May 16th, 2008

Cectic’s “Tiktaalik Speaks Out”

Tiktaalik Speaks Out

Creative Commons LicenseThe above comic is created and licensed by Rudis Muiznieks of

Happy Friday!

April 28th, 2008

Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act

Is the government actually ahead of the curve on an issue?? It appears they may be (or I am sorely ignorant to this issue)! According Wired Science the Senate unanimously (95-0) approved the bill that bar employers and insurance companies from using genetic information to hire, fire, determine premiums or deny coverage.

GINA, as it is affectionately know, apparently has been bouncing around for 10 years in Congress and is know fully expected to be passed by the House and then signed by President Bush.

The prompt behind GINA is that individuals were hesitant to obtain genetic testing to help screen for predispositions to certain disease indicators. The fear was that a genetic “bank” would be maintained by employers and insurance companies and they would use the genetic information to hire and insure only the most fit or individuals that have clear genetic tests.

The benefits to patients having genetic testing done to me is obvious, if you are genetically predisposed to a disease you can take measures to help prevent it or detect it very early and allow for proper treatment.

I think the most amazing thing of all of this is that the government is taking steps to protect individuals from discrimination prior to the mass discrimination occurring. I didn’t believe we really have a pro-active government because history has shown that we are a very reactive system. Add to this amazing occurrence that I actually agree with the legislation almost makes me awe struck. Yes we were really proactive on a positive issue! Now if we could only guarantee that discrimination won’t occur for all those others that live in this country and prove no threat to the life and liberty of their fellow citizens!

April 15th, 2008

An Unglamorous, Renewable Energy Technology

Solar Thermal Power Plant

Creative Commons LicenseThe above image is created and licensed by afloresm.

Thanks to fears about global warming, renewable energy is on more people’s minds than ever. More importantly, it’s on the minds of a lot of business executives as well. The public and businesses want more carbon-free energy. I’ve written positively about the nuclear power, but had to admit that it has some drawbacks (though I still think the safety concern is far overblown). I’ve also blogged about the inefficacy of biofuels. One of the biggest downsides to biofuels is rearing it’s ugly head right now. Additionally, hype about a hydrogen economy is unfounded. Hydrogen technology ends up being a very expensive, inefficient, potentially explosive battery. Finally, photovoltaic (solar) and wind power have proved to be too expensive, too unreliable, and produce too little power.

So, I’ve abandoned hope on alternative fuels hyped by ‘environmentalists’ and I also championed nuclear power as a stop-gap measure until a better technology comes along. Have I abandoned my liberal ways and registered with the Republican party? No. I’m just a realist. However, I have just learned of a renewable, carbon-free alternative that is already in use that could meet the current demands of the developed world and the growing demands. It’s smoke and mirrors; more accurately steam and mirrors…

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April 10th, 2008

Size Isn’t Everything: I Think

Brain Anatomy has a fascinating article by Michael Gazzaniga, Professor of Psychology and the Director for the SAGE Center for the Study of Mind at the University of California Santa Barbara. The first part of the article appears to be taking from his upcoming book, Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique. It’s a grand celebration of humans and their capabilities. It’s an uplifting read for anyone who, like myself, loves our species.

If that weren’t enough, Gazzaniga goes on to make a case that brain size isn’t everything when it comes to intelligence. This belief is a recent phenomenon. Much of cognitive science is built on the the size-intelligence assumption. But more evidence indicates that structural differences in brains also play an important role in intelligence.

This fact should be somewhat obvious since some species of whales have much larger brains then humans, but don’t display as much intelligence. The reason this was overlooked is because the size assumption was modified to account for body size. This accounts for the relative difference between humans and whales (2% and 1% of body weight belonging to the brain, respectively), but not for the fact that mice brains account for five times the percent of body-weight compared to humans. It is clear that structure plays a role.

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February 12th, 2008

Biofuels + Free Market Forces = More Global Warming


In the past, I have read that corn-based ethanol may have a net carbon-neutral effect at best. This was because the fossil fuel based fertilizers used to grown most all corn in the US offset any gains. Now, Scientific American has published an article about two new studies that show a major piece of the carbon equation has been neglected in previous research on biofuels. These show that the widespread use of all biofuels would definitely increase net carbon emissions.

It is true that when burned, biofuels represent a carbon-emissions savings over fossil fuels. So how is it that they increase overall carbon emissions? It is through plant-displacement. When an area is cleared to make way for growing biofuels, the plants that were being used are no longer sucking up and storing their share of carbon. In fact, they begin releasing their stored carbon as they decay.

This plant-displacement effect is amplified by free market forces. For the first time, space to grow fuel is competing with space to grow food. The upshot of this is that biofuels will increase food prices, especially soy bean prices. With high soy prices, people in places like Brazil start cutting down carbon-rich rain forest and planting lucrative soy. An acre of soy stores much less carbon than an acre of rain forest. As that rain forest foliage is burnt or left to decay, all their carbon is released into the atmosphere.

There are ways to make biofuels work, but none of them are economically efficient and thus won’t be pursued without government intervention. Combine this with the fact that “if we convert every corn kernel grown today in the U.S. to ethanol we offset just 12 percent of our gasoline use,” and one can see that biofuels are not a way out of the global warming problem.

February 12th, 2008

Happy Darwin Day!

Charles and William Darwin

On this day in 1809, two great men were born. One is Abraham Lincoln, who’s birthday we Americans are celebrating on Monday, and Charles Darwin. Today, the world celebrates Darwin Day. As the linked webpage’s subtitle says, Darwin Day is “an international recognition of science and humanity.” So take a minute today to stop and appreciate what humans are capable of when they use the scientific method.

EDIT: Though  today Lincoln’s birthday, Presidents Day is in honor of Washington’s birthday (Feb 22nd). Oops!

January 2nd, 2008

Dysfuncional Nuclear Family

Nuclear Power Plant History

In a recent post, I wrote about my excitement over a major engineering advance in nuclear power generation. In the ensuing discussion, chopdeli berated me for giving short-shrift to the downsides of nuclear power. Fair enough. As a long-time nuclear power enthusiasts, I’m not surprised I tend to overlook the problems. I will partly address them in this post.

As I see it, there have been three major downsides to nuclear power plants. First, the cost, especially for coal-rich America. This barrier has been overcome, at least with new small scale plants. The other problems are safety and, of course, waste issues. I’ll cover safety in this post, since I know a bit more about it. Nuclear waste is a serious problem and concerns about it are certainly valid. As I hope to show, they are certainly more valid than concerns about nuclear plant safety.

The fears over nuclear power plant safety are significantly overblown, in my opinion. So overblown, in fact, that I characterized the fears as ‘irrational’ in one of my comments, much to chopdeli’s ire. Really, I think lack of information, not irrationality is to blame.

Let’s look at some numbers.The bottom half of the graph at the beginning of this post gives the number of active nuclear power plants world wide per annum. The data underlying this graph is from the International Atomic Energy Agency. From this graph, I’ve estimated the total number of active plant-years to be about 14,000 world wide. In that entire history there has been one partial meltdown, Three Mile Island, and one complete meltdown, Chernobyl. That puts the odds of meltdown per plant per year worldwide to be 1 in 7000. Since there were exactly zero deaths and zero injuries resulting from the Three Mile Island incident, the odds of being injured in such a meltdown are 1 in 14,000.

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December 27th, 2007

One Step Closer to Foundation Power

Lithium-6 Nuclear Reaction

It’s been nearly 60 years since Isaac Asimov’s Foundation was released. The future world Asimov set up was powered by advanced nuclear power. The key difference between Asimov’s nuclear reactors and ours is scalability. The reactors in Foundation could be of any size, according to the need. Some of them were small enough to behave as uber-batteries. That’s a far cry from the giant cooling towers required for today’s reactors.

Toshiba is one step closer to realizing that ideal. They have just introduced a new nuclear power plant that is 100 times smaller than the ones we are used to. At 6 feet wide and 20 feet long, this baby could fit into your garage. This dramatic size reduction is accomplished with the use of liquid lithium-6. Lithium-6 is highly efficient at absorbing neutrons, an important step in nuclear fission that keeps the reaction going. Furthermore, the reaction takes place at much lower temperatures, obviating the need for large cooling towers.

This new reactor produces 200 kilowatts of electrical power and 5 megawatts of thermal power (so I wouldn’t suggest keeping it in your garage). The outlet, molten sodium coolant is 510°C, which could be used to power a steam generator, further increasing the electrical power output, and/or it could be used to produce pure hydrogen as a transportable fuel. Alas, those features are not built into the Toshiba model. What their model does promise is 40 years of nearly maintenance-free, safe power. The main safety feature is a thermal feedback loop that decreases the reaction rate as the temperature rises. This prevents the possibility of a meltdown. Finally, at an operation cost of $0.05 per kilowatt-hour, this energy source is less than the cost of traditional coal-fire power plants and comparable in cost to diesel generators. Finally this nuclear generator has, of course, zero carbon emissions.

The new micro-nuclear reactor is being marketed as a power source for office buildings, small businesses, remote neighborhoods, apartment buildings, and even city blocks. The first is to be installed in nuclear-friendly Japan in 2008. Don’t look for them here in nuclear-phobic (although less so now, thanks to global-warming fears) America until 2009.

You can read the reference materials here.

November 8th, 2007

The Issues According to Paul’s Website

For National Happiness!

Next up on my The Issues According To a Candidate’s Website is the staunch libertarian (though a member of the Republican Party) and internet darling Ron Paul. Though I used to identify as a libertarian, I’ve recently reevaluated my position. In theory it sounds great, but it may be completely impractical. Analysis of Paul’s stance on the issues should prove interesting and enlightening as to my own political persuasion. His website on the issues can be found here.

He does have one major strike against him right of the bat: He’s a Republican from Texas, *shudder*.

Debt and Taxes: It is telling that this is his first issue, considering this isn’t the first thing on most voters’ minds. Even more interesting is that he immediately compares a single mom saving $40 in taxes a month to a business owner saving thousands in taxes. But his point is that he is a fiscal conservative (real conservative as he puts it) who believes in lower taxes. He also notes that our government’s debt endangers our future and partially blames the Federal Reserve’s status as a private bank as part of the problem. Other than that, he just says that the Constitution should be used to prioritize our spending.

American Independence and Sovereignty: He opposes pretty much all involvement in international institutions, such as the International Criminal Court, NAFTA, GATT, WTO, CAFTA, and the UN because he considers them a threat to our sovereignty. He singles out the WTO and CAFTA as bad for alternative medicine! Good. Alternative medicine is mostly bunk and potentially dangerous. How odd that Paul would even mention it. The idea of joining these organizations is that they benefit America, either financially or by providing protection for captured soldiers, etc. They may impose very limitedly on our sovereignty, but our participation is optional and we can drop out anytime if unreasonable limits are imposed. Paul makes it sound as if these organizations are going to shred the Constitution tomorrow. Considering the economic benefits of free trade, I’m willing to conditionally be members of these organizations.

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June 14th, 2007

The Decline and Fall of Violence


Common knowledge is sometimes wrong. That is one reason why empirical science is so important; it gives us a method to verify or reject any claim, including those tagged as ‘common knowledge’. The classic example is the formally common knowledge that all heavenly objects circle the earth. It was only through Galileo’s empirical observation of Jupiter’s moons and subsequent verification that this common knowledge was challenged. Repeated empirical observations later rejected the previously held common knowledge and replaced it with new knowledge, the knowledge that heavenly objects only appear to circle the earth because the earth, itself, is rotating.

One of our modern commonly-held beliefs appears to be false. Many, if not most, people believe that we have become much more violent in recent centuries or that humans are naturally peaceful that have been made violent by modern society and institutions. This belief is often based on the great wars of the last century and genocides in places like Dafur and Rowanda. But, as Dave would point out, this is only anecdotal evidence. The empirical data paints a very different picture.

In an article on adapted from a a TED conference lecture, Steven Pinker claims that the empirical data points to the conclusion that, in general, we are less violent now than in any time in history. From the Article:

“The decline of violence is a fractal phenomenon, visible at the scale of millennia, centuries, decades, and years. It applies over several orders of magnitude of violence, from genocide to war to rioting to homicide to the treatment of children and animals. And it appears to be a worldwide trend, though not a homogeneous one.”

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