In a BBC interview, Nicholas Negroponte, chairman and founder of MIT's Media Labs, says he is developing a sub-$100 laptop PC that can be used as an education tool in developing countries. Negroponte, who has already set up a couple of schools himself in Cambodia and given the students laptops, plans on distributing the devices, which would run free Linux software rather than the Microsoft Windows operating system, by the end of next year. One huge potential buyer already expressing interest: China. Now while it might be easy to criticize this initiative as focusing on the wrong solutionthe Internet rather than inoculations, for instancegiving individuals, families, and villages access to information, such as better agricultural techniques, has tremendous potential economic upside.
1/21/05 Differences between male and female brains
Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers has been getting all sorts of grief after telling an economics conference that "innate" differences between men and women contribute to the underrepresentation of female scientists at universities.
Coincidentally, a new University of CaliforniaIrvine study addresses the issue of differences between male and female brains. It found that while there are "no disparities in general intelligence between the sexes," there are differences in brain structure. According to the analysis, men have approximately 6.5 times as much gray matter related to general intelligence as women, and women have nearly 10 times as much white matter related to intelligence as men. Gray matter is where the information-processing centers in the brain are located, while white matter represents the connections between these processing centers. These differences, according to a coauthor of the study, may help to explain why "men tend to excel in tasks requiring more local processinglike mathematicswhile women tend to excel at integrating and assimilating information from distributed gray-matter regions in the brain, such as required for language facility." The study also found that more intelligence processing in women is found in the brain's frontal lobes, while the gray matter driving male intellectual performance is distributed throughout the brain. According to the researchers, this more centralized intelligence processing in women is consistent with previous findings that frontal brain injuries can be more detrimental to cognitive performance in women than in men.
A new report out of the Central Intelligence Agency, called "Mapping the Global Future," describes what the world might look like in the year 2020. One of the areas it examines is biotechnology.
The report describes biotech as both "panacea and weapon." On the plus side, the report says,
. . . biotechnology could be a "leveling" agent between developed and developing nations, spreading dramatic economic and healthcare enhancements to the neediest areas of the world . . . possible breakthroughs in biomedicine such as an antiviral barrier will reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, helping to resolve the ongoing humanitarian crisis in sub-Saharan Africa and diminishing the potentially serious drag on economic growth in developing countries like India and China. More developing countries probably will invest in indigenous biotechnology developments, while competitive market pressures increasingly will induce firms and research institutions to seek technically capable partners in developing countries . . . .
But as advanced biotech becomes more widespread, the report cautions, there is also a greater chance that it could be used as a weapon of mass destruction:
. . . as biotechnology advances become more ubiquitous, stopping the progress of offensive biological warfare programs will become increasingly difficult. Over the next 10 to 20 years there is a risk that advances in biotechnology will augment not only defensive measures but also offensive BW agent development and allow the creation of advanced biological agents designed to target specific systemshuman, animal, or crop . . . .
It has been said that solar energy is the future of energy and always will be. But growing concern about climate change and high oil prices is generating new interest in ways to more efficiently capture the power of the sun. Two provocative items on this front recently caught my attention.
One is a joint effort among Stirling Energy Systems, Boeing, and the Department of Energy to capture the sun's rays using a Stirling engine, a device first invented in the 19th century. Stirling engines are powered by the expansion of gas when it is heated inside the engine, followed by the compression of the gas when cooled. The gas never leaves the engine but moves back and forth between the hot side and the cold side, moving a piston. One way to heat the gas would be to use solar powerthe goal of the project, which uses solar dishes to focus the sun's rays on the engines. (The following link plays a video of the dishes in action.) As this EE Times analysis theorizes, one day a 100-by-100-mile farm of these dishes could supply all of America's daytime energy needs.
Then there's this recent piece of news from the University of Toronto where researchers have developed "spray on" photovoltaic materials using nanoparticles sensitive to infrared rays. This potentially allows the creation of solar cells that can harness five times more of the sun's energy. As reported in the journal Nature Materials, the substance potentially could be applied to existing surfaces like walls or clothing.
12/16/04 Mozilla's Firefox browser continues to gain on Microsoft's Internet Explorer
If you peruse today's edition of the New York Times, you'll run across a huge ad from the Mozilla Foundation for their Firefox 1.0 browser, officially released in early November. (A beta version, though, has been out for a while.) Some 11 million people have already downloaded the software, slowly cutting into the dominant browser position of Microsoft's Internet Explorer. According to WebSideStory, a provider of Web analytics services, IE has a 91.8 percent market share vs. 4.1 percent for Firefox as of December 3. That's a drop of about 4 percentage points for IE since June. One advantage of Firefox over IE is that Firefox users don't seem to get barraged by those annoying pop-up ads. Who doesn't hate those? At his website, technology usability guru Jakob Nielsen highlights a study from Yahoo! and eBay presented at his 2004 User Experience conference that shows just how much users hate pop ups. In a survey of 605 people, pop-up ads garnered the most negative responses of any type of online ad, getting a "very negative" or "negative" response from 95 percent of respondents. People hate them even more than slow-loading web ads, ads that try to trick you into clicking on them, and ads that don't have close buttons.
Who knew that Michael Crichton was at heart such a skeptic? Many of the successful author's most popular techno-thrillers, such as The Andromeda Strain or Jurassic Park, take a kernel of science fact and then grow an elaborate science fiction crisis around it. But in his new book, State of Fear, Crichton takes what many believe is a current crisis of science factglobal warmingand minimizes its threat. Go to Crichton's website, and you'll find a speech Crichton gave at Caltech in 2003 that highlights many of his objections to what he calls "consensus science": where the consensus opinion of the scientific community is regarded as a worthy substitute for actual scientific evidence, particularly in cases where that consensus influences public policy. As he puts it:
"Evidentiary uncertainties are glossed over in the unseemly rush for an overarching policy, and for grants to support the policy by delivering findings that are desired by the patron. Next, the isolation of those scientists who won't get with the program, and the characterization of those scientists as outsiders and 'skeptics' in quotation marks, suspect individuals with suspect motives, industry flunkies, reactionaries, or simply antienvironmental nutcases. In short order, debate ends, even though prominent scientists are uncomfortable about how things are being done... Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way."
In the speech, Crichton points to example after example where the scientific consensus was later proved to be wrong. For years, Crichton notes, the whole theory of plate tectonics and continental drift was deemed to be wrong by the scientific consensus of the time:
"Probably every schoolchild notices that South America and Africa seem to fit together rather snugly, and Alfred Wegener proposed, in 1912, that the continents had in fact drifted apart. The consensus sneered at continental drift for 50 years. The theory was most vigorously denied by the great names of geologyuntil 1961, when it began to seem as if the sea floors were spreading. The result: It took the consensus 50 years to acknowledge what any schoolchild sees."
In the case of global warming, Crichton is particularly skeptical of computer models that try to predict what Earth's climate will look like in the future. No one knows if they are accurate, only that when back-tested using historical data, they have been accurate in predicting climate change in the past. As for the future, we'll have to wait and see.
12/14/04 How Google is working to create a massive virtual library
It looks like Google has struck an agreement with some of the nation's leading librariesincluding Harvard, Stanford, and the New York Public Libraryas well as Oxford University to begin digitizing their holdings. The implications of this are really astounding. The move is a first step in creating a "global virtual library (as the New York Times is putting it) where pretty much the entire store of mankind's written knowledge is available at anyone's fingertips. And just how this deal going to contribute to the bottom line at Google? As John Battelle comments at his popular SearchBlog site:
"This could well be a step toward diversifying Google's revenue streams away from advertising and into direct sales and/or subscriptions i.e., the content business... It's also a very short route to the on-demand publishing of an out-of-print and out-of-copyright book with a company that is set up to do such a deal, and I am aware of at least one that is about to launch that will provide just such a service."
If Battelle is right, this deal will be an example of a business concept call the "long tail," which holds that with online distribution there is plenty of money to be made with the 80 or 90 percent of booksand music and moviesthat aren't big hits, as well as old, out-of-copyright books. Misses can make money, too. Though individually the misses are not as profitable as hits, there are a lot more of them. Indeed, as this Wired article on the "long tail" points out, "the average Barnes & Noble carries 130,000 titles. Yet more than half of Amazon's book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles." It sure looks like there is big market for books beyond the big hits.
12/10/04 How bioengineering bacteria may lengthen life spans
In his nonfiction book Tomorrow Now, sci-fi author and futurist Bruce Sterling begins by describing a world where genetically engineered bacteria have transformed, well, pretty much everything:
"... basically, you look like an athlete or supermodel. You look that way not because you're all egotistically eager to stand out from the norm but because that is your norm. An athlete or a supermodel is what men and women are willing to pay to look like. ... You have no tooth decay, no dandruff, no enlarged pores. Though you read too much, you have no glasses. ... Your bathroom cabinet is full of unguents, greases, and perfumes. There are some pills in there, but most of them do not contain drugs. Instead, they contain living, domesticated organisms that make drugs while living inside you. Some of the "pills" are cameras, with tiny sensors and onboard processing. Nothing in your medicine cabinet is sterile, not even the bandages. Modern bandages contain living organisms that are good for wounds."
He's not the only one with ideas on this front. In the most recent issue of Popular Science magazine, longevity guru Aubrey de Grey speculates that you can hack particular soil bacteria and then inject them into human cells to help break down the waste that builds up inside of cells, which can lead to heart disease and other maladies. But instead of modifying existing bacteriaas is already done, for instance, to manufacture insulinmaybe we can just make our own. Scientists at Rockefeller University in New York have managed to create "primitive cells" that can churn out proteins, although they cannot replicate or evolve like real bacteria. According to an article in the journal Nature, these synthetic cells could make simple "protein factories, perhaps more easily tailored to make specific products."