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Boy Attends School Using Robot September 24, 2012

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This is the kind of story I enjoy reading.  Technology unequivocally making someone’s life better.

When Devon Carrow was a baby, a cookie-coated kiss from his mom made him break out in hives. An accidental encounter with peanuts at his godparents’ home three months later landed him in the hospital, under an oxygen tent. His food allergies are so severe that he doesn’t even have to eat something in order to have a life-threatening reaction — just breathing in trace amounts of an allergen is enough to send him into anaphylactic shock.

But thanks to technology, the home-bound boy is finally able to attend school in person — so to speak. He sits in his classroom, runs small errands for his teacher, and participates in group projects all thanks to a $6,000 robot from Nashua, N.H.-based VGo Communications.

His mom converted a room in their home for use as a classroom, and two teachers help him manipulate his computer equipment from there. Thanks to the VGo, which he started using in January, Devon can walk the halls of Winchester Elementary with his classmates, check books out of the library, join other kids on the carpet for circle time, and participate on stage during assembly. The only things he can’t do are attend gym and lunch, but once the school’s wireless system is upgraded, he should be able to hang out in the cafeteria with his buddies while he eats his lunch at home.

Heartwarming.  And that’s not something I say often unironically.

DARPA Unveils New Robotic “Mule” September 10, 2012

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Like it or not the military has been behind some of the biggest technological breakthroughs in history (no surprise given the amount of money spent on it).  The US military has been sinking a lot of money into robotics in recent years in an effort to automate their forces.  Predator drones are probably the most well-known example of this but they have also been working on ground based robots to assist infantry.  DARPA has recently put out a new video demonstrating their newest creation; the LS3.

Not exactly the Terminator but pretty cool none-the-less.  Sure it’s got a funny gait and it’s “running” probably couldn’t outpace a twelve year old but the technology has been steadily improving since the days of Big Dog (which was cool in it’s own right).  While it’s something we take for granted maneuvering on uneven terrain, even very slowly,  is actually an incredibly complicated skill that requires a great amount of agility and balance, things that up until recently robots just haven’t been able to do.  Life has had millions of years to get the process down so it’s no big shock that robots are taking a little while to get it right.


P.S.  Anyone more knowledgeable about the subject know what happened to Big Dog?  Looking at those old videos again makes me remember what a seriously impressive technology that was/is.  It’s still amazing, and somewhat eerie even for me, to see it slip on an ice patch and stumble about in such a “life like” manner.

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

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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.

Being Atheist Doesn’t Make You Smart, Rational, Or Logical June 14, 2012

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Atheists, my people, we must talk.  I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend making it’s way through the atheist community, a trend which quite frankly needs to stop.  See in my off time I sometimes enjoy perusing discussion boards and internet forums on the subject of religion and atheism (something I keep telling myself I’m going to stop doing.)  It’s enjoyable sometimes because occasionally I see an argument put forward by the other side that I hadn’t considered before, something which forces me to do a little self-examining and make my own arguments stronger.  All too often though all I get out of it is a laugh watching one bad and discounted argument after another being rolled out by people who at this point ought to know better.

The problem is that recently I haven’t been laughing since it’s my side throwing up the stupid arguments.

Now before I get too far into this I don’t need anyone to remind that this being the internet the level of discourse is generally somewhere between two kindergarteners fighting over a crayon and the average American Presidential debate (ooh, topical) and that I really shouldn’t be expecting great debates in that forum.  Unfortunately that argument does not apply in this case.

See that problem I’ve been noticing is that atheists in these debates love to talk about how logical and rational they and their positions are all the while behaving in a completely irrational and illogical manner.  If we’re going to pride ourselves on the soundness of our arguments then we need to ensure that we are actually making sound arguments and we don’t get to use the excuse of the Internet Fuckwad Theory to cover up our own shortcomings.  As such I would like to humbly propose the following list of things atheists really need to stop doing.

1) Being atheist does not make you smart

Or rational and logical.  Yes I know we all saw that one study that seemed to say otherwise but I would be very hesitant about bringing up something so controversial and with it’s own fair share of issues.  Even if the findings of that study turn out to be true it will only be talking about averages (i.e. the average atheist is smarter than the average believer) not that you are smarter than the average believer.

Telling a person that because they believe in a god they must be so stupid as to not understand you’re arguments not only makes you look like a pompous ass but also only manages to alienate anyone you might be debating with.  If your intention was to bring them over to your side then that is the exact opposite of what you should be doing.  It also ignores the fact that their have been many smart people throughout history who have believed in a god and in a way actually gives the theists an argument.

See any time the question of intelligence and religion is brought up it’s almost inevitable that someone will eventually say “But Einstein believed in God (or Newton/Descartes/Galilaeo/etc.)  Are you saying you’re smarter than Einstein?”  This is a pretty popular comeback since it appeals to the logical fallacy we seem to like the most; appeals to authority.  The truth is most people debating about religion (or for that matter climate change/evolution/etc.) on the internet don’t actually understand the topic well enough to be debating it in the first place.  As such any opportunity to bring in the word of someone more versed in the subject than they are is a welcome relief since it allows them to score a point without having to actually make an argument.  This is doubly annoying since as anyone with a basic background in logic knows the veracity of an argument is not based on the intelligence of the person arguing it but on the strength of the evidence in its favor.  Bringing up much smarter, more rational and more logical you are isn’t only a fallacy in itself but will almost certainly perpetuate more fallacies.

2) Stop misusing the word logical

This is one that really gets to me because I see it everywhere.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a person attack a religion for not being “based on logic” at the same time implicating that atheism is a logical belief.  Often this is said in the manner of a winning argument as if the person thinks they have made some grand insight which cannot be countered.  Hate to break it to you but all you’ve done is shown that you don’t understand what the word logical means.

Quick philosophy lesson.  Logic is a branch of philosophy which studies what makes an argument valid.  While there are a few types the one most of us are familiar with is deductive reasoning, which generally takes the form of if x than y.  A example of that might go as such:

A: All apples are fruit

B: Some apples are red.

Therefore: Some fruit is red.

The conclusion follows perfectly from the assumptions.  As such, that right there is a logically valid argument.   But is it true?

Some are probably saying “Of course it’s true, you just said it was valid” and therein lies the confusion.  A valid argument is not necessarily a true one.  All it needs to be valid is for the conclusion to follow from the premises, not that the premises be correct themselves.  To illustrate that point let’s try another one.

1: All things created have a creator.

2: The Earth was created.

Therefore: The Earth has a creator.

This also is a logically valid argument and a perfect example for why attacking religion as illogical is a terrible debating tactic.  Religions can and have produced many perfectly valid arguments for the truth of their beliefs based on the assumptions of their faith.  While we can certainly attack the truthfulness of their assumption speaking of religions as illogical only exposes our own ignorance.  Speaking of ignorance…

3) Quit parroting arguments you heard from someone else

Let me be very clear what I’m talking about here.  I do not mean utilizing arguments you read about elsewhere for yourself.  Nothing wrong with learning from another, that is after all one of the best ways to learn.  What I’m talking about is when the only argument you can muster is entirely made up by other people.  Or to put it succinctly let’s construct an imaginary (though in truth very common) exchange.

Person 1:  Atheists have faith just like theists.

Person 2:  Whatever, atheism is like religion the way bald is a hair color.

Do you see the problem there?  Simply quoting a popular saying does not advance the conversation.  It does not add to the debate.  It doesn’t even show that you understand what you’re debating about.  All it shows is that you are capable of memorizing an internet meme.  Again there’s nothing wrong with using the ideas of others in you argument but you have to actually make an argument.

Well I think that will do for now.  Honestly there are probably a few more that could be added to this list but perhaps I’ll save those for another time.  Happy debating!

Sea Urchin Body One Giant Eye July 4, 2011

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Awesome.  Researchers have discovered that the common purple sea urchin, despite lacking anything we might usually call eyes, is able to see by utilizing it’s entire body as a large compound eye.

Previous studies of sea urchins have shown that they have a large number of genes linked to the development of the retina, which is the light-sensitive tissue in the human eye. This means that sea urchins have several genes that are coded for a widely occurring eye protein, opsin.

The research group behind the study showed that the photoreceptors seem to be located on the tip and base of the tube feet that are found all over the sea urchin’s body and are used to move.

Seriously, how cool is that?  An organism using it’s entire body as one giant eye.  That’s like something out of a shlockey, low-budget monster movie.  This is the part where we discover that sea urchins are invading the land and hunting down innocent humans with their giant, body eyes.


The Biotechnology Century June 24, 2011

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Interesting piece up by Freeman Dyson about the role biotech will play in the upcoming century.  Dyson is certainly not the first to suggest that in the coming decades genetic engineering is going to go the way of the PC and find its way into the homes of average people but it’s still fun to read his opinion.  Of course the analogy isn’t a perfect one since DIY biotech poses a much greater threat than the home computer does.

To Stop Climate Change Scientists Propose Blocking Out The Sun (No, Really) April 9, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology, Science.
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Okay lets get a few things out of the way.  Yes, climate change is happening.  The average temperature of the earths atmosphere has been rising quite steadily for…well for as long as we’ve been measuring it.  Yes, we probably have something to do with it.  Atmospheric CO2 has been rising with remarkable steadiness is at least the 1950’s (I chose the 1950’s since that’s when the Keeling Curve measurements began) and that is almost certainly contributing.  Yes, we are now at the point where only a rather drastic restructuring of our society and economy would bring levels back down to where they need to be.

If we assume that these assumptions are correct then we are left with only one conclusion: we’re kind of screwed.  The chance of any substantial changes occurring either at the political or the local level at this point in the game are rather small.  It doesn’t take a psychologist to see that humans generally do not take action on matters with long term consequences until well after its too late.  This conclusion has driven many scientists and politicians to consider alternative solutions to our problem.  What if instead of changing our entire way of life we could come up with a simple technological fix to solve all our problems, thus deluding us into thinking we can continue our ultimately unsustainable lifestyle indefinitely?  Hence, geoengineering.

Geoengineering appeals to people on multiple levels.  As already stated it allows us to continue our current way of life.  It appeals to our vanity by proposing that our ingenuity and genius can overcome any problem.  There’s just one little problem; none of the proposed projects have a chance in hell of succeeding.

Its said that in the kingdom of the blind the one eyed man is king.  Well in the kingdom of crazy geoengineering ideas one idea has come out ahead simply by being less crazy than all the others: blocking out the sun.  No, really.

“There’s the `slippery slope’ view that as soon as you start to do this research, you say it’s OK to think about things you shouldn’t be thinking about,” said Steve Rayner, co-director of Oxford University’s geoengineering program. Many geoengineering techniques they have thought about look either impractical or ineffective…

Those techniques are necessarily limited in scale, however, and unable to alter planet-wide warming. Only one idea has emerged with that potential.

“By most accounts, the leading contender is stratospheric aerosol particles,” said climatologist John Shepherd of Britain’s Southampton University.

The particles would be sun-reflecting sulfates spewed into the lower stratosphere from aircraft, balloons or other devices – much like the sulfur dioxide emitted by the eruption of the Philippines’ Mount Pinatubo in 1991, estimated to have cooled the world by 0.5 degrees C (0.9 degrees F) for a year or so.

Now I want to stress that when it comes to geoengineering I hold no animosity towards the scientists investigating its efficacy or dangers.  This is research that needs to be done unless we want to charge blindly ahead once the danger has come and we have no other choice and good scientists like these people seem to be understand both the practical challenges and the limits of scientific certainty (hint: you are never, ever, EVER certain something will work.)

My problem is that all that scientific skepticism is lost on the public.  To hear this reported on in some circles you’d think it was out panacea, our magic bullet.  “Don’t worry about climate change, we’ll just dump some iron into the ocean and everything will be fine,” and that idea is being exploited by politicians who know damn well that the easiest way to not get elected is to ask people to suffer a little bit now in order to prevent suffering later (e.g. Jimmy Carter.)

Rather than being easy solutions every currently proposed project stands to be both ridiculously expensive, at least partly ineffective and potentially dangerous.  Just as an example lets take blocking out the sun.  While I don’t know the costs off the top of my head (I doubt anyone does) I can only imagine that seeding the stratosphere with aerosol particles would be a massive undertaking.  Keep in mind that since clouds tend to disperse we would need to be constantly reseeding them in order to maintain the cloud cover.  This process would need to be continued until we had managed to bring our CO2 emissions down to a safe level, something which would likely take decades at the least.

Next lets talk about effectiveness.  I’ll grant that increasing cloud cover  would probably lower global temperatures by a fair amount.  Unfortunately it would do nothing to the CO2 already present in the atmosphere.  Unless emissions were leveled off simultaneous will the seeding then as concentrations continue to rise we would need ever more and more cloud cover to counter the increasing effects.  Furthermore it would do absolutely nothing to counter the other big threat of climate change: ocean acidification.  As CO2 dissolves into the sea water it will naturally lower the pH of the world’s oceans with potentially devastating consequences for ocean life.

Lastly there are significant risks to injecting aerosol particles into our own atmosphere.  Let’s not forget that the widespread use of CFC’s, a type of aerosol released by many industries at one time, led directly to the weakening of the global ozone layer and the still-present holes in the layer above Antarctica and the Arctic.

Posts like this make me very angry at myself because when I finish them I always come across as a loom-smashing Luddite demanding we all return to the stone age.  Its not that I think these are idiotic ideas outright only that with a little effort and resources, certainly less than would be required to actually pull off one of these projects, we could largely avert the threat of climate change and render the entire field of geoengineering moot.  Whether we take the necessary steps or not remains to be seen and while I’ve never been optimistic about humanity’s ability to engage in long term planning I haven’t given up hope on us yet.

Scientists Develop First Practical Artificial Leaf March 28, 2011

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This is all kinds of awesome.  Researchers have developed the first practical example of an artificial device capable of producing electricity through the process of photosynthesis.  In short and artificial leaf.

About the shape of a poker card but thinner, the device is fashioned from silicon, electronics and catalysts, substances that accelerate chemical reactions that otherwise would not occur, or would run slowly. Placed in a single gallon of water in a bright sunlight, the device could produce enough electricity to supply a house in a developing country with electricity for a day, Nocera said. It does so by splitting water into its two components, hydrogen and oxygen.

Holy renewable energy Batman.  This is the holy grail of renewable energy research.  A device that enables us to power our society using the non-polluting and completely renewable energy of the sun AND it helps to bring down atmospheric concentrations of CO2.  This is so good that at first I wasn’t sure this wasn’t a prank or an early April Fools joke but it seems to be legitimate.

Now if you’ll allow me to come down from cloud 9 for a moment there are of course practical considerations that need to be addressed.  First and foremost is cost.  Though the article mentions that one of the things making this new “leaf” practical is the fact that it uses lower cost materials than previous models it still remains to be seen whether the technology can scale up and compete with more traditional fuel sources.

Secondly, and more important in my opinion, is the question of water.  The device splits water into it’s component parts (hydrogen and oxygen) and uses them to make energy.  This of course means that for the device to work it will need a steady and most likely substantial supply of water.  The problem is that the water crisis is the biggest environmental problem you’ve never heard of.  Humanity is already using more than half of all world runoff for our own purposes leaving very little for the rest of the natural world.  Adding another human use for water may push us over the edge in terms of our water consumption.

I’ll add one caveat to that.  The article didn’t mention if the water had to be fresh.  Terrestrial plants need to use fresh water for physiological reasons, primarily to maintain levels of salt concentrations in their tissues (I’m not going into the details, Google it if you’re interested).  However there doesn’t seem to be any reason apparent to me why these artificial leaves couldn’t use salt water for their purposes.  If that turns out to be the case then my water concern is largely moot since salt water is one thing this planet has plenty of.

Finally I will offer not so much a problem as an interesting thought experiment.  If this device works by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen then presumably at least some of that oxygen will be released into the atmosphere.  Done on a large enough scale, like if this technology takes over as our primary power source, it could conceivably alter the composition of the atmosphere enough to produce changes in the biosphere.  An greater abundance of oxygen could be beneficial to certain species of animal life allowing them to extract more oxygen with fewer breaths and therefore generate more energy at a lower cost to themselves.  Incidentally this is also predicted to happen to plants as CO2 concentrations rise.  Of course a greater abundance of oxygen could also lead to a greater risk of wildfires and could lead to oxygen toxicity in vulnerable environments.

Difficulties aside I am completely supportive of this kind of technology and look forward to seeing it break into the mainstream.

Steering A Car With Your Mind February 22, 2011

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Not sure I want to see this on the road anytime soon, drivers scare me enough as it is, but as proof of the viability of this technology this is five kinds of awesome.

The scientists from Freie Universität first used the sensors for measuring brain waves in such a way that a person can move a virtual cube in different directions with the power of his or her thoughts. The test subject thinks of four situations that are associated with driving, for example, “turn left” or “accelerate.” In this way the person trained the computer to interpret bioelectrical wave patterns emitted from his or her brain and to link them to a command that could later be used to control the car. The computer scientists connected the measuring device with the steering, accelerator, and brakes of a computer-controlled vehicle, which made it possible for the subject to influence the movement of the car just using his or her thoughts.

In-Vitro Meat: The Future Of Eating January 31, 2011

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This isn’t exactly news since this type of research has been going on for awhile now but it’s always nice to see efforts like this getting recognition.

A developmental biologist and tissue engineer, Dr. Mironov, 56, is one of only a few scientists worldwide involved in bioengineering “cultured” meat.

It’s a product he believes could help solve future global food crises resulting from shrinking amounts of land available for growing meat the old-fashioned way … on the hoof.

The benefits to this type of technology are numerous and the article does a good job of explaining them.  First and foremost is the obvious benefit of producing large quantities of meat without the need to slaughter an animal.  No one can argue that the conditions for animals in industrial meat production are appalling nor that the animals clearly suffer in such an environment.   Even on more “traditional” farms which like to boast of how well their animals are treated still end up knocking them out and slitting their throats.

Second is the ecological impact of traditional meat production.

Cultured meat could eventually become cheaper than what Genovese called the heavily subsidized production of farm meat, he said, and if the public accepts cultured meat, the future holds benefits.

“Thirty percent of the earth’s land surface area is associated with producing animal protein on farms,” Genovese said.

“Animals require between 3 and 8 pounds of nutrient to make 1 pound of meat. It’s fairly inefficient. Animals consume food and produce waste. Cultured meat doesn’t have a digestive system.

I’ve heard some people object that these figures aren’t accurate since cows naturally eat grass, which costs nothing for humans to produce and has little ecological impact.  That’s true, cows naturally eat grass, but anyone who’s taken a look at meat production knows that it’s anything but natural.  The vast majority of animals raised for meat consumption (cows, pigs, fish) are fed on corn.  That’s right, they’re feeding corn to fish.

Speaking of natural, many foresee a major stumbling block for in-vitro meat in the public’s new fascination with natural goods.  The idea is that people will be hesitant to eat food grown in a lab.  Considering the furor over genetically modified crops (see Frankenfood) that’s probably not an outrageous assumption.  However this is more a question of branding than an actual problem with the technology.  Keep in mind, farming is a completely unnatural practice yet there aren’t many people returning to the hunter gatherer lifestyle.

Ultimately though what will make or break this technology is the price.  Meat production is expensive and a product that promises all the great taste for half the cost, so to speak, has a good chance at succeeding.  After all, much as many of us would like it not to be so people just like the taste of meat.