Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

More Natural Oil Spills than Manmade

May 8, 2010

The Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound released 10.8 million gallons of oil — or almost 250,000 barrels of oil.  But natural oil seeps off California release up to 80 times that amount.  And natural seeps in the Gulf of Mexico release twice the amount as the Exxon Valdez every year.

The Transocean Deep Horizon oil spill may eventually match that of the Exxon Valdez — if it continues leaking at the current rate for the next month or two or more.  Politicians and environmentalists are already declaring states of emergency, but better technology may yet break up the oil spill and allow natural forces to dissipate it.

Curious claims are being made from various sources regarding the origin of the oil platform fire, explosion, and sinking.  But even if the oil platform was deliberately destroyed, as some are claiming, the well itself should have had some type of inbuilt mechanism — a blowout preventer — to stop oil flow in case of a catastrophic disruption in continuity of the piping. [Update 1 May 2010: Apparently the blowout preventer at the site failed to operate.  At this time no one knows why the blowout preventer failed.  Certain automatic safety switches that were not included in the operation may have been able to trigger the blowout preventer.]
Other offshore wells incorporate such safety features, which would likely have stopped the oil spill very early in its course. So the problem is not offshore drilling so much as it is making sure the best technology is utilised when drilling offshore.  And, yes, try to maintain a sense of perspective.
This Denver Post article presents a bit of background

Michael Crichton–Hero of the Al Fin Republic

February 24, 2007

Ever since The Andromeda Strain, I have followed the story of Michael Crichton–his life and works.

Michael Crichton graduated from Harvard Medical School, and chose a career in publishing and the entertainment media over medicine. Although Crichton would have made a very good physician, his impact has probably been much greater through the world of entertainment. American mythology is written in bestselling books, highly rated TV series, and box office hit films. Crichton has scored big on all three fronts.

But Crichton is certainly much more than fiction writer, TV producer, and motion picture screenplay writer and producer. He has become something of a cultural icon. Crichton has been the boogeyman of radical feminists ( Disclosure), and the hated villain of the environmental left (State of Fear). Nanotechnologists did not appreciate his novel “Prey,” and it is certain that Biotechnologists will not like his latest novel “Next.”

Crichton attracts controversy, and although media controversy may annoy him at times, he does not fear controversy. Contrast that relative fearlessness of Crichton’s with Al Gore’s refusal to appear on an interview with anyone who even has equitable relations with Bjorn Lomborg. Talk about a limp wristed controversialist! It would be wonderful to see a debate on catastrophic anthropogenic global warming between Al Gore and Michael Crichton. Do you think Charlie Rose could arrange it?

Hat tip Fatknowledge Blog.

Is That a Robot! In Your Pocket (Or Are You Just Happy to See Me?)

January 27, 2007

cricket microbot

Robots are getting smaller–micro-robots, or microbots as they are called. Small and almost invisible, but with good optics. It is not impossible that you are being watched by a robot at this very moment. Especially if you are a terrorist.

Israel is developing a robot the size of a hornet to attack terrorists. And although the prototype will not fly for three years, killer Micro Air Vehicles, or MAVs, are much closer than that.British Special Forces already use 6-inch MAV aircraft called WASPs for reconnaissance in Afghanistan. The $3,000 WASP is operated with a Gameboy-style controller and is nearly silent, so it can get very close without being detected. A new development will reportedly see the WASP fitted with a C4 explosive warhead for kamikaze attacks on snipers. One newspaper dubbed it “The Talibanator.” Source.

Other engineers are developing microbots for exploring difficult to access caves and other planets.

In Phase I, we wanted to focus on robotic units that were small, very numerous (hence expendable), largely autonomous, and that had the mobility that was needed for getting into rugged terrains. Based on Dr. Dubowsky’s ongoing work with artificial-muscle-activated robotic motion, we came up with the idea of many, many, tiny little spheres, about the size of tennis balls, that essentially hop, almost like Mexican jumping beans. They store up muscle energy, so to speak, and then they boink themselves off in various directions. That’s how they move.We’ve calculated that we could probably pack about a thousand of these guys into a payload mass the size of one of the current MERs (Mars Exploration Rovers). That would give us the flexibility to suffer the loss of a large percentage of the units and still have a network that could be doing recon and sensing, imaging, and perhaps even some other science functions.

AM: How do all these little spheres co-ordinate with each other?

PB: They behave as a swarm. They relate to each other using very simple rules, but that produces a great deal of flexibility in their collective behavior that enables them to meet the demands of unpredictable and hazardous terrain. The ultimate product that we’re envisioning is a fleet of these little guys being sent to some promising landing site, exiting from the lander and then making their way over to some subsurface or other hazardous terrain, where they deploy themselves as a network. They create a cellular communication network, on a node-to-node basis. More at Source.

You can find movies of microbots and scholarly papers here.

Here is a report discussing Micro-Air Vehicle research; for the US Air Force.

You can read about an earlier micro-copter and view a movie of the micro-bot flying here. State of the art microbots now are much smaller and potentially more letal.

If you could teach a continuously deformable microbot to fly, there is no end to the amount of mischief such a sneaky little bugger could create.

How Civilisation Can Fall

January 9, 2007

It happened before. When Rome fell, Pax Romana was ended. International trade ground to a standstill while international piracy, brigandry, and warlordism prospered. It is happening in Europe now, gradually but inexorably. Let’s look at Russia:

There are ten million people in Moscow. Do you know how many of them are Muslim? Two and a half million. Or about a quarter of the population. The ethnic Russians are older; the Muslims are younger. The ethnic Russians are already in net population decline; the Muslim population in the country has increased by 40% in the last 15 years. Seven out of ten Russian pregnancies (according to some surveys) are aborted; in some Muslim communities, the fertility rate is ten babies per woman. Russian men have record rates of heart disease, liver disease, drug addiction and Aids; Muslims are the only guys in the country who aren’t face down in the vodka.

Faced with these trends, most experts extrapolate: thus, it’s generally accepted that by mid-century the Russian Federation will be majority Muslim. But you don’t really need to extrapolate when the future’s already checking in at reception. The Toronto Star (which is Canada’s biggest-selling newspaper and impeccably liberal) recently noted that by 2015 Muslims will make up a majority of Russia’s army.


Science Fiction author Orson Scott Card looks at how civilisations can fall:

What Grant finds, though, is that an international economic system that functioned smoothly throughout the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean, despite blips like the Trojan War, staggered to a complete collapse.

Starting in the late 1200s bce, a “prolonged series of destructive movements of peoples” (i.e., barbarian invasions) swept through the area. It seemed to be closely related to the fall of the Hittite empire in Asia minor, though whether the barbarian invasions toppled the Hittites, or the fall of the Hittites provided a power vacuum into which barbarians swept is hard to determine from our present vantage point.

What is unarguable is that a high level of arts and crafts staggered downward, getting shoddier all the time; meanwhile, pollen counts showed a drastic drop in crop production, suggesting an equally drastic crash in populations sustained by local farming.

Once again, as with the fall of the Roman West, there were areas that held out a little longer or that recovered more quickly. But in this case, the collapse came in an international system. In other words, it wasn’t a single empire falling, it was a mutually dependent system of neighboring nations and city-states that plunged into chaos.


In other words, an international system of economy and trade is like a house of cards that must be propped up by a protecting power. In modern times, the US protects international shipping and trade–even for its putative enemies China, Russia, Venezuela, Cuba, Iran, and the other increasingly rabid muslim states.

Although it is the goal of jihadis and leftists to topple “globalism” and the infidel hegemony, the end result of such a discontinuity would not be the results of a glorious revolution, or a religious utopia. It will be hell on earth, with chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons being used. Although leftists would deny that this is what they are working toward, nevertheless it is.

Changing demographics is an undeniable argument. Civilisation is fragile. Only a few cultures have been able to sustain it for long–and never before has it been sustained except on the back of widespread slavery. The death of western culture will be hardest on women and the weak–children and the aged. But leftists have the best of intentions when they ally with jihadis to topple free market capitalism. Surely the hundreds of millions who will die will not be their fault? Surely.

Psychological Neoteny: Bruce Charlton’s View

December 30, 2006

The problems of the neotenous society, and psychological neoteny, have received extensive coverage on another Al Fin blog. But it seems that I am not the only one to ride this particular hobbyhorse. Bruce Charlton is an Evolutionary Psychiatrist at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Charlton is the author of a fascinating online ebook–The Modernization Imperative–and was featured in a Discovery Channel news article earlier this year.

…it seems a growing number of people are retaining the behaviors and attitudes associated with youth.

As a consequence, many older people simply never achieve mental adulthood, according to a leading expert on evolutionary psychiatry.

…Formal education now extends well past physical maturity, leaving students with minds that are, he said, “unfinished.”

“The psychological neoteny effect of formal education is an accidental by-product — the main role of education is to increase general, abstract intelligence and prepare for economic activity,” he explained.

“But formal education requires a child-like stance of receptivity to new learning, and cognitive flexibility.”

“When formal education continues into the early twenties,” he continued, “it probably, to an extent, counteracts the attainment of psychological maturity, which would otherwise occur at about this age.”

Charlton pointed out that past cultures often marked the advent of adulthood with initiation ceremonies.

While the human mind responds to new information over the course of any individual’s lifetime, Charlton argues that past physical environments were more stable and allowed for a state of psychological maturity. In hunter-gatherer societies, that maturity was probably achieved during a person’s late teens or early twenties, he said.

“By contrast, many modern adults fail to attain this maturity, and such failure is common and indeed characteristic of highly educated and, on the whole, effective and socially valuable people,” he said.

People such as academics, teachers, scientists and many other professionals are often strikingly immature outside of their strictly specialist competence in the sense of being unpredictable, unbalanced in priorities, and tending to overreact.”Source.

Isolating children and young adults inside classrooms, away from the productive world and meaningful responsibility, will probably result in large numbers of “failure-to-mature” adults, as we see in modern western societies. Immature adults are unprepared to face the momentous challenges that western civilisation faces today. There are many “micro-pockets” of maturity within these societies–small arenas where teens and young adults are faced with meaningful responsibility, and acquire useful competencies.

These micro-pockets of reality necessarily exist outside of school curricula.

Lung Cells from Human Umbilical Cord Blood–A First!

December 30, 2006

Cord Blood Stem Cells

I have cut dozens of umbilical cords, and drawn blood samples from many more. I never dreamed cord blood would eventually be recognized as a major new source for multipotent stem cells! Stem cells can be differentiated into all three germ layers now–ectoderm, endoderm, and mesoderm. It was recently reported that scientists at the University of Minnesota created respiratory epithelial cells from umbilical cord blood [UCB].

To obtain the MLPC [multi-lineage progenitor cell] from cord blood, we used a stem cell isolation technology — PrepaCyte-MLPC — from BioE. We successfully isolated the rare MLPC from four UCB units obtained from the American Red Cross.

…We then put the UCB stem cells into culture and allowed them to expand using mesenchymal stromal cell growth medium (MSCGM) prior to adding small airway growth medium (SAGM), both mediums from Cambrex BioScience (East Rutherford, N.J., USA). Following several days in culture, we demonstrated differentiation of MLPCs into type II alveolar cells, which was confirmed by the presence of a definitive type II alveolar cell marker — surfactant protein C (SPC). Source.

The process of sequentially using growth factors and media to differentiate stem cells into mature cell types continues to fascinate me. No one truly understands the potential of stem cells from cord blood, menstrual blood, the testicle, the breast, the brain–or any of the growing number of stem cell sources. Although Australia has legalized the production of human embryos specifically for the purpose of producing stem cells, few other countries have followed the Aussie’s lead. That means that other countries will either learn to work with what is legally available, or will fall badly behind the researchers in Oz.

There is growing expertise in producing increasing varieties of cell types from readily available sources of stem cells. Resourceful scientists with ingenuity can do amazing things with the materials on hand.