Tuesday, July 29, 2008

What are "leaders" for?

So, if our mental mechanisms designed to navigate through the physical & social worlds are being hijacked by unscrupulous power-seekers, I have to ask if we need leaders at all?

And it seems that maybe we don't. Complex social behavior emerges in surprising places without the benefit of "leadership". Like in slime molds, whose individual cells come together to create fruiting bodies & other complex behaviors without anybody shouting orders.

Without the benefit of anything that looks like leadership, social insects like ants & bees are able to produce complex behaviors we normally assume are reserved to humans: agriculture, slavery, food-storage, & elaborate communication. Leaderless fish, birds & various insects effect coordinated complex movements.

But we're more important than slime molds & ants, so maybe there's a need for human leaders, right?

Well, even anarchy apologists like Robert Nozick can't find a way to deny that we absolutely have to have government. But that's more about arbitrating disputes than "leadership".

Social norms do force us into specific roles, however, & finding ourselves in a group with a gap, we tend to fill it. High school social cliches appear everywhere the same: the jock, the stoner, the egghead, the prom queen, the B.M.O.C. Maybe the presence of the B.M.O.C. suggests we WANT a leader, whether or not we actually need one.

Unsurprisingly, "while narcissists are more likely to become leaders, results of one of the studies suggests that, once in power, narcissists don't perform any better than others in that leadership role."

Jared Diamond implies in his book "Why is Sex Fun?" that "leadership" probably has more to do with the evolutionary strategies of males than it does with any good it provides to the society. Basically, more power = more access to resources = more reproductive opportunities. It certainly worked for Ghengis Khan.

That goes a long way toward explaining the male to female imbalance of elected representatives, actually. I think it was Feinstein who commented in the wake of yet another Capital Hill sex scandal, "I've noticed that 50-year-old Congresswomen don't have the same effect on their interns as 50-year-old Congressmen do."

Religion vs. Science.

America is lodged in a cultural battle that simply will not end: Religion vs. Science. There's some really fascinating science related to this conflict.

There's really no reason there should be a fight between two such valuable assets, but a conflict arises because our brains evolved to meet the demands of two very different worlds: "two mechanisms, one for understanding the physical world and one for understanding the social world, gives rise to a duality of experience. We experience the world of material things as separate from the world of goals and desires."

So, our rigid sense of right & wrong suggests that we have to choose, & we often have a really hard time seeing the forest through the trees. Why are we so belligerent, gullible & willfully stupid sometimes?

Probably because "thinking anecdotally comes naturally, whereas thinking scientifically does not". It is not costly in a survival sense to believe in connections that don't actually exist, whereas missing a real connection--say, between rustling bushes & lurking predators--can be deadly.
"Our brains are belief engines that employ association learning to seek and find patterns. Superstition and belief in magic are millions of years old, whereas science, with its methods of controlling for intervening variables to circumvent false positives, is only a few hundred years old."
We see what we expect to see, what we have "primed" our brains to spot, even if those things are just mythical figments of our imaginations, like angels or UFOs. These pre-beliefs, if you will, affect our perceptions of other people: "In our minds, attractive people are better people — and apparently thinking makes it so."

The dangerous, flip side of priming is that if we aren't specifically looking for something, we don't see it even when it's enormous & obvious. And some forms of priming are insidious & can easily be used to manipulate us.

Politicians use this to their advantage all the time. For instance, the best-looking candidates have a measurable statistical advantage [very few hairy, unkempt politicians out there], & effectively calling the constituency "sissies" leads to higher levels of support for belligerent foreign policy.

It makes sense: if you are looking to unite a group of people to support your bid for personal power, you need to identify something that is similar about those people that can be used to wrestle power away from whoever currently appears to hold it.

Since there actually is precious little biological difference between people, our tendency toward mythical thinking fits the bill nicely. Cultural differences arising from variations in our mythologies become useful: "the best leaders...exemplify what makes the group distinct from and superior to rival groups."

In its sheer, unrivaled ability to manipulate our environment to suit humans, science is powerful. So if you aren't a scientist, how do you take that power for yourself? Perhaps by recognizing that, "Followers may also shun an otherwise desirable trait such as intelligence if doing so helps the group differentiate itself from competitors." And that "the development of a shared social identity is the basis of influential and creative leadership. If you control the definition of identity, you can change the world."

With science sitting in the middle ground, New Age mysticism & Intelligent Design/Creation Science are two of the current tools used by the left & right wings respectively. They exploit our tendency toward perceptual errors & our fondness for anecdotal evidence to claim superiority for their in-group, calling into question the credibility & entire history of science in a blatant grab for power. While they do pick & choose, none of these people are seriously suggesting we give up ALL the benefits of science & go back to living in caves.

Here's a detailed rebuttal of many of the currently popular anti-science arguments. It includes staggering descriptions of some remarkable biological systems, like blood clotting, flagellum, & human-chimp chromosome comparison:

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The human hunter's secret weapon.

Nothing is more common than to hear someone hold forth about how we wimpy humans have no claws, teeth, venom or other killing gifts like virtually every other animal does...just our magnificent brains to help us catch food in the survival game.

But apparently we've been overlooking the obvious yet again. As it happens, humans have one really MASSIVE advantage when it comes to hunting: we are physically designed to run down any large animal over long distances!

The trick is our small, sweaty, more-or-less hairless bodies that make us significantly more efficient at blowing off heat than heavy masses of sprinting venison are. We just jog along, forcing large prey to keep running until it overheats & collapses after only about 10-15 km.

As evidence, human bodies come equipped with some interesting features that don't even fire up until we start running: like a thick neck-support ligament, disproportionately large butt muscles & long springy leg & foot tendons, for instance.

Meat-powered robots.

Turns out that "flesh-eating robot research is not progressing as quickly as you might think". But faster than it probably should, if you ask me.

Ugh! Why would you want to build a robot that runs on slugs it gathers up & ferments? Because "Slugs are slow," says Dr. Ian Kelly, creator of SlugBot. I don't even want to think about what this machine smells like (slug vodka?)...or who might be funding it, actually: soldier-powered war machines?

Hm. On the other hand, make a robot that self-powers by picking up & eating sticks & pine needles instead of slimy mollusks & you've just solved the problem of way too much fuel in western U.S. forests.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Algae energy!

The perfect energy source? Let's see:

Corn = 18 gals. of oil/acre/year;
Palm = 700-800 gals. of oil/acre/year;
Algae = 20,000 gals. of oil/acre/year! And that's in a pond where light-penetration limits yield. You can increase the yields dramatically with thin, vertical greenhouse tanks. Apparently, they can even easily tailor the carbon chains to whatever type fuel you want to get out.

Although I must say, it kind of ruins it for me when Poindexters say things like "If we converted 1/10 of the state of New Mexico to greenhouse algae production, we could supply the entire nation's energy requirement."

How about putting it in all those urban wasteland re-development districts & butt-ugly suburbias?

More about algae fuel.

Dope the ocean to suck up more carbon.

Cquestrate Intro Video from cquestrate on Vimeo.

I don't know what's more staggering about this idea: that it might actually return atmospheric carbon levels to pre-industrial levels while improving marine health at no net cost, or that the guy is evolving the idea as an open-source project.

More info here.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Cheap solar dish that melts steel.

Parabolic solar collectors are nothing new.

The geeks at M.I.T. have created one that is small & cheap, though, which IS new...& uber-cool, even if you don't instantaneously ignite 2x4s by sticking them into the focus like the students did.

Basically a source of concentrated energy that is far cheaper than equivalent photovoltaic panels, you can point its energy at water to make steam to drive a turbine, heat a house, cook, whatever.

Honey bees dance in the 6th dimension!!!

"Honeybees don’t have much in the way of brains. Their inch-long bodies hold at most a few million neurons. Yet with such meager mental machinery honeybees sustain one of the most intricate and explicit languages in the animal kingdom. In the darkness of the hive, bees manage to communicate the precise direction and distance of a newfound food source, and they do it all in the choreography of a dance."

In one of those serendipidous discoveries that happen when odd worlds collide, a mathematician who grew up with a father that happened to be a beekeeper has discovered that the honey bee dance pattern is the projection of a [formerly] theoretical 6th-dimension shape!

I tell you, anytime you start thinking that the world isn't a strange enough place, the insects quickly change your mind. I can't even conceptualize 6 mutually perpendicular spatial dimensions [much less dance in them]--maybe I have too many neurons.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Atomic Boyscout.

This is a fantastic, scary story, brought about in part by that most-dangerous of 1960's era do-it-yourself children's manuals: The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments.

Before reading this, I would really not have thought it possible for a preternaturally determined Eagle Scout candidate to assemble the required nuclear material to build a semi-functional breeder reactor & kick off a Superfund nuclear waste clean-up.

Who knew? Here's an ironic quote from one of the seriously unexpected under-the-radar participants:
"“Reactors get hot, it’s just a fact,” Miller, a nervous, skinny twenty-two-year-old, said during an interview at a Burger King in Clinton Township where he worked as a cook."

Still scared of "terrorists"?

Grow new body parts like a lizard.

Oh, man--don't watch this one while eating your lunch!

This guy lost the end of his finger in a model airplane accident. Fortunately, his brother happens to be a researcher in the field of "regenerative medicine".

Long story short, his finger grew back. Watch the video--it's pretty amazing!

Table-top fusion!

Cool--table-top fusion is back in the news!

Seems Japanese researchers may have unlocked the puzzle of cold-fusion experiment repeatability. Proving that the miserably elusive phenomenon actually exists through repetition is the first nut to crack before trying to harness it into an unlimited, clean power supply.

When Pons & Fleischmann went down in flames after claiming to have created low-energy fusion reactions in a jar in the 1980's, mainstream science pretty much took a BIG step back from the controversial subject. Despite random unrepeatable confirmations, cold-fusion was seen as crank pseudo-science & a good way to end a promising career.

But apparently, a surprising number of legitimate scientists have been secretly chipping away at the vexing problem without calling attention to themselves--sort of like entertaining a weird underwear fetish you'd rather not have your neighbors find out about.

By the by, brilliant inventor Philo Farnsworth--who is credited with television--already created a tabletop fusion reactor back in the 1950's! You can even build one yourself or buy a version of the contraption if you need a ready supply of neutrons for some reason.

A DVD that holds 50 TERABYTES????

Hm. Plants react to light.

How about creating a digital storage disc that exploits a certain plant protein that changes when it's exposed to light? The original protein is a 0, the altered protein a 1.
"The star at the centre of the high-capacity DVD is a light-activated protein found in the membrane of a salt marsh microbe Halobacterium salinarum."

Who says curiosity-driven research is a waste? Bet the guys who discovered this little microbe weren't looking for a way to make their hard drive obsolete.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Doh! Lactic acid is fuel, not waste product.

In the annals of overturned conventional wisdom, this is a doozy.

Everybody KNOWS that lactic acid is the stuff that builds up in your muscles during exercise, slowing you down, making you burn now & ache later. Seeking faster runs, longer leaps & higher jumps, people have been tweaking their diets & training for decades in a desperate attempt to remove this offending substance.

Turns out that's not a brilliant idea: scientists have discovered that lactic acid is actually the fuel our muscles burn.


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Welcome to Mind-Blowing Science!

Occasionally, you hear about some development in science that is so unexpected & off-the-wall that it takes your breath away. It's a nice break from all the depressing news out there, so I thought I'd start posting links to these stories when I run across one of them.