Thursday, March 29, 2007

Holey Ridiculous Stories, Batman

The trench has been dug (aren't we fast?), and Ked is at Home Depot buying the pipe to run from the gutters to the giant hole. I took a minute to check my email, which sent me to this Scrappleface post about the "confession" of Faye Turney, a female British soldier being held captive by the Iranian government. Scrappleface "reveals" that not only had the group of fifteen sailors and marines, taken captive by Iran on March 23rd, strayed into Iranian waters, but they were bent on invasion--on a direct course for Tehran--to take over the country and plant the Union Jack. A fifteen man invasion--sounds like a solid plan to me. Mind you, Scrappleface is satire, but the satire doesn't push much beyond the ridiculousness of the charges by Iran. GPS readings clearly place the Brits in Iraqi waters, and even if they had crossed the line, under international law, the most Iran was allowed to do was warn them away, certainly not take them captive and hold them for what's going on a week, all the while changing their story to try and keep themselves in "the right." (For some reason, the coordinates for exactly where those sailors were supposed to have been keep shifting. Guess they didn't figure on the GPS records.) Does Iran actually think they're fooling anybody? Looks to me like they're digging themselves a bigger hole than Ked and I did.

More Odds And Ends On A Sunny Day

It's a fine sunny day in Meowville, so it's out to the back yard to dig a trench and put up gutters. I sincerely hope so, anyway. It would be really wonderful if we could get both those things done in the short time allotted before the rain kicks back in--supposedly tomorrow. So, since I'm playing gopher again today, I'll just toss a few quick links your way to keep you entertained and address a few of life's more nagging questions. Such as:

Do dogs know they are dogs, and that you're not? New Scientist has the scoop.

What happens to food and medicine exposed to six-plus months of space travel? NASA's investigating as we prep to head for Mars.

What's happening on the ground in Iraq? Michael Yon is there, and as usual, is reporting what he sees. No sugar coating, no axe to grind.

Do geometric patterns occur in nature outside of snowflakes? They do on Saturn. There's a weather hexagon on Saturn's north pole. New Scientist has a link to a video.

That should keep you busy for awhile. I am now thoroughly caffeinated and ready to go wield my trusty shovel. As I dig, I must keep reminding myself, "People pay money for this kind of workout. This is good for me. It could be worse. It could be raining." Hopefully this will keep my attitude in check as I comply with the City of Portland's drainage codes. I'll try to spare you the anti-City rant today. It really could be worse. It really could be raining.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Hydrogen Fuel Cells: "On Demand" Energy

Here's an alternative energy tidbit for you. Clean, cheap energy remains the Holy Grail of the modern scientific world (unless you rank the cure for cancer higher.) Among other approaches, ambitious companies are working hard on practical ways to make hydrogen fuel our cars. Bill Hobbs, writing yesterday at Ecotalityblog, says that Ecotality’s Hydratus technology combines magnesium and water, and the reaction between them produces hydrogen "on demand," as a vehicle's fuel cell has need of it. On demand sounds good, doesn't it? So does the idea of a fuel whose only byproduct is water, which is one of the lures of hydrogen as a source of energy, and Hobbs says this new technology can power a bus. The Smart People at Ecotality think they're onto something big.

Now, I'm not a chemist, or a physicist or any other kind of "ist," but I still found the short post about the Hydratus interesting. Although, maybe I found it interesting because I'm not an "ist." So far there are several comments from other Smart People in response to the post, explaining why using magnesium is not a net gain in terms of energy output, requiring too much energy to produce the magnesium which produces the hydrogen, and how there are other byproducts to deal with as well when magnesium is involved. Ecotality’s CEO, Jonathan Read, sounds awfully confident, though, claiming, "Hydrogen on-demand is going to be what catapults hydrogen from being a great concept to a great reality." Maybe the company is one or two steps ahead of the commenters. Smart People debates--fine entertainment for your Wednesday morning. I hope Ecotality comes out ahead on this one, though. It would be nice to see more really tangible advances on the alternative energy front.

Hat tip: Instapundit

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Electric Sunglasses

How do people survive without sunglasses? When I watch movies and documentaries I'm always amazed to see people running around all naked-eyed, for the camera I assume, in terribly bright conditions, doing things like hiking across glaciers, or wind-sailing through sand dunes at high noon. They don't even look like they're squinting. How do they do that? Why don't these people go blind from the glare, or at least wind up with a massive migraine? I don't know, maybe they do end up in pain, but consider it worth it to forward their on-camera careers, or maybe the brilliant conditions simply don't bother them. It could be they like having the world so brightly lit and sunglasses would only hinder their view. Crazy if you ask me, but then I am extremely light sensitive. When I step out my door in the four reliable months of sunshine a year we get here in beautiful green Western Oregon, my sunglasses are my best friend. I head out, they pop on. Fact of life.

Popping on a pair of sunglasses isn't so straightforward for some people, though. Some, like my husband, are already wearing glasses--the kind that help him focus--and he can't just slip any old pair of UV protectant shades over his regular eye-wear. He's got to have over-the-glasses glasses. This used to mean wearing what we always called "old man glasses." They were the only option for a long time, these huge, ugly eyesores that made it look like he had just come from the eye doctor and was still recovering from the drops that make your pupils dilate. He always hated wearing those, but since he can't wear contacts he didn't have much choice in the eye-wear department. There were also a few of the clip-on variety, but they never fit his glasses very well, and still looked pretty awful. It's only been in the last decade or so that he's gotten some better options. The companies that make the frames started putting out glasses that come with their own clip-on, or magnetic, perfectly sized-to-fit sunglasses that actually look good. This has been a vast improvement. They not only look "normal," but they don't fall off because they are too big for his glasses, or the hooks are in the wrong places. The only trick with them is keeping track of them, and remembering to bring them, but that's something we all have to do, so no sympathy points for that.

His latest option in eye protection, however, actually takes the remembering out of the equation too. He recently got Transitions lenses for the first time, and he loves them. Now there are no sunglasses to fiddle with at all. His regular glasses simply darken when he heads outside and they become his sunglasses. There's some sort of chemical reaction that takes place, and voila, instant shades. There are a couple drawbacks still; they don't change when he's in the car, because the UV protection in the windshield keeps the glasses from doing their chemical magic, and sometimes they take quite a while to lighten up again when he comes back in. All in all, though, this is the best he's had it in the eye protection department in his whole life. It actually makes me a little jealous. My sunglasses don't lighten and darken to adjust to variations in the light level. For me it's either on or off, no fancy chemical wizardry to enhance my viewing pleasure. I suppose I could buy some Transitions lenses with no vision correction to them, but it would be a ridiculous amount of money to spend, and as soon as I had spent it that would be the pair I would lose. No, the rest of us don't have the "magic option" in our sunglasses.

That is all about to change, though. Science Daily has a report about innovations coming out of the University of Washington that are not only going to make it possible for the rest of us to affordably adjust the light levels in our sunglasses, but, in a nod to the fashion conscious, the color as well. Chunye Xu is a research assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Washington, and she said that despite their advances, new glasses being designed at UW will not be very differently priced than current options. These new glasses, though, will certainly work on different principles. How many sunglasses do you own that run on a watch battery? These do, using an electric current, triggered by a small dial on the glasses' frame:

Researchers made the glasses using electrochromic materials that change transparency depending on the electric current. Many groups, including the UW, are developing such materials for so-called "smart windows" that could soon be used in energy-efficient homes and offices. Most smart windows use liquid-crystal technology or inorganic oxides. Those materials are expensive to produce and require a constant or frequent injection of power to hold their tint. The UW glasses are based on a new type of smart window using organic, rather than inorganic, oxides. These are cheaper to manufacture and require less power.

The prototype glasses are powered by a watch battery that attaches to the glasses frame, and the wearer spins a tiny dial on the arm of the glasses to change color or shade. The lenses were created by sandwiching a gel between two layers of electrochromic material. Applying a small voltage moves charged particles from one layer to another, and changes the transparency. Once the glasses are a certain tint they will stay that way without power for about 30 days. A single watch battery is able to power thousands of transitions, Xu said.

Interesting that the organic component is what makes the new adaptable lenses more affordable, eh? It's the organic molecules that also allow the glasses to change color. As the technology is perfected, more layers will be added to expand the color options available in a single pair of glasses. The pair constructed by the UW team adjusts through a range of blues, but the plan is to broaden the spectrum to include more of the rainbow. It's not just about fashion, either. The Science Daily article says that yellow lenses, "enhance contrasts and improve depth perception," and those rose-colored lenses, often considered the eye-glasses of choice for the naive and optimistic, "brighten low-light scenes." (How appropriate. I consider this proof that those cheerful people "wearing rose-colored glasses" actually see better than their gloomier counterparts, which is happy confirmation of my general world view.) Eventually we'll be able to pick up an affordable pair of completely adjustable outdoor eye-wear. The new lenses will adjust quickly, too. While my husband's lenses still take a little while to make the switch back to indoor conditions, the new battery-powered variety will make the switch in a second or two. Electric sunglasses--Cool, huh?

I want a pair!! I'd say I want two pair, but what would be the point? One pair would cover every possible light condition and color option, so once you settle on a frame that suits your face, what's more to need? (unless you are one of those people who have a hundred pair of shoes in your closet--I assume you will want at least a dozen different frame options as well.) The only disappointing thing about the new glasses is that they're not ready for prime-time yet. Science Daily says it'll be a few years before the glasses make it to market. Wah! I want an Umpa Lumpa now, Daddy!! Oh well. It's still cool, lenses that change color and darken on command. Hey, won't it be fun if they make "lenses" like that for the windows of your house? You could have "mood windows." If they could figure out a way to toss in some nanoparticle solar collectors, too, so that the windows (or the sunglasses for that matter) powered themselves, we would be heading into perfection territory. Oh, wait a minute--perfection territory will be when they make it possible to apply this imaginary nanotechnology to your eyes themselves, so you don't need sunglasses at all, but can change the light input and color of your eyes at will!! Of course, that will require a mental interface. None of us want a little dial on the side of our heads, now do we?

Hat tip: Futurismic

Monday, March 26, 2007

Living Large At Taxpayer Expense

I adore the Smithsonian Institution. My husband and I spent four days in Washington D.C. a few years ago, and we've been dying to get back ever since, just so we can spend more time in our glorious national treasure trove. We loved how much history and education it holds, and we loved that because it's taxpayer funded we got to go into every museum for free. Of course, it costs an arm and a leg for the trip out there, but that's beside the point. The Smithsonian alone is worth the trip. It's incredible, and wonderful, and breath-taking, and every other positive superlative you can pry out of your brain. Because I loved it so much, and actually think that preserving our history and knowledge is not a horrible use of government resources (this is not the norm for me, as I'm definitely the "small government" type), I was really saddened by a story I read today, demonstrating the way corruption can creep into even the most admirable of human endeavors. It would be impossible not to be aware of how much corruption there is in the world, but I don't usually want to dwell on it (except where I have a vote, like with electing Congress), and I don't like to point fingers (at some point I end up looking in the mirror, and then see that finger pointing back at me), but I found this story disturbing. From the Associated Press via Yahoo! News:

The Smithsonian Institution announced Monday that its top official, Secretary Lawrence M. Small, has resigned amid criticism about his expenses.

Small resigned over the weekend, and the decision was unanimously accepted Sunday by the Smithsonian's Board of Regents.

Cristian Samper, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, has been appointed acting secretary while the regents conduct a nationwide search for a permanent replacement.

An internal audit in January found that Small had made $90,000 in unauthorized expenses, including private jet travel and expensive gifts.

The audit also found that Small charged the Smithsonian more than $1.1 million for use of his home since 2000. The housing expenses included $273,000 for housekeeping, $2,535 to clean a chandelier and $12,000 for service on his backyard swimming pool.

Normally, I wouldn't care if someone paid more to have a chandelier cleaned than I would ever pay for the chandelier itself, and I wouldn't care if a private company wanted to compensate its employees in any outlandish way it chose, but we're not talking about a private company. As I said before, the Smithsonian is a public institution. According to Wikipedia:
The Smithsonian Institution (pronounced [smɪθ.ˈˌən]) is an educational and research institute and associated museum complex, administered and funded by the government of the United States and by funds from its endowment, contributions, and profits from its shops and its magazine.
So, since as an American taxpayer I'm partly footing the bill, I do feel a bit more entitled to worry about what that bill covers than I do when Microsoft or Starbucks is making spending decisions. After all, I can choose not to buy a double caramel shot of caffeine, or the latest version of Windows. I can't choose only to patronize those government offices of which I approve. When our government gets taken for a ride, we get taken for a ride.

Now, I'm sure that there were legitimate household expenses that Mr. Small had to pay related to his job. Part of his job was fund-raising, and that usually involves entertaining--entertaining rich people, who have way higher standards than the rest of us, to go along with the potential big bucks they can throw at a sufficiently persuasive museum director's budget. You can't feed 'em beans and franks, and you can't have them over to play Frisbee in your driveway. I get the whole "if you don't schmooze, you lose" concept. I think it's fair that if Mr. Small had to hire help to serve and clean for important shindigs "the company" should cover the cost. (I will not get into whether I think that "company" should be in the fundraising business. Believe me, you don't have time to read my whole rant on the subject.) I really don't question the fact that, if your job for the government is to be the schmoozer, you need the resources to do your job--official expenses should be covered, but there are limits to what those "official expenses" should be.

I understand how someone who hangs around with money develops a taste for the lifestyle. Who wouldn't? The trouble is when that someone steps over the line that separates legitimate expenses and jet-setting on the public dime. The bills for private jets, and expensive gifts, and swimming pools shouldn't land in the lap of the taxpayer. Mr. Small was set to earn over $900,000 this year, an obscene sum to the average wage-earner. If he wanted to buy presents and fly on private jets, why couldn't he just do it with his own money? Couldn't he afford it? When the rest of us can't afford something most of us take the radical approach--we don't buy it. Commoners don't get to choose between flying first class or flying in a private jet. Most of us have to choose between flying coach or staying home. Now I don't begrudge anyone who has more money getting to make the higher end choices, but I do resent it when they get to make their choice because they are taking my money to do it. I resent it in public officials of any variety. By all means, fly in your private jet, but pay for it out of your own pocket (and don't lecture me about global warming if that's the route you take, either.) As I said earlier, I don't like to point fingers, but if I were to make the decision to spend massive amounts of taxpayer money to keep myself in the lifestyle to which I made myself accustomed, I would deserve to have my own finger pointing back in that mirror. Sometimes it's got to be done, or such behavior loses its shame factor, and it needs it. Such behavior really is shameful.

Hat tip: IMAO

Friday, March 23, 2007

An Ounce Of Pretension...

Put this one in the "more money than sense" file. Would you pay a cool million for a laptop? How about if it had a rare diamond for a power button? What if you got to wear that power button around your neck? From Gizmag:

UK-based bespoke luxury goods creator Luvaglio has created the first million dollar laptop. That’s what the first of their luxury laptops will sell for. Full details of the laptop have not been released at this point, but it is known that it incorporates a 17" widescreen LED lit screen with a specially designed anti-reflective glare coating for clear and brighter image, 128GB of Solid State Disk space and a slot loading Blue-Ray drive. There is an integrated screen cleaning device and a very rare coloured diamond piece of jewellery that doubles up as the power button when placed into the laptop and also acts as security identification.

What do you think now? Does the integrated screen cleaning device give it more bang for the buck? Does the Blue Ray drive make it worth the extra $997, 801? What if you find out that you get to personalize your purchase, choosing your favorite color and everything? Are you dying to buy your own personal million dollar laptop now? Me neither. You know what they say--an ounce of pretension is worth a pound of manure.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Falcon 1 Liftoff

Here's the video of the Falcon 1 rocket launch that I wrote about yesterday. It's about five minutes long. Watch it through the more boring bits where all you see is water condensation as the rocket passes through the clouds. The stages separating and the Earth falling into the distance and taking shape as a ball in space is way neato.

Hat tip: Futurismic

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Sun In Action

It's turning into Space Day at the Meow. You gotta go watch the video NASA has posted of the eruption of a giant solar flare. When I say giant, I mean giant. According to Dr. Tony Phillips, a production editor for NASA's Science website, this particular flare that Japan's Hinode spacecraft captured on video is almost as big as Earth! Dr. Phillips has some interesting things to say about what Hinode is teaching scientists about the Sun, and why it's important. Have a look. It's good learning. Besides that, the video is just plain cool.

Private Spaceflight--Blasting Off

Hey, if you're interested in privately-funded spaceflight, here's a tidbit from Spaceflight Now you might want to peruse. It's a partial transcript of a post-launch press briefing by Elon Musk. Musk is the founder of SpaceX, a private company contracted by NASA to develop the Falcon 9 rocket for delivering cargo to the International Space Station. According to SpaceX's website, if all goes well with the rocket's development, "At the option of NASA, the Agreement can be extended to include demonstrating transport of crew to and from the International Space Station (ISS). If successful, NASA will have the ability to use the demonstrated capability to resupply the ISS after the 2010 retirement of the Space Shuttle." The goal for SpaceX is to create a line of launch vehicles that will reach anywhere from low Earth orbit to other planets. The company just tested its Falcon 1 rocket as part of developing the Falcon 9, but that is only the beginning of their plans for private spaceflight. Also from their website:

As part of this Agreement, SpaceX will execute three flights of its Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Dragon spaceship. These will be the first flights of the Dragon spaceship and the fourth, fifth and sixth flights of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

The missions are scheduled to occur in the late 2008 to 2009 time period and will culminate in demonstrating delivery of cargo to the ISS and safe return of cargo to Earth. The Dragon spaceship is designed from the beginning to have an identical structure for both cargo and crew transport, allowing for a rapid transition from unmanned to manned flight as soon as reliability is proven.

"By stimulating the development of commercial orbital spaceflight, the NASA COTS program will have the same positive effect on space travel as the Air Mail Act of 1925 had on the development of safe and affordable air transportation," said Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO. "Moreover, the requirement for significant private investment and the fact that NASA only pays for objective, demonstrated milestones ensures that the American taxpayer will receive exceptional value for money."

The freshly tested Falcon 1 rocket met with mixed success, making it to space, but failing to establish orbit. However, Musk was quite pleased with the progress nonetheless, and has high hopes for the future. Apparently the most dangerous part is making it off the planet, and the rest will be a fairly straightforward fix, as Musk discussed in his press briefing:
"I feel very confident 10 years from now that we can be putting both satellites and people into orbit, and maybe beyond (Earth) orbit. I feel very confident in the future of commercial spaceflight, private spaceflight and I think this bodes very, very well actually for achieving some of the goals that I mentioned. It is really an excellent indicator that a small company can achieve great things....We had what I would call a relatively minor issue with the roll-control very late in the flight. But all the really big risk items, the ones we were most concerned, have been addressed. If you look at the early history of rocketry, I think they had something like 12 Atlas failures before the 13th one was successful. To get this far on our second launch being an all-new rocket -- new main engine, new first stage, new second stage engine, new second stage, new fairing, new launch pad system, with so many new things -- to have gotten this far is great."
Sounds encouraging. I'm totally on board with the notion that privately funded and developed spaceships can and should be part of humanity's space future. I really like seeing NASA contract with private companies to meet its goals, especially since America's space shuttle is soon to be grounded. Private industry can take financial risks that government agencies shouldn't necessarily be taking, and a commercial spaceflight industry can reap great rewards in the process, both from government contracts and private tourism/commercial transportation. With companies like SpaceX putting private expertise to work, in hopes of making a profit, everyone involved, NASA included, can ultimately benefit, and as Musk pointed out, NASA, and thus the taxpayer, "only pays for objective, demonstrated milestones." Free market meets space. Two of my favorite things taking flight together. Go for launch.

Hat tip: Instapundit, for the press briefing link.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Car To Traffic Light: "Turn Green"

Anybody out there read Robert A. Heinlein's Methuselah's Children? I read it as a teenager, and have been drawn back since, because it's such a creative and visionary sci fi novel, full of the unbelievable, and yet full of the completely possible at the same time. I remember being fascinated by his concept of an automobile/infrastructure interconnection that went far beyond just tires meeting pavement. Drivers entering the highways could turn the operation of their cars over to a traffic management system, and a central control would "drive" them to their destination. The system could take into account all the other cars and destinations and speeds and routes, and plan out the best possible combination, picking the lanes and turns, when to accelerate and when to slow, putting everything together to let everyone arrive at their destination in the fastest and safest way possible, with the added bonus of a chance to take a nap en-route. When it was time to leave the highway, control was switched back over to the human driver to take those last few side streets where traffic was less of an issue. (This was probably just to give the humans the illusion that their lives weren't being run by a computer.)

I found the notion of the road driving the car absolutely fascinating, and rather desirable. Of course, there are a lot of people who really enjoy driving, and might not take too kindly to giving up control, and you'd have to have a lot of faith that the system could handle the load and that it wouldn't suddenly break down, stranding a highway full of motorists, or worse, crashing all the cars. On the other hand, how many of us haven't driven home late at night, fighting sleep over miles of Interstate, and longed for the ability to take a snooze and still cover ground at the same time? No more accidents from drivers falling asleep at the wheel would be good. Wouldn't it also be a good thing for the perennial cellphone addict to just go ahead and concentrate on the conversation when Buffy calls to talk nail polish, or Johnson calls to finalize the big merger details? It would be better than having workaholics trying to dig through a pile of documents and make a left turn without signaling at the same time, don't you think? Parents of teenagers might also really like the notion of their kids having to plug in a destination and let the system do the driving, instead of trusting their kids and vehicles to the judgement of drivers temporarily inflicted with HIDIOUS--Hormonally Induced Decision Impairment Of Underage Scatterbrains. (Yes, I do know hideous isn't spelled that way, but I gave it my best shot. If you can do better leave it in the comments.)

I can think of all sorts of reasons why a computer/road/car symbiosis would be bad, but also any number of reasons why it would be good. It doesn't really matter, though, since we have no such system, and unless sci fi becomes reality again, we aren't likely to, are we? Okay, you know I'm not just teasing you, and this has to be going somewhere, so why don't I just cut to the chase? Nissan is testing a system, in the Kanagawa prefecture in Japan, that, while it doesn't quite live up to Heinlein's vision of automated driving, still takes us a significant step in that direction, by getting the infrastructure and the cars talking to each other. From Gizmag:

March 15, 2007 Nissan’s intelligent transportation system (ITS) project, which employs vehicle-to-infrastructure communication to enable synchronized communication between vehicles and traffic light signals, is about to begin the next test-phase. Nissan is installing the advanced traffic signal infrastructure within its Nissan Technical Center in Kanagawa to collect real-world vehicle data from several hundred employee cars participating in the project. The new advanced traffic system is designed to reduce accidents as well as ease traffic congestion, leading to improved on-the-road fuel consumption.
Nissan certainly has a lot of goals in designing a system that lets traffic lights and cars communicate. Besides reducing accidents and traffic congestion, Nissan is looking to lower CO2 emissions, by enabling cars to use less gas, and as we all know using less gas is a valuable aim in its own right. All things considered, this traffic light system is a pretty perceptive and creative way to go about achieving those ends, especially as regards fuel consumption. What takes a lot of fuel? Acceleration. What makes cars have to accelerate? Among other things, stopping at traffic lights. (Unless the driver just wants to sit there when the light turns green, which does occasionally happen.) What would make for less stopping at traffic lights? Having cars announce that they are coming, and from what direction, so the signals can be turned red or green depending on the flow of traffic. That's where Nissan's system is headed. Spiffy, huh?

There are just so many positives to the idea, not the least of which is getting us all to our destinations quicker, and with less grump-factor. Hasn't everybody been frustrated at sitting at red lights when there is no other traffic, just because the lights are timed that way? Even the little sensors they have now on some signals make you come up and stop at the red light before it registers your presence, and by then the frustration and gas usage are already written in the history books (very long boring ones.) It would be so cool if the car could warn the signals ahead of time that you were coming, clearing the way for your unhindered progress toward your destination.

What they are doing in Kanagawa is gathering data from employees' cars, on a limited infrastructure that they put on their Kanagawa campus, to work out the kinks before expanding the system to work on a larger scale. Their plans include public roads eventually:

This next phase of Nissan’s ITS research aims to optimize communication between vehicles and traffic signals to create an advanced traffic system where traffic signals operate in tandem with the vehicle-data input according to varying traffic conditions. Nissan hopes to help reduce traffic accidents and road congestion. Looking ahead, the company will continue working closely with the relevant government agencies in bringing the current experiment onto public roads under the existing ITS project in Kanagawa.
Now, I know that having the lights change to adapt to traffic conditions isn't exactly like having the road drive your car, but it's a cool first step, don't you think? Heinlein released Methuselah's Children as a magazine serial in 1941, and then rewrote and republished it in 1958. I wonder if he figured we'd have made more progress toward the future he envisioned by now, with fully automated driving whisking us from place to place, or if he really only saw it as fantasy, or maybe whether he would figure we were right on schedule. Whichever it is, I'm pleased as punch with the progress, and hope Nissan's system is a smashing success--although, maybe smashing isn't the right word, since that's part of what they're trying to avoid.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Shedding Light On The Shadow Of Alzheimer's

Where did I put my car keys? I know I had them an hour ago. Well, they're not in my purse. Good grief! I have to be to the school at three. I have to find those keys. Okay, brain, think this through... What did I do when I got back from the store? I came in the front door, put my purse on the coffee table, went out again to bring in the groceries, set them on the counter, started to put them away, and then went to check the messages on the answering machine. What did I do then? Oh yeah--I called Jane back, and then went to get the permission slip for Peter's field trip. I can't forget, I have to bring the ice cream sandwiches for that. Oh my gosh!! I left the keys on the counter with the ice cream. What a dingbat I am!

Sound familiar? If it doesn't, I want to trade brains with you, please. I can't tell you the number of times I've had to play the "retracing game" to find something, or remember what I did yesterday. Generally, I have a pretty good memory, but we live in a world with a heck of a lot of input, and sometimes it gets hard to keep everything straight--especially things we've done so often that specific incidents tend to blur together, like bringing in the groceries. Most of us develop little tricks to keep ourselves from forgetting the things we need to mentally track. I'm a committed list maker, and Ked and I picked up the habit early in our marriage of putting things we need to take out of the house later right by the front door, or with our keys, so we can't leave home without noticing them (unless, of course, we forget the keys.) Last week, when daylight saving time rolled around, we set our clocks on Saturday morning so that we wouldn't forget later that night and wind up late for church the next day. Our little tricks usually work, and we manage to get by in the world without too many major memory lapses.

Some things are harder. Ked's great with names and faces. I, on the other hand, have given up hope that I will remember the name of someone when I first meet them, no matter how many times I repeat it in that first conversation. I could repeat a name so often that the person I'm meeting thinks I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, and still draw a complete blank the next time I see them. This can be rather humiliating, especially if I've done the OCD imitation on the previous encounter. Ked's weakness is a definite need for shopping and "to do" lists. If it's not written down, he will not remember it. It's that simple. (This is one of the reasons that I'm a committed list maker.) On the other hand, he can hear a tune once, and whistle it note for note twenty years later, so I suspect he's just not wasting brain cells on trivial things that can be just as easily stored in a list. That's a simple matter of priorities.

With our various memory failings, we sometimes have talked about what would happen if one or both of us started losing more and more of our capacity to remember anything. This is a topic that's close to home for us. Just a couple weeks ago Ked helped his parents move his grandparents into a care facility, because of the increasing onset of dementia. His mom has cared for both her parents for many years, as her dad succumbed to Alzheimer's and her mom to another form of dementia, until eventually her dad no longer even recognizes the woman he married over sixty-five years ago. Both of them had reached a stage where Mom could no longer provide all the physical care they needed, and she reluctantly has had to let them go to a place where they can receive the additional care they need. It's been hard for the family to watch vibrant, engaging people lose more and more of themselves, as their memories slowly have faded away.

The signs were small at first, maybe losing those car keys more often. Then it became more of a problem when they could find the keys, because Pappaw would go driving and sometimes couldn't remember how to get home. Finally, Mom and Dad started to have to find creative ways to keep them out from behind the wheel at all, for their own safety, and that of others. More and more of Mom's time became devoted to chauffeuring her parents, and cooking for them and cleaning for them, and taking care of their medicines, and dressing them, and so on, as they became increasingly less able to do these things for themselves. It was an enormous commitment, and an act of daughterly love and devotion.

It was also a sobering reality. Alzheimer's has some hereditary connections, and when both parents, or grandparents, have severe memory failure, you can't see it daily, or even sporadically, without thinking about whether their fate will also be yours. No one, of course, really wants to dwell on it, and I discourage my husband's lamentations over his own memory lapses. Just because he forgot the milk doesn't mean he's going to lose himself. However, we can't but be aware of the topic, and we watch documentaries on the subject occasionally, and read what comes our way with interest. We're glad to see that they are making progress all the time in the study of the brain generally, and dementia specifically. It helps us face future possibilities when we can also see future understanding, treatments, and potential cures.

It will probably be a long while before the brain is a completely open book. There's not a computer so complex in all the world, but doctors and scientists are making constant strides in reading its pages, and as they read it more thoroughly, they are slowly starting to learn how to keep the brain from losing its storehouse of memories and information. The more they see into it, the more they can see exactly what is going on, and the more they see what is going on, they more they can learn how to repair the damage when it stops working properly.

We've seen such things throughout the history of medicine. Body systems that were once a complete mystery are now much more clearly understood, and thus treated. In centuries past, the most brilliant doctors of their times didn't have the necessary understanding of organ functions, or bacterial and viral infections, or drug interactions to treat the things which our doctors now see as routine. Cancer used to be an automatic death sentence. Now it would be difficult, if not impossible, to go through life without knowing many, many cancer survivors. In the future, things which baffle our medical practitioners of today will be the routine treatments of the next generation. In my husband's family, of course, we hope that dementia will be one of those breakthrough cases. It is too late for the grandparents we love, and all we can hope for at this point is that they will be comfortable and happy and well cared for, but research goes on, and we hope it will not be too late for their children's generation.

One promising advance in the fight against dementia is new technology being developed for early detection--before symptoms even give the alert that something is going wrong in the brain. Gizmag has an article titled "New 3D Imaging technology promises early detection of Alzheimer’s and Dementia" that has encouraging news about progress in researchers' efforts to see inside the working of the brain:

Increasingly higher-resolution imaging techniques making major contributions to early detection are now being presented at the European Congress of Radiology (ECR 2007), held in Vienna from March 9 to 13, 2007, and attended by some 16,000 participants from 92 countries. University Professor Dr. Daniela Prayer from the Clinical Department for Neuroradiology at the Vienna University of Medicine states, “Although we cannot yet depict individual cells, we can image ultra-tiny bundles of fibre with high resolution. That is a spectacular breakthrough!”

Voxel-based morphometry allows for the volume of grey matter and white matter in the brain to be determined to the nearest cubic millimetre. A reduction in brain mass (atrophy) in certain areas indicates Alzheimer’s disease and in other areas, other forms of dementia, according to Professor Prayer. An MR study by Professor Dr. Riccardo della Nave and his colleagues at the University of Florence, for instance, found that certain degenerative phenomena occurring in the left thalamus and in a zone in the left cerebral cortex are the first signs of family-related Alzheimer’s disease. “These findings are quite valuable. They enable us not only to differentiate precisely but also to detect the patterns of the disease before symptoms even occur and to check the efficacy of new drugs, namely, whether they can really stop the loss of brain mass.”

This is just one of the new technologies the article describes. Another is magnetic resonance spectroscopy, which "allows a non-contact x-ray view of biochemical processes within the regions of the brain under examination." Neurologists can read these images and distinguish between Alzheimer's and normal aging, or other, milder forms of cognitive impairment. These new technologies are opening up the secrets of the brain, and allowing doctors to diagnose more accurately, and observe whether the treatments they are developing are effective. This will make their research so much more efficient and fruitful. If they can see direct evidence of whether they're on the right paths, it will allow them to charge ahead on the ones with the most promise, and walk away more quickly from the dead ends. The article concludes on this positive statement:
All in all, Professor Prayer notes, “the new methodological advances of magnetic resonance technology provide us with a hopeful view of the future in terms of the early diagnosis and efficacy testing of therapies for dementias. If this happens in the near future, the spectre of old-age dementia will lose much of its threatening effect.”
That would be a blessing of indescribable magnitude for our family.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Big Hole

Ked and I have been working hard the last couple of days, digging the hole that I whined about in my last post, and sifting the rocks out of the soil through a screen that Ked threw together for the purpose. I'd love to tell you that I have something fascinating or amusing to share with you, but, alas, all we've done is heavy manual labor, and unless you would find a catalog of our various aches and bruises interesting, I got nothin'. What I do have is a slightly blurry, badly balanced, randomly touched-up-for-visibility picture of the big hole with me in it. The rock pile I'm leaning on is just the medium rocks we pulled from the ground. Anything under three inches is going to be sifted from the soil and sequestered on a tarp to be thrown back in the hole around the dry-well. Anything over about eight inches got hauled to a raised patio we built last year--for decorative deployment. (What do you do when life hands you rocks? Make a rock garden!!)

I look remarkably cheerful here, considering how long it took us to dig that far.

We're heading back out today. There's a trench to be dug, and a retaining wall to be built, and gutters to install, and painting to finish, and... (Boy, I hope it starts raining again soon.)

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Portland: Code For Frustration

We're getting a bit of a weather break here in the Pacific Northwest, so Ked and I are seizing the opportunity to return to the winter-weather-delayed yard projects left over from last year's big garage-building spree. I am now going to take a brief moment to rant against the City of Portland. Note the capital letter. I love the city of Portland, but I am flippin' mad at the City of Portland.

Last fall, the City demanded that we dig a four foot deep, four foot wide dry-well for the little three hundred square foot garage we built. What they want is a big old hole, with a plastic "well' in part of it, and the rest filled with rocks for drainage. The downspout from the garage gutters will empty into this well. What is frosting our cookies as we dig this giant hole is that they did not take into account that we live in "rock central." We have spent hours digging through ground that is basically one big rock bed--we are hitting stones from 1 inch to 1 foot in diameter every time the pick or shovel hits the dirt. There are literally thousands of them. All of this digging, just so we can fill half of the hole with rocks--rocks that are already there. Our yard drains like crazy already, and simply diverting the downspouts off the garage onto the lawn would have dealt with it quite nicely. WE DIDN'T NEED THE DRY WELL, except to satisfy some arcane code that doesn't take into account the conditions where we live.

I'm trying to remain calm, reminding myself that at least the weather is letting us get the stupid job done finally, but I must confess that my attitude toward the whole ridiculous project is not very Christ-like. The only thing that is keeping me from going over the frustration edge is the fact that we don't have to buy any of the rocks to fill the hole back in, since we are gathering them up as we dig. If we were going to have to purchase more rocks, I think I might start throwing them.

Okay, rant over. I think just writing this is helpful for processing the severe annoyance I feel. Sorry I have to take it out on you, but blogging is just so very soothing. I think I should have a tee-shirt printed, to wear while I'm satisfying The Alliance's demands. It should say, "I'd Rather Be Blogging." Ooh, I bet other people would want one too. I could start a whole new Internet-based business, and get rich!! Hmmm... I wonder what the City of Portland codes are for starting an Internet-based business...

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Human Upgrade

I'm not going to get lots of time to write today, so I can't explore this in depth, but I had to pass on this way cool article to you. Tom Maguire, guest-blogging at Instapundit, posted a link to WIRED, and a piece called "Be More Than You Can Be". Noah Shachtman relays his experiences with personally testing the Glove, a bio-enhancement device being developed for the U.S. military, along with other futuristic, sci fi-ish, totally amazing experimental attempts to upgrade human performance. Did I say attempts? What I should have said was successes. The Glove is able to help humans perform through extreme heat and exertion, and survive intense cold. You'll have to read the article to see how incredibly effective it is at helping people do the impossible. That's not the only "the future is here" kind of research going on, either. Experiments with hydrogen sulfide are sending mice into "suspended animation," allowing them to live for six hours with only 5% oxygen in the air. To give you some idea of how astounding that is, the mice who were part of the control group--no hydrogen sulfide--died after fifteen minutes! How can you not go read the rest?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

How Cars Help The Environment

Here's an interesting article that goes along with my theory that technology will be the solution to our environmental issues, and has already contributed greatly to environmental improvements, despite the blame it gets for modern day pollution. Dwight R. Lee, at TCS Daily, spends some time delving in to one of the main sources of the environmental woes of yesteryear, and concludes that one of our most prevalent current technologies, the internal combustion engine (ICE), is a Godsend when compared with the primary sources of horsepower from the past--i.e. horses, and oxen, and mules. Those of us who grew up with cars instead of wagons don't contemplate very often how much of a difference the automobile has made to the pollution levels of cities, or, I should say, we tend to think that the effect has been negative. All that car exhaust is dreadful. There used to be fresh air, by golly! We think of that pollution and forget that before the car, when folks rode into town on noble steeds, there was pollution of an entirely different sort.

Livestock flatulence, according to a report from the U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization, cited by Lee, accounts for 18% of today's greenhouse gases, and all the cars, planes, trucks, trains, boats, and every other form of transportation in the world added together don't equal that level of greenhouse gas output. Livestock produce methane, too, which Lee points out is a much more potent greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide which gasoline engines emit. Greenhouse gases, as we all know, are the favorite whipping boy for those concerned about global warming, so this should make the world look more favorably on modern transportation. Gasoline engines produces less gases, and less potent gases than their animal counterparts. Score one for the ICE.

Now, if livestock flatulence produces 18% of the greenhouse gases of today, imagine what they were producing a hundred years ago, when horses filled our cities and our farms. Indeed, the general level of pollution created by a culture dependant upon animals for transport and food production, as well as food, goes beyond just dealing with the gases. The manure itself was a pollution nightmare:

Consider the effects of horse emissions in our towns and cities at the beginning of the last century. The air and water pollution from horse manure contributed to a death rate far greater than that generated by the pollution from cars and trucks. No one denies that photochemical smog from gas powered vehicles is a health risk, but it is not nearly the health risk of cholera, typhoid, typhus, yellow fever, diphtheria and malaria. These diseases killed tens of thousands of Americans in the early 20-century and these deaths began to decline as cars and trucks replaced horses and wagons.

And the improvements in the environment weren't limited to just the towns and cities. Before gasoline power arrived, beasts of burden were polluting agricultural communities along with meat producing animals such as cows, chickens and pigs. By eliminating horses, mules and oxen on farms, tractors and other types of gas-powered farm machinery greatly reduced the problem of animal waste that environmentalists, with justification, still complain about. This also eliminated the need to grow the food required by millions of farm animals. It has been estimated that it took about 93 million acres of land in 1900 to grow the food to fuel the farm animals that were soon replaced by motorized farm machinery. Much of that land has now gone back to woodlands.

Score two for the ICE. Lee isn't finished with his defense of the engine, either. He addresses one more aspect of the flap over flatulence, and how the ICE isn't getting the credit it deserves when it comes to protecting the environment:
Instead of giving credit to internal combustion for its contribution to environmental quality, the news on the harmful effects of animal flatulence has resulted in another culprit being blamed for global warming; meat eaters. According to a recent article in the "Christian Science Monitor," some environmentalists are urging people to become vegetarians to combat global warming. There is no mention that this vegetarian solution, if taken seriously, would make the internal combustion engine even more critical to environmental protection. Imagine the amount of animal manure and methane that would be produced growing all those extra vegetables without motorized farm equipment.

Score three for the ICE. Lee goes on to discuss improvements in ICE technology which are reducing transportation's pollution production all the time. He also predicts that someday a superior technology will come along to replace the combustion engine, further limiting the pollution cost of human transport. My prediction is that his prediction is correct.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Haptics--Coming To A Cellphone Near You

Pretty soon we're not going to be able to trust any of our own senses. We are rapidly approaching the day when the line between illusion and reality won't be easily determined by casual examination. Science fiction is creeping further and further into the real world, and some of the time we don't even notice it. The phrase, "I'll believe it when I see it." has lost a good deal of it's meaning in recent decades. We see perfectly believable things all the time which are nothing but computer generated graphics, or clever use of Photoshop. We hear things all the time which are studio fabrications--like the beautiful diva's aria from the movie The Fifth Element. We taste and smell things, probably daily, that are chemical facsimiles of nature's offerings, and never give it a second thought. The only relatively trustworthy sense left in our arsenal is that of touch, and if the truth be told, that one's going on the reliability chopping-block too.

If you've read the Meow for any length of time, more specifically since last August, then you've probably seen my posts about haptics. In the first, I spent a little time discussing what the science of haptics is, and in the second, I shared some links sent to me by Dr. Gabriel Robles-De-La-Torre, founder of the International Society for Haptics, and a prominent researcher in the field. For those of you who don't have the background, I'll describe haptics the same way I did before:

Haptics uses computer technology to make you feel things that aren't really there, or feel things differently than they actually are. It's a virtual reality type of fooling the senses, but haptics involves the sense of touch.

It's not really an adequate definition, but it gets you started on the idea, and you can follow the links if you want to know more. There are explanations for how force can imply shape, and there are graphic demonstrations to help those of us who aren't neuroscientists and computer engineers like Dr. Robles-De-La-Torre. It's interesting stuff, and the Meow will still be here when you get back, so go have a look... Go on... Shoo!

Back now? Okay, then let's move on. The thing which got me "hooked on haptics" is reading the explanations of how Dr. R's work can be applied in the real world. I find it absolutely fascinating that your body could touch something, and feel something else. The good doctor has developed mechanisms where a person running their finger over something smooth will feel something sharp, or pointy, which is impressive enough in itself, but what is even more amazing is the growing list of ways the science can be applied to things which you and I use, and will probably grow to take for granted. I wrote before that there are hopes that haptics will advance to the point where surgeons could practice operations using a haptic interface, perfecting their technique before ever touching a real live patient, but feeling everything they would if a living breathing bleeding person lay on the table before them. Space technicians, too, might be able to get the "feel" of dangerous maneuvers, like docking a spaceship to an orbiting station, aiding the chances that when they perform the real thing in space, they won't damage either people or expensive space toys. There are versions of these technologies in use today, although there's a long way to go. More and more advanced forms of haptics technology could be saving lives in the very near future.

These applications are wonderful, of course, even noble, but you might be thinking, "Okay, but that stuff is all pretty distant from me. Although I might have surgery one day, I'm not going to be performing one any time soon, and space shuttle docking is even further out of my reach, so there's not much chance I'm going to even experience haptic technology, let alone take it for granted." Clearly, I have something further to offer for your haptics edification, or I wouldn't bother writing this post, so read on.

I got an email yesterday from our friend Dr. Robles-De-La-Torre, and he sent me to an article from The Economist (via TCMnet) that just came out this month, about some more applications of the kind of work that he's doing. The Economist explains how the science is moving beyond using only force to fool you into believing you're touching something you're not (as amazing as that is), and adding a new dimension--skin stretch:

Most of today's haptic devices rely on motors that either prod or vibrate the skin, but a new technology is emerging that is an even more flexible and effective means of stimulating the sense of touch: skin stretch. By laterally stretching the surface of the skin (without pushing or poking into it) it is possible to mimic the feeling of complex shapes and sensations. This is because the sense of touch seems to depend far more on the way in which the skin is deformed and stretched than it does on the degree of pressure applied. So it should be possible to recreate sensations purely by stretching skin, says Vincent Hayward, a researcher who first developed such a device at the Centre for Intelligent Machines at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

"It's analogous to watching a TV screen," he says. The human eye can be tricked into seeing a range of colours on a video display, even though it really only consists of tiny red, green and blue dots. In much the same way the sense of touch can be fooled into feeling shapes and textures that are not there, says Dr Hayward.

Okay, cool. Skin stretch is another tool in the haptic bag of tricks, and the body gets fooled like it does with television, but this still doesn't answer how any of this becomes something you and I are likely to encounter. How does the science of haptics affect me!! (It is all about me, you know--or you, as the case may be.) Patience. The Economist points out some of the ways the rest of us may be experiencing haptics--it also includes a much better definition than mine of exactly what haptics is:
Haptics is the science of simulating pressure, texture, vibration and other sensations related to touch. The term is derived from a Greek word meaning "able to lay hold of". Devices that exploit haptics have been around for decades: many modern aeroplanes, for example, have haptic control columns that shake or vibrate to warn the pilot of an approaching stall. The technology has also found its way into video-game consoles, where it adds an extra layer of realism. Players can feel when they are veering off course in a driving game, or when they have been hit in a shooting game. Force-feedback technology, another offshoot of haptics, is used in robotic telesurgery and in surgical simulators to enable surgeons to feel resistance as they move their surgical instruments around, just as they would in conventional surgery. Even the "vibrate" mode on a mobile phone, which discreetly alerts the user to an incoming call or text message, is an example of haptics.
Okay, this is getting a little more down-to-Earth. We've all played video games, and used a cellphone, right? This haptics thing might apply to us after all! It might even be worth reading the rest of this post to see what's around the corner.

It's the cellphone that is taking haptics to a new level, in terms of real-world application. Some of the new mobile phones are coming sans keyboard, with nothing but a touchscreen interface, but one phone in particular, from Samsung, is taking it a step further, and adding a new haptic twist:
The SCH-W559 handset, which is so far available only in China, fools the user's sense of touch and mimics the feeling of pressing a mechanical button, even though the surface is actually completely flat. It is the latest example of a new breed of "haptic" technologies that do for the sense of touch what lifelike colour displays and hi-fi sound do for eyes and ears.
Wow. They're making you feel like you've pressed a button--that satisfying little click you feel--when all you've done is touch a screen. Unbelievable, huh? That whole skin stretch thing must be making its mark. I get why you would want the feel of real buttons, even if it's only a screen you're touching. You'd have to pay much closer visual attention if you couldn't tell by feel when a button had indeed been pushed. I'm mentally working on what the advantage is to a simulated button over a mechanical one, and the best I'm coming up with so far is that if you spill something it can't seep between the buttons and gum up the works. Dust would have a hard time finding its way into tech devices that are dust-sensitive, too, if the surface of the keyboard was actually a solid screen. Maybe mechanical buttons would wear out more quickly than simulated ones. I'm sure there are many other advantages, and Smart People somewhere have thought of most of them. They will become clearer to the rest of us as the technology gets more mature. What I suspect is part of the motivator now, though, for playing with haptics is that they can. It's just plain cool and fun to be able to do this stuff, whatever it's ultimate uses.

Of course, this whole world of haptics technology is one of those things that one day we'll all take for granted, and future generations might even understand. In a few years our kids will probably be able to build their own haptics interfaces for school projects, and it will have worked its way into children's toys as well as the grownups' gadgets. Mattel will sell some version or other of Barbie's Haptic Dream House , where you can pet little haptic Barbie pets with Barbie's hand, and feel it with yours, or feel the new Barbie Dream Carpet through Haptic Barbie's feet. Wouldn't that blur the line between reality and illusion--if you could feel what Barbie "feels"? Hey, you're scoffing now, but can you imagine what it would be like to go to sleep a hundred years ago and wake up today? Microwaves and cellphones alone would send you loopy. Haptic Barbie is not that much of a stretch. I wonder if her cellphone will come complete with haptic buttons?

Friday, March 09, 2007

Having A Look At Io And Pluto

I know I've written about some serious Earth-based stuff lately, and it might be a bit jarring to jump back out into space, but this is just so cool and interesting. I had to let you see it too. Dr. Tony Phillips, has the latest from NASA's ventures in space exploration, complete with pictures. For those of you who don't know, NASA has a spacecraft headed out to Pluto. The craft is named New Horizons, and it's carrying an eight-inch telescope called LORRI, short for Long Range Reconnaissance Imager. They're looking to snap some high resolution pics of the recently-demoted dwarf planet and its moons, sometime around 2015. To get her there on schedule, NASA decided that New Horizons needed a speed boost on the way out to the fringes of our solar system, so they swung her by Jupiter, to slingshot around the giant planet and pick up 9,000 mph of extra giddy-up. This will cut five years off the trip--well worth the detour, wouldn't you say?

Now, since New Horizons was doing a flyby of the big guy anyway, of course NASA seized the opportunity to take a few photos of Jupiter and the multiple moons hanging out in the vicinity. In fact, LORRI didn't waste any time, snapping a whole gallery of images of Io, Europa, Callisto and Ganymede. They're all interesting in their own ways, but it's Io that captured the attention of NASA's old hands. LORRI caught Io's Tvashtar volcano in fine form; the erupting plume image is the best "longtime Jupiter experts -- have ever seen." No kidding--the plume rises 180 miles above the surface of the moon! (I almost said "into the air," but that doesn't quite work on Io, now does it?) If you follow the link to the article, the photo is there for your viewing pleasure, along with a link to other pics that LORRI shot in the neighborhood.

One of the rather amazing things about this eruption on Io is what the photo shows happens when the plume gets that high in that environment. Dr. Phillips quotes Andy Cheng, a scientist from Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics Lab:

"The patchy and filamentous structure seen in the Tvashtar plume suggests to me that condensation from gas to solid particulates is occurring," he says. In other words, the gas could be crystallizing in the cold space above Io to form a kind of sulfurous snow.

Volcanoes spewing snow? It is an alien world.

Alien, indeed. In case I haven't mentioned it before (of course I have)--I want to go there!! Things are happening out there, and I'm missing them--or, at least I would be, if it weren't for New Horizons. Fortunately, LORRI was there at the right place at the right time; although, the chances were pretty good that LORRI would catch something interesting no matter when she showed up. Apparently, this kind of action isn't rare on this particular Jupitorial satellite. Io, is a rather volcanically active little guy. According to Dr. Phillips:
Gravitational forces exerted on Io by Jupiter and the other large moons raise tidal bulges in Io's solid crust 30 meters high. This flexing action, like the flexing of a paperclip, makes Io's interior molten hot and, as a result, the moon has hundreds of active volcanoes.
There's a nifty little animated graphic with Dr. Phillips' article which demonstrates all that tidal bulging. It looks a lot like a tennis ball flexing, when a video camera catches it in slow motion after it's been hit with a good strong forehand.

As New Horizons heads out to the farther reaches of our little corner of the galaxy, there are ever more discoveries to be made. Pluto awaits, and NASA plans to closely examine our little dwarf friend, and his immediate family:
"Future LORRI images of Pluto and Charon will have even more detail and higher resolution, because New Horizons will bring us at least a thousand times closer than we came to Io," notes Cheng. Of course, no one has any idea what LORRI will see, because Pluto has never been visited by a space probe. "That's why we're going."
One more interesting thing about Pluto and Charon: Wikipedia says that Pluto may get reclassified again, and Charon may come in for a bigger piece of the spotlight:
Pluto and its largest satellite, Charon, could be considered a binary system because they are closer in size than any of the other known celestial pair combinations in the solar system, and because the barycenter of their orbits does not lie within either body. However, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has yet to formalize a definition for binary dwarf planets, so Charon is currently regarded as a moon of Pluto.
It might be hard for Pluto to face yet another change in status, but then again, maybe not. Pluto and Charon are close, you know, and Pluto may be happy to see his buddy get a little more attention. Besides, being a binary system would make Pluto kind of unique, in our neck of the woods anyway, and it might compensate for getting kicked out of the big boys' club. I'm not saying that Pluto has an ego. He may be perfectly humble, but if I was recently told I couldn't hang with the cool kids anymore, it would probably make me feel better if someone made a fuss over me for awhile, especially if I got to start a new club with my best friend.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Falun Gong, And Involuntary Organ "Donation" In China

Last May I posted on an article I read in The Weekly Standard, about suspected atrocities in the treatment of Chinese practitioners of Falun Gong by the Chinese government. Falun Gong is a system of meditation and exercises designed to promote physical and spiritual health, sometimes called "Chinese Yoga." The Chinese government came to see the practice as an ideological threat, and declared it illegal in 1999. Since then, many practitioners of Falun Gong have disappeared, and there is strong suspicion that these disappearances are tied to the sale of donor organs in a growing Chinese "tourist transplant industry", with adherents to Falun Gong becoming involuntary donors, at the cost of their own lives.

When I linked to the Weekly Standard article, the U.S. State Department had dismissed the allegations, being unable to confirm any of the accusations of wrongdoing, given a very closed and controlling Chinese government's monopoly over accurate information. Since then, however, other reports have served to solidify human rights organizations' suspicions about the expanding Chinese organ transplant business. A couple of days ago, a reader here at the Meow commented on my original post, concerning the availability of more recent information, and was kind enough to come back and provide a link to "An Independent Investigation into Allegations of Organ Harvesting of Falun Gong Practitioners in China by David Matas, Esq. and Hon. David Kilgour, Esq." from July of 2006. According to their website:

David Matas is an immigration, refugee and international human rights lawyer in private practice in Winnipeg. He is actively involved in the promotion of respect for human rights as an author, speaker and participant in several human rights non‑governmental organizations.

David Kilgour is a former member of Parliament and a former Secretary of State of the Government of Canada for the Asia Pacific region. Before he became a parliamentarian, he was a Crown prosecutor.

The website includes links to media reports, and event information, as well as various language versions of their complete report on their investigation into the allegations against the Chinese government. Here is a direct link to that original report in English. Here is an updated report, published January 31, 2007. The revised report is, if anything, more direct in its concerns, although that is barely possible.

Kilgour and Matas make clear that they cannot point to any irrefutable proof that the Chinese government is actually harvesting and selling the organs of Falun Gong prisoners, because the government denies it, and tightly controls the access to official information, but the mass of unofficial information and evidence is damning. (Matas and Kilgour's work is meticulously documented.) Such evidence includes taped conversations with hospital staff, in which they used the availability of Falun Gong organs as a selling point for their transplant programs. (Ironically and tragically, the organs of Falun Gong practitioners are desirable because of the good health of the prisoners.) Further evidence is to be found in the many admissions of complicity from Chinese medical personnel. There are even statements made on Chinese hospital websites, touting the availability of live organs. The sheer volume of transplants being performed in China is a clear indication that the government has an organ supply that far outstrips the number of organs made available through accidental death or involuntary donation from non-Falun Gong prisoners. (China has no compunction, it seems, about harvesting organs from those people subjected to the death penalty by its court system, either. Those "donations" are more openly admitted, unlike the "donations" of the people who have simply disappeared throughout China for practicing their religion.) Matas and Kilgour's report also includes interviews with former Falun Gong prisoners, escaped to Canada, whose stories are heartbreaking. The compilation of history, testimony and lack of credible refutation paints a rather complete picture of a situation that warrants grave concern from the world at large, and human rights advocates in particular.

Read the entire report. It's sobering, and by no means pleasant, but extremely informative; the more people know of this, the more the information is spread worldwide, the more chance there is that the Chinese government can be made to feel outside pressure and either open the access to information and facilities, possibly clearing themselves of suspicion, or halt this barbaric treatment of its citizens, if the allegations are correct--and honestly, I think there's little doubt that practitioners of Falun Gong are being officially persecuted, and worse. The more people are aware outside the borders of China too, the more citizens can seek action from their own governments. Here in the U.S. it's a very simple matter to contact our representatives in Congress and let them know of our awareness of the situation and concern. I have no doubt that citizens throughout the free world have similar avenues open to them for expressing their concerns. I know many of us have written our government representatives for various reasons, and received the frustrating form letters that make us feel as though our concerns are ignored, but the truth is the more of us who speak up, the more the people who represent us in government pay attention to what we have to say. It's worth the effort.

Update: I wanted to include a portion of the report, for its clarification of Matas and Kilgour's position on the official involvement of the Chinese government:

The widespread corruption of official Chinese institutions raises the question whether the harvesting of Falun Gong organs for transplants, if it does occur, happens as the result of official policy or as the result of the profiteering of individual hospitals, taking advantage of the defenceless of a captive Falun Gong population in their regions. The policy of repression of the Falun Gong means that they are in prison without rights, at the disposition of corrupt authorities. The incitement to hatred against the Falun Gong and their dehumanization means that they can be butchered and killed without qualms by those who buy into this official hate propaganda.

Whether the harvesting of Falun Gong organs, if it does occur, happens as the result of official policy or unofficial corruption, is for us difficult to be absolutely certain about. Chinese officials, in theory in charge of the country, sometimes have substantial difficulty in determining whether corruption exists, let alone how to put an end to it. For us, on the outside, it is easier to form a conclusion on the result, whether or not the alleged organ harvesting occurs, than to determine whether this practice, if it exists, is the result of policy or corruption.

I don't believe this changes anything in terms of applying pressure, since the Chinese government, whether responsible or not, is the only entity with the power to change the situation, but I thought it was worth drawing out of the text in any case.

Update II: February, 2008--I have received emails, and now a comment saying that this information has been discredited. In the comment left today, Charles Liu includes links which he says disprove the allegations. I'll leave you to read them for yourself to determine how much these documents disprove, and what level of credibility you to give them. Frankly, I don't know what the truth is regarding the organ theft, and have never claimed to, but I do believe that attention should be paid to the situation. I will note, also, that even the documents this reader links do not deny that there are troubling questions, or that Falun Gong practitioners are grossly mistreated by China's government. I followed every link Mr. Liu provided, and nothing I read has convinced me thus far that the world should not continue its scrutiny of China and its treatment of these and other prisoners.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Going With The Flow

What's 16 feet wide, underwater, and a new potential source for alternative energy? Hint: It enjoys rainy days and likes to "go with the flow." Give up? It's a "tidal turbine." We've all heard of wind turbines, of course, and most of us have probably driven by the giant wind farms that have sprung up in breezy spots across America (if you live in America, that is.) Well, now there's a sort of "current farm" going into New York City's East River, in a channel where ships don't pass, but lots of water still does. According to Erik Sofge, at Popular Mechanics, "six 35-kilowatt turbines scheduled to be installed by mid-March" will be providing power to a supermarket and a parking garage, and there are plans to add hundreds more turbines, if things go well.

One of the questions this test is designed to answer is whether problems specific to the underwater location, such as barnacles, will be an impediment, or whether the giant rotors will just keep spinning. Water is a force to be reconned with, so I'm betting that current and the grinding of the turbines keep the barnacles at bay (so to speak.) With all that spinning going on, however, there's also concern for river life. This test should also determine whether the river's residents can go with the flow. The designers have tried to make the power producers fish friendly. Just as wind-turbine designs have to take into account the safety of our feathered friends, these underwater ones have beeen built with Nemo in mind. The rotors turn slowly, and have blunt edges, and hopefully that will prevent them from committing fishicide.

If all goes according to plan, and the "current farm" is expanded to full capacity, the resulting power from this one East River location could equal 10 megawatts, which Sofge says could run 4,000 homes. When that kind of potential gets extrapolated across the country, "...our rivers and estuaries could provide up to 130,000 gigawatt-hours per year — about half the yearly production of the country's dams." Sounds pretty exciting, eh? One might almost say electrifying.

Hat tip: Instapundit

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Secular Islam

There's been some discussion in the comments lately about whether Islam is capable of democratic government. I believe the pertinent question is less about democracy than it is about freedom and secularism. Democracy in an Islamic country would not ensure freedom, if the majority of the population thought that oppressing people of different beliefs or races was the right thing to do. What is necessary is secularism in government, and a commitment to respecting people's differences. I got some encouragement on that front today, from a statement released by delegates to the Secular Islam Summit, an event to be held in St. Petersburg, Florida on March 5, 2007. Here is what they have to say:

We are secular Muslims, and secular persons of Muslim societies. We are believers, doubters, and unbelievers, brought together by a great struggle, not between the West and Islam, but between the free and the unfree.

We affirm the inviolable freedom of the individual conscience. We believe in the equality of all human persons.

We insist upon the separation of religion from state and the observance of universal human rights.

We find traditions of liberty, rationality, and tolerance in the rich histories of pre-Islamic and Islamic societies. These values do not belong to the West or the East; they are the common moral heritage of humankind.

We see no colonialism, racism, or so-called “Islamaphobia” in submitting Islamic practices to criticism or condemnation when they violate human reason or rights.

We call on the governments of the world to

reject Sharia law, fatwa courts, clerical rule, and state-sanctioned religion in all their forms; oppose all penalties for blasphemy and apostacy, in accordance with Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights;

eliminate practices, such as female circumcision, honor killing, forced veiling, and forced marriage, that further the oppression of women; protect sexual and gender minorities from persecution and violence;

reform sectarian education that teaches intolerance and bigotry towards non-Muslims;

and foster an open public sphere in which all matters may be discussed without coercion or intimidation.

We demand the release of Islam from its captivity to the totalitarian ambitions of power-hungry men and the rigid strictures of orthodoxy.

We enjoin academics and thinkers everywhere to embark on a fearless examination of the origins and sources of Islam, and to promulgate the ideals of free scientific and spiritual inquiry through cross-cultural translation, publishing, and the mass media.

We say to Muslim believers: there is a noble future for Islam as a personal faith, not a political doctrine;

to Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’is, and all members of non-Muslim faith communities: we stand with you as free and equal citizens;

and to nonbelievers: we defend your unqualified liberty to question and dissent.

Before any of us is a member of the Umma, the Body of Christ, or the Chosen People, we are all members of the community of conscience, the people who must chose for themselves.

Those are great words, and I take heart in them. Now I know that there are some who will say that this Summit is happening in Florida, and not the Middle East, therefor it says nothing about the potential of that region for secular democracy or any other form of secular government, because the region/religion has a totalitarian mindset. However, I would respond that many of the signatories to the above statement are still practicing Muslims, which shows that it is possible for people to believe in Islam and also believe in freedom. It is my prayer that this understanding will spread throughout the Muslim world, and that the power of these ideas will defeat the opposing ideas of oppression and intolerance by sheer numbers and force of will. I don't know what the answer to that prayer will be, but events like the Secular Islam Summit keep me hoping.

Hat tip: Instapundit

Monday, March 05, 2007

Labels, Labels, And More Labels

Good Grief!! This day did not turn out the way I originally planned. Have you ever had a project take on a life of its own and suck you along a time-consuming path, while you watched in bewildered amazement? Well, that's what happened to me today. I never set out to spend hours and hours labelling my blog posts for the last six months, but that's the hole the day went down, and I, lulled by a belief that I could quit any time I wanted, followed blindly. I switched to the new version of Blogger a couple months ago. One of the features of the new-and-improved format is the ability to give individual posts labels, like "alternative energy" or "nanotechnology." These labels allow readers to click on a topic of interest, and the label tag will take you to a page where all the posts with that same tag will be pulled up together for easy access--the rub being that I have to go through each post individually to assign these tags.

If only I'd known what I was getting myself into. I had no idea I had written so much in the nearly-a-year that the Meow has been in business!! There are 388 posts (389, if you count this one), all demanding their own place in the new filing system. They're a vocal lot, too, let me tell you. (They inherited that from their mother.) I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed with the sheer size of the project, but I've come this far, dang it, and now it's a matter of showing the blog who's boss! My Internet connection was being oddly sluggish today, but I've made it through about two thirds of them so far. I will plug away till I have victory. Any normal person would just take things in stages, do a few at a time until the job was done, but I've never been good at letting go of a project once I start it, and I really don't like things that I feel are hanging over my head. I always spent the first two days of Christmas vacation getting my homework done, so that I could enjoy the time off without that nagging unfinished business tapping me on the back of the head.

In order to label them, I've had to skim through every post to refresh my own memory, so that I don't label something "alternative fuels" that's really a recipe for corn fritters, or something equally non sequitur. (Not that I have published any recipes, but you see what I'm getting at, right?) That stroll down memory lane has actually been a bit fun. I've gotten reminded of cool science stuff that I posted long ago, and I've gotten to see how much my approach to this blog has changed over the last year. For better or worse, I'm a lot more opinionated and wordy than I was at first. I really started the thing just so my husband didn't have to have his Inbox inundated all day with all the "interesting" things I wanted him to read. He kept telling me to start a blog, and so I finally did. What I've found over time, much to my own surprise, is that I really enjoy the writing aspect of it just as much as the reading aspect--which is why I have 388 posts to label!!

Anyway, my system isn't entirely scientific. Some labels are fairly random, but I did try to note major categories: Science, Technology, Politics, Nanotechnology, Iraq, Climate Science, Space Photos, Alternative Energy, and so on. I even started a label category called "bad ideas." It's a small category at this point, but I'm sure it will grow. Of course, there's a category called "Smart People" since they turn up so much in the Meow. I tried to make sure that I used at least one label per post that would connect it to others in the same general family tree, where that was possible. Thus far, I've made it backwards in time to July, so I only have a few months left. Some of my favorite posts have yet to be labelled; I haven't gotten to the best of the carbon nanotube articles yet. I'm looking forward to a review of that topic! I hope you find the labels useful. It will make me feel better about getting sucked down the time-consuming label hole if I can tell myself I did it all for you. I'll only be lying to myself a little.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Global Warming--On Mars

Both Mars and Earth are experiencing Global Warming right now. Did you know that? Earth ain't the only one of Sol's satellites experiencing climate change. The polar ice cap at Mars' south pole is melting, and if there were people on the Red Planet, they would be turning down the thermostat. Of course, if there were people on the Red Planet, they would be the default setting in explaining why Mars is getting less chilly--people burning things is, after all, getting most of the credit for influencing Earth's climate these days--but there are no pesky humans on Mars, so what's the deal? Planets don't just warm up on their own, now do they? Is there some reason for both planets to be experiencing their own little heat waves in sync, or are their mutual bikini days strictly a case of freaky happenstance, like when you and your best friend both turn up at the same restaurant, in the same dress, at the same time, but with different reservations?

Well, there are people involved in figuring that out, so you can bet there are conflicting opinions. Kate Ravilious, at National Geographic News, is reporting that "mainstream scientific opinion" is dismissing any connection between the warming of the Earth and the warming of Mars, laying it down to coincidence, since the majority of climate scientists believe that Earth is being warmed by greenhouse gasses and Mars' is being warmed by a possible wobble in his orbit of the Sun. There is another perspective coming out of Russia, however:

Habibullo Abdussamatov, head of the St. Petersburg's Pulkovo Astronomical Observatory in Russia, says the Mars data is evidence that the current global warming on Earth is being caused by changes in the sun.

"The long-term increase in solar irradiance is heating both Earth and Mars," he said.

Abdussamatov believes that changes in the sun's heat output can account for almost all the climate changes we see on both planets.

Mars and Earth, for instance, have experienced periodic ice ages throughout their histories.

"Man-made greenhouse warming has made a small contribution to the warming seen on Earth in recent years, but it cannot compete with the increase in solar irradiance," Abdussamatov said.

By studying fluctuations in the warmth of the sun, Abdussamatov believes he can see a pattern that fits with the ups and downs in climate we see on Earth and Mars.

Abdussamatov believes that the irradiance of the Sun has been dropping since the 1990s, and that it will be reaching it's lowest point sometime around 2040, causing "a steep cooling of the climate on Earth in 15 to 20 years." Abdussamatov is the head of the space research sector of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and he's made the pages of the Meow before. I've written about Russian scientists predicting the onset of Global Cooling, and Abdussamatov's belief that efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions should be put on hold for the next century or so, because the fluctuations in Earth's temperature are part of natural cycles resulting from variations in the Sun's temperature, and Abdussamatov says the Sun's going to turn down the heat, and won't be making things get this toasty again until some time in the 22nd century. As Ravilious explains in her National Geographic article, he sees the concurrent warming on Mars as support for his theories about warming, and cooling, on Earth.

So, who's right, Abdussamatov or the many scientists who support the theory of anthropogenic global warming? We don't know yet. Despite the authority of "mainstream scientific opinion," the scientific community is by no means united on this topic, and more scientific observation will be required to make a definite determination. As Michael Crichton has noted, "science" and "consensus" are not equivalent terms, and theories like those of Habibullo Abdussamatov cannot be ignored if man-made global warming theory is to be found credible over the long term. Can Mars' temperature spike be due to a wobbly orbit? Of course, that's possible. Can it be due to an increase in solar radiation, which is also raising the heat index here on Terra? Yes, that's possible, too. It would be great to see the scientific community investigating Abdussamatov's theories, rather than dismissing them. If experiments and observation prove Abdussamatov correct, then they will have determined one of the contributing factors to our climate's ups and downs. If they prove false, then they will have something they can strike from their "possible causes" list with assurance, instead of with the ill-defined repudiation that comes from refusing to acknowledge a possibility because it is in conflict with what they themselves hold to be true.

Things are warming up on Earth and Mars at the same time. Abdussamatov believes that the causes are the same in both cases: The Sun's got a lot of power, and he's flexing his muscles. On it's face, this is a reasonable argument, since our planet gets all the heat that keeps us alive from this source. It makes sense that shifts in the amount of heat the Sun is throwing our way would send our thermometers on a little joy ride. It's simple and logical, and meets Occam's razor (from this non scientist's perspective, anyway.) If one is not already in the "humans are the catalyst" camp, Abdussamatov's theories seem at least worth investigating. However, we are told by "mainstream scientific opinion" that they are not viable, that Mars and Earth are separate cases, influenced by disparate powers, and we can strike the Sun off the list of possible climate culprits.

I would like to understand why, and I'm sure I'm not alone. So, I'll put in a request as a representative from the non-scientific community. I would like to see the evidence that Earth and Mars cannot be linked in this way, and a deeper exploration of why this theory, among others, doesn't work. Run experiments that will confirm the dismissal of conflicting theories. Publish those experiments with explanations a layperson can understand. If we are to discount the conclusions of everyone who comes up with an alternative theory to man-made global warming, why we should discount those conclusions warrants a fuller explanation, complete with experimental evidence, to those of us who are counting on the scientists to get it right. I don't have a whole lot of hope that these experiments and explanations are forthcoming, because we have long passed into the "this is fact because everybody who's important agrees" stage of the climate discussion, but it is what we should be demanding from the people who could influence the course of human development. Earth and Mars have the same heat source, and they are warming at the same time. Abdussamatov says he knows the reason why. Want to convince me Abdussamatov is wrong? Prove it--with verifiable experiments. Want to convince the world that man is the cause of global warming? Prove it--with verifiable experiments, not "everybody knows this." Everybody knew the Earth was flat, too. Not good enough.

Update: This is interesting. Apparently, there is global warming occurring on Jupiter, Saturn, Pluto, Venus, Enceladus and Triton, as well. Just thought I'd pass it on as more food for thought. (I apologize for the snarkiness of the graphics, but I thought the information was worth a gander.)

Friday, March 02, 2007

Pics In Space--The Eye Of God Edition

I just got back from my monthly tour of space, with the MSNBC Space Slide Show, and I want to go again!! Really, I mean it. The phrase that kept popping to mind as I wandered through the images of planets and nebulas and galaxies (oh my!!) is, "I want to go there!!" I want to jump on a rocket-ship right now, one with time-condensing capabilities, and head out into the galaxy, to explore to my heart's content. Of course, my feet are pretty firmly planted in reality, and I know that the chances of me making it off the planet, while I'm still young enough to enjoy it, are so slim as to be put logically in the "impossible" category, but I'm not giving up hope long-term.

I had a pastor once who used to talk about space, and about the possibilities of intelligent alien life in the universe. When people would say there had to be other life out there, because all of that creation couldn't just be for the view from Earth, and what a waste that would be, his response basically boiled down to, "It's not going to be wasted. That's for later!!" He figured that part of our eternity was going to be spent exploring the vastness of creation, and seeing all the wonders up close that we can only glimpse from afar right now. I've always liked that notion--the idea that I'll get to indulge my passion for space some day, unhindered by physical limitations and time constraints. I don't know whether that pastor was right, but for now I'm going to let myself dream in that direction, and part of that dreaming is enjoying the wonderful pictures provided each month by NASA, the European Space Agency, the Cassini Spacecraft, and all the other contributors to MSNBC's glimpse into the glory that exists "out there."

Let me entice you with a few of the images that await you, should you choose to journey with me into space, via the monthly gift of MSNBC's slide show. You'll be greeted right away by the stunning sight of a Nebula that amateur astronomers have dubbed "The Eye of God." Simply amazing. From there, you'll cruise on to many wondrous places, both far and near. You'll see rockets surging toward the heavens, galaxies swirling in the great beyond, absolutely incredible Martian terrain, frosted in its bitter cold, and etched by the Martian winds. You'll come upon a colorful Supernova, and a true color picture of the planet Mars that will remind you what an artist God is. Our own Earth gets the chance to show her true colors, as well. Banded sand dunes reveal how very alien our own planet can be, and you'll get a look at the power our weather has to transform our world. You'll go flying with an astronaut-in-training, another of the new breed, a paying passenger who is about to travel to the International Space Station for a visit. You could probably go too--anybody have a spare $20 million? My favorite photo this time around is one of right here at home. It's a splendidly colorful image of the Mississippi River Delta that looks like an abstract painting with all the glowing pigment and indefinable motion of the river carving its way through the fertile land to the depths of the sea.

Feel like taking the trip now? Head on over, and then come back and tell me which place you'd most like to go if you got the chance. Personally, I'd visit 'em all. I sure hope my pastor was right!!