seeking knowledge and laughter, putting a bullseye on inaccuracy

Science & Technology

Thoughts on science, technology, energy, and policy intersecting these spheres.


Yikes. Want to understand evolution?

This is an amazing video that does a great job of explaining how evolution works. I think many people who claim to not "believe" in evolution do not understand what it is - kinda like me not believing in the radio because I can't see the little band inside it. I want to see people watch this and deny it. I'm sure some will, but at a certain point, how do you convince someone that the sky is blue when they refuse to believe it exists?

I guess this could be step one. The next step is forcing them to carry a jar of fruit flies around...

Report out

My case study report on a fiber to the home network is now available online - if you are interested in what I am doing in my new job and what I am writing you can check it out here. It weighs in a 6 pages and has fun graphics.


Yesterday, I got my first op-ed published as part of my job at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I research the benefits of publicly owned broadband systems and work with communities that are deciding whether to build a network. I will be writing fairly frequently as part of this job, but it is exciting that the first op-ed I submitted was chosen.

Printed in the Neighbors of Lake Norman edition of the Charlotte Observer, they entitled it: "YES: Towns have opportunity to invest in our future." They also published an op-ed discussing the opposing viewpoint.

I am looking forward to seeing how the vote goes on Monday. I hope my column helps the Board of Commissioners - they have a great opportunity to buy an existing network rather than building from the ground up.

Cell Phone Disaster

I found two great articles looking at the cell phone problem following the I-35W bridge collapse. There are a number of actions we can take to deal with the limitations of our cell network. But first, mad props to Broadband reports for alerting me to these articles.

The first is from MSNBC - Cosmic Log and contains this quote:

"Whenever you have a crisis, people tend to use their phones a lot, and there is a tendency for networks to get congested," Mark Siegel, a spokesman for AT&T's wireless business, told me today. "It doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with the network."

What Mark is saying is that the network is not designed to work when people are most frantic and desperate to talk to each other. Why would anything be wrong with that?

In the face of this limitation, we should all be using text messaging wherever possible. Yeah, I know - you may not want to pay $.10 to see if I am alive but text messages put so little strain on the network that if most everyone just uses them, people who absolutely have to make phone calls can. So figure out how to work it (it isn't as hard as programming that VCR you never use anymore).

Now another option would be building the network with more redundant capacity. People in the wireless industry call this "crazy talk." The Chicago Times ran a piece on cell phones following I-35W bridge collapse (registration required) and noted:

Entner said it would cost tens of thousands of dollars to upgrade each existing cell tower for higher call capacity. Building additional towers would cost up to $400,000 each. That would drive consumers' cell phone bills up about $20 a month.

I wonder if Entner's face was scrunched up with pain or pleasure as he pulled that little piece of BS from his butt? $20 a month? I would have to pay 50% more to have higher call capacity? I would love to see the actual numbers of that? Is that premised on adding capacity to every tower in the country? If it is, I have a modest proposal - just do it in urban areas!

The simple fact is that we had a great testcase here. We had a disaster at the worst time - evening drive time when the networks are already congested. It is a great testcase because the bridge did not knock out any towers (directly or indirectly).

When we have a disaster that knocks out towers, damn few people will be getting through (unless we text, remember, have some friggin restraint and work out that thumb).

I want to note that I was wrong in saying we have done nothing to prepare for disasters. The first responders had communications systems that worked. They are on a different network than cell phones and they were well prepared to deal with this. Once again, I'm happy to continue calling Minnesota my home as I have not really found any criticism of our first responders.

We still have a ways to go, but I suspect Minnesota is farther along than most states.

Global Warming

I doubt any readers of my blog actually doubt that Global Climate Change is occurring, but I still wanted to highlight this quote.

Clearly, if you are going to believe anything outside your own experience, you should have some reason for believing it. Usually, the reason is authority... . It is true that most of us must inevitably depend upon (authority) for most of our knowledge.

I've been reading a lot of blogs and news sources over the past 2 weeks as part of my job. is quite insightful when it comes to telecommunications, but it also linked to a story by Sean Gonsalves about climate change.

Back to the quote - I find it amusing when I hear people arguing over the science of climate change when neither of them really understands it. So each insists (correctly) that the other doesn't really know what (s)he is talking about. As someone who has read a fair amount of the science and tried to listen to the anti-scientists, I readily admit that I am trusting others on this.

Hell, even most of the scientists involved are dependent on others to work on their experiments, take measurements, and that sort of thing. So we all have to trust experts when it comes to this ... picking the experts is where we differ. Deciding what an expert is, is where we differ. I think this is an important nuance that many miss.

Stem Cells

On April 27, Science Friday focused on stem cells. This is one of the best discussions of the subject I have heard. I strongly recommend it if you are confused about what the controversies are over and what the science promises.

In particular, I loved this response to a question about "ife beginning at conception." I belive it is Dr. George Daley speaking:

As a physician, I've been thinking alot about this phrase, "Life begins at conception." As a physician, we are often called upon to pronounce patients dead. What does that mean? It means that there is a loss of integrated organ function - either of the heart or the brain. We have a very firm understanding of what it means when a person dies. I think when we talk about the life of a cell, and now I'll talk as a biologist, we have a very different concept of what that means. And yet this phrase, "life begins at conception" really confuses those two disparate concepts. All cells are living. The sperm cell is a living cell, the egg cell is a living cell and when they come together as a new genome, a new combination of DNA, the zygote is a living cell. But that concept of life is very very distinct from the concept of life that we apply to patients and persons.


The question should not be when does life begin, because all human cells have been alive and we've been immortal as a species by passing down living cells generation to generation. It is when does a person exist - a person with enough integrated function that we as a society should take an interest in that person's state of being.

This line of thinking is a great compliment to my recent post noting the problems with trying to pick the beginning of personhood.

The interesting implication of this "life begins at conception" idea is that life does not end with death if you take that view. When the brain and heart stop functioning, some cells continue dividing and "living." What does that mean?

Further, if life begins at "conception" - we should be able to do some forms of stem cell research because there is no conception. Stem cells can be created without combining a sperm cell with an egg cell - does that mean there is no life and we can therefore use those lines to actually heal the living rather than being preoccupied with theoretical humans?

One of the ironies they discussed in the show was that Bush apparently believes destroying embryos to harvest stem cells is the moral equivalent of killing a living human being. So the federal gov has refused to fund it. But if this is the moral equivalent of KILLING A LIVING HUMAN BEING, why is he not pushing the Department of Justice to charge scientists with murder? Or is it his deep respect for the independence of the Justice Dept?

Climate Change

Listen today (Wed) to MPR - at MPR online or 91.1 if you are around the Twin Cities...if you missed it, listen here. I make a comment somewhere around the 45th minute.

I have been intensely studying climate change and energy related matters for the past year and 2 months. Hard to believe it is just that short period of time.

I attended a forum tonight at Minnesota Public Radio on climate change. My advisor was one of 5 panelists talking and responding to questions from the audience as part of what MPR calls Public Insight Journalism. This appears to be an attempt to make an hour of radio with people well-studied in some area and a crowd that has many different experiences related to that.

I made a comment about Minnesota's leadership on energy issues. Governor Pawlenty (a Republican) has shown better leadership on this issue than any other Democratic governor and almost as good as that Californian Austrian girly-man. But the MN Senate Energy committee is not moving as rapidly and we may miss an opportunity to get a signature on good climate change legislation.

For reasons I cannot explain, I am often seized with anxiety before I comment in public. Even in classes (where I rarely STOP talking), I get very anxious and this was worse than usual with some stammering and incoherency. So it goes - something to work on.

The discussion was interesting and some of the lessons are that we have to make a long-term commitment to changing our relationship with energy. This means driving more fuel-economical cars, putting up with fluorescent lights, and paying extra for high efficiency appliances. Basically, it means we have to stop living like electricity is dirt cheap (which it is compared to its value).

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court just told the Bush Administration EPA that its decision not to regulate GHGs needs to be reconsidered. Watch Energista for more news. This is a surprising decision, most everyone expected the court to rule in favor of the EPA.


Under what circumstances should humans genetically engineer a mosquito that will be fitter and outbreed its brethren? I suspect most Minnesotans would answer that it would NEVER be a good idea.

Having not taken a poll of Minnesotan opinions, scientists have bred mosquitoes that are fitter and have glowing eyes to boot. The purpose is to reduce malaria in Africa.

The scientists, led by Dr Mauro Marrelli from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, suggest that the transgenic malaria-resistant mosquito could one day be introduced into the wild where it would outbreed natural mosquitoes and reduce the spread of malaria.

If it worked, this would be a great, low cost way to deal with a problem that no one has yet figured out because of the inability for effected communities to pay for more expensive solutions to malaria. However, I fear the protozoa would find ways to evolve and we would be stuck with a malaria-carrying eyes-glowing blood-sucker.

But then, ya never know.

Ethanol from Sugar

daddYman sent me the following:

Brazil has converted a substantial amount of their energy needs to ethanol.

Brazil appears to make the majority of their ethanol from sugar cane.

The US makes most of its ethanol from corn.

Sugar cane is substantially better for making ethanol than corn.

The US pays farmers down south NOT to grow sugar cane to protect the domestic sugar crop.

What is wrong with this picture?

This is true although there are many important details not included above - some I can fill in and others I cannot. For starters, I know that sugar in Brazil and Cuba is more efficient in ethanol production than corn (it actually appears that damn near everything is more efficient than corn). However, I know very little about sugar crops and whether U.S. sugar would be as good for ethanol - I believe it would be fine.

The main thing to keep in mind about ethanol is that it is primarily agriculture policy masquerading as energy policy. Corn-based ethanol is poor energy policy alone. It carries much less energy per unit of weight than does gasoline and it results in a trifle fewer greenhouse gas emissions over its lifecycle (if made with coal rather than natural gas, the greenhouse gas emissions are actually greater than petroleum!).

Sugar would definitely be better than corn in terms of efficiency, cost, and GHG emissions (I believe). It would also be better for the environment because corn fields require so much tilling, fertilizer, and pesticides.

However, comparisons with Brazil are not really apt because Brazil requires far less energy that do we (in part because we are a big country, but mostly because we are horribly inefficient in our energy use) and Brazil's conversion was started under a military dictatorship. Dictatorships have more power to make such wholesale changes than are afforded to societies with more freedom.

If we can make cellulosic ethanol work, it will be much better from a greenhouse gas perspective than either corn or sugar ethanol. That is a pretty big if and even if it does work, it represents only a partial solution. Regardless of what we put in our tanks, we will have to pay more for it and use it more wisely in the future.

If anyone else has questions about energy policy or technology type stuff, send 'em on to me and I'll answer them if I can. Not all of us spend hours each day following energy issues.

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