Dec 06 2016

Instacharge – There Is Not An App For That

instacharge-appEnergy is the ultimate currency of our civilization. It takes energy to do stuff, by definition. Food is energy for manual labor, and it takes energy to make food. In many ways energy is a limiting factor for our technology. It is difficult to think of any one thing that would have a more wide ranging benefit than a new technology that affords cheap, clean, abundant energy.

This is the appeal of free energy. No description of an alleged free energy device is complete without a discussion of the impact the device would have on civilization. The appeal suckers investors and draws media attention. It kept Steorn going for ten years (they have finally liquidated), attracting 23 million Euros in investment. They had nothing, and never did – the 23 million was based entirely on a transparently empty promise.

The impending threat of global warming has raised the stakes even higher. Much of our cheap abundant energy is not clean, and putting previously sequestered CO2 back into the atmosphere is another limiting factor. Personal electronic devices also raise the stakes for the average consumer. We all want our smartphones and laptops to last longer on a charge. We will also soon want more mileage out of our electric cars.

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Comments: 11

Dec 05 2016

Westworld and Consciousness

westworld1The season finale of Westworld aired last night, a series based on a Michael Crichton book which was made into a 1973 film. I won’t give much away, so only very mild spoilers for those who haven’t seen it. I will say the last episode was probably the best of the season.

The basic premise of the book/film/series is that it takes place in a futuristic theme park in which guests can visit the old west populated by robots that are there solely for their pleasure.  They exist to lose gunfights, for sexual pleasure, to be victims or fill whatever role the guests want, and then be recycled to run through their plot loop all over again.

The HBO series uses the story line as an opportunity to explore the basic question of sentience. The robots are hyperrealistic. Unless you cut them open, you cannot tell them from a living human. They are extremely realistic in their behavior as well.

The robots clearly have a very advanced form of artificial intelligence, but are they self-aware? That is a central theme of the series. They have complex behavioral algorithms, they can reason, they express the full range of human emotions, and they have memory. They are kept under control largely by wiping their memory each time they are repaired, so that they don’t remember the horrible things that were done to them.

Some of the robots, however, start to break out of their confines. They “feel” as if they are trapped in a recurring nightmare, and have flashes of memory from their previous loops.

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Comments: 57

Dec 01 2016

Some Creationist Pseudointellectualism

protein-structureIn September I wrote an article about a recent experiment at Harvard Medical School in which they created a very large agar plate in order to visualize bacterial colonies evolve drug resistance over time. I was primarily responding to Michael Behe’s argument that this experiment did not show evolution but “devolution.”

Recently Cornelius Hunter over at Evolution News and Reviews (a propaganda blog of the Discotute) wrote a response to my article. Hunter’s response is yet another example of how creationists engage in motivated reasoning and fail to either understand evolution or meaningfully engage with the scientific community. In fact, I found Hunter’s article to be largely incoherent, which is common because creationists are not trying to formulate a coherent scientific theory. They are just trying to provide cover for their ideological beliefs by creating doubt and confusion.

The first actual point I think I can extract from Hunter’s article is that the changes to the bacteria seen in the Harvard experiment were not actually evolution, just adaptation. He writes:

What Novella does not acknowledge, however, is that bacteria adaptation research, over several decades now, has clearly shown non-evolutionary change. For instance, bacterial adaptation has often been found to be rapid, and sensitive to the environmental challenge. In other words, when we look at the details, we do not find the evolutionary model of random variation slowly bringing about change, but rather environmentally directed or influenced variation.

That is not evolution. And indeed, the Harvard experiment demonstrated, again, very rapid adaptation. In just ten days the bacteria adapted to high doses of lethal antibiotic. As one of the researchers commented, “This is a stunning demonstration of how quickly microbes evolve.”

True, it is “stunning,” but “evolve” is not the correct term. The microbes adapted.

This is one common intellectual trick used by creationists – shift around your definitions as needed in order to manufacture apparent contradictions or at least confusion. Hunter is not working from a coherent operational definition of evolution. He gives no indication that he understands evolutionary theory, but that is hard to know through the fog of motivated reasoning.

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Comments: 58

Nov 29 2016

Civic Online Reasoning

nuclearflowersA recent study adds some empirical data to the current discussions regarding online information. This Stanford University study looked at 7,804 student responses across 12 states, divided among middle school, high school, and college students. The goal of the study was to see if these students could distinguish reliable sources of information from fake or unreliable sources.

Their conclusion?

Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak.

Although students grew up in the internet and social media age, and are very skilled at using online resources, they apparently have not developed the skills to critically evaluate the information they are finding online.

The authors echo what I and many others have pointed out, that while the internet is a great source of information, it is largely a source without editorial filters. As I recently discussed, this has led to a range of outlets including high quality journalism, low quality journalism, advocacy sites, biased sites, advertising, opinion, and fake sites that exist only to drive clicks. Since you no longer need a large infrastructure, or years to build up a reputation and circulation, in order to publish articles that then get shared on social media as news, every kind of information is jumbled together and it is up to the reader to discriminate.

The authors looked at five tasks for each school level that they felt was appropriate for that level. Here are some example results:

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Comments: 16

Nov 28 2016

Is The Santa Myth Immoral?

Portrait of happy Santa Claus sitting at his room at home near Christmas tree and big sack and reading Christmas letter or wish list

Lancet Psychiatry has published an opinion piece (which the media is sometimes confusingly referring to as “research”) in which the authors argue that telling children Santa is real may be harmful and immoral. I have to completely disagree with the authors and I think their opinion reflects only their own biases.

Their primary thesis is that if parents tell their children a lie for years, sometimes maintaining that lie with elaborate deception, and the children inevitably discover the lie, that will undermine the child’s faith in the authority of their parents. They write:

“If they are capable of lying about something so special and magical, can they be relied upon to continue as the guardians of wisdom and truth?”

The unstated major assumption here is that it is a good thing for parents to be the, “guardians of wisdom and truth.” That is a value judgement, and one with which I completely disagree. I believe children should be taught to question authority, and as they mature to learn that there are no guardians of truth.

It is a delicate balance. You want people (not just children) to respect appropriate authority, but at the same time realize that no authority is infallible. They can be wrong, and you should think for yourself (while recognizing your own limits). That is the destination, and children should be on a journey toward that destination, not reverence for the guardians of truth.

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Comments: 295

Nov 22 2016

Fake News

fake-newsThis post is a follow up to my post from last week on post-truth. The idea that we are living in a post-truth era took off this last year, making it the top pick for Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year. Right on its heels, though, and perhaps a contender for phrase of the year, is “fake news.”

Fake news is clearly a thing. There are websites that make up fake news stories for various purposes. Already in the short life of this phrase it has been destroyed by abuse. It is already losing focus and meaning.

It is simultaneously a bug and a feature of the internet that it is a venue for a war of ideas. There is an obvious benefit to this in an open society – the free exchange of information in the marketplace of ideas. Let’s hash it all out with a true democracy of expression and access (well, for those with access).

The bug is that the internet is also a venue for fraud, lying, misinformation, and manipulation. Not everyone is a fair player, and they ruin it for everyone else. In actuality it is not black and white. Rather, there is a spectrum of behavior, and most people are at various points along that spectrum on different issues. At the same time there are extremes, some sites that aspire to a high level of journalism or scholarship, and at the other end sites that are pure fraud, propaganda, or click-bait.

We are collectively still trying to figure out how to deal with the resulting mess. It seems to me that part of the problem is that we are using the internet to address the problems of the internet. Bad actors can therefore hijack or duplicate the mechanisms of quality control and subvert them.

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Comments: 54

Nov 21 2016

The EM Drive – Again

The Eagleworks team at NASA have just published a peer-reviewed paper that claims to show net thrust from the EM drive, which is an alleged reactionless thruster – Measurement of Impulsive Thrust from a Closed Radio-Frequency Cavity in Vacuum. They conclude:

Thrust data from forward, reverse, and null suggested that the system was consistently performing with a thrust-to-power ratio of 1.2±0.1  mN/kW1.2±0.1 mN/kW.

The paper concludes that they measured a consistent, although very small, amount of thrust in one direction. This claim remains highly controversial, for good reason. The claim is that they can convert electricity into thrust by creating a tapered resonant chamber. The radio waves produced bounce around the chamber, but because of its tapered shape they push off one side more than the other.

The problem with this claim, and the reason it remains controversial, is because it would break the laws of physics as we currently understand them. Specifically it would break the conservation of momentum – for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction (hence “reactionless” drive).

Further, such a drive could potentially result in a free energy machine. At high enough speed the energy of the momentum generated by the thrust would be greater than the electrical energy used, therefore creating net energy. You could argue that at higher speeds the drive is less and less effective, but there is no reason to suspect that would be the case.

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Comments: 10

Nov 18 2016

Improving Photosynthesis and Crop Yield

photosynthesisNo GMO currently on the market has a trait that is designed to increase crop yield. What some traits do, usually by incorporating pest resistance or drought resistance, is to reduce crop loss and improve the predictability of crop yield, which is critical for farmers.

One of the promises of GM technology, however, is that it will produce traits that will increase the potential yield of crops, allowing for the production of more food from a given amount of land. A recent study published in Science reports a significant success in doing just that, using a modification that I have not even heard of before.

I always love when that happens. I read a lot of science news, and therefore I tend to see any big advances coming because there is often a buzz for many years before the technology is ready. Every now and then a new technology or discovery hits without warning. It reminds me that there are researchers working away without hype or attention but with the potential for significant discoveries at any time.

Improving Photosynthesis

If we want to increase the amount of plant matter that can be produced from one plot of land, then we will need to increase the efficiency by which those plants convert sunlight into food. There are many potential ways to do that, but the most direct way is to improve the efficiency of photosynthesis itself. Sunlight is a fairly fixed input, so we want to turn as much of that sunlight as possible into food.

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Comments: 25

Nov 17 2016

Post-Truth

post-truthThe Oxford Dictionary word of the year is “post-truth” which they define as:

an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

The implication is that we are now living in a post-truth era. Many people would probably point to the outcome of the recent presidential election as evidence of this. Of course there were many factors influencing the election and it’s impossible to tease them all apart, but this seems to legitimately be a factor.

Trump has 15 million Twitter followers, which means that more people likely see his tweets than will watch any news broadcast. Trump just appointed Stephen Bannon to be his chief White House strategist. Bannon was the chairman of Brietbart news, a far right propaganda echochamber.

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Comments: 182

Nov 15 2016

Aspartame and GMOs

aspartameStories take on a life of their own. That is the origin of urban legends, myths, and even religion. A good narrative feeds on itself and can be self-sustaining. It evolves and adapts and finds fertile ground in most human hosts (unless they have been inoculated with a sufficient dedication to facts and logic).

Aspartame, an artificial sweetener that was approved by the FDA in 1981, has been the focus of conspiracy theories ever since. The “holistic medicine” and “natural health” subcultures have largely been responsible for spreading misinformed hysteria about aspartame, first through chain letters and newsletters, and now through the internet.

Ever adapting, they have added some new wrinkles to the legend of aspartame, making sure that their baseless fearmongering is making use of the latest buzzwords.

Aspartame is Safe

First for some background, the anti-aspartame brigade claims that this food additive has been linked to cancer, neurological disorders, and a long list of complaints and diseases. They are simply lying, or the equivalent of lying by cherry picking data, dismissing evidence out-of-hand, and making up whatever claims they need to support their position. Continue Reading »

Comments: 37

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