Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Jul 23 2015

Stem Cells and the Arc of Technology

I have noticed a common arc to many technologies. First they are known and discussed only by scientists and experts in the field. Then they are picked up technophiles who read nerdy magazines and websites. This is all while the research is preliminary and the technology just a distant hope for the future.

Then something happens that makes awareness of the potential technology go mainstream. This is often a movie depicting the technology, but can also be just an article in a more mainstream magazine or newspaper, an early demonstration of the potential for the technology, or a political controversy surrounding it. Then the hype begins.

The hype phase is driven by the researchers looking for more funding, the technophiles who have already been salivating over the technology for years, and a sensationalist media.

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Jun 15 2015

Simulation Sickness

Published by under Technology

One of my oldest memories is from a cruise my family took when I was five. Toward the end of the trip I started to feel incredibly sick. At one point I had to simply sit down – I was immobilized with nausea and a general feeling of unwell. I am told I later vomited on the captain’s shoes, although I don’t have any memory of this.

What I was experiencing was simple motion sickness. There is a related phenomenon emerging known as simulation sickness. When the CEO of Oculus first used their Oculus Rift virtual reality game system, he experienced symptoms of motion sickness.  It’s a serious problem for this new technology, delaying full deployment.

The problem is rooted in neuroscience. Our brains receive several types of sensory information that tell it about it orientation relative to gravity and any acceleration or motion it is experiencing. The eyes simply see how our head is moving in relation to the rest of the world. Our vestibular system senses both our orientation with respect to gravity and acceleration. It does this through three semicircular canals, a utricle, and a saccule in each inner ear, oriented in each three-dimensional axis. These canals are filled with fluid and lined with tiny hairs projecting from neurons. The semicircular canals experience rotational acceleration, while the utricle and saccule measure the direction of gravity and linear acceleration.

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Jun 09 2015

Injectible Brain Electrodes

Charles Lieber with his team at Harvard University have developed a flexible mesh network of electrodes that can be injected through the skull, unfolding onto the surface of the brain. This technology could be a significant advance in our ability to study the brain.

Neuroscientists are trying to map the brain in as much detail as possible, creating what is being called the “connectome” (reminiscent of mapping the human “genome”).

There are about 87 billion neurons in the adult human brain. Each neuron is capable of making up to around 10,000 connections to other neurons, which means the total connections in the brain is somewhere around a quadrillion. The saying goes that neurons that wire together fire together, so the pattern of connections determines the pattern of electrical activity in the brain.

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Jun 04 2015

Batteriser – Cool Tech or Scam?

Published by under Technology

A company is claiming that they have created a small sleeve costing only $2.50 that will fit over standard alkaline batteries, and boost their life by up to 800%. My initial reaction to this claim is that it is almost certainly total BS. But I am always willing to give a new claim a fair shake and dive into the details.

The reasons for my initial skepticism are many. Energy scams are common. They often promise incredible effects from implausible devices. Usually, by asking one simple question, you can destroy the claims utterly – from where is the extra energy coming? The laws of thermodynamics are called “laws” for a reason, and reality is a harsh mistress.

Bob Roohparvar, owner of Batteroo which is developing the Batteriser, has an answer to this question. He claims that typical alkaline batteries use about 20% of their available energy. The reason for this high inefficiency is that electronic devices are finicky; they need a steady voltage of 1.5. When an alkaline battery drops below 80% capacity the voltage also drops to 1.4 or 1.3. At that point the device will read the battery as dead, leaving 80% of its juice unused.

The Batteriser, Roohparvar claims, is a miniaturized device that boosts the voltage back up to 1.5, and maintains it there until every last drop of energy is extracted from the battery. OK, I thought, at least he has an answer to the most basic question about such claims. But that is about all he has. Even a slightly deeper dive into battery technology and his claims reveals them to be untenable.

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May 26 2015

The Implications of Online Time-lapse

Published by under Technology

This is very cool – programmers have created a process with which they scour the internet for photographs. They then categorize them by subject matter, and then select groups of photos that are essentially of the same subject over different periods of time. They crop, color correct, and adjust each photo so that it matches a master, and put them together to create a time-lapse video.

The result is thousands of time-lapse videos that might have taken years to otherwise create.

This is a fun demonstration of two technological trends that are worth pondering. The first is the absolute explosion in digital data, including photographs and video. One estimate is that there were 880 billion photos uploaded in 2014. There are 27,800 photos uploaded to Instagram alone every minute. This is partly due to the smartphone revolution – a large portion of the population in developed nations walk around with a camera on them at all times.

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May 11 2015

Missing the Point and Wasting Resources

Published by under Technology

I sometimes think of scientific skepticism as a method of waste reduction and improved efficiency. As an individual, a family, a society, a government, and indeed a civilization, we are best served if our time and energy were spent in an efficient manner pursuing appropriate goals. It pains me, for example, to think of researchers who spend an entire career pursuing a fiction. When you think about how much time and money is wasted because of ideology, stubbornness, or simple ignorance it can be depressing.

Part of the problem is that the choices we face are increasingly complex, and we really don’t have the infrastructure necessary to collectively make good decisions. Politics is overwhelmed with ideology and perverse incentives, people are overwhelmed with misinformation and advertising, the public is largely scientifically illiterate, the media generally does not do a good job of informing the public, and the default mode is to make decisions for emotional and ideological rather than rational reasons.

There are many examples just from the pages of this blog – billions wasted on useless supplements, disease outbreaks caused by antivaxxers, companies dedicated to producing free-energy devices, and ideological opposition to anything “unnatural,” to name just a few. The latter is interesting because it demonstrates how passionate people who mean well can be easily diverted by sloppy thinking. A recent article by Beth Skwarecki points this out nicely. While I don’t agree with everything she writes, the essence of her article is spot on.

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May 07 2015

Fight Over WiFi In Public Schools

A Los Angeles middle school has turned WiFi off in a classroom to accommodate a teacher, Anura Lawson, who believes she has electromagnetic sensitivity. Now Lawson is petitioning to have WiFi turned off in every classroom in California. That’s what you get for catering to pseudoscience – more pseudoscience.

Electromagnetic (EM) sensitivity is a controversial disorder; well, controversial in that the scientific community has investigated it and concluded that it does not exist, but some individuals still believe they have it. Like many spurious disorders, the symptoms are mostly non-specific. Lawson claims she experienced, “dizziness, migraines, and heart palpitations,” while her daughter claims that her “brain was running slower.”

Such non-specific symptoms can be the result of anything stressing out the system: poor sleep, lack of physical activity, an unrecognized chronic illness, anxiety or depression. They may also be purely psychological. There are no specific symptoms or objective signs to indicate that there is any pathology present. Once treatable pathology has been ruled out, it’s best to focus on treating symptoms and improving quality of life.

However, there are many fake or dubious diagnoses out there to place a label on patients with such non-specific symptoms. These labels have changed over the generations, but apparently have always existed. Today there are several popular fad diagnoses for non-specific symptoms, including candida hypersensitivity, multiple chemical sensitivity, chronic Lyme disease, adrenal fatigue and EM sensitivity.

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May 01 2015

Tesla Introduces the Home Battery

Published by under Technology

Innovative billionaire, Elon Musk, is introducing the first product designed to be a home battery for the average home - the Powerwall by Tesla. This is a large but shallow and stylish lithium ion battery meant to be attached to the wall of a garage or basement. There are two versions, a 10kWh for $3,500 and a 7kWh for $3,000. That puts it in the range of a typical large home appliance.

This is an interesting move, and is earlier than I anticipated such a product would hit the market. I wonder if the market is ready. There are some indications that it may be.

For the homeowner there are two primary uses of a large home battery, one large enough that you can actually run your home, at least for a while. The first is as a backup device for when the power goes out. That in itself would be a useful function, as anyone who has ever lost power to their home can attest. Even if the power goes out for 12 hours or so before being restored, that is long enough to lose everything in your freezer. A day without power is a massive inconvenience, and can even be dangerous in the dead of winter, which is when most power outages occur in my part of the country. It doesn’t take long for the house to plunge into freezing temperatures.

The second use is as a method for using solar or wind produced energy more efficiently. Peak energy use does not coincide with peak sunshine. Right now that is not a big deal, as homes with solar installation are mostly just giving their solar produced electricity to the grid and then pulling from the grid as needed. However, as solar penetration increases we may get to the point that it is a significant contribution to the grid.

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Apr 28 2015

Audi’s E-Diesel

Published by under Technology

Audi has been working on a synthetic diesel fuel and is currently producing test samples, with plans for industrial production. This is potentially a useful technology (depending on the details) but, as is almost always the case, is widely misreported.

For example, Gizmag states: “Audi just created diesel fuel from air and water.” Farther down in the article they do mention that you also need another critical ingredient – energy.

Engadget reports: “The automaker recently produced its first batch of “e-diesel,” a synthetic diesel based solely on carbon dioxide and water — readily available chemicals that are far nicer than sulfur and other typical diesel elements.” They never make mention that the process requires energy.

I don’t think this is a nitpick, because already the Audi story has been mentioned to me by someone who did not understand, until I pointed it out to them, that processes such as this are not a source of energy or fuel, they are simply an energy storage medium. Saying that fuel is made from “carbon dioxide and water,” while not wrong, is incomplete and fosters a fundamental misunderstanding of what is going on.

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Mar 02 2015

Google Wants to Rank Websites for Trustworthiness

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I like this idea, but it is certainly bold and needs some careful thought. Google wants to rank websites according to how trustworthy their factual statements are.

Google undoubtedly is a cornerstone of the internet, which itself is now a cornerstone of our civilization. We are rapidly evolving to having a worldwide network of shared human knowledge and communication. The internet is now the dominant medium of human ideas.

Google is not just a search engine – it is the dominant portal to this information. This makes Google rank a vital statistic for any website. In fact, there is an entire industry, search engine optimization (SEO), dedicated to improving one’s Google ranking.

Google’s big innovation, and the one that launched them to the top of the heap, was to rank websites according to the number and quality of incoming links. This turned out to be a useful proxy, and serves to reward users with a helpful ranking of the websites they are searching for. Specifically, it is not easy to game the system. You can’t boost your Google rank simply by repeating search terms in the coding. In fact, I have a couple friends at Google and they tell me that Google is constantly tweaking their algorithm specifically to make SEO ineffective. SEO is an attempt to game Google’s ranking algorithm, and Google doesn’t want that. They want the truly most valuable and appropriate sites to float to the top.

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