Saturday, June 30, 2012

Graphene, Nanotubes and Carbon Fiber

Carbon Super-Materials Will Change the World

Posted by Tom Hartsfield on RealClearScience at Wed, 27 Jun 2012

During the early 20th century there was a revolution in the materials used everywhere around us due to the inventions of polymer chemistry. Polymer molecules are long chains--only a few atoms wide but many, many atoms long--bonded covalently. (They share their outermost electrons, which is generally the strongest way atoms can bond together.)

Nylon, vinyl, polyethylene (plastic bags and sheets), mass-producible polystyrene (Styrofoam), polypropylene (plastic containers and furniture), Teflon, PVC, etc. Pretty much everything cheap that we buy and use every day was invented in a chemistry lab.

Starting in the late 20th century and taking off particularly over the past two decades, a potentially similar revolution in materials has been brewing. This time it is due to the chemical properties of carbon. Carbon is able to form extremely strong bonds with other carbon atoms.

All-carbon structures come in many forms, and three currently stand out. Sheets of carbon atoms, called graphene; hollow tubes of rolled up graphene, called nanotubes; and carbon fiber, made of stacked sheets of graphene. Each of these three extraordinary materials deserves its own story. Considered as a class, they may well similarly change what we make things out of, and, subsequently, what those things are capable of doing.

Graphene might be the best material in the world for conducting heat and electricity. A sheet of pure graphene the size of a piece of cling wrap could support a car balanced on a pencil on top of it. Right now, it is too expensive to find much commercial use, but its price has dropped enormously over the past few years and will probably continue to do so.

Carbon nanotubes, which are simply graphene sheets rolled into a tube, inherit many of the same properties. They can be used to make super-strong materials and conductors as well. Japan wants to use them to build a space elevator.

Finally, the material that is already starting to change the world is carbon fiber. It is nearly ubiquitous in applications where low weight for a certain strength is highly desirable (and worth paying for). Lance Armstrong rides entirely carbon-fiber bicycles. Major auto manufacturers are beginning to use it to build car body parts, and carbon-fiber prosthetic legs are so amazing that they may be unfair for sprinters to use in the Olympics.

Beyond luxury sporting goods however, carbon fiber is beginning to become cheap enough to find other uses. Furniture, musical instruments, solar cells, scientific equipment, bridges--once the price falls low enough, nearly any structural application can be improved dramatically with carbon-fiber and other carbon materials.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Science Goes Beyond "Belief"

Scientific knowledge should trump "belief"

By Ken Perrott
Posted on his blog June 28, 2012

I have listened to a few discussions on the Christian Radio Rhema recently. Unusual for me, I know, but I have followed the current controversy around the problem of religious instruction in New Zealand public schools. This issue has been debated (and defended) a bit on Radio Rhema.

My post Mixing values and Jesus in secular education discussed the problem. Basically it involves getting around the required secular nature of public education by closing the school for the duration of the instruction, which is provided by a church-trained voluntary "teacher." Some parents feel the system is being wroughted by tying this instruction to the values content of the secular curriculum. And although there is a theoretical opt-out provision, parents are often unaware of this, or of the religious instruction, until the children come home with strange stories about creationism or hell.

But back to Radio Rhema. What amazed me about the announcer and the Christian spokespersons he interviewed was their naive use of post-modernist arguments to justify religious instruction and creationism/intelligent design teaching. They rely on the simple claim that inevitably everyone has a "world view," a belief system. So everyone must be biased. That whatever is taught is only just a belief. And that science has not more access to truth than religion has. One belief is as good as another.

Dragging science down to a "belief"
It’s not the only place I have heard such arguments. In fact this seems to be the inevitable fall-back position when science challenges religious ideas. In this case one spokesperson even said that evolution is just a myth, no better than the creation myths! Another pulled out the old chestnut that any belief system required faith – science requires faith just as much as any religious story! Yet another claimed that both "human caused" and "non-human caused" beliefs about climate change should be taught in schools. Equal tome for each belief – forget about the facts.

In one way these people are sawing off the branch they are sitting on because when they deny scientific knowledge, or the epistemic advantage of scientific method, they attempt to put it in the same basket they reside in. But I suppose if you can’t give a reason for your myths to be better than scientific knowledge this may be all you are left with. Dragging science down to the epistemic level of your own ideology.

But those who use such arguments and who treat scientific or historical knowledge as "just beliefs," having no more support than beliefs derived from magical thinking, show at least a basic misunderstanding of science. Of course, their motives may actually be more malicious. They may consciously be attempting to misrepresent science. to advance their own beliefs

In contrast to the beliefs comprising religious "knowledge," scientific knowledge is intimately connected with the real world. Scientific ideas and theories are based on evidence, derived from interaction with reality. And they are validated by testing against reality. This does not make scientific knowledge absolute and complete "Truth" – in the capitalised sense. But it does give a picture of reality which usually closely reflects the truth of that reality. Very often close enough to enable practical applications. It’s a constantly improving picture as we get more evidence and more ways of interacting with reality.

The epistemic advantage of science

But importantly, its basis in evidence and its close connection with reality means scientific knowledge is not a "belief." It is very different to religious beliefs which may, in fact, bear no relation to reality.

This means that science has an epistemic advantage – an advantage that society generally recognises. That is why concern about possible climate change has caused governments to consult climate scientists to summarise the findings of their science. Governments are not interested in beliefs – they are interested in the facts, or at least the best summary of the facts the experts can provide.

If the naive picture presented by the commenters on Radio Rhema was true then governments could save a lot of money. Instead of all the investment in field work, laboratory analysis and scientific and technical staff we could have solved the problem of cobalt deficiency in New Zealand soils by hiring a theologian. And surely even an interfaith committee of theologians, flash robes and lifestyles included, advising the government over climate issues would have been a lot cheaper than NIWA or our contribution to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Especially if no international scientific research was actually carried out on climate and these theologians instead consulted the writings of their overseas colleagues.

Mind you, after attempting to read some of the post-modernist material produced by theologians I can just imagine how useless the recommendations of this interfaith committee would be. I doubt if they could even agree on anything understandable, let alone specific enough for a government to base policies on.
Unedited from the blog of Ken Perrott at:

More about Perrott at:

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Obama Care Slithers Past the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court has been considering the constitutional legality of Obama Care (The "Affordable Care Act o 2010") for months. Most legal followers were expecting a decision based on whether or not it is constitutional for the federal government to demand that individuals purchase health insurance, even if they are young and in good health such they don’t need it. If the "Commerce Clause" allows such power in federal hands, then the law is legitimate. If the law overreaches the commerce clause, then the federal government is limited to the enumerated powers of the constitution and Obama Care is illegal.

The Supreme Court was divided along partison lines in December of 2000 when it decided to interfere with Florida’s voter recount in a manner that handed Florida’s electoral votes – and the presidency – to George W. Bush. Aware that the Supreme Court may be facing another such major decision with votes along strictly partisan lines, the present Chief Justice, John Roberts, undertook to write the opinion himself (a decision correctly predicted by pundits and court watchers). But what he decided to do was oppose the notion that the commerce clause empowers the federal government to demand universal insurance, yet, in the same decision, to deem the penalty for non-coverage a tax that is consistent with the constitutional power to impose taxes.

The four liberal judges on the bench agreed and a five-to-four decision came down today in favor of the legality of Obama Care.  Superficially, the court looks unbiased because both left and a right judge voted for the majority opinion.  The other conserative judges wrote a blistering dissenting opinion.

The future of the legislation will be determined ultimately by the winners of the Presidential and congressional elections in November.

Out there in blog land, the voting public seems to be waking up to a wider war that the Supreme Court has justed started. The court thought it decided that penalties constitute a tax, the power to tax is enumerated in the constitution, and that settles the matter unless Congress throws out Obama Café.

Here’s a pungent blogged response:
WRONG. This decision means that the Federal Government can tax its citizens for ANYTHING. For NOT doing something. It is no longer a limited government. Liberals, if a future administration decides to tax you if you don't buy a gun...thank Obama. If it decides to tax you for not attending a church of your choice...thank Obama. Both freedom of religion and the 2nd amendment are better arguments than a make-believe "right to health care". IT IS THE ERA OF BIG BROTHER AND THE DEMOCRATS MADE IT HAPPEN.

--Yahoo blog comment by "oblockcfp"
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Footnote by the blog author: as a certified public accountant, I have been watching this situation closely since the legislation was being drafted by Capitol Hill lobbyists in the summer of 2009. I have a secret to share with you: the complexity and inefficiency of administration of Obama Care are horrendous. This is going to be stunningly expensive, and it will be paid for out of borrowed money (deficit spending) and stupendously higher insurance premiums for everyone. If Obama Care is a "tax," get ready for a whopping tax increase in 2014, 2015, 2016 and ever thereafter.

Supporters of Obama Care talk like it will cost about the same as the present system and humanely cover nearly everyone. Instead it will be atrociously expensive and still leave out millions of Americans.

Oh. By the way. For all that money, it still doesn’t cover everyone. It still doesn’t cover all medical conditions. And it still leaves, uh, termination of life at the end of chronic conditions up to panels. Death panels. The panels are right there in the boilerplate of the law.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Positive Quiddity: Actor John Barrymore

John Sidney Blyth (February 15, 1882 – May 29, 1942), better known as John Barrymore, was an American actor of stage and screen. He first gained fame as a handsome stage actor in light comedy, then high drama and culminating in groundbreaking portrayals in Shakespearean plays Hamlet and Richard III. His success continued with motion pictures in various genres in both the silent and sound eras. Barrymore's personal life has been the subject of much writing before and since his death in 1942. Today John Barrymore is known mostly for his portrayal of Hamlet and for his roles in movies like Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1920), Grand Hotel (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), Twentieth Century (1934), and Don Juan (1926), the first ever movie to use a Vitaphone soundtrack.

The most prominent member of a multi-generation theatrical dynasty, he was the brother of Lionel Barrymore and Ethel Barrymore, and was the paternal grandfather of Drew Barrymore.

Barrymore specialized in light comedies until convinced by his friend, playwright Edward Sheldon, to try serious drama. Thereafter Barrymore created a sensation in John Galsworthy’s Justice (1916) co-starring Cathleen Nesbitt and directed by Ben Iden Payne. It would be Nesbitt who would introduce him to Blanche Oelrichs. He followed this triumph with Broadway successes in Peter Ibbetson (1917), a role his father Maurice had wanted to play, Tolstoy’s Redemption (1918) and The Jest (1919), co-starring his brother Lionel, reaching what seemed to be the zenith of his stage career as Richard III in 1920. Barrymore suffered a conspicuous failure in his wife Michael Strange’s play Clair de Lune (1921), but followed it with the greatest success of his theatrical career with Hamlet in 1922, which he played on Broadway for 101 performances and then took to London in 1925.

Barrymore entered films around 1913 with the feature An American Citizen. He or someone using the name Jack Barrymore is given credit for four short films made in 1912 and 1913, but this has not been proven to be John Barrymore. Barrymore was most likely convinced into giving films a try out of economic necessity and the fact that he hated touring a play all over the United States. He could make a couple of movies in the off-season theater months or shoot a film in one part of a day while doing a play in another part. He also may have been goaded into films by his brother Lionel and his uncle Sidney, who had both been successfully making movies for a couple of years. Some of Barrymore's silent film roles included A. J. Raffles in Raffles the Amateur Cracksman (1917), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), Sherlock Holmes (1922), Beau Brummel (1924), Captain Ahab in The Sea Beast (1926), and Don Juan (1926). When talking pictures arrived, Barrymore's stage-trained voice added a new dimension to his screen work. He made his talkie debut with a dramatic reading of the big Duke of Gloucester speech from Henry VI, Part 3 in Warner Brothers’ musical revue ‘The Show of Shows’ ("Would they were wasted: marrow, bones and all"), and reprised his Captain Ahab role in Moby Dick (1930). His other leads included The Man from Blankley’s (1930), Svengali (1931), The Mad Genius (1931), Grand Hotel (1932) (in which he displays an affectionate chemistry with his brother Lionel), Dinner at Eight (1933), Topaze (1933) and Twentieth Century (1934). He worked opposite many of the screen's foremost leading ladies, including Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, and Carole Lombard. In 1933, Barrymore appeared as a Jewish attorney in the title role of Counsellor at Law based on Elmer Rice’s 1931 play. As critic Pauline Kael later wrote, he "seems an unlikely choice for the ghetto-born lawyer...but this is one of the few screen roles that reveal his measure as an actor. His 'presence' is apparent in every scene; so are his restraint, his humor, and his zest."

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Note by the blog author

Barrymore’s film performances in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight are widely regarded as some of the very finest work by any American actor. The first time Dr. Jekyll transforms himself into the evil Mr. Hyde, Barrymore succeeded in the transformation through shaking himself and contorting his face – with no makeup and no special effects. The cameraman, while filming this scene, fainted.

Barrymore’s scenes with Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and, especially, his brother Lionel Barrymore in Grand Hotel are stunningly excellent, virtually above criticism.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Some Australian Humor

These were posted on an Australian Tourism Website and are the actual responses by the website officials, who obviously have a great sense of humour (not to mention a low tolerance for cretins!)

Q: Does it ever get windy in Australia ? I have never seen it rain on TV, how do the plants grow? ( UK ).

A: We import all plants fully grown and then just sit around watching them die.

Q: Will I be able to see kangaroos in the street? ( USA )

A:Depends how much you've been drinking.

Q:I want to walk from Perth to Sydney - can I follow the railroad tracks? ( Sweden )

A: Sure, it's only three thousand miles, take lots of water.

Q: Are there any ATMs (cash machines) in Australia? Can you send me a list of them in Brisbane, Cairns, Townsville and Hervey Bay ? ( UK )

A: What did your last slave die of?

Q:Can you give me some information about hippo racing in Australia ? ( USA )

A: A-Fri-ca is the big triangle shaped continent south of Europe.
Aus-tra-lia is that big island in the middle of the Pacific which does not
... Oh forget it. Sure, the hippo racing is every Tuesday night in Kings Cross. Come naked.

Q:Which direction is North in Australia ? (USA )

A: Face south and then turn 180 degrees. Contact us when you get here and we'll send the rest of the directions.

Q: Can I bring cutlery into Australia ? ( UK )
A:Why? Just use your fingers like we do...

Q:Can you send me the Vienna Boys' Choir schedule? ( USA )

A: Aus-tri-a is that quaint little country bordering Ger-man-y, which is
Oh forget it. Sure, the Vienna Boys Choir plays every Tuesday night in Kings Cross, straight after the hippo races. Come naked.

Q: Can I wear high heels in Australia ? ( UK )
A: You are a British politician, right?

Q:Are there supermarkets in Sydney and is milk available all year round? ( Germany )

A: No, we are a peaceful civilization of vegan hunter/gatherers.
Milk is illegal.

Q:Please send a list of all doctors in Australia who can dispense rattlesnake serum. ( USA )

A: Rattlesnakes live in A-meri-ca which is where YOU come from.
All Australian snakes are perfectly harmless, can be safely handled and make good pets.

Q:I have a question about a famous animal in Australia, but I forget its name. It's a kind of bear and lives in trees. ( USA )

A: It's called a Drop Bear. They are so called because they drop out of Gum trees and eat the brains of anyone walking underneath them.
You can scare them off by spraying yourself with human urine before you go out walking.

Q:I have developed a new product that is the fountain of youth. Can you tell me where I can sell it in Australia ? ( USA )

A: Anywhere significant numbers of Americans gather.

Q:Do you celebrate Christmas in Australia ? ( France )

A: Only at Christmas.

Q: Will I be able to speak English most places I go? ( USA )

A: Yes, but you'll have to learn it first

Monday, June 25, 2012

Some Worldwide American Brands

Still Made in the U.S.A.

Smith and Wesson handguns

Hershey candy

The Wiffle ball

Wilson footballs

Louisville Slugger bats

Slinky toy

Gibson guitars

Crayola crayons

Sharpie pens


Kitchenaid appliances

Airstream trailers

Zippo lighters


Sunday, June 24, 2012

Living to Age 100 or More

Glenn Ruffenach wrote an article for SmartMoney about how to live to the age of 100 or more.. Information was gathered from UnitedHealthcare, the Census Bureau, and surveys, including input from centenarians themselves. Here’s what it takes to lead a very long life:
  • Eight hours or more of sleep each night
  • Eating right with balanced meals
  • Social connections regularly with family and friends
  • Exercise (every day or nearly every day)
  • Spiritual activity such as church activities or meditation
"Finally, researchers turned to cultural affairs and asked centenarians and boomers to identify – from a list of 14 notable people (including President Obama, singer Paul McCartney and actors Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts) – their preferred dinner guest. The top choice among centenarians and boomers alike: the comedian Betty White."

Saturday, June 23, 2012

"STEM" Careers Have Advantages

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Careers

STEM skills are key to more careers than you might think.

Did you know that science, technology, engineering, or math graduates can find work as health care practitioners, teachers, farmers, top-level managers in the private or government sector, and even writers or artists?

STEM careers are concentrated in the following fields:
  • Agriculture, Agricultural Operations, and Related Sciences
  • Computer and Informational Sciences and Support Services
  • Engineering and Engineering Technologies
  • Biological and Biomedical Sciences
  • Mathematics and Statistics
  • Physical Sciences [such as physics and chemistry] and Technologies
Job Title

Accountants and Auditors
Biological Technicians
Biomedical Engineers
Chemical Engineers
Civil Engineers
Computer and Information Systems Managers
Computer Hardware Engineers
Computer Programmers
Computer Software Engineers, Applications and Systems Software
Database Administrators
Electrical Engineers
Electronics Engineers, Except Computer
Environmental Engineers
Environmental Science and Protection Technicians, Including Health
Environmental Scientists and Specialists, Including Health
Food Scientists and Technologists
Forest and Conservation Technicians
Health and Safety Engineers, Except Mining Safety Engineers and Inspectors
Industrial Engineers
Mechanical Engineers
Medical Scientists, Except Epidemiologists
Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technologists
Network and Computer Systems Administrators
Network Systems and Data Communications Analysts
Operations Research Analysts


Blog Author’s Note

My understanding is that accountants and auditors, in order to be considered "STEM" category members, must be computer literate and comfortable with working in databases and with query languages (such as SQL). I do not know of other business degrees that are generally considered as included in the STEM category. I have heard from less reliable sources that certain social science degrees in sociology and anthropology are considered STEM, but I find this to be a dubious claim.

A meaningful accounting degree, these days, is one which qualifies the graduate to sit on the uniform certified public accountant examination.

Incidentally, there is a trend to move accounting and auditing out of college business departments into a separate area that offers a "science" rather than "business administration" degree.

The blog author himself is a certified public accountant.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Negative Quiddity: Confirmation Bias

Confirmation Bias, June 23, 2010

The Misconception:  Your opinions are the result of years of rational, objective analysis.

The Truth:   Your opinions are the result of years of paying attention to information which confirmed what you believed while ignoring information which challenged your preconceived notions.

Have you ever had a conversation in which some old movie was mentioned, something like "The Golden Child" or maybe even something more obscure?

You laughed about it, quoted lines from it, wondered what happened to the actors you never saw again, and then you forgot about it.


You are flipping channels one night and all of the sudden you see "The Golden Child" is playing. Weird.

The next day you are reading a news story, and out of nowhere it mentions forgotten movies from the 1980s, and holy shit, three paragraphs about "The Golden Child."

You see a trailer that night at the theater for a new Eddie Murphy movie, and then you see a billboard on the street promoting Charlie Murphy doing stand-up in town, and then one of your friends sends you a link to a post at TMZ showing recent photos of the actress from "The Golden Child."

What is happening here? Is the universe trying to tell you something?

No. This is how confirmation bias works.

Since the party and the conversation where you and your friends took turns saying "I-ah-I-ah-I want the kniiiife" you’ve flipped channels plenty of times; you’ve walked past lots of billboards; you’ve seen dozens of stories about celebrities; you’ve been exposed to a handful of movie trailers.

The thing is, you disregarded all the other information, all the stuff unrelated to "The Golden Child." Out of all the chaos, all the morsels of data, you only noticed the bits which called back to something sitting on top of your brain.

A few weeks back, when Eddie Murphy and his Tibetan adventure were still submerged beneath a heap of pop-culture at the bottom of your skull, you wouldn’t have paid any special attention to references to it.

If you are thinking about buying a new car, you suddenly see people driving them all over the roads. If you just ended a long-time relationship, every song you hear seems to be written about love. If you are having a baby, you start to see them everywhere.

Confirmation bias is seeing the world through a filter, thinking selectively.

The examples above are a sort of passive version of the phenomenon. The real trouble begins when confirmation bias distorts your active pursuit of facts.

Punditry is a whole industry built on confirmation bias.

Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann, Glenn Beck and Arianna Huffington, Rachel Maddow and Ann Coulter – these people provide fuel for beliefs, they pre-filter the world to match existing world-views.

If their filter is like your filter, you love them. If it isn’t, you hate them.
Whether or not pundits are telling the truth, or vetting their opinions, or thoroughly researching their topics is all beside the point. You watch them not for information, but for confirmation.
"Be careful. People like to be told what they already know. Remember that. They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things. New things…well, new things aren’t what they expect. They like to know that, say, a dog will bite a man. That is what dogs do. They don’t want to know that man bites a dog, because the world is not supposed to happen like that. In short, what people think they want is news, but what they really crave is olds…Not news but olds, telling people that what they think they already know is true."
-- Terry Pratchett through the character Lord Vetinari from his novel, "The Truth: a novel of Discworld
Check any wish list, and you will find people rarely seek books which challenge their notions of how things are or should be.

During the 2008 U.S. presidential election, Valdis Krebs at analyzed purchasing trends on Amazon.

People who already supported Obama were the same people buying books which painted him in a positive light. People who already disliked Obama were the ones buying books painting him in a negative light.
Just like with pundits, people weren’t buying books for the information, they were buying them for the confirmation.

Krebs has researched purchasing trends on Amazon and the clustering habits of people on social networks for years, and his research shows what psychological research into confirmation bias predicts: you want to be right about how you see the world, so you seek out information which confirms your beliefs and avoid contradictory evidence and opinions.

Half-a-century of research has placed confirmation bias among the most dependable of mental stumbling blocks.

Journalists looking to tell a certain story must avoid the tendency to ignore evidence to the contrary; scientists looking to prove a hypothesis must avoid designing experiments with little wiggle room for alternate outcomes.

Without confirmation bias, conspiracy theories would fall apart. Did we really put a man on the moon? If you are looking for proof we didn’t, you can find it.
"If one were to attempt to identify a single problematic aspect of human reasoning that deserves attention above all others, the confirmation bias would have to be among the candidates for consideration. Many have written about this bias, and it appears to be sufficiently strong and pervasive that one is led to wonder whether the bias, by itself, might account for a significant fraction of the disputes, altercations, and misunderstandings that occur among individuals, groups, and nations."
-- Raymond S. Nickerson
In a 1979 University of Minnesota study by Mark Snyder and Nancy Cantor, people read about a week in the life of an imaginary woman named Jane. Throughout the week, Jane did things which showcased she could be extraverted in some situations and introverted in others.

A few days passed. The subjects were asked to return.

Researchers divided the people into groups and asked them to help decide if Jane would be suited for a particular job. One group was asked if she would be a good librarian; the other group was asked if she would be a good real-estate agent.

In the librarian group, people remembered her as an introvert. In the real-estate group, they remembered her being an extravert. After this, when they were asked if she would be good at the other profession people stuck with their original assessment, saying she wasn’t suited for the other job.

The study suggests even in your memories you fall prey to confirmation bias, recalling those things which support your beliefs, forgetting those things which debunk them.

An Ohio State study in 2009 showed people spend 36 percent more time reading an essay if that essay aligns with their opinions.

Another study at Ohio State in 2009 showed subjects clips of the parody show "The Colbert Report," and people who considered themselves politically conservative consistently reported "Colbert only pretends to bejoking and genuinely meant what he said."
"Thanks to Google, we can instantly seek out support for the most bizarre idea imaginable. If our initial search fails to turn up the results we want, we don’t give it a second thought, rather we just try out a different query and search again."
-- Justin Owings
A popular method for teaching confirmation bias, first introduced by P.C. Wason in 1960, is to show the following numbers to a classroom: 2, 4, 6
The teacher then asks the classroom to guess the teacher’s secret rule by offering up three numbers of their own. The teacher will then say "yes" or "no" if the order matches the rule. When the student thinks they have it figured out, they have to write it down and turn it in.
Students typically offer sets like 10, 12, 14 or 22, 24, 26. The teacher says "yes" over and over again, and the majority of people turn in the wrong answer.

To figure out the rule, students would have to offer sets like 2, 2, 2 or 9, 8, 7 – these, the teacher would say, do not fit the rule. With enough guesses playing against what the students think the rule may be, students finally figure out what the original rule was (three numbers in ascending order).

The exercise is intended to show how you tend to come up with a hypothesis and then work to prove it right instead of working to prove it wrong. Once satisfied, you stop searching.

You seek out safe havens for your ideology, friends and coworkers of like mind and attitude, media outlets guaranteed to play nice.

Whenever your opinions or beliefs are so intertwined with your self-image you couldn’t pull them away without damaging your core concepts of self, you avoid situations which may cause harm to those beliefs.
"The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it."
-- Francis Bacon
Over time, by never seeking the antithetical, through accumulating subscriptions to magazines, stacks of books and hours of television, you can become so confident in your world-view no one could dissuade you.
Remember, there’s always someone out there willing to sell eyeballs to advertisers by offering a guaranteed audience of people looking for validation. Ask yourself if you are in that audience.

In science, you move closer to the truth by seeking evidence to the contrary. Perhaps the same method should inform your opinions as well.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

15 Prestigious Banks Are Downgraded

Reuters reports that Moody’s lowered the credit ratings of 15 large banks on Thursday. Here is a list of those banks:

Morgan Stanley
Credit Suisse
BNP Paribas
Royal Bank of Canada
Goldman Sachs Group
JPMorgan Chase
Credit Agricole
Deutsche Bank
Bank of America
Royal Bank of Scotland
Societe Generale


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Urgent Fight for Our Boys' Brains

from the introduction to Swagger [Copyright 2012], by Lisa Bloom

  • Many American schools are subpar
  • Kids graduate without knowing the basics of U.S. history or the rudiments of science.
  • The school week down to only four days to save money in over 100 U.S. counties
  • Only one in three Baltimore kids graduates from high school
  • One in five American high school seniors graduates illiterate
  • Boys underperform compared to girls in every grade and subject
  • Nationwide the majority of our African American and Hispanic boys drop out of high school
  • The young adult male jobless rate hovers at 18 percent
  • One hundred million Americans are now poor or near poor
  • Traditionally "male" jobs? They are mostly gone, and they are not coming back
  • Millions of American manufacturing jobs were siphoned off to China, India, and elsewhere. Those jobs are now extinct in America
  • Popular culture—the third soul-leeching, invisible force—seduces our boys with flashy, loud messages that manhood equals macho bravado, emotional numbness, ignorance, and thugdom
  • Our prison population has skyrocketed to its highest level in US history, more than any other country on earth now or in human history
  • In the United States, one man out of eighteen is incarcerated or on probation or parole
  • Sons are falling behind in school; addiction to video games; inability to communicate socially; music, TV, and films that encourage boys to become macho jerks; how hard it was for them to get their son to pick up a book
  • Boys demonstrate a stunningly low reading proficiency
  • Grand Theft Auto is overwhelmingly played by boys (and depicts for them a manhood defined by fighting, guns and violence)


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Time to Return to the Moon?

Analysis by Jennifer Ouellette, Discovery News, Tue Jun 19, 2012

With so many exciting celestial bodies in our solar system and beyond, it's easy to take the moon for granted. Sure, NASA crashed a probe into the lunar surface for science recently, but no human being has set foot on the moon since Apollo 17 in December 1972.

Now Ian Crawford of Birkbeck College in London and his colleagues have co-authored a paper making the case for a return manned mission to the moon, to augment the many remote-sensing spacecraft sent into lunar orbit over the last ten years.

So, what did they come up with? Well, for starters, the moon could be an excellent source of Earth rocks, dating back to its early history when it was being constantly bombarded by assorted asteroids and comets. Some of the material ejected into space from those impacts wound up on the lunar surface, making the moon a potential gold mine in terms of studying the chemical composition of early Earth -- and possibly even the prebiotic origins of life on our planet.

Furthermore, this could shed light on the process of terrestrial planet formation from the earliest days of our solar system in general. As Crawford et al point out in their paper (PDF)::
"The lunar surface provides a platform for geophysical instruments (eg seismometers and heat flow probes) to probe the structure and composition of the deep interior... [T]he moon's outer layers also preserve a record of the environment in the inner solar system ... throughout solar system history much of which is relevant to understanding the past habitability of our planet."

Then there are the potential natural resources on our humble satellite. The moon's lunar soil is chock-full of helium reserves, thanks to the solar wind. We just need to figure out how to harvest this critical element with an economically viable process.

In 2009, NASA bombed the moon -- part of its Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) mission -- and observed grains of water ice in the remnants of the resulting plume, as well as light metals such as sodium and mercury, and volatile compounds like methane, ammonia, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Where you have water ice, you have a potential mother lode for lunar prospecting of hydrogen.

Our moon could also be a source for rare earth elements, such as europium and tantalum, which are in high demand on Earth for electronics and green energy applications (solar panels, hybrid cars), as well as being used in the space and defense industries.

Scientists know that there are pockets of rare earth deposits on the moon, but as yet they don't have detailed maps of those areas. Potassium, phosphorus and thorium are other elements that lunar rocks have to offer a potential mining venture.

Crawford et al also argue that the lunar surface is ideal for certain astronomical observations, namely,
exploring the universe via the regime of ultra-low-frequency radio waves. Earth-based instruments can't probe that regime, because those radio waves are absorbed by the ionosphere.

But the far side of the moon is pretty much radio-silent, so setting up an array of antennas to build a lunar radio telescope would enable astronomers to view the cosmos in this as-yet-unmapped regime. It's significant because ultra-low-frequency radio waves could shed light on the universe's "Dark Age" -- that period when it was just a few million years old, before the first stars and galaxies formed.

And if we're going to have radio telescopes, mining operations, and geological studies taking place, it just makes sense to send a few humans to oversee all those projects, right? Crawford et al think this provides an excellent opportunity study more long-term effects of microgravity of the human body, as well as inspiring advances in cutting-edge lunar life support systems.

Or maybe, 40 years from now, we'll have the technology to station clones on the lunar surface to man all that infrastructure, so human beings can stay home -- or head further afield to Mars. Suddenly the premise of the 2009 sci-fi film, Moon, doesn't seem nearly so far-fetched.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Fast New Supercomputer -- 64 Terabyte Memory

New "Big Brain Computer" starts at only $30K, but can pack up to 4,096 cores, 64 TB of memory
By Jason Mick (Blog) - June 15, 2012

Renowned physics supergenius and University of Cambridge research director Stephen W. Hawking said something about unlocking the secrets of the Universe as he received the first unit of a computer befitting his smarts -- SGI's "Big Brain Computer".

I. Meet the "Big Brain Computer"

In an era where supercomputers are slowly gravitating towards brute-force machines pillared by specialized hardware, such as a graphics processing unit (GPU) based designs or field-programmable gate arrays (FPGA), many top firms are still focusing a lot of time on a more traditional objective -- specialty purpose-built scalable server rack units, used to build such juggernauts as International Business Machines, Inc.'s (IBM) iconic Watson.

Another key entrant in this field is Silicon Graphics International Corp.(SGI). SGI was born out of the remains of Silicon Graphics, Inc. a defunct 1990s firm that pioneered the OpenGL standard and designed graphics cards. Today SGI is back at it and thriving, with its newly announced UV2 "Big Brain Computer" tower supercomputer.

Featuring custom-designed server rack units, the server is powered by Intel Corp.'s (INTC) Xeon processor E5 line, but is also compatible with NVIDIA Corp.'s (NVDA) Quadro and Tesla cards for GPU computing.

Now the author of The New York Times bestselling A Brief History of Times is receiving the first unit of the new supercomputer. An ecstatic Professor Hawking stated, "I am very pleased to be receiving the first SGI UV 2 supercomputer in the world.
New observations of our Universe, like the Planck satellite, are offering us exquisite new insights. In order to test our mathematical theories, we need to match this detail in our computer simulations. The flexible new UV 2 COSMOS system, soon to be supercharged with Intel’s MIC technology, will ensure that UK researchers remain at the forefront of fundamental and observational cosmology."

II. Entry Cost of UV2 is "Only" $30K

SGI claims the UV2 has the world's biggest shared memory system of any supercomputer. It's scalable up to 4,096 cores and 64 terabytes of memory. The system has a ludicrous peak data rate of 4 terabytes per second. To put that in context, the entire contents of the U.S. Library of Congress only occupy 10 terabytes of space.

But the UV2 isn't design for simple human literary ponderings. As Professor Hawking suggests, it's the ideal tool to chew through terabytes of chemical or astrophysical data looking for key correlations, trends, and observed events.

While its specs are intimidating, the system starts at only $30,000 USD for a bare-bones configuration and can run standard desktop apps, in addition to its specialty -- scalable multi-core/multi-GPU apps.

Writes SGI, "Users can focus on outcomes, not algorithms with the ability to rapidly innovate; taking analysis from a laptop, scaling up on SGI UV with no re-writing of code or additional data management required."

Dr. Eng Lim Goh, chief technology officer of SGI, brags that the new system is not only a world-class design -- it's also far cheaper than its predecessor, the UV1. He remarks, "The technological advancement demonstrated in this next-generation SGI UV platform is not simply focused on increasing our lead in coherent memory size and corresponding core count.

We have been able to deliver all of this additional capability while driving down the cost of the system. In fact, the entry-level configuration of SGI UV 2 is 40 percent less expensive than SGI UV 1. This creates a new level of accessibility for large shared memory systems for researchers and the ‘missing middle’, providing an effective lower overall TCO alternative to clusters."

Paired with genius algorithm and data-mining with scientific expertise like Professor Hawking, designs like the "Big Brain Computer" and "Watson" may indeed change our reality and prospective on the universe as we know it. And that's good news for all of mankind.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Computer Programs That Write Music

A Canadian audience went to a world premier of new compositions. They liked computer-generated music as much as music written by human beings. Those who considered themselves to be musically knowledgeable scored the same as those who thought themselves to be musical amateurs.

Original music is fast becoming something we can ask for from a program.
"The key findings: "The audience did not discern computer-composed from human-composed material." Listeners generally considered the works appealing, but they found the human-composed works no more enjoyable than those created by computers.

"What’s more, the listeners who described themselves as musically knowledgeable were no more likely to discriminate between the two than were the musical novices."

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Inhumane Treatment of ex-Slaves, 1862-70

Jim Downs of Connecticut College has written a book, Sick from Freedom, about the freeing of slaves at the end of America’s Civil War. The bloody war and its chaotic aftermath had shocking effects on the freed slaves.

  • The freed slaves were often neglected by union soldiers
  • Freed slaves faced rampant diseases such as smallpox and cholera
  • Many of the slaves starved to death
  • Downs estimates that about a million freed slaves died or were very ill between 1862 and 1870. Many did not want to check into this tragedy at the time.
  • Many Notherners were indifferent to the health of the freed slaves
  • Those abolitionists who knew about the tragedy feared widespread knowledge of it would play into the hands of their critics
  • Many freed slaves were kept in unsanitary camps in a state of hunger and disease
  • Some could only leave the camp by returning to the plantation where they were only slaves
  • Some of the union soldiers were brutal in their conduct
  • Some observers thought the entire former slave population would itself die out, as the Indians had done previously
-- summarized from a review of the book by Paul Harris for the UK Guardian at: 

Friday, June 15, 2012

Fathers Are Vital for Child Development

"Three questions drawn from parental acceptance–rejection theory were addressed: (a) Are children’s perceptions of parental acceptance transnationally associated with specific personality dispositions? (b) Are adults’ remembrances of parental acceptance in childhood transnationally associated with these personality dispositions? and (c) Do relations between parental acceptance and offspring’s personality dispositions vary by gender of parents? All studies used the child and adult versions of the Parental Acceptance–Rejection Questionnaires (PARQ) for Mothers and for Fathers, as well as the child and adult versions of the Personality Assessment Questionnaire (PAQ). Results showed that both maternal and paternal acceptance in childhood correlated significantly in all countries with all seven personality dispositions of adult offspring. Adults’ remembrance of paternal acceptance in childhood correlated significantly with all adult personality dispositions except dependence."

--Abstract by Abdul Khaleque and Ronald P. Rohner of their study, "Transnational Relations Between Perceived Parental Acceptance and Personality Dispositions of Children and Adults -- A Meta-Analytic Review," published in the May, 2012, Personality and Social Psychology Review, available on line at

The study found that

  • Both acceptance by the mother and by the father correlated in all countries with seven measured personality dispositions of adult offspring
  • Adult memories of paternal acceptance in childhood had a significant correlation with adult personality dispositions except dependence
In other words, though the bond between mother and child is a powerful and natural event, fathers also matter, sometimes critically. Other studies show that fatherhood matters with respect to curbing impulsiveness and in developing a stick-to-it attitude cfitrical to academic success.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Navy Invents Underwater Solar Cells

By Jason Mick (blog), June 11, 2012

Humans learn the secret that kelp has enjoyed for millions of years

Whether it’s underwater research buoys or reconnaissance submersibles, a key challenge facing all small autonomous floaters/divers is power. Batteries, after all, only carry so much charge and any kind of moving parts or broadcast hardware can rapidly deplete that charge.

Researchers at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) are looking to borrow a page from Mother Nature's playbook and develop solar cells optimized for underwater devices. Currently such devices have three options -- batteries, on-shore power, or attached solar cells that float on the ocean's surface.

Phillip Jenkins, head, NRL Imagers and Detectors Section, headed the study to make underwater cells that can produce a decent amount of power. He explains the challenges, commenting, "The use of autonomous systems to provide situational awareness and long-term environment monitoring underwater is increasing. Although water absorbs sunlight, the technical challenge is to develop a solar cell that can efficiently convert these underwater photons to electricity."

While underwater light is less intense, it is in a narrower band of spectrum, so underwater cells do have the advantage of only having to capture a narrower color range -- a common source of inefficiency in terrestrial cells.

The NRL team has completed preliminary testing and has shown that gallium indium phosphide (GaInP) cells handily outperform their silicon-based counterparts.

The GaInP photovoltaics are very efficient at harvest light of wavelengths between 400 and 700 nm -- in the realm where most ocean light is concentrated.  Further, they are enhanced by a low dark current, which allows them to operate efficiently erven in low light conditions.

At a depth of 9.1 meters, the GaInP cels were nearly three times as efficient.  The NRL team estimates that at that depth a one meter panel could produce seven watts of power, demonstrating its feasibility for numerous applications.

 While the price of the GaInP cells might bre slightly to substantially higher than silicon panels, depending on the film design, for the Navy, efficiency might trump cost.

It would be easy to imagine these cells to power small, unmanned submersibles that patrol the waters for long periods without rest, similar to continuously-airborne solar-powered UAV fliers, another current field of military research.  Both applications could see drones deployed for months or even years without having to be touched by human hands.

And who knows, maybe some day these cells could be employed to power shallow-sea ocean colonies (popular science fiction fodder).

Source: U.S. Navy Research Lab

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Positive Quiddity: Playwright Lope de Vega

Félix Arturo Lope de Vega y Carpio (25 November 1562 – 27 August 1635) was a Spanish playwright and poet. He was one of the key figures in the Spanish Golden Century Baroque literature. His reputation in the world of Spanish literature is second only to that of Cervantes, while the sheer volume of his literary output is unequalled, making him one of the most prolific authors in the history of literature.
Nicknamed "The Phoenix of Wits" and "Monster of Nature" (because of the sheer volume of his work) by Miguel de Cervantes, Lope de Vega renewed the Spanish theatre at a time when it was starting to become a mass cultural phenomenon. He defined the key characteristics of it, and along with Calderon de la Barca and Tirso de Molina, he took Spanish baroque theatre to its greater limits.

                                                Lope de Vega

Because of the insight, depth and ease of his plays, he is regarded among the best dramatists of Western literature, his plays still being represented worldwide. He was also one of the best lyric poets in the Spanish language, and author of various novels. Although not well known in the English-speaking world, his plays were presented in England as late as the 1660s, when diarist Samuel Pepys recorded having attended some adaptations and translations of them, although he omits mentioning the author.

Some 3,000 sonnets, three novels, four novellas, nine epic poems, and about 1,800 plays are attributed to him. Although he has been criticised for putting quantity ahead of quality, nevertheless at least 80 of his plays are considered masterpieces. He was a friend of the writers Quevedi and Juan Ruiz de Alarcon, and the sheer volume of his lifework made him envied by not only contemporary authors such as Cervantes and Gongora, but also by many others: for instance, Goethe once wished he had been able to produce such a vast and colourful work.

Themes and sources

The classification of this enormous mass of dramatic literature is a task of great difficulty. The terms traditionally employed – comedy, tragedy, and the like – do not apply to Lope's oeuvre. Another approach to categorization is needed. In the first place, Lope's work essentially belongs to the drama of intrigue: be the subject what it may, it is always the plot that determines everything else. It is from history, Spanish history in particular, that Lope borrows more than from any other source. It would in fact be difficult to say what national and patriotic subjects, from the reign of the half-fabulous Kint Pelayo down to the history of his own age, he did not put upon the stage.

Nevertheless, Lope's most celebrated plays belong to the class called capa y espada or "cloak and dagger", where the plots are almost always love intrigues complicated with affairs of honor, most commonly involving the petty nobility of medieval Spain.

Among the best known works of this class are El perro del hortelano (The Dog in ther Manger), La viuda de Valencia (The Widow from Valencia), and El maestro de danzar. In some of these Lope strives to set forth some moral maxim and to illustrate its abuse by a living example. Thus, on the theme that poverty is no crime, we have the play entitled Las Flores de Don Juan. Here, he uses the history of two brothers to illustrate the triumph of virtuous poverty over opulent vice, while simultaneously (but indirectly) attacking the institution of primogeniture, which often places in the hands of an unworthy person the honor and substance of a family when the younger members would be much better qualified for the trust. Such morality pieces are, however, rare in Lope's repertory; generally, his sole aim is to amuse and stir his public, not troubling himself about its instruction. His focus remains fixed on the plot.
Lope encountered a poorly organized drama: plays were composed sometimes in four acts, sometimes in three, and though they were written in verse, the structure of the versification was left far too much to the caprice of the individual writer. Because the Spanish public liked it, he adopted the style of drama then in vogue. Its narrow framework, however, he enlarged to an extraordinary degree, introducing everything that could possibly furnish material for dramatic situations: the Bible, ancient mythology, the lives of the saints, ancient history, Spanish history, the legends of the Middle Ages, the writings of the Italian novelists, current events, and everyday Spanish life in the 17th century. Prior to Lope, playwrights barely sketched the conditions of persons and their characters; with fuller observation and more careful description, Lope de Vega created real types and gave to each social order the language and accoutrements appropriate to it. The old comedy was awkward and poor in its versification; Lope introduced order into all the forms of national poetry, from the old romance couplets to the rarest lyrical combinations borrowed from Italy. He was thus justified in saying that those who should come after him had only to go on along the path which he had opened.


Listed here are some of the better-known of Lope's plays:
  • El maestro de danzar
  • El acero de Madrid
  • El perro del Hortelano
  • La viuda valenciana
  • Peribáñez y el comendador de Ocaña
  • Fuenteovejuna
  • El anzuelo de Fenisa
  • El cordobés valeroso Pedro Carbonero
  • El mejor alcalde, el Rey
  • El Nuevo Mundo descubierto por Cristóbal Colón
  • El caballero de Olmedo
  • La dama boba
  • El amor enamorado
  • El castigo sin venganza
  • Las bizarrías de Belisa
  • El mayordomo de la duquesa de Amalfi
  • Lo Fingido Verdadero
  • El niño inocente de La Guardia
  • (The Innocent Child of La Guardia)
    (What you Pretend Has Become Real)
    (The Duchess of Amalfi's Steward)
    (Justice Without Revenge)
    (The Stupid Lady; The Lady-Fool)
    (The Knight of Olmedo)
    (The New World Discovered by Christopher Columbus)
    (The Best Mayor, The King)
    (Fenisa’s Hook)
    (The Widow from Valencia)
    (The Gardener’s Dog, a variation of The Dog in the Manger fable)
    (The Steel of Madrid)
    (1594) (The Dancing Master)

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

New Ice- and Frost-Free Surfaces

Cambridge, Mass. -- June 11, 2012 -- A team of researchers from Harvard University have invented a way to keep any metal surface free of ice and frost.  The treated surfaces quickly shed even tiny, incipient condensation droplets or frost simply through gravity.

The technology prevents ice sheets from developing on surfaces—and any ice that does form, slides off effortlessly.

The discovery, published online as a just-accepted-manuscript in ACS Nano on June 10, has direct implications for a wide variety of metal surfaces such as those used in refrigeration systems, wind turbines, aircraft, marine vessels, and the construction industry.

The group, led by Joanna Aizenberg, Amy Smith Berylson Professor of Materials Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and a Core Faculty Member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, previously introduced the idea that it was possible to create a surface that completely prevented ice with ice-repellent coatings, inspired by the water repellent lotus leaf.

Yet this technique can fail under high humidity as the surface textures become coated with condensation and frost.

"The lack of any practical way to eliminate the intrinsic defects and inhomogeneities that contribute to liquid condensation, pinning, freezing, and strong adhesion, have raised the question of whether any solid surface (irrespective of its topography or treatment) can ever be truly ice-preventive, especially at high-humidity, frost-forming conditions," Aizenberg said.

To combat this problem, the researchers recently invented a radically different technology that is suited for both high humidity and extreme pressure, called SLIPS (Slippery Liquid Infused Porous Surfaces). SLIPS are designed to expose a defect-free, molecularly flat liquid interface, immobilized by a hidden nanostructured solid. On these ultra smooth slippery surfaces fluids and solids alike—including water drops, condensation, frost, and even solid ice—can slide off easily.

The challenge was to apply this technology to metal surfaces, especially as these materials are ubiquitous in our modern world, from airplane wings to railings. Aizenberg and her team developed a way to coat the metal with a rough material that the lubricant can adhere to. The coating can be finely sculpted to lock in the lubricant and can be applied over a large scale, on arbitrarily shaped metal surfaces. In addition, the coating is non-toxic and anti-corrosive.
To demonstrate the robustness of the technology, the researchers successfully applied it to refrigerator cooling fins and tested it under a prolonged, deep freeze condition. Compared to existing "frost-free" cooling systems, their innovation completely prevented frost far more efficiently and for a longer time.

"Unlike lotus leaf-inspired icephobic surfaces, which fail under high humidity conditions, SLIPS-based icephobic materials, as our results suggest, can completely prevent ice formation at temperatures slightly below 0°C while dramatically reducing ice accumulation and adhesion under deep freezing, frost-forming conditions," said Aizenberg.

In addition to allowing for the efficient removal of ice, the technology lowers the energy costs associated by several orders of magnitude. Thus, the readily scalable approach to slippery metallic surfaces holds great promise for broad application in the refrigeration and aviation industry and in other high-humidity environments where an icephobic surface is desirable.

For example, once their technology is applied to a surface, ice on roofs, wires, outdoor signs, and wind turbines could be easily removed merely by tilting, slight agitation, or even wind and vibrations.
"This new approach to icephobic materials is a truly disruptive idea that offers a way to make a transformative impact on energy and safety costs associated with ice, and we are actively working with the refrigeration and aviation industries to bring it to market," said Aizenberg.

Aizenberg is also Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, and Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and Director of the Kavli Institute for Bionano Science and Technology at Harvard.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Mysterious Knotted Proteins

By Dave Mosher,, June 8, 2012

Nearly two decades after the discovery of knotted proteins, most researchers think the strangely tangled molecules are too unwieldy to play much part in a cell’s activities.

This notion is changing. Researchers have discovered hundreds of complex knots in proteins. What appeared to be evolutionary cruft may prove useful.

"The knots are conserved across life, from bacteria to humans. They are doing something very important," said Joanna Sulkowska, a biophysicist at the University of California, San Diego. Sulkowska and Rice University biophysicist Jose Onechic led a knot discovery project described online this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Biologists knew for decades that DNA strands could tie themselves into knots. But the first knotted protein wasn’t discovered until 1994 -- researchers assumed evolution had weeded them out.

"They thought the protein would spend too much time folding to do anything useful on molecular scales, that the landscape of a cell is too complicated to use knots," Sulkowska said.

The major challenge of working with any protein is verifying its actual structure. Computer models can hint at a functional form, but until a protein is isolated and scanned, it’s educated guesswork.

Knotted proteins are even more difficult to study, and traditional protein simulations struggle to predict the forms a knot might take.

Current algorithms used to understand proteins don’t even allow for the existence of knots.

To attack the modeling problem, Onuchic’s team developed a new algorithm to search for knots in more than 74,200 known protein sequences recorded in a massive database called the Protein Data Bank.

Their algorithm found 398 proteins with complex knots and 222 proteins with simple knots. What’s more, the knotted structures they discovered appeared in a wide array of life forms, from bacteria and plants to yeast and humans. Each branch of life seems to have found some way to make specific knots.

"This didn’t happen by accident. There has to be a reason, a function for these knots," Sulkowska said. "Now we can earnestly begin to ask this question."

Early results by other laboratories suggest that, in bacteria living around scalding-hot deep-sea hydrothermal vents, knots keep some proteins literally tied together. Other forms may play a role in afflictions such as Alzheimer’s disease, and perhaps even infectious diseases.

Sulkowska and colleagues are actively exploring the infectious disease angle now. Whether or not their own investigations pan out, Sulkowska expects knotted proteins to be proven important to life’s designs. "We use knots every day in the macroscopic world," she said. "The microscopic world should be no different."

Citation: "Conservation of complex knotting and slipknotting patterns in proteins” By Joanna I. Sułkowska, Eric J. Rawdon, Kenneth C. Millett, Jose N. Onuchic, and Andrzej Stasiak.
PNAS, published online ahead of print. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1205918109


Sunday, June 10, 2012

Einstein Was Right, Say Physicists

Research from the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) reported a few months ago that some neutrinos were able to travel slightly faster, 3.7 miles per second, than the speed of light. The finding contradicts Einstein’s 1905 theory of special relativity, which states that the speed of light is an absolute speed limit for the transfer of matter (or information).

On Friday, June 7, at a meeting of the International Conference on Neutrino Physics and Astrophysics in Kyoto, Japan, researchers told the conference that the CERN results were erroneous and a "faulty kit" was to blame.

The faster-than-light velocity was recorded because of "instrumental effects." Einstein’s theory remains uncontradicted.

Details at:

Saturday, June 9, 2012

A Billionaire Who Started with Chess

Peter Thiel is a chess master who made a billion dollars as a hedge fund manager. Chess was an important model for him. Student notes explored by Jonathan Wai of Business Insider in a June 6, 2012, article show an outline of how he succeeded. Thiel himself calls it "The Mechanics of Mafia."

Know the relative value of your pieces.

In chess, the queen is the most valuable piece, followed by the rook, bishop, knight and pawn. Theil values engineers at $1 million x number of engineers but MBAs at $500,000 x number of MBAs. These he calls "transparent" valuations. Sales are vital but harder to value because their value is not easy to assess. Salesmen can be amateurs, experts, masters or even grandmasters.

Know how your pieces work best together.

Thiel notes that two personality types are vital – nerds and athletes. STEM individuals and engineers tend to be nerds – intelligent problem-solvers who are not fighters. Athletes tend to be fighters and competitors. "So you have to strike the right balance between nerds and athletes," which is to say that you have to have enough athletes to protect your nerds if there is a fight.

Know the phases of the game and have a plan.

In chess there is the opening, the middle game and the end game. In business, Thiel posits what Jose Raul Capablanca famously said: "You must study the endgame before anything else."
People mistakenly default to no plan, which is chaotic. Even a bad plan is better than no plan at all.

Being the last to move, like the dealer in poker, has the advantage of having the most information. The decisive moves are made in the endgame. "Make sure you’re around at the right time to make your move.

Have a plan."

Talent matters; there is more to success than luck.

Talent is clearly a primary concern in chess, though both talent and luck matter in business. But we tend to discount skill in business, emphasizing luck and not allowing anyone to show how he actually controlled anything.

Thiel has said, "since the best people tend to make the best companies, the founders or one or two key senior people at any multimillion-dollar company should probably spend between 25 percent and 33 percent of their time identifying and attracting talent." This leads to situations where some people hold disproportionate levels of value and control than seems apparent, so find those talented people within the organization.

Chess is a brutal mental game. So is life. Make your moves carefully.

"Chess is a really brutal game. I think because it’s so contained. It’s all going on in the head. And if you lose to your opponent, you feel stupid. You can call someone all the names under the sun, but if you call someone stupid, that’s the worst thing you can say to another human being. And that’s a bit what it feels like when you lose a game of chess. It’s all intellectual."                                    -- chess grandmaster Danny King's interview with 60 Minutes

King also said, "You can’t take your moves back. Once you play your move you could be stepping into some horrible trap."

Summarized from:  

Friday, June 8, 2012

Greek Tax Revenue Drying Up Fast

Liz Alderman of The New York Times had a shrewd article published on June 5, 2012 about Greece and its financial troubles.
  • The Greek government could be out of money as soon as July (next month!)
  • Greece may have to stop paying government salaries, pensions and for the delivery of imported fuel, food and pharmaceuticals,
  • Some Greek officials are advocating raiding funds supposedly earmarked for the country’s troubled banks.
  • Tax revenues and other incomes are drying up. Businesses have a high incentive "to avoid payint what they owe" in taxes. "Prolonged austerity is making it harder, not easier, for governments like Greece to become self-reliant again," Alderman writes.
  • The debt crisis is spreading to larger European nations such as Spain.
  • The Greek government is owed an estimated $45 billion in back taxes, "only a fraction of which will ever be recovered." Alderman’s article states:
"…. a team of inspectors recently prowled the recession-hit island of Naxos for tax evaders, [therefore] a local radio station broadcast his license plate number to warn residents."
  • Some high profile Greeks have been prosecuted for tax fraud to encourage others to file and pay honestly.
  • Salaries and pensions, both private and public, have been cut by up to 50 percent, so government revenue is down and consumers have been spending less – causing thousands of businesses to fail.
  • Bank depositors, frightened that Greece may leave the euro currency, are rapidly withdrawing their deposits.
Tax collectors got another potential lift recently when the government started enforcing a 1995 law that gives them access to bank accounts of suspected tax evaders.

But Nikos Lekkas, a top official at the financial crimes agency where Mr. Maitos works, said Greek banks had obstructed nearly 5,000 requests for account data since 2010.

"The banks delay sending the information for 8 to 12 months," he said. "And when they do, they send huge stacks of documents to make it confusing. By the time we can follow up, much of the money has already fled."

In the past two years, the agency managed to assess back taxes worth 650 million euros on 210 of the cases, he said. But only 65 percent could be collected.
  • The Greek government is also going after off-shore businesses of wealthy Greeks. Some officials expect an improvement in revenue collection when the entire taxation system becomes computerized. "a move that is supposed to be completed by the end of this year."
The entire article is on-line at:

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Negative Quiddity: Bad Polling

Who's the scariest horror movie villain?

( ) Freddy Krueger of ‘Nightmare’
( ) Jason from ‘Friday the 13th
( ) Michael Myers of ‘Halloween’
-- actual "Yahoo!" poll, June 6, 2012

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

What’s wrong with this is that an artificial pre-selection has been made in which we are supposed to assume that that poll writer has identified the correct finalists for us. This arrogant, spoon-feeding trick guarantees unreliable results.

Close your eyes, roll them around in the sockets a little bit, take a deep breath, and consider this vastly superior list:

 Jack Nicholson in The Shining
 Donald Sutherland in The Hunger Games
*Boris Karloff in The Mummy
*Bela Lugosi in Dracula
 Claude Raines in The Invisible Man
*Jeff Goldblum in The Fly (1986)
 The sensory deprivation tank survivors in The Mind Benders
 Gort the robot in The Day the Earth Stood Still
 HAL the computer in 2001 A Space Odyssey
*The cannibal zombies in Night of the Living Dead 
*Colossus in Colossus: the Forbin Project
 The bending door (a special effect) in The Haunting (1962) 
 Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz
 Gerard Butler in The Phantom of the Opera
*Jeroen Krabbe as Dr. Charles Nichols, Kimble’s friend, in The Fugitive (1993)
 Christopher Walken as Gabriel in The Prophecy
 The alien (artist: H.R. Giger) in Alien 

My own personal finalists are marked with an asterisk (*).

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

U.S. Employers Are Reluctant to Hire

"The economy seems so gripped by uncertainties that many employers have decided to manage with the staff they have. They aren't convinced their customer demand will keep growing. Or they worry that Europe's festering debt crisis could infect the global economy. Or they aren't sure what Congress will do, if anything, about taxes and spending in coming months."                              --Jonathan Fahey and Scott Mayerowitz,
                                 reporting for the Associated Press

They also note that
  • American employers added a mere 69,000 jobs in May, the fewest in a year
  • The federal government is nearing its debt ceiling.
  • State and local governments are economizing to shrink their own debts.
  • Companies complain that environmental regulations and business subsidies "are hare to predict and plan for"
  • Multi-year highway and construction projects are on hold as Congress debates the issue
  • The Bush-era tax cuts may be extended but will end without renewing legislation by year-end
  • Sales by American manufacturers to Europe are down very significantly in 2012
  • The stability of U.S. banks, the trend of the stock market and consumer confidence are all shaky
  • The U.S. wind industry is in a flat status or downtrend. An important renewable energy subsidy is set to expire later in 2012. Low natural gas prices are also putting pressure on renewables.
  • A KPMG report on technology is not optimistic:

"An April survey of 122 technology executives by KPMG found that employers weren't expecting to expand their payrolls as aggressively this year as they did last year. The main reason: Most of them are bracing for slower revenue growth.
"The fallout from Europe's shaky economy looms as the biggest concern. But slowing economies in Asia are also contributing to a more cautious approach to hiring, said Gary Matuszak of KPMG.

"There's not much confidence in the U.S. economy, either. Thirty percent of the survey respondents predicted that the economy won't fully regain its health until 2014. Thirty-three percent expect it will be 2015 or later before the economy returns to where it was before the financial meltdown of 2008."
                              --Jonathan Fahey and Scott Mayerowitz
  • The economies of India and China are slowing
  • Gasoline demand in the U.S.A. has fallen for sixty-two straight weeks
The AP story is online at:

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

How Viruses Get On Your Computer

A Letter from An Anti-Virus Program Expert

This week I want to speak to you about attachments. Why, you ask? We all know not to click attachments from unknown senders, don’t we? I recently got an email from my friend Mike who works in a parts warehouse for large commercial trucks. Naturally they get a lot of shipments and notices. Mike keeps a copy of VIPRE on his work computer and has had good success with it. Some of his coworkers, however, use another brand of antivirus software. Not long ago, a few computers using this other antivirus crashed in the warehouse receiving area. The culprit: a too-trusting staff member who clicked on a malicious zip file from an unknown source. Mike said to me, "Bottom line, this is not the first time this virus has made the rounds of companies out there. Please remind everyone to take a second to scan any and all files that come in as attachments. The seconds it takes to do this saves hours of downtime."

'So Mike, here it goes. Let’s start with the basics: What is an attachment? Simply put, an email attachment is a digital file sent along with or "in" an email message. The file or files are basically attached to the email and accompany it to the recipient. Folks often share photos, videos, music and other types of documents by attaching them to emails. Typically the attachment is represented in the email by a paperclip.

'Attachments are an important way to send and receive information – but they can also be very dangerous. You must take precautions before opening one, as malicious attachments can compromise your network and put your computer and its files in jeopardy. Much of the stuff that infects computers today, like viruses, worms and Trojans is easily spread via email attachments.

Let’s say you get an email with an enticement to open an attachment. Perhaps it’s free music or a photo of your fave movie star. If you don’t recognize the sender or the content of the email seems suspicious, don’t open files attached to it. If you do, you could accidentally open a malicious program and infect your system.

These programs can send themselves to your email contacts, modify files, delete files and even erase your hard drive.

Good rule of thumb: Don’t open an attachment from someone you don’t know. Just don’t do it! Be suspicious even if you get something from someone you DO know but were not expecting an attachment from. Ask if he/she sent it to you before opening. Email addresses can be spoofed, or altered, to appear as though they originated from someone else. For example, if you get a picture from your mom and she never sends you photos, her email address could be spoofed – don’t open it! In fact, to be really sure about what you’ve got, never, ever open an attachment without first scanning it with VIPRE.

Attachments come in many file formats. GIF, JPG and TIFF formats are typically used for photos; MPG for movies and MP3 and WAV files for music/sound. But beware of combination file extensions like amy.jpg.exe. File extensions most often have just three or four letters, so a file with more could be dangerous to open. Scan it with VIPRE first.

A few additional email tips:
  • Don’t reply to emails that are requesting personal info.
  • Don’t buy anything from a spam email. You WILL regret it tomorrow.
  • Don’t click on links from your bank or anyone else asking for your personal info. Call them up to verify all requests for information you receive via email.
Larry Jaffe
Editor, VIPRE Security News

Monday, June 4, 2012

Experimental Drug Shrinks Tumors

An experimental drug was used on patients for whom existing treatments were ineffective.  The drug shrank some of the cancers for various kinds of cancer, including lung cancers, which are difficult to treat effectively.

The experimental study was led by Dr. Suzanne Topalian and presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology as well as published by the New England Journal of Medicine. The study was explained by Carrier Gann of the ABC News Medical Unit and by Jessica Yarber, MD, on television’s Good Morning America on June 2, 2012.

The drug is PD-1, which normally works to stop the body from fighting cancerous tumors. By shutting down the pathway, PD-1 stokes the body’s immune system to fight tumor cells. The drug was given to patients who had tried up to five other treatments, all of which failed. After two years on the drug, tumors shrank in
  • 26 of 94 patients with melanoma
  • nine of 33 patients with kidney cancer
  • and 14 of 76 patients with lung cancer
  • -- about 14 percent of patients reported side effects such as skin rashes, diahrrea or breathing problems
"To see this kind of response in cancers that are so difficult to treat is very encouraging," said Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society.
The study did not show whether patients lived longer after taking the drug, but experts said early phases of drug trials typically aren't designed to determine improvements in survival. As scientists study the drug in larger numbers of patients for longer periods of time, the drug's success in prolonging life for cancer patients will become clearer.
Lichtenfeld also noted that early trials of drugs are intended to show whether a drug is safe, and don't usually find impressive numbers of patients who respond to the drug. To see those numbers emerging early in drug trials is encouraging, he said.
Larger studies of this drug are expected. More at:

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Positive Quiddity: Honest Banker Sherry Hunt

Sherry Hunt grew up in the Michigan countryside learning to fish and find wild mushrooms. She enjoyed country music like Buck Owens and Marty Robbins. She got married at 16 and had a child at 17.

It’s a great story. The details are in a Bloomberg piece written by Bob Ivry at:
A friend helped her to find a job processing home loans in Alaska at a small bank. She moved up the ladder in the mortgage business with jobs in Indiana, Minnesota and Missouri. In 2004 she became a vice president of Citigroup in the mortgage unit. She was supervising 65 employees at CitiMortgage headquarters in O’Fallon, Missouri, west of St. Louis.

Hunt’s job in O'Fallon was to protect Citi from mortgage fraud and bad investments, inspecting the loans of outside brokers to see that they met bank standards for signed paperwork, verified borrower income and valid appraisals were met.

By 2006, mortgages were appearing with doctored tax forms, fake appraisals and missing signatures. This is a trend that has continued through 2012 – through and well after the financial crisis of 2008. Hunt notified her superiors. Nothing was done. In March of 2011 she was warned that the percentage of loans she denied was too high. So she sued Citigroup. The federal government joined the suit on her side and she won.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

What Fingernails Say About Health

By Paula Spencer Scott,, May 23, 2012

Hold that polish! Or at least give your nails a good look before you paint them. Your fingernails and toenails are like 20 mini-mirrors to the state of your overall health. Changes throughout the body that are otherwise invisible can sometimes be first seen in the nails, says dermatologist Amy Newburger, a senior attending physician at St. Luke's - Roosevelt Medical Consortium in New York City.

Fingernails tend to give more reliable clues than toenails, given the wear and tear of walking, tight shoes, and slower foot circulation over time, which can obscure toenail changes. But check both hands and feet -- the first of the following nine nail clues explains why.

Clue 1: A black line

Look for:

Also beware when the skin below the nail is deeply pigmented as well, says podiatrist Jane Andersen of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a spokeswoman for the American Podiatric Medical Association.

What it might mean:
Next steps:

Clue 2: Small vertical red lines

Look for:
What it might mean:
Next steps:

Clue 3: Wide, "clubbed" nails

Look for:
What it might mean:

Next steps:

Clue 4: Spoon-like depressions

Look for:
What it might mean:
Next steps:

Clue 5: Rippled, pitted nails

Look for:
What it might mean:
Next steps:

Clue 6: Brittle nails

Look for:
What it might mean:
Next steps:

Clue 7: Nails that seem to be "lifting off"

Look for:
What it might mean:
Next steps:

Clue 8: Depressions running across the nail horizontally

Look for:
What it might mean:
Next steps:

Clue 9: White bands running across the nail horizontally

Look for:
What it might mean:
Next steps:
Make an appointment to see a doctor -- and avoid eating anything you don't prepare yourself!
Arsenic poisoning! Hair and tissue samples should be tested to verify. It's pretty rare these days, Anderson says, but worth knowing about.
The white-colored bands, known as "Mees' lines," run transverse (parallel to the white tips of the nails). They may affect one nail or several, occurring at about the same spot on each nail. Because the problem is in the nail itself, the line moves forward as the nail ages -- allowing doctors to date the time the problem began.
Consider this effect just one piece of a puzzle. Nails grow about 1 mm every six to ten days, so doctors use this measurement to estimate when the problem might have begun.
Diabetes, psoriasis, Raynaud's disease -- or just a trauma to the nail. Beta-blockers and drugs used in chemotherapy can also produce Beau's lines. Some people develop them simply as a result of aging.
White ridges running across the width of the nail bed. These so-called "Beau's lines" (after the French physician who described them) can occur in all or just one nail; if in all nails, they're at about the same place on all of them. They're actual ridges in the nail plate itself.
Other hyperthyroidism symptoms to be aware of include fatigue, difficulty concentrating, increased appetite, weight loss, sweating, hair loss, itching, and protruding eyes.
Thyroid disease. Hyperthyroidism, in which too much thyroid hormone is produced, can cause excessive nail growth and lead to this deformation. Plummer's nails tend to occur in younger patients rather than older ones.
The nail itself separating from the nail bed, which is the layer of skin directly under the nail. This effect, known medically as onycholysis, often begins at the fourth or fifth fingernail. Toes can also be affected. It's also called "Plummer's nails" (after the physician Stanley Plummer, who described them in 1918) or "dirty nails," because debris can accumulate and be seen.
Skip the over-the-counter nail strengtheners for persistently brittle nails and get thyroid levels checked; if thyroid disease is the cause, it's important to treat the root problem.
Thyroid disease. Hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid, occurs when the thyroid gland doesn't make enough thyroid hormone. (Typically a patient's hair is also thin and brittle.) Metabolic functions throughout the body are disrupted, including the delivery of moisture to the nails. Pale, dry skin and hair that may fall out are related signs. Hyperthyroid (overactive thyroid) diseases, such as Grave's disease, may also cause brittle nails.
Peeling, splitting, or easily cracking nails. Sometimes vertical ridges mar the surface, too. These telltale wrecked nails are sometimes called "hypothyroidism nails."
A doctor can prescribe medications to treat the underlying conditions. The nail bed can often be restored in psoriasis when the treatment starts early.
Psoriasis. Between 10 and 50 percent of patients with this common skin disease have pitted, hole-pocked nails, according to a 2000 report in Primary Care. So do more than three-fourths of those with psoriatic arthritis, a related disorder that affects the joints as well as the skin. More rarely, Reiter's syndrome and other diseases of connective tissue show this symptom.
Tiny indentations or holes in the nail bed called "pits." The nail may also appear to be rippled rather than smooth. (You can also feel these abnormalities by rubbing your finger across the nail, which is normally as smooth as the inside of a seashell.)
A complete blood count can diagnose anemia, and a physical exam might pinpoint the cause of iron problems. Iron supplements and dietary changes are often prescribed as first-line treatments for anemia.
Iron-deficiency anemia. Spooning can also be seen in the nails of people with hemochromatosis, or "iron overload disease," a condition usually caused by a defective gene that leads to too much iron being absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract. Other symptoms for both conditions can include fatigue and lack of energy, or they may be symptomless.
Nail beds that have little dips in them, an effect called koilonychia, or "spooning." "If you put your hand flat on the table, the spooned nails look like they could each hold liquid," Newburger says. The nails will also be unusually pale or stay whitish for more than a minute after you press gently on one. (Normally it would turn white for a second or two before returning to its original pinkish color.) The moons at the base of the nails may look particularly white.
If you haven't had a physical exam lately, consider one, especially if you have other symptoms such as coughing or shortness of breath.
Clubbed nails are a common sign of pulmonary (lung) disease, Newburger says. Although the nails' odd shape develops over many months to years, people are often unaware of the underlying condition, which can include lung cancer.
Uniformly widened fingertips or toes -- they appear to bulge out beyond the last knuckle -- where the nails have widened, too, so that they curve down and appear to wrap around the tips of the finger like an upside-down spoon. (Normal nails are narrower than their base fingers.) These extra-wide nails are called "clubbed" nails.
No treatment is needed for the splinter hemorrhage itself. A doctor can evaluate and treat the underlying cause if it's heart-related.
Heart trouble. The "splinters" are caused by tiny clots that damage the small capillaries beneath the nail. They're associated with an infection of the heart valves known as endocarditis. Don't panic if you see one, though: Sometimes an ordinary injury to the nail can cause a splinter hemorrhage.
Red (or sometimes brownish red) streaks in the nail. "They look like blood or dried blood," Anderson says. These are known as "splinter hemorrhages" because they look like a splinter but are caused by bleeding (hemorrhage) under the fingernail or toenail. They run in the same direction as nail growth.
Always have a doctor check out a suspicious black line on the nail quickly because of the high skin cancer risk. A black line on the nail may also be caused by a harmless mole or an injury. A biopsy can confirm melanoma.
Melanoma, the deadliest form of cancer. People with darker skin are more vulnerable than Caucasians to subungual melanoma (melanoma of the nail bed), but darker-skinned races also have more dark lines in nails that are benign, according to a 2004 report in American Family Physician.
A black discoloration that's a straight vertical line or streak and grows from the nail bed, usually on a single nail. About 75 percent of cases involve the big toe or the thumb, according to a review in the British Journal of Dermatology. Especially worrisome: a discoloration that's increasing or that's wider at the lower part of the nail than the tip. "That tells you that whatever is producing the pigment is producing more of it," says Newburger.