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This Blog Does Not Exist

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

Good Riddance 2016
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I definitely won't be sad to see the end of 2016. But I might feel more optimistic about 2017 if we didn't have Bozo the Clown moving into the White House in less than three weeks.

Signs of Life?
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I wonder if anyone even writes on Livejournal anymore . . .

If anyone's out there, Happy New Year!

Farewell 2013
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It's less than an hour before the new year here on the west coast and I for one will be happy to send 2013 on its merry way. About the only good thing I can say about this year is that over the past couple of months, it's ended on a strongly positive note and 2014 promises to be much better. Hope everyone has a safe and happy new year.

Another Life Update (Almost Caught Up Now)
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I was lucky to find a great Black Friday deal that didn't even involve going to the store. I met a guy who was planning to start a business but it didn't work out and he ended up stuck with a lot of inventory he needed to get rid of. So I ended up getting a nearly brand new Lenovo laptop (by which I mean new enough that it's still under a manufacturer's warranty) with the full premium edition of Office 2010 installed. It came with all the original receipts and paperwork, including a packing slip confirming that the thing was just shipped from the Lenovo warehouse in North Carolina in early November. It has the 64-bit version of Windows 8.1, 8 GB of memory, and a 1 terabyte hard drive. Total cost? Less than half of what I would have had to pay retail for the computer and that's before factoring in the MS Office installation.

My original plan was to simply replace my current computer, but after thinking it over, I've decided to keep both and turn the older one into a Linux machine-slash-sandbox. I'm also going to look for a good deal on a tower that I can then turn into a server running Linux. I'm thinking of installing Linux on the new laptop to have a dual boot option, but from what I'm reading that might be tricky with Windows 8 -- guess we'll see.

To facilitate all my planned tech projects, I've decided I need to change Internet providers. I've used Clearwire for a while now and they've had horrible customer service as long as I've been with them. I was willing to put up with that because I was getting lightning-fast speeds where I used to live and hardly ever had to contact support anyway. At the new apartment, the experience hasn't been nearly so positive. Speeds range from tolerable all the way down to barely usable, depending, as near as I can tell, on a wide variety of random factors, including the weather, the time of day, and the current phase of the planet Venus. What it all boils down to is that Clearwire is unacceptable at this point. There's no point in putting money into upgrading all my tech only to have to deal with horrible Internet connection speeds.

I've spent a ridiculous amount of time researching other options and, oddly enough, the most hassle-free option at this point seems to be Comcast. It's a little pricier than I would prefer, but Internet services are always going to be expensive for what you're getting in the United States, compared to what's available in Japan or South Korea or the European Union. We can thank our government's horrible telecommunications policies for that state of affairs, but I digress. Anyway, this means I'll also have cable TV again, as I've decided to go with a premium package that includes the NFL and MLB networks, along with National Geographic and a few others I want. The higher-level package is only $10 more per month and I see little point in getting cable TV without live sports, since there are so many options available online for anything else.

We'll see how it all comes together over the next few months, I suppose.

Linketies: Science Saturday (With A Brief State-of-the-Mike Report Included)
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After a not-quite-planned hiatus due to dealing with some offline personal matters, I'm going to start posting again. At least for a while. I still plan on transitioning away from Livejournal sometime in the near future, although my original plan of doing that over the summer is obviously shot. I've spent the last few months doing a lot of thinking and making quite a few big changes to my life -- all of which are for the better and working out very well so far.

I don't want to get into all the details now, since it would take too long and the details aren't all that interesting anyway (even to me). But for the Cliff's Notes version, I have a new apartment in northeast Portland, a cool new roommate, and I've decided to give up the entrepreneurial life, at least for the time being. I accepted an offer for a full-time position with a company in the international travel industry that comes with some incredibly cool co-workers, great pay and benefits, and a lot of growth opportunities. I've been there for a month and a half and I'm having a lot of fun so far. Between settling into the new place and hitting the ground running at the new job, I just haven't had the time to post here.

As much as various get-rich-quick schemes try to tell you otherwise, there can be advantages to being an employee rather than an entrepreneur, and that's definitely the case for me at this point in my life. For starters, I work 9 AM-5:30 PM Monday-Friday and I feel that, for the first time in a while, I truly have my evenings and weekends to myself. When I'm not at work, I don't have to worry about work. No need to worry about clients or administrative issues or thinking of "opportunities for additional revenue". I have the time to think about plans for finishing my degree, getting back to writing again, and just relaxing during my off hours.

With the life recap out of the way, I'll move on to the weekly list of articles about cool things going on in science and technology. Due to my new schedule, I'll be doing these on Saturdays now. "Science Saturday" has a better ring to it anyway and I'm happy to cede Science Fridays back to NPR, where they started. Without further ado . . .

  • Robot Rights: We've all heard the amusing anecdotes about people saying please and minding their manners when speaking to Siri. But our emotional responses in interactions with machines may go further than mere politeness. While it's true that we still think nothing of tossing out an old remote-control car, new research at MIT is finding that humans become disturbed when more sophisticated and social robots come to harm. In light of such findings, scientists have begun thinking seriously about codes of ethics for robotics. The time when philosophers, lawyers, and the general public will have to grapple with such issues seemingly isn't far off.

  • Ring Around The Moon?: Yet another example of a dawning Golden Age for the private space industry. A Japanese firm is proposing to orbit a ring of solar collectors around the moon and transmit the energy back to Earth. In light of the citizen backlash against nuclear energy after the Fukushima disaster, I can't help but wonder if there might be a new boom in Japanese green energy projects.

  • The Clocks In Your Brain: Scientists have long known that a part of the brain called the hippocampus plays an important role in keeping track of memories of the past and may be important to actually keeping track of time as well. But a new experiment in which the the functioning of the hippocampus was blocked in rats is helping scientists to understand more about how our brains perceive and measure time. And things may not be quite as simple as first thought.

  • Floating Around The World: A firm based in Florida has plans to build a mile-long floating city that would boast 50,000 permanent residents. It would come complete with an airport, docking facilities, restaurants, schools, a hospital, and all the other comforts of home and would make one complete circuit around the world every two years.

  • The Aliens That Used To Exist: One factor that is seldom considered in the search for life in the universe is that we have to contend with unimaginably vast amounts of time along with the unimaginably vast distances. A civilization that died out a million years ago obviously won't be communicating with us. Fortunately, astrobiologists are developing a more sophisticated understanding of how life changes a planet's atmosphere, knowledge that may help us search for those alien life forms that used to exist but don't any longer. Of course, even the discovery of alien life that's currently extinct would be monumental, since it would be proof that life could and did evolve in a location other than Earth.

  • How Life Changes The Land: The presence of life not only changes the atmosphere, but also constantly affects and reshapes the land. Sophisticated new computer models are letting planetary scientists in Germany learn more about how biological life affected the physical evolution of the Earth's surface.

  • A Digital Lollipop: Digital technology already does a good job with sight and hearing and engineers are at work trying to replicate touch and smell too. But what about taste? Researchers in Singapore are working on ways to digitally reproduce the sense of taste and, surprisingly, the problem doesn't even seem to be all that complicated.

  • The Psychopath In You: Finally this week, imagine that you're a prominent neuroscientist. Now imagine that you're studying the brains of psychopaths. Now imagine that due to another research project, you happen to have brain scans for yourself and members of your family on hand. Now suppose you come to a brain scan that's an obvious textbook example of a psychopath and it is a scan for one of your family members. Suppose further that you just couldn't resist using that little number on the brain scan to find out which member of your family it belonged to. So then you type in the number of the brain scan, the one that is from a psychopath, and you discover that it's yours.

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So I've written before about the startling number of mishaps that might have led to a nuclear war and a bomb that nearly detonated over North Carolina in the 1960's. Here are even more tales of just how close we've come over the years to catastrophic nuclear accidents, including the case of a repairman who dropped a socket from his wrench, which almost caused a nuclear detonation in Arkansas. Perhaps the most alarming thing about all of these incidents is how little knowledge the public has about how often such mistakes really happen.

The earliest research into nuclear fission and fusion took place in the utmost secrecy of a nation at war. No one even knew that scientists were concerned that there was at least a slight chance that the first test of the atom bomb might have ignited the Earth's atmosphere (and of course, they went ahead with it anyway). The existence of nuclear weapons was only announced to the world when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. With so many other potentially catastrophic technologies on today's drawing boards -- including artificial intelligence, bio-engineering, and nanotechnology -- it's fair to ask what implications this kind of secrecy could have for the future of humanity and the planet.

Bad Republicans. No cookie.
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I think the Democrats have been handling the government shutdown the right way: No negotiations with blackmailers. Go ahead, bring on the shutdown.

Of course, I'd be enjoying this "government shutdown" a lot more if it wasn't such a misnomer. What they mean by "government shutdown" is simply that they're shutting down the parts of the government I actually like. The national parks will be closed, the panda cams at the National Zoo will be turned off, NASA scientists won't be going into work. But the military-industrial complex, the CIA, the NSA, and the shady intelligence and paramilitary organizations will all hum right along without missing a beat.

Finally . . . Hackproof Communications
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The Russians, who have had ample opportunity to speak with Edward Snowden about his knowledge of what the NSA is up to, are so spooked by what they've learned that they've felt the need to go back to typewriters and paper documents. It's just one more item that should be a wake up call to the American people about how much we simply don't know about what our government is doing in our name.

Also, courtesy of the Foxtrot comic comes a good start on a new course in American government tailored to the realities of the "post-9/11 world".

  • The three branches of the federal government that we're allowed to know about are ________, _________, and ________ .

  • Name something a US senator does in addition to soliciting campaign contributions.

  • Outside of radio hosts, newspaper columnists, TV talking heads, and Internet trolls, who determines whether or not a law is constitutional?

My God, It's Full of Stars
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Astrophotographer Mike Taylor has some fantastic images of the Milky Way, mostly taken on the coast of Maine. One of his photos recently appeared on Space.com.

Linketies: Science Friday
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One would think that such a monumental discovery as finding extraterrestrial life would at least warrant some mention in Science Friday. And yet, the media has been full of reports that scientists in the UK have been announcing such a discovery and I haven't said anything about it so far. Fair point.

Okay, earlier in the summer, a team of British researchers announced that they had discovered biological particles of alien origin in Earth's upper atmosphere, claiming that the particles are too large to have drifted there from the Earth's surface or lower atmosphere. There, I mentioned it.

The problem is the "findings" are, to say the least, less than convincing and were published in a journal which has made such dubious claims before. It's one thing to want to believe, but it's important that before we in fact believe, we wait until all the evidence is in. It cannot be said enough: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

And now on to this week's articles about cool things going on in science and technology.

  • In the rush to push everything online, not many people think about the "digital divide" in technology and how offering only online options excludes many people. But a new study by the Pew Research Center's Internet Project confirms that around 15 percent of people aged 18 and over do not use the Internet. Reasons range from finding the Internet challenging or frustrating to a lack of computer know-how to a lack of physical access to the Internet caused by financial or other factors.

  • Even when we can make everything high-tech, there are often serious questions about whether we should. From the "One Nation Under Surveillance" Department comes this story about using technology in classrooms not to enhance the learning experience, but to track students' every move. Because it's not as if today's kids have enough to worry about already with attending militarized schools, being under constant surveillance, and being over-scheduled by their neurotic and hyper-obsessive helicopter parents. Not to mention the frequent searches and ever-present fear of arrest if you dare think about playing cops and robbers with pretend guns.

  • Even when we have the ability to go high-tech and when it's a good idea to do so, we need to be careful about how the technology is deployed, since our computer networks are threatened by the same hackers, spies, and rogues that plague the offline world. Cyber-security is becoming not only a big issue, but big business as well, with some security professionals reportedly making hundreds of dollars an hour. As this story from the Christian Science Monitor points out, the creation of such a "cyber industrial complex" raises some serious concerns, not the least of which is increased worries about our privacy and civil liberties being attacked in the name of over-hyped threats.

  • Admittedly, this week's Science Friday has started out on something of a gloomy note. Okay, here's something cool. As National Geographic celebrates its 125th anniversary, take a look at just a few of the stunning photographs that its photographers have taken over the decades. The photography is one of many reasons that I collect them and have over 400 at last count.

  • A recent study co-authored by a space physicist at UCLA has made some fascinating new discoveries about space weather and the Northern/Southern lights.

  • There is increasing interest in the colonization of Mars, but what would it actually be like to live there? Since terraforming is only an option in the longer term, the first settlers would face a challenging life, including planet-wide dust storms, a harsh climate even in the best of times, and the need to be prepared for any possible technological failure that could threaten human survival. Since humans evolved on and have adapted over thousands of years to life on Earth, there would also have to be some of Earth incorporated into the daily routine as much as possible as this story points out.

  • Some people aren't content to settle for Mars. There's a small but growing community of people who are keenly interested in a possible manned mission to Europa -- and they aren't necessarily willing to sit back and wait for NASA to take an interest.