Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Nov 21 2016

The EM Drive – Again

Published by under Technology

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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10 responses so far

Nov 18 2016

Improving Photosynthesis and Crop Yield

Published by under Technology

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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25 responses so far

Nov 11 2016

Trump and Climate

Published by under Technology

arctic-iceDonald Trump is our president-elect. Dramatic transitions are always anxiety-provoking, partly because of the unknown, and since Trump has never held public office there is a lot of uncertainty.

I do think, as Obama and Clinton have expressed, that it is important that we respect the outcome of our democratic process and a peaceful transfer of power, even if we don’t like the results. I disagree with the current protests (it’s too late, the election is over). Similarly, I disagree with the trend in the last two decades of challenging the legitimacy of the president. This started with Bush’s win over Gore, and has been an element of every election since. Trump himself has done a lot to undermine confidence in the process and its results.

While I further agree with Clinton that we should give Trump a chance to be a good president, and Democrats should even try to work with him, he is not a blank slate. He said a lot in the campaign that is worrisome. He will now be judged by what he says and does as president-elect during the transition, and of course by his actions as soon as he takes office. Continue Reading »

73 responses so far

Nov 08 2016

Massimo Pigliucci Responds on GMOs

Published by under Skepticism,Technology

Scientists examining crops in field

I always enjoy when someone whom I respect and who cares about using careful and valid arguments disagrees with me. It is an opportunity for me to correct any mistakes I have made, to deepen my understanding of the topic, or at least tighten up my arguments.

Last week I wrote an article responding to a recent New York Times piece on GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Massimo Pigliucci, who is a friend and skeptical colleague, disagrees with my analysis. Massimo thinks that knee-jerk defense of GMOs is a problem generally in the skeptical movement, and uses me as an example. I disagree with him, but will discuss that toward the end.

I want to take the points that I make in my previous post one by one and see how they hold up to Massimo’s criticism, and may expand upon them and include other comments as well.

GMOs should not be considered as one thing.

I wrote in my previous article:

“Any meaningful analysis of GM technology has to consider each application unto itself. Further, the GM trait is only part of the picture – you also have to consider how it is being applied.”

I have consistently taken this position in my writings, and this is also the most common position I encounter when reading other skeptics writing about GMOs. It is not really meaningful to consider GMOs as if they are one thing, and this is a mistake that Hakim makes in the original NYT article.

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21 responses so far

Nov 03 2016

Two Emerging Digital Technologies

Published by under Technology

virtual-realityI have long maintained that it is extremely difficult to predict how new technologies will be used, more difficult than predicting the technologies themselves. New technologies tend to be used differently than they are initially conceived. The human element is the hardest to predict – how will people interact with the technology?

It’s still fun to imagine how new technologies will be used, and that is part of the process of developing applications for those technologies.

There are two emerging digital technologies about which I am willing to make predictions, partly because we are already getting some early indications of consumer acceptance and use: virtual/augmented reality and unstructured data management.

Virtual and Augmented Reality

Virtual Reality refers to systems that provide full sensory input (at least full visual input) to create a virtual world in which the user can operate. Augmented reality overlays digital information onto the real world. These two related technologies complement each other.

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6 responses so far

Nov 01 2016

Tesla’s Solar Shingles

Published by under Technology

tesla-solar-shinglesI revealed recently on the SGU that I have had solar panels placed on my roof. This is something I have been thinking about for a while, but was putting off mainly because I was waiting for the next big solar breakthrough. I eventually came to accept the fact that improvements in solar efficiency and cost were continuous and incremental, and there would probably not be any significant game changer, so there was no reason to wait.

I decided to go with a company that assumes all the installation costs and then sells you the electricity for cheaper than what the power company is charging. This can be tricky, and you need to do some research before you commit to a contract. It may be more advantageous for you to buy or lease your solar panels, if you can afford the upfront costs or financing.

If you decide to go with a contract like I did you need to make sure your state has good net metering laws. This means you will get full credit for any electricity you put back into the grid. You also need to read the fine print, and make sure that your electricity prices won’t increase dramatically after an initial period.

I was pleasantly surprised that, living in Connecticut, my roof could hold more than enough solar panels to produce 100% of the electricity I consume averaged over a year. So, for no upfront cost I get cheaper electricity and a lowered carbon footprint. Continue Reading »

34 responses so far

Oct 27 2016

Do Wind Mills “Kill All the Birds?”

Published by under Technology


No energy source is perfect, but if we are going to make rational decisions about where to invest in our energy infrastructure, we have to consider all the features of each option. We need precise information that is placed into a proper context.

That, of course, requires thoroughness, diligence, a willingness to listen to actual experts, and the ability to think somewhere above a third grade level (my apologies to all third graders).

Donald Trump apparently lacks all of those qualities.

In a recent interview Trump said:

“[Wind power] kills all the birds. Thousands of birds are lying on the ground. And the eagle. You know, certain parts of California — they’ve killed so many eagles. You know, they put you in jail if you kill an eagle. And yet these windmills [kill] them by the hundreds.”

This is a claim he has repeated in numerous speeches and, of course, late night tweets.

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38 responses so far

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.

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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.

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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

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