, though — leaps of imagination. Take some neat toys, throw them into a world in which all of our contemporary power structures have been subverted or transformed and Asian culture is ascendant. Then add some completely inscrutable characters. Four hundred pages later, conclude abruptly.

Which is fine. I like that stuff. But Stephenson should really spend an afternoon with Physics for Dummies. Energy seemingly comes from nowhere and for free; impossibly large amounts of it get stored in impossibly small spaces; a novel but pointless blood-based computer network is introduced but never justified (Stephenson seems obsessed with STDs); and he blithely declares that humans aren't Turing machines (or more precisely, can't be simulated by a Turing machine). If it was wrapped in even a little pseudoscience I'd be fine with this groundbreaking result being a central part of the story, but the justification basically boils down to "computers don't want to have sex with teenage girls". Searching for the apotheosis of that ineffable quality that defines our humanity? Look no further than the pages of Barely Legal.

And then there's this, which I first saw over at Articulatory Loop, and then at Slashdot. It's a urine-powered battery. Well, urine-powered in the same sense that your car's battery is water-powered. Really, nearly any liquid would do, including urine, if you really insist on it. The liquid just provides a medium for electron transfer between two dissimilar metals, not any of the system's energy.

Look, I'm as anxious to be brutally subjugated by robotic overlords as everyone else. But until we see how that eventuality actually unfolds, let's keep things plausible.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
August 01, 2005
August 01, 2005
the kids aren't alright pop culture  - science

We had high hopes for TLC's Feral Children show, but it ended up being less like this:

batboy lives!

and more like this:

starving_child.jpg

Still, it was all relevant and cognitive scientastic, so I guess I can't complain. But did you guys have to bring out the wire monkey mothers, too? With the maladjusted monkey geeks avoiding eye contact with the cool monkeys and shuffling toward whatever side of the experimental apparatus most resembled a high school prop closet? Cause that was just upsetting.

comments [4] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
July 21, 2005
July 21, 2005
the problem with earplugs science

Kyle has a good review of the Teenage Fanclub show over at DCist. He mentions that the sound started off muddled, then got better. Now, just to be clear: there's a great chance that it was a poor sound mix that got corrected, especially if Kyle had already sat through an opener. He's a smart lad and has been to a lot of shows. I'd trust him on this one.

But another possibility exists, and I think it's interesting enough to prattle on about for a while. It's also the reason that earplugs not only make you look lame, but also make shows sound worse (instead of just quieter).

MORE...
comments [7] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
cold shoulder science

I'm sorry to get all sour grapes on you, but this is retarded. Two Salt Lake City high school students have won a $50,000 "Sustainable Development" scholarship award from Ricoh for creating a new car air conditioning system that doesn't use moving parts or freon.

The system works by using Peltier coolers, which take advantage of an interesting effect whereby applying a current to a properly constructed semiconductor creates a temperature differential -- one side gets hot, and the other gets cool. These kids basically rigged up a bunch of Peltiers and a hairdryer fan to blow air over them. It's a nice science project, but the idea that someone gave them fifty thousand dollars for this boggles my mind.

For one thing, it's not like these kids invented the Peltier Effect, or even built the relevant coolers. Check it out -- you can buy these suckers for $8 on ebay. Idiots who overclock their computers buy them to cool down processors.

I say idiots because Peltier coolers simply don't work that well. For computers, you're usually better off just buying a bigger fan and heatsink or (sigh) a water-cooling kit. Relative to conventional automotive air conditioning systems, Peltiers are terrible. For one thing, they're horribly inefficient, consuming much more energy than they transport. Traditional mechanical refrigeration, by contrast, is extremely efficient -- about seven times moreso than Peltiers.

For another thing, Peltiers take electricity, which is not something car engines produce. Engines make rotary motion, which your alternator turns into electricity. Alternators are also pretty efficient, but by using a thermoelectric solution you invariably end up throwing away some energy in order to produce the electricity needed to power the already-inefficient Peltiers. Compressor-based A/C systems just hook up to your engine via a belt, and skip the electrical step altogether.

So why would you ever, ever try to use the Peltier solution? Well, the short answer is "you wouldn't". But is is compact, lightweight, and pretty cheap. Also, it doesn't use freon. But then, neither do modern automotive air conditioners -- their refrigerant (although still sometimes called freon) doesn't deplete the ozone. It's a greenhouse gas, but if you're worried about automobiles' greenhouse emissions, the A/C system is not the place to concentrate your fretting.

So basically these kids bought $50 worth of computer cooling accessories and rigged a fan to blow over them. It's like if I proposed using glove warmers to replace that bulky, polluting gas furnace in your basement. No emissions! More compact! A great solution... until you actually figure out how much it's going to cost.

I realize that beating up on a couple of kids' failure to develop a revolutionary technology is a little silly. But c'mon -- $50k and writeup that makes them sound like the next Jobs and Wozniak? It's a bit much.

comments [2] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
July 19, 2005
July 19, 2005
spooky action science

Requisite disclaimers: Princeton doesn't actually fund the lab, its science is reasonably criticized as irrelevant due to difficulty in reproducing the results, and the article's from Wired. But still, this is pretty interesting. Via BoingBoing.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
July 12, 2005
July 12, 2005
there's no animal model: sadly, rats can't play blackjack science

Strangely enough, I first heard about this last night on a teaser for Fox News at 10, DC's most ridiculously sensationalist news program. But hey! It's actually interesting: a study has found that some drugs prescribed for Parkinson's Disease can prompt compulsive gambling behavior; some subjects also indulged excessively in alcohol, sex and food.

It's too early to say for sure, but there's an obvious explanation that presents itself. Parkinson's is primarily a deficit in the dopamine-related systems in the brain. Dopamine is important for motor function, but it's best known as the key neurotransmitter in the brain's system of rewards. The proverbial rats that'll push an electrode-stimulating button until they starve to death? That electrode is wired into their dopaminergic neurons in the nucleus accumbens. And cocaine and methamphetamine are dopamine agonists (meaning they increase the system's activity). It's the feel good neurotransmitter! (I guess that'd make serotonin the feel-good-about-yourself neurotransmitter.)

So why do these drugs induce excessive gambling instead of excessive consumption of the drug? A strong possibility is that their mechanism of action relies on potentiating dopaminergic activity. The drug doesn't replace dopamine, but it makes it more effective. So when patients participate in activities that naturally light up their brains' reward centers, they get a bigger kick than they normally would. Let's just hope the folks conducting the study keep their subjects away from the crack.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
knee deepak science

Some moderately entertaining bullshit.

comments [1] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
June 14, 2005
June 14, 2005
the myth of the consciometer science

This article over at Slate... it's not so good:

Sometime in the next decade or so, neuroscientists will likely identify the specific neural networks and activity that generate the vague but vital thing we call consciousness. Delineating the infrastructure of awareness is biology's most difficult problem, but a leading researcher like Christof Koch, Gerald Edelman, or Stanislas Dehaene could soon solve it. Science will then possess what might be called a "consciometer" — a set of tests (probably an advanced version of a brain scan or EEG) that can measure consciousness the way kidney or lung function is now measured.

The author, a guy named David Dobbs, goes on to rhapsodize about the revolutionary impact the consciometer will have on the abortion debate and living will decisions.

I've written the word "consciometer" before. It's a nice rhetorical device when talking about these kinds of things. But this is a pretty stupid article.

MORE...
comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
May 09, 2005
May 09, 2005
nothing gets the nerds cracking jokes science

...like the birth of a black hole.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
April 13, 2005
April 13, 2005
puff the magic dragon of eden science

I finally got around to reading Carl Sagan's Dragons of Eden. I didn't pick it up to get a cutting edge review of the science of the mind -- it's almost three decades old, after all -- but like all of Sagan's writing, it's accessible and interesting. Even if Sagan's guesses about the brain don't entirely pan out, they're still amazingly impressive given the foreignness of the field to his primary area of expertise. And although Sagan's left versus right versus oldbrain paradigm has problems, echoes of it can be found in ideas like Dennett's multiple drafts model.

But since the book's no longer that relevant, the best bits come from just enjoying Sagan for his own sake, and for the moments of the book that reveal something about the extraordinary guy that wrote it. And to that end, some of the most illuminating are the parts of the book directly or tangentially related to marijuana.

Sagan was a pot enthusiast. His last wife, Ann Druyan, is vice-chair of NORML's board of directors, and Sagan spoke about the drug enthusiastically, albeit quietly and rarely. In DOE Sagan talks about pot by recounting the experiences of an unnamed third party "informant" -- it's easy to read between the lines. He even goes so far as to take various strange, irrelevant jabs at alcohol in a weird sort of reefer elitism.

The only part where Sagan's enthusiasm for the drug really intrudes is in his suggestion that marijuana's mechanism of action might involve suppressing the activity of the left hemisphere of the brain in order to free the creative and associative powers of the right. So far as I know there has never been evidence to back up this flight of fancy.

But it's fascinating to read Sagan's hypotheses about the evolution and future of intelligence on this and other planets through the lens of his enthusiasm for pot, because many of his ideas really do have the ring of typical stoner philosophizing... with the caveat that they're blown out to the level of genuine insight by Sagan's genius. This strange intersection between undeniable scientific merit and cartoonish burnout-isms comes into sharp focus in this interview with Ms. Druyan, which contains both a thoughtful discussion of Sagan's heartfelt belief in the liberating power of science, and the phrase "I'd like to ride on a solar sail and smoke a joint in space!"* It also reveals that Sagan and Druyan collaborated to have an EEG recording of her meditating about human history, nuclear war and love included on the Voyager Interstellar Message. I mean, c'mon -- you'd have to be totally high to come up with that idea.

So do you see? Maybe you should have written down all those brilliant insights instead of just eating three dozen chicken wings. Oh well -- spilled milk.

* To be fair, Druyan doesn't say this, the interviewer does. But she was building the solar sail in question and, presumably, would be fine with any of its potential passengers smoking joints.

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April 08, 2005
April 08, 2005
almost actual science science

West Virginia is spending ten grand to study whether schoolkids can be convinced to lose weight through the use of Dance Dance Revolution. Awesome. I love seeing states spend money on harebrained schemes, and I especially love seeing states spend money on harebrained scheme that, strangely, might actually work -- the folks at GetUpMove.com certainly make a compelling (albeit sponsored) anecdotal case for DDR's defattening powers.

Up next: a persistent online roleplaying game based around not getting pregnant. The input device might be tricky to figure out...

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March 23, 2005
March 23, 2005
you know you've sort of made it science

...when your uncle's on the front page of Slashdot.

(thanks to Justin M. for the link)

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March 18, 2005
March 18, 2005
imagine robert stack reading it to you science

Via Michael, and now Slashdot, check out New Scientist's Thirteen Things That Do Not Make Sense. It's a fascinating read, although it overstates the evidence for homeopathy and cold fusion, and makes the placebo effect sound more mysterious than it is by pretending that biochemistry and psychology are neatly separable. There's a brief but (I think) interesting tidbit from my undergrad days after the cut.

Anyway, go have a read. I won't pretend to understand the scientific ramifications of each of the potential resolutions to these mysteries. But personally, I read "mystery in physics" as "there's still a chance for hoverboards".

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February 25, 2005
February 25, 2005
superposition ain't that super science

Roger Penrose is on NPR and I just received a bill from the library for his book, so now seems like an opportune time to write about it. I finally finished up Shadows of the Mind, having read it in ridiculously short spurts over the past few months (average session length: 3 metro stops).

I mentioned Penrose before, and JK of C-130 called me out on a dig I made at Penrose. Having just finished Francis Crick's highly unsatisfying "reductionism lite", I decided to have a closer look at Penrose's account.

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February 18, 2005
February 18, 2005
more bang for your bitrate science  - tech

Yesterday I promised in comments to figure out how lossless compression algorithms work. Lossless compression schemes are those that let you store a signal without losing any information -- think of ZIP files, for example. Turns out my top-of-my-head theoretical explanation wasn't bad -- a bunch of lossless compression algorithms do work similarly, and it's a set-in-stone fact that a lossless codec will make some worst-case files larger than they started out.

But I was specifically asked about FLAC, a lossless codec designed for audio. FLAC can take PCM data (a digital audio signal) and compress it to anywhere from 30-70% of its original size without losing any data. Neat. But how does it work?

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summers wind science

Looks like a transcript of Larry Summers' remarks has been released. Between this and the tarring and feathering of Eason Jordan, it seems like blogs are rapidly destroying the concept "off the record". I'm not sure that's a good thing.

But, with that said, it's now apparent that Summers' comments were pretty dumb: he seems to think that sex differences' influence on variance in aptitude is more pronounced than their influence on mean aptitude, but he more or less discounts the role of discrimination and socialization out of hand, calling them "lesser factors". I think both camps in this little online debate ended up staking out tenable positions, but Summers' newly-clarified position doesn't seem to line up with the measured pro-Summers appraisal that I'd arrived at. So allow me to amend my position: Larry's a dick.

However, I still believe that Naomi's proficiency at Dr. Mario is an astounding biological oddity.

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February 17, 2005
February 17, 2005
¡digital audio extravaganza! music  - science  - tech

I called Napster a "bad brand" a few days ago, but I've got to admit that there seems to be a certain magic to it. In the past couple of days I've had a lot of friends IMing and emailing me about the various ways of turning Napster's DRM'ed WMA files into other, unprotected formats.

Well, yes, you can do that. As I noted in the original post, you can use Winamp's out_lame plugin to encode to MP3. The Napster trick making the rounds uses the Output Stacker plugin (which has since been pulled from AOL-owned Winamp's website), but the principle is the same -- I haven't tried it, but I imagine Output Stacker might let you transfer ID3 information so you don't have to retag your music, but there is very little difference from the out_lame solution, technically speaking.

Thing is, this is nothing new.

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February 02, 2005
February 02, 2005
pop neuroscience science

I find the latest scientific hubub a tiny bit irking. If you haven't heard, the media is pushing a new study saying that the risk-avoidance portion of the brain doesn't finish developing until around age 25. I'm having a hell of a time finding even an abstract for the study -- why do pop science writers insist on avoiding proper citation? But I've still got two more weeks of youthful recklessness to enjoy, so allow me to charge ahead without having seen the study and explain why I think this is junk.

First, what does this "not done forming" thing really mean? Odds are pretty good that they mean the frontal lobe hasn't finished myelinating. Myelin is a fatty sheath that coats your brain's axons -- this allows for much faster and more efficient conduction of nerve impulses. It's a good deal -- nasty things happen when you lose your myelin, MS being the classic example. Contrary to the "aha!" flavor being attached to this study, my intro to neuroscience textbook was pretty clear about the fact that myelination doesn't conclude until at least your early twenties.

But more to the point, it's not perfectly obvious that incomplete myelination always translates to poorer performance. If memory serves, myelination inhibits neural plasticity -- this is the preferred explanation for why young kids are better at picking up languages. And while the frontal lobe is considered to be essential for deliberate planning, it's tough to translate a slight morphological difference into a causal factor. If you remember high school psychology, you recall how Phineas Gage is the textbook lesion study used to answer "what does the frontal lobe do?" For those who don't remember: Gage got most of his frontal lobe (and connecting fibers) shot out by a railroad spike. Cool, I know. But his personality changed immediately from that of a thoughtful, deliberate person to that of a profane, lazy jerk with wild mood swings.

So yeah, it's tempting to lump all these symptoms together and say "youth is a disease of the frontal lobe!" But do we really think that part of the brain goes offline at age 12? Or could the mood swings be the product of something more related to the Hair that suddenly shows up Down There?

Well, who knows; maybe the sudden influx of hormones somehow screws up frontal lobe performance. Maybe it does something else entirely. The point is just that establishing causation in neuroscience is tough to do unless you have the luxury of lesioning your subjects. Instead the best we can usually do is come up with somewhat suggestive anatomical studies such as this one.

If this study correlated myelination with whatever Analytic Risk Taking Protocol is officially used to measure these things, it might be a little more definitive -- but as far as I can tell from the articles I can find about it, this is a purely biological study.

But that fact won't stop the science press from running with it, like on the last page of this Post story. Apparently teens playing a driving videogame take more risks than twentysomethings when they're in front of their friends. By jamming this factoid together with the other study, we're supposed to conclude that the difference comes from frontal lobe development. Personally, I suspect it's got more to do with us having had a few extra years to get bored with the Grand Theft Auto series of videogames.

But again: who knows?! The point is just this: everyone wants to quantify What's Wrong with those Damn Kids, but a correlation this weak (a several year gap between biological process completing and the perceived peak of irresponsibility) isn't exactly conclusive.

comments [2] trackBack [1] posted by tom - link
January 24, 2005
January 24, 2005
disclaimer: site may cause death science

via Hack-A-Day: instructions for how to turn your microwave into a foundry. Yeah, people say to keep metal out of the microwave -- but just so they can keep all the awesomeness for themselves.

Seriously though, you really, really shouldn't try this. But I know you all are quite the iconoclasts, so at the VERY LEAST, please don't try it without telling me how totally rad it is.

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January 18, 2005
January 18, 2005
blog outrage du jour science

Since Catherine and I are both suffering from some serious writer's block, let me take the current blogospheric football and run with it -- but in the opposite direction from my right-minded friends. Girls stink at math! (At least to a small but statistically significant degree more than boys).

Okay, so for those of you with something better to do during the day than follow every micro-controversy: Harvard president Larry Summers has irritated a lot of folks by suggesting that the lack of female scientists may be due, in part, to biological differences.

Some people are making good criticisms of Summers' comments, pointing out that other factors figure in: the career-derailment frequently entailed by having kids, or simple discrimination from male-dominated academic committees. That seems perfectly right -- everyone seems to agree that female professorial candidates in the sciences lose out more than they ought to.

But that doesn't invalidate Summers' point that there are relevant differences between the sexes. To admit that there's a statistically relevant phenomenon going on here is not to deny the excellence of individual women in science, or to justify discrimination of any sort.

If I maintain that men have a biological advantage in terms of (non-endurance-based) muscle strength, does that mean that a given man -- let's say me -- is stronger than any woman? Or that, given a need for, say, jar-opening that must be satisfied by either myself or an unspecified female candidate, I should be given preferential consideration? Of course not! There are plenty of women who could kick the hell out of me. But that doesn't make the more general "men have a strength advantage" position invalid.

There are good reasons to think men and women perform differently on different types of mental tasks. Guys do better on tests of spatial reasoning; women are better at some types of verbal tasks. These differences aren't huge, but they do seem to exist.

Now why, you might ask, is this line of reasoning any less objectionable than the usual Bell Curve-style justifications for discrimination? How can differences in mathematical ability be disentangled from other contributing factors? Maybe girls don't get called on as much in physics class... Fair enough, but this ignores the fact that women have surpassed men by many -- probably most -- academic metrics. They've got higher GPAs, and there are between 5 and 10 percent more women in college than men. So I think there are good reasons to question the significance of institutional barriers to female academic success -- at least at the levels where the aforementioned tests are administered.

I don't mean to impugn the intelligence of any woman. Certainly, such slight disparities in specific kinds of mathematical ability are the sort of things that any fair-minded person ought to ignore completely at the level of individual performance. I'm ready to believe that, say, different levels of childhood exposure to Number Munchers is far more relevant than the presence of a Y chromosome. But to me, different in-built biological advantages seem like a perfectly reasonable way to explain trends at a population-wide level. The differences are small, but they seem to be there -- and given that, I don't see anything wrong with acknowledging them.

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such wonderful toys science

I love reading Dan's Data. No other site so reliably rounds up useless but impossibly cool scientific gadgetry. I can't justify buying all this crap, so I'll just throw it out here. If you're looking for something science-y to put on your desk that's a little more interesting than a set of those goddamn clicking chrome balls, these should fit the bill:

  • An electromagnet that can lift 500lbs -- running off two D batteries. That's got to be useful for something, right?

  • Or are you looking for finger-breaking fun but hate replacing batteries? Well why not buy yourself a gigantic rare-earth magnet? Besides the broken finger part, I mean.

  • It would be irresponsible to imply that at-home science is exclusively about hurting yourself. There are also large parts of it devoted to ruining your furniture. So how about some ferromagnetic fluid? It's a freaky black liquid that changes shape in a magnetic field. These guys have a starter kit that's only sixteen bucks.

  • Alright, so magnetism's awesome and all, but if you'd prefer using a different sort of invisible force to amaze and terrify your coworkers, you could just get one of these. "Like being punched by a ghost." Cool.

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January 11, 2005
January 11, 2005
false equivalencies science

Here, have some insight-by-proxy: Jeff's fulminating against the administration's ideologically loaded appointments to scientific advisory boards -- and the WaPo's milquetoast excusal of this behavior. Go have a look.

It's true that Jeff has lived in Berkeley for the past few years. He's biased -- by this point has probably secretly begun to have opinions about things like organic gardening, if the condition is progressing at a typical pace. But he's also a scientist, studying cell membranes or synapses or some other such nonsense that'll eventually get him burned as a witch.

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December 21, 2004
December 21, 2004
the cellular cellular threat science

New study: cellphone radiation can cause non-repairable genetic damage in vitro.

Don't panic just yet, though. Cellphone radiation is non-ionizing, meaning that -- so far as we know -- its absorption has no effect on molecules other than to heat them up. Heating up a huge, delicate molecule like DNA will inevitably increase the rate at which it spontaneously decays, particularly when dealing with tiny cell cultures in which the heat can't diffuse as well as it can in a real organism. The study accounts for this to some extent by using a per-kilogram absorption figure to rate the transmission power, but it's still tough to see how this kind of research can be considered as useful as a population study -- and so far, population studies on the health effects of cell phone use have been inconclusive. This paper may be worth paying attention to, but probably not worth fretting over.

Besides, whether or not cell phones are killing you right now, they'll naturally get less potentially deadly as technology advances. Transmitter power is likely to decrease in the future as network access points proliferate. Take a look at wifi: your laptop's wireless card transmits at 200 milliwatts or so. Compare that to your cell phone's 300 milliwatt capability -- and then consider that for 1.5x the power, your cell phone delivers bandwidth a little bit less than a 56k modem. That's possible because your wireless router is a lot closer to your laptop than your cell tower is to your phone.

Generally speaking, the more cell towers/access points/transceivers you have, the less power you need for a given bandwidth. I think the broad trend is likely to be toward many more transceivers. The upshot will be that you'll have to shoot less electromagnetic radiation into your temporal lobe every time you call home to see if you should pick up some milk.

I'll admit that some technologies -- wimax being the first that springs to mind -- are working against such a movement, but the fact remains: it's a lot easier to send a signal down a wire than through the air. We should use copper to get data as close to the consumer as possible. It might be better for our health; it's definitely better engineering.

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September 08, 2004
September 08, 2004
hi, my name is sinbad bitching  - science

Chemical pollution specialist John Emsley on NPR, about 1 minute ago: "Most people don't realize that nearly every product they buy contains chemicals."

Hmm...

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