Friday, January 30, 2009

just no genome compare and contrast essays, please

From ScienceDaily: New Computational Technique Allows Comparison Of Whole Genomes As Easily As Whole Books

Based on a word frequency technique used to compare and categorize texts, professor of chemistry at UC Berkley Sung-Hou Kim and a group of researchers have developed a method that allows the comparison of entire genomes of species. Up to this point, comparisons have only been done between exons, which are the sequences of DNA used by RNA to make proteins. They ran a comparison of 518 genomes; six were eukaryotes, two random, and the rest bacteria and archaea. The tool, the feature frequency profile (FFP) method, easily separated the examples into domains and fairly reliably into phyla and classes, "with some interesting discrepancies compared to the currently accepted groupings." Interestingly enough, "most" of those discrepancies involved species whose classifications are in dispute.

This sounds pretty amazing. Dr. Kim gives many fields where this method will help, but I think learning more about how species relate with each other is the most interesting thing. Previously I posted an article about how Darwin's Tree of Life doesn't really tell the whole story of evolution and the development of life. I can't wait to see what kind of awesome things they discover.

hello nuclear power, goodbye nuclear waste

From ScienceDaily: Nuclear Fusion-fission Hybrid Could Contribute To Carbon-free Energy Future

This is pretty damn cool. Some scientists at the University of Texas at Austin have designed a fusion-fission hybrid that could help reduce nuclear plant waste up to 99%. Cheap nuclear power could help us with a lot of things, and one of the big issues with it is nuclear waste. Well, meltdowns are an issue, too, but there have only been two since we started using nuclear power, and the last one was more than two decades ago. It seems like they've made it a lot safer. (My internal pessimist is now telling me to build a shelter.)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

isaac newbee

From ScienceDaily: Honey Bees Can Tell The Difference Between Different Numbers At A Glance

Wow. Honey bees can kind of count. "My colleague Professor Srinivasan has demonstrated that bees can count up to four landmarks on their way from their hive to a food source. This new research shows they can tell the difference between different numbers – even when we change the pattern, shape or the colour of the dots!" says Dr. Zhang with The Vision Center.

but is it golden??

From ScienceDaily: Personal Touch in Farming: Giving A Cow A Name Boosts Milk Production

Harvest Moon was right. Cows that have names and get some one-on-one attention have a higher milk yield. Now if only I could get the golden milk...

"virtual conditioning"

From NewScientist: Video game conditioning spills over into real life

In this study, researchers at Cambridge had volunteers play a bicycle racing game in which they would get a swig of fruit juice if they were passed by a virtual teammate and a swig of "salty tea" if they were passed by a rival. A few days later, they were brought into a room where those logos were displayed on chairs. "Three-quarters of the subjects sat in the chair that reminded them of juice, though most participants said they did not notice the towel design." In addition, "under a functional-MRI brain scanner, an area involved in responses to bad tastes lit up when these same participants viewed a picture of the jersey linked to salty tea."

I was not surprised at all reading this story, and I doubt anyone who games even casually would be either. (At least I think that's all it would take.) Mostly I play RPGs, so I can't really feel any urge to slay all those monsters walking around or anything, but I recall a time of obsessive Puzzle Quest playing when I would unconsciously "match" tiles. It's weird what video games do to your brain. But I still love them. What else is my brain for if not to fill, condition, and manipulate?

don't go overboard

From New Scientist: Human emissions could bring 'irreversible' climate chaos

First, let me say: I'm not a warming skeptic or anything like that. I think we need to stop polluting, being wasteful, and using fossil fuels. Now, preferably. It'll suck, but you can't keep shitting in your own bed without starting to feel pretty nasty.

However, I also think that articles like this are kind of... misleading, maybe? Or perhaps as short-sighted as people who don't want drastic changes to our environmental policies because short-term economic concerns.

Scientists are predicting that even if we stopped burning fossil fuels now, by the year 3000, CO2 levels "would still be around a third higher than pre-industrial levels."

Even if we can quickly switch over to alternative energies, no matter what we do, it's going to suck for people right now. It's going to suck for people for a while. But 1000 years isn't really that long. Yeah, I know it's what, 40 generations? But think 1000 years ago. Sure, we didn't have any of the sweet technology we do now, but a lot of our cultural roots were around then.

And think about it on a geological time scale. We're in the middle of a interglacial period of an ice age, a period that started about 12,000 years ago. The last interglacial period, which started about 130,000 years ago, lasted 20,000 years. According to Wikipedia, a scientist has predicted a warm period of at least another 50,000 years (because of low eccentricity of the Earth's orbit), but we really don't know.

Plus, crazy stuff always happens. For example: before about 50 million years ago, Earth was a lot warmer and wetter, and CO2 levels were some like ten times what they are now. Then, about 49 mya, a bunch of ferns pulled a lot of CO2 out of the atmosphere (Azolla event), eventually lowering the amount from ~3800 ppmv to ~100 ppmv. Earth started the ice age cycle it's going through today.

I'm a little unsure of my point, I think. It's not that we should forget about environmentalism or anything like that. The way we're doing things sucks, and if we want to stick around, we have to find better ways. I guess I'm just saying, we can't save the world. We can't save everything. We can't hold the world as it is. The Earth changes; we have to evolve to it, not the other way around.

I'm just afraid someone's going to do something crazy like try and pull all of the CO2 gases out of the air, and we'll end up in a glacial period again. We're not ready for that guys. I hate the cold.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

we're not the boss of you now

From The New York Times: On Arab TV Network, Obama Urges Dialogue

Obama's first interview is with Dubai-based Al Arabiya. He strikes "a conciliatory tone toward the Islamic world, saying he wanted to persuade Muslims that 'the Americans are not your enemy.'" About the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he says: "Ultimately, we cannot tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians what’s best for them. They’re going to have to make some decisions, but I do believe that the moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people. And that, instead, it’s time to return to the negotiating table."

This seems like a good move. He not only says, hey guys, we don't want to fight, let's talk about this, specifically to Iran, he also says, basically, that we can't tell you how to live, and if you disagree with me, I'm not going to call you a terrorist. I reserve that for those who actually killing civilians.

I'm glad. I don't want our country to be the boss. We don't know any better than anyone else. I'm glad we have a president now who recognizes that.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

RNA is bi....directional?

From ScienceDaily: Rewrite the Textbooks: Transcription is Bidirectional

Scientists at the European Molecular Biology Lab in Germany have discovered that RNA transcription of DNA is bidirectional from promoters, as opposed to all transcription happening in one direction. DNA is still pretty mysterious, so even though this isn't as incredibly exciting as naked singularities or quantum communication, it's still good to know. Also, I can impress my biology professor. I like doing that.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

too much gaming=not enough time for other things? really?

From ScienceDaily: Video Games Linked to Poor Relationships With Friends, Family

There's apparently a "modest" association between spending a lot of time playing video games and not-so-good relationships with friends and family. This made me laugh a little: "the student co-author expresses disappointment at his own findings." It's not really surprising, though. As much as I love gaming, doing it a lot (and it can be super-addictive!) can interfere with other parts of your life. I mean, you need to have a fairly balanced life, right? Doing work and/or school, taking care of yourself and your surroundings, socializing, and hobbies. Gaming is a hobby, and playing like 10 hours a day (more than very rarely, I'll say) can really cut into everything else.

origins of the dark flow

From New Scientist: Dark flow: Proof of another universe?

First off: did you know 45 billion light years is the furthest we can observe from Earth? I did not, and I don't quite understand how considering the universe is only supposed to be a little less than 14 billion years old. (I've heard of inflation and all that, but I'm still boggled.)

Anyway, this is a pretty interesting article about something called dark flow. Apparently, a team from NASA led by Dr. Sasha Kashlinsky noticed that there are a lot of galaxy clusters (they were studying almost 800) "racing at up to 1000 kilometres per second" "toward a small patch of sky between the constellations of Centaurus and Vela." (They're southern constellations; take a look at this map around -40˚.) This is strange because galaxies and galaxies clusters should be moving along with the expansion of space. Kashlinsky thinks something on the "cosmic horizon" is causing this, where conditions could be totally different from what they are in the observable universe, where matter and energy are fairly evenly distributed.

Other theories: "the dark flow is caused by other universes exerting a gravitational pull on galaxy clusters in our universe[;]" "dark flow could be a sign that our bubble universe crashed into another bubble just after the big bang[;]" or that the current cosmological model is wrong, matter is not evenly distributed, and "that at large scales matter is like a fractal."

It makes me a little sad that we might never know.

Friday, January 23, 2009

entangled quantumly

From Scientific American: Quantum Entanglement Benefits Exist after Links Are Broken, Quantum Leap: Information Teleported between Ions at a Distance

Two really interesting articles on quantum entanglement. According to wikipedia, quantum entanglement is "a quantum mechanical phenomenon in which the quantum states of two or more objects are linked together so that one object can no longer be adequately described without full mention of its counterpart — even though the individual objects may be spatially separated."

In the first article, Seth Lloyd, a quantum physicist at MIT, discovers that there is some sort of lingering connection between particles even after they've disentangled. By applying this, he developed the idea of quantum illumination, where something (a camera, satellite, x-ray machine, whatever), could entangle photons and send one set to the object being sensed, with the other set being used for reference, so that when the returning photons bring information back, any noise created by any unrelated photons could be filtered out. And, "[i]f quantum illumination works, Lloyd suggests it could boost the sensitivity of radar and x-ray systems as well as optical telecommunications and microscopy by a millionfold or more."

The second article describes how researchers, led by Stephen Olmschenk, a grad student at UMD College Park, "succeeded in teleporting quantum information between ytterbium ions (charged atoms) three feet (one meter) apart." The article describes the process:
Information is teleported from one ion to another by encoding quantum information onto the first ion. Once the ion is entangled with another, the state of each ion is indefinite until the first one is measured—an action that projects the other ion into one of two states. Conventional (nonquantum) communication channels relay information, gleaned from the first ion's measurement, as to which of those two states is correct, and a pulse of microwave energy sets the second ion into the state representing the information encoded on the first.
What peaked my interest about this (besides it being awesomely cool) was a couple of sci-fi books I read a few years ago, Metaplanetary (2001) and Superluminal (2004) by Tony Daniel, which are set in the future where quantum communication is the basis for society and technology. Great books. Anyway, the thought of actually applying quantum entanglement and communication to real technology is awesome. We will never know everything.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

a web, note a tree

From New Scientist: Why Darwin was wrong about the tree of life

Growing evidence is showing Darwin's idea of life as a growing, branching tree is too simple by spades, mostly because of RNA and DNA research. This article goes into detail about endosymbiosis and the development of eukaryotic cells, horizontal gene transfer, viable hybrids, and DNA implantation by viruses. There's even the discussion of the possibility that animals with distinct and completely different larvae and adult stages could be the descendants of two very different species. Very interesting.

indecent singularities

From Scientific American: Do Naked Singularities Break the Rules of Physics?

In this article, Dr. Pankaj Joshi at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai discusses the possibility of naked singularities. (I know that sounds a little naughty, but bear with me, because it actually is thrilling in its own way.) Naked singularities are basically black holes, without an event horizon. So, there would be a point of infinity density without the same effect on gravity; there would not be the same "point of no return" as there is with black holes. In addition, if naked singularities do exist, it would be possible for them to be observed directly. Theoretical models seem to show that with a certain inhomogeneity of density in a star, this type of singularity could be formed.

the womb of the big bang

From Scientific American: The First Stars in the Universe

And now back to your regularly scheduled science.

I've been reading a lot of these "story of a theory" type articles a lot in the past few days. I like them because they're easier to understand as a layperson, which I guess makes sense because they're actually stories that are coming from mainstream science magazines.

Anyway, this article is, just as it says, about the first stars in the universe. How they formed, how long ago, how massive they were. Answers: possibly small variations in density, between 100 and 250 million years after the Big Bang, and between 300 and 1000 solar masses.

45 minutes on 1/20/09

I live pretty close to DC, but I didn't go into town for the Inauguration yesterday. Even though I'm very happy Obama is our President, something about braving bitter cold in the pre-dawn hours with a million other people made me want to curl up in front of my TV with a blanket and hot cup of tea instead.

One of the things I like about Obama (that he has been criticized for) is his professorness. When he speaks, he doesn't bite off clips for the news to play over and over. He doesn't play to people's knee-jerking instincts, though he does try to sway emotions. I feel like he's giving the benefit of the doubt to us, the American people. His speeches are to intelligent people, and it seems like he's willing to work a little harder to treat us like actual reasoning beings instead of basically saying, "Because I said so," and "It's good for you." His speeches aren't sentences and seconds; they're paragraphs, essays, many moments together.

I thought that could sum up the Inauguration itself (I didn't follow the parade or balls or anything, except to check out Michelle Obama's dress, of course). It was very powerful, and I enjoyed it for the most part. Aretha's performance was grand as always (perhaps not her strongest ever, but she looked great and it was very emotional), and I loved the quartet performance of Air and Simple Gifts. However, I thought Elizabeth Alexander's poetry reading was kind of a dud. From her bio, it seems like she's a decorated writer, so maybe she just psyched herself up too much.

Being fairly agnostic, state-led prayers can be a little annoying to me, but getting a non-pinko shoutout from Obama helped. Also, a great deal of the country is Christian or otherwise religious, and there are better battles to pick. That said, I thought Rick Warren's invocation fell pretty flat. I understand what Obama was trying to do. I just think it kind of sucked. Like, he was pulling it all out of his ass. Or he cut out pieces from a bunch of different sermons and speeches, put them in a hat, and picked out some. On the other hand, I really liked Rev. Joseph Lowery's Benediction. It was moving and a little humorous, and that Lowery was a civil rights activist gave kind of a nice "full circle" feel.

I thought Obama's Address was excellent. I've read some criticism that he wasn't very hopeful; some wanted more specific policy ideas; it was "good but not great."

For the first, I can understand that point. He's been pointing out for a while that the economic situation will get worse before it gets better. And I mean, who's denying that? It took almost a decade-and-a-half with World War II for the country to recover from the Great Depression. Things aren't as bad as they were when FDR took office, but these things don't just resolve themselves overnight. I like to think that when Obama is saying "hope," he's not saying, "I'm a superhero; I'm your saviour; I will fix all problems and everything will be peachykeen and you can start buying too much crap again." He's saying, "This way isn't working, and with that idea in your leader, together we can all change ourselves, the way we live and thus the world." Things can't go back to the way they were; it's unsustainable economically. We need to move forward, try to rid ourselves of the idea that everything's about more and better stuff, stop sacrificing the future for the present. And it's going to suck for a lot of people, because when Obama said, "We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense," he didn't mean it in the same way that Cheney did when he said, "The American way of life is non-negotiable."

Anyway, for the second, I really don't see how anything specific would have added to it. Obama isn't just trying to make and change laws; he wants to add fuel to the fire of ideas. Plus, he's pretty much been talking all along of what he's going to do, on his website, with Congress, and in his "fireside chats."

And the last... I don't really know what the NYT wanted. Angel choirs, the area to suddenly become a warm beach, with unicorns running around, I don't know. As I mentioned earlier, anyone who's ever heard an Obama speech knows he's not good for a soundbite. No "nothing to fear but fear itself" or "ask not what your country can do for..." Let's wait a decade or two and wait for history and quote books to decide, though, all right?

Anyway, what he does is just as important as what he says. And I'm happy what he's done so far, so we'll just have to see how this goes.

Monday, January 19, 2009

life's first environment?

From New Scientist: Did life begin in a pool of acidic gloop?

This article reads less like a piece on a study and more like a story - the story of a hypothesis. The writer, Douglas Fox, describes time spent with David Deamer, biochemist with University of California, Santa Cruz. Deamer is trying to figure out what type of environment nurtured the first amino acids and genetic material into being. He believes that a geothermally active muddy sulfuric soup like that found in Bumpass Hell in Lassen Volcanic National Park, CA is the right place to look. A great read.

m theory, dark matter, and a phoenix universe

From New Scientist: Did dark energy give us our cosmos?

This theory puts together a couple of my favorite ideas. First, in M theory, our universe is just a part of a larger structure. The article talks about it "exists on a 3D region called a 'brane' separated from similar branes by a fourth spatial dimension." Sometimes, these branes collide, causing something like the big bang. Next, the universe is in a never-ending cycle of bang, expansion, and then contraction. (I like this because not only does it answer the question of what came before the big bang, but it also eliminates eternal expansion and eternal death of heat, light, etc., which scares me in a way it shouldn't considering I won't live that long.)

The problem with this idea is that all the different parts of the extended 'verse would have to move to fit expanding and contracting branes, so "large areas of the brane become warped, so that most of it ends up as black holes and only a tiny proportion as ordinary, habitable space." But! Add the element of dominant, pervasive dark matter, and the theory starts to come together. Sweet.

blowing my mind

From New Scientist: Our world may be a giant hologram

I can't even begin to talk about this crazy, amazing research. So I'll just quote from the article.
For the past seven years, this German set-up has been looking for gravitational waves - ripples in space-time thrown off by super-dense astronomical objects such as neutron stars and black holes. GEO600 has not detected any gravitational waves so far, but it might inadvertently have made the most important discovery in physics for half a century.

For many months, the GEO600 team-members had been scratching their heads over inexplicable noise that is plaguing their giant detector. Then, out of the blue, a researcher approached them with an explanation. In fact, he had even predicted the noise before he knew they were detecting it. According to Craig Hogan, a physicist at the Fermilab particle physics lab in Batavia, Illinois, GEO600 has stumbled upon the fundamental limit of space-time - the point where space-time stops behaving like the smooth continuum Einstein described and instead dissolves into "grains", just as a newspaper photograph dissolves into dots as you zoom in. "It looks like GEO600 is being buffeted by the microscopic quantum convulsions of space-time," says Hogan.

If this doesn't blow your socks off, then Hogan, who has just been appointed director of Fermilab's Center for Particle Astrophysics, has an even bigger shock in store: "If the GEO600 result is what I suspect it is, then we are all living in a giant cosmic hologram."
I can't decide if I'm freaked out, or amazed, or both.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

hey guys, let's get along. c'mon, s'mores.

From BBC News: Israel 'to announce Gaza truce'

That's good. But Hamas says that Israeli troops have to leave Gaza and the blockade has to be lifted for them to honor a ceasefire. Wonder if that'll happen? The Israelis say they'll strike back if attacked.

I'm so glad I don't live in a place of constant warfare.

dynamic evolution

From ScienceDaily: Evolutionary Process More Detailed Than Previously Believed, Study Shows

In observing yeast cells, scientists have realized that evolution doesn't happen in a straight line. The common model is that more useful mutations will disseminate through a population before developing further adaptations. However, Dr. Katy Kao at Texas A&M University and Dr. Gavin Sherlock at Stanford have realized that "evolutionary process [is] much more dynamic than initially thought." They witnessed separate yeast populations with different beneficial mutations compete with each other. One population that was almost eliminated for being less competitive was able mutate just in time to save itself.

Pretty interesting. With all those pictures of the lineage of species showing straight or forked lines, I definitely thought species moved as a whole or just eventually became other species. Now, it seems silly to think that there could only be one mutation at a time.

meaningless day of meaningless

From Politico: Bush: 'Sanctity of Human Life Day'

Oh, oh! Next can we have 'Sanctity of My Vagina Day'? How about 'Everybody Dances Naked in the Street Day'? How about a day where we mock our most pointless, divisive, and incompetent public figures? Oh, I think that's every day. Sorry, man.

science is a hardcore gamer

From ScienceDaily: Video Game Players Love the Game, Not the Gore

Hey guys! Most of us gamers really aren't sociopathic and blood-thirsty. We just like the challenge. Well, there are some people, but they were more aggressive anyway. Science is on our side. It loves us. Science is a gamer.

game theory the agony aunt

From ScienceDaily: Game Theory Explains Why You Can't Hurry Love

Mathematics, Dear Abby, and my mother agree: it's better to wait to commit in a relationship. Apparently waiting out the honeymoon phase is a solid mathematical principal, now. Randall Munroe at XKCD must be thrilled.

whoops, you pissed off the turks

From BBC News: Turkey rallies to Gaza's plight

Turkey is pissed about Israel bombing relief facilities in the Gaza Strip, too.

Israel wonders why people don't try to put pressure on the Hamas to put an end to the conflict.

Maybe because you're blocking aid to Gaza and destroying food, water, and medical supplies? Just saying.

mars, dead or alive?

From ScienceDaily: Mars May Still Be A Living Planet, Methane in Atmosphere Reveals

Scientists have discovered that methane is being released on Mars, which means something interesting is going on there, whether geological or biological. Apparently, it's a lot of methane, too.
"Methane is quickly destroyed in the Martian atmosphere in a variety of ways, so our discovery of substantial plumes of methane in the northern hemisphere of Mars in 2003 indicates some ongoing process is releasing the gas," said Michael Mumma of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "At northern mid-summer, methane is released at a rate comparable to that of the massive hydrocarbon seep at Coal Oil Point in Santa Barbara, Calif."

Friday, January 16, 2009

just like momma macaque

From ScienceDaily: Primate Culture Is Just a Stone's Throw Away From Human Evolution, Study Finds

I like it when animals are smarter than we think they are. Elephants self-recognizing, birds remembering if they've been spied stashing food, monkeys and apes using tools. And I think at least some animals feel. Maybe their emotions aren't as deep or varied as humans, but my cat gets jealous and feels content, and my dog gets lonely and becomes pleased.

According to this articles, scientists have been observing Japanese macaques for three decades. These monkeys... well, the article calls it "stone-handling," but considering it specifically describes them as "rubbing and clacking stones together, pounding them onto hard surfaces, picking them up, and cuddling, carrying, pushing, rolling and throwing them," I would just call it playing. And interestingly enough, researchers at the Primate Research Institute have found that mother macaques who play with stones more have children that spend more time with them, presumably because "the mothers' frequent stone-handling caught the infants' attention, and as a result, the infants acquired the behavior more quickly than other infants."

How cute. Baby monkeys want to be just like their parents.

Though I've read that a child's fascination for what adults and especially its parents are doing is coded in. Maybe that's why toy versions of adult equipment, like play stoves, are so popular. Pretty interesting stuff.

quantum hindsight got contacts

From ScienceDaily: Physicists Resolve Confounding Paradox Of Quantum Theory

Science is fun, especially quantum theory (nice I'm saying that when I really don't understand it, huh?). One of the things early quantum physicists discovered is that observing particles move changes how they act. (Check out this awesome video describing the "double slit experiment" performed in the 1920s. It's very easy to understand and features a superhero scientist. Sweet.)

So, according to this article, in the '90s people started thinking they could measure particles without interacting with them, "[b]ut when Lucien Hardy proposed that one could never reliably make inferences about past events which hadn't been directly observed, a paradox emerged which suggested that whenever one attempted to reason about the past in this way they would be led into error." So hindsight is blind?

However, scientists at the University of Toronto combined the ideas of "interaction-free measurement" with something call weak measurement, "a tool whereby the presence of a detector is less than the level of uncertainty around what is being measured, so that there is an imperceptible impact on the experiment."

I have to say, I don't understand the specifics. (I really need to take some college-level physics.) But, it basically sounds to me like scientists will now be able to see what particles are doing when they're supposed to be acting like matter but are pretending to be energy. And then for the why. Then maybe the why of particles getting stage fright?

dark matter close to home?

From Scientific American: Does Dark Matter Encircle Earth?

Just like scientists, I think dark matter is awesome, both because it is incredibly mysterious and because it apparently goes through normal matter. And its mysteriousness is apparently only equal to our inability to find any of it.

However, Stephen Adler, a theoretical physicist at the Institute for Advanced Studies, has said there should be study of the Earth and Moon to see if any dark matter is present close by. "If the mass of Earth and the moon when measured together seems greater than their masses separately, the difference could be attributed to a halo of dark matter in between." He says that the presence of dark matter in the solar system could also solve the unexplained on other planets, like how the interiors of the outer gas giants are hotter than we think they should be.

Annika Peter, an astrophysicist at CIT, counters, saying that the latter idea would require "a seriously unrealistic amount of dark matter," and that there probably isn't any dark matter in the solar system itself. But perhaps a little outside it?

out of line

From Al Jazeera: Israel shells hospital, UN compound

This is horrible. "[T]housands and thousands of tonnes of food, medical supplies and other emergency assistance are there."

I understand the Israelis want to cut down on the weapons going into Palestinian Gaza, but destroying medical facilities and neutral UN aid is unacceptable.

I know Barack Obama has indicated he will give at least some support to Israel. But he really needs to take a hard line on this conflict. I definitely don't have any suggestions (I still don't even understand why we and the UN thought it was a good idea to just take someone's country and give it to someone else in the first place), but something concilitory needs to happen there.

not a path, a field

From Salon: Since You Asked: I'm wandering the halls of life on a visitor's pass

I have a weakness for advice columns. I think Cary Tennis is a bit hit-or-miss, but I really liked this one from 1/15/09. The letter writer says she feels aimless. She doesn't know what to do with her life. She has been trying to be "pragmatic" and find her path, but it's not working.

Cary says:
Of course this "approach" doesn't "work." That's not how the universe is structured, my friend. We don't "work" it. It isn't something we control and manage. That's a view of reality based in the industrial world, and the world is not industrial. It is in fact magical and mysterious and if you don't do something soon it is all going to be over and none of this will have mattered and you will have run around trying to fix something that can't be fixed and trying to control something that can't be controlled and create some kind of world that can't be created because you, my friend, are not in control of these things, and all these people you see around you who seem to have it together have no better idea than you do how to actually live a meaningful life, but what they do have is some prior operant conditioning that took well, and the good luck to have fallen onto this mottled surface more or less shaped according to the slots currently existing for them, which is fine if you want comfort and a good slot to fit in. But otherwise what good are they going to do? What are they going to discover, what are they going to create, and why are they going to go through their whole lives having never glimpsed the existential terror that you, my courageous voyager into the heart of the beautiful and terrifying and meaningless, have made yourself contentedly comfortable with (as comfortable as one can be with the screamingly terrifying and chaotic knowledge of the void)?
Most people don't know what they're doing.

too much coffee

From BBC News: 'Vision link' to coffee intake

Researchers at Durham University have discovered that excessive coffee drinking (seven cups a day) can lead to hallucinations. Seriously, that's a lot of coffee. I don't know anyone who drinks that much. Crazy javafiends.

gifted children and how I came to hate the rote

From ScienceDaily: Education Professor Dispels Myths About Gifted Children

Dr. Steven Pfeiffer, a professor and psychologist at Florida State, says in this study that gifted children really do need some sort of "special needs" program in order to reach their potential. He also says there needs to be more effort to identify gifted children. For a long time, "schools used one measure, the IQ test," but the traditional IQ test doesn't measure all the nuances of intelligence. In addition to measuring traditional intellectual and academic ability, creativity, artistic talent, leadership, and motivation should also be taken into consideration.

I agree with him on all accounts. When I was in high school, I knew several very smart kids who didn't do well mostly because they were bored (I was one of them; though I'll let you decide how smart I am). Though I don't think the whole "different kinds of intelligence" thing is very new. I remember in a high school psych class we discussed the different types of intelligence (which included inter- and intrapersonal communication, too, but I guess those could fall under leadership and motivation).

I don't like our current one-size-fits all school system. Everybody learns at different speeds and in different things; everybody's interested in different things; everybody has different strengths, weaknesses, and goals (though I don't know how clear those goals are at a young age. but I know I wanted to be an architect in my "tween" years, so it can't all be rock or sport stars). I also wish subjects weren't so cut and dry. It wasn't until I started taking college classes that I realized how interconnected disciplines are.

For example, I'm reading a book about the history and philosophy of zero. (Zero: the Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife, if you're interested.) I never knew before that this mathematical concept and its philosophical equivalent of the void was extremely controversial in Europe because of reigning Aristotelian views that were enforced by the Church. (Aristotle believed the world was static and all space was filled, which went in line nicely with the Christian belief that God created a perfect world very recently and that the Earth is the center of the universe.) This is why when calendars were created during the Middle Ages, there was no year 0 representing the birth of Christ, and why centuries and millenia start on year 1 rather than 0. When the concept of 0 started taking hold of Europe during the Renaissance, not only were there huge advances in science and mathematics (solving Zeno's paradox, calculus, calculating tangent), the idea of the void allowed artists to finally develop true perspective. And now we are able to accept that the universe is expanding.

Philosophy should be a required course in secondary school, I think.

Anyway, I think if there was more emphasis on how different fields affect each other, and how they affect a person, regular students would have find school more interesting, as well as being more prepared for college or work or tech school or life.

Thursday, January 8, 2009


From Scientific American: Are fat bums a sign of good health?

Harvard Medical School has done studies showing that having a "pear-shape," with fat on the thighs and butt, might actually be helpful in preventing diabetes 2. Subcutaneous fat is a layer of fat everyone has right under the skin (it also helps keep you warm). The bad type of body fat is visceral fat, which accumulates in the abdomen between organs and gives that beer belly.

Like it says in the article, not all fat is bad.

real live levitation!

From ScienceDaily: Levitation At Microscopic Scale Could Lead To Nanomechanical Devices Based On Quantum Levitation

Scientists at Harvard have discovered that by applying the Casimir effect, they could get a metal plate to float a microscopic distance off another type of metal plate.

Scientific levitation. Based on quantum mechanics. The world gets more and more exciting. These types of experimentation and discoveries are why I don't think that science and spirituality are opposed. I just think that some things are too big for us to understand, sort of like a bacteria trying to understand the known universe or the solar system. Though hey... maybe bacteria are extremely philosophical. I really don't know. I haven't talked to my bacteria lately. Just like "true" reality, reality as a whole, god or whatever you want to call it, hasn't talked to me lately, either.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

all grown up and making carbon monoxide

From Scientific American: Did the universe mature at an early age?

More discoveries about the early universe, this time about two billion years after the Big Bang, or whatever beginning it was, which is about 11.5 billion years ago.
[A]stronomers announced that cosmic gas in that period, seen when backlit by a gamma-ray burst (a gigantic stellar explosion), contained molecular hydrogen and carbon monoxide—the first time astronomers have discovered molecules, as opposed to isolated atoms or ions, in the light of a gamma-ray burst. The molecules’ presence indicates that the galaxy where the burst occurred was nearly as chemically developed as the present-day Milky Way.
I'm curious now... theoretically, there was very, very little metal in the beginning of the universe, and so the earliest stars should have no metal (called Population III or metal-free stars, you can read about this at the Metallicity article are Wikipedia). Wikipedia says (I know Wikipedia can be a little dicey, but for basics like this I think it's ok) that "theory is divided on whether the first stars were very massive or not," but considering everything was just masses of light gases expanding, I think they must have been massive, and thus had very quick life cycles and pumped out a lot of new elements. And since this new evidence is showing that chemically, the universe is pretty similar 11.5 billion years ago as it is now, does that mean that there is the slim possibility that life could have formed anytime since then? I mean, life on Earth needed, what? Earth itself. So iron, nickel, other metals, and other heavier elements. Hydrogen and carbon monoxide means our basic organic building blocks were there - carbon and water. What else does life need?

I guess maybe a lack of galactic collisions. A little peace and quiet.

what came first?

From BBC News: Black holes 'preceded galaxies'
It was unclear whether black holes came first, helping create galaxies by pulling matter towards them, or whether they arose in already formed galaxies.

"It looks like the black holes came first," said Dr Chris Carilli, from the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Socorro, New Mexico, who took part in the study. "The evidence is piling up."
This is pretty interesting. The infancy of the universe is a mysterious time. I guess this makes sense, though. The universe was much smaller at around 1 billion years old. Maybe those metal-poor stars back then were the same way today's metal-rich stars are: lots of different sizes and masses, and some of them had to become black holes and then pull matter and stars to themselves as the universe expanded.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


From Science Daily: Possible Abnormality In Fundamental Building Block of Einstein's Theory of Relativity

I think this article is about how scientists don't take gravity seriously because it's a weak force. I liked it just because it contained the phrase "an apple and an anti-apple."

one for the other

From ScienceDaily: Mothers Pass On Disease Clues To Offspring

Apparently in many species, when females are pregnant and they might get ill, they produce less aggressive male offspring with a better immune system, and "[t]he results of this new study support the existence of a ‘trade off’ between social dominance and disease resistance."

Ha! So see, my desire for a less aggressive mate makes sense. Better disease resistance to pass down. Fuck social dominance, those assholes.

reality has become a little more virtual

From ScienceDaily: Reality Gets Hyperlinked and Snap, Map, Chat And Hyperlink

These two articles are about a new, usable, and totally awesome technology from Europe, where you can take a picture of a building or landmark in a city and get whatever local information you want - history, shopping, entertainment, dining, whatever.

I love the idea of a mixed or augmented reality. I like the idea of blurring the lines between reality and virtuality. I don't think virtuality has to necessarily be "fantasy," (because if you cuss out your friend on WoW then they're still going to be pissed) but... I don't know, it's just awesome! I'm definitely not one of those need-new-toys-contantly types, but this is something I would want and use, partly because I like the idea of being able to pull information from anywhere.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

video games for life

From Scientific American: Using virtual worlds and video games to teach the lessons of reality

I love the idea of a virtual interactive world to help kids learn. I guess I'm somewhat biased, being both an avid gamer and an avid youthful educational gamer (yes, I will destroy these robots with my amazing math and history skills many times). Is it bad that River City sounds super-interesting, and I really want to play it? I'm still in school...

dryas the younger

From The New York Times: New Evidence of Meteor Bombardment

This article is about how scientists have found more evidence that the most recent ice age was caused by meteors a little under 13,000 years ago.

That cold spell is called the Younger Dryas, which I have to say, sounds like a name from a fantasy novel:

"I will avenge my father!" cried the younger Dryas, and glaring into the eyes of the undead mage, drew the Meteor sword smelted by his father, the older Dryas.

Yes? Yes? Ok, maybe it's just me.