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Archive for April, 2008

Tiny But (Possibly) Deadly

Wednesday, April 30th, 2008

A nanometer is one millionth of a millimeter. Nanotechnology is the science of controlling matter on the atomic and molecular scale.

Nanotech is where breakthroughs are likely. Forget about just the cancer-detection and other advanced medical tools it’s midwifing and the next-gen consumer electronics such as super-bright displays. On a planet that’s on the cusp of catastrophic climate change, nano-engineered materials have the potential to make a real difference. Imagine solar power cells that are far cheaper and more efficient; batteries that allow for more efficient electric cars; components that make cleaner coal-fired power plants. These and other applications are hardly trivial–they’ll save energy, reduce pollution, and maybe go a little way to making sure Times Square won’t be under water for the next millennium celebration.

That was from Good News: No Nano News. Due to the extremely small size of nano-particles, they can easily move into cells, and as they point out in that article, cross the blood-brain barrier. So while the technology is poised to potentially transform the world in a good way, there are dangers.

Think the government would be out front on this incredibly promising but also potentially deadly technology? Read EPA’s Lousy New Nanotech Program.

Why would the EPA be so lame? U.S. environment scientists report political meddling.

I don’t even use anti-bacterial soap. It’s like plowing up your lawn to get at the weeds. Sure you will kill a few weeds but your lawn is now fertile ground for anything that wants to grow there. There is such a thing as good bacteria. Using anti-bacterial soap is like over using antibiotics, you’ll likely breed something bad. In Too much nanotechnology may be killing beneficial bacteria they talk about silver nanoparticles in socks and dispensed by high tech washing machines may destroy benign bacteria used to remove ammonia from wastewater treatment systems.

I’m pretty sure someday people will infuse themselves with artificial blood just because it makes them feel better. I guess I didn’t expect it to be made of plastic.

Check out this tiny electric car. It’s more like a motorcycle with an extensive cover.

Eric Grohe is an artist who does amazing wall murals. Be sure to look at the ‘before’ pictures.

Electric circuits are made up of resistors, capacitors, and inductors, until now; Scientists Create First Memristor: Missing Fourth Electronic Circuit Element. A memristor’s resistance depends on how much charge flowed through it previously.

Who would have guessed watering your tomatoes with diluted seawater makes them healthier. Since I live far from the ocean, I don’t think I’ll be trying that trick this year.

Frost on spider webs.

This is a strange story about Mazda having to build a facility to destroy thousands of brand new cars.

Finally, check out this stunning interactive 360 degree panorama from the top of Mount Everest.

Flying Jellyfish

Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

From the comments on the page about this flying jellyfish, people seem to want to know what it could be used for. I think it’s just art and in my opinion, very cool.

One of the things that kept me distracted yesterday was I kept getting up to see if the tow truck had arrived to haul in one of our old vehicles. It’s reaching the end of its useful life. I’ve been thinking about how the automobile market has changed. There was a point sometime around the late eighties when a car’s lifetime jumped, but the technology has remained roughly the same. Now there are flexfuel cars, hybrid cars, and even compressed air cars. You might buy a hybrid and upgrade it later. Here is a battery which increased the mileage on a Prius to 77 mpg. Here is an insanely expensive one which takes it to 100 mpg.

Chevy is developing a plug-in hybrid called the Volt. Here is an article about one of the batteries they are considering. If you have a plug-in vehicle and your power goes out at home, you should be able to run your house with it. Here is a company who has designed a “cassette” style battery which can be removed and used for other things. I bet you could power a nice electric riding lawn mower.

What if you could make your own ethanol at home for less than a dollar a gallon?

One of the problems with buying a car is the new technologies aren’t very mature. A quick search of Carmax for hybrids came up with none in a 100 mile radius, and only 3 within 250 miles. Buying a brand new car just doesn’t make sense for us unless the price of gas would continue to go up dramatically. I had read somewhere the price of gas might start falling soon as new refineries go on-line. This article says it could go to $10 a gallon.

Why Things Cost $19.95 reveals an interesting point about human nature.

Why would this happen? As Janiszewski and Uy explain in the February issue of Psychological Science, people appear to create mental measuring sticks that run in increments away from any opening bid, and the size of the increments depends on the opening bid. That is, if we see a $20 toaster, we might wonder whether it is worth $19 or $18 or $21; we are thinking in round numbers. But if the starting point is $19.95, the mental measuring stick would look different. We might still think it is wrongly priced, but in our minds we are thinking about nickels and dimes instead of dollars, so a fair comeback might be $19.75 or $19.50.

Are nanobots on their way? It’s about building robots which can build tinier robots.

Speaking of robots, here is a video of another climbing robot. This one climbs more like a human than the one I posted about recently.

One more robot thing. Bypass Surgery Improved by a Robot. This is one of those technical advances which saves money. You wonder why health care seems to keep getting more expensive when surely technology is having some effect on driving it the other way.

Glass chip spins silk just like a spider.

Is Mathematics Discovered or Invented? I remember having to go through all these elaborate proofs in math classes and thinking it was such a waste of time. Eventually you can’t prove 1 = 1 so it’s just a lot of semantics. I felt that way in the higher classes of physics as well. It gets so abstract, it ceases to seem like the ‘truth’ and more like developing a language to describe something. On the other hand, numbers seem like something that are just out there. People talk about how you might be able to use them to communicate with aliens because they would know about prime numbers or Pi because they are universal.

Some similarly silly stuff to ponder; Geek or Nerd?

Finally, I was going to just name this country but decided to let you find out on your own. I did not realize it was such a beautiful place. Guess the country.

Strange Days

Monday, April 28th, 2008

I’m having one of those days where I’m trying to do too many things at once; Mind’s Limit Found: 4 Things at Once.

I’m just going to make a short post and try to get to some more complicated things tomorrow. This weekend we watched a National Geographic special entitled Strange Days on Planet Earth. Sorry the link isn’t to the video, only their homepage. If you get a chance to catch it, it covers some distressing environmental problems. I had read there was an enormous amount of floating plastic in the Pacific ocean, but the video of birds starving because their stomachs were full of indigestible plastic was pretty disturbing. Also, the bit on the reefs being destroyed by population growth of people wanting to be near the reefs just strikes you as eating your seed corn.

On a more positive note, Technological Breakthrough In Fight To Cut Greenhouse Gases talks about converting the CO2 from power generation into a useful product.

O.K. I’ve got to run. I’ll leave you with this funny video of why these people had a huge water bill.

Shape Shifters

Friday, April 25th, 2008

A while back I messed around with a shape memory alloy. They are pretty hard to work with. Shape memory alloys can change their shape when exposed to heat as in this video. They also contract when heated and the heat can be produced by running electricity down the wire. This is why they are called muscle wire. In this video they demonstrate the effect with an inchworm rocker.

Here is a video of a modular robot which can re-assemble itself after being kicked apart. The funny part is at the end when after all that effort, it stands up only to fall over.

NASA hopes to develop this type of technology so that swarms of robots can be sent to other planets.

This is pretty creepy! Check out this video of a face changing machine.

Seth Goldstein, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University talks about taking it to an even more extreme of claytronics. The idea is robots the size of grains of sand would morph into shapes as in Terminator 3. I got a laugh out of his idea of a 3 dimensional representation of your boss. I think a lot of people’s bosses would look more like Megan Fox from the shape shifting robot movie The Transformers.

megan fox

It doesn’t seem like that long ago I’d tell someone they ought to get a computer and they would give me this weird look and say “What would I do with a computer?”. Spam turns 30. The internet was a really cool place before they opened it up for commercial use. I wish they would have just created another one and kept that one like it was.

Here’s a tutorial on how to shoot cool pictures of water drops reflecting their surroundings.

Finally, if I ever go blind, I want a Seeing Eye bear so people won’t mess with me. Here’s a touching story of a Seeing Eye cat.

Swimming with Sharks

Thursday, April 24th, 2008

Ever want to swim with sharks? Here are 18 places to do it.

Rogue waves are huge and they occur a lot more often than people thought.

The Hubble telescope turned 18 today. NASA released a lot of new pictures.

I meant to include this link yesterday since my post was mainly about food; Nanotech in food poses ‘unknown risks’.

A physicist analyzes Iron Man’s suit.

I just thought this reaction was a little quirky. A drop of mercury pulses due to a chemical reaction.

Speaking of odd, apparently there is a correlation between the Earth’s magnetic field and suicide rates.

The world’s most powerful laser goes on-line in Texas. What is a petawatt? That’s 1,000,000,000,000,000 watts!

Metamaterials have interesting properties from their structure instead of their composition. There have been some ideas about making an invisibility cloak using them, but so far it would only work for certain light frequencies. Until metamaterials were developed, nothing had a negative refractive index. In this article Simple ‘superlens’ sharpens focusing power they talk about making lenses out of them which gets around the diffraction limit of a normal lens.

Finally, a few of these I have linked to before, but check out these strange fish pictures.

Whatcha Eating?

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2008

Test tube meat sounds a little strange but I can see where they could make it much healthier than real meat. From Cow-free Beef Proposed;

“We have to figure out how to ‘exercise’ the cells. For the right texture, you have to stretch the tissue, like a live animal would,” Matheny says.

Maybe they could generate electricity from the exercising meat.

PETA is offering 1 million dollars for the first person to come up with a method to produce commercially viable quantities of in vitro meat at competitive prices. We’ve eaten western omelets when camping containing hydrolyzed vegetable protein you would swear was meat. Strangely enough, a vegetarian friend introduced me to them.

I ran across the Cow-free beef link while reading this story about high tech food production; Radical Science Aims to Solve Food Crisis. I have mixed feeling about the genetically modified foods. Inserting a gene which produces beta-carotene in rice sounds pretty harmless. When they engineer crops to produce insecticides like Bt-corn you just wonder if you are going to breed a bunch of bugs which are resistant to Bt.

Here’s a better way of dealing with pests; eat them. I mentioned eating bugs the other day. Here is another article about it; Bugs Are Considered a Delicacy in Mexico.

‘Now, these farmers are planting a cheap kind of corn, just to serve as a trap to catch grasshoppers,” he noted. ”They’ve seen that it’s better to have a crop with pests.”

Researchers note that in Aztec times, pest control was accomplished largely by eating bugs rather than spraying them.

My sister once gave me some chocolate covered bugs for Christmas. I think we tried them. I suppose it doesn’t sound much stranger than some of the sea creatures I’ve eaten. I have had snails and I wasn’t impressed. I guess I figured they must be really different than you would expect, they weren’t. Octopus on the other hand is quite good and much firmer than you might think.

Crickets must be pretty good because my cats used to eat them although they don’t seem to anymore. Our cat Amy used to catch cicadas, but she wouldn’t eat them. She would hold them in her mouth and head for her cat door. You would hear this sound getting louder and louder until she showed up with an ear splitting bug in her mouth. Now that I think about it, maybe that’s one of the reasons she is mostly deaf.

I thought making fuel from algae made sense because it’s such a simple plant with no stems or roots. In New source for biofuels discovered they take it another step and create a cyanobacteria which excrete sugars and cellulose.

Work with laboratory scale photobioreactors has shown the potential for a 17-fold increase in productivity. If this can be achieved in the field and on a large scale, only 3.5 percent of the area growing corn could be used for cyanobacterial biofuels.

Creating biofuels from food crops is really causing problems. Thousands of acres of forests are being cleared to raise palm oil and the spike in food prices is causing riots in some countries. Check out this world clock I meant to post yesterday for Earth Day. There are a lot of things on there but the loss of 8400 species a year is appalling. We are just getting to the point of being able to build new creatures like the bacteria mentioned above and it’s such a loss of potential beneficial knowledge. Biodiversity loss will lead to sick world: experts is about medicine but I read stuff all the time about spider silk and making glue which works like gecko feet.

Encyclopaedia Britannica is offering free subscriptions for bloggers.

It seems like I always have to have a link about robots. This one is strange; Robotic vigilante: Homemade ‘Bum Bot’ patrols in Atlanta.

Sort of robotic; New Prosthetic Hand So Nimble an Amputee Can Type.

I thought this article was pretty funny; Ease on Down the Road: Fuel-Efficient Drivers it’s about saving gas by how you drive. Wayne Gerdes sounds pretty extreme but when I’m at a traffic light next to someone who passed me just to get to the red light sooner, I shake my head and wonder if someone else is paying for their gas.

Solar sails have been in science fiction forever. It looks like someone may actually try it in a few years; Electric Sail Prototype to Ride the Solar Wind.

I liked this picture.

Finally, I got a laugh of this weather station.

Earth Day

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

Sometime in the late seventies I needed one more class in the humanities to finish my degree requirements. Since I was majoring in the sciences I was hesitant but signed up for an honors english class entitled Perspectives on the Future. It turned out to be one of my favorite classes. Part of it was the professor. Not only was he interesting but I remember on at least one occasion, it was such a nice day, we moved the class outside. For the last class we met at a local pub. Imagine earning college credit sipping beer and talking about the future! It was a small interesting group of maybe 12 to 14 people and I don’t think any two of them had the same major.

The class wasn’t all fun, we read a lot, and we wrote a lot of papers. I remember in one of mine I predicted a war over oil would occur in the late nineties. One of the things we learned about was the Delphi method. The Delphi method is a way of trying to predict the future where a group of people each makes a prediction by writing it down along with some reasons for that prediction. A moderator then reads the results and the process is repeated. The idea is, the group gradually converges on an answer which is close to the right one. Here is a Wikipedia article explaining it in more depth.

One of the required books for the class was The 29th Day. It’s about exponential growth. I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately because my statistics for this blog have been following an exponential growth pattern since I stated it. The rate of increase in my number of readers is proportionate to the number of readers I have at any one time. Again from Wikipedia;

French children are told a story in which they imagine having a pond with water lily leaves floating on the surface. The lily population doubles in size every day and if left unchecked will smother the pond in 30 days, killing all the other living things in the water. Day after day the plant seems small and so it is decided to leave it to grow until it half-covers the pond, before cutting it back. They are then asked, on what day that will occur. This is revealed to be the 29th day, and then there will be just one day to save the pond. (From Meadows et al. 1972, p.29 via Porritt 2005)

Exponential growth is great for a blog or your 401K, but when it comes to using up the earth resources, well, you get the idea. The flip side of exponential growth is exponential decay. Newton’s law of cooling states the rate of change in temperature of an object is proportionate to the difference in temperature between that object and its environment. I learned it like this.

The King and Queen of Tasmania are having coffee. Don’t ask me why it’s Tasmania. The Queen adds cream to her coffee right away. The King waits a few minutes and then adds the exact same amount of cream. Who has the hotter coffee? The answer is the Queen. For the few minutes the coffee was cooling, the difference in temperature between the Kings coffee and the air was greater, so it cooled at a faster rate.

It’s Earth Day and I don’t know what it’s like where you live but here it’s one of those days which really makes you appreciate the Earth. The sky is blue, the birds are singing, and everything is turning green. I have asparagus popping out of the ground. Before I started growing asparagus I’m not sure I liked it that much. It may be one of those things that just tastes better because you grew it yourself. It’s the ultimate lazy gardener vegetable. Once planted, a bed can last for 20 years. Bugs don’t attack it. You don’t have to do anything other than pick it.

Here’s a list from Live Science of 10 Ways You Can Improve Earth’s Health. We don’t drive much and we did the light bulb thing years ago. We could use a new refrigerator.

On a bigger scale here is a prefab solar power plant. eSolar is one of those Google funded ventures set out to save the earth and make money doing it.

eSolars primary business goal is nothing short of making solar electricity for less than the price of coal, without subsidies, said Bill Gross, eSolar Chairman and Founder of Idealab. This is not only attainable, but will truly change the world.

Back to small, how would you like to live in a 10 by 10 foot apartment?

Now really small, in Tiny robotic hand has the gentlest touch they describe a robot that can not only manipulate tiny objects such as cells, it can sense how hard it is gripping.

Since its Earth Day, I wanted to include this link to Visions of the Earth at National Geographic.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Yahoo teams with Freecycle to turn junk into treasure.

It’s also an election day in Pennsylvania. Back in the early eighties I built and started programming a small computer. One day it really hit me how these machines could revolutionize scientific progress in all kinds of disciplines. Getting back to the idea of exponential growth, it’s hard to measure such a thing as the rate of change of scientific progress, but I get the feeling it’s increasing exponentially. That’s why I couldn’t agree more with this opinion in the Wall Street Journal; We Need a Science White House.

Finally, I linked to a picture of a really large cat the other day; check out these huge dogs!

The World is an Amazing Place

Monday, April 21st, 2008

Have you seen the Discovery channel’s latest commercial? It’s pretty cute. I didn’t catch that was Stephen Hawking at the end until I watched the second time.

When we lived in upstate New York we set out on a camping trip on a Friday night in the dark. We were hiking an old logging road and we came to a body of water which wasn’t on our maps. As we sat trying to figure out where we were, the sky above us lit up with the most amazing display of northern lights. I had seen them before but always on the horizon. These were large shimmering curtains of light covering the sky. Here are 20 Amazing And Unusual Weather Phenomena. I think I’ve only seen 6.

Here are some Amazing Geological Oddities.

This is another one of those videos from TED Talks; David Gallo: Underwater astonishments.

You Can’t Travel Back in Time, Scientists Say; well, some scientists. I tried to watch the video; Can you time travel at the site but the audio goes out a few minutes into it. Maybe I’ll try it with a different browser.

As they point out at the end of that article, traveling to the future is relatively easy, all you have to do is go really fast and time passes more slowly for you relative to everyone on earth. It’s traveling to the past that’s tricky. Ronald Mallet is a physicist at the University of Connecticut who had an idea for a time machine. Here is his homepage. One of the interesting things about his proposal is you couldn’t really go back in time any farther than the point the first time machine was created. Here is a documentary about his idea and all the implications of paradoxes, mutiverses, and so forth in five parts.

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

Don’t have time for the documentary? Here is a CNN interview with him.

Of course, both the Live Science site and Ron Mallet’s page list a bunch of time travel movies. After glancing at the Wikipedia article, I guess I never read the original book The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. I always thought the ending of the 1960 movie was silly because he destroys the Morlocks who have knowledge and technology, in order to save the Eloi, who are basically dumb blonds. From the Wikipedia article, it seems Wells had a very different ending.

None of those lists contain a relatively obscure time travel movie called Grand Tour – Disaster in Time, also called Timescape outside the U.S.. It’s about tourists from the future who come back in time to view disasters. Often in time travel films, the traveler can not make any contact with themselves in a previous time because of some rule. One of the things I liked about it was the main character teams up with a copy of himself. I haven’t seen it in years but the ending was a little silly as I recall.

Finally, I had posted a high speed video of a balloon bursting the other day; check out this one where the balloon doesn’t break.

Cyborg Bugs

Friday, April 18th, 2008

Here are the ten weirdest computers according to New Scientist Tech. You have to go to page two for the really odd ones. It’s hard to pick the strangest but I think the cyborg bugs get my vote. Check out the video. Stuff like that makes me think we may merge with computers before they become smarter than us.

Speaking of merging with machines, any volunteers for implantable brain electrodes?

This is really cool! It’s called Direct Note Access and it’s music editing software which does things I didn’t think were possible.

We don’t often get earthquakes here in the Midwest but we had one this morning. If it woke me up, I didn’t realize what had happened but we were wide awake for the 4.6 aftershock. Here it just rattled the house a little. I ran across this website for the USGS shortly after it happened.

Did you know the Earth hums?

It doesn’t sound practical, but this guy heated a hot tub using the heat from a reaction between quicklime and water. Years back we bought some dinners which you added water to something and then put the sealed food in the box to be steamed. I used them on a couple road trips but they stopped selling them.

I haven’t tried this yet but if you own a Canon camera, here is software and instructions on how to alter the firmware to get it to do new things. Some of them, like interval shooting and super fast shutter times, sound pretty cool.

Every time it appears they are hitting the limits of physics, someone figures out a way to make transistors even smaller.

Cicadas are so alien looking. Here is a stop action animation of one molting.

Finally, you may have thought of a lot of ways trampolines can be dangerous, but I bet this is not one of them.

Free Market Government

Thursday, April 17th, 2008

I did not watch last night’s presidential debate, but it must have been pretty bad. The web is all a buzz about how ABC failed to ask questions anyone wanted to know the answers to. At one point, the interviewers were even heckled by the audience before a commercial. This is one of those stories which is all over the social sites and yet glancing at the Yahoo News page I didn’t see it. One mainstream media source who did cover it was the Washington Post; In Pa. Debate, The Clear Loser Is ABC.

Could this be the start of a revolution in politics where there is an actual intelligent discussion of the real issues facing us? I wouldn’t hold my breath. I got a kick out of this article; New: Design your own US president. It’s about a website where people can design their own candidate in the style of the Wikipedia encyclopedia. Here is a link to the actual site. I think we should ‘outsource’ the president and congress with an open source artificial intelligence program where we vote for individual rules in the AI.

I can’t wait until we are all living in spaceships and we can have ‘free market government’. Governments compete for your citizenship by offering sweet deals like the most efficient use of your tax dollars. You then park your spaceship house over the country you like the most.

Before I get off of this rant; from a mathematical standpoint, it makes far more sense to vote by ranking the candidates in your order of preference instead of the ‘pick one’ approach.

Evolutionary software is sort of an Artificial Intelligence technique where the computer generates ‘organisms’ of randomly chosen ‘genes’ and then subjects them to tests of fitness for a particular task. Genes could mean anything, in this case, like the ability to add or the ability to walk. The organisms could represent artificial life forms or an aircraft wing design. In the case of this article, the organisms are web pages and the genes are fonts, colors, and page placement. In each generation you pick out the organisms which are best at the task you want to solve and then ‘breed’ those into a new generation by mixing their components (genes) randomly.

Edward Lorenz, the father of chaos theory has died at the age of 90.

Lorenz, a meteorologist, figured out in the 1960s that small differences in a dynamic system such as the atmosphere could set off enormous changes. In 1972 he presented a study entitled “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?

Lorenz was running computer simulations of the weather in 1961. He decided to re-run a prediction, but to save time he entered the values from a printout where the computer had already run half way through the simulation. Much to his surprise, the prediction came out completely different from the original one. He later realized it was due to the fact the printout had 3 digit precision where are the computer had 6 digit precision. In other words, 0.123456 had been rounded down to 0.123. The fact that such a tiny difference in initial conditions made a huge difference in the outcome is what’s now known as “The Butterfly Effect”. Here is a Wikipedia article about chaos theory. It’s one of those branches of mathematics which grew to include a huge number of engineering subjects beyond the weather.

Whether global warming is real or not, chaos theory does show making even tiny changes in the composition of the atmosphere could lead to very dramatic effects. This article presents some statistics which indicate the jet stream is moving north.

This is an article and video of a robot suit being developed by the military. i so want one of those. One can only imagine what kind of super sports people could play with them.

Taking physics in school must be so completely different since I went. Here is a computer simulation of a wave on a string. You can choose whether the end of the string is fixed or not and alter the tension, frequency and so forth. It’s just fun to set it to automatically oscillate and then play with it. In my day we used a high tech device called a slinky.

I’m not sure how popular this is going to be. Somebody invented light-emitting wallpaper. It does look kind of cool.

It seems like as many times as I have seen a water balloon pop in slow motion, I still find it fascinating. That moment when the balloon is gone yet the water is still in the original shape is just so odd. At the bottom of that article is a link to things shooting or being shot in ultra slow motion.

Finally, this first link is pictures of tree houses, but the site has links on it which are not suitable for all audiences and possibly not safe for work (NSFW). If you think these elaborate tree houses for kids are impressive, check out these tree houses for adults.