Archive for the 'Technology' Category

May 26 2016

What’s Killing the Bees

honeybeesYesterday I saw a bumper sticker that stated, “Save the Bees, Buy Organic.” Of course, a bumper sticker is not the place for a nuanced or thorough treatment of a complex topic. It is a venue suitable for simplistic slogans.

People like simple narratives, but reality rarely conforms to our desires. This has led to a frequent reminder, popularized by Ben Goldacre, that you will often find the situation (pretty much whatever situation you consider) is more complex than it might at first seem. That is a good rule of thumb – it is fair to assume as a default that any topic is more complex than your current understanding, or how it is being presented in the media, or how it is understood in the public consciousness.

Complex and ambiguous situations, like the fate of our pollinators, become a convenient Rorschach test for ideology. People tend to impose on this complex and not fully understood situation whatever simplistic narrative suits their beliefs and values, like the notion that organic farming will somehow save the bees. Continue Reading »

14 responses so far

Apr 29 2016

Some Battery Click-Bait

Published by under Technology

battery-24In an updated version of Dante’s Inferno there is one level of science hell that is specifically reserved for headline writers. In their hell there are endless signs pointing the way out of their torment, but all the signs are misleading or overhyped. They are therefore perpetually devastated by the difference between what they are promised and the reality.

Take the following headline (please): Researchers have accidentally made batteries that could last 400 times longer. They know the average person is going to read this and think they won’t have to recharge their cell phones but once per year (it’s recharge day, everybody). The headline is not technically wrong, it is just deliberately ambiguous in the use of the term “last.”

There are two ways in which batteries “last” – how long do they last on one charge, and how many charge-recharge cycles do they have. Guess which one we are talking about here.

The news item is also genuinely interesting, and would have grabbed my attention even without the click-bait headline. But first, a quick primer on batteries.

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11 responses so far

Mar 21 2016

In Praise of Lab-Grown Meat

Published by under Technology

lab-grown-meatLab-grown meat now seems inevitable, although it is still hard to predict exactly how long it will take to become a popular consumer item. Here is a quick overview of what this is, and its potential to improve our food supply.

Lab grown meat involves taking muscle stem cells from animals, like pigs, chickens, or cows, and then growing them, well, in a lab. They can be grown in a large vat of nutrients.

What you end up with is not fully formed muscle, as if it were taken from an animal, but simply a mass of muscle cells. Animal muscles also contain fat, vessels, and connective tissue, which help give it its texture. For taste the fat marbling is probably the most important.

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19 responses so far

Mar 14 2016

Patients Prefer Video to Face-to-Face Consultation

atmThere are now many aspects of my life in which I prefer to interact with a computer rather than a person. When I stop to fill up my tank or remove some cash from my bank account, I can do so quickly and efficiently by interfacing directly with an automated machine. It is interesting to think about exactly why this is, but first let me discuss the findings of a new study looking at this very question.

Dr. Matthew Winter and his fellow researchers presented the results of a randomized trial at the European Association of Urology 31st Annual Congress in which they compared giving informed consent via video vs in person prior to a urological procedure.

The study randomized 88 patients to either have a face-to-face consultation with the surgeon, or to viewing a prepared video including animation to describe the procedure. They then quizzed them on their knowledge of the procedure, and did a follow up cross-over in which the groups switched and then were re-tested.

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5 responses so far

Mar 11 2016

Electronic Blood

Published by under Technology

electronic-bloodI dislike gratuitous analogies that don’t actually facilitate your understanding of a new concept or technology, and may even be inherently misleading. A great analogy, however, is science communication gold.

I was intrigued by articles discussing “electronic blood.” What exactly is it, and is the blood analogy gratuitous or helpful? In the end I think it was fairly accurate.

Electronic blood is not yet ready for the market, it is still in the research and development stage. It is also not an electronic replacement for biological blood, but a blood-like replacement for electronic power and cooling. The ideas is to both power and cool computer chips with a redox fluid that can provide energy through oxidation and then be recharged through reduction. At the same time the fluid can carry heat away from the processor.

The blood analogy is actually perfect. Blood carries energy to every cell while carrying away waste. Electronic blood would carry energy to every part of a computer chip while carrying away waste heat.

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6 responses so far

Mar 07 2016

Wind Turbine Controversy

windturbines1Wind energy is on the rise as a clean renewable form of energy. It has many advantages – no carbon emissions (beyond construction of the turbines themselves), no pollution, no waste, and no use of limited resources. The three often-cited downsides of wind power are that the turbines can be an eyesore, they may cause symptoms in susceptible individuals (so-called wind turbine syndrome, WTS), and they can be a hazard to flying creatures.

The eyesore issue for me is not a big issue. I actually think wind turbines dotting the horizon look pretty, but even if you disagree that is a small price to pay for the advantages.

I’m a bird watcher, and so am very sensitive to the issue of protecting bird diversity. I wrote about this issue previously.

A review of scientific studies of the number of bird deaths caused by wind turbines estimates that  140,000 and 328,000 bird deaths are caused each year. This may seem like a lot, but a study published in 2013 concluded that domestic cats kill between 1.3 and 4.0 billion birds each year. Further, an estimated 100 million birds are killed each year by flying into windows.

This makes the number of birds killed by wind turbines a round-off error. Continue Reading »

27 responses so far

Feb 26 2016

Mitochondrial Replacement Therapies

mitochondriaAnother innovative medical technology is on the brink of being applied to actual patients, and it is spawning the typical discussion about the ethics of altering human biology. I think this will likely take the usual course.

The technology is mitochondrial replacement therapies (MRTs). Mitochondria are organelles inside every cell. They are the power plants of cells, burning fuel with oxygen to create ATP, which are molecules that provide energy for all the processes of life.

Interestingly, mitochondria probably derived from independent cells that evolved a symbiotic relationship with eukaryotic cells. They are like bacteria living inside each cell with a specialized function of making ATP.

Mitochondria still retain some of their own DNA, which is partly how we know they were once independent organisms. Mitochondria contain 17,000 base pairs and just 37 genes (compared to 20,000 genes in human nuclear DNA). Over millions of years of evolution they have also outsourced some of their DNA to the nuclear DNA of cells, but also still retain some of their own DNA. Not only does this mitochondrial DNA affect the functioning of the mitochondria itself, it has implications for overall cell function through its interaction with nuclear DNA.

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18 responses so far

Feb 23 2016

Identifying Real or Fake Images

Published by under Skepticism,Technology

CGI-fakeFor anyone active on social media it is almost a daily occurrence that a photo being passed around as if it were real is revealed as a fake. In fact, if you don’t want to look silly, it’s a great idea to Google before you share. A basic search is often all that is necessary, and if the photo is fake it is very likely that Snopes has you covered.

For the more intrepid, you can also use reverse-photo search websites. These will find matches to the photo you select, which can often reveal the original photo that was “photoshopped” in order to create that iconic representation of whatever ideology is being promoted.

Some people have a better eye for photo manipulation than others. Sometimes context is all you need – if the photo seems too perfect to be true, it probably is.

The task of sniffing out fake photos, however, (at least from a technical perspective) is getting more difficult. There are two basic ways to make a fake photo. The most common is to take a real photo and manipulate it. Just replace the words on that protest sign to say whatever dumb thing you want to mock.

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21 responses so far

Jan 04 2016

The Coming 3-D Printer Revolution

Published by under Technology

3d-printerI am a technophile, so I follow new and emerging technologies pretty closely. I am also an occasional early adopter, as much as my finances allow, which is not anywhere close to what I would like. Often I must wait for a new technology to come down in price to the consumer level, or at least the “prosumer” level.

Over the last couple of years I have had my eye on 3-D printers. This is an extremely promising technology, often referred to as additive manufacturing. Traditional manufacturing methods start with a block of material and then take away material to create the shape, or they use some kind of mold, or they hammer, pull, bend, or press material into shape.  Continue Reading »

27 responses so far

Dec 07 2015

Steorn Is Now Selling Free-Energy Products

Published by under Technology

Steorn is an Irish company that has been promising for years that they have pioneered what is essentially a free-energy device. They recently announced that they now have two devices available for pre-order. The OCube is a USB charging device that they are selling for €1,200, and the OPhone which is a cell phone that never has to be recharged.

I first wrote about Steorn in 2007 when they promised a live demonstration of their free-energy technology, a demonstration that never manifested. Steorn did not give up their claims. In 2009:

Twenty-two independent scientists and engineers were selected by Steorn to form this jury. It has for the past two years examined evidence presented by the company. The unanimous verdict of the Jury is that Steorn’s attempts to demonstrate the claim have not shown the production of energy. The jury is therefore ceasing work.

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30 responses so far

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