Philips has won the DOE’s L-Prize

The US DoE set up the L-Prize, modeled after the X-Prize, for durable, high quality, low power lighting.  Philips just won it, with a remote-phosphor LED bulb.  Warm white light, 900 lumens bright, for less than 10 Watts.  Now if only they can get someone other than Home Despot to carry them!

Scientific Civil Disobedience

Tens of thousands of academic papers from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society are being shared via BitTorrent thanks to the work of someone going by the name Greg Maxwell.  All of the papers are out of copyright — they date from the time of Newton up through 1923.  Nevertheless, they have until now been locked up behind a paywall.  Hopefully others in possession of such troves will follow suit.  Scientific publishing is long overdue for this kind of shakeup.

A Space Aged Hiatus

Like a lot of scientifically inclined technophillic folks, the space shuttle’s last flight makes me feel a little melancholy.  I believe there are very good reasons to send people off world.  If we are both lucky and conscientious then in the fullness of time humanity — or whatever inherits our history — will mediate the migration of the terrestrial biosphere beyond this pale blue homeworld.  In doing so, we will ensure, or at least increase the probability, of life’s persistence into deep cosmological time and space.  This goal, or something akin to it, is what has motivated a lot of people (myself included) to work on space exploration over the last half century.  It is an enduring motivation, but to the public at large and to policymakers, I think it comes off as esoteric, cultish, or at least eccentric.

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George Church’s Evolution Machine

George Church wants to automate evolution, in the same way that we’ve now automated genome sequencing.  Any trait that can be easily and automatically screened for should be susceptible to the technique.  You give the machine a rough draft, and let it mutate the genome in fast forward, and iterate with screening/selection.  They’ve already used the technique to engineer a couple of pigments (indigo and lycopene) much more effectively than straightforward genetic designers.  Mmm.  Custom evolved babies.  And virus-proof replacement livers.  Sweet, in a creepy kind of way.

Discounted cashflow analysis of scientific programming

Software Carpentry does a little math describing the value of teaching scientists how to build good software.  Even with very pessimistic assumptions, it’s clearly worthwhile.  With realistic assumptions, it’s a frigging research bonanza.  WTF?  Why don’t advisers and administrators make sure everyone is on board?

High-Tech Flirting Turns Explicit

High-Tech Flirting Turns Explicit.  Virtually all the damage resulting from “sexting” is done by the law, not the digital nudity.  Eighth graders get naked.  With each other.  Theyve been doing this for a long time actually.  And unlike getting pregnant at 14, having some nude pictures floating around is only serious if we choose to make it serious.  It wasn’t so long ago that that was the age when people started getting married, after all.  Instead of destroying their lives by registering them as sex offenders and trying to scare the other teens, why not accept it and change our norms surrounding nudity?

Big Brother Loves Your Phone

A great visualization of one person’s location, as tracked for 6 months by their cell phone carrier.  The person is Malte Spitz, a Green Party politician in Germany.  He fought a legal battle with Deutsche Telekom to obtain their records of his movements.  This kind of data is collected on essentially everyone with a cell phone, and last year in the US carrier Sprint provided it more than 8,000,000 times to US law enforcement via a convenient online API.  Many of them also sell the data in aggregate for marketing purposes.

Leveraging digital design in synthetic biology

Automatic Design of Digital Synthetic Gene Circuits from PLoS Computational Biology.  They seem to be saying look, real biology isn’t generally digital, and all that continuum behavior means we need a bunch of new and complex tools to do anything with it.  However, there are plenty of instances of pseudo-digital biological control systems, and we’ve already got a gigantic toolbox from EE/VLSI world for building very complex digital circuits, so why not limit ourselves to using an artificially digitized subset of biology so we can leverage the existing design tools, and see how far we get?  Weird to think of this particular kind of very intimate digitization of life.  Talk about historical effects.  What would our post-dark-age descendants think, rediscovering a strange class of metabolic networks, in which everything is binary?

The Missing Wikipedians

An interesting analysis of the cultural biases of the Wikipedia.  As participation by the developing world increases, we need to come up with a better way of assessing “notability”.  Especially with English, shared language is not shared culture or context.  We in the west may see Kenyan pop cultural references as unworthy of note… but that’s not how they see it!  Personally I’d rather see it become a truly global repository of knowledge.  The less insular we are, the better.

Education will not be fixed, it will evolve

It seems like there have been calls to “fix” our education system in the US for decades.  The Apollo program’s Saturn V engines were largely built by young engineers and scientists.  Their educations were influenced by the Sputnik-inspired National Defense Education Act of 1958, which despite its codified McCarthyism was probably a good thing.  Those kids of my parents’ generation were probably also directly inspired by Sputnik, and the Amazing Stories of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov.  Even my Seventh Day Adventist dad wanted to study physics in college, until he encountered the associated math.

Sputnik 1

If it takes a Sputnik moment to “fix” education, we may be out of luck this time around.

This burst of attention to (and funding for) science and mathematics education was, like the entire Apollo program, the product of a nationalist fear that we were “falling behind” the Soviets.  Despite Thomas Friedman’s ongoing attempts to frame China’s production and adoption of clean energy technologies and as a modern Sputnik Moment, I doubt it’s in the cards.  Not without some pretty dramatic focusing moment, and not without exiling the fossil fuel industries from US politics.  It’s also just not the same kind of story as your newly atomic ideological arch nemesis lobbing rocks over your territorial boundaries, well out of reach.  We will not be terrified by China’s solar panels, nor even, it seems, by their monopoly on the production of rare earths.

Continue reading Education will not be fixed, it will evolve