I’m Related to that Guy from Denisova

•March 25, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Archeologists working in the Russian Altai mountains in Siberia recently stumbled across a hominid finger bone while combing through a rock shelter named Denisova Cave. Knowing that this cave proved a fruitful source of Neanderthal and human stone tools in the past, the archeologists’ natural inclination was to assume an association with one of these species. Much to their shock an amazement, the genome mapped from the DNA of the bone belonged to neither humans or Neanderthals, but to an entirely different, previously undiscovered species of hominid.

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We Will Self-Censor No Longer!

•March 23, 2010 • 3 Comments

It’s been over two months since sophisticated hackers originating in mainland China attacked Google’s servers with the intention of collecting information from the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Following an investigation, Google determined it was highly likely that the attacks resulted from, or were abetted by, the Chinese government. This realization, and the ongoing internal conflict of government mandated self-censorship, led Google to announce that they were rethinking their future in China, with the possibility of withdrawing operations altogether.  On Monday afternoon, Google made good on that threat. All traffic directed at the previously self-censored Google.cn was rerouted to Google’s unrestricted site in Hong Kong, Google.com.hk. In response, China promptly censored the mainland’s access to taboo search results from the Hong Kong site. For the citizens of China, information is now as restricted as ever. Google’s actions infuriated the Chinese government, who’s awkward tolerance for Hong Kong’s free society under the “one country, two systems” policy is well-known. So in whose interests does Google’s decision serve, exactly?

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Exceeding the Bounds of Magnetism?

•March 21, 2010 • Leave a Comment

There is something special about Fe16N2. Since the early 70’s, scientists from around the globe have obsessed over the molecular harmony of iron and nitrogen. This compound is not the primary constituent of the next anti-aging elbow cream or mentholated septum moistener. Fe16N2 may prove to be the most magnetic substance known to man – as much as 18% more than iron cobalt. If this is true, it’s a really big deal. Everything from Maglev to microcircuitry could benefit.

Despite the odd hint from anomalous data or experimental variance, however, no reliable evidence exists which supports that claim. Among others, the electronics monolith Hitachi struggled for years to make sense of data that popped up when experimenting with Fe16N2 that suggested an extreme degree of magnetism. Ultimately, their results were not reproducible, and the hype surrounding the molecule underwent the systemic ebb and flow typical of fringe science. Fe16N2 is back in the news because researches from the University of Minnesota appear close to overturning the historical shortcomings of this molecule.

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Texas School Board Rewrites History

•March 18, 2010 • 8 Comments

For those who have not heard, on March 12th the Texas Board of Education rewrote history. They did this, self-admittedly, out of motivations to “add balance,” to the annals of record. Conservative board member Dr. Don McLeroy continued that, “History has already been skewed. Academia is skewed too far to the left.” The hundred plus changes to the Texas social studies curriculum didn’t remove political bias, however, they removed historical fact.

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Wii Therapy

•March 8, 2010 • 1 Comment

Nintendo’s Wii has turned video gaming on its head. It seems to appeal to a wider range of players than any system in history. Most of the gameplay and controls are intuitive enough that a two-year old can play with his great-grandfather. That is something that cannot be said for any of the Wii’s competitors. I’ve been trying to teach my daughter, who is not yet two, to play Xbox 360. While she still struggles with the complexity of the Xbox controller, she has almost mastered the natural gesture-driven iPhone. If I owned a Wii, she’d be dominating me already. When I close my eyes, I can hear her little voice piping, “Daddy powned!,” as she crushes me in another bout of Wii tennis, followed by her ever-courteous, “S’ok, Daddy.”

The Wii is just as popular among seniors. Water-cooler anecdotes of family style video gaming not only include Grandpa, but often cast him as the leading antagonist, besting all comers at Wii Bowling or Golf. Many assisted living facilities have a Wii and incorporate video gaming into regular activities. Most of these gamers were in their fifties when Atari debuted, and can remember decades before the invention of plastic. Interfacing with a Wii is so easy that even people who have managed to avoid digital solitaire can pick up a controller and get right to kicking ass. While the benefits of hand-eye coordination have long been known, it seems that bringing video gaming to the senior demographic has other benefits as well.

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When it Comes to Martian Rovers, Let’s Just Roll with It

•March 7, 2010 • Leave a Comment

As was recently reported regarding the Martian rover Spirit, wheeled robots have a propensity for getting mired in alien landscapes. As any mud bogging redneck will tell you, getting stuck is part of off-roading in unfamiliar territory. Spirit can’t call its third cousin (you know, the one with the monster truck) to come wench it out, which makes getting stuck on Mars a life-threatening mistake. Spirit performed for over twenty times its life expectancy, so few cried foul when the rover finally dug into a portion of soft Martian silt and got stuck. Despite rocking Spirit back and forth for several days (perhaps per the advice of some Houston and Cape Canaveral natives), it became clear that there was little hope for any roving in the future.

Given the many layers of difficulty already present when controlling a robot from up to hundreds of millions of miles away, minimizing any potential points of failure is critical. This led NASA to reconsider the ideal means of locomotion for any future robot used to scour extraterrestrial surfaces. Partly inspired by dust devils seen whipping across the Martian surface, scientists propose that Spirit’s predecessors may more resemble tumbleweed than the Battlebots-esque rovers of the past.

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Chilean Quake Accelerated Earth’s Rotation, Shortened the Day

•March 2, 2010 • Leave a Comment

The massive earthquake that struck Chile over the weekend was a devastating reminder of the potential hardship of life on the hardened crust of a giant molten rock hurtling through space. The Chilean quake measured in at an incredible 8.8 on the Richter scale, culminating in the mind-boggling release of 15.8 gigatons of TNT’s worth of energy. That’s almost a million times the power of the atomic bomb detonated over Nagasaki. The quake was 500 times stronger than the one that devastated Haiti in January. It was so strong, it sped up the rotation of our planet. That’s right, it actually shortened the length of the day here on Earth.

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There are some who call me… Tim?

•March 1, 2010 • Leave a Comment

While I was out reading my daily fill, I stumbled across a neat little program linked from Bad Astronomy. This app, designed by PhET Interactive Solutions at the University of Boulder, simulates the orbital physics of a small solar system. While I have spent many hours playing java games before, there is something about setting comets and planets on collision courses or hurling massive objects into the sun that makes me feel a little like Tim. In fact, I keep putting off writing the next sentence to try and make a stable orbit for a star with one planet and two moons. Well that’s done – I think with the rest of the week I’ll make a few oceans, some animals, and a couple of people. Then it’ll be about time for a siesta.

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The Incompetence of Nouri Al-Maliki

•February 28, 2010 • Leave a Comment

A while back I wrote about the dismal state of bomb detection methodologies employed by the Iraqi army and police. The full details are there, but, in short, a British company called ATSC Ltd sold $85 million worth of dowsing rods to the new Iraqi government that were supposedly capable of detecting explosive devices. After a series of bombings ripped through the green zone in Baghdad, American investigators were tasked with determining the nature of the security breaches that permitted the bombers to penetrate one of the most heavily guarded areas in the country. They discovered that the Iraqis were using these entirely worthless dowsing rods, called the ADE 651, as their primary method of bomb detection. Shortly thereafter, the CEO of ATSC Ltd was arrested in London for fraud, and the UK banned any further export of the product to Iraq and Afghanistan. The Prime Minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, promised an immediate investigation into the matter. At the time, I wrote that the Iraqi government would remove them from use as soon as these investigators opened one up. It pains me how wrong I was.

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Crow Ingenuity Makes Birdwatching a Little Less Lame

•February 25, 2010 • 2 Comments

Birds are cooler than most people think. It may be the years of living in close proximity or the random splattering of bird crap on our cars that leads to this avian antagonism. Misperceptions about their tiny brains limit most of the fascination of them to long-held clichés like the wonder of flight or the novelty of nesting, but birds deserve better. Even the lowly and obnoxious crow has the memory of an elephant and fashions tools as well as any chimpanzee.

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The Bloom Box

•February 24, 2010 • 9 Comments

Amidst the spate of recent developments in renewable energy, many technologies fall short of offering a viable solution for the replacement of fossil fuels as our primary source of power. Potential substitutes all suffer from several of a series of shortcomings: they fail to generate enough energy, take up too much space, require the existence of specific geography, don’t provide continuous power, are immobile, or are feared by the public. Fusion, fission, solar, wind, kinetic, tidal, and gravitational power each easily fit into several of these pitfalls. Earlier today, amid much ado and great anticipation, Bloom Energy unveiled an innovative power producing technology that is entirely unencumbered by these problems.

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Cargo Cults and the Evolution of Religion

•February 23, 2010 • 1 Comment

Religion is a nearly ubiquitous sociological phenomenon. In almost every place where man scratches out a livelihood, there exists an organized set of beliefs that explain the greater mysteries of life through supernatural means. The embedded concept that each faith claims a monopoly on access to the afterlife is also prevalent to near unanimity. This is often observed as the mutual exclusivity of religion, that there is only one path to god. The logical conclusion of this is the obvious: only one is right, or all are wrong. The constituents of the religious plurality that internalizes this logic exist, in their own minds, as the sole benefactors of the creator of the universe. Comprehending what makes these tendencies common to most faiths is essential to understanding the origins and significance of religion in its entirety. Budding religious movements in modern history offer some of the most reliable and well-documented evidence for the organic development of organized and complex systems of supernatural worship. One series of beliefs, called cargo cults, emerged as a widespread phenomenon during World War II, and serve as a fascinating  study on the circumstances through which religion naturally forms.

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Brain Cancer Treatment: Shaken, Not Stirred

•February 18, 2010 • 1 Comment

Cancers of the brain are truly some of the worst forms of the disease. While they might not kill the most people or have the highest rate of metastasis, there are relatively few methods available for their treatment. Brain surgery, while no longer analogous to scooping ice cream from a tub, does not yet have the precision to consistently remove cancerous cells without damaging healthy ones. Researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory are developing a new technology that has the potential to change all that, and to drastically alter the way we treat brain cancer in the future.

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Outer Space: Even More Dangerous than Previously Believed

•February 17, 2010 • 2 Comments

The obsession with the cosmos predates antiquity. Then, as in the many years intervening, the lack of light pollution made the night sky a densely packed smattering of stars, complimented by the cloudy smudge of our galaxy arcing overhead.  The sense of wonder this vista inspires is timeless, and the ongoing pursuit to better understand our origins slowly peels back the many layers of mystery surrounding our universe. Unlike our ancestors, the common knowledge of modern man is that space is a vast emptiness sparsely populated with stars and other celestial bodies. It’s easy to think of the vacuum of space as being entirely devoid of matter, but it’s actually pretty hard to find solitude even in the colossal stretches of openness spanning the most distant galaxies.

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Time to Get Your Piezoelectric Panties Twisted

•February 16, 2010 • 1 Comment

The tempest of mobile consumer electronics that swept the planet these last twenty-odd years carved out a niche that remains unfilled. Despite the fact that my iPhone can teach me a foreign language, double as a police scanner, or help me perform CPR, I still have to plug it in at the end of the day. There is some irony in that mobile devices’ need for power can be a constraining force on our mobility. Working towards a solution to this conundrum, researchers from Berkeley created a pattern of interlacing nanofibers that generates electricity when stretched or twisted. When eventually incorporated into clothing, it’s believed this array of threads will create the mobile power station needed to meet the energy demands of tomorrow.

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