Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Bee Island

It's a bad time for beekeepers, worldwide. Many colonies suddenly die off for no apparent reason. A number of diseases affect the bees, only some of which beekeepers know how to help with. Parasites drain the bees strength. They're worried about keeping the honey flowing.
Discovery News is reporting that a previously unknown settlement of European honeybees has been found, in Libya, that are immune to the most common bee diseases. They have apparently developed this immunity in isolation to the cultured bees that are so imperiled, by natural selection.
I predict that a commercial interest will develop in breeding these bees to existing honeybees to produce immune swarms. Libya will probably profit immensely from this.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Unbreakable Iphone

Everyone who's ever owned a phone with a touchscreen knows the problems that the screen can develop. Many of them break if dropped, or if poked the wrong way, and the fix is both annoying and expensive. Especially if it breaks a lot. Both parts and labor quickly add up to princely sums.
Discovery news reports that research has produced a flexible screen that is very difficult to break. Cell phone owners worldwide rejoice. Your phone is less vulnerable to all kinds of things now, from accidental drops, leaving it in your pants while they run though the wash, to a too-hard poke.
The secret lies in graphene, a carbon-chain molecule that provides the new screen with both strength and flexibility, which should protect it the way a tree survives a hurricane: by flexing away from damaging shocks.

Monday, June 28, 2010


For the second time in 2 years, Estonia just handed my country a soft beatdown. My nation, America, is very concerned, both politically and militarily, about cyber-attacks, in which computers are subverted against their owner's intentions, and it turns out that Estonia has the world's greatest defences against such a thing. To top this off, the Estonian people use computers far more than Americans do, and so could easily develop offensive capabilities as well. I have a feeling that the American military will be paying Estonians for this, and paying them handsomely, at a time when they're almost paid off with their national debt, and ours is the largest in the world.
Discovery news is reporting about how Estonia achieved dominance in the field. Apparently, Estonia first got very into IT in all varieties when it regained independence from the Soviet Union's collapse. Estonians appreciated the automation, convinience, and control that IT promised, and quickly pushed it to its limits. A team of Estonians invented Skype, an innovative VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) program, and have the world's best online banking, digital signature, and cell phone integration systems in the world.
Meanwhile, the American military is increasingly dependent on IT, and much of it are simple, poorly secured, out of the box Windows systems. The military is increasingly aware that the security is less than ideal, but is unsure of how to improve this. The local IT industry is growing increasingly schizophrenic, with more and more workers literally unable to do their jobs, and still winding up hired because the hiring criteria had more to do with their charisma than ability.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Tree Wall

The Sahara desert of northern Africa is spreading southward. This is very alarming to the countries on its border, who fear a loss of farm productivity and civil chaos as this kills their agricultural production and leads to swarms of people moving to the nearest city in the hopes of earning enough to sustain themselves.
Discovery News reports that 11 affected nations are cooperating to build a wall of trees that will halt the expansion in place. BBC reports that the trees prevent the desert from expanding by halting erosion, slowing the wind, and changing the ground conditions in a way that encourages water retention.
A big sticking point in this is money. All the nations must contribute land and money and effort if this is to succeed. If even one hole in the wall exists, the desert can push through the hole and around the rest of the wall, rendering it useless. And this region is not particularly famous for being wealthy. Unfortunately, the nations involved are doing this because they must. They must or conditions within will become much worse.
If this works, the affected countries could even push back the desert with additional walls, creating additional farmland and making their country more attractive to both agriculture and industry.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Growing in the Dark

Discovery News is reporting that an Arizona-area company is now growing crops in the most impractical space I can think of: the inside of a dark shipping container.
Why, you ask? Well, for one, the controlled environment severely cuts the need for water, allows the plants to grow in a sterile environment to cut down on food-based pathogens, and is totally immune to all crop-pests, who cannot get into the container. Losses will drop well below .1%.
This is also idea for the deep future, as this could work in space, or deep underground. Yes, we have enough lit space on the surface for the moment. But if our population keeps growing, we will run out of this, and have to either convert more of nature into farms, use these grow-containers underground, or have a massive war over the ever-decreasing available turf. None are terribly appealing options, and this container option has the advantage of merely being somewhat expensive.
The containers have hookups for water and electricity, and can be programmed to light when electricity is cheapest to save money. Plants have a cycle for growing, one of which needs light to energize the plant, the other in which it doesn't matter if there is light or not. Plants developed this cycle due to the day/night cycle of the earth where they evolved.

Friday, June 25, 2010


The length of time that has passed since a computer was booted is a variable that system administrators call "uptime." They want it to be as high as possible. Every time the computer is shut down or rebooted, it is not available for the duration. In addition, longer uptimes are most difficult to achieve, so having a large one is a bragging point. Uptimes are measured in time units, starting with seconds, and averaging in weeks. (A few people have managed uptimes in years.) Of course, the difficulty is that the administrator must avoid conditions that would end this uptime, from minor ones like crashes that require rebooting, the major ones like power-loss. (Power loss tends to shut down the computer unless a backup system quickly restores it.)
Clients of a system are also fond of referring to uptime as availability, meaning how often the computer is available to do work. They are not quite the same: If the network is down, the computer can be on, and thus giving uptime, but not available, because it can't be reached by the client. Availability is measured in "Nines", meaning how often the computer is providing services. One nine is easy, this would mean the computer is available 90% of the time. Wikipedia provides a useful chart showing what this means for administrators. More nines means less time down.
Of course, most clients demand five nines, would would mean the system is available for use 99.999% of the time. Clients often don't realize how intricate this has to be, as it is more available than technically possible with one computer, requiring elaborate backup-systems and the ability to switch machines at a microsecond's notice. A five-nines availability means the administrator gets to take the machine down for only five minutes a year, for both planned outages like operating systems upgrades and unplanned ones like equipment failure. They had better have backup power, storage, and even duplicated machines ready to go at an instant. If a client is sold a five-nines contract, the system administrator better be given notice and a large hardware budget!
This is another motivator for virtual, or cloud, computing. Clients are given, rather than a physical machine run by the administrator, a simulated computer on the administrator's larger, more powerful one. For the client's purposes, this acts just like a physical computer, but it's all centralized, with more expensive and less likely to fail parts that all the clients share. The simulated computer can also be transferred to an identical machine without it being apparent to anyone using it. This allows for easy maintenence, as the virtual machines can be tossed over so that the physical computer can be shut down and repaired or updated, and no one but the administrator is the wiser. The simulated computers lose no uptime, even though it was transferred to a new environment. The expensive hardware is shared, extra capacity prevents problems, and there's a quick solution to all but the most catastrophic of problems. (This setup may survive even power failures with the right equipment, but deliberate sabotage, like a rival vandalizing the machine it's running on, could still kill the availability.)
Now, all of this is very expensive, so if you're a hosting company and your client is demanding five nines (or worse, six nines), you better charge a huge amount of money, or else your arrangement will prove unprofitable. (Either because the fees paid by the client don't pay your hardware expenses, or because there's an unavoidable outage and you get sued for breaching your contract.)
Equipment that increases availability includes:
* RAID 1: An arrangement of hard drives so that the computer survives the loss of up to half its drives. (Drives should of course be replaced as soon as possible, and for best results must be a hot-swappable type that can be replaced while the machine is still running. Yes you can buy that, but it's more expensive.)
* Uninterruptable power supply: Gives the computer 20 or so minutes of power in the event of a power failure. These 20 minutes should be used to transfer virtual machines to another site that is not experiencing a power failure, or at least gracefully shut down the machine.
* "heartbeat" software: This detects if a machine is down, and if it is, transfers all references to it to another system. The backup system should be an exact clone of the original machine.
* Virtualization: The clients computer is actually simulated by a larger, more powerful one. The larger machine can simulate many smaller ones, each of which looks from the outside like an individual computer. These virtual machines can be passed around to another server without the outside world noticing, but this is best done only during non-peak hours like the weekend, or an emergency, in case there's a problem. The virtual machines also never have hardware or memory problems, as they don't have hardware, and their memory is provided by the host computer's.
* Regular maintenance: On certain weekends, transfer one computer to the other, shut down the first one, and completely take it apart, clean out all dust, upgrade components if necessary, and replace anything failed. Then put it back together and test all the subsystems. This ensures that both machines remain clean, fresh, and available. The next cycle, the other machine is the one taken apart.
A business study showed that 3 nines, 99.9% availability, is good enough for most companies, and this costs far, far, far less.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Fish Garden

We humans are pretty famous for our workings with plants. We purposefully grow them in farms and gardens for food, decoration, raw material, and so on. The plants depend on us, and we depend on the plants. Until now, we assumed this to be very rare, done by only us and leaf-cutter ants.
Discovery news is reporting that one species of fish, the Damselfish, grows intricate gardens of algae for personal consumption. It cultivates the algae, consumes algae that grows beyond a certain height, the way that a human would mow a lawn, and weeds out unwanted species, discarding them outside the garden. More unusually, different fish show different patterns of growth, with some tolerating several species of algae, but others demanding a monoculture of their favorite. Almost as if they had individual personalities with strong or weak preferences. The fish also tended to compete for the best sites, but could be persuaded to quit a claim if it were too hotly disputed.
A biology study on the fish's digestive system showed that the algae that they threw away as weeds tended to be higher in fiber, which apparently the fish had trouble digesting. The preferred algae species tended to be very digestable by the fish.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Malaria Forest

Another surprising discovery today. Ecologists have long decried the destruction of rainforests due to the loss in biodiversity this represents. (Millions of unique species of plants and animals live in the rain-forests, and when they're gone, we will not be able to replace them.) Also, for all their lushness, rain-forests typically have very poor soil and fertility, so the typical burning-them-for-farms typically doesn't work out well for anyone.
Discovery News now reports another thing good for the rain-forest: it prevents malaria. Apparently, mosquitoes grow very well in puddles that form in cleared areas. The increased sunlight means more of the algae that larval mosquitoes feed upon, the lack of animals causes fewer of them to be eaten, and when they grow up, the females become disease vectors as they bite animals for their blood, which both feeds them excellently and helps them to lay more eggs. (Malaria is one of these blood-borne diseases, spreading as the mosquito first bites an infected animal, then inadvertently infects every animal she bites thereafter.)
Though I suppose this could also be nipped in the bud by draining all the little stagnant ponds in cleared areas.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Obesity is Unsexy

Discovery News has another reason to diet and exercise: being fat hurts your sex life.
Apparently this comes from a statistical study. The higher the participants BMI (Body Mass Index, which admittedly is just a mathematical measure of weight vs. height rather than an actual measurement of how fat a person is), the less often they had sex, the more often they had sex-related problems like impotence, and the more likely a woman was to mess up on birth control and wind up with an unplanned pregnancy. (Men apparently were not impeded from condom use, if it went up at all in the first place.) Also, the obese were more likely to contract an STD.
Part of this is likely sociological. We live in a society that rules that being fat is gross. But part of this is also medical. Being overweight apparently is hard on a lot of your body's systems. If your body feels it has to sacrifice something, sex is often it's first choice. (After all, if you're not healthy enough to have sex properly, how will you manage the possibility of parenthood?) The two likely combine with each other, where fat people become more insecure, and insecure people do less to avoid being fat. And people wind up both and desperately unhappy.
I think the evidence suggests that obese people are being more sloppy about sex when they do manage to have it. Possibly because it's so rare that, well, can't be bothered with abstractions like STD and pregnancy avoidance.
Next, the study where we figure out something useful to do with this.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Farming our way out of trouble

Discovery news reports that one thing we're doing is indeed slowing global warming, and saving the economy, at the same time? What? Farming.
Apparently the gains in modern agriculture have been sucking tons and tons of carbon into the form of food, human beings, and animals. Still more farm produce becomes clothing, manufacturing materials, carpets, and other goods. All of which are voraciously consumed by people and industry, and the carbon that went into them stays out of the air for a very long time. (Well, for clothing and carpets, anyway. Food gets eaten and metabolized on a pretty short order.)
Another reason for the gains is that in the old days, farmers would produce more crops by acquiring more land. And if that land were a forest, it would be burned down. Today, farmers put chemical fertilizers and don't bother with the forest. The unburned forest keeps its carbon as trees. The farmer saves money (fertilizer costs less than forest, and the denser crops means less work and walking on the farmer's part), the forest isn't destroyed, everyone wins.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Economic Spite

Economists talk about the world as if it were made of perfectly rational people, who all wanted to get the best outcome for themselves, and in doing so made the best possible outcome for other people too. Which would be nice, but falls short of real human psychology, which has other, less rational needs.
The more I study economics, and the psychology involved, the more I realize that spite plays an unfortunately large role in monetary affairs. Yes, we like having money, but we often like denying it to someone else more. Even if this denial impoverishes us, we, like captain Ahab, insist that from hell's heart, our enemy be good and stabbed, and damn the consequences!
As an example of this, an economist, Max Bazerman, runs an experiment in which participants bid on a $20 bill, with six rules, most notably that the 1st and 2nd highest bids are given to him, and he gives the bill to the 1st highest bid. Now, rationally, bidding at all isn't necessarily a good idea, because you could lose, and it's definitely moronic to bid more than $10 or so, because your bid eats up your winnings pretty fast. Mr. Bazerman reports that he nearly always makes a profit, often as high as $100. This is irrational...but people keep up the bidding, just to not lose.
Why? Spite. The other person is willing to give several times the prize just to punish their rival for the money. And both are poorer for it. Mr. Bazerman is laughing all the way to the bank.
I see this in other fields too. Much of politics is about spite. People furiously upset about welfare don't blink an eye at other wasteful spending that costs hundreds of times as much. It's not the loss of public funds that's upsetting them. It's that "those people" (read: the poor) that they feel superior to are getting money. Same with a lot of international rivalries -- nations are willing to impoverish themselves to defeat another they consider an enemy, when it would be far more rational, or even sane, to cooperate.
America in particular has a history of spite problems. There were spite houses that people built for that one relative that they hated to live in, and was deliberately made uncomfortable as a subtle dig at the hospitality they felt compelled to provide. There were spite fences that neighbors built too tall just to annoy each other until cities passed laws forbidding malicious construction. There have been years of "identity politics" in which people demand better protection for their group so they can mistreat others. (Especially racially and religiously. Ugh.)
Spite makes the world a worse place to be. People suffer when wrath is poured upon them, sometimes just for existing, and communal values are damaged. Sometimes even the malicious person damages themself in the process, as the old American proverb goes, "Cutting off your nose to spite your face." It makes no sense, and we should stop it at all cost.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Solar Windows

I love solar cells. Getting your power from the sun, a source we need anyway (because no sun means no plants, which means no food, which means we all die), with no pollution and no work after the intial setup. Maybe you have to replace them in 20 years or so. Just one problem: they're expensive, and awkward to replace on your roof.
Discovery News is reporting that a Swiss scientist has made windows that function like solar panels, so homeowners can just pop them in and gain power. You needed windows anyway, why not get power from them?
It'll likely darken the window slightly, but that's probably a benefit, since it cuts the glare during the day, and at night it's hard to see out windows anyway.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Teleporting Energy

Discovery News now reports that a group of physicists want to teleport energy, which would move from one place to another without traveling into the space in between, which would mean no more line losses.
The implications are fairly staggering. Currently, line losses take 2/3rds of all energy produced. To use a watt of power at your house, the power plant has to make 3 watts. The other 2 are lost as heat somewhere along the way. With teleported energy, we would only need 1/3rd as many operating power plants. Which would be larger, with massive teleportation rooms.
How would teleportation work? Entanglement. Electrical devices in your home would "pull" the entanglement, and receive power. On the other end, the entanglement would suck power from the power plant's grid. (There's no free lunch -- if the plant's grid has no power, then pulling the entanglement gives you a fat lot of nothing.)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The History of AI

In the 1970s, programmers were feeling very confident. In ten years, they reported, they would produce a program that was aware of its own self and had a mind, and could converse with a human being. Hundreds of fields would go obsolete as superintelligent artificial minds would work fiendishly 24 hours a day, with no need of sleep, lunch breaks, or coffee. Just a trickle of electricity. They would learn as they went, improving themselves until the job was done. They dove to work, naming this new field Artificial Intelligence.
40 years later, no Artificial Intelligence has to be found, and experts still report it to be ten years away. But this is not to say that no progress has been made. Language processing and pattern recognition has improved remarkably, and decision engines are several million times better than in the 70s. Computers improve our cognition as never before. They can, with just a little training, understand your speaking voice enough to run a command from it. They can sort pictures. They can recognize unsafe conditions in a factory in time to shut it down before anyone gets hurt. All of these things would have been manifestly impossible in the 70s. But they still lack will, and could not hold a decent conversation with you. Nor are they likely to improve upon the programming that they run. Admittedly, in conditions were we know what a good outcome looks like, genetic programming produces code that solves the problem more efficiently than what a human programmer would come up with. This is still only a very small amount of conditions where this applies.
This is not to say that work on AI has been a waste. What we've gained has been very valuable. But we've also learned that we severely underestimated the problem. It may be that the kind of conciousness that we experience requires a brain, or at least a simulation of one, but it's not enough to just throw more computing capacity at it. We also have to use this wisely, and have good models of how to begin and improve.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

New Entanglement Developments

Quantum Entanglement holds some big promises. It is the one thing that can claim, at least in theory, to exceed the speed of light. You have two atoms that are, statewise, exact mirror images of each other. If one is "up," the other is "down." It would have many applications if it weren't so totally fragile.
Discovery News now reports that researchers have maintained a quantum entanglement across a distance of 16 kilometers, about 9.94 miles to imperial measurement users. An impressive distance, but nowhere near the distances that I'd like to use it for.
This is good news for those hoping to build quantum computers -- the more stable entanglements will be necessary to entangle the multiple bits required to make quantum computers useful. This is only slightly good news on the communication front -- currently attempting to read or write to the entanglement collapses it. The best we can measure is that there is still indeed an entanglement. But I predict this will improve with increasing technology.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Amish Irony

When people think of the Amish, a small religious group common in the northeastern United States, what do you think of? Avoidance of technology, beards, farming, honesty, right? You probably don't think "marine pollution."
But Discovery News is reporting that farming in the Chesapeake bay area of Maryland and Virginia is polluting the bay, and that a considerable portion of the pollution comes from Amish farmers, basically for the same reason that technocratic farmers pollute: mismanagement of fertilizer.
Amish farmers may eschew chemical fertilizers, but they use an old-fashioned version of the same: horse manure. The manure contains the nitrogen and phosphorus that the crops need, but if over-applied, these same chemicals leach into the water, leading to harmful algae blooms. In ocean environments, these blooms lead to dead fish and very unhappy fishermen (who can no longer obtain enough fish to pay their bills).
Most Amish farmers dislike outsiders, especially ones from the government. Thankfully, a three-way chain of trust has been developed between a local charity, the EPA, and farmers, for the best possible result. The charity gets government funding, and in turn provides useful advice to farmers to both prevent pollution and improve their own health, and the farmers get help from people they can trust.
The Chesapeake needs all the help it can get, because if the gulf oil spill isn't contained soon, oil will start to seep in its direction, making things even worse. The region's fabled crab industry would go straight down the toilet in that case.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Failure of the Soda Tax

Slate has an interesting article about why a plan to reduce the dangers of excess soda consumption with a tax will be a miserable failure: Because Americans tend to be defiant trolls who resist any claims made by an authority, just for the sake of resisting.
The article begins by pointing out previous cases of pointless defiance. In Miami, a law to discourage phosphorus use in detergents, on the grounds that it encourages harmful algae blooms, was resisted by consumers who wildly stocked up on phosphorous based detergents, even resorting to the black market to do so. These detergents did not cost any less, and did not clean any better, but the thought of giving the government the finger proved irresistable.
Or a later study in which people were left in a room that had a marker and a sign urging them "Do not write on the wall." Huge numbers of people who would not have normally written on the wall now did so, often defiantly daring the authorities to punish them for it. Some people even stole the sign, not because it had any monitary value, but as another contemptuous gesture towards those in charge.
Apparently part of the reason is related to choice. Americans, and possibly other people too, resent having an option removed from them. Any removal of an option sets off immediate thoughts of tyranny, and poking fingers in the eyes of authority for the sheer sake of annoying them.
The article does point out that people are less likely to defy things presented in a different, choice granting, right, like the light of education. Taxing soda to discourage people from drinking it brings out the rebellion. Taxing soda to pay for an inititative to pay for education, which will teach that drinking soda is bad, results in a compliant shrug. People might drink slightly less soda, and don't get upset about paying more because, hey, when was more education ever a bad thing? You still have the choice to drink the soda, it's not positioned as something you "can't" do.
Maybe politicians need to pay more attention to this. Sometimes even having a justification makes an order go down easier. If cameras are forbidden just because, expect tantrums. If cameras are forbidden because the flash would damage the equipment, people keep their camera stowed.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Doggy Dumbasses

Discovery News has some bad news about one of my favorite animals, Dogs. I've always loved them for being one of the first animals to be domesticated, and total suck-up kiss-asses who delight at your every thought, no matter how insipid or stupid. But it seems some of the many changes we've made to them since we started with their timber wolf ancestors have made them morons.
Dogs differ greatly mentally from their wild cousins, wolves, coyotes, and dingos. For one, dogs inherently see humans as top of the pack. For another, they understand pointing, which makes no physical sense to a wild canine. But the increase in social skills came with a loss of survival skills. Dogs have trouble finding food if abandoned. A test of spacial ability in which a dog must find its way through a maze with windows to find a food reward confuses the dog, as they get immensely confused by the way that the window can be seen through but not walked through, and paw at it and whine for help, while a wild canine would note that it was inaccessible and look for ways around it.
Of course, dog stupidity is likely not a problem for them, as they've paired up with the most intelligent species on the planet: humans. From the beginning, our relationship has been symbiotic. The first dogs lead humans to prey, which we killed from afar with weapons and then shared. Its like this one children's story I vaguely half-remember in which a very strong but very stupid child teams up with a very intelligent but very frail one, and together they completely dominate every problem they come across.
People may think of evolution as rewarding strength and punishing weakness, but symbiosis is the real trend. Cooperate with others for a synergistic, 1+1=3, type of effect.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

How to Breathe Easy in Tibet

Tibet is an interesting place. Practically the earth's west (or east) pole, it is about 2 miles above sea level, cold, dry, and inhospitable to a large portion of the world's population. It is the highest known region on earth. The world's tallest mountain from sea level, Mt. Everest, in on its border with Nepal. If the average person were to fly there, they would probably develop immediate and severe altitude sickness, and doctors suggest that travelers to such high elevations first travel to lower elevation destinations and sleep to acclimatize to the thin air. Medical studies show that acclimatization consists of speeding up your breathing, and growing more red blood cells. At Tibet's altitude, the average person has so many red blood cells that they begin to clog your circulatory system. (At which point they clot and cause conditions requiring medical intervention.) Yet the people native to the region manage it just fine. How?
Discovery News reports that a four nation study group examined Tibetans verses lower-elevation-living Chinese people to the east of them. Participants had a blood sample drawn, genes in their blood's DNA (DNA is found in every single one of your cells) analyzed, and so on. Tibetans have more efficient hemoglobin, and it's genetic to them (as compared to a "nurtured" lifestyle difference). DNA coding for red blood cells is found in our second chromosome, and Tibetans have one variant that doesn't appear in any other population. It is a variant on EPAS1.
Presumably this evolved from living in a region very close to the "death zone" from which acclimatization is literally impossible. Those able to extract more oxygen from the thin air were better able to engage in farming, trade, and other life-sustaining activities, and had more opportunities to get married than those that spent their days panting and exhausted. People living closer to sea level would gain no real advantage from this.
And no, unfortunately the only way to gain this gene would be to be born with it. And the only way to get your children to be born with it would be to marry a Tibetan. Possibly in the future one may have this gene inserted by retrovirus.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Replacing the BIOS

When your turn on your computer, the first thing that loads is the Basic Input/Output System, or BIOS for short. It typically shows you a logo (to show that your monitor is working fine), initializes and checks the memory so that programs can use it, checks to make sure you have a keyboard, so you can interact with the system, and then goes about looking for an operating system. Which it loads into memory and runs.
There is a suggestion to replace this with a more complicated system. Why?
Well, for one, BIOSes must be specifically written for a particular make of motherboard, and have some hard limits that we're about to hit. A major crisis will occur when hard drives are over 2TB in size, as the BIOS will no longer report it correctly, and will start being unable to directly load the operating system. BIOSes also look very crude, being primarily CLI technology in an age when 99% of computers have a delightful graphical interface, with a pointing mouse, trackball, or touchpad.
The replacement system, UEFI, would be a mini-operating system with all the perks of the large thing. It would present a graphical interface that you could operate by mouse or computer. It would be universal (the U in the acronym) to all motherboards, and one writing could be reused in every board. It could be written in high level language, saving valuable programmer time. And it could have its variable sizes change as hard drives get better, eternally extending its ability to understand storage devices of ever-growing size.
On the down side, the bootup ROMs would have to be made way, way, way bigger. Which would be expensive. Oh well, nice try, guys.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Bike Recharge

Cell phones are popular in Africa. So are bikes. Africans are sad when their phone runs out of charge, because the landlines there suck. Discovery News is reporting that Nokia, the Finnish phone maker, has a device for recharging your phone by riding your bike.
The article describes it as being a fan that attaches to the bike, drawing power from the air resistance. 20 minutes of typical riding produces enough charge to power a simple device like a phone or music player for 40 minutes, which should prove a comforting companion to traveling Africans.
There is, of course, a physics catch to this, and that is that the energy doesn't just magically appear from nowhere. The fan would produce additional air resistance to riding at least in proportion to the amount of electricity produced. So it's not so much bike powered as African person powered. Still, being able to produce your own electricity in a country that usually has none is a pretty sweet deal.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A cheap test of Anemia

Anemia is a lack of iron in the blood, impoverishing the sufferer's hemoglobin to the point that it is inefficient at carrying oxygen. The sufferer is flimsy and weak, and tends to pass out frequently. It is exceedingly rare in rich countries, but all too common in poorer ones, where food of any kind is hard to get, let alone iron-rich food.
A simple blood test on centrifuged blood can definitely prove a case of anemia (verses another disease causing dizziness, lack of muscle tone, frequent loss of consciousness and so on), except that centrifuges are expensive machines that count on electricity, which is severely lacking in the regions that most frequently report anemia. Not to mention that the centrifuge itself tends to be unfordable, being an expensive machine that costs thousands of dollars.
Discovery News is reporting rescue from a most unlikely source. An excellent medical centrifuge has been crafted from a simple Salad Shooter. Ironic because the salad shooter has long been decried by various radicals as a symbol of western decadence, serving no useful function. The main draw is its ability to achieve a high rate of rotation with only a minor application of hand-power, requiring no electricity, steam, or other power source unavailable in the regions that need it the most.
One begins to wonder what other technology can be recycled into a useful medical device.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Networked Finance

American finance is in bad shape. The whole world's finance is in bad shape, but occasionally to a lesser extent. The finance can be represented as numbers, and thus, we can enlist the support of computers.
One thing computers are very good at is taking a large quantity of numbers, and preparing visual charts to allow a quick understanding of the big picture. I have a financial program that, if I input all of my transactions, will quickly tell me a number of very important things about my finance:
* How much money do I have, total?
* Where am I getting my money?
* What am I spending it on?
* Are there things I'm buying that I could stand to buy less of?
* Will I have enough capacity in case of an emergency? (which would cost a known amount of money)
Okay, but having to look up and enter the records is time consuming. But Also, this program was capable of receiving the input from database files, which I could download from my bank, thus having my bank do my entry for me. Same with my credit card. I would only need to do a quick correlation to show how this new data fit the picture, and it would be entered. The program also knows a common European bank-communication protocol, which doesn't help me much because American banks do not use that.
So...what if there was a common financial communication protocol that all banks, credit cards, and brokerages could communicate with? A simple unified program could obtain my information (strongly authenticated, of course, because I don't want just anyone to have access to my financial information), crunch the numbers, and report on trends, patterns, and points of interest.
After all, many financial concerns are just a matter of math. What will I owe in taxes? The government's regulations may change from year to year, but there is a formula, one the computer will easily be able to compute. Can I afford a vacation? (Vacation is projected to cost $X, we have $Y saved up and $Z income, if Y+Z is greater than X, then technically yes, but I think I'll hold off until Z is greater than X.) What if I retired? (Income would reduce, at my age to 0.)
The program could, over time, even learn suspicious patterns (a change in credit card spending may suggest that your card has been stolen or cloned), or suggest things in order to achieve a goal, like buying a house. (You can afford a house costing $X if you have an income of $Y and savings of $Z, with a W year mortgage.)
I would like to see it as an open source program so that it could be run on many different platforms.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Another reason why TV is bad for you

Parents hate TV. It encourages their children to lay about and expect passive entertainment. It encourages them to ask for toys that are advertised. Children that are watching TV probably aren't playing outside, doing their homework, or doing whatever else parents want them to be doing.
Discovery News has a new, more damning, report that a diet of all advertised foods is absolutely hideous for your health. I believe I can readily explain why.
A business wants to buy raw ingredients as cheap as possible, sell the finished product for as much as possible, and sell in as great a quantity as possible, as possible. Cheap food is not good for you. Cheap food processed to encourage greater consumption is worse for you still. But that same cheap processed food is the most profitable type to sell. So its advertised the most heavily. Also, considerable research is done into making it pleasing to the eye and taste bud. Unappealing food just doesn't sell.
So vegetables and other health food just kind of loses out. It's not engineered to be more appealing, what little advertising it has is mostly drowned out by ads for cheap processed food, and sits forgotten at the back of the refrigerator.
I think reversing this will require revising farm bills. Subsidizing broccoli and brussel sprouts instead of corn would result in broccoli and brussel sprouts being cheap, and thus incorporated in as many foods as possible.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Artificial Retina

Biological eyes last for only a limited amount of time. Most people lose the ability to focus their eyes by the time they are 50, requiring bifocal lenses to see either near or far, and at some point their retina clouds over, a condition known medically as a cataract, further robbing the person of their ability to see.
Now, Discovery News is reporting that medical researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have produced artificial retinas for restoring sight in people who are blind due to retinal problems.
Artifical retinas actually already exist, being focusable bags of saline water that restore the existing ability of the eye to see, solving the problem for people with cataracts but not presbyopia. This system is different: It turns the eye into a low-resolution camera that feeds directly to the brain. The camera is good for the user's entire remaining life. It contains a battery that can be recharged inductively, so the user can recharge it with a small electric pad on their face, perhaps while sleeping.
This is encouraging, and I think within my lifetime, someone will invent artificial eyes that can see better than biological ones, and it will become worth it to have ones eyes outright replaced.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Stain Screen

Discovery News is reporting that a new type of touchscreen is in the works, one inspired by ink-printing errors that resemble Coffee stains.
A slightly over-filled coffee cup often spills coffee down its sides, leaving a ring of coffee on the surface. (The center remains unstained because the cup prevented the coffee from entering the area.) This dries into a brown, unsightly ring. Likewise in printing, a drop of ink dries more quickly on its edge, pulling the liquid towards the edges, leaving a gap in the middle. Printers seek to avoid this, as outlined letters are less legible than filled ones.
Touchscreens need a certain density of silver-based molecules to notice where they are being touched, but these molecules also block light, making it useless as a screen. The coffee ring system allows a grid of conductive molecules to form that has gaps that light can be shown through, thus being effective both as a screen and a touch-observing system.
Israeli scientists also observe that the silver particles can absorb ambient light and convert it to electricity, so these coffee-ring touchscreens can recharge the device by being left in direct sunlight. These effects together would make a very excellent portable computer, rechargeable anywhere.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Personal Metro

A man in Russia has done something that would not be possible in America: He built his own private subway system, entirely on his own Soviet-era pension money. Not only that, but he also got all the correct permits and so on, and is legally backed by the Russian government.
Mr. Murlyanchik, the subway builder, has been at this since his retirement in 1984, and has been extending 1 meter per day since then. He has built it so that his neighbors can have stations if they request them, and plans to soon have automated cars capable of carrying 3-4 people patrol the rails that he is now placing in his elaborate network of tunnels. (His tunnels are narrower than commercial subway lines, and therefore of slightly lower utility.)
Also impressively, he has dug under a number of roads that have 60-ton trucks running across them, and his tunnels support that weight easily. This is a man with deep understanding of earth-engineering.
I say that this is not possible in America because here property rights extend from the surface to the center of the earth, and to dig under any other person's plot of land would require their explicit permission. So the subway would have to follow only public roads and lands, and even that would require explicit government permission, of which they are not likely to grant. Also, goods in America are expensive, and the average retiree likely could not afford the thousands of tons of cement that this would require.
I begin to wonder if Mr. Murlyanchik had additional sources of funding, could he reach all the way to Moscow?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Snails on Meth

Dr. Grumpy, a very interesting neurologist, brings up a tale he found in The Journal of Experimental Biology, in which snails improved their memory by getting whacked out on amphetamines. Wait, what?
Apparently, snails can breathe in two ways. One, in high oxygen environments like air, they can absorb enough oxygen through their skin. Should they have to crawl through a low-oxygen pond, they can also extend breathing tubes to the surface, like a snorkel. This principle was used to get the snails to crawl through a meth-pond, getting the snail totally high. Probably to verify effects in human users of such drugs.
Human users of meth experience distortions of memory, remembering more strongly traumatic things that happened during drug binges, and tend to follow habits obsessively. The scientists were curious as to if this were cultural or biological, and so tried to test it on snails, which have no culture.
Snails in deoxygenated ponds tend to bring up a breathing tube. However, it can "hold its breath" if this proves unwieldy. So they had snails crawl through ponds, and poked the snail in a way that annoyed it every time the snail tried to open a breathing tube. Some of the ponds were just low oxygen, but others were full of meth.
Sure enough, snails that crawled through ordinary ponds didn't remember the previous ones, and got poked. Snails that crawled through meth ponds tended to remember the previous pond, and held their breath.
This may be yet another reason why amphetamines are addictive drugs -- they reinforce existing obsessive-compulsive behaviors, one of which is obtaining and using amphetamines.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Israel Peace Options

Israel's in the news again. I see three options for peace in the middle east, all of which has both positives and negatives. Which one of these are positive and which are negative depends on who you are. My policy is "fuck the militants" because they're the ones who see all compromise as bad and demand unworkable positions.
As a background: The region is under war between two groups. The Hebrew tribes controlled the region from 3560 BC until 70 AD. Then conflict with the Romans kicked them out. Another group, primarily Arab, moved in. They were conquered a few times, by various powers, ending with the Ottoman Empire. None of these powers evicted the Arab tribes.
When England defeated the Ottoman Empire, they inherited control of the region in the form of the "Mandate of Palestine." They gave the half on the east side of the Jordan river to the Heshemites, forming the Kingdom of Jordan. They had claimants of both the decedents of the Hebrew tribes, the Jewish people, and decedents of the Arab tribes, the Palestinians, and took matters to the UN for adjudication.
The UN suggested dividing the remaining territory. The Arab tribes opposed this and rioted. This spiraled into a war which the Arab tribes lost. Egypt and Jordan (and Syria and Lebanon) joined the war on the Arab side, Egypt grabbing what is now known as the Gaza Strip, and Jordan grabbing what is now known as the West Bank. Neither one assimilated the region into their own country, but allowed displaced Arab tribes to live there. This was 1948. The victorious Jewish groups declared the state of Israel in their territory.
A second war emerged in 1967, in which Israel conquered the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Egypt and Jordan were again belligerents, which worked out poorly for them. Israel did not incorporate the people living in those regions as citizens, leaving them in a stateless limbo.
Both sides have militants who claim that God himself granted them the right to the entire thing (and most or all of Jordan as well), and rabidly oppose any claims to the contrary.
Accordingly, I now see three possible solution, which I have produced little maps. By taking a tourism map and doodling on top of it.

Option one: Two State Solution

In the two state solution, Israel gives up Gaza and the West Bank (the regions marked in green on the map)to a new nation, Palestine, which will have a "right of return" for the Arab tribes. Presumably there will be a large shuffling in which people move to their preferred side of the border. The two would recognize each other's right to exist.
This solution is preferable to those who want cultural purity, as both sides will now have room for their culture to dominate their particular region. Both sides will retain basic identity, pleasing the nationalists.
Militants would probably remain angry over artifacts on the other side of the border, many of which are claimed by both sides. (Commonly, the site of one religious artifact would have another built on top of it, such as the remains of the temple destroyed by the Romans having a mosque built on top of it.) Militants would also be upset at not receiving the entire region, but it's at best irrational of them to expect this, and at worst, totally stupid.
The new Palestine should work on establishing alliances, and should avoid declaring war on anybody until it's developed considerable economic and military power. (Especially no wars with Israel, who could conquer it in about 3 hours.)
Also, would likely change into the three state solution, because Gaza is almost pure Hamas and the West Bank is almost pure Fatah, creating a Pakistan-Bangladesh-type situation.
EDIT: An anonymous reader proposes an interesting variant in which the west bank is divided into interlocking spirals, and both sides get all their population centers, most of their holy sites, continuous territory, and the advantage of surrounding the other side. Mutually. Sweet plan, anonymous reader.

Option two: One State Solution

Israel would assimilate the stateless people in the West Bank and Gaza, granting them all rights, privileges, and duties of citizenship. Represented in this picture by replacing the white section of the Israeli flag with Arab-style green.
Both sides could now legitimately claim to control the entire territory, as they would now be the same nation. This country would be immensely powerful, have an increased economic base, and be at peace. Naming and control issues would be decided democratically.
Cultural groups would be irritated at the influence the two cultures would inevitably have upon each other from constant contact. Also, the resulting country could no longer claim to be exclusively Jewish, as it would be about 49.5% Arab. Arabic would need to be added to the list of official languages for the sake of govern-ability.
This is the preferred solution of Liberal groups worldwide, and hopefully it would improve relations around the Arab world. (Though I imagine groups would find other grievances to whine about.)
Militants would whine about the presence of the other group in their country, but would sound like Nazis for doing so, so to hell with them.

Option Three: Evil

Israel's military power exceeds Palestine's enough to blow them away. Genocide like this tends to piss off everyone on Earth, and Israel would be from that day forward a pariah state. Arab states would almost certainly declare war. Only Christian or Jewish fundamentalists would want to help Israel, and they are not a majority in any country. Other powers might or might not declare war. Israel almost certainly wouldn't survive, and if it somehow did, it would be greatly diminished and despised for centuries.
It would make every insult ever lobbed in Israel's direction true.
Thankfully, very few people in Israel are anything but opposed to this, so I'm sure it won't happen.

In order of viability, I see it like this: Two state, One State, Status Quo, Evil.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


We're afraid of a lot of stuff these days. We're afraid that our children will act like morons. We're afraid that natural disasters will kill us. We're afraid of being poisoned or harmed by chemicals, injured by our fellow people in both organized ways (like governments) and unorganized (crime).
Our animal ancestors developed fear to urge them towards self preservation. When predators attacked, those that did not escape would die to be eaten. Natural hazards like falling or sharp rocks would also end lives in a rather fast fashion as well. Animals might not comprehend that they will die, but they know scary when they see it.
Unfortunately, as we humans are intelligent, we are also imaginative, and this turns against us. We can conceive of scary situations that have yet to happen, and can plan ahead to avoid negative outcomes. Normally a good thing -- until it runs away on you and you endlessly worry about things that probably won't happen.
Fear is also used politically in the form of terrorism. Scare people enough and you can get them to agree to things just to make it stop. The current military doctrine of the United States is "Shock and Awe," combining the previous Superior Firepower doctrine with mobility to produce armies that rapidly dominate everything around them, terrifying all opposition into running away, or at least quitting the fight. Fear, representing the desire not to die in the face of a dangerous situation, is turned into yet another weapon.
Fear can be pathological. People who are traumatized by situations can develop phobias, in which they are cripplingly afraid of things that imperiled them in the past. A person with a spider-phobia (Arachnophobia) will recoil in horror from even harmless spiders. They will avoid places where they believe even might have spiders, which can easily branch into new phobias. (Arachnophobia leading to a fear of enclosed places, as they may contain spiders.) Psychological help may be required.
Fear has economic consequences too. Depressions worsen as everyone involved attempts to avoid negative consequences, and the economy slows further from lack of spending. A negative cycle develops for quite a while until necessity eventually ends it. In the past, this has generally been a war. Governments must spend bucket-loads of money to win a war, and enough people can receive this spending to begin to buy their favorite goods again, and the depression ends.
Is there a better remedy for fear than psychological counseling?
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