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Do Not Be Alarmed. Everything Is Under Control. You Are Getting Very Sleepy.

If Not Now, When?
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Iran's newly elected president, Hassan Rouhani, has launched an all-out diplomatic charm offensive lately, even reportedly saying that the Holocaust was "reprehensible". That's a far cry from the former president who was a nut who sponsored international conferences of Holocaust denials.

Perhaps the best thing that President Rouhani has said lately concerns a topic near to my own heart: the existence of nuclear weapons. Mr. Rouhani, if he is being sincere, believes that nukes should be eliminated. Not just Iran's. All of them. Everywhere.

Understandably, there is some skepticism about how sincere Mr. Rouhani is being and how much of an influence he has with the ayatollahs. Decades of suspicion between the west and Iran is certainly not going to be erased overnight. Ronald Reagan's famous advice to "trust but verify" comes to mind.

As I've mentioned before, I do not believe that Israel should join the non-proliferation treaty "without delay". There must be delay while a more comprehensive Middle Eastern peace treaty is negotiated. Mr. Rouhani could help the world go a long way toward that end if he would say without equivocation that Iran will respect Israel's existence and physical security.

But Mr. Rouhani is right when he says, "The world has waited too long to disarm. As long as nuclear weapons exist, the threat of their use exists." And sincere or not, his idea is a good one that the rest of the world should consider -- particularly his proposal for a comprehensive treaty that would prohibit the "possession, development, production, acquisition, testing, stockpiling, transfer, use or threat of use" of nuclear weapons and the destruction of the weapons that currently exist. Ideally, that could be expanded to include chemical and biological weapons as well.

Naturally, there will be some questions about the practicality of such a treaty. But maybe it's time we start heeding the words of Robert Kennedy and start asking "Why not?" If not now, when? If not us, who?

Sword of Damocles with a Mediterranean Flavor
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The new president of Iran has a point when he suggests there is a double standard when it comes to the scrutiny given to Iran's nuclear program versus that given to Israel's probable possession of nuclear weapons. I would agree that at some point, Israel should join international non-proliferation agreements and that its possession of nuclear weapons should become more of an issue than it is now.

That said, I think it's important to realize that part of the world's acceptance of such a double standard is the recognition that Israel faces a unique existential threat for which there's no real comparison among other countries. I think that any agreement on Israeli nuclear weapons would have to be in the context of a broader Middle Eastern peace agreement that provides guarantees for Israel's physical security.

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At the risk of inflating Dr. Sheldon Cooper's over-sized ego even further, I have to say that the Emmy for best actor in a comedy series definitely went to the best actor this time around. Congratulations, Jim Parsons!

Trust Tylenol?
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I've long had my deep suspicions of the pharmaceutical industry, for reasons ranging from shady business practices to the abundance of dangerous prescription drugs that somehow make it to market to the highly suspicious pattern of SSRI's found in the bloodstreams of so many perpetrators of mass shootings. But sometimes you have to wonder just how safe drugs are even when they're so ingrained in the culture that hardly anyone even gives them a second thought. For example, Tylenol.

A recent investigation by ProPublica found that about 150 Americans die from accidental overdoses of acetaminophen each year. Of course, Tylenol, one of the best-known drugs containing acetaminophen, has been famous for its marketing campaigns touting how safe and effective the drug is, even claiming that most doctors prefer Tylenol to aspirin. But it turns out that accidentally overdosing may be a lot easier than people think and the manufacturer is, not surprisingly, doing very little about it.

That Sword of Damocles Thing Again
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I think it's well past time that we got rid of these damn things. And if a nuclear bomb falling into a field where three of its four safety mechanisms then failed isn't enough to convince someone of that, maybe the 1995 incident where a Norweigan rocket studying the Northern Lights nearly caused Russia to launch its nuclear arsenal will do the trick. Or any of these twenty mishaps that might have led to a nuclear war. Or the fact that, even today, an accidental nuclear war with China is a very real -- albeit unlikely -- possibility.


Linketies: Science Friday
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Well it's Friday again and that means another round of articles about cool things going on in the world of science. But first, I've been thinking a lot, as I tend to do, about the Singularity, that school of thought about the future of humanity and intelligence that's captured the imagination of so many scientists, engineers, technophiles, and business people. Perhaps it was to be expected that with Ray Kurzweil joining Google, Google would be getting into the act. Recently, company founder Larry Page announced Calico, a new company that will focus on issues of health, aging, and (more to the point) life extension.

And so we have another example of a troubling trend I've noticed: the tendency of so many Singularity enthusiasts to focus on "life extension". Oh, wouldn't it be so cool if we could all live forever? Of course, there are many arguments to be made that such a thing wouldn't be cool at all. In any case, this obsession with immortality is hardly new, as there are countless historical examples of foolhardy quests for the fountain of youth, going back thousands of years.

And therein lies the problem. True, the Singularity is about some really cool shit. But it doesn't start and stop with human immortality. The Singularity is about nothing less than the future of technology, the very nature of intelligence, and the meaning of what it is to be human. It would be unfortunate if all that were to be reduced to merely finding another way to make the planet's overpopulation problem even worse.

Google's anti-aging initiative has made the cover of Time magazine. It has also triggered discussion of how Google has been acting a wee bit peculiar lately -- a company with the already ambitious goal of organizing all the world's information that also dabbles in driver-less cars, wearable computers, and balloons that beam the Internet to you. Perhaps the explanation for that part is simpler than we think. Google, after all, celebrates its 15th anniversary this month. How many teenagers do you know who aren't peculiar and annoying?

And now on to Science Friday . . .

  • Speaking of the Singularity, a new study found that dogs are perfectly happy to interact with robots if the robots are presented as social beings. Now we're left to wonder if humans would do the same, along with whether the dogs would assist in bringing about the robot apocalypse.

  • As fascinating as it might be to speculate that life may have originated in space, it's important to keep in mind that, much like the four-dimensional star hypothesis I wrote about earlier this week, that's all this is so far: pure speculation. Great job, LA Times, for referring to "mounting scientific evidence" while not actually citing any.

  • There are many different examples of accidental scientific discoveries, not the least of which is penicillin. But this one's pretty cool too: the world's thinnest piece of glass, which is only one atom thick.

  • A recent article from Slate questions whether much of the popular rhetoric about cyberwar is over-hyped. While that's a legitimate question and the article raises some interesting points, I take issue with Slate's seemingly narrow definition of what constitutes a war. If your article about futuristic technology shows an over-reliance on obsolete Industrial Age ways of thinking, haven't you missed the point?

  • Drones -- thanks to our old friends at DARPA, they're not just for the air anymore.

  • A recurring theme in many of my Science Friday posts is how our government and our laws haven't caught up to technological realities. Now, in a brilliant display of the law of unintended consequences in action, Apple may have created a legal minefield that endangers the foundation of the Fifth Amendment with its new fingerprint recognition technology. Beyond iPhones, the minefield will only expand if companies choose to rely too heavily on biometrics for security.

Twinkle Twinkle 4-D Star
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Um. Am I the only one who sees an obvious problem with this theory? And yet, the obvious problem is not brought up in the article and no one's brought it up in the comments either.

Yes, there are problems with the Big Bang Theory. But the article is asking if it's time to say good bye to the Big Bang because someone published a theory completely based on conjecture that happens to work in a computer model. True, it's an elegant-sounding theory that seems to resolve some problems in cosmology and make everything fit together nicely -- if you ignore the wee little detail that no one has yet proven that extra spatial dimensions -- or four-dimension stars or a "hyper-universe" -- even exist!

It reminds me of some variations of string theory where they had to invent 11 or 26 dimensions just to make the math work. And while I admit that string theory is compelling, it has the same problem: we have no way of knowing if the extra dimensions that the theory needs to work even exist.

Nevertheless, the exploration of alternate universes and extra dimensions -- much like time travel -- is a fascinating subject to explore and actually has a long history in human thought, from Plato's to Alice In Wonderland to the art of MC Escher and Picasso to plots in sci-fi series like Star Trek and Stargate.

For anyone interested in this kind of thing, I highly recommend Hiding in the Mirror: The Quest for Alternate Realities, from Plato to String Theory (by way of Alice in Wonderland, Einstein, and The Twilight Zone), written by Lawrence Krauss, an eminent physicist whose other claim to fame is being the author of The Physics of Star Trek. Dr. Krauss has also written his own take on cosmology and the Big Bang called A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing. That one does a great job of debunking the more far-fetched mysticism-centered views of why the universe exists, such as Intelligent Design.

Also well worth a read is Dr. Michio Kaku's Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the 10th Dimension. Incidentally, Quinn Mallory can be seen reading that book in the first episode of the sci-fi series Sliders, a show about alternate universes. Along the same lines, there is Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel, also by Dr. Kaku.

But again . . . none of this has been proven to actually exist in the real world (as Drs. Krauss and Kaku are very quick to point out), so I wouldn't recommend using any of it as an explanation for how the known universe began.

"What Recession?" Asks The Top One Percent
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As the lackluster jobless economic "recovery" continues, a recent study finds that in 2012, the top ten percent of earners took home nearly half the nation's entire income and the top one percent took home over 19% of the nation's income. According to a New York Times analysis, it's the worst income inequality the nation has seen since the government began tracking such data nearly a hundred years ago. Although the Occupy movement managed to get the issue of economic inequality (along with the term "top 1 percent") into the national consciousness -- an achievement in itself -- we've seen no improvement at all.

Linketies: Science Friday
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Before getting to Science Friday, I thought I'd mention a few things about Star Trek Into Darkness, which I watched last night. As with the 2009 reboot, the critics who said this movie was so horrible are completely off base. Overall, it's a well-done movie. However, it's not as good as the 2009 movie. It's certainly not as good as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but then I never expected it to be, since that would be a very high bar to clear. Ricardo Montalban's unforgettable portrayal of Khan and the highly charged, highly personal conflict between Khan and William Shatner's Kirk (who was already a larger-than-life character in the original movies) is a combination that was never likely to be repeated.

I was slightly annoyed that the movie adopted a terrorism theme. In the twelve years since the 9/11 attacks, it seems that the vast majority of TV shows and movies touch on terrorism in some way. I find this particularly irksome in the science-fiction genre, which is supposed to be about stretching the limits of the human imagination and exploring strange new worlds and all that. While no one would argue that terrorism is an important issue in certain short-term contexts, when dealing with time frames of hundreds of years and with issues relating to the long-term fate of humanity, terrorists are simply not that important and not that interesting. And it goes without saying that yet another terrorism theme hardly earns JJ Abrams points for originality.

And with that out of the way, on to Science Friday.

  • It doesn't seem like many people are counting, but it's been eight years since the last major hurricane -- meaning Category 3 or above -- directly hit the United States. There may be a number of nuanced factors to explain this, but the largest factor is probably pure luck, since those eight years have hardly been what you'd call quiet. On a completely unrelated note, I can't help but find it amusing that the science and operations officer at the National Hurricane Center is named Chris Landsea.

  • Sure, everyone wants to save the pandas because they're cute, but what about the more aesthetically challenged blobfish? The grumpy-looking blobfish recently won the title of the world's ugliest animal and the right to represent a society dedicated to the preservation of the um, shall we say, less visually pleasing members of nature's family.

  • And now the latest in the field of biometrics, otherwise known as the scientific field most likely to realize and then surpass George Orwell's horrifying vision of a totalitarian state: using scans of brain waves to verify the identity of a vehicle's driver. The immediate applications of such a technology -- preventing carjackings of vehicles carrying dangerous or valuable cargo -- seem harmless enough, but . . .

  • New York to Boston in under an hour or San Francisco to Los Angeles in under two hours? It would be possible if the United States were to deploy Japan's newest maglev train technology, which has been clocked at 310 miles an hour in recent trials.

  • Scientists working on NASA's Dawn mission to the asteroid belt are getting increasingly excited about a visit to the dwarf planet Ceres. Ceres is an ice world along the lines of Jupiter's moon Europa and measurements so far indicate it has a very low density, leaving the possibility for underwater oceans and . . . life? Maybe?

  • In trying to answer the question of whether humans are alone in the universe, it's important to remember just how old the universe is and how long it existed before there was ever life on Earth. Whole civilizations could have risen, fallen, and died out long before life on Earth even made it to land. There is a recognition that what we may be looking for may not be evidence of alien civilizations, but rather, evidence of the ruins of alien civilizations.

  • Most people with any interest in space exploration or SETI have heard of the Drake Equation, a tool for measuring the probability of the existence of alien civilizations. Unfortunately, we only have actual knowledge of the first term of the equation, the average rate of star formation in the galaxy. With the recent growth of research into exo-planets, it may be possible at some point to get a handle on the second term, the fraction of those stars that form planets. The other five terms are largely guesswork and you could assign values that give you almost any result you want, from humans being alone in the universe to a universe teaming with tens of millions of alien civilizations. MIT astronomer Sara Seager revisited the Drake Equation at a conference earlier this year and her version was recently published in Astrobiology magazine.

  • Say goodbye to Voyager I. Based on recent data from the probe's instruments, scientists are now convinced that Voyager has left the confines of our solar system and is now the first man-made object to reach interstellar space.

Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock.
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Not that I procrastinate or anything, but I bought the 2013 edition of the World Almanac and Book of Facts today -- only a month or two before the 2014 edition comes out. I also picked up the 2014 Writer's Market.

This evening's going to consist of enjoying some peace and quiet at home, where I'm finally getting around to watching Star Trek Into Darkness now that it's out on DVD. I've heard a lot of complaining and moaning about it, but I also heard lots of complaining about the 2009 reboot and that one was excellent. In every fan base, there always seems to be a contingent of overly anal nitpickers who seem to think no story should ever be retold in a new way. Of course, if we heeded such people, there wouldn't be any more stories, since humans have been retelling so many of the same ones for thousands of years.

I got season 2 of The Big Bang Theory from the library. I can't decide whether I find it amusing or disturbing that I so often identify with Sheldon Cooper, who seems to always give voice to exactly what I'm usually thinking in similar real-life situations.


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