Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Recently, there has been much discussion of possible attacks on U.S. citizens by drones operated by the U.S. government. This became the “issue of the day” when Attorney General  Eric Holder told Congress that he would not rule out the use of drones to attack American citizens. This of course conjures up images straight out of films like War of the Worlds or Independence Day. Imagine unmanned space ships,or government drones, taking potshots at panicked and unsuspecting U.S. citizens. There would be no place for anyone to hide! And of course, that’s OK with Eric Holder, and presumably President Obama, for whom he works. The media of course loved it because it is a story sure to stir up emotions and then people will watch the television news or buy a newspaper and the sponsors and advertisers will capture a large audience and sell more product. It’s a great story and sure to sell as long as it remains in the minds of the public, which it is certain to do for at least a day two until they are distracted by something else, like maybe the resignation of the Pope, and then the media will have to find a way to turn that story into some sort of advertising or commercial success.

Meanwhile, I’m wondering. What about the drones? Will they be used against U.S. citizens in the future? I think the answer is this: No. There is a good reason for that – it doesn’t make sense. The principal advantage of a drone is that it doesn’t have a pilot, so it can fly into really dangerous skies and if it gets shot down by the enemy, there is no pilot to get killed. In the U.S. it is unlikely that criminals or others who are enemies of the state would be walking around with anti-aircraft weapons. So, the government can easily use a small piloted airplane or helicopter to watch people and launch missiles at them if they want to. However, it is more likely that airborne platforms would be used for surveillance and ground forces, like the FBI or State Police would be guided by the pilot to the location of the bad guys. That’s what happens now and it seems to work pretty well. It’s hard to see why a drone would be be any better.

The real thing people should be afraid of is not whether the government has the right to track down and apprehend criminals, either from the ground or the air, or whether the government has the right to shoot it out with a criminal. This happens all the time. There are even times when the government launches an attack that will likely kill a criminal when it is deemed too dangerous to try to capture the criminal alive. Just recall Bonnie and Clyde.

So, should we be afraid of the U.S. Government? You bet we should be. Should we be afraid of President Obama? You betcha there too. Why? Well, it’s not because of drones; its because of the law and the Constitution. Let me give you an example: the Iraq War. Let me give you another: The Afghanistan War. Let me give you another: Guantanamo. How about one more: locking up American citizens by the U.S. military on U.S. soil without a trial on order of the President. So what is wrong with these? They are all in violation of the U.S. Constitution. Only Congress can declare war according to the Constitution of the United States, yet Congress has not done so since World War II. Instead, Congress has sidestepped its responsibility and delegated authority to the various Presidents to do as they see fit whenever military action might be required.

Similarly, the indefinite imprisonment of people, whether they are U.S. citizens or not, without a trial is also a violation of the U.S. Constitution – something that the President and Congress seem quite comfortable with.

The recent uproar about the use of drones against American citizens is silly. It doesn’t even make tactical sense. If the government wants to come for you via the air, you can bet they will be using manned helicopters or maybe small spotter planes and a whole bunch of people on the ground. The drone thing is fiction. Unfortunately, the gradual dismantling of the Constitution by the current and several former Presidents, with the spineless acquiescence of Congress, is something we should all fear. Yet, the media never mention it at all. Could it be they are too afraid to bring the issue up?

Or is it just not the sort of news that will sell product?

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When Charles Darwin wrote “On the Origin of Species”, he wrote about the difficulty of determining the actual mechanism of change in species from generation to generation. He was quite sure that the environment played a role in the final outcome of things via a survival of the fittest system. The problem in the theory of evolution was not that the strong thrive and the weak perish, because that is obvious. The problem is how does a species actually evolve? Darwin rejected the idea of incremental change over a long period of time as the likely cause of evolution. Instead, he looked at domesticated animals and observed how they could change over several generations by selective breeding. He thought that a mechanism similar to this, some sort of selective breeding that occurred in the wild, was the most likely mechanism of evolution. The “selective” breeding would occur between organisms that happened to be in the right place at the right time under the right conditions and they also happened to have the right genes for producing a successful hybrid. His theory was, in essence, that change in a species occurred due to a “natural” and chancy form of selective breeding. It wasn’t random change, it was more like lucky change. His theory then goes on to state the almost obvious: those changes that result in better adaptations to the environment result in better survival rates.

Darwin borrowed from the environmental theories of Malthus and concluded that as supplies of food increased in nature and animal populations thereby increased that those individuals most suited to the environment would prosper more than those who had been born slightly less suited. It was the principle of survival of the fittest. These survivors would then breed and the next generation would have the traits of the survivors. This was Darwin’s theory of evolution. The problem was, as Darwin admitted, how, exactly, does this generational change occur?

Many people take Darwin’s theory of evolution and proclaim that it is based upon random changes that occur in genes and those which help an organism to survive lead to successful adaptations while those random changes that hinder survival result in population declines. Darwin never advocated a theory of random change. His theory was more like a theory of natural selective breeding where the strongest get to breed and their traits are passed on to the next generation, very similar to what he observed in the farms of England.

Recently, genetic scientists have discovered that Darwin was wrong. It turns out that genetic change does not have to happen by selective breeding. It can happen by direct impact of the environment upon an organisms DNA. This new discovery states that the vast majority of our DNA, usually referred to as “junk DNA”, is not junk after all. Much of the human genome has been decoded so that we know where the code is in our DNA for blue eyes, or our blood type or even if we have a predisposition to some forms of cancer. Yet, the vast majority of our DNA is referred to as “junk”. That’s because scientists didn’t know what its function was – or if it even had a function.

In an article recently published in the New York Times , Gina Kolata writes that gene switches in junk DNA, “play critical roles in controlling how cells, organs and other tissues behave”. She states that, “…the environment can affect disease risk. In the case of identical twins, small changes in environmental exposure can slightly alter gene switches, with the result that one twin gets a disease and the other does not.” It stands to reason that if the environment can change junk DNA and then cause a disease, it can also cause a change that results in resistance to disease or perhaps some other very different result. The real discovery here is that a mechanism has been discovered that can cause human DNA to rapidly modify itself in response to a factor in the environment. This must be the cause of evolution.

While the Times article is primarily focused on diseases being caused by exposing junk DNA to certain substances, it is only reasonable to ask whether this is in fact the mechanism of evolution. It is a direct connection between the body’s genes and the environment. Certainly, there will be cases where the environment contains toxins and these toxins will harm the DNA and cause disease. However, this is very likely the mechanism of evolution also. It is the way in which the body’s DNA senses that the environment is changing and tries to make the appropriate response. This is very likely the true mechanism of evolutionary change. It also explains why evolutionary change is, as Darwin noted, fairly quick and not a progression of minute changes.

It seems that Darwin’s notion of selective change occurring because of the coincidence of the right circumstances for the right individuals is not the likely explanation for evolution. It seems far more likely that our “junk” DNA is not “junk” at all, and it is this DNA (it actually comprises about 90% of our DNA) that results in “evolutionary” change. It seems that just as we are able to make conscious adaptations to our environment that there is another level of consciousness in our bodies, that we are unaware of, that is also continually working to optimize our body’s response to the environment and also that of the next generation of human beings.

Junk DNA is how evolution works.


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About ten years ago, inspired by the movie, Jurassic Park, I began to wonder whether it might be possible to clone a mammoth, an animal that has been extinct for about 10,000 years. I figured that because some of these animals have been preserved fairly well in the frozen lands of northern Siberia, some of the DNA might be intact. It seemed to me pretty clear that Michael Crichton’s idea of getting DNA from a preserved insect that had bitten a dinosaur was a little far-fetched. However, finding intact DNA in a well-preserved mammoth might be more likely. So – I decided to write a novel about the idea. I figured that would be easier than actually cloning a mammoth…

Well, it turned out  that writing one’s first novel is not so easy after all. While the first draft was completed in 2001, I found that I really needed to rewrite it – several times. Then, after I had written the best version of the novel that I could – I put it aside, because I didn’t think it was good enough. A few years later, while living in Ireland, I decided to take another crack at it. So, I rewrote the novel again with major changes. I liked it a lot better this time and only rewrote it two more times before I thought it was ready to publish. (Come to think of it, it might have been easier to just clone the mammoth.)

The basics of the story never changed: a Japanese professor decides to clone a perfectly preserved mammoth, and like in all good thrillers, things start to go wrong. Then they go very wrong. I won’t tell you the whole story, but if you are interested, you can buy the paperback version, or if you have a Kindle reader, you can download it from Amazon by clicking this link. Now, I’m not writing this just to call attention to my book – at least not entirely anyway. I decided to write this because something strange, perhaps even eerie is going on.

While reading yesterday’s Irish Independent newspaper online (I love this paper, they have so much world news that the U.S. press ignores), I came across an article about cloning mammoths. It seems there is this Japanese professor who thinks he knows how to do it and plans to do so by extracting the DNA from a well-preserved mammoth that was found in Siberia. He thinks he could have a cloned baby mammoth in about four years. I wonder if he has read my book? I mean the part about where things start to go wrong and then they go horribly wrong? Probably not, I’ll bet.

A few years ago, cloning was pretty controversial, but the idea seems to have become accepted now. Even so, I don’t think we are being served cloned lamb or beef yet, are we? And, I haven’t heard of any cloned babies being born yet – but they certainly could be, I suppose. I think we have the technology. But the idea of cloning an extinct animal – seriously – that should be considered very carefully. Now, if we are talking about an animal that went extinct in the recent past, like the Passenger Pigeon, because people hunted it to extinction – well, maybe that would be OK. But animals that became extinct eons ago may present dangers that we haven’t considered. These animals are no longer a part of our world and reintroducing them might cause unforeseen problems. I don’t think the professor in Japan that is referred to in the Irish Independent foresees any downside to his project – and that is what worries me because that is exactly like my novel. Really.

Perhaps, we need to have some sort of international body that considers certain types of advanced research and allows or disallows certain experiments. I can think of a couple of physics experiments that would fall in that category. I suppose there are several other biology experiments, medical experiments, chemistry experiments, and even computing experiments (like embedding computers in people) that might cry out for some oversight beyond that of the individual experimenter.

Mary Shelley implicitly warned us about this topic a century ago when she wrote her novel, Frankenstein. So far, no one has taken her warning seriously. You see, we only take warnings like that after the fact.

Someday, that strategy will prove to be too late.

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Dear President Obama,

I hate to say it, but you’re no John Kennedy. I know you weren’t even born when JFK was elected, so I suppose you just don’t know what it was like then. Let me try to explain. I just read the news about your new mini-stimulus proposal – the one about building roads and railroads and runways. I understand you are talking about injecting $50 billion into the budget for this. Ummm… let’s see… there are about 300 million people who live in the U.S. so…  50 billion divided by 300 million comes out to be about $166.67 per person worth of stimulus. Pardon me for not leaping out of my chair.  Just what do you think $166.67 is going to do for me over the next ten years? Besides, since I am not a bulldozer operator or a truck driver, I actually expect my share of this new stimulus to be about the same as my share of your last stimulus – that is to say $0.00.

I think what we have here is a failure of imagination and perhaps a failure of boldness. Perhaps a certain lack of courage even. I get the sense that you are trying to fine tune the answer and strike a deal with the Republicans and the TP people. Take my advice: forget it. They won’t ever make a deal with you, they just want you gone so they can continue sending money to their big bank friends. Barack, listen to me. You give great speeches, but I think there is a certain lack of follow through – a desire to avoid a fight. You seem an awful lot like a lawyer or a Senator who is always looking to compromise. We didn’t elect you to compromise.  We elected you to lead.  If George (What me worry?) Bush could lead the country, you should be able to do it too.

Let me tell you about John Kennedy. At a time when we were fierce adversaries with the USSR, Kennedy went eyeball to eyeball with Nikita Khrushchev over the nuclear missiles in Cuba. We were on the brink of global thermonuclear war, but Kennedy didn’t back down, Khrushchev did. That’s leadership. But there was more than just that. Kennedy had vision and he followed through on it. He created the Peace Corps, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year. He gave a sense of purpose to NASA: he set a goal of sending a man to the Moon and returning him safely to Earth by the end of the decade (the 1960’s). NASA went into full gear research mode, created thousands and thousands of high tech jobs, and spun off countless new technologies that now permeate our lives. And our astronauts went to the Moon before the end of the 1960’s. That’s vision. That’s determination. That was a stimulus that had far reaching economic effects for everyone.

So now you want to build some more roads. Boy, that’s exciting. Railroads too – maybe even some high speed rail. And we’re going to pave some runways. Do you see the difference?  Why not say something like this: We are going to use the full technical resources of NASA and America’s research labs to design and build the world’s first high speed supersonic train that will cross the country faster that the fastest passenger jet planes? Then we are going to build an entire high speed train system that will be the envy of the world in speed, comfort, safety, and cost. The project will cost $1 trillion – maybe $10 trillion, but it will be worth it. It will change the way we live and spin off a whole new generation of technical capabilities and products that we can barely imagine now, but they will form the basis of employment for  a good portion of the American people for the next fifty years. And by doing this we will reestablish America as the world leader in technology.

And…. Oh, by the way, we’re going to repave some roads too.

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I thought I knew.  I thought it was pretty clear during the campaign for President. We all knew where Barack Obama stood on a lot of issues – and he was very forceful, indeed eloquent, in stating his opinions.  It was clear that his philosophy was left of center. He was a strong supporter of the Democratic Party. Just look at health care.  It seems to me that he said time after time that he wanted all of us to have the same health care choices that members of Congress have. We would be able, under his administration, to pick and choose from a smorgasbord of health care plans – just like the fat cats we elect to Congress. And why not? Indeed.

The thing is that when push came to shove in Congress and the Republicans unanimously said, “Not only NO, but HELL NO”, Barack Obama chose to compromise. He made a deal. The result is that we have some sort of new health care plan that does do some things and may even provide some small additional benefit to each of us a few years from now.  But for most of us nothing has changed. So, I’m beginning to wonder – where is the idealism? Where is the fight? Or, could it be that Barack Obama isn’t a fighter at all? Perhaps he’s just a deal maker.

It’s not just health care.  It’s also energy.  Remember the campaign and the conventions? Remember the Republican Giuliani shouting, “Drill Baby, Drill!”  Remember Sarah Palin saying we need to do offshore drilling right now? Remember John McCain taking up the chant of “Drill Baby, Drill”?  Actually, they’re pretty quiet right now aren’t they? But that’s not my point.  Remember Barack Obama had this ideal about clean and green energy? Didn’t he? Am I just hallucinating here? Wasn’t he going to build a bunch of windmills and solar panels to create a new source of energy for America? Didn’t he make some kind of a deal with MIT to do research on clean, green energy? Wasn’t he against offshore drilling and nuclear power?

So, a few weeks ago – a couple of weeks before the BP catastrophe, didn’t President Obama say we need to do a lot more offshore drilling? Didn’t he? Am I just imagining this?  Where did that come from? Did I miss a news conference or something? Did MIT get back to him and say, “Forget about clean and green, just go for dirty and smelly?”

And now BP has screwed up the Gulf of Mexico for as long as most of us will live.  So what is President Obama doing? He is letting BP call the shots – even though he says he is in charge – BP is making all the decisions. So what about the opinions of his scientific advisors?  Does he really have more faith and trust in BP’s scientific expertise than that of his Nobel Prize winning Secretary of Energy? That ain’t right.  Something’s wrong here.

The question I have is simple – what does President Obama stand for?  Or could it be that we were all wrong in thinking he was some kind of pragmatic idealist. Maybe he’s just a political deal maker after all – just like 99.9% of the people in Washington.  Is that it?  If so, I think he will find that America didn’t vote for him to make deals – they voted for him because they thought he believed in his ideals and that he would fight for them on behalf of the American people. We thought we were on the same page with him – but he keeps turning the pages.

At least with George Bush you knew where he stood. He was a shoot from the hip wannabe cowboy.  A Yale transplant to Texas.  He wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer – that was abundantly clear whenever he spoke. But you knew what you were getting when you voted for him: you’re-on-your-own-Republicanism. Don’t look to Washington for help when you need it ’cause it ain’t comin’.  Just ask the people of New Orleans. They know all about that.

But Obama was supposed to be different. But once again the people of New Orleans are suffering and our President is letting an oil company decide what to do about the worst oil spill in history. Is that leadership? Is that what we voted for? Of course not. Now, I’m not saying that John McCain or Sarah Palin or Rudy Giuliani would do any different – but that is my point.  Obama was supposed to be different. But in the end, Washington is letting us all down once again. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.

You don’t find roses growing in a swamp, do you?

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Today BP announced that their “top kill” method of stopping the undersea gusher in the Gulf of Mexico is a failure. Previously they had tried to place a dome over the gusher to contain the oil and redirect it via pipes to the surface. But that was a failure. Then they tried inserting a small pipe into the gusher to suck out most of the oil to the surface.  But that was a failure. Now they admit that their “top kill” is a failure. So now they plan to place another dome on top of the gusher and redirect the oil to the surface through some pipes. Any predictions? Anyone? Anyone?

It is interesting to note that all of the methods that BP is using to try to stop the leak preserve the integrity of the well itself. The well is basically a hole in the ground (mostly rock) that starts one mile under the surface of the ocean. The hole itself is about two miles deep. Imagine how much money it must cost to drill through two miles of rock – and then you strike a huge gusher of oil. Would you want to shut it down? Of course not – this is literally money by the barrel coming out of the ground.  So, from that view BP is doing the right thing. Their first failed attempt to stop the leak would have still allowed them to pump oil from the well. Their second failed attempt actually involved pumping oil from the well with a small pipe – they just couldn’t pump it out fast enough. (We should all have such problems, right?) Their third failed attempt involved putting golf balls (really), cut up pieces of old tires (I’m not kidding here), and “mud” into the hole. I guess the “mud” is some sort of combination of drilling oil and concrete (maybe – I’m not too clear on whether the concrete was a separate attempt from the heavy drilling fluid kind of mud. Anyway, did you ever build sand castles by the seashore and then watch the waves come in and wash everything away?

The interesting thing about the “top kill” (sounds serious, doesn’t it) approach is that if it worked this sort of golf ball, old rubber tires, and “mud” combo would have solidified in the tube and created a plug – sort of how old soap and hair does that in your sink.  Then all BP would have to do is drill through the plug (in a controlled way of course) and voila! They’re back in business. Here’s the thing to note – in case you might have missed where I am going here: all of BP’s approaches to stop the greatest environmental catastrophe in the history of the world have been contingent on preserving their ability to continue to use this oil well once things are under control. – And after all, why not? Wouldn’t you?

Now, let’s suppose this was a real emergency – like maybe BP was being fined one hundred billion dollars a day for every day the well continued to pollute the world. Would there be a way to stop the flow then? You betcha.

It is my belief that pretty much any physicist in the U.S. or any mechanical engineer in the U.S. could come up with a very good way of permanently plugging the leak very quickly – and they could probably come up with the method in less than a day.  As a physicist myself, I feel pretty confident about saying that. So, one has to wonder… Since President Obama has now said he’s in charge of the whole thing, where is his team of physicists? Has he got MIT and Caltech and NASA on the phone? How’s his Tiger Team of the country’s best minds doing? They seem to be keeping pretty quiet. Maybe they are meeting in secret or something.  Or could it be that BP really does have the finest engineering minds in the universe? What happened to President Obama’s head of the Dept of Energy? Didn’t he win the Nobel Prize in physics? What is President Obama waiting for – Albert Einstein to come back?

Yeah, it’s a tough puzzle to figure out.  Not about how to permanently plug the leak – I’ll bet there are even quite a few plumbers who could tell you how to do that. No, I mean why isn’t the President stepping up to the plate and actually taking charge instead of just making speeches about how he feels our pain? Why is he standing by while this catastrophe continues? I’m not asking why BP doesn’t try to permanently plug the well – after all, they’re an oil company, need I say anything more? And please, let’s not bring in the military.  This is not what they do.  A team of physicists and engineers, given the mission to simply stop the leak  permanently, could have a solution in a day. It could be put in place within a week if priority were given to fabricating the necessary fixtures.  It’s just that nobody wants to do that.

So there you have it. Now, as one of my teachers used to say at the end of every lesson, “Any questions? No? Good.”

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I suppose we should have seen it coming when China launched its own version of the Apollo spacecraft – three Chinese astronauts circling the Earth – a few years ago.  It was at a time when the U.S. space program was, at best, going sideways, partnering with Russia, making short trips to the Space Station with the Shuttle. Not a whole lot of new things have been done by NASA recently, and now NASA’s most recent brainstrom, a return to the Moon, has been canceled. But this Chinese high speed rail deal is different. We’re not talking about the Moon anymore.

It has just been announced that China is in negotiations to build a high speed rail network connecting Europe and Asia. The trains that China will build, the fastest in the world, will travel almost as fast as a jet plane. People will be able to take high speed rail, using Chinese technology, from London to Beijing. China is now in talks with seventeen countries, among them England, Russia, France, and India to build the system.

So, how did the U.S. do in the competition for the job? Let’s be serious. Nobody even asked us. And why should they? We don’t make high speed trains. Our so-called high speed train, the Amtrak Acela, doesn’t come close to the performance of Chinese trains. We don’t build real high speed trains because we can’t. We don’t have the knowledge or the manufacturing capability. We are simply not a player in high speed rail technology. China is the clear leader with Japan a fairly close second.

It’s interesting that the U.S. press, to my knowledge, hasn’t even covered this story. I found it in the Irish Independent. So, does that mean that this isn’t part of the news that is worthy of print in America? Or does it mean something else? Could it be that our news media is unaware of this development? Or, could it be that, for whatever reason, they would just rather not tell us about it? I know; it sounds kind of paranoid, but I just went through eight years of Bush/Cheney, so don’t we all have a right to be paranoid? In fact, it seems that at least half the country is paranoid now, debating things like whether health care for all of us is good or bad (does that question even make sense?).

Meanwhile, China quietly pushes ahead on all fronts.  China’s economy is booming. China is already the primary manufacturer of most of the consumer goods that are sold in America. Oh, but that’s OK we said. It’s just low tech stuff. We don’t need those jobs anymore.  We’re a high tech country now. OK. So what high tech stuff do we make? Airplanes? Sure, if you count military planes (we’re really good at making things that kill people). How about commercial planes? Well, we’re down to Boeing now. Everyone else – names like Lockheed, McDonnell Douglas, Convair – not to mention Wright – they’re not in the business anymore. Most of the planes you see in the sky in America these days are built by the European company Airbus, or by the Canadian company Bombardier, or by the Brazilian company Embraer. Boeing is fading too. My guess is that the 787 will be its swan song for commercial aviation. The last of the American commercial airplane companies.

We need to understand the significance of this new announcement about a Chinese trans – Europe and Asia high speed rail system. The handwriting is on the wall. We have been eclipsed.  China is about to become the technological King of the World.  Under Bush we were obsessed with military attacks and military expenses and nothing else.  Not even Katrina could capture his attention for a microsecond. We have built the most efficient killing machines in the world, but we have an economy that is struggling to recover from banking disaster and a seriously decayed civilian technological manufacturing infrastructure that can’t begin to compete with China. Our only hope is that there will be a need for financing for this magnificent rail system. Our banks could make the loans and then package them as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and then, just in case the borrowers don’t pay back the loans our banks could buy credit default swaps from our insurance companies and, of course, then sell the swaps on the derivatives market. Or at least create an options market for the CDOs and swaps. We’re pretty good at that.  We just need to figure out how the average citizen makes money this way.

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