Category: Science

Credit cards under your skin

Read Randall Parker on this new innovation:

Advanced Digital Solutions has announced their Veripay embedded radio frequency ID (RFID) cash and credit card technology.

Some day we may be able to walk into a store and be completely alone and not have to see a living person in sight, imagine walking out holding the items you want and being billed instantly just as you leave the store. No confrontations, no customer service, no cute check-out girl, isn’t our future grand…The chip is embedded in the arm.

Parker also quotes this more formal descrption of the technology:

VeriChip is a subdermal, radio frequency identification (RFID) device that can be used in a variety of security, financial, emergency identification and other applications. About the size of a grain of rice, each VeriChip product contains a unique verification number that is captured by briefly passing a proprietary scanner over the VeriChip. The standard location of the microchip is in the triceps area between the elbow and the shoulder of the right arm. The brief outpatient “chipping” procedure lasts just a few minutes and involves only local anesthetic followed by quick, painless insertion of the VeriChip. Once inserted just under the skin, the VeriChip is inconspicuous to the naked eye. A small amount of radio frequency energy passes from the scanner energizing the dormant VeriChip, which then emits a radio frequency signal transmitting the verification number. In October 2002, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled that VeriChip is not a regulated device with regard to its security, financial, personal identification/safety applications but that VeriChip’s healthcare information applications are regulated by the FDA. VeriChip Corporation is a wholly owned subsidiary of Applied Digital Solutions.

By the way, the first 100,000 registrants to be “chipped” get $50 off.

My take: I don’t see this product taking off as a useful means of buying things, though of course it would no longer be a problem if you forgot your wallet at home. Too much talk about “mark of the beast” and all that, plus the general creepiness of the idea. As Parker suggests, more likely applications are for people at risk of having heart attacks (the device could send a signal, much like a cell phone call), diabetics, epileptics, Alzheimer’s patients, and children at risk of kidnap or running away from home.

Dreaming of a White Christmas?

It is less likely than ever in many parts of the country, read here for some exact figures, based on data since 1948. Here is the geographic distribution of the changes, snow is less likely in the east but more likely in some mountain states:

The decrease in the number of snow days has been especially pronounced east of the Mississippi River, where 117 of 125 stations reported an average of five fewer days with snowfall.

“Five fewer days of snowfall over a 30-day period may not seem all that significant until you consider that, in many regions, snow days occur relatively infrequently,” Kaiser said.

One region that is more wintry between the holidays, however, extends from the Central Rocky Mountain states (Utah, Colorado and Wyoming) eastward into the Central Plains (mainly Nebraska), where the number of days with snow has increased significantly.

“The area across the Central Rockies and Central Plains is the one part of the country that is bucking the trend, with a few stations in Utah and Colorado seeing nearly 10 more days with snowfall,” Kaiser said.

The researchers caution against thinking that this is a tale of global warming, one way or the other.

Does evolutionary biology weaken left-liberal views?

An interesting review of Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate suggests that a better understanding of biology does not damage the prospects for social engineering, “The more we understand our nature, the better we’ll be at nurturing.” Here is one lengthier bit:

Contrary to what its critics say, evolutionary psychology does not threaten our ability to assess and transform our social and cultural landscapes. Quite the opposite–understanding the particular channels that we’re prepared to learn can throw into sharper relief the achievements of culture. Knowing something about our reproductive drives and our tendencies toward violence makes the extraordinary drop in murder and birthrates experienced by many Western countries over the past few centuries all the more impressive. And just because our mental modules are implicated in political issues, that’s no reason to hand over our societal reins to the evolutionary psychologists. To include biological explanations in a discussion of human society by no means eliminates the validity of other kinds of explanations. What Pinker and E.O. Wilson are proposing is not biological determinism but rather biological consilience…

This is half correct. Future social engineering, if done with noble motives and an informed basis, will have a better chance of succeeding a century from now. But I have long felt that the “public choice” critique of social engineering — you can’t trust people, especially not politicians — carries more weight than the informational critique. Scroll down one post and read my remarks on the all-too-frequent lack of meta-rationality as well, or scroll up one post and read about the prosperous marvel that is North Korea. And evoloutionary psychology suggests that, short of genetic engineering (not the topic at hand, and besides, who do you trust to do that?), human nature is not about to change anytime soon. So score at least half a point against social engineering, which should make Michael happy at www.2blowhards.com.

Meta-rational animals

Monkeys and dolphins are capable of recognizing when they do not know the answer to a question. Here is a brief summary of the experiments:

In the first one, trained monkeys sat at a computer joystick and watched the density of colored dots in a square on the screen. When there were many dots, the monkey moved the joystick to the square itself, choosing “dense.” When there were few dots, the monkey put the cursor on an “S,” superimposed on the screen, indicating “sparse.”

Gradually, examiners added more dots to the “sparse” test until the monkey reached a threshold where it could not easily discern whether the panel was “dense” or not. At that point, the monkey chose to put the cursor on a star, indicating uncertainty.

Smith said the two monkeys displayed uncertainty at almost the same threshold as seven humans who also took the test. This result, Smith and his co-authors said, “presents one of the strongest existing matches between human and animal performance in the comparative literature.”

In the second test, a bottlenose dolphin was trained to press a lever when it heard a “low” tone, and another lever when it heard a “high” tone. At first, the dolphin was so enthusiastic that it kicked up swirls of water as it raced to the levers.

But when researchers raised the low tone until it approached the high tone, “he would creep in because he didn’t know what to do,” Smith said. “It was the dolphin equivalent of scratching its head.” The dolphin would then resort to a third lever, indicating uncertainty.

In other words, very intelligent animals are aware of their own cognitive limitations, here is the full story. So far it has not been possible to induce comparable behavior in rats, nor in many political commentators.

The bottom line: Of all kinds of rationality, meta-rationality is perhaps the hardest to come by. It is most rare when more than one person, or questions of status, are involved. For whatever reasons, a kind of false certainty must have yielded evolutionary advantages in earlier times, and perhaps still does today. Those animals would really impress me if they dropped their admissions of uncertainty when a member of the opposite sex was watching.

Quotation of the day

…the GM [genetically modified] food controversy is a feature of societies for which food is not a life-and-death issue. In India, where people literally starve to death…up to 60 percent of fruit grown in hill regions rots before it reaches market. Just imagine the potential good of a technology that delays ripening, like the one used to create the Flavr-Savr tomato. The most important role of GM foods may lie in the salvation they offer developing regions, where surging birthrates and the pressure to produce on the limited available arable land lead to an overuse of pesticides and herbicides with devastating effects upon both the environment and the farmers applying them; where nutritional deficiencies are a way of life and, too often, of death; and where the destruction of one crop by a pest can be a literal death sentence for farmers and their families…The opposition to GM foods is largley a sociopolitical movement whose arguments, though couched in the language of science, are typically unscientific.

From James Watson’s recent DNA The Secret of Life, p.160, the book is also a good introductory read on DNA issues more generally.

By the way, here is a picture of aquarium fish, they are genetically modified to glow in the dark, thanks to Chris Mooney for the link and commentary.

The best new ideas in applied science

Read this feature article from Popular Science magazine, or just buy the December issue. My two favorite new products are the following:

1. Binoculars that repeat the last 30 seconds. Instant replay, right there in your hands, and only $600 from bushnell.com.

2. Speakers that know how to listen. The speakers can measure what kind of sound they are producing in a particular room, and adjust their output accordingly to sound even better, they are called Beolab 5. This item costs a steeper $16,000, I will buy them when they start paying bloggers, from Bang-Olufsen.

Alex will be interested to hear about the new “Lifeport Kidney Transporter,” see organ-recovery.com, now FDA-approved, which makes it easier to move kidneys around the world, the device makes a soon-to-be transplanted kidney last for 17 more hours than previous technologies.

Blood supply and the FDA

Have you ever heard of Chagas disease? It is rare in the United States but common in Latin America, where 18 million people are infected and 50,000 die of it every year. Some little thingie crawls down your mouth and sucks your blood when you are sleeping (lovely), beware the thatched hut, and next thing you know, maybe about ten or thirty years later, your weakened heart or organs explode. There is no known vaccine, cure, or treatment.

Chagas is now making its way into the United States blood supply. Ideally, all donated blood should be screened for Chagas. But, can you believe this, the FDA needs to approve all blood tests of this kind. They haven’t approved any test for Chagas, nor have they shown much urgency in this regard, here is the full story.

About 30 tests are currently in use in Latin America, but none would appear to meet the FDA’s accuracy guidelines. In the meantime it appears someone would prefer that we have no test at all.

The New York Times put it as follows:

The failure of the blood industry and its regulators to develop a test since it was endorsed by a Blood Products Advisory Committee in 1989 seems to be a combination of bureaucratic inertia and divided responsibility for such a decision. Blood banks cannot use a test that the F.D.A. has not approved. The agency usually defers to its advisory committees, which have many experts from blood banks as members.

“It’s a political process that is not always fully engaged,” said Dr. Stuart J. Kahn of the Infectious Disease Research Institute, a Seattle group hunting cures for tropical diseases.

Whatever you think of the FDA as a regulator of drugs, this kind of bureaucratic control is hard to understand. Now it is longer enough for you to beware the thatched hut, you have to worry about the blood supply as well.

Being a bigot is exhausting, and makes you stupider

People with implicit racial prejudices are left mentally exhausted after interacting with someone from a different race, perhaps because they are trying to quell their feelings.

The new study, the first of its kind, shows that areas in the brain associated with self-control light up in white people with implicit racial biases when they are shown images of black people.

Furthermore, the study showed that the level of this brain activity correlated very closely with poor performance in a test of thinking ability given right after a face-to-face interview with a black person. The researchers believe this indicates that the subject’s mental resources have been temporarily drained by their efforts to suppress their prejudices.

Here is the full story.

A good mom should be sociable

At least in the world of baboons:

Baby baboons born to outgoing mums who enjoy hanging out with other females are considerably more likely to survive their crucial first year than infants born to less friendly mothers…

And the difference is a big one:

Susan Alberts, at Duke University in North Carolina, and one of the research team was surprised by the significance of sociability. “Eight per cent of infant survival is explained by sociality,” she told New Scientist. That is “striking”, she explains, because “we wouldn’t expect to have a large amount of variation that is deterministic – things that a mother can actually control – it’s amazing.”

Here is the full story. In my family of primates, the wife/mother is definitely the sociable one, at night I like to stay at home and write my blog or read.

What is love?

When you first fall in love, you are not experiencing an emotion, but a motivation or drive, new brain scanning studies have shown.

The early stages of a romantic relationship spark activity in dopamine-rich brain regions associated with motivation and reward. The more intense the relationship is, the greater the activity.

Here is the best part, or I suppose I should say the worst part:

Early on in a relationship, the images showed that the brain seems to be very focused on planning and pursuit of pleasurable reward, says Fisher, mediated by regions called the right caudate nucleus and right ventral tegmentum. The same regions become active when a person enjoys the pleasure of eating chocolate, she adds…There are also patterns that resemble aspects of obsessive compulsive disorder.

Here is the story from New Scientist, here is related research on the links between love and OCD. The research also suggests gender differences; male love has more to do with lust than does female love.

A monocausal theory of the aggregate divorce rate?

The divorce rate is almost perfectly predictable from the proportion of men to women in the population. In 1920, when the annual divorce rate was eight per one thousand married women, there were 104 males for every female. By 1980 the tables had turned, and there were only ninety-five males for every one hundred females, and the divorce rate had risen to twenty-three per one thousand married women. The sex ratio has remained virtually unchanged for the past thirty years and is paralleled by a steadily high divorce rate. The correlation betwee the population sex ratio (or number of males per one hundred females) and the divorce rate at four-year intervals between 1896 and 1992 was -.91, indicating that changes in the number of men relative to women accounts for 83 percent of the changes in divorce rate.

From Nigel Barber’s The Science of Romance who, on this claim, cites his own Why Parents Matter.

Can this be true? If it is such a neat fact, why have I never heard it before?

A good bit of web searching yielded surprisingly little enlightenment. One Amazon reviewer writes:

On page 150, Barber refers to a 1983 book purporting that the increasing divorce rate was due to a shortage of marriagable men. That was true in 1983. Barber fails to note that by 1987 the marriageable male/female ratio reversed, and we’re now in a “women shortage” era.

Point well taken, we should consider the sex ratio of marriageable people, not the overall sex ratio. More significantly, the general rate of American divorce is rising over time. The sex ratio has been moving in favor of more women as well, at least until recently, perhaps because survival out of childhood depends less on parental discretionary investments, noting that many parents prefer boys to girls. So the correlation may be spurious, rather than representing causality.

The fact is intriguing, but so far it is not a good monocausal theory of the divorce rate.

Man vs Machine II

Regarding this week’s man vs machine chess match. Tyler writes:

I was surprised to see Kasparov favored. Once he lost to Deep Blue, the last big match (Kramnik vs. Deep Fritz) was a draw. I know it is not as simple as Moore’s Law, but hey, don’t these machines improve their game more rapidly than the human players do?

Indeed, they do. Deep Blue was a very expensive, very fast computer specialized for chess and capable of examining some 200 million positions per second. Fritz is no slouch but it is being run on a more or less ordinary four processor Xeon computer capable of analyzing 3 million moves a second. Fritz is thus about 70 times less powerful than Deep Blue. Yet because of improvements in algorithms, Fritz is almost certainly the better player. So the computer players have improved tremendously over the past 6 years – so much so that the computer side is no longer bothering to field its best against the weak humans!

Addendum: Here’s a graph, from Jeff Sonas, of the top computer player ratings versus the top human player. Although, it is true, as Sonas argues, that the best programs do not beat the very best human players but only draw consistently it may simply be inherent in chess that it is impossible or near impossible to beat someone who is playing at the very highest level (similarly it’s impossible for even a mediocre human player to lose in tic-tac-toe.) We should not conclude from this that the computers aren’t improving. Thanks to Nathan Stocker for the link.

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