Science

Unsolicited Medical Advice

My wife mentioned last night that our kids, aged 8 and 9, had annual checkups scheduled for today.  Somewhat surprised, I asked if it was "safe" to take healthy kids to the pediatrician's office [an office that would doubtless be full of flu-like symptoms and stricken victims in every corner of the place] for something non-essential like an annual checkup.

She called the doctor, and the assistant advised her to reschedule.  In fact, she suggested rescheduling for JANUARY, after flu season!  She also mentioned that they had no "normal flu" vaccines [and obviously the swine flu vaccine isn't available yet], but normal flu vaccine should be available at drug stores and other locations.

Be smart with your kids (and yourselves):

DON'T go to the doctor if you're not sick, and

DON'T accept "no" for an answer and go without a flu vaccine, if you want one.  Just check someplace else!


Solar Cars - So Close, Yet So Far

Eye-popping quote from a Wired story on the upcoming U.S. solar car race:
     "No one involved in the race thinks we'll all be driving solar cars one day."
Huh?  Solar cars have been around for years, at least in the experimental racing venue, which might lead one to believe that one day we'll ALL be driving our vehicles around without fuel.  Not so.  The reason we won't be?  Economics of solar pv are not good; in fact, they're still pretty terrible.  It takes way too much space and way too much money to generate electricity with solar panels, as evidenced by the University of Michigan's $500,000 solar car:
     - 2500 "aerospace-grade" solar cells;
     - 5-kilowatt lithium-polymer battery pack;
     - puts out "about as much power as your hair dryer"

Granted, although it's a lot of money for not much output, these cars ARE able to achieve speeds of up to 75 miles per hour due to their advanced design and the necessity of squeezing more out of less.  And that, as it turns out, is the real reason for and benefit of these competitions.

Thanks to Chuck Squatriglia at Wired.com for this story!


Main Obstacle to Environmental Accords

Two words:  game theory.  Unfortunately, it appears that none of the global talks, accords, analyses, or studies have ever heard of the term.  We hear it all the time in terms of economics, auctions, business competition, but never in regards to climate crisis solutions.  Why doesn't the U.S. sign onto Kyoto?  Why won't we ever sign onto ANYTHING in this area?  Because China (and the "developing nations" in general) won't, and those nations would therefore enjoy an even greater competitive advantage than they already do.  If that's not basic game theory, I don't know what is!  Here's a definition from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

"Game theory is the study of the ways in which strategic interactions among rational players produce outcomes with respect to the preferences (or utilities) of those players, none of which might have been intended by any of them."

Why don't we hear about this when we hear about climate talks?  Probably because climate talks are dominated by scientists and politicians, neither of which could be considered champions of the game theory realm.  Somebody read a book already, and let's get this hammered out.


Stem Cell Research and Financial Systems

This may not win me many scientifically-minded friends, but expressing tightly held moral convictions isn't typically designed to do that anyway, is it?  Let me start by saying I strongly support President Bush's ban on federal funding for certain types of stem cell research involving certain human embryo classifications.  An embryo is human life and should not be destroyed, and it is that black and white to my sensibilities.  The recent announcement of possibly accomplishing some of the objectives of embryonic stem cell research through non-embryonic means illustrates that there is usually an array of options in life:  the simple path or the easy path, the right way or the wrong, the many or the few, the selfish or the altruistic, and so forth.
In my "day job," there are people who work with financial systems, which is another area that offers choices of possible solutions to problems.  Invariably, when a problem presents itself, there is a known "quick fix" that usually affects something else adversely if implemented, and that is contrasted against an unknown potential different path that could accomplish the same objective without adversely affecting other things.  Naturally, the people responsible for making the fix are inclined to go with what they know, fixing the problem, and dealing with the negative outcomes of that action when they manifest themselves; fortunately for the company though, there are other "non-fixers" involved in the decision making process who occasionally insist that another solution be discovered or invented, a solution that doesn't have the adverse impact on other processes.
And guess what?  The fixers ALWAYS come up with something that fits the bill:  it achieves the stated objective with no adverse impact to other processes.  If someone hadn't forced them to innovate (or at least think a little longer and harder about the problem), then they would follow the natural human tendency to go with what we know, do what works, and clean up the resulting messes later.  I see a striking parallel between this situation and the one involving the stem cell research.  Scientists want to take the ball and run with it, and understandably so, because they are after the solution that benefits the many at the expense of the few (if they even consider embryos to be humans at all).  And they obviously want sooner rather than later.  But by forcing them to look harder, think longer, innovate, etc., President Bush's policy may have resulted in a breakthrough by those very same scientists that will accomplish the stated objectives without destroying more human embryos, or more human beings, if you will.  These are tough choices to make, tough stands to make, but when dealing with moral issues and decisions such as this, it's far better to err on the side of protecting those who cannot protect themselves than to intentionally, unintentionally, or potentially commit acts and crimes against humanity that we are simply too ignorant to be aware that we are committing them.


Science vs. Philosophy, the Last 2500 Years

Science makes blogging possible, while philosophy does not. This post of 8 days ago may imply that I don't believe or realize that fact, but I promise I do! The problem, as presented in that post, arises when scientists present science as philosophy, but it goes the other way too, with philosophy and religion sometimes presenting themselves as science.  One of the great singular intellectual achievements of humanity occurred, coincidentally enough, at the end of what Western civilization has dubbed the Dark Ages, the period where the light of (European) mankind's creativity, science, religion, and all manner of other accomplishments was supposedly extinguished for several hundred years between the fall of the Roman Empire to the barbarians up until the Renaissance.

Science and religion, both of which could have been considered as "philosophy" as far as the mid-first millennium B.C. Greeks were concerned, were two distinct and diverging paths by the onset of the Dark Ages, with science advancing as it did and still does by building upon discovery and insight after discovery and insight after discovery and insight.  Religion and philosophy, on the other hand, do not do that. Their advancements, or more accurately, their developments, rest on individual intellects thinking new thoughts in new ways about things that cannot be proven or disproven or even be directly observed. Thus it was for Thomas of Aquino, a Dominican friar of privileged Italian birth and upbringing who chose to exercise his quiet and contemplative manner and gifts in the confines of cold, damp French and German monasteries and medieval universities in order to attempt to reconcile "the Philosopher" Aristotle, whose style and overriding hallmark was to base knowledge on what can be observed or sensed and experienced in some way by the five senses (thereby making him as much a scientist as a philosopher) to his faith in his religion and Jesus the Christ.

Any attempt to pull this off by a lesser human being would most likely have led to that person being tortured and/or killed as a heretic - how (and, more importantly, why) would Christ possibly be reconciled to Aristotle, who came 300-400 years earlier? But Thomas had an uncanny ability to maintain the composure of himself and those around him while all arguments were made and debated and ultimately decided by the participants, and in these clashes he quite simply never lost a point. He was able to reconcile, not Christ to the Philosopher, but the Philosopher to Christ, and in so doing he accomplished the seemingly impossible feat of reconciling the religious faith and scientific observations of his day.

This was 750 years ago, and since then, bewildering and sometimes even terrifying advancements have been made in all fields of science.  Not true for philosophy and religion.  The reason for that is that, no matter what occurs in science, other scientists can build upon what happens.  If it's destructive, like mixing two chemicals that result in blowing up the lab, the results are recorded and the experiment likely not repeated.  If it's beneficial, it is used to build upon and progress even further.  With philosophy and religion, however, there are not "new developments" or "discoveries" to stand on.  There are only thoughts, since that is all that religion and philosophy are.  If the thoughts lead to something testable and provable or disprovable, then the realm of science is entered, leaving philosophy and religion behind.  Therefore, anything that can be thought by today's philosophers and/or religious thinkers could also have been thought by Thomas of Aquino (Saint Thomas Aquinas) or, for that matter, Aristotle, or someone who came before him.  Buddha and his inner peace? Christ and his love thy neighbor teachings? These ideas could have been, and probably were, thought by many people since the dawn of humanity, along with all of the not-so-loving impulses that sprang to mind and led to heinous actions carried out by people capable of acting in such ways.  Again, even today, these barbaric and seemingly inhuman thoughts and actions are occurring right this very moment in countries and cities and streets around the world, just as they were thousands of years ago.  They haven't stopped, nor will they, ever.

So we leave it to the philosophers to wonder why, to the religious people to believe their beliefs and pursue their paths to the peace and salvation of their souls, and the scientists to observe and create and test inventions that make us all more comfortable during our time on earth.  If you find yourself inclined to philosophize or wax Godly, as I am inclined to do, just don't expect or even attempt to "prove" your insights or feelings to anyone else, because it cannot be done.  They are yours and yours alone, though you may seek similarities and justification for your thoughts and feelings with other people of similar heart and soul past and present.  And if you are a scientist, don't tell us you have figured out how and why the universe began or where and why and how homo sapiens came to be mankind, because it likewise cannot be done. 


Morbid Quake Stats

Just for fun, about a week and a half ago I went looking for earthquake statistics to see if quakes were getting stronger and/or more frequent than they have historically been.  While searching for that, I found a site that listed details for every quake around the globe going back a number of years (sorry for the vagueness here), and among the details listed were the number of fatalities, if any.  After downloading and analyzing data for each year going back to 2000 (I didn't spend much time on this at all), what jumped out was that every year, thousands of people die in earthquakes - and usually 10's, sometimes 100's, of thousands.  Every year - until this year.  Through Aug. 2, the most recent date available when I pulled my numbers a week or two ago, the globe officially had 138 deaths caused by earthquakes.  I wanted to post that day about my findings, that almost 2/3 of the way through the year we have a tiny fraction of the normal amount of annual earthquake fatalities, but I didn't want to call attention from the "earthquake gods" to humanity's good fortune this year regarding getting off lightly in the fatality department.

Now that the jig is up and Peru has been hit with at least several hundred deaths from their earthquake, I can freely point out that the normal culprits for high fatalities from earthquakes every year are those that strike Iran, Afghanistan, and generally that South-Central Asian region.  To date, it looks like all of this year's fatalities have come in the Ring of Fire surrounding the Pacific (Japan, Indonesia, Sumatra, Solomon Islands, and Peru).  None so far in Central Asia.  Let's keep our fingers crossed and hope it stays that way - the last thing that region needs is a devastating earthquake to make life even more desperate for the millions that already fight through it every day of their lives.


Heretic: Freeman Dyson, Global Warming Skeptic/Realist

Edge.org cuts through the crap. It also adds to it.  Influential thinkers, both of the past and the future, contribute essays on whatever is moving them at the time, and although you won't agree with the viewpoints of everyone you read there, I would say that should be even greater motivation for some of the essays to be read.

Freeman Dyson has contributed an excerpt from a book of his, and it is alarming in its directness and common sense, anti-dogmatic perspective of the scientific establishment.  I say "alarming" because he is an 82-year old product of that very establishment; the reason he remains relevant is that he refuses to be a slave to it.  If you are a regular reader of Worth Reading, you will quickly see why I delighted in reading Dyson's thoughts at Edge.  Here's his intro to the excerpt:

"My first heresy says that all the fuss about global warming is grossly exaggerated. Here I am opposing the holy brotherhood of climate model experts and the crowd of deluded citizens who believe the numbers predicted by the computer models. Of course, they say, I have no degree in meteorology and I am therefore not qualified to speak. But I have studied the climate models and I know what they can do. The models solve the equations of fluid dynamics, and they do a very good job of describing the fluid motions of the atmosphere and the oceans. They do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields and farms and forests. They do not begin to describe the real world that we live in. The real world is muddy and messy and full of things that we do not yet understand. It is much easier for a scientist to sit in an air-conditioned building and run computer models, than to put on winter clothes and measure what is really happening outside in the swamps and the clouds. That is why the climate model experts end up believing their own models."

Click here for the rest - please!


I Love Beating CNet!

You read it here 1st, my friends.  This morning, CNet picked up a story from physorg.com about the Russian submarine claiming North Pole energy resources that I posted about yesterday.  Physorg.com's story was published 4 hours ago, which was over 12 hours after I posted on it directly from Pravda.  Granted, PhysOrg has juicy maps and graphics as well as more insightful commentary than I did, but hey, there's nothing wrong with trolling foreign newspaper sites yourself just to be the first to know!

I've been listening to that old Sting song "Russians" on the iPod lately, and it's been reminding me of how far we've come over the past 20-25 years.  Then, we had Ronald Reagan calling the Soviets an "evil empire" while the major broadcast tv event of my junior high days was "The Day After," a depiction of life during and after a nuclear strike.  And as Sting so eloquently reminded us, Mr. Kruschev said they would bury us, followed years later by Mr. Reagan saying he would protect us.  Comparisons of the Soviet enemy to our modern nemesis al Qaeda may seem obvious or even appropriate, but they aren't at all, as far as I can read the situations.  Back then, the Soviets were driven by paranoia and fear of Westerners, as they have been since Napoleon tried to conquer them 200 years ago.  They were never a colonial power, they were never interested in projecting their power or influence; they have simply been interested in security, and in the Cold War, security entailed the establishment of a "barrier" of satellite countries to insulate them from ground assault.  Today, they are still interested in security above all else. But when pushed hard enough, they respond with belligerent tones and threatening postures, as Putin has been doing lately.  Al Qaeda, on the other hand, wants to project, to bring the fight to us, to influence non-Islamic fundamentalists to mend their ways or perish.

As a teenager, I really thought the world would end in nuclear holocaust, and that it would happen sooner rather than later.  How close to the truth that really was and how much of it was propaganda, we'll never know, because we didn't have the complete freedom and accessibility to foreign media and world events that now exists thanks to the internet, wireless communications, and digital media.  I couldn't make myself a sandwich, punch a few keys on a keyboard, and look at the front page of Pravda (or Tass - remember always hearing about "the Soviet news agency Tass?").  Still, I wouldn't say we're out of the woods just yet.


Darfur Violence About to End? Thanks, Earth!

A vast, ancient lake located beneath Darfur in The Sudan has been detected by satellite imagery.  It's being described as the size of Lake Erie in North America, making it one of the world's largest lakes.  However, after scouring several articles about the discovery, announced on July 17 by scientists from Boston University, I cannot see any details about the depth of the lake, which of course is crucial for determining how much water is actually contained.  The BBC also has coverage and background on how the killings, rapes, and all around sub-human barbaric behavior that goes on there on a daily basis is rooted in a lack water in the area due to long droughts which have brought different groups of people in contact with each other to battle over the scarce resource.  And you thought fighting over oil got nasty!  Here's a bit of what the BBC had to say:

"Analysts say competition for resources between Darfur's Arab nomads and black African farmers is behind the conflict.

More than 200,000 Darfuris have died and 2m fled their homes since 2003.

'Much of the unrest in Darfur and the misery is due to water shortages,' said geologist Farouk El-Baz, director of the Boston University Center for Remote Sensing, according to the AP news agency."


Propulsion Via Series of Controlled Explosions

Feeling a little lazy today, but this is a pretty darn funny link, so here's a copy of the post [with the funny link] from my other blog.

Oldglory Electricity seems scary or dangerous to many people - but how about the alternative, the internal combustion engine, which is the subject of this hysterical piece from The Onion?  Here's an excerpt:

"A sofa-on-wheels with an eight-cylinder engine containing a functioning camshaft that activates its valves in perfect synchronicity with its pistons sounds exactly like something an underachieving third-grader would slap together the night before the school science fair. So you figured out a way to convert a relatively small amount of an easily accessible combustible via the four-stroke cycle into an enormous amount of energy capable of propelling a two-ton chassis from zero to 60 in under a minute? Yeah? And?"

Do yourself a favor and check it out in its entirety - it'll put you in a great mood to start this last day before America's birthday tomorrow!


Is the US Really Falling Behind in Math & Science, and Why It Doesn't Matter

Since the 1980's, we've seen alarming reports of global test results showing that other countries' grade school students have surpassed the US with their math and science scores.  I question whether math/science/any other ability can be evaluated on the basis of test scores alone.  And I also question whether it even matters that Chinese or Indian or German students are stronger in math than their US counterparts, as long as the best and brightest ultimately end up applying their knowledge at American universities/institutions/companies.  And there can be no question of whether or not THAT is happening (it most certainly is).
The reason I question the assessability of math or science or any other skills by using standardized testing is because it's impossible, at least currently, to test creativity in these areas.  What was more important for Einstein:  memorization of the periodic table, which he may have tested poorly on when compared to peers in his own or other countries, or creative brilliance, which allowed him to conjure in his mind's eye what the underlying rules and structure of the universe may look like?   And was Thomas Edison, the most prolific inventor in American (world?) history, known far and wide for his genius in calculus, or for his ability to put forth effort and creative ideas to discover and invent?  Granted, an individual of the caliber of a Stephen Hawking, possessing both creative AND numerical genius sure comes in handy on the theoretical side of the house, but can anyone honestly believe that his amazing mathematical mind is the result of the system under which he learned mathematics in elementary or high school?  No; he is an anomaly among anomalies, and would have shone brightly no matter where he came from.
The focus should be on maintaining, or preferably increasing, our lead in mathematical and scientific research institution performance and contribution, by continuing to make them attractive to the best the world has to offer.  There will be hiccups along the way, as with our nation's stem cell policy, that allow other nations to take the lead in certain areas; for now, however, America's mathematical and scientific community is nothing to be ashamed of, nor is our education system in these areas, with its strengths being its hands-on experimental focus that engages children and young adults in ways that equations and theorems simply cannot for most people, alongside involved parents who are constantly purchasing and using products, museums, and experiences for their children to maximize their interactivity with the world around them.  I like our chances.


Little-known Migraine Remedy

This is actually for people who think they have migraines but really have something else that's almost as painful.  After years of suffering through allergies (probably Mountain Cedar, particularly bad in Texas), I finally tried some Claritin every day for a week.  In the past I had tried it for a day or two, saw no improvement, and stopped.  But a doctor said it needed to be in your system to really work, so give it at least 4 days in a row.  Well, after a few days, my allergy symptoms were gone - but I had excruciating headaches.  So I stopped, because the headache was worse than all the allergy symptoms that I had suffered through the years.  The next doctor prescribed Allegra-D (for Decongestant - Claritin also makes a "D" version, and there's generic Claritin and now generic Claritin D).  The Allegra D worked, and no headache!  The doc said my headaches had been caused by sinus congestion.  But I didn't FEEL congested, I protested!  Couldn't argue with the results though.  After that 30-day supply ran out, I switched to generic Claritin D, with equally spectacular headache-free allergy relief.  And next moved on to plain generic Claritin (called Loratadine) and Sudafed as the decongestant.  Then, this very week, with my wife suffering debilitating headaches for a little over a week and trying every headache medication she could buy or borrow, I finally got her to try my good old-fashioned decongestant (Sudafed Maximum Strength Non-Drowsy) so her head would stop pounding as she lay in bed.  It worked that night, and has been working every day since (it's a 12-hr that she takes in the morning and at night, and it hasn't been keeping her awake at night, oddly).  Her mom and her sister are trying it today for their "migraines", which started right about when my wife's did (allergies are frequently inherited) and I expect the same miraculous results.  So do yourself a favor if you're suffering from "migraines" like this and drop a few bucks to try some Sudafed Max - whether you FEEL congested or not.


No Faith In Global Warming

What's the popular scenario for man-made global warming wreaking havoc on the earth?  First, the temperature of the earth rises, then the polar ice caps and glacial shelves melt, resulting in cataclysmic flooding of continental coastlines.  44% of the world's population lives within about 90 miles of a coastline.  So there goes the neighborhood, right?  But what happens when the neighborhood goes?  Massive insurance company losses, that's what.  And to stave off those massive losses, insurers and re-insurers have to collect the money beforehand in the form of hefty premiums.  "Beforehand" should already be underway as of right now if these dire catastrophic predictions are to be taken seriously, and who's more serious than insurance companies?  Are they collecting enormous, never-before-imagined premiums based on Al Gore's slide show bringing to light these amazing scientific proofs of what we're doing to the atmosphere and what the consequences will surely be, probably within the next 100 60 30 years?  Actually, no.  In my view, either there's not enough hard evidence on which to base the man-made global warming claims, or the insurance companies aren't doing their jobs and collecting as much money in the form of ridiculously high global warming premiums as possible for the next 10-30 years to pay for the claims that will be made when half the population of the world inevitably watches their homes get slurped up by the ocean.  Am I a global warming skeptic?  Not necessarily - I just believe in the actuarial sciences and in Warren Buffett's companies' ability to suck every penny possible out of those who would pay moreso than I subscribe to man's ability to look around and analyze ancient ice cores and be able to discern that we're about to be in serious need of one mother of an ark.


Humans Can't Stop Global Warming

Wherever you stand on global warming, there are some hard data points to consider.  Countries can be ranked by how productive they are in terms of what they produce, be it for physical goods or co2 emissions.  I've summarized some data as follows:

24 countries contribute 1% or more of the world total man-made co2 emissions
These countries account for 84.3% of the total man-made c02 emissions
Man-made co2 emissions for ALL countries account for roughly .73% of the co2 in the atmosphere

Although man-made accounts for less than 1% of the total co2 in the atmosphere, it is not counter-balanced by natural processes, unlike the rest of the co2 in the atmosphere.  This "carbon cycle" is the process of co2 naturally released into the atmosphere by trees, oceans, dead matter, soil, volcanic eruptions, etc., and then re-absorbed by nature.  Our stuff throws things out of balance and leads to a net surplus in the atmosphere - very small, but measurable.  And nature's about to get into the act in a big way too, with unknown consequences, as described by this interesting Washington Post article (you may have to do a free registration to view it, unfortunately, but you should do one anyway because they frequently have great articles). 

The total GDP in $Millions divided by the total  co2 emissions of the top 24 emitters is $1.85, or 1.85 GDP units per co2 emission unit.  The higher your number, the more eco-friendly your GDP.  The U.S. is 9th out of 24 on this basis, at $2.12 (better than average).  Ukraine, Russia, Iran, India, and China range from $.27 (Ukraine) to $.68 (China).  France, U.K., and Italy are all better than $4.  Japan's the only Asian out of the best 13.  Here's a link to Wikipedia's "Carbon Cycle" article, along with a link to IMF figures for the GDP.