Monday, October 27, 2008

Mars Science Laboratory: a new landing system

The Mars Science Laboratory (launching in 2009) will be using a completely new method of delivering the lander to the surface. Technology Review has an excellent Adobe Flash video showing the whole landing sequence. It also notes that this technology can be scaled up for larger, more complex projects.


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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Atheism advertising on U.K. buses uses second-rate aphorism

There's been a bit of talk about some bus advertising in the U.K. which was purchased by groups friendly to atheism. But it's not much fuel for freethought. The slogan is as follows:
"There's probably no God. Now, stop worrying and enjoy your life."
One question I'd like to ask is whether this is the probability from expectation, or the probability from observation. The prior probability just says, given what we've interpreted about life's experiences, God's existence does not match our intuitions. The latter probability just says, given our observations, the data does not support the existence of God. Now just what would those observations be? Unless someone makes one of the Abrahamic religions a foil for his or her philosophy of life, there are many metaphysical systems that could account for some pet set of observations, thus allowing there to still be a God -- or, even stronger, that those observations would actually be supportive for evidence for a certain kind of God.

An example might be helpful to express my position. Lots of people think that since there is so much suffering imposed on humans by nature (diseases, disasters, etc.), and so many morally bad things imposed on humans by one another (murder, rape, etc.), this screwed-up world is not compatible with the existence of God. Well, actually the state of affairs of the world might be easily compatible with the existence of God, if God is not involved or attentive to human affairs. But that's the problem, for most people want to presume certain attributes on God -- i.e., they want to do theology -- and do so in ways that somehow define God as attentive to the affairs of humans. But that's not observation. That's faith.

I'm not sure what are the probabilities of there being a God (or not), but I'm pretty sure the atheists don't have a clue about those numbers either.

Here's another odd thing: Apparently, given the phrasing of the message, the assessment of significant probabilities of God's existence is supposed to have made people worry or not enjoy life. Is that an empirical claim? Again -- were there several correlating studies that showed people who assess the odds of God's existence as significant or high were somehow found to be more worried or more sad? Ironically, a review of more than 40 scientific studies has found quite the opposite.[1]

Look, I'm the first to point out stupid, irrational, or fanatical religious patterns of thought. I'm even paid to do so. But this bus advertising aphorism isn't doing freethinking any favors.


[image] Jon Worth Euroblog (Accessed October 27, 2008)

[1] "Religious People Live Longer Than Nonbelievers" Millennium Magazine September 8, 2008 (Accessed October 27, 2008)


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Batteries, vs. Gas, vs. Hydrogen

Here's an interesting quote which puts some perspective onto three different energy technologies:
"Although they're improving, batteries still store far less energy than fuels such as gasoline and hydrogen store in the form of chemical bonds. The best batteries store about 300 watt-hours of energy per kilogram, Lewis says, while gasoline stores 13,000 watt-hours per kilogram. "The numbers make it obvious that chemical fuels are the only energy-dense way to obtain massive energy storage," Lewis says. Of those fuels, not only is hydrogen potentially cleaner than gasoline, but by weight it stores much more energy--about three times as much, though it takes up more space because it's a gas."[1]
Granted the economy is bad right now, mostly due to heinous mismanagment of risk by banks and mortgage lenders, and to lax oversight by government; but, I'm optimistic that the next economic expansion will come from some breakthrough in cheap energy technology -- and sooner rather than later. There are so many things going on in that field right now, that something's certain to come thru in the end. I suspect it will be some combination of solar technology which is used to produced hydrogen gas, which can then be stored for later use. Photo-voltaic technology would only have to be efficient enough to make it worth while to scale up in order to apply it to the hydrogen splitting problem.


[1] Kevin Bullis "Sun + Water = Fuel" Technology Review Nov./Dec. 2008 (Accessed October 25, 2008)


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Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Brain Unveiled

Over at technology review (an online journal published by MIT), there's a short video (Adobe Flash player required) showcasing a new MRI imaging method which offers pretty snazzy views of neural structures.


[image] SciSeek Blog (Accessed October 25, 2008)

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Oxytocin: love potion #9.1

Supposed you were to pick-out an arbitrary person from your country. Would you trust them? The development of trust is essential for appropriate social interactions, thus why Paul Zak investigates how people come to trust one another. There is a neurochemical, oxytocin, which influences an individual's propensity to trust a stranger under neutral conditions.[1] Oxytocin has been identified as relevant to a whole host of activities, and probably also to the advantages of social ties:
"Social ties are known to reduce morbidity and mortality, and those who engage in more social interactions are less stressed physiologically. Animal models identify a prominent role for the neuroactive hormone oxytocin (OT) in facilitating various social behaviors, including social recognition, maternal attachment, and, in some species, pair bonding. Recent work has demonstrated that oxytocin infusion and social support during public speaking reduces stress responses."[2]
So where does this magic neurochemical come from? "Oxytocin is a nine amino acid peptide that is synthesized in hypothalamic neurons and transported down axons of the posterior pituitary for secretion into blood. [It] is "also secreted within the brain and from a few other tissues."[3] The hypothalamus releases oxytocin into the blood by means of the pituitary gland, though it can also be delivered directly to parts of the brain or spinal cord, there binding with special oxytocin receptors which allow it to influence physiology and behavior.[4]

After understanding at least some of the natural effects of oxytocin, the question of whether it can be artificially administered to affect behavior or solve some medical problem becomes an issue. There are some studies on harnassing oxytocin for medical use:
"Adults diagnosed with autism or Asperger's disorder who received oxytocin injections showed an improved ability to identify emotional content on a speech comprehension task, while those on a placebo did not.[4]"
Eric Hollander, the medical doctor doing this research, thinks such "findings suggest that oxytocin might facilitate social information processing in those with autism, and provide preliminary support for the use of oxytocin in the treatment of autism."[4]

Another interesting theory on the effects of oxytocin comes from Sue Carter, co-director of the Brain Body Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Oxytocin, acting in part through effects on the autonomic nervous system, might allow what other researchers have termed, 'immobility without fear.' She writes, "In other words, oxytocin may in general protect the nervous system from shutting down in the face of stressful circumstances, especially those that require holding still rather than fighting or fleeing."[4]

Given the above observation, perhaps well-timed injections of oxytocin would be of benefit to military members hoping to control stress during combat operations. The military is well known to use pharmaceuticals to enhance mission effectiveness, and this might be one more opportunity for such activity. Oddly enough, such use might also have the side-effect of making the soldier-recipients of these injections more trusting, generous, and social than they might otherwise be,[5] thus changing their whole attitude in evaluating the threat-level of enemy forces. "Make love, not war; do unto others, dude," is hardly an effective battle cry.



[1] Paul J. Zak "The Neurobiology of Trust" Scientific American (May 2008), p.95

[2] Paul J. Zak, Robert Kurzban, and William Matzner "The Neurobiology of Trust" New York Academy of Sciences. (2004) 1032: 224–227 (Accessed 10/16/2008)

[3] "Oxytocin" Hypertexts for Biomedical Sciences (Accessed 10/16/2008)

[4] Tori DeAngelis "The two faces of oxytocin" Monitor on Psychology 39:2 February 2008. (Accessed 10/16/2008)

[5] "Can oxytocin promote trust and generosity?" Monitor on Psychology 39:2 February 2008. (Accessed 10/16/2008)

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Femella-Redneckius, ecology and courtship rituals of

* Domain: Eukaryota
* Kingdom: Animalia
* Phylum: Chordata
* Class: Mammalia
* Order: Primate
* Family: Hominidae
* Genus: Homo
* Species: Homo Sapien
* Subspecies: Homo sapiens sapiens
* Subsubspecies: femella-redneckius

Description: Femella-Redneckius are usually found inhabiting sparsely populated semi-urban centers. Specifically, they congregate in herds-usually on Friday and Saturday night- around places such as the Dixie Dog hot dog stand, any local bar that serves underage drinkers, field parties, and especially VFW dances. Prime mating time extends from after the bar closes until the early morning hours.

Femella-Redneckius are known for their incredibly low self esteem. Potential mates who exploit this fact are most likely to "score" with femalla-redeckius. Femella-Redneckius are also notorious for their vanity and inability to plan wisely for their future(s). When told from outsiders that their (alleged) looks will not last, they usually respond with derision or feigned apathy. Thus, most end up in less than optimal marriage arrangements, and usually to unreliable partners whom often turn out to be "stealth seeders" for future generations of Femellia-Redneckia. (see also niveus purgamentum puella)


[image] Oklahoma Star Archives (click image above for larger version) -- Written on the back of the photo "1973, VFW Hall," snapped during the visit to Oklahoma City by a locally appreciated punk band.

[analysis] Special guest writer, David "The Beatnik" Spindle.


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Saturday, October 04, 2008

Robot Emotive Expression (MDS project at MIT)

The Mobile Dexterous Social Robot (MDS) project out of MIT has developed the above video showing its latest model. I have seen earlier research[1] on robotic facial mechanisms, and this project is an extension of that research. Note that although we clearly know this is an artifact, it automatically plays on our lower level facial processing abilities for its uncanny effect. Part of its allure is that it changes "expressions" at a human-like pace too. Thus, our brains are tricked into imparting emotive content to the basic movement of the parts of the robot's "face".[2]


1. "The speaking robot @ MIT" YouTube Dec. 6, 2006. (Accessed Oct. 4, 2008) - This video is interesting because of the level of emotion and communication which is automatically imparted upon the (more primitive, but related) robot by museum visitors.

2. "Official MDS Robot Video - First Test of Expressive Ability" YouTube April 15, 2008. (Accessed Oct. 4, 2008) -- Another, but more corporate-like video showing similar abilities of the MDS robot.


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