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Neil Armstrong Dies At 82 August 25, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Beyond Earth.
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Goodbye Mr. Armstrong.  Thank you for leading us forward one small step at a time.


Google Employees To Commute In Self-Driving Cars August 21, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Science.
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As anyone reading this blog is probably familiar with Google has been in the process of testing it’s self-driving auto technology, so far with impressive results.  In 300,000 miles of driving the car has been in only a single accident and in that case it was when the human driver took control.  Now Google is putting their money (or lives as the case is) where their mouth is and actually allowing their employees to “drive” the cars on their daily commutes.

Of course, the Mountain View, California area isn’t the most arduous of terrains on which to test road worthiness. Acknowledging this, Google engineer, Chris Urmson, writes“…we’ll need to master snow-covered roadways, interpret temporary construction signals and handle other tricky situations that many drivers encounter.”

Until now the cars have been ridden with at least two people, but Google will allow their employees to ride solo during their commutes. As usual, control of the car can be taken over if deemed necessary by the passenger.

In the United States, there were 10.8 million motor vehicle accidents in 2009 resulting in 36,000 deaths, according to the Census Bureau. When Sebastian Thrun announced Google’s self-driving car program back in 2010, he said that robotic cars could possibly cut worldwide vehicle-related deaths by half. And while it’s true the car remains untested in the more challenging conditions mentioned above, public resistance to giving up control at 60 mph could prove even more difficult terrain to cross. It will certainly be some time before Thrun’s pronouncement is put to the test, but as Google employees start sharing their experiences on YouTube, PR progress could be just as important as the technical progress.

Now they just need to install a voice system and you could officially be riding Night Rider in the near future.

Meditation Increases Brain Size August 18, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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Transhumanism is a philosophy of self-improvement (or at least that’s my view) and anyone who want’s to call themselves a transhumanist should be interested in constantly pushing their mental and physical abilities.  I do call myself a transhumanist and as such I’m always interested in new activities that can push me to higher levels.  I’ve been aware of the benefits of meditation for awhile now and while I don’t practice as much as I should I have done enough to notice the benefits of both it and mindfullness practice.  Still, always nice to see some scientific justification for my anecdotal experience.

Researchers at Harvard, Yale, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found the first evidence that meditation can alter the physical structure of our brains. Brain scans they conducted reveal that experienced meditators boasted increased thickness in parts of the brain that deal with attention and processing sensory input.

“Our data suggest that meditation practice can promote cortical plasticity in adults in areas important for cognitive and emotional processing and well-being,” says Sara Lazar, leader of the study and a psychologist at Harvard Medical School. “These findings are consistent with other studies that demonstrated increased thickness of music areas in the brains of musicians, and visual and motor areas in the brains of jugglers. In other words, the structure of an adult brain can change in response to repeated practice.”

Time To Give Online Education A Try August 12, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Social Media.
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So I have just signed up for my first class in the growing world of online education.  You’ve probably heard of this before; universities offering their classes for free online to anyone who wants to sign up.  Depending on who you talk to it’s been touted as either the next great revolution in education, the death knell of traditional universities or both.  Personally I like the idea and at the very least I think it has the potential to drastically change the face of undergraduate education though I stop short of saying it will end the need for so-called “brick and mortar” institutions.  Anyone who’s been to grad school knows that classes are relatively unimportant.

Still it’s an innovative idea worthy of being tried so I decided to do just that.  I have signed up for a course in Astrobiology, created by the University of Edinburgh, through a company called Coursera.  Though a for-profit company Coursera is currently keeping all it’s classes for free and sounds like it intends to do so in the future as well.  How they intend to make money is a question I leave to them though I’m skeptical they’ll be able to turn a profit using the advertising based method most other free online services use.

The class itself is 5 weeks long and doesn’t start till January 2013, which is a little odd if you ask me.  If we’re going to use the convenience of the internet to bring higher education to the masses then keeping classes at certain times rather than allowing people to use them whenever they want strikes me as not making the best use of the technology, especially for science based classes where most of the grading is seemingly done by computer.  Regardless I won’t be able to say anything about the service for several months so what can I say given what I’ve seen so far?

Well the first thing I noticed is that the class selection is currently rather poor.  Coursera actually seems to be ahead of the curve in the department with over 100 courses, other companies I checked didn’t even break double digits, but it’s hard not to compare that to the thousands of courses offered by traditional universities.  In addition the courses themselves are all concentrated in only a few disciplines (mostly science and engineering) and seem to be generally lower level, introductory fare.

I apologize if that sounds overly negative because it really shouldn’t.  Online education of this type is still in its infancy and it’s to be expected that it currently doesn’t offer the breadth of a traditional education, not to mention that anyone taking these courses courses to qualify for a job probably won’t bemoan the lack of humanities classes.  In addition the focus on lower level courses is probably a good idea since the target audience for a lot of these companies seems to be those who can’t afford or can’t get access to traditional education and thus are likely starting at the bottom.

A final note on accreditation.  Currently none of these services (to my knowledge) are accredited and as such do not confer university credit.  They do however offer certificates of completion which from the little I’ve read seem to be well-regarded by potential employers.  It’s not quite a bachelors degree but if all you need is the equivalent of a community college certificate then it will probably be enough.  Whether accreditation follows in the future remains to be seen.

Curiosity Touches Down On The Red Planet August 5, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Beyond Earth.
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Touchdown confirmed!

And with that the years of planning have paid off.  Mars rover Curiosity is safely on the surface of the red planet.  The first images are coming through and as of right now everything looks great.  Soon Curiosity will begin it’s mission of searching for life but to many including myself the mission is already a success.

Raise a glass if you have one to all the hard working people at NASA.  They deserve it.

P.S. To all the naysayers, those who through their own short-sightedness and lack of imagination question the need for humanity to explore the solar system and push the boundaries of knowledge I have just one thing to say…

I’m On Twitter! August 3, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Uncategorized.
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Yes I have finally joined the modern era and registered for a twitter account.  You can follow me by clicking on the button to the right.  Considering my love of complexity and long, well-articulated arguments it will interesting to see how I adapt to 140 characters or less.  See you there.