Friday, November 21, 2014

Climate change worsens dead zones in seas

Time now again for Science Friday.

News on the climate change front just keeps getting better.

A research study published in the Journal of Global Change Biology by the Smithsonian Institution has found that climate change is playing a much larger role than previously thought in the presence of "dead zones" in the world's oceans and seas.

Dead zones happen when fertilizers are washed from farmer's fields and flow out into rivers and seas. Microbe populations then skyrocket due to the massive influx of nutrients. This leads to an almost utter depletion of oxygen in the area. Models show that in multiple ways--"biologically, chemically, and physically"--climate change worsens this oxygen loss.

As temperatures continue to increase on the whole, the rise in "dead zone" water temperatures is predicted at being four degrees Celsius. The largest increase will occur in the St. Lawrence seaway where temperatures will be a full seven degrees higher. Though not as dramatic of an increase as the aforementioned waterway, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is likewise expected to experience a temperature rise, thus intensifying the damage.

The past year is already destined to be the warmest one on record, despite the deep freeze many of us in America are experiencing. Now there is more evidence as to just what climate change is doing to the oceans of our world.

So why is the idea of climate change still a hard sell in the United States? In fact, only 40% of Americans believe that climate change is the result of human activity. This is despite the fact that 98% of studies published by climatologists state that this change is actually happening and that humans are causing it. So what gives?

Not surprisingly, one study finds that it boils down far more to political ideology than any basis in evidence. Also a lack of understanding of the science involved helps. The analogy that the previous link gives is an apt one. Bereft of an understanding of the mechanics involved, one is left basing their trust in personalities. If you were an "average Joe" at the dawn of the Scientific Revolution, whose side would you take in the showdown between the Pope and Galileo? Probably the stronger, more persuasive personality. Or at least the one with the bigger pull. What's more, the side someone takes on the debate on climate change (which truly is a non-debate given the evidence) also identifies one's "tribe" in the "culture wars."

Meanwhile, the temperature keeps rising and so do the sea levels and the dead zones just get worse.

Just keep enjoying that curly slide to hell, folks. If we're lucky, we just might get another Kim Kardashian ass photo before it all really hits the fan.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, November 20, 2014

It's a conspiracy!

I am uncertain just what bothers me more:

Blind acceptance of conspiracy theory or ignorance of basic science.

I saw someone on Facebook post this link. This person seemed to be posting it in all seriousness and with tremendous concern. What seemingly failed to realize is that the online publication, Huzlers, is a work of satire somewhat akin to The Onion.

The article claimed that authorities at NASA have announced that there will be six full days of darkness between the 16th and 22nd of December. This will be due to "a solar storm, which will cause dust and space debris to become plentiful and thus, block 90% sunlight [sic]."

The Facebook poster of this apocryphal text was citing it as yet another example of "NASA covering up the truth." Paraphrasing: "They've concealed the fact that there has been contact with alien races, that these aliens have at times alternatively shut down our nuclear arsenals or nearly started World War III. We're just a stone's throw away from armageddon and they will never tell us as it would start worldwide panic. It's a conspiracy, y'know. Shhh."

That latter business reminds me of that godawful movie, 2012. I mean it really is just as bad as the Mayans predicted. But I digress...

As I said from the outset, there's so much going on here. Then again, maybe I need to amend my previous thoughts. It's really not the "everything's a conspiracy" mindset or the lack of enough basic science knowledge to recognize that something as described in this satirical piece could never happen. I guess it's true. A lot of people just don't get satire when they read it.

No, what gets me is the complete absence of any critical thinking. I'm not sure what accounts for it, either. The speed of social media connectivity? "Hey! This looks like it fits with my views, so I'm going to post it without even reading it." Is it that? Maybe it's someone who does read such an article and honestly responds: "Yep, Looks legit." Which would lead me to commentary on our current educational system.

Don't even get me started on that.

Then again, maybe it stems from a doom and gloom mindset. While six days of darkness would not have immediate physical harm, purported news of it in this age of post-9/11, post Katrina, and current Ebola might just be greeted with "Great. Now this." I can understand that mentality. After all, I'm pretty sure we're fucked. It's just a question of when it's going to happen.

So six days of darkness? I'm fine with that. I stay inside most of the time and I have plenty of coffee to wait it out for the duration in my bunker.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Yet another "face" on Mars

Once again, people are seeing faces on Mars.

This time around the spotted "vision" comes from a researcher named Scott Waring. Waring has gone over photographs from NASA's Sojourner rover, first launched into space in 1996 and landing on Mars on July 5th, 1997. The image in question (seen above and enhanced by Waring) is claimed to depict a humanoid face, perhaps a carved statue fallen to the surface.

Just one month ago, another enthusiast pointed to an image from the Curiosity rover, believing the photo depicted something like a crocodile.

Of course there has been a long speculation of life on Mars, whether it be past or present. Recent discoveries indicating that the planet was quite wet at one time with flowing rivers and perhaps even seas has fueled yet more hopeful thinking that Mars once...even if in the distant past...harbored life, perhaps even a legitimate civilization. For more on the what constitute footprints of life or "biosignatures," click here. It's somewhat of a pessimistic view of the situation that I don't entirely agree with, but it's a factual breakdown nevertheless.

Sadly, the most likely explanation for any of these alleged "monuments" on Mars is something called "pareidolia."

Have you ever looked at clouds and derived images from them? Most of us know full well that we're not seeing a duck or the Bat Signal (unless you're me) actually made out of the clouds. Rather it is our mind trying to correlate what we're seeing with things we're already familiar with. What we're actually doing is inferring a connection amid a random set of data. Yet that connection does not exist. It's exactly this sort of thing that causes people to see Jesus in toast and the like. What's more, we can find many examples of such "faces in rocks" right here on Earth. Simple as that.

So why can't I let go of the idea of a former civilization on Mars? Maybe it really is the fact that it once had water. Maybe it's evidence piling up that there was at least microbial life at one point. Then there's the work of the late Mac Tonnies and his Cydonian Imperative. While wholly unscientific, all I can offer is a gut feeling. There might be something to this theory of an ancient civilization on Mars that once carved stone monuments just as we did and do and I'm not willing to entirely shut the door on this possibility.

That said, I think it's still safe to say no evidence for such a thing has been found in this current crop of stone faces and "crocodiles."

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Reinventing college

Your objective in high school is to tidy your record so that you can gain acceptance to the college of your choice. That achieved, you must graduate after four years (if not sooner) and then move into your career in IT, medicine, or business management.

That's what society demands, right?

Well the Stanford Design School has a few things to say about that. More to the point, they are looking at ways to redesign the college experience for a new era and maybe slaughter a few sacred cows...both in academics and society itself...along the way. Being a college educator, I certainly took the time to sit and watch the video presentation (see it at the Wired link). I heard a few things I really liked:

-The entire admissions process needs reconsideration. Currently, students work for high grades not to gain knowledge but to get good transcripts. They often take part in activities and volunteerism not for fun or for altruism but for how it looks on a college application. In other words, these are minds trained to jump through hoops really well, not necessarily to think critically.

-The hoop jumping often does not go away once they are in college. Colleges and universities then tend to churn out graduates who have narrow concepts of success and little vision. Students are also taught since high school how to navigate highly structured systems. The problem with that is that they will inhabit a world that is more in flux than ever before. As stated in the video, it is a world with problems like Ebola and ISIS. It is a world where we must consider the ethics of NSA surveillance. And I would is a world of burgeoning transhumanism. This societal landscape will require flexible, creative thinkers.

- How about this: show up to college when you're ready. As it is now, our society looks down on those "slackers" who delay their transition from high school to college. I know that when I began grad school, my approach to my studies and my attitude towards assignments was in near diametric opposition to those (especially early) days of undergrad. I had a purpose. I had a vision. What if we could grant this for everyone?

-Here's another idea we need to get across: it's okay to not know what you want to do. It's so simple that I want to go across campuses and blast it with a bullhorn. Few things grate on me more than making an 18 or 19 year old kid exactly plan out the whole rest of their life. This doesn't allow for someone to grow and change. It also doesn't help with a society that has people not just frequently changing jobs but entire careers.

-To that end, Stanford came up with the idea of the Open Loop University. College would consist of six years, not just four. Better yet, you could take those years whenever you wanted to throughout life. A year here, a year there. Work with life, don't have it be an obstacle.

-Axis flip. This is something we're already doing at my campus and have been for a long while I am proud to say. Instead of filling someone with information, you develop sets of competencies in people and how to apply information outside of your chosen discipline to situations.

Naturally, it very much remains to be seen if these concepts can be practically implemented or if they are perhaps star-crossed ideas. Additionally, these thoughts do nothing to tackle one of the biggest problems in higher education and that is the egregious cost of tuition. To be fair, these ideas from Stanford weren't meant to address that issue, rather they were about pedagogy. The cynical side of me also wonders if American power systems would ever allow for any of these changes to happen. After all, hoop jumpers are ideal. They make great consumers. How else do you get people to mindlessly head to Starbuck's for coffee and to line up for the next iPhone?

It certainly has me thinking about my own pedagogy as well. Right now, I run my class like a workplace, figuring it prepares students for the world of employment. By that I mean you have to show up and if you don't and have no notification, you're in trouble. More than two unexcused absences results in a lowering of the final grade. But not everyone learns well by sitting in a chair and listening or even through discussion and activities.

Surely there is a place for them, too. Perhaps new approaches can help them achieve their rightful education as well.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, November 17, 2014

Dawn of the robot comedians

This robot is funnier than I am.

Or if it isn't now, it will be one day. I'm just going to face up to it.

Over the years, I've received more than a few compliments for my quick wit and intellectual humor. I'm not trying to sound conceited. I'm just trying to hold on to one of the few things I've got going for me that hasn't hit obsolescence yet (I'm a writer so those things grow fewer by the day.) Now, all of that is going to change.

Meet Data (see video above). He is the work of Heather Knight, a roboticist who runs her own robotics outfit called Marilyn Monrobot. Knight is currently working on a doctorate in robotics at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute. There, she is focusing on developing "socially aware robots" and "sensor-based performance art." Data, for example, tells jokes.

I'm not talking about one of those cheesy plastic robots you'd get at toy stores during the 1970s or 80s. You know the ones. You press a button and they tell a prerecorded joke in a voice that sounds something like Stephen Hawking after a few beers? Yeah, that's it. Data is much different.

He is designed to deliver a stand-up routine in front of an actual audience. An algorithm creates jokes and the robot tells them. Cameras in the eyes scan the faces in the crowd and run them through an analysis program, gauging the reaction to the joke. Microphones determine the amount of laughter and locate where in the room the most laughter is coming from. If the joke bombs then Data creates a new one and sees what sticks.

Just as any other comedian would. One of the key differences, however, is that Data won't get discouraged.

One of the most fascinating things about this to me is how the robot is meant to pick up on what is actually subtle and nuanced human behavior. It's difficult for me sometimes to tell the difference between say, a joke and an insult. Others who land on various other locations on the "I just don't get people" spectrum can miss humor altogether. This isn't just novelty technology or "doing something to see if we can do it." These robots may lead to a deeper understanding of ourselves.

By the way, Heather Knight is also working on a female version (if these robots have true gender, that is) of Data named Ginger.

We've already landed robots on comets. What's left but stand-up? It's only a matter of time before one of these 'bots has your sides splitting and your face rendered rufescent. Right now it's all kinda cute, but what if we should take this technology through the "uncanny valley?" That's a concept in robotics describing a robot that isn't cute like Data or Ginger and at the same time it can't completely pass for a human. Instead, it occupies an in-between zone where the device is meant to look human but something is It doesn't look quite right. Click on the link for uncanny valley and try to imagine those 'bots doing stand up.

I like to imagine the algorithm breaking down and the result being eerie, cut-up phrases worthy of Burroughs coming out of its mouth. Yeah. That would freak people out nice n good. It would make a great scene or subplot for a David Cronenberg film (not sure it could carry the whole thing.)

Speaking of which, David Cronenberg is publishing a novel.  

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, November 14, 2014

Probe lands on comet

Time now again for Science Friday.

It's not often that developments in space make banner headlines in mainstream news. Well it sure happened this time.

A voyage of billions of miles paid off as the ESA's Rosetta space probe landed its Philae module on the nucleus of Comet 67P. You can see a (very) brief video simulation of the landing in the clip above.  The landing was a bit of a shaky operation there for a time as Philae's harpoon anchors failed to fire and the lander bounced on the surface of the comet but things seem stable for now...or at least until the battery runs out. Telemetry suggests that Philae is at rest perhaps a full kilometer from its intended landing site and is on the slope of a crater or perhaps even tipped over on its side. As mentioned regarding the battery, this may create problems in terms of enough light getting to the solar panels for a recharge. But for now the little guy is still doing its job.

Philae has already begun to send back measurement's of 67P's surface as well as photographs from the landing site. There is a problem with the lighting that is vexing many at the ESA but that may indeed be due to the angle and attitude of the lander. One idea being tossed around is using one of the probe's movable parts to cause Philae to sort of "hop" back into an upright position. This may be necessary in order to activate the probe's drill.

After all, that was one of the whole reasons to send the Rosetta mission to a comet. Philae was intended to drill into the rock of the comet and scoop material into its onboard labs for analysis. It has been oft theorized that comets brought many of the elements necessary for life to Earth. Scanning the substance of one directly will help make determinations on the theory of "panspermia."

Not crib the BBC article too much, but Rosetta and Philae already have a place assured in history. The technical achievement of humans landing a device on a comet is a triumph in and of itself and Rosetta continues to send data back that will help us learn more and more about comets and their role in the formation of the solar system and in overall cosmology.

Just one of the unique finds so far has been a "song" coming from the comet. Plasma sensors on Rosetta found that there are fluctuations in the comet's weak magnetic field causing oscillations at low frequencies. The preliminary thought is that this is due to gases venting into space from the comet's core. These jets contain neutral particles that are then ionized by high-energy particles in space and thus the sound fluctuations. You can hear this "song" slowed down for the human ear here.

While it's important to get as much information as possible about the comet and I certainly don't wish to slubber through the process, I find myself coming back to the technical aspects. We now have the capability to land a remotely operated spacecraft on a comet from billions of miles away. What we've learned from such a feat can then be applied to future missions to stellar bodies such as asteroids. So sounds like the plans to mine asteroids aren't so far fetched after all. In actuality, we've already learned quite a bit from Rosetta and Philae.

Not mention the fact that the pictures sent back prior to the landing are damn pretty.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets