Larry Page on How to Change the World

Posted on April 30, 2008  Comments (4)

photo of larry page
Larry Page on how to change the world

The question is, How many people are working on things that can move the needle on the economy or on people’s quality of life? Look, 40,000 people a year are killed in the U.S. in auto accidents. Who’s going to make that number zero or very, very small? There are people working on it.

In practice that’s not an issue. I’ve told the whole company repeatedly I want people to work on artificial intelligence – so we end up with five people working on it. Guess what? That’s not a major expense. There’s a reason we talk about 70/20/10, where 70% of our resources are spent in our core business and 10% end up in unrelated projects, like energy or whatever. [The other 20% goes to projects adjacent to the core business.] Actually, it’s a struggle to get it to even be 10%. People might think we’re wasting money or whatever. But that’s where all our new stuff has come from.

Solar thermal’s another area we’ve been working on; the numbers there are just astounding. In Southern California or Nevada, on a day with an average amount of sun, you can generate 800 megawatts on one square mile. And 800 megawatts is actually a lot. A nuclear plant is about 2,000 megawatts.

Whose obligation is it to make this kind of change happen? Is it Google’s? The government’s? Stanford’s? Kleiner Perkins’?

I think it’s everybody who cares about making progress in the world. Let’s say there are 10,000 people working on these things. If we make that 100,000, we’ll probably get 10 times the progress.

Posts on Google engineering: Larry Page and Sergey Brin Interview WebcastGoogle Investing Huge Sums in Renewable EnergyMarissa Mayer Webcast Google InnovationHigh-efficiency Power Supplies

Engineering Sports at MIT

Posted on April 29, 2008  Comments (0)

Making sports an exact science by Shira Springer

“It’s all about finding your passion,” said Vasquez, the group leader and a Material Science and Engineering major. “All the guys on the [project] team love sports. It’s more fun than what you typically think of with an MIT research project.

“There are very few sports companies that put value in good engineering, in terms of projects that make engineering sense rather than just marketing sense. When you get to see how your research can actually be used, it’s pretty cool.”

The MIT Sports Innovation program, though, was designed to give undergraduates hands-on research experience away from textbooks and classrooms. Working in a Building 17 laboratory cluttered with experiments, where the hum of the wind tunnel can make conversation difficult, the undergraduates brainstorm and build different components of the test setup.

Inside the laboratory and Aero/Astro hangar, the MIT baseball research project looks like a combination of shop class and horror flick: Power tools, quick-drying cement, PVC pipe, handsaws, and mannequin parts are scattered around.

Related: Baseball Pitch Designed in the LabRandomization in SportsThe Science of the Football SwerveSports Engineering at MIT (2006)

Autism, Science and Politics

Posted on April 29, 2008  Comments (1)

Clinton and Obama parrot the “vaccine and autism connection inconclusive” line by Tara C. Smith:

Ugh. At least they don’t say there’s “strong evidence” to support it like McCain. I can certainly get behind more research on environmental factors in autism development (and of course, additional funding for biomedical research, period), but we’ve been there/done that for vaccines. I wonder if either of them are even aware of The National Children’s Health Study?

The National Children’s Study will examine the effects of environmental influences on the health and development of more than 100,000 children across the United States, following them from before birth until age 21. The goal of the study is to improve the health and well-being of children.

Variables examined will include vaccinations received, and development of autism will be one of the outcomes examined. What more can you ask for? Obama and Clinton’s claims of ignorance on the part of the scientific community when it comes to vaccines and autism show that we don’t have any real science defenders in the running.

Related: Scientists and Engineers in CongressScience and Engineering in PoliticsThe A to Z Guide to Political Interference in Science

Orangutan Attempts to Hunt Fish with Spear

Posted on April 28, 2008  Comments (9)

photo of orangutan attempting spear fishing

Orangutan attempts to hunt fish with spear:

A male orangutan, clinging precariously to overhanging branches, flails the water with a pole, trying desperately to spear a passing fish. It is the first time one has been seen using a tool to hunt. The extraordinary image, a world exclusive, was taken in Borneo on the island of Kaja, where apes are rehabilitated into the wild

This individual had seen locals fishing with spears on the Gohong River. Although the method required too much skill for him to master, he was later able to improvise by using the pole to catch fish already trapped in the locals’ fishing lines.

Cool. The photos is from a new book on orangutans, The Thinkers Of The Jungle, which also includes the first photograph of an orangutan swimming.

Related: Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation UKBornean Clouded LeopardSavanna Chimpanzees Hunt with ToolsFirst Lungless Frog Found in BorneoChimps Used Stone “Hammers”more fun posts on the blog

Wheat Rust Research

Posted on April 27, 2008  Comments (0)

By increasing the production of wheat it is said Norman Borlaug has saved more lives than anyone else who ever lived, for which he was awarded the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. See his New York Times opinion piece: Stem Rust Never Sleeps

Today, wheat provides about 20 percent of the food calories for the world’s people. The world wheat harvest now stands at about 600 million metric tons.

In the last decade, global wheat production has not kept pace with rising population, or the increasing per capita demand for wheat products in newly industrializing countries. At the same time, international support for wheat research has declined significantly. And as a consequence, in 2007-08, world wheat stocks (as a percentage of demand) dropped to their lowest level since 1947-48. And prices have steadily climbed to the highest level in 25 years.

The new strains of stem rust, called Ug99 because they were discovered in Uganda in 1999, are much more dangerous than those that, 50 years ago, destroyed as much as 20 percent of the American wheat crop. Today’s lush, high-yielding wheat fields on vast irrigated tracts are ideal environments for the fungus to multiply, so the potential for crop loss is greater than ever.

If publicly financed international researchers move together aggressively and systematically, high-yielding replacement wheat varieties can be developed and made available to farmers before stem rust disease becomes a global epidemic.

The Bush administration was initially quick to grasp Ug99’s threat to American wheat production. In 2005, Mike Johanns, then secretary of agriculture, instructed the federal agriculture research service to take the lead in developing an international strategy to deal with stem rust. In 2006, the Agency for International Development mobilized emergency financing to help African and Asian countries accelerate needed wheat research.

But more recently, the administration has begun reversing direction. The State Department is recommending ending American support for the international agricultural research centers that helped start the Green Revolution, including all money for wheat research. And significant financial cuts have been proposed for important research centers, including the Department of Agriculture’s essential rust research laboratory in St. Paul.

This shocking short-sightedness goes against the interests not only of American wheat farmers and consumers but of all humanity. It is tantamount to the United States abandoning its pledge to help halve world hunger by 2015.

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Team America Rocketry Challenge

Posted on April 26, 2008  Comments (0)

On May 17th, in The Plains, Virginia, the Team America Rocketry Challenge finals will be held. After a full day of launches, held at the Great Meadows facility, the winners will be crowned and $60,000 in scholarships will be divided up among the top finishers.

Related: Goldwater Science ScholarshipsSiemens Competition in Math, Science and TechnologyStudent Algae Bio-fuel Project

Interview with Donald Knuth

Posted on April 26, 2008  Comments (0)

Interview with Donald Knuth by Andrew Binstock, April 2008:

I currently use Ubuntu Linux, on a standalone laptop—it has no Internet connection. I occasionally carry flash memory drives between this machine and the Macs that I use for network surfing and graphics; but I trust my family jewels only to Linux. Incidentally, with Linux I much prefer the keyboard focus that I can get with classic FVWM to the GNOME and KDE environments that other people seem to like better. To each his own.

I’m basically advising young people to listen to themselves rather than to others, and I’m one of the others. Almost every biography of every person whom you would like to emulate will say that he or she did many things against the “conventional wisdom” of the day.

Still, I hate to duck your questions even though I also hate to offend other people’s sensibilities – given that software methodology has always been akin to religion. With the caveat that there’s no reason anybody should care about the opinions of a computer scientist/mathematician like me regarding software development, let me just say that almost everything I’ve ever heard associated with the term “extreme programming” sounds like exactly the wrong way to go…with one exception. The exception is the idea of working in teams and reading each other’s code. That idea is crucial, and it might even mask out all the terrible aspects of extreme programming that alarm me.

I also must confess to a strong bias against the fashion for reusable code. To me, “re-editable code” is much, much better than an untouchable black box or toolkit. I could go on and on about this. If you’re totally convinced that reusable code is wonderful, I probably won’t be able to sway you anyway, but you’ll never convince me that reusable code isn’t mostly a menace.

Related: Donald Knuth – Computer ScientistProgrammers at WorkPreparing Computer Science Students for JobsTeach Yourself Programming in Ten YearsCurious Cat Ubuntu posts

Gecko-inspired Bandage

Posted on April 25, 2008  Comments (1)

MIT creates gecko-inspired bandage

Drawing on some of the principles that make gecko feet unique, the surface of the bandage has the same kind of nanoscale hills and valleys that allow the lizards to cling to walls and ceilings. Layered over this landscape is a thin coating of glue that helps the bandage stick in wet environments, such as to heart, bladder or lung tissue. And because the bandage is biodegradable, it dissolves over time and does not have to be removed.

Gecko-like dry adhesives have been around since about 2001 but there have been significant challenges to adapt this technology for medical applications given the strict design criteria required. For use in the body, they must be adapted to stick in a wet environment and be constructed from materials customized for medical applications. Such materials must be biocompatible, meaning they do not cause inflammation; biodegradable, meaning they dissolve over time without producing toxins; and elastic, so that they can conform to and stretch with the body’s tissues.

When tested against the intestinal tissue samples from pigs, the nanopatterned adhesive bonds were twice as strong as unpatterned adhesives. In tests of the new adhesive in living rats, the glue-coated nanopatterned adhesive showed over a 100 percent increase in adhesive strength compared to the same material without the glue. Moreover, the rats showed only a mild inflammatory response to the adhesive, a minor reaction that does not need to be overcome for clinical use.

Among other advantages, the adhesive could be infused with drugs designed to release as the biorubber degrades. Further, the elasticity and degradation rate of the biorubber are tunable, as is the pillared landscape. This means that the new adhesives can be customized to have the right elasticity, resilience and grip for different medical applications.

Related: Gecko TapeGel Stops Bleeding in Seconds

Walking Without Shoes

Posted on April 24, 2008  Comments (3)

You Walk Wrong

Last year, researchers at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, published a study titled “Shod Versus Unshod: The Emergence of Forefoot Pathology in Modern Humans?” in the podiatry journal The Foot. The study examined 180 modern humans from three different population groups (Sotho, Zulu, and European), comparing their feet to one another’s, as well as to the feet of 2,000-year-old skeletons. The researchers concluded that, prior to the invention of shoes, people had healthier feet. Among the modern subjects, the Zulu population, which often goes barefoot, had the healthiest feet while the Europeans – i.e., the habitual shoe-wearers – had the unhealthiest

My new Vivo Barefoots aren’t perfect – they’re more or less useless in rain or snow, and they make me look like I’m off to dance in The Nutcracker. But when I don’t wear them now, I kind of miss them. Not because they’re supposedly making my feet healthier, but because they truly make walking more fun. It’s like driving a stick shift after years at the wheel of an automatic – you suddenly feel in control of an intricate machine, rather than coasting on cruise control. Now I better understand what Walt Whitman meant when he wrote (and I hate to quote another Transcendentalist, but they were serious walking enthusiasts): “The press of my foot to the earth springs a hundred affections.”

Related: Ministry of Silly WalksTreadmill Desks

Bacteriophages: The Most Common Life-Like Form on Earth

Posted on April 24, 2008  Comments (2)

photo of bacteriophage

There are more bacteriophages on Earth than any other life-like form. These small viruses are not clearly a form of life, since when not attached to bacteria they are completely dormant. Bacteriophages attack and eat bacteria and have likely been doing so for over 3 billion years. Although initially discovered early last century, the tremendous abundance of phages was realized more recently when it was found that a single drop of common seawater typically contains millions of them. Extrapolating, phages are likely to be at least a billion billion times more numerous than humans. Pictured above is an electron micrograph of over a dozen bacteriophages attached to a single bacterium. Phages are very small — it would take about a million of them laid end-to-end to span even one millimeter. The ability to kill bacteria makes phages a potential ally against bacteria that cause human disease, although bacteriophages are not yet well enough understood to be in wide spread medical use.

Photo credit: Wikipedia Electron micrograph of bacteriophages attached to a bacterial cell. These viruses have the size and shape of coliphage T1.; Insert: Mike Jones

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Amazon Molly Fish are All Female

Posted on April 24, 2008  Comments (2)

No sex for all-girl fish species

A fish species, which is all female, has survived for 70,000 years without reproducing sexually, experts believe.

The species, found in Texas and Mexico, interacts with males of other species to trigger its reproduction process. The offspring are clones of their mother and do not inherit any of the male’s DNA. Typically, when creatures reproduce asexually, harmful changes creep into their genes over many generations.

One theory is that the fish may occasionally be taking some of the DNA from the males that trigger reproduction, in order to refresh their gene pool.

Dr Laurence Loewe, of the university’s School of Biological Sciences, said: “What we have shown now is that this fish really has something special going on and that some special tricks exist to help this fish survive. “Maybe there is still occasional sex with strangers that keeps the species alive. Future research may give us some answers.”

He added that their findings could also help them understand more about how other creatures operate. “I think one of the interesting things is that we are learning more about how other species might use these tricks as well,” he said. “It might have a more general importance.”

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