Wednesday, April 23, 2014

GM sacrifices customers to survive

If a company or other organization feels that it must cut corners in order to survive, it will even to the detriment of its stakeholders and customers. GM is an example. There are other examples everywhere in which organization insiders behave in a 'rational' way that sinks the organization. (see Christensen books, for example, and a lot of posts on this blog.)

Climate change -- not science but politics

It is nice to gnash your teeth about the impending doom of climate change, but if the politicians will not agree on doing anything to stop the doom, the doom will come.
The third installment of the latest IPCC report recommends increasing the amount of nuclear energy production by a factor of four. Yet, the governments of the world, especially Germany and Japan, are decreasing production of electricity from nuclear energy by about 2 fold. So instead of a four fold gap, we are moving towards an eight fold gap that can't be filled by solar or wind derived electricity.
Here is a nice article laying out the reasons that make a carbon tax or a climate treaty unlikely.
Here is an article showing that during the last century's increased global temperature rise human health and standard of living increased. It did not decrease as the temperature went up.
Here are comments by the head of the IPCC about the impact of his report on climate change. It is fascinating to me that his comments are highly hedged, very political, and not encouraging. His solution also requires the creation of a world government, an unlikely event and ignores all of the politics that would have to occur for that event to take place.
First post about 15 April 2014.

big data and its problems

Big data and its analysis is touted as a solution to many problems. Unfortunately, that is not true. If the data contains errors that are not scrubbed, then the conclusions could be wrong. If the data search finds correlations, it, almost always, can't tell whether these correlations are meaningful, useful, or predictive without some information from outside the data itself. For certain kinds of big data, the analysis can be skewed or gamed by outsiders, for instance by spamdexing or linkbaiting. Also, if the algorithm that is analyzing the data changes over time and changes in unknown directions resulting in changed conclusions about the data, it is clear that we should pay attention to these changes. It is not clear what the changes tell us about the meaning of the data.
Now Brookings has an article saying the same thing about the weaknesses of using big data uncritically. The major weakness is that the use of the data distorts the data itself.
All of these problems of big data and its analysis have correlates in how a brain works correctly or incorrectly, I think. They certainly have correlates in how to understand everyday collections of big data such as the data from microarray experiments, which I think I understand in detail.
First post 7 April 2014.

Could a single protein shrink depressive brains?

During depression a brain shrinks. A single protein may control this shrinkage. The protein is REDD1, a protein involved in coating neuronal projections, dendrites,  with myelin. When the protein is missing in mice, the mice have shrunken dendrites similar to those found postmortem in severely depressed people.

Collins -- Wall Street as an ecosystem? Maybe not

High Frequency Trading on Wall Street hinges on trading times in nanoseconds. Here, by Katherine Collins, is a new book suggesting that biological insights would stabilize interactions on Wall Street and make its ecosystem more stable. The premise is that stable investment is governed by a biologically stable ecosystem.
I have to think about Collins premises more, but from a biological point of view, the premises seem not well developed. For instance, many organisms, from bacteriophages to bacteria to killifish to bears, seem to act like HFT traders. They are 'born', grow very rapidly independent of the local ecosystem, burn out the local ecosystem and then go into hibernation or sporulation until the ecosystem recovers enough to support further growth. Similarly, the seeds of the jack pine and other plants lie dormant in the soil until a forest fire comes through and activates the seeds. So biology often acts in contrast to what I know of Collins' story.
Viewed from the point of view of business, Google did not grow in a stable ecosystem. It started in a business ecosystem that believed that Google (and Ebay, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) were not possible. Google found an 'ecological niche' in which it could grow and prosper.
In an echo of biological systems and business development, Google, like Bethlehem Steel before it or almost IBM (as manufacturing computer hardware became less profitable), could go extinct as the market/ecosystem changes.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

CRISPR and fixing a liver defect in mice

MIT scientists have altered a specific single letter of the DNA code for a mouse and fixed the mouse's otherwise inherited liver abnormality. CRISPR is the approach that allowed them to make this specific change and not make other changes. CRISPR elements are being used now to supplant zinc finger and other nucleases. In bacteria (I think that the following is right but these elements are new to me.), CRISPR elements consist of two regions of short repetitive DNA flanking a region of useful DNA and a gene, usually for a nuclease. When a bacterial virus infects the bacterium, the CRISPR region is activated, creates copies of parts of the viral genome, and inserts these copies into the bacterial genome. These copies can then, later, be activated by further bacterial virus, phage, infection and incapacitate the phage, thereby acting as a simple immune system for the bacterium. The inactivation can occur through DNA-DNA interactions or by the CRISPR element making an interfering RNA that stops the phage.  Since CRISPR elements also function in mammals, scientists can put specific DNA sequences in the useful region of a synthetic CRISPR element and use that element to inactivate or silence a specific eukaryotic gene as was done in the linked study.

IQ, just a part of personality

If instead of considering IQ as some separate part of a being, disconnected from the being's personality and consider IQ to be part of personality and to be measure in similar ways to the rest of personality, we find that IQ correlates to openness to experience, to mental quickness, but not to empathy or sensing beauty. The other correlates are fascinating.

Bonk a beer bottle on top, instant foam, why?

Bonking a beer bottle on the top causes it to foam over but bonking it on the side does not. Turns out that physics and bottle shape control this reaction.

How the brain connects words and dance

Once thoughts, feelings, and sensing get inside the brain unexpected things happen. Here is a description of how words and body motions such as dance get connected.

Owning your ignorance, to help you do better.

We are all ignorant, just in different areas.  This nice article shows how to use this ignorance not to encourage hiding but to grow your business and your life.

Escaping tribal habits, one action at a time.

There are a lot of posts on this blog about changing habits. Many of these posts are about getting people to pay more attention to facts when their tribal identities make it hard to look clearly at new facts.
Here is an article on how to change identity based habits to reach a new goal for yourself. It says to change the old habits a little bit at a time but consistently and without punishing yourself too much for doing some old habits every now and then.

Cliven Bundy, killing cattle, Harry Reid, and Chinese solar plants.

There have been a lot of media reports about Cliven Bundy, a Mormon rancher with a 140 year family history in Nevada, having his cattle be forced from public land by 200 armed troopers and possibility that the cattle had been euthanized.
There seems to be more to this story. Harry Reid, the leader of the US Senate, has a son. The son wants to get the public land from the US government so that the Chinese can build a $2.5 billion solar plant on the land that Bundy's cattle are now using. The younger Reid also seems to want to take the Bundy's land as part of his offer to the Chinese. He is the former Clark County, NV county commissioner and helped the Chinese company, ENN, buy land at far below market value. Ah, politics. To add complication to the story, the newly appointed head of the Bureau of Land Management is a long time aide to Senator Harry Reid.
Here are more details, including the fact that desert tortoises, the nominal animal to be protected, are being euthanized by the US government because there are too many of them. Another point in this video is that the land under dispute is not even Federal land but is owned by the state of Nevada, which begs the question as to what the Feds are doing trying to 'protect' it.
The confrontation seems to be settling down as the BLM withdraws. It may be settling down because the story, above, about how Senator Reid's son would profit from the 200 militiamen versus the Bundys, went viral on the Internet.
And here is apparently the same story with a senior Democratic Senator trying to  use his influence to win, this time an election, by harassing some non-governmental entity, this time Caterpillar, for political gain.
The Feds have left Bundy's ranch, at least for the moment. In their wake, the left water lines and water tanks that they destroyed, apparently in great overreach to the orders that they were given.
Now 50,000 militia in Oklahoma say that they will weigh in on the side of Bundy if needed.Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma says that the Bureau of Land Management is not government owned but publicly owned. Wikipedia says that the BLM is part of the Department of the Interior of the US government. It seems that the protesters are saying that the BLM is not responsive to the public, whom Senator Inhofe says owns it.
The BLM eyes Texas land and refuses to answer the phone, telling people to call the DOJ. Clearly an agency that is owned by the public. Where is the head of the administrative branch of the government in all this? Shouldn't he be laying out ground rules? He is a lawyer after all.
Here is a nice discussion on the problems inherent in 'public land' that is owned by everyone. It is the tragedy of the commons.
The BLM now admits to killing 4 of Bundy's cows while 2 more died. On Friday, BLM claimed that only 2 cows had died. BLM, the agriculture department, and Senator Reid's office did not respond to requests for comment. I had not thought of this, but I do not know of any legal finding that gives the BLM the right to collect Bundy's cows and kill them. I expect that there will be important lawsuits against the Federal government over these deaths. As far as I know, the Federal government can't just take private property and destroy it without settled case law in support of their actions. I am not a lawyer but the BLM's destruction of Bundy's cattle has the same feel as the Administration's targetting of US citizens with drones or conservative PAC's with federal workers from the IRS or FBI, all of which appear to have been done outside of existing law.
I should be cynical by now about the motives of politicians. Guess I have to work harder on being cynical.
Here is a story that seems to apply.
A politician walked out into traffic, not paying attention, and was hit by a car. A person came out of the crowd and helped the politician to safety. The politician was very thankful and said to the person, "That was amazing. I am a politician. Most people would never have helped me. What can I do for you?"
The good samaritan replied, "Forget my name."
First published on 11 April 2014.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Gay boy scouts -- "The times they are a changin/"

A Boy Scout troop in South Seattle just lost its charter because its leader is gay. Scroll back a few years to Los Alamos, NM, about 1920, and the Boys' School. The troop leader was gay, as far as I know, and the troop did just fine and produced many national leaders (see some of the books on Los Alamos and the Boys' school.)

Making graphene at home.

Get some graphite powder. Put it in a blender with water and soap. Blend. Viola, you now have graphene.

Want a mobile phone on your clothing, try a spaser.

Standard lasers use a many atom resonant chamber, think the ruby laser in a laser pointer, to produce the coherent laser emissions that drive DVDs and other devices. The minimal size of the laser cavity determines the size of the device. Now researchers at Monash university have found a way to reduce the device size dramatically. They use surface plasmons and a carbon nanotube. This approach could reduce the needed size of a cell phone from something in your pocket to a patch of clothing. Since the scientists' spaser is made from carbon not precious metals, the cost of the phone could also drop dramatically.

Biofuels -- hope over experience.

We can make biofuels from many things. A couple of years ago a study from Berkeley showed that gasoline from algae would compete well with gasoline from oil when the price of gasoline from oil reached $600 a gallon. (link added when I get a chance). Then the biofuel industry wanted to make bioethanol from corn. This had the drawback of raising the prices of food substantially since the same physical land that was previously used for corn for food would have to be converted to biofuel production. Also mixing ethanol into gasoline corroded car engines. The final caveat, again from a Berkeley study, was that it would take 5 gallons of regular gasoline to produce 4 gallons of gasoline equivalent from corn.
Now the rage is to use cornstalks to produce ethanol by converting the cellulose in the stalks into ethanol. This panacea has the drawback that the ethanol is expensive and the bigger drawback that the cornstalks to gasoline effort produces more green house gases than the oil to gasoline effort that it was supposed to replace. Sigh!
So much hope, but thermodynamics and chemistry still rule the game.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Dealing with toxic people and jerks

Here are some good points for dealing with toxic people. The biggest is not to expect them to be reasonable, then to handle the interactions decently including letting them finish what they feel they need to say. Here are some suggestions for dealing with jerks.

Data breech, now at Michaels'

With data breeches at Target,, and many other places; here, at Michael's, is the latest one. I would be happier when cybersecurity works better.

Pseudo science of the left -- Whole Foods, gluten free

While there is pseudo science in creationism, there is also pseudo science among the secularists. As Michael Schulson states in this very nice article, just go visit Whole Foods and pay attention.
Here and here are articles about gluten free foods.
Fist published on 24 Feb 2014.

Open SSL not so secure, Heartbleed bug,

Many sites on the Web have been protected by SSL, the secure socket layer. It turns out that the layer is not so secure and has been attacked successfully a number of times to garner passwords, financial data, and other things.The vulnerability has been dubbed Heartbleed.
Fortunately, the Open SSL folks have fixed this vulnerability in their latest release, which should be downloaded and installed immediately if you need it.
For the rest of us, change all your passwords now, especially your banking ones. On the other hand, you may want to wait. I called my bank. They said that they would look into the problem and get back to me in 4 to 7 business days. Hardly a reassuring response.
Here is a description of what the bug is about.
Here is some information on when and whether to change your passwords.
Here are some ways to protect yourself from the Heartbleed bug.
How to protect against further bugs.This is a very interesting article on the role of government funding in key open source software.
Here is the latest. All 8,000,000 (?) who used the site have been told to change their passwords since the site is vulnerable to Heartbleed.  Remember that the site is also vulnerable to simple web browsers.
First published on 8 April 2014