Category Archives: Science

TSA to use “Gingerbread Man” body scanners in Rochester

Very strange the way this MPN article is sort of glossed-over.

TSA debuts new technology at Rochester airport – Canandaigua, NY – MPNnow.

The Transportation Security Administration has selected the Greater Rochester International Airport as the first airport in the state to debut the installation of new software for the Advanced Imaging Technology machine in the Central Security Checkpoint.

Nowhere in this article does it make plain that we’re talking about body scanners in the airport. You know: the scanners that caused such a panic last summer because they scan and display your whole body?

The new scanners have been referred to as “Gingerbread Man” scanners, since what they do is replace the image of your body with a generic avatar that bears a striking resemblance to a gingerbread man.

The article is factually accurate, but misses on emphasis. A person reading the article quickly might never really appreciate what they’re talking about, unless they’re familiar with the story. And a person who reads the headline only – which is most of us on Twitter, most of the time – could be forgiven for not having the vaguest clue.

NASA Research Shows DNA Can Be Built in Space

Adherents to one of the more exotic (literally) theories on the origins of life has just gotten a boost of confidence, based on the latest @NASA research:

NASA – NASA Research Shows DNA Building Blocks Can Be Made in Space.

Scientists have detected the building blocks of DNA in meteorites since the 1960s, but were unsure whether they were created in space or resulted from contamination by terrestrial life. The latest research indicates certain nucleobases — the building blocks of our genetic material — reach the Earth on meteorites in greater diversity and quantity than previously thought.

The theory that life was “seeded” onto the Earth from meteorites crashing onto its surface is called Panspermia. Like the article notes, this theory has been in circulation and widely supported since the 60’s when the discovery of DNA building blocks was first made.

But the theory of Panspermia has always been hampered by the prospect of contamination: since the meteorites we observe are already on the planet, the chemicals that spark the debate might just have seeped into the rock once the meteorite was on Earth. These rocks are not, after all, recent visitors.

The current research was conducted on meteorite fragments found in the Antarctic. The scientists found that many different molecules, very similar to DNA’s base, are present in the rock. Despite the similarity, not all the chemicals found in the meteorites are commonly employed in biology.

But significantly, the ice surrounding the meteorite did not have the same chemicals present. That suggests that the meteorite in question was forming new chemicals prior to its arrival, rather than simply holding onto debris from its new home.

Are We All Wrong About Political Ads?

An interesting study from Penn State University, the results of which are posted to the @UofR website, Futurity.org:

Futurity.org – Power of political TV ads overrated.

About 45 percent of the participants identified themselves as Bush supporters and 55 percent considered themselves opponents of the president.

Both supporters and opponents indicated that the effect of the ads on others was significantly greater than their own reaction to the ads, says Shen.

The study shows that people generally think that the results of agenda advertising are much greater on others than themselves. By contrast, test subjects believed ads for positive things like donating to a good cause had greater effect on them than on others.

Basically, we all think the other guy is an asshole. Basically.

Note, however, that the study does not test whether the subject’s impression of the candidate was better or worse, only their perception of others. The study is significant in that it suggests that some of the fear surrounding negative ads may be influenced by our perception of our neighbors more than the ad. But it doesn’t actually test to see how effective the adverts actually were.

Brown University Confirms: You’re Not an Idiot

A new study conducted by researchers at Brown University concluded that while the endorsements of Presidential candidates did affect voter support, the bias of the newspaper in question affected the endorsement “bump.”:

Futurity.org – Voters saffy to newspaper bias:

The least credible endorsements were for Al Gore from The New York Times and for George W. Bush from the Dallas Morning News, which convinced less than 1 percent of their readers to switch allegiance to the endorsed candidate.

By contrast, the endorsement with the largest effects came from the Chicago Sun Times and the Denver Post, both of which had surprising endorsements. The Chicago Sun Times was predicted to endorse Gore with a probability of 58 percent, but instead endorsed Bush, while the Denver Post endorsed Gore even though it was only predicted to do so by a probability of only 35 percent.

This study only concerns itself with Presidential elections. That makes sense because an election has a specific outcome, which makes interpreting the results of an experiment easier. The study also seems to concern itself only with party switching at election time. While this can be an important indication for a segment of the population, is not by itself determinative of how we might react to endorsements as a whole. For example, what about those who chose to sit out an election?

But the presumption is that the basic principle demonstrated in the study can extend itself to all facets of politics and policy. We know who is biased and who is not and we act on that information accordingly. This brings me back to a point I make often about media bias: not only do we as readers not require the opinions of journalists, but we’re also not so weak-willed as to require them or be overly-influenced by them. We’re not going to abdicate our sovereignty to just any dick with a job at the local newspaper.

This is of course different from a daily bombardment of propaganda such as is the norm on cable news nets. But the problem as I see it has been that mainstream media outlets in modern times have been so quick to cover any sense of bias up that they’ve turned themselves into bland and ultimately uninformative pablum. Cable news provides the color and flavour people want – albeit largely empty-calorie viewing with not much in the way of facts.

In an era when we find ourselves very divided on big social and economic issues, we don’t need more firebrands, certainly. But perhaps if journalists were more trusted to provide us the opinions they’ve formed over years of covering their specific niches, our culture would be less-inclined to listen to the uninformed opinions of demagogs with a financial interest – not in policy or social good, but in the opinions themselves.

Black Boxes for your Car? Washington Says They’re Coming

This has been a pretty quiet thing up till now, but I suspect it will get noisier soon. New Federal regulations now require that all new cars have a Black Box, a la airplanes, installed into them. The idea is to be able to reconstruct events prior to an accident:

New Federal Rules To Require Black Boxes to Record Driver Activity in Every Car | Popular Science.

To the extent that they can clarify the events leading up to an accident – which may point to anything from alcohol intoxication to malfunctions in equipment – this seems like a good thing. But its also a privacy issue that needs to be address. How long is this data being stored and who has access to it?

There is also an issue of data interpretation: because certain conditions were present at the time of an accident does not necessarily mean that a single conclusion could be made. Add to that, as the article points out, the fact that your phone is tracking you too and it starts to look a whole lot less benign.

Electric Cars: Gasoline Cars Needed Infrastructure, Too

Great op-ed in the NYT from Seth Fletcher, a senior editor of Popular Science, on the road to an electric car fleet and the roadblocks along the way:

Electric Avenue – NYTimes.com.

The thing is: we take gas stations for granted in this country, because these days, you really could just decide to run one as a small business if you wanted to. Owning a gas station is yet another Republican dream of America. But gas stations were not always so common and it took a lot of government money to make them ubiquitous enough for long distance travel.

When that money was being doled out, it was because making the United States the #1 consumer of oil was in our nation’s best interest: it was the dawn of an oil hegemony. Now that hegemony is in danger of crushing our economy and its time to move on. Will we invest with the same sense of purpose as we did all those years ago? My fear – and Fletcher seems to share it – is that we won’t.

There is another major hurdle to an all-electric fleet: new cars are expensive. Whereas automobiles were relatively cheap things to produce and buy back in the 50’s, the same cannot be said of our current fleet, much less the Chevy Volt. According to this Bureau of Transportation Statistics chart, nearly three out of four cars sold in the United States is a leased vehicle.

How many years do you think it will be before you can buy a Volt for $300? Because that’s how long it will take to get an all-electric fleet on the road. We can certainly encourage new car buyers with incentives and tax deductions. But this is still a long-term battle for which only escalating prices on oil are likely to produce the necessary will.

Going to the Moon is Reasserting Our Leadership?!?

Don’t get me wrong: I think the idea of setting up permanent habitations in space is, in the words of Kenny Powers, “Cool as fuck.” But seriously, the Republican Congressman who penned this new bill running through Congress called it “the Reasserting American Leadership in Space Act,” and calls it REAL.

New Bill Directs NASA Back to the Moon By 2022, With Permanent Habitation In Mind | Popular Science.

Casting aside the fact that there’s no E in the above “anagram,” which should fairly be called RALS, how is going to the moon any way to “reassert” our leadership in space? A better bet would be to actually live up to our commitments to the International Space Station and concentrate on the long-term viability of a habitation on Mars or its moon, Deimos.

I would say that, based on the list of Congress-critters who’ve signed on to the bill, what this bill should probably be called is “The Reasserting the South’s Dependence on the Wasteful Space Program They So Revile Till They Lose Their Shit Act” (RSDWSPTSRTTLTS).

Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, now does it?

File This Under “Scary As Hell.”

If you were ever under the misapprehension that war could not get any scarier or that William Gibson’s prediction of psychologically-warped future soldiers was just fiction, the following link will disabuse you of that notion:

Cross-check: Beware the military-psychological complex: A $125-million program to boost soldiers “fitness” raises ethical questions.

That’s right: millions of dollars and a team of psychologists are bent on making soldiers “not only survive, but also thrive at a cognitive and behavioral level in the face of protracted warfare.” Yes, the article cites the need to keep family members in line as well.

The sober reality is this: we do need to be able to keep our soldier’s heads together in this long war phase of our crumbling empire. If we cannot avoid war, it is a human imperative that we help our fighting men and women get through this. Which makes the science fiction fantasy a mundane practical reality. If this is the course we plan on taking.

Yucca Mountain is on a Fault Line

The below-linked article has some great thoughts and information about the ongoing crisis – which appears to be taking a nasty turn towards full melt-down – in Japan’s Fukushima nuclear facility following the tsunami and subsequent seismic events there. But the real kicker for me is yet another example of Bush Administration ineptitude that could potentially have cost us dearly:

Guest Blog: Failure of Imagination Can Be Deadly: Fukushima is a Warning.

Getting rid of nuclear waste is an issue that continues to plague the industry. In the United States, the Yucca Mountain waste repository project in Nevada, (with an estimated budget of $96 billion, of which over $13.5 billion was spent) was finally canceled by the Obama Administration amid concerns that the expense far exceeded the benefit of transporting spent fuel and storing it at the site. Nevada is one of the most seismically active states and it was discovered that the Yucca Mountain project was placed on a fault line.

So, I’m guessing that, while this is a score for the Obama Administration, it kinda puts the brakes (doh! sp! ed.) on any future energy independence plans that might have involved nuclear power, wouldn’t you say?

Space: Maybe Not, Indeed

Christian Science Monitor has an article up on their online edition featuring the top nine priorities for planetary exploration as expressed by the National Research Council. Perhaps the National Research Council should have cross-checked with the bean counters at NASA before they went to press with this info, as the top priority of a joint EU/US mission to Mars is already in jeopardy.

Europa or bust? Maybe not. Top 9 priorities for planetary research missions – Mars Astrobiology Explorer–Cacher: MAX-C – CSMonitor.com.

Which is Worse? The Claim or the Reaction?

Bugs from outer space. Its not just a b-movie title in the making, its the claim of a scientist studying meteorite material. That claim is being simultaneously announced and dismissed across the media spectrum. And the reaction of his fellow scientists is, according to at least one source, “dismay”:

Bugs From Space? Forget It – ScienceInsider

Planetary scientists gathered here for the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference are greeting news of life in a meteorite with dismay. Dismay because they fear that for the third time in 50 years they are being dragged into a dubious controversy that will do science little good. Whether they have closely examined the paper by astrobiologist Richard Hoover of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center or only heard about it in the hallways, the reaction is the same: not again.

I’m so glad to have been informed of this new development which is also old news and never had any validity in the first place, whether or not anyone with knowledge of the subject read the paper.

Next.