Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Oct 17 2016

Where Does the Power Come From?

perpetual-motion-1Yet another perpetual motion machine video is making the rounds. I do have a fascination with these devices, and this one is a great example of the genre.

This device was conceived and created by a Norwegian artist, Reidar Finsrud. He is clearly a talented, intelligent, and motivated artist. He reports that he became obsessed with the idea of his machine and spent many 18 hour days creating it. I do think it is a beautiful work of art and can be appreciated as such.

Finsrud, however, believes that the machine is an example of perpetual motion. At least that is the narrative of the documentary. Finsrud states that when he looks at his machine he feels like he is looking at fire, a the future, a future of free and egalitarian energy.

Perhaps that belief on the part of the artist is part of the art. It’s similar to the crop circle artists who won’t disclose (at least they didn’t for a while) that they were the artists, believing that the mystery about the origin of the crop circles is part of the art form.

At one point in the video Finsrud asks the question, “Where does the power come from?” He recounts how many scientists he has asked could not answer the question. That is another common theme in the genre of pseudoscientific devices or artifacts. The creator or promoter seems to always recount how they consulted experts who could not answer the mystery of the object. I think this is just a form of confirmation bias. When you dig deep you find that they were not consulting the right “experts,” or perhaps they were cherry picking the experts who gave them the answers they liked.

Continue Reading »

37 responses so far

Sep 30 2016

Barriers to Colonizing Space

Published by under Technology

theexpanse_galleryWe are in an interesting time in human history with regard to humans in space. We have space programs. We have been to the moon, and we have a continuous presence in low-earth orbit. But we haven’t colonized space or any other world. We are thinking about it, and some people are even planning it, but no clear program yet.

What this means is that we are probably in the period of maximal speculation. We have a lot of information about space and space travel, and some experience, but we do not yet have any experience with actual colonization.

As is often the case, much of the speculation takes the form of science fiction. The Martian was an excellent novel and book that tried to seriously explore the issue of surviving on Mars (with some concessions made for narrative purposes).

The best speculation I have seen is in the recent TV series The Expanse. This takes place a couple of hundred years in the future, when humans have colonized our solar system. There is no magic high-tech to make the problems they would encounter go away. There is no artificial gravity, transporter, warp drive, force fields, or anything similar. They get by with extrapolations of existing physics and technology.

Continue Reading »

12 responses so far

Sep 29 2016

Does Predictive Policing Work?

Published by under Technology

lapdIf police could predict when and where crimes are likely to occur, they could deploy their resources to maximal efficiency and be in the right place at the right time to stop crime. If they could predict who is likely to commit a crime, they could perhaps intervene with social services to prevent crime.

This is the hope of predictive policing, which seeks to leverage big data and powerful computer algorithms to aid police. This is often compared to the move Minority Report, but that is actually a bad analogy. In the movie the crime unit used three psychics to predict exactly who would commit a specific crime at a specific place and time. That is nothing like predictive policing.

If you insist on using a science fiction analogy, the series Person of Interest is much closer. In that series the government possess a powerful computer program that is fed all of the surveillance data in the country and uses it to predict when a crime is about to happen. It then spits out a social security number of someone who is about to become either a victim or a perpetrator, the “person of interest,” and our heroes have to figure out and stop the crime. It’s a good narrative device, but not very realistic (at least not anytime soon).  Continue Reading »

21 responses so far

Sep 27 2016

Piezoelectric Roads

Published by under Technology

piezoelectric2By now you have probably heard of the idea of making solar roads, essentially paving roads with hardened photovoltaic plates that will not only power the roads themselves (heat and light them) but provide clean energy. The idea has a certain appeal, but seems impractical (at least with current technology) and certainly should not be a priority before picking much lower hanging fruit, like putting solar panels on rooftops.

While I might be critical of the idea itself (critical in a constructive way), I applaud the act of coming up with new and interesting ideas. Most new ideas are going to fail, especially if they are truly innovative. In order to find the great ideas that are going to work we are going to have to climb a mountain of failed ideas. It’s just part of the process. For this reason I always have a soft spot for people who think up crazy new schemes (as long as they are not based on magic or pseudoscience), and will praise the process even when I shoot down the idea itself.

The Piezoelectric Effect

With that in mind, recently the The California Energy Commission granted $2 million to study the feasibility of putting piezoelectric crystals in roads as a way to generate clean energy. This probably won’t work, but that’s OK. The study is probably worthwhile anyway. Continue Reading »

21 responses so far

Sep 20 2016

Room Temperature Superconductivity – Not Yet

Published by under Technology

superconducting-trainI first remember really being interested in superconductivity in 1986, the same year many people probably first heard about it. Prior to that superconductivity, a property of matter in which electricity conducts without resistance and therefore without energy loss, was an obscure notion in physics.

In 1986, however, Alex Müller and Georg Bednorz, researchers at the IBM Research Laboratory in Rüschlikon, Switzerland, created a ceramic conducting material that was superconducting at the relatively high temperature of 30 K (-243 C). Prior to that the record was held by a vanadium-silicon alloy at 17.5 K.

Suddenly all the popular science magazines were filled with images of supermagnets, with headlines about the new science of ceramic conductors, of “high temperature” superconductors, and what the eventual goal of room temperature superconductors will mean for modern technology. Here we are 30 years later and I’m still waiting.

I also now have a much more developed sense of how technology advances, and how the popularizing of technology is often over-hyped and distorted. I was made to feel by the reporting that room temperature superconductors were inevitable and just around the corner. History has shown, however, that such predictions are highly problematic. Advances often take longer than we think, and progress tends to be sporadic rather than linear.

Continue Reading »

12 responses so far

Sep 08 2016

The Future of Telemedicine

telemedicine_computerTelemedicine is essentially the practice of having a patient visit electronically rather than in person. I think as a practice this is underutilized for various reasons, but we are likely to see much more of it in the future.

Does it Work?

Before we talk about the barriers to the adoption of telemedicine practice, let’s address the key question – is it effective? Further, is it as effective as an in-office visit? The answer, as you might expect, is, it depends. In some situations, however, it can be just as effective.

A recent study, for example, compared telemedicine from an originating clinic to in-person care for patients with asthma and found no difference in outcome over six months. In this study telemedicine patients visited a local clinic staffed with a nurse or respiratory therapist.

Continue Reading »

9 responses so far

Sep 01 2016

Bt Brinjal – Destroying the Anti-GMO Narrative

Published by under Technology

Bt BringalIt is amazing how a rigid ideology can so dramatically alter one’s perception of reality and justify bad behavior. Consider the following summary of events:

One side of the GMO debate opposes the use of seeds that were created in the public interest and given freely to farmers, without any corporate ownership or profit motive. These plants dramatically reduce the use of pesticides and reduce loss due to pest damage.

The activists on this side don’t have any facts at all to back them up, so they willfully spread lies and misinformation, spread propaganda as if it were journalism, and make personal attacks against those on the other side. Yet, they still think they are the good guys.

The Anti-GMO Narrative

The anti-GMO narrative – and that is what it is, a story – has several consistent elements. According to this narrative GMOs are poisonous, bad for farmers, and solely promoted by companies out to make money by controlling the food source and exploiting farmers and the public. The problem with this cartoon is that it does not comport with reality.

Continue Reading »

49 responses so far

Aug 26 2016

Biofuels and the Law of Unintended Consequences

Published by under Technology

biofuel-carbonI admit to a certain fascination with the informal “law of unintended consequences.” I think this is a very useful concept and should always be kept in mind. Essentially this axiom holds that the world is a complex place with far more variables in play than we could ever anticipate. Therefore our actions are likely to have consequences that we did not intend.

It therefore makes sense to be cautious and humble when taking any big action (like passing a law, establishing a regulation, promoting an industry, etc.), and to build into the process monitoring the effects of the intervention and making course corrections as necessary.

A new study suggests that biofuels may be the latest entry in the book of unintended consequences. The study tries to address a very narrow question – how much of the carbon that is released into the atmosphere when biofuels are burned was offset by the taking up of carbon from the atmosphere when the plants used to create the biofuels (feedstock) were grown?

Continue Reading »

31 responses so far

Aug 16 2016

Delivering Chemotherapy with Nanocarriers

nanocarriersOne of the great promises of nanotechnology is that we will be able to send swarms of these microscopic robots into your body to do all sorts of helpful things, like clean plaque from your arteries, repair cell damage, and kill cancer cells. Theoretically, these are all great ideas. There are, however, non-trivial technological hurdles to realizing the potential of this technology.

Another related great idea is the concept of delivering chemotherapy directly to cancer cells with some sort of targeted nanocarrier. Chemotherapy for cancer primarily refers to toxic drugs that kill cells. Specific drugs are given in specific doses so that they primarily kill rapidly dividing cells, which include cancer cells, but have less of a toxic effect on cells with a more typical rate of division. Still, chemotherapy makes people very sick and we are generally pushing this toxicity to its limits in order to maximize the effect against cancer cells.

What if, however, we could deliver the chemotherapy directly to cancer cells? In fact, anything we can do to increase the concentration of chemotherapy in the cancer and reduce the concentration outside of the cancer will enhance efficacy and reduce side effects.

Continue Reading »

15 responses so far

Aug 12 2016

Augmented Reality and Mental Workload

fNIIRSVirtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) applications are already here, but they still have not hit the steep part of the curve. We appear to be right at the beginning. We are about to experience the rapid adoption and experimentation with this new technology, and it will be interesting to see what applications become popular, and how people end up using these technologies. This is like predicting prior to the iPhone what smart phone apps will be popular.

For background, VR involves wearing goggles that fill your entire field of vision, so that you appear to occupy an entirely virtual world. When you physically move your head, your virtual perspective changes accordingly, so you can actually look around your virtual world.  Wearable devices like gloves are used to manipulate the virtual world.

Augmented reality is similar, but instead of immersive goggles you wear transparent glasses (like Google Glass) or use a handheld device with a camera (like Pokemon Go) which overlays virtual information onto the real world.

Continue Reading »

10 responses so far

Next »