Recently in Science, Technology & Health Category


It would sure be exciting if these space tests of the EmDrive work.

The EmDrive, a hypothetical miracle propulsion system for outer space, has been sparking heated arguments for years. Now, Guido Fetta plans to settle the argument about reactionless space drives for once and for all by sending one into space to prove that it really generates thrust without exhaust.

Even if mainstream scientists say this is impossible.

Fetta is CEO of Cannae Inc, and inventor of the Cannae Drive. His creation is related to the EmDrive first demonstrated by British engineer Roger Shawyer in 2003. Both are closed systems filled with microwaves with no exhaust, yet which the inventors claim do produce thrust. There is no accepted theory of how this might work. Shawyer claims that relativistic effects produce different radiation pressures at the two ends of the drive, leading to a net force. Fetta pursues a similar idea involving Lorentz (electromagnetic) forces. NASA researchers have suggested that the drive is actually pushing against "quantum vacuum virtual plasma" of particles that shift in and out of existence.

Most physicists believe these far-out systems cannot work and that their potential benefits, such as getting to Mars in ten weeks, are illusory. After all, the law of conservation of momentum says that a rocket cannot accelerate forward without some form of exhaust ejected backwards. Yet the drumbeat goes on. Just last month, Jose Rodal claimed on the NASA Spaceflight forum that a NASA paper, "Measurement of Impulsive Thrust from a Closed Radio Frequency Cavity in Vacuum" has finally been peer-reviewed and accepted for publication by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, but this cannot be confirmed yet.


This XKCD comic captures many implications about the nonlinearity of software.

tasks.png

A person who is smart and experienced in other areas can find it very difficult to adjust his intuition to the software landscape.


Reading news about Zika victims is completely heartbreaking. Say a prayer for the children and families affected. Protecting public health should be a top priority for any government, and I urge American officials to take whatever actions are necessary to combat this disease.


Paracelsus said "the dose makes the poison", and it appears that low doses of radiation may actually be beneficial, similar to the way other moderate stresses can strengthen your body.

This molecular skirmish appears to invigorate the organism. Various findings point towards the conclusion that moderate stress of any kind is advantageous. Roundworms fed small amount of arsenic live longer. People who indulge in moderate levels of alcohol have reduced risks of heart attacks, diabetes and Alzheimer's according to epidemiological studies.

Yet these blessings do seem to be coupled with notable damage to genomes. But this is as true of exercise as it is for other sources of stress. "Even when you jog," says Wetzker, "the genomes in your cells come under attack." In this instance, the impact leads to muscles being strengthened.

Wetzker hypothesizes that there is a universal principle when it comes to stress response, namely that the body can acclimatize to -- or even requires -- any kind of moderate challenge. "After a few weeks in a cast, your muscles are withered." The body needs to be regularly pushed, even with radioactivity.

Wetzker, of course, admits that caution is required when it comes to nuclear radiation. It is too difficult to calculate doses and effects. Experiments on people to gain better insights are out of the question. The researcher believes, however, that there are ill people who would be willing to accept a small amount of risk.

Much of what we "know" is wrong.


UnitedHealth Group is pulling out of ObamaCare, but the law is "clearly" beneficial.

UnitedHealth's decision to pull back in Georgia and Arkansas beginning next year comes just days after a new Gallup survey documented a sharp decline in the rate of Americans who are still without coverage. Despite its rocky performance during its first two full years of operation - including higher than anticipated premiums and copayments and lower enrollments than projected - the ACA, along with expanded Medicare, clearly has been a boon for the nation's uninsured.

The problem with the "clearly" is twofold:

1. The assumption that a person covered by a plan with high premiums and co-payments is better off than a person without coverage. The costs may or may not outweigh the benefits, but the government has put its thumb on the scale by creating tax penalties for people who might otherwise benefit by foregoing coverage.

2. The mistaken conflations of insurance coverage with health care, and of health care with improved health. The possession of health insurance may or may not lead to better health care for an individual, and better health care may or may not lead to improved health. The goal is better health, but the only lever the government has is health insurance, which is doubly indirect.

So, the Gallup survey alone doesn't justify the use of "clearly". Let's wait to see some data showing actual improved health, not just more insurance coverage.


Said 18-time world Go champion Lee Sedol after his second loss to Google's AlphaGo software.

At first, Fan Hui thought the move was rather odd. But then he saw its beauty.

"It's not a human move. I've never seen a human play this move," he says. "So beautiful." It's a word he keeps repeating. Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful.

The average human will never understand this move. But Fan Hui has the benefit of watching AlphaGo up close for the past several months--playing the machine time and again. And the proof of the move's value lies in the eventual win for AlphaGo. Over two games, it has beaten the very best by playing in ways that no human would.

Get ready for artificial intelligences that make beautiful "moves" in every area of life that are incomprehensible to humans, and yet better than anything we can do.


Why is NOAA creating misleading graphs that show the earth has warmed since 1979, without showing data from the late 1950s that indicates the world was just as warm in 1957 as it is now?

warming trend.png

I combined the two graphs at the same scale below, and put a horizontal red reference line in, which shows that the earth's atmosphere has not warmed at all since the late 1950's.

The omission of this data from the NOAA report, is just their latest attempt to defraud the public. NOAA's best data shows no warming for 60 years. But it gets worse. The graph in the NOAA report shows about 0.5C warming from 1979 to 2010, but their original published data shows no warming during that period.


I mean "abortion clinics".

Abortion access in the U.S. has been vanishing at the fastest annual pace on record, propelled by Republican state lawmakers' push to legislate the industry out of existence. Since 2011, at least 162 abortion providers have shut or stopped offering the procedure, while just 21 opened.

At no time since before 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion, has a woman's ability to terminate a pregnancy been more dependent on her zip code or financial resources to travel. The drop-off in providers--more than one every two weeks--occurred in 35 states, in both small towns and big cities that are home to more than 30 million women of reproductive age.

Great job, Republicans!

California's loss of a dozen providers shows how availability declined, even in states led by Democrats, who tend to be friendly to abortion rights.

Great job, Democrats!

Most providers [in Texas] closed after the state became the largest and most populous in the U.S. to require that they become hospital-like outpatient surgical centers, which can cost millions to buy or build. The state also mandates that doctors have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. The drop-off in access has helped depress the abortion rate in the state by 13 percent, according to a July study, and providers there say full implementation of the law would leave almost a fifth of Texas women 150 miles or more from a facility.

Great job, Texas! Your baby-murder rate is down 13%. I'm sure we can all agree that it's good that we can protect the lives of these mothers with sensible medical standards while simultaneously reducing the murder of babies.


Good for Apple CEO Tim Cook for refusing the order to decrypt an iPhone.

Apple said on Wednesday that it would oppose and challenge a federal court order to help the F.B.I. unlock an iPhone used by one of the two attackers who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., in December.

On Tuesday, in a significant victory for the government, Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym of the Federal District Court for the District of Central California ordered Apple to bypass security functions on an iPhone 5c used by Syed Rizwan Farook, who was killed by the police along with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, after they attacked Mr. Farook's co-workers at a holiday gathering.

Judge Pym ordered Apple to build special software that would essentially act as a skeleton key capable of unlocking the phone.

But hours later, in a statement by its chief executive, Timothy D. Cook, Apple announced its refusal to comply. The move sets up a legal showdown between the company, which says it is eager to protect the privacy of its customers, and the law enforcement authorities, who say that new encryption technologies hamper their ability to prevent and solve crime.

There's no end to this rabbit hole once it gets opened. American citizens have a right to privacy, and a right to strong encryption.


You've got 10 times as many bacteria in your body as you do human cells, and it shouldn't be surprising that these hitchhikers have a huge effect on health. New research shows that by drugging our gut bacteria we may be able to significantly reduce the incidence of heart disease without changing our diets. Faster, please!

Writing in the journal Cell, researchers from the Cleveland Clinic and UCLA's division of cardiology suggest that disrupting the cascade of events that results in the production of TMAO might also prevent the kinds of fatty buildup in the arteries that leads to heart disease.

They came up with a chemical lookalike to choline, a common chemical compound that plays a key role in processing fatty acids. The lookalike chemical, called DMB, suppresses the first step in the lengthy process of TMAO production. Both in laboratory tests and in mice (where researchers added DMB to the drinking water), they saw that DMB drove down the amount of triethylamine available for liver enzymes to turn into artery-clogging TMAO.

In the study, mice were fed chow that typically doubles fatty buildup in the arteries. Among those mice that got DMB in their water, arterial buildup was significantly reduced; their arteries looked almost like those of normal, healthy mice, the researchers found.


UnitedHealth Group is warning that it might withdraw from Obamacare by 2017 because it's losing too much money. I'm sure the warning is legit, but it should really be viewed as a negotiation gambit.

The company admits it's "a potentially huge blow" to the new system: "If a major publicly traded insurer bows out, others may follow and destabilize the entire individual market."

Game over for ObamaCare?

UnitedHealth CEO Stephen Hemsley seems to imply just that: "We can't really subsidize a marketplace that doesn't appear at the moment to be sustaining itself."

As Megan McArdle points out writes about the potential for an Obamacare death spiral, but of course she's cautious in making predictions.

An earnings call like today's can also be a bargaining tactic. Health insurers are engaged in a sort of perpetual negotiation with regulators over how much they'll be allowed to charge, what sort of help they'll get from the government if they lose money, and a thousand other things. Signaling that you're willing to pull out of the market if you don't get a better deal is a great way to improve your bargaining position with legislators and regulatory agencies.

That said, strategic positioning is obviously far from the whole story, or even the majority of it. UnitedHealth really is losing money on these policies right now. It really is seeing something that looks dangerously like adverse selection.

No matter how you look at it, the news isn't good for the Affordable Care Act.


Elephants live as long as humans and they don't get cancer. Obviously we need to create human-elephant hybrids.

"Half of all men and a third of all women will develop cancer in their lifetime," said study author Dr. Joshua Schiffman, an investigator at the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah. "The uncontrolled cell division and genomic instability that is cancer is very much a disease of aging, because the older we get the less we're able to repair damaged cells."

Because elephants "are 100 times our size, and have so many cells, and live for such a long time, it stands to reason that just by chance alone all elephants should be dying from cancer. But they don't," said Schiffman. ...

Analysis of zoo elephant death records revealed that less than 5 percent died of cancer. The cancer death rate in humans is 11 to 25 percent, the researchers said.


A new brain-to-tablet interface that allows "locked-in" people to interact with the world sounds miraculous. The volunteers and scientists who are developing this technology deserve recognition and thanks.

The team's breakthrough moment came when they realized their point-and-click cursor system was similar to finger tapping on a touchscreen, something most of us do everyday.

We were going to design our own touchscreen hardware, but then realized the best ones were already on the market, laughed [ Dr. Paul ] Nuyujukian, so we went on Amazon instead and bought a Nexus 9 tablet.

The team took their existing setup and reworked it so that patient T6's brain waves could control where she tapped on the Nexus touchscreen. It was a surprisingly easy modification: the neuroprosthetic communicated with the tablet through existing Bluetooth protocols, and the system was up and running in less than a year.

"Basically the tablet recognized the prosthetic as a wireless Bluetooth mouse," explained Nuyujukian. We pointed her to a web browser app and told her to have fun.

In a series of short movie clips, the team demonstrated patient T6 Googling questions about gardening, taking full advantage of the autocompletion feature to speed up her research. T6 had no trouble navigating through tiny links and worked the standard QWERTY keyboard efficiently.


This is the kind of story that makes me skeptical about the risk of anthropogenic global warming. I'm sure there are a lot of explanations for why such adjustments are "necessary", but I wasn't born last night.

The US accounts for 6.62% of the land area on Earth, but accounts for 39% of the data in the GHCN network. Overall, from 1880 to the present, approximately 99% of the temperature data in the USHCN homogenized output has been estimated (differs from the original raw data). Approximately 92% of the temperature data in the USHCN TOB output has been estimated. The GHCN adjustment models estimate approximately 92% of the US temperatures, but those estimates do not match either the USHCN TOB or homogenized estimates. ...

It should also be noted, that the U.S. Climate Reference Network, designed from the start to be free of the need for ANY adjustment of data, does not show any trend, as I highlighted in June 2015 in this article: Despite attempts to erase it globally, "the pause" still exists in pristine US surface temperature data

(HT: Power Line.)


New models of the solar cycle predict that the earth could enter a mini ice age in the 2030s, a prospect much scarier global warming. Life tends to flourish in warm eras and is strangled in the cold.

A mini ice age could hit the Earth in the 2030s, the first such event to occur since the early 1700s. New mathematical models of the Sun's solar cycle developed at Northumbria University suggest solar activity will fall by 60 percent, causing temperatures on Earth to plummet.

The last mini ice age occurred between 1645 and 1715 and caused global temperatures to fall dramatically, with London's River Thames freezing over during winter and sea ice extending for miles around the UK. The prolonged cold snap, known as the Maunder Minimum, was due to sunspots becoming exceedingly rare, as observed by scientists at the time.


Even China -- home of the world's "cheap labor" (though not as cheap anymore!) -- is investing in robotic manufacturing. The numbers look big, but these are baby-steps. Once the bugs in the robotic systems get ironed out we'll see robots displacing millions of workers.

Robots are set to take over in many factories in the Pearl River Delta, the area of southern China known as the 'world's workshop' because of the huge export manufacturing industry there, as labour shortages bite and local authorities face the need to spur innovation to counter the economic slowdown.

Since September, a total of 505 factories across Dongguan have invested 4.2 billion yuan in robots, aiming to replace more than 30,000 workers, according to the Dongguan Economy and Information Technology Bureau.

By 2016, up to 1,500 of the city's industrial enterprises will began replacing humans with robots.

At current exchange rates that's about $22,500 per worker.


It appears that some prominent scientists and researchers have been hired by the Global Warming Policy Foundation to look into the adjusted surface temperature records for the last 150 years or so. The GWPF is generally skeptical of anthropogenic global warming, but hopefully the inquiry will be rigorous and transparent enough that its conclusions, whatever they are, will be above reproach.

Their inquiry's central aim will be to establish a comprehensive view of just how far the original data has been "adjusted" by the three main surface records: those published by the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (Giss), the US National Climate Data Center and Hadcrut, that compiled by the East Anglia Climatic Research Unit (Cru), in conjunction with the UK Met Office's Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction. All of them are run by committed believers in man-made global warming. ...

For this the GWPF panel is initially inviting input from all those analysts across the world who have already shown their expertise in comparing the originally recorded data with that finally published. In particular, they will be wanting to establish a full and accurate picture of just how much of the published record has been adjusted in a way which gives the impression that temperatures have been rising faster and further than was indicated by the raw measured data.


Wait But Why blog has a great layman's primer on the potential for artificial super-intelligence and the potential dangers. They're very lengthy, but fun reads.


Robots are complementing human care-takers in hospitals. The two most interesting aspects to me are:

  • Administrators claim that no human jobs are at risk.
  • The humans show natural deference to the robots.

tuggy.jpg

Well, according to Pamela Hudson, the medical center's associate director of administration, their jobs are safe. In fact, she says that with such a massive new hospital, hiring in some departments is on the rise. The robots are about supplementing current jobs, she says, not eliminating them. "It would be a travesty for us to hire more techs who specialize in instrumentation but all they're doing is running around delivering trays," Hudson says. "That's not the best use of their skills--that's not a real job satisfier." As an added perk, she says, if staffers aren't pushing around huge carts, they're not straining themselves or mowing down their colleagues.

As for deference:

"We had to train on a lot of robot etiquette, you know," says operations director Brian Herriot as we walk the halls in search of Tugs, aided by a laptop that tracks their movements. "Which is, we train them to treat a robot like your grandma, and she's in the hospital in a wheel chair. If something's in their way, just move it aside, don't go stand in front of them." ...

It may have an adult voice, but Tug has a childlike air, even though in this hospital you're supposed to treat it like a wheelchair-bound old lady. It's just so innocent, so earnest, and at times, a bit helpless. If there's enough stuff blocking its way in a corridor, for instance, it can't reroute around the obstruction.

This happened to the Tug we were trailing in pediatrics. "Oh, something's in its way!" a woman in scrubs says with an expression like she herself had ruined the robot's day. She tries moving the wheeled contraption but it won't budge. "Uh, oh!" She shoves on it some more and finally gets it to move. "Go, Tug, go!" she exclaims as the robot, true to its programming, continues down the hall.


The title of this video is mocking, but the rocket is very cool!

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