Archive for the 'General' Category

Jan 04 2019

Asimov’s Predictions for 2019

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In 1984 science fiction writer Isaac Asimov wrote an article for the Toronto Star making predictions for 2019. I thought that was an odd date to pick, but as The Star explains, 1984 was 35 years from the publication of the book by that name, so they wanted to look 35 years into the future.

I am interested in futurism, which is notoriously difficult, but it is an excellent window onto the attitudes, assumptions, and biases of the people making the predictions. Asimov’s predictions are no exception, but they are particularly interesting coming from a professional futurist, and one with a reputation for being particularly prescient.

What did he get right, and what did he get wrong, and why? He focused on what he considered to be the three biggest issues for the future: “1. Nuclear war. 2. Computerization. 3. Space utilization.” I think this list itself reflects his bias as a science-fiction writer. They are reasonable, but he could have chosen medicine, agriculture, transportation, or other areas.

In any case, on nuclear war he was pessimistic in a way that was typical for the height of the cold war, and prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. He said if we have a nuclear war, civilization is over, so not much more to say about that. Instead he just wrote:

“Let us, therefore, assume there will be no nuclear war — not necessarily a safe assumption — and carry on from there.”

He spent most of the article focusing on the impact of computers on society. This was a frequent topic of his fiction. He famously was correct in his prior visions of the future in the broad brushstrokes of – computers will get more powerful, more intelligent, and more important to civilization. But he also famously got the details wrong, imaging giant computers running things. He missed the trend toward smaller, ubiquitous, and embedded computers.

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Jun 25 2013

Hummingbirds

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I’m still on vacation. I had an encounter with some hummingbirds this morning. If you live in the North Eastern part of the US and you see a hummingbird in the wild, then it is overwhelmingly likely to be a ruby throated hummingbird. This is the only species that is endemic to the area. There are occasional reports of other species of hummingbird, but they are likely accidentals.

This little guy is a male ruby throat – the reason for the name is quite visible in the photo.

I usually don’t see hummingbirds perched like this. I have a feeder, and the hummingbirds usually hum in, hover while they feed, then flit away.

They are famous for their rapid wing speed, beating their wings up to 53 times per second. Their high metabolism means they have to consume up to twice their body weight in food each day. In addition to nectar, they will also eat insects and spiders.

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Apr 02 2013

SBM Temporarily Down

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This is just a quick note to inform my readers that the SBM website is temporarily down. There appears to be an automated bot attack trying to hijack our servers. We thought we fixed it yesterday but it went down again overnight. Troubleshooting is commencing. We will have it back up as soon as possible.

Update: SBM is back up, and fully functional. You will need to reset your password to sign in and comment, however. Sorry again for the inconvenience.

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Feb 02 2013

Donate Girl Scout Cookies to the Troops

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If you would like to donate Girl Scout cookies to the troops but don’t have a hookup yourself, here’s your solution. Just use the PayPal button below, choose the amount you would like to donate (increments of $4, as it’s $4 per box), and my daughter, who is in the Girl Scouts, will take care of the rest.

Thanks in advance for your generosity, and I’m sure both the Girl Scouts and our forward deployed troops who are jonesing for thin mints or tagalongs will appreciate it.

Addendum:

The deadline is past. Thanks to everyone who donated. We raised 85 boxes of cookies for the troops.

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Sep 10 2012

Science Debate 2012 Answers

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ScienceDebate.org is a group dedicated to promoting the discussion of important scientific issues in American politics. They formed around the idea of holding a science-themed debate in the 2008 presidential election, and have continued since then. They were never successful in getting the two campaigns to agree to a live debate concerning scientific topics, but they did agree to submit written answers to questions. This time around, in the 2012 presidential election, it also appears that there will be no live debate, but both campaigns have submitted written answers to science questions.

The idea behind ScienceDebate is this – from their website:

“Whenever the people are well-informed,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “they can be trusted with their own government.”

Science now affects every aspect of life and is an increasingly important topic in national policymaking.

I remember Carl Sagan hitting this theme often, in Cosmos and in his interviews. He said, for example:

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”

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Dec 16 2011

Christopher Hitchens 1949-2011

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News of the death of Christopher Hitchens has by now worked its way around the internet and around the world. I first heard of it from a fellow skeptic in Australia. Hitchens was a great intellectual light in this world and it is always sad to see such a light go out.

I have been reading his column for years. Every Monday I eagerly read his take on world news or modern culture. He was an exceptional investigative journalist. You did not have to agree with his point of view to gain insight into the issues he covered. In fact he was one of those rare writers who was more useful and provocative when you did disagree with him – because he challenged your views with overlooked facts and interesting analysis. I am really not aware of anyone writing today who will fill the niche he occupied in my weekly reading.

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May 20 2011

Preparing for a Zombie Apocalypse

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Get A Kit,    Make A Plan, Be Prepared. emergency.cdc.govThe Centers for Disease Control (CDC) want you to be prepared for the possibility of a zombie apocalypse. Really.

They have started a campaign to educate the public how to prepare for the eventuality of a mindless brain-eating horde slowly but inexorably laying siege to your home.  It’s a clever campaign – preparing for a zombie-induced disaster is much like preparing for any natural or man-made disaster. The basic needs for survival are the same, as is understanding how to access the government resources that will likely be available. You probably don’t have to spend as much time fortifying your home or preparing your weapons, however.

The CDC is not the first to key in on the popularity of zombies to promote their work. In 2009 Munz et al wrote an epidemiological paper called, When Zombies Attack! to demonstrate their mathematical model for predicting the spread of a highly infectious disease. They could have chosen any disease, but by choosing zombie infection they turned their otherwise obscure medical paper into a media sensation.

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May 02 2011

Hunting the Elusive…

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The existence of this creature remains at best controversial, with the bulk of the scientific community skeptical. The evidence so far put forward consists of photos and video that are either out-of-focus or at such a distance that definitive identification is not possible. Proponents focus on questionable analysis of minute details of their blurry videos in order to make their case, and excuse the lack of better evidence by that fact that their quarry is rare, wary, and lives only in the deep wilderness.

I am talking, of course, about the ivory-billed woodpecker.

The ivory-billed woodpecker is a larger cousin to the extant pileated woodpecker, but it was believed to have gone extinct in the 1940s. However, recent putative sightings have raised the possibility that a small population still persists in the deep swamps where they roam. In most of the videos and photographs shown so far the subject does appear to be a large woodpecker – but the question remains if the birds seen in these images are a pileated woodpecker or an ivory-billed. There are differences in markings and flying characteristics, but the fleeting and distant images do not allow for a clean distinction.

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Mar 18 2011

Biases in Science Fiction

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I woke up with a strange idea in my head that I wanted to get off my chest. This has to do with how we project our biases onto fiction, in this case specifically science fiction. My thought involves ship design – how would you design a ship for deep space travel?

First let’s take some common examples from science fiction, such as the Starship Enterprise. The decks of the Enterprise are oriented parallel to the direction of acceleration, which means that people standing on the decks are perpendicular and the force of acceleration would “push” them horizontal to the deck. The same is true of ships of all sizes in Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and many other popular science fiction shows.

I know there are exceptions. The ship in Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey had an interesting design, using a rotating doughnut to generate artificial gravity. This ship was designed, however, for relatively short interplanetary travel  and for coasting (rather than accelerating) most of the time. There are sure to be other exceptions – but my point is, they are exceptions, not what we commonly see in science fiction.

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Dec 31 2010

Four Years

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Today marks the end of my fourth year of blogging. It is estimated that 60-80% of new blogs go dead within a month, so I’m happy to have survived for four years. NeuroLogica has fulfilled what I intended for it  – to keep me writing on a regular basis, to provide a useful outlet for engaging in the online skeptical conversation, and to attract attention from journalists looking for information or story ideas.

The world of blogging has evolved a bit over the past four years. Technorati tracks blogging trends, and their “state of blogging” report for 2010 notes several trends. They note that bloggers are using more social media to spread their blogs. And blogs have been having an increasing effect on mainstream media. I have definitely noticed this myself. In many cases the science news cycle has expanded to increased a phase of analysis by bloggers, followed by mainstream reporting of that analysis. In the past the media might give a completely bogus report on some science news item, and that would be the end of it, until a month or two later when the popular science journals covered the story in more depth. Now it takes a day or two for science bloggers to dissect and, if necessary, correct the story. This is often followed by the mainstream media then readdressing the story – “Hey, remember that story we told you a few days ago? Well, it turns out it’s BS.”

I also see a trend where journalist are increasingly going to popular science bloggers for information while writing the original report, rather than waiting to get smacked down after they publish. This is a good trend, and I think in order for journalists to survive they will have to take advantage of those scientists and experts who blog.

All things considered, I think blogging has had a positive impact on the flow and quality of information, and it is still not fully mature. I am glad to be a part of it.

Thanks to all my readers, especially those who take the time to regularly comment or who have sent me blogging ideas. Have a great 2011.

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