Mar 23 2018

Showdown – Hydrogen vs Battery

Right now fossil fuels are the king of transportation fuel. They are relatively inexpensive, energy dense, and highly convenient. Burning gasoline produces a lot of energy for acceleration, but the fuel is also relatively stable (it won’t just explode), and usable over a large temperature range. You can quickly fill up your car with gasoline, have a long range on one tank, and there are filling stations everywhere.

In many ways gasoline is an ideal fuel, which is why it has reigned supreme for a century. But gasoline isn’t perfect, and the downsides to fossil fuels are coming home to roost. Burning fossil fuels releases pollution that impacts quality of life and causes significant health problems and costs.  It also releases previously sequestered carbon into the atmosphere, which is building up and causing climate change.

Further, many of the countries that are a major source of crude oil are not exactly stable democracies. And finally, there is a finite supply of crude oil. It is still not clear what the total remaining reserves are, and the figures change whenever new sources are found and new technologies are developed to extract more oil from existing wells. But no matter what, there has to be finite supplies of oil that will run out eventually.

All of these downsides are why we seem to be living in a transition point away from fossil fuels in general, but especially for transportation. Every automaker seems to think that fossil fuel engines are on the way out, and the trend away from fossil fuel is pretty clear. The real question is – what technology will replace it?

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Mar 22 2018

Big Data – Long Data

2,800,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes

That’s 2.8 zettabytes, or 2.8 billion terabytes.

That is roughly how much data there is in the world today, with 2.5 exabytes (quintillion bytes) being added every day. This increase is not linear, but geometric. Ninety percent of all the data ever produced by humanity was produced in the last two years. There are increasingly science projects coming online that are using massive amounts of data. The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative to map the human brain will have to deal with yottabytes of data (a yottabyte is 1000 zettabytes).

Storing all this data is already a challenge, one which will get orders of magnitude more challenging. There are several hurdles. The first is that we need the physical space to store all this data – we need the hard drives, optical discs, tape storage, or whatever media we use.

Second, storing and migrating all this data uses energy. The current estimate is that 3% of global energy output is used to store data. And again, this will only increase. On a separate but related issue, we also have to think carefully about global processing and storage intensive tasks, such as cryptocurrency. They may have a certain utility, but the blockchain process uses a lot of energy.

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Mar 20 2018

Free Speech – Perception vs Reality

In general, which demographic is more supportive of free speech, a college student who identifies as an extreme liberal, or a non-college educated conservative? How has overall support for free speech, even “politically incorrect” speech, changed over the last few decades? The answers to these questions may seem obvious, and that’s the point, because the actual facts run contrary to common perception.

Researcher Justin Murphy recently published aggregated results of surveys regarding tolerance of different kinds of speech. There is also a good discussion of this data on Vox, but here is the quick overview:

  • Tolerance of speech or support for free speech has been overall rising over the last few decades
  • Self-identified extreme liberals are the most supportive ideological group of free speech
  • College/University education correlates with increased tolerance of speech.
  • The most intolerant group are non-college educated, and the type of speech about which they are most intolerant are anti-American Muslims.

Of course, there are always potential confounding factors in surveys. But the data here are pretty clear – overall support for free speech is high and rising, and is highest among the college-educated and liberals. The surveys looked at tolerance of various groups: antitheists, homosexuals, racists, communists, militarists, and anti-American Muslims. For every type of speech tolerance has been rising among every ideological group, except for tolerance of racist speech among moderate liberals (still increasing among extreme liberals), and tolerance of anti-American Muslim speech among conservatives. The decrease in tolerance for racist speech may be due to an increase in African Americans, who are less tolerant overall of racist speech, among that demographic.

What you will not find in this data is support for the common narrative that we have a free speech crisis on college campuses in America, driven by political correctness on the left. That narrative is essentially a myth. Like many popular beliefs, it does not survive confrontation with actual facts.

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Mar 19 2018

Gullible Reporting About ESP on CBS

In the 1970s and 80s belief in the paranormal was the most common target of skeptics. Topics like extrasensory perception (ESP), astrology, and faith healing were at the top of the list of skeptical concerns. In the last 30 years skepticism has evolved quite a bit, and while we never stopped being watchdogs on paranormal beliefs and other pseudosciences, they did mostly fade  into the background. Other topics, such as science denial and the rise of fake news, took center stage.

But history has shown that there is often a cycle to such things. Interest in UFOs has waxed and waned over the years, for example, never going away completely, but fading and then rising again to prominence as a new generation discovers the topic.

Still, we do like to think we are making some progress through exposure and education. We have tried to interact frequently with the press so that at least the skeptical point of view will get better exposure when such topics are addressed. One solid victory was when the BBC announced they will no longer follow a pattern of false balance when dealing with science denial – putting a crank up against the consensus of scientific opinion as if they were equal.

A recent episode of CBS Sunday Morning about ESP, however, was worse than false balance, it was a throwback to the early days of credulous reporting about the paranormal with only token skepticism. Not that token skepticism was gone, but it has become more rare, especially from a major network or news outlet.

The piece, by Erin Moriarty, is a complete journalistic fail. It was the kind of piece we used to see thirty plus years ago before the skeptical movement had any traction. It is a perfect example of what we call token skepticism – a piece that is utterly gullible except for a very brief talking head skeptic who says something generic, like, “There is no scientific evidence to support this.” The token skepticism is immediately negated, however, by some response from the true-believer, a response the skeptic is never allowed to respond to in turn.

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Mar 15 2018

Prosthetic Sensory Feedback

We continue to make incremental improvements in robotic artificial limbs, and now researchers report one more – kinesthetic feedback. This is a sense that your limb is moving under your control.

What the engineers did is include a mechanism to make the robotic arm vibrate when it moves. The vibration gives the user sensory feedback that mimics movement. This is similar to the haptic feedback that some video game controllers give, to enhance the illusion that you are wielding an actual item rather than just a plastic controller.

In the study this vibrational feedback was successful in creating the illusion of control, meaning that the users felt as if they controlled their robotic limb. However, they still did not feel as if they owned their robotic limb, like it was part of them, which is another hurdle engineers will have to solve.

I found it interesting that they referred to this effect as an illusion, which I think is accurate, but I want to emphasize that our normal sense of agency and ownership is an identical illusion. The same circuits in the brain that give you the subjective sense that you occupy, own, and control your various body parts are the same ones that would potentially create this sensation in a robotic limb.

This is precisely why a robotic limb can work and ultimately feel natural. All we need to do is close the loop on these brain circuits.

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Mar 13 2018

Fusion in 15 Years?

One of the challenges of communicating science is getting the right balance between enthusiasm and realism. Science can be truly exciting, but it’s easy to overhype something. Too often lazy journalists oversell a science news item, exaggerating prior ignorance and the significance of the new finding. Every discovery is a “breakthrough” and every advance is a “game-changer.”

For technology advances there is a tendency to overestimate short term progress, and the applicability of the new gadget or technique, while glossing over obstacles and downsides. It takes work to find what is truly interesting about a news item, while putting it into proper context.

That is why I am struggling a bit with this current news item, because this technology, if we ever pull it off, would be a true game-changer. It is hard to overestimate the impact that it would have. I am talking about fusion energy. This is not to be confused with cold fusion, which is probably a fantasy, but actual hot fusion, the kind that powers the sun.

MIT researchers announced in an article for Nature that they believe they are 15 years away from a commercial fusion power plant. If true, this is huge news.

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Mar 12 2018

The Brain and Predictive Coding

One way to learn about how a system functions is to examine how it fails. Historically much of our knowledge of the most complex system we know, the nervous system, derived from examining patients with neurological deficits and then examining their brain (prior to imaging, this meant at autopsy).

This process is particularly fascinating with the human brain because we don’t yet know all of the things that the brain does. Some brain functions are obvious, like vision or motor control, because they are conscious. But most of what the brain does is subconscious, and we have had to specifically learn that the brain even needs to do certain things, mostly by examining what happens when the brain fails to do those things.

For example, we take for granted that we move as much as we desire to more, no more or less. But this balance between desire to move and the resulting movement is not automatic. There is an entire system within the brain, the extrapyramidal system, that is a series of feedback loops that carefully modulate moment to moment the gain of voluntary movement (the relationship between input – desire to move, and output – movement). Parkinson’s disease results from a disruption in this circuit which causes the gain to be turned down, so people move less and can even freeze. Chorea (as in Huntington’s chorea) involves the gain being turned up, so people with this disease are constantly writhing.

There are many other amazing examples of things most people are not aware that their brains do, or even that they have to do them. There are circuits in the brain necessary for feeling that you occupy your body, that you own and control your various body parts, and that you are separate from the universe. Disrupt these circuits, and your reality changes.

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Mar 09 2018

Fiction Spreads Farther than Truth

The battle between truth and fiction is asymmetrical. While that seems to be the case, now we have some empirical evidence to back up this conclusion. In a recent study researchers report:

To understand how false news spreads, Vosoughi et al. used a data set of rumor cascades on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. About 126,000 rumors were spread by ∼3 million people. False news reached more people than the truth; the top 1% of false news cascades diffused to between 1000 and 100,000 people, whereas the truth rarely diffused to more than 1000 people. Falsehood also diffused faster than the truth. The degree of novelty and the emotional reactions of recipients may be responsible for the differences observed.

This reflects the inherent asymmetry. Factual information is constrained by reality. You can also look at it as factual information is optimized to be true and accurate. While false information is not constrained by reality and can be optimized to evoke an emotional reaction, to be good storytelling, and for drama.

We see this in many contexts. In medicine, the rise of so-called alternative medicine has been greatly aided by the fact that alternative practitioners can tell patients what they want to hear. They can craft their diagnoses and treatments for optimal marketing, rather than optimal outcomes.

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Mar 08 2018

Carbon Nanotube Supercapacitors

It has been simultaneously exciting and frustrating to follow energy technology news over the last couple of decades. There seems to be endless news stories about a “breakthrough” in technology for batteries, photovoltaics, supercapacitors, hydrogen fuel, and other ways to harvest and store energy. The breakthroughs, however, never seem to manifest.

Reporting rarely puts the potential advance into proper context, or they gloss over the critical details. Even as a non-expert enthusiast who has been following these stories for a long time, I am occasionally tripped up by the misreporting of technical details.

A recent story about a supercapacitor “breakthrough” fits the common pattern, although it is better than many reports. The report begins:

Imagine being able to charge your electric car in minutes rather than hours, or your smartphone in seconds.

That’s the enticing prospect being touted by researchers who reckon they’ve discovered a new material that could boost the performance of a carbon-based supercapacitor – sometimes called an ultracapacitor – a type of energy storage device that can be charged very quickly and offload its power very quickly, too.

Except when you read through the story it becomes clear that the technology is nowhere near being able to charge your car in minutes, and probably never will be.

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Mar 06 2018

The False Flag Delusion

Recently Robert Ussery, 54, who founded conspiracy website Side Thorn, and his partner Jodi Mann, 56, were arrested for harassing parents who lost a child in the mass shooting that took place at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs on Nov. 5, 2017.

Last year Florida Atlantic University professor James Tracy was fired from his job, and lost his law suit to get his job back, for harassing the parents of children killed in the Sandy Hook massacre. Tracy believes the event was a hoax, and the parents just “crisis actors.”

The courageous high-school students from Parkland, Florida who decided to turn their tragedy into activism have been rewarded by also being accused of being fakes.

This is now a regular feature of mass shootings – after the tragedy survivors will be harassed by conspiracy theorists who believe they are part of some government hoax, a false flag operation. Such accusations are nothing new, but they have seemed to reach a new level and are now a regular part of the cultural landscape.

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