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All posts by YooperSkeptic

Nathan is a web developer by day, and a wanna-be musician by night. (Actually, he gets a lot of web work done at night 'cause the phone stops ringing so dang much.) Raised on science fiction and taught to have a skeptical mind by a forensic chemist father, Nathan has long had a love for asking questions and pursuing the truth.

Free Energy!

Okay, not quite. But certainly free-er in the sense that it could let you make do with other’s energy scraps. What the heck am I talking about? (Don’t worry, sometimes I wonder too.) The point of this particular rambling is a new device that captures ambient electromagnetic energy to power small electronic devices. Some folks have recently found a way to tap into the energy transmitted by power sources like radio and television transmitters, cell phone networks, and satellite communication systems. This energy has become more and more pervasive as our devices have proliferated, and it now looks like we may be able to use the spill-over from all of this broadcast energy to power our device’s microprocessors and communications chips.

Manos Tentzeris, a professor at Georgia Tech, is leading the research and says, “There is a large amount of electromagnetic energy all around us, but nobody has been able to tap into it. We are using an ultra-wideband antenna that lets us exploit a variety of signals in different frequency ranges, giving us greatly increased power-gathering capability.”

And the coolness doesn’t stop there… Tentzeris and his fellow researches are using inkjet printers to combine sensors, antennas, etc. on paper or flexible polymers. The devices can capture energy, convert it from AC to DC, then store it in capacitors and batteries. They can so far take advantage of frequencies from FM radio to radar (100 MHz to 15 GHz or higher.) Once I can start printing this kind of thing, the price of the ink I keep having to put in my printer might start to seem worth it.

A presentation on this technology was given on July 6th, at the IEEE Antennas and Propagation Symposium in Spokane, Washington.

This was actually a fun few weeks in science… in other news, it turns out that Polar Bears are Irish.

Taking Social Networking Into the “Real” World…

At the recent IEEE International Conference on Distributed Computing Systems (ICDCS)  in Minneapolis, Dong Xuan (associate professor of computer science and engineering at Ohio State University) introduced a smartphone App called eShadow that uses nearby wireless networks and smartphones’ wireless communications to tell users that a friend who also uses the software is nearby,  and even gives directions to that friend’s location. At first blush this seems a natural extension of social trends like foursquare and Yelp, which utilize the geolocation of an individual to interact with others online. Social networking is about interacting, so meeting in the “real world” would seem an obvious next step.

Actually, before I thought about that, I had to force myself to get past the similarity of Xuan’s name to Don Juan, and how a character like Juan could really benefit from an App that helped him pick up women. Is it just me, or does it seem that quite often the name given of a scientist in a study being covered in the news contains an irony fitting to that particular study? If it’s a study on mating habits of Chimps, the lead scientist’s name will be Ben Dover or something like that. I haven’t done a formal study on this, but one should be done. The coincidence seems unlikely. Anyway, back to the actual topic…

The researchers working on eShadow stated that their biggest challenge had to do with efficient use of the wireless signals. They had to develop algorithms that let the phones send and receive signals quickly to keep from clogging up the network. When tested on the Ohio State campus, eShadow took an average of 25 seconds to connect two users who were 20 to 50 yards apart, and 35 seconds for seven users.

Apparently Xuan suggested a military application for the software, allowing soldiers to locate each other on the battlefield. I’m a bit skeptical about the usefulness there, as it would also allow the enemy to easily lead soldiers into traps with a bit of hacking.

Despite my normal skeptical eye through which I peek at most new products (software included) I think that Xuan and his team are on to something with eShadow. As someone who’s developed websites professional for a bunch of years now, I’ve done a lot of following of online technology as it develops, and a lot of speculation on where it’s likely to lead to. What I’ve seen is that the success of a device/application is almost always directly connected to the ease of the interface. It doesn’t end up mattering if there’s a point to doing something – as long as you can make it easy to do, people will do it. (Twitter comes to mind.) A good example is the success of devices like the iPhone with touchscreens, over the old BlackBerry and Newton. The iPhone improved on the miniscule buttons that hamfisted guys like me couldn’t manage. But many of the tasks are the same, while admittedly a bit more developed.

What eShadow is hinting at is the world where we can automate a good deal of our societal interactions. We’ve seen this in science fiction for some time. There’s already been a progression from desktop to laptop to handheld, and the next logical steps are visual and then actual brain interfaces. (And people are definitely already working on that.)

My hope is that by the time software like eShadow is ubiquitous, that someone takes into consideration the role that chance plays in social interactions. Software can easily match up likes and dislikes, sorting us like a bunch of library index cards, but with us humans it’s not always the best way to find others that we hit it off with. It could be that your next best friend or partner for life is someone who has opposite viewpoints and tastes, or even somewhere in the spectrum between same and opposite. Once we have algorithms that can make sense of us on that level, things will really begin to change in interesting ways.

If you’d like to learn more:

E-Shadow: Lubricating Social Interaction using Mobile Phones

Climate Change vs. Evolution

According to a UC Davis study, plants and animals may not possess the capability of adapting fast enough to survive the threat of climate change. (The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.) I read about the study in a UC Davis website news post titled Can evolution outpace climate change?

The particular critter featured in the study was the tide pool copepod Tigriopus californicus, a tiny shrimp-like animal found between Alask and Baja California, and the primary focus of the study was whether they could evolve a tolerance to increased temperature. Morgan Kelly, a UC Davis grad student collected copepods from eight different locations and grew them in the lab for 10 generations, under increasing heat to see if natural selection would produce more heat-tolerant progeny. They apparently failed to do so.

UC Davis Professor Rick Grosberg concludes that this study implies widespread species don’t have enough genetic capacity to work with in order to adapt to climate change, and also blames human interference with disrupting and fragmenting habitats to the point of damaging the ability for many species to survive. Grosberg believes that many species are already at their “environmental limits” and that natural selection won’t necessarily save them.

Now, I’m not an evolutionary biologist, and I don’t even play one on TV. But I found myself with a lot of questions while reading the article. Whatever your political views on global warming, it’s fairly obvious that the Earth is constantly in a state of climate change in that the climate is, well, always changing. There are long and short cycles, but there is a form of chaos inherent to the process. This is why forecasting the weather is still so difficult. Lets also assume for the moment that we are on an upward trend in global temperature. I don’t want to get into the debate on whether it’s caused by man, or is part of a natural trend. What I find myself wondering is how this study applies to evolution as a whole.

Many more studies would have to be done to show any sort of evidence of a multi-species trend in a lack of ability to adapt to conditions, but my understanding of evolution and natural selection is that climate is often the major driving force. It’s also my understanding that it’s not about all the existing species finding some way to “upgrade” to the right hardware to get them through another year. Individual living things die, species die, and as a whole, life evolves to fit the new environment because what doesn’t fit is no longer around.

Climate change isn’t new. Around 2.4 billion years ago, Earth’s atmosphere had practically no oxygen. Life as we know it would have found it a toxic environment. Evidence indicates that back then, the planet was home to scattered smatterings of shallow-water, photosynthetic microbes that produced oxygen as waste. After enough of this waste built up, toxic to life common to that time, adaptations allowed new branches of life to flourish which could make use of this new environment. (See “Learning to Live With Oxygen on Early Earth”.) The rate of the change in environment will obviously have an effect on the particulars of which species change and which die, but it doesn’t easily change the process itself.

So while the study may do a good job at proving that Tigriopus californicus may not be around for the long haul, I fail to see how it indicates anything like what the main thrust of the commentary seemed to be. I find myself wondering if it’s not a case of confirmation bias involving political views.

(NOTE: this is intended to be an opinion piece not a scientific claim – whether you agree or disagree I invite you to comment and include your own thoughts, especially if you have additional science/evidence to bring with you.)

Wireless Power

At the recent D9 tech conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, Meredith Perry and Nora Dweck demonstrated their ability to send electrical power ultrasonically (beyond the range of human ears) with their prototype device. In this case we’re talking about a “proof of concept” version sending about a quarter of a watt over a three foot distance. The idea is to provide a device that would be like wifi but for electrical power instead of Internet access.

They company they have created to work on their idea is called uBeam.  (Upon first glance at the company name, two mutated memes instantly began competing in my brain. The “iBeam, uBeam, we allBeam for iBeam” line and of course Apple-ish little letter followed by a capitalized word. Whether those are actually memes, and whether memes actually exist, I’ll save for a future post.) Anyway, I was attracted to this story because a few years ago I started wondering why we couldn’t use the Earth’s magnetic field as a kind of carrier wave to provide truly comprehensive Internet access everywhere on the planet. Not the same thing, but it reminded me of it nonetheless.

Despite it’s geek appeal, there seem to be some fundamental problems with the technology. One easy one to notice is that when her hand blocks the signal the power drops off in a big way. Sort of like the problem that clouds pose for ground based solar power collectors. Altering the distance between emitter and receiver even a few inches also appears to have a large noticeable effect, which makes sense since a sound wave rapidly loses energy as it travels from it’s source. (This is why it’s hard to hear someone waaaaaay over there as opposed to right here.)

I found it interesting to learn after some Googling that wireless power isn’t all too new a dream. Nikola Tesla tried to make this happen over a hundred years ago.

A more recent attempt at this same goal, from back in 2008, was Intel’s use of magnetic waves to light a 60 watt bulb from about three feet. This direction has been more fruitful so far, leading to neat ways to power your electric toothbrush and cell phone.

Everyone’s a Believer

While surfing the interwebs today I stumbled across a Scientific American blog post titled, How Do You ID a Dead Osama? which caught my attention, but not just for the subject, which I had found myself pondering previously. (Say those last two words five times fast.) The question the author leads with, “But how do they know it’s him?” got me to thinking about conversations I’ve had in the past on the concept of proof.

As a skeptic, who was previously a fundamentalist Christian, the idea of proof has come up frequently. What I’ve noticed is that we all have our own opinion of what “enough” evidence is in order to qualify as “proof” of something. If you’re smart, you’ll hitch your opinion to something strong like Science so that you don’t have to carry the weight of argument all on your own. But even then, variation abounds. (And you can lessen the weight even by hitching to things not so strong, as long as there are enough others that share it who you can fall back on.) Depending on whether you want to believe something or not, your required level of proof will increase or decrease. I would argue that this is directly a result of confirmation bias. So, the question to me seemed to be “is there an objective level of proof that is really proof?”

Lets say I believe a tree that I’m looking at has orange leaves. I look at it, the leaves look orange, so it seems like a no brainer. So I don’t think of it in terms of my believing that the leaves are red, it’s just a fact. Then you come along, and because you can never leaf me alone you tell me that you’re sure the leaves are green. After wondering if you’re on crack, I tell you that you’re wrong. You start giving me reasons to back up your position. You tell me that most trees have green leaves. You tell me that it’s the middle of June and that Fall hasn’t started yet. All good logical arguments that would seem to back up your position. If you’re convincing enough, I may start to doubt my initial observation in favor of the weight of your arguments. You may at some point “prove” to me that you’re right. So where is the objectivity regarding proof? It could go the other way, given my charm, and I may convince you the leaves are really green. We both feel that it would take enough proof from the other in order to change our minds.

If proof is an arbitrary measurement of reality, I’m not so sure we should be so hung up on proving things to each other. At the end of the day, it would seem to come down to belief. For everything that requires our brain to sign off on an opinion, we each have an equation that helps us get through the moment. Some things provide better (or more voluminous) proof by gathering more consistent details, but if they fail to convince everyone who learns of them can they be called proof?

This was also likely called to mind because I’m in the middle of reading The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the mind and the myth of the self by Thomas Metzinger. One section of which jumped out at me…

The world is not inhabited by colored objects at all. It is just as your physics teacher in high school told you: Out there, in front of your eyes, there is just an ocean of electromagnetic radiation, a wild and raging mixture of different wavelengths. Most of them are invisible to you and can never become part of your conscious model of reality. What is really happening is that the visual system in your brain is drilling a tunnel through this inconceivably rich physical environment and in the process is painting the tunnel walls in various shades of color. Phenomenal color. Appearance. For your conscious eyes only.

So add on top of confirmation bias the problem of perception (being forever trapped behind a time-delayed interpretive model) and how can we ever truly know a dang thing?

Some people might consider this a reason to not worry about proof, and to just hold hands and accept any reality our neighbor claims is there. But not me, I’m stubborn. (And, as my two failed marriages lend evidence to, sometimes slow to learn.) In any case, I can’t help but continue to feel that it’s a question of understanding ourselves. And that the more we learn, the closer we can get to understanding Universe. (Multiverse, whatever.)

Oh, and since I brought it up, the evidence used to prove that we got the right Osama was a combination of a DNA test (99.9% percent confidence) and facial recognition software (about 95% certainty). Probably certain enough for most folks, though I won’t doubt in the least that there will be plenty who claim he’s still alive and out there somewhere ready to direct the next attack because the aforementioned evidence isn’t “enough” for various reasons.

While trying to consider a moral to this story I thought maybe I would say that it’s that we should be more tolerant of others beliefs. But that seems to much like the end of a South Park episode. I think my suggested take away here would be to encourage you to examine your own decisions on what constitutes proof, particularly in situations of debate.

A new product that’s the bee’s knees!

I wasn’t sure where to start in finding the topic for my first post here. (By the way, hello!) My problem was solved, however, while listening to the local Public Radio station in my car the other night. The program that was on was CBC’s As It Happens. Aside from their having a pretty nifty and hip theme song, I’ve liked this program because of the conversational approach to the news they cover. In any case, what caught my ear was a five minute segment about the Bee Station.

Some quick background – I own a business, and sell websites to make a living. As a result, I don’t begrudge anyone coming up with products to sell.  Hurray for capitalism. However, what bugs me about what I heard was the marketing angle. It turns out that I do have a problem when people try to cash in on fear. I also have a problem with people selling something that won’t do what they claim it will do.

The Bee Station is supposedly a way you can help your friendly neighborhood bees by providing a nest and feeding stop for them on their busy routes. Explaining his product, Jamie Hutchinson (designer of the Bee Station) tells the show’s hosts that because bees have been dying, the remaining ones are working harder. His website repeats the point…

Our bees are dying at an alarming rate and the remaining bees are working twice as hard to keep our planet alive.

That was the first thing that made me tip my head and think “huh?” The questions that came to mind were along the lines of, “how do the surviving bees know they’re supposed to be working twice as hard?” and “is there some kind of bee work quota that they are trying to maintain?” In my admittedly limited understanding of bees, it seemed to me that a bee will work as hard as it needs to in order to survive and support the hive, with no regard to the situation of other bees or any danger to humans. When I contacted him for his opinion, Eric Mussen, Extension Apiculturist at UC Davis agreed.

So bees are not like a marathon runner (an analogy used in the radio interview) in need of an energy drink because they’re running twice as hard. The emotional buildup continued in Jamie’s interview, as it does on their website…

Our bees are dying at an alarming rate and without them we’re in real trouble. Our food, clothes and very survival depends heavily on the pollination carried out by this little, stripy workforce.

For those of you playing the skeptic game at home, you should have several logical fallacy points racked up by now. In general, the arguments that I heard made on the radio program were an appeal to emotion. The website also paints a similar picture… it’s not just the bees that need to be saved, you need to save your wife and children! Quick buy this product now!!! If you don’t, we’ll be naked, hungry and then dead! Along with cashing in on the concern for dying bees, the appeal to fear is made by pointing out that without bees our whole world will come crashing down. The final pitch is then made with an appeal to flattery.

The Bee Station is your chance to help our bees… The Bee Station is the perfect gift for anyone with an interest in the environment or design.

So, if you buy buy this product you can feel good about yourself. You’ll have saved the bees, and by extension, the world. (Or given the same as a gift.) In reality, there are better ways to make a difference. An expert I contacted at the USDA-ARS Bee Research Laboratory agreed that flower planting (in particular, planting a diverse range of types of flowers) would make more sense, and that feeding stations were likely not the answer.

Eric seemed to feel similarly, and told me that honey bees don’t cluster outside the hive (which would seem then to mean they don’t need a Steve Jobs looking rest stop). If the main use of this product is acting as a feeder, there are definitely less expensive ways to provide sugar syrup to honey bees.

And seriously, looking at the above picture, can’t you just imagine next year’s hottest product from Apple… the iBee? It would connect wirelessly to the Internet and regularly update a Twitter page with the number of bees, local weather, etc. (Mr. Jobs, if you make this I expect some kind of compensation.)

Anyway, back to my main point… the interview was difficult to listen to because it was deceptive, and was intended to get people thinking they were making a difference by spending their money. In my mind this is akin to homeopathy. The true danger is in preventing someone from doing anything actually beneficial. You want to help save the bees? Plant some bee friendly flowers. Get started by buzzing over to the Pollinator Partnership’s Pollinator Friendly Planting Guides website. (And be thankful that I didn’t find a way to work a popular Beatles song title into this article! The temptation was strong…)

More information…

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