Remote Presence Robot

Posted on December 31, 2011  Comments (2)

Anybots allow remote presence today. They can be rented for just $600 a month. You can purchase your own for just $15,000.

The newest version, just unveiled at a CES has a much bigger screen (which seems very wise to me).

This is another example of robots making it into real use. While I am sure few workplaces are ready for this jump today, 10 or 20 years from now a telepresence robot (that can do much more) is likely I think to be significantly used. Not only will functionality increase, prices will drop dramatically: as the wonderful combination so often happens with technology. There is a great deal of effort going into making commercial viable “personal” robots. I think these efforts will make significant inroads in the next 10-20 years.

My old office wouldn’t have been willing to pay $15,000 but one of our developers looked into creating his own (after he moved and was working remotely). He hasn’t quite gotten it done yet, but may at some point.

Related: Managing By Rolling Around (I like how the robot owner used the robot to have his mother attend his wedding (and dressed up the robot) – Robot Finds Lost Shoppers and Provides DirectionsNew Yorkers Help Robot Find Its Way in the Big CityToyota Partner Robots

Memory is Stored by Turning on Genes in Neurons (to Alter Connection Between Neurons)

Posted on December 28, 2011  Comments (0)

I find these kind of stories so interesting. I really have so little understanding of genes. I knew memory had something to do with altering connections between neurons. I had no idea that required turning on many genes in those neurons. Life really is amazing.

Neuroscientists identify a master controller of memory

When you experience a new event, your brain encodes a memory of it by altering the connections between neurons. This requires turning on many genes in those neurons.

Lin and her colleagues found that Npas4 turns on a series of other genes that modify the brain’s internal wiring by adjusting the strength of synapses, or connections between neurons. “This is a gene that can connect from experience to the eventual changing of the circuit,” says [Yingxi] Lin

So far, the researchers have identified only a few of the genes regulated by Npas4, but they suspect there could be hundreds more. Npas4 is a transcription factor, meaning it controls the copying of other genes into messenger RNA — the genetic material that carries protein-building instructions from the nucleus to the rest of the cell. The MIT experiments showed that Npas4 binds to the activation sites of specific genes and directs an enzyme called RNA polymerase II to start copying them.

“Npas4 is providing this instructive signal,” Ramamoorthi says. “It’s telling the polymerase to land at certain genes, and without it, the polymerase doesn’t know where to go. It’s just floating around in the nucleus.”

When the researchers knocked out the gene for Npas4, they found that mice could not remember their fearful conditioning. They also found that this effect could be produced by knocking out the gene just in the CA3 region of the hippocampus. Knocking it out in other parts of the hippocampus, however, had no effect.

One of the things I aim to do in 2012 is read a few more books on biology and genes. I find it incredible what are genes actually are doing to allow us to live our lives. And I am also very ignorant on the whole area. So hopefully I can have some fun next year learning about it.

Related: Epigenetic Effects on DNA from Living Conditions in Childhood Persist Well Into Middle AgeAntigen Shift in Influenza Viruses8 Percent of the Human Genome is Old Virus GenesBrain Reorganizes As It Learns Math

Brian Cox – Lecture on Science and Quantum Mechanics

Posted on December 27, 2011  Comments (1)

Brian Cox gave a wonderful lecture at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. This is one more great thing the internet makes possible: have great fun while you learn. Enjoy.

With the help of Jonathan Ross, Simon Pegg, Sarah Millican and James May, Brian shows how diamonds – the hardest material in nature – are made up of nothingness; how things can be in an infinite number of places at once; why everything we see or touch in the universe exists; and how a diamond in the heart of London is in communication with the largest diamond in the cosmos.

Related: Quantum Mechanics Made Relatively Simple Podcasts by Hana BetheBrian Cox Particle Physics WebcastPhysicists Observe New Property of Matter

Nice Interaction with a Group of Wild Mountain Gorillas Strolling Through Camp

Posted on December 22, 2011  Comments (0)

An amazing encounter with a troop of wild mountain gorillas near Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. The reality is that these many natural environments will be maintained only with economic incentives. A certain amount of wilderness can be maintained with economic support from outside (government, charity…). But reasonable accommodations to find ways to make retaining natural wonders economically viable are likely a key to saving much of these environments for the future. Unfortunately there are big incentives to destroy nature from those rich tourists who don’t follow the rules and push their guides to break the rules (guides often do this as they have seen great monetary rewards [in tips] for breaking the rules (bothering animals, going too close, going to off limits areas…). It is sad how often tourists at national parks show utter disregard for nature and preserving things for later generations.

It seems like this video wasn’t about that type of behavior though. Instead it is just an example of how cool nature can be at times. Animals are not quite as predictable as some believe. Like this group that wandered into the camp (as they do a couple times a year) animals often stray from their normal behavior.

Providing good jobs and sharing revenue from tourists with local residents (paying for schools…) is a very good way to encourage residents to support natural heritage sites. This is true in Africa and also near park in the United States, or anywhere else. Here is an example of an organization doing that: Conservation Through Public Health.

I am a huge fan of tying in economic benefits to natural parks and resources. I think this is part of making them not environmentally sustainable but economically sustainable. If the areas do not make a contribution to the economic well being of those living there, there is a danger the land will be tapped for uses that will damage their natural heritage value. We do have to be careful as often these economic interests can turn into greedy people just wanting whatever they can get now (I am saddened by how often tourists behave in this way at natural wonders).

People are going to determine how land is used. We can hope that purely altruistic motives will result in long preserved natural habitats. But I don’t think that hope is as sustainable as creating a situation where it is also in people’s economic interests to maintain the environments. A combination of altruistic, long term thinking and economic interest is more likely to preserve natural environment (in my opinion).

Related: Massive Western Lowland Gorilla Population in Northern Republic of CongoGrauer’s Gorilla (Eastern Lowlands Gorilla)African Parks (a business approach to conservation)Travel photos from National Parks

Christian Science Monitor Scientific Literacy Quiz

Posted on December 21, 2011  Comments (3)

This is a nice science quiz that you should learn from while taking it (unless you are extremely knowledgeable already and know every answer).

It is multiple choice, and even on some I got right, I wasn’t completely sure between two choices for example (What is the heaviest noble gas?). I managed to guess pretty well but also missed a couple.

It has one hugely annoying usability failure: after answering the question it loads a new page with the right answer and you have to click again to get the next question. Doing this for 50 questions is extremely tiresome and pointless. They correct answer could be shown at the top and also show the next question.

Some questions in the quiz:

  1. Newton’s First Law of Motion describes what phenomenon?
  2. What word, which comes from a Greek term meaning “good kernel,” describes an organism whose cells contain chromosomes inside a nucleus bounded by a membrane, as distinguished from bacterial forms of life?
  3. DNA contains adenine, cytosine, guanine, and what other nucleotide base, which is not found in RNA? (I had no idea on this one)
  4. What term describes the single initial cell of a new organism that has been produced by means of sexual reproduction?
  5. What term for an elementary particle and a fundamental constituent of matter gets its name from a line in James Joyce’s 1939 novel “Finnegans Wake”?

I managed to get 39 right, which honestly include lots of educated guesses and lucky guesses. It almost seemed the test was 30% on your ability to translate Greek or Latin. Overall I think it was difficult and I was lucky to get 39 right. It would be nice to show participant results like an earlier Science Knowledge Quiz did. Percentage getting each question would be interesting too, along with the distribution of answers.

They do provide all your answers (and the correct answers) on one page once you finish (with is a nice usability touch).

Related: Nearly Half of Adults in the USA Don’t Know How Long it Takes the Earth to Circle the SunTen Things Everyone Should Know About ScienceUnderstanding the Evolution of Human Beings by Country

Can Just A Few Minute of Exercise a Day Prevent Diabetes?

Posted on December 17, 2011  Comments (9)

That just 1 minute of exercise a day could help prevent diabetes seems to good to be true. But research at the University of Bath indicates it might be true. I am a bit of a soft touch for seeing the benefits of exercise. And I also love health care that focuses on achieving healthy lives instead of what most of the spending focuses on: treating illness.

Performing short cycle sprints three times a week could be enough to prevent and possibly treat Type 2 diabetes researchers at the University of Bath believe.

Volunteers were asked to perform two 20-second cycle sprints, three times per week (but really this works out to under 10 minutes of total time including warm up). After six weeks researchers saw a 28% improvement in their insulin function. Type 2 diabetes occurs when blood sugar levels build up to dangerously high levels due to reduced insulin function, often caused by a sedentary lifestyle. The condition can cause life-threatening complications to the heart, kidneys, eyes and limbs, and has huge costs (monetarily and to people’s lives).

Regular exercise can help keep blood sugar levels low but busy lifestyles and lack of motivation mean 66% of the population is not getting the recommended five 30-minute sessions of moderate exercise a week.

Dr Niels Vollaard who is leading the study, said: “Our muscles have sugar stores, called glycogen, for use during exercise. To restock these after exercise the muscle needs to take up sugar from the blood. In inactive people there is less need for the muscles to do this, which can lead to poor sensitivity to insulin, high blood sugar levels, and eventually type 2 diabetes… We already knew that very intense sprint training can improve insulin sensitivity but we wanted to see if the exercise sessions could be made easier and shorter.”

In the study the resistance on the exercise bikes could be rapidly increased so volunteers were able to briefly exercise at much higher intensities than they would otherwise be able to achieve. With an undemanding warm-up and cool-down the total time of each session was only 10 minutes.

This type of study is very helpful in identifying solutions that will allow more people to lead healthy lives and save our economies large amount of money. Medical studies can’t be accepted on face value. They are often not confirmed by future studies and therefore it is unwise to rely on the results of 1 study. The results provide interesting information but need to be confirmed (and in the area of studies on human health this has been shown to be problematic – are health is quite a tricky area to study).

Related: Aerobic Exercise Plus Resistance Training Helps Control Type 2 DiabetesRegular Exercise Reduces FatigueFood Rules: An Eater’s Manual

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Awesome Gifts for the Maker in Your Life

Posted on December 14, 2011  Comments (4)

See the full Sylvia’s Super-Awesome MAKE Holiday Gift Guide 2011

Related: Science and Engineering Gadgets and GiftsGet Your Own Science ArtSiftable Modular ComputersArduino: Open Source Programmable Hardware

Using a Virus to Improve Solar-cell Efficiency Over 30%

Posted on December 13, 2011  Comments (0)

Solar and wind energy are making great strides, and are already contributing significantly to providing relatively clean energy.

Researchers at MIT have found a way to make significant improvements to the power-conversion efficiency of solar cells by enlisting the services of tiny viruses to perform detailed assembly work at the microscopic level.

In a solar cell, sunlight hits a light-harvesting material, causing it to release electrons that can be harnessed to produce an electric current. The research, is based on findings that carbon nanotubes — microscopic, hollow cylinders of pure carbon — can enhance the efficiency of electron collection from a solar cell’s surface.

Previous attempts to use the nanotubes, however, had been thwarted by two problems. First, the making of carbon nanotubes generally produces a mix of two types, some of which act as semiconductors (sometimes allowing an electric current to flow, sometimes not) or metals (which act like wires, allowing current to flow easily). The new research, for the first time, showed that the effects of these two types tend to be different, because the semiconducting nanotubes can enhance the performance of solar cells, but the metallic ones have the opposite effect. Second, nanotubes tend to clump together, which reduces their effectiveness.

And that’s where viruses come to the rescue. Graduate students Xiangnan Dang and Hyunjung Yi — working with Angela Belcher, the W. M. Keck Professor of Energy, and several other researchers — found that a genetically engineered version of a virus called M13, which normally infects bacteria, can be used to control the arrangement of the nanotubes on a surface, keeping the tubes separate so they can’t short out the circuits, and keeping the tubes apart so they don’t clump.

The system the researchers tested used a type of solar cell known as dye-sensitized solar cells, a lightweight and inexpensive type where the active layer is composed of titanium dioxide, rather than the silicon used in conventional solar cells. But the same technique could be applied to other types as well, including quantum-dot and organic solar cells, the researchers say. In their tests, adding the virus-built structures enhanced the power conversion efficiency to 10.6% from 8% — almost a one-third improvement.

Read the full press release

Related: Using Virus to Build BatteriesUsing Viruses to Construct ElectrodesUsing Bacteria to Carry Nanoparticles Into Cells

Rats Show Empathy-driven Behavior

Posted on December 9, 2011  Comments (2)

Rats free trapped companions, even when given choice of chocolate instead

The experiments, designed by psychology graduate student and first author Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal with co-authors Decety and Peggy Mason, placed two rats that normally share a cage into a special test arena. One rat was held in a restrainer device — a closed tube with a door that can be nudged open from the outside. The second rat roamed free in the cage around the restrainer, able to see and hear the trapped cagemate but not required to take action.

The researchers observed that the free rat acted more agitated when its cagemate was restrained, compared to its activity when the rat was placed in a cage with an empty restrainer. This response offered evidence of an “emotional contagion,” a frequently observed phenomenon in humans and animals in which a subject shares in the fear, distress or even pain suffered by another subject.

While emotional contagion is the simplest form of empathy, the rats’ subsequent actions clearly comprised active helping behavior, a far more complex expression of empathy. After several daily restraint sessions, the free rat learned how to open the restrainer door and free its cagemate. Though slow to act at first, once the rat discovered the ability to free its companion, it would take action almost immediately upon placement in the test arena.

“We are not training these rats in any way,” Bartal said. “These rats are learning because they are motivated by something internal. We’re not showing them how to open the door, they don’t get any previous exposure on opening the door, and it’s hard to open the door. But they keep trying and trying, and it eventually works.”

To control for motivations other than empathy that would lead the rat to free its companion, the researchers conducted further experiments. When a stuffed toy rat was placed in the restrainer, the free rat did not open the door. When opening the restrainer door released his companion into a separate compartment, the free rat continued to nudge open the door, ruling out the reward of social interaction as motivation. The experiments left behavior motivated by empathy as the simplest explanation for the rats’ behavior.

“There was no other reason to take this action, except to terminate the distress of the trapped rats,” Bartal said. “In the rat model world, seeing the same behavior repeated over and over basically means that this action is rewarding to the rat.”

As a test of the power of this reward, another experiment was designed to give the free rats a choice: free their companion or feast on chocolate. Two restrainers were placed in the cage with the rat, one containing the cagemate, another containing a pile of chocolate chips. Though the free rat had the option of eating all the chocolate before freeing its companion, the rat was equally likely to open the restrainer containing the cagemate before opening the chocolate container.

“That was very compelling,” said Mason, Professor in Neurobiology. “It said to us that essentially helping their cagemate is on a par with chocolate. He can hog the entire chocolate stash if he wanted to, and he does not. We were shocked.”

Now that this model of empathic behavior has been established, the researchers are carrying out additional experiments. Because not every rat learned to open the door and free its companion, studies can compare these individuals to look for the biological source of these behavioral differences. Early results suggested that females were more likely to become door openers than males, perhaps reflecting the important role of empathy in motherhood and providing another avenue for study…

Interesting study. My guess is this is the kind of thing those that don’t like science would deride. I believe in the value of science. I believe in the value of learning. I believe that such experiments are what drives science forward. I believe if you want your economy to benefit from investing in science you should be encouraging hundreds and thousands of such experiments. Funding for this study was provided by The National Science Foundation (NSF), and others.

I am thankful that more and more countries are willing to invest in science, especially since the USA is showing an increasing anti-science attitude. I would rather the USA continue to believe in the value of science and other countries looked to increase investments. But, it is much better that other countries increase their interest in science, and willingness to invest in science, to more than make up for the USA’s decisions to reduce the appreciation for science than for the world to just lose do to a decrease in investments in science.

Related: Insightful Problem Solving in an Asian ElephantPigeon Solves Box and Banana ProblemStand with ScienceEliminating NSF Program to Aid K-12 Science EducationThe Importance of Science Education

Toyota Scion iQ: 37 MPG

Posted on December 6, 2011  Comments (2)

I posted on the Toyota iQ a few years ago. It has been successful in Europe for several years and is now available in the USA also as the Scion iQ. Sadly it only gets 37 miles per gallon (the same for city and highway, as it is optimized for city driving). The earlier post discussed the Toyota iQ diesel which achieved 59 MPG (now the UK Toyota sites quotes 64 MPG).

The UK gallon (the imperial gallon) is 1.2 USA gallons – why are we not using the metric system yet :-( 37 MPG would be the highest yield, for a non-hybrid, in the USA, still it is disappointing when compared to the diesel Toyota iQ figures (64 imperial MPG equates to 53 USA mpg).

The base price for the Scion iQ is $15,595. The car is obviously built for city driving: the small size makes it great for finding parking and navigating small streets.

A fully electric Toyota iQ is being planned for 2012 that can be recharged by 4 hours with a normal electric plug. It can be 80% recharged in 15 minutes with a special adapter. It will have a range of about 65 miles.

I really like the management of Toyota and own stock in Toyota.

On another front, sadly, the company behind the aptera concept car (230 MPG) announced they were closing down.

Related: Companies Sharing Engineering Resources Across the GlobeBigger Impact: 15 to 18 mpg or 50 to 100 mpg?Global Installed Wind Power Now Over 1.5% of Global Electricity Demand

Underwater Pedestrian Bridge

Posted on December 5, 2011  Comments (7)

photo of a 'bridge' parting the waters to allow pedestrian to pass

The Dutch water line was a series of water based defenses conceived by Maurice of Nassau in the early 17th century, and completed by his half brother Frederick Henry. Combined with natural bodies of water. The line could be used to protect the economic heartland of the Dutch Republic behind difficult to cross water barriers, when in danger.

The Fort de Roovere was part of this defense. In 2010 the fort was renovated and the moat revived with a small extra bit of engineering: a sunken pedestrian “bridge.” Where once engineers used ingenuity to use water to keep people out, now engineers used wood to let people experience the moat while still reaching the fort.

via: Sunken Pedestrian Bridge in the Netherlands Parts Moat Waters Like Moses!

Related: Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-TunnelMonkey BridgeQuantum Teleportation