Archive for the 'Technology' Category

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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Feb 05 2015

A Better Steel

Published by under Technology

Material science seems to me to be an underappreciated discipline. Perhaps because its benefits are not seen directly by the consumer, but only indirectly. Material scientists don’t make a better gadget, but they make a better gadget possible. Sometimes a breakthrough can even be a complete game-changer for certain technologies.

Humans have been using an alloy of carbon and iron for over three thousand years. Iron is a very common element, making up about 5% of the Earth’s crust. Steel is iron with 0.2-1.5% carbon alloy. Carbon makes steel hard but brittle, and so carefully controlling the amount of carbon to optimize hardness but keep it malleable enough not to be brittle is what makes steel.

Steel is still on the cutting edge (pun intended) of material science. Researchers are still discovering ways to make steel lighter, stronger, and better suited to specific purposes. A recent paper, for example, presented a new technique for making blended steel that results in light, strong, and ductile steel – perfect for making more fuel efficient cars, for example.

A brief sidenote on terminology: “hardness” is the resistance to deformation by a force. There are different kinds of hardness, such as scratch hardness and compression hardness. “Strength” is the measure of a substances elastic range. “Toughness” is a measure of how much total energy a material can absorb before it breaks.

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Jan 23 2015

Phishing Techniques Studied

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Don’t click it. If you ever get e-mailed a link, no matter how authentic the e-mail looks or from whom it appears to be, don’t click it. If you feel you need to respond to the e-mail, then type the URL of the website directly into your browser. But never click it.

As simple as that rule sounds, it’s difficult for everyone to remember the rule all the time. One lapse of attention, and you can find yourself the victim of identify theft, have your credit card numbers stolen, or even all your passwords. Unfortunately there is a lot of money to be made in identity theft and there are many criminals out there.

So-called “phishing” scams involve sending out spam e-mails that are designed to provoke the reader into clicking a link which goes to a dummy website that will load malware on your computer that will mine it for passwords, identity information, and credit card information. Such scammers are getting better and better and provoking the click. 

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Jan 15 2015

Marketing Biofortified GMOs

Published by under Technology

The first generation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to hit the market mainly possessed agronomic traits, such as insect resistance and herbicide tolerance. These traits mainly benefit farmers, and when consumers accept such produce they expect them to be cheaper because of the increased efficiency.

There is a second generation of GMOs waiting in the wings, however, that have biofortified traits that can directly benefit the consumer. A recent article in Nature Biotechnology reviews these GMOs and marketing research about their acceptability.

There are six GMO staple crops ready for the market but awaiting regulatory approval. These include golden rice fortified with vitamin A, which has been held up in regulation for 15 years. Other products include rice fortified with folate, and multi-fortified crops such as corn fortified with vitamin A, folate, and vitamin C.

It is also possible to increase mineral content, such as iron, zinc, and copper. This can be done by increasing uptake by the roots, transport to edible tissues, or bioavailability (ability to be absorbed once eaten).

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Dec 30 2014

Detecting Life Through Motion

Published by under Technology

Living things move. In fact our visual system uses the way things move to decide whether or not an object has agency and is able to move on its own. In the pre-technological world only things that are alive have agency, but in the technological era we have animatronics and animated video that can mimic the movement of living things and trick our brains into treating objects or representations as if they are alive.

There are several applications for detecting the signatures of life. So far such efforts have focused mainly on chemical signatures – looking for the products of biochemistry. Researchers publishing in PNAS, however, have taken a new approach.  They are trying to detect the motion signatures of life at a microscopic scale.

They use nanoscale motion detectors that are actually tiny cantilevers. Even a single bacterium twirling its flagella can cause the cantilever to move. Lasers then detect the motion of the cantilever, and that motion is analyzed for the signatures of life. The researchers tested their setup on soil and pond water, and found that it accurately detected microscopic life. They then used drugs to kill any living cells, and the detection stopped. 

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