Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Importance of a Citizenry Possessing Practical Skills

For decades, the emphasis in US secondary education has been to prepare every student for college. As a result, dropout rates have soared, too many incapable HS graduates are attending college (and dropping out with huge debts), and vocational and technical skills have languished and US industry has found it difficult to field a skilled workforce.
The National Association of Manufacturers found that 81 percent of the manufacturing companies surveyed reported that they were facing a moderate to severe shortage of qualified workers; 53 percent of manufacturers reported that at least 10 percent of their total positions where unfilled simply because they were unable to find people with the skills to do the jobs. Part of the story was the general tightness in the labor market around 2005. Fully 39 percent of the companies were having trouble hiring enough unskilled workers. But the real problem was finding skilled tradesmen—electricians, glaziers, cement masons, sheet-metal workers, and the like. Of the manufacturers surveyed, 90 percent reported that they could not find enough skilled workers to fill their needs.

The trend is seen throughout the skilled trades. Case in point: welding. A study by the American Welding Society and the Edison Welding Institute reports that in 2000, there were 594,000 welders working in America. By 2005, that number had dropped to 576,000. By 2009, according to the Department of Labor, the number was 358,000. The average age of a welder today is in the mid-50s. In 2006, 50,000 welders retired, but fewer than 25,000 new welders entered the field. Those trends have continued diverging, resulting in a current shortage of almost 200,000 welders.

A big part of the problem—as the case of welders shows—is simple demographics. Baby Boomers are heading into retirement. By 2020, the number of people over 55 will increase by 73 percent, while the number of younger workers will increase by only 25 percent. This squeeze will leave America with a shortfall of 10 million skilled workers by 2012. And the squeeze only gets tighter. Some 70 million Baby Boomers will exit the labor force over the next 18 years, but only 40 million workers will enter it.

Another aspect of the problem is educational. Vocational education, once a staple of American secondary schools, seems to have undergone a general decline for decades. Take the state of California, for example. Prior to 1980, nearly every public high school in the state offered a comprehensive industrial arts program. By the late 1990s, according to the California Industrial and Technology Education Association, 75 percent of these programs were gone. What happened? As guidance counselors and administrators focused relentlessly on college admissions, the industrial arts became an afterthought. When shop class teachers retired, they were never replaced. Once the teachers were gone, the specialized classrooms were converted to weight training rooms, study halls, or computer labs. _Much more at Philanthropy

Intel's Andy Grove has some very strong feelings about this topic as well, and aims to do something about it:
Can you tell me about your efforts to make vocational or school-to-career education more available and more attractive?
MR. GROVE: We fund scholarships for students at community colleges and in other vocational programs. The value of the scholarships ranges from $500 to $5,000 per year, depending on the type of training and needs of the student. The people for whom we provide support are not those who intend to transfer to four-year universities. Rather, we are funding scholarships for those students who intend to enter a career immediately upon completion of their studies. Our program has changed over time but we have been giving these kinds of scholarships for more than a decade, and have typically given more than 100 scholarships per year. _Andy Grove Interview
Not as much as is needed, but it helps.

This profile of a 2 year vocational boarding school in Pennsylvania gives an idea of how dedicated some remarkable men are to the concept of American vocational training.

A society must have an ample complement of persons with practical and technical skills, or it will slowly collapse from neglect of its infrastructure. This is what has happened to some extent, in many otherwise affluent (or formerly affluent) parts of the US. Shortsighted planners, educators, politicians, and bureaucrats have shortchanged practical training in exchange for more politically correct funding policies which pleased more feminised political power groups.

While vocational programs are primarily oriented toward men -- who are the ones primarily interested in vocational skills -- the political power structure has become far more oriented toward the needs of women, at the expense of men. And so society as a whole tends to suffer from the neglect of a key part of its essential human infrastructure. And the repercussions reverberate throughout society.

More on this topic later.

We Are Marching to Utopia! A Holiday Encore

...optimists and idealists -- with their ignorance about the truths of human nature and human society, and their naive hopes about what can be changed -- have wrought havoc for centuries....instead of utopian efforts to reform human society or human nature, we [should] focus on the only reform that we can truly master -- the improvement of ourselves through the cultivation of our better instincts. _OUP Review of "Uses of Pessimism"
Sure as I know anything, I know this - they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten? They'll swing back to the belief that they can make people... better. And I do not hold to that. _Captain Malcolm Reynolds
There is something deep in human nature which has resisted change -- despite the best efforts of crusaders, utopians, religionists, and wishful thinkers -- for many [tens of?] thousands of years. After countless failures to reform the human spirit, most utopians are unfazed. If they can only grab enough power and control over how resources are distributed, they are sure that they can bring perfection to the land, under their own benevolent leadership. "The land will heal, the sea levels will begin to subside, and every man will say to every other man, you are my brother." And so on.

Philosopher Roger Scruton -- author of The Uses of Pessimism -- takes a somewhat more reluctant view:
The belief that humanity makes moral progress depends upon a wilful ignorance of history. It also depends upon a wilful ignorance of oneself – a refusal to recognise the extent to which selfishness and calculation reside in the heart even of our most generous emotions, awaiting their chance. Those who invest their hopes in the moral improvement of humankind are therefore in a precarious position: at any moment the veil of illusion might be swept away, revealing the bare truth of the human condition. Either they defend themselves against this possibility with artful intellectual ploys, or they give way, in the moment of truth, to a paroxysm of disappointment and misanthropy. Both of these do violence to our nature. The first condemns us to the life of unreason; the second to the life of contempt.

...In order to see human beings as they are, therefore, and to school oneself in the art of loving them, it is necessary to apply a dose of pessimism to all one’s plans and aspirations. _GloomMerchant
In another piece, Scruton presents a paradoxical recommendation for how to teach children to think for themselves, logically and clearly:
...children are drawn to magic...they spontaneously animate their world with spirits and spells...they find relief and excitement in stories in which the heroes can summon supernatural forces to their aid and vanquish untold enemies – these facts reflect layers of deep settlement in the human psyche. But they also remind us that, in the life of the child, belief and imagination are not to be clearly distinguished, and that both serve other functions than the pursuit of truth.

...humanists should wake up to this point, and be careful when they seek to deprive their children of enchantment, or to replace their spontaneous fantasies with the cold hard facts of empirical science. It could well be that religion is a better discipline than pop science, when it comes to shaping the rational intellect, and that [we can offer our] children more in the way of a solid foundation, by anchoring their imagination in sacred stories and religious doctrines, than they are likely to be offered by those “Darwinian fairy tales’” as David Stove has called them, which have gained such currency in the wake of Dawkins and Hitchens.

In response to a child’s metaphysical curiosity grown-ups can say that everything has a scientific explanation. But they will know that this is a lie. The proposition that everything has a scientific explanation does not have a scientific explanation – it describes an amazing fact about our universe, a point where reasoning falls silent. There are many such points, as anyone who has children knows: why is there anything? Why should I be good? What existed before the Big Bang? What is consciousness? You can wrestle with these questions through philosophy, but science won’t answer them.

Children have an inkling of this. They also recognise that behind these questions lies a huge void – an emptiness which must be filled with love and reassurance, if their existence is not to seem like an accident. _Art_of_Certainty
Utopians try so hard to purge their children's minds of falsehood and "error", to create the perfect children of rational thought, capable of seeing through all the corrupt fables of the past. Except...children will be who they will be. You cannot make boys into girls or girls into boys without destroying who they are. And you cannot make humans into angels without ruining the essence of what they are. And still the utopians continue to try -- until they finally throw their hands up in complete exasperation at and condemnation of the utter evil of those who do not think along the same lines as themselves, the utopians.
The disgusted dismissal of homo rapiens and all his works that we find spelled out by John Gray in Straw Dogs is not a form of pessimism. It is an attempt to dismiss humanity entirely, as a kind of plague on the face of the earth. That kind of misanthropic nihilism is of no use to us. It removes the ground from all our values, and puts nothing in their place. _GloomMerchant
At that point, they often begin to plot and fantasize the great dieoff, to cleanse the otherwise pristine Earth of the incorrigible human demons who infest the lands and oceans. Fortunately, utopians are as incompetent in planning the great dieoff as they are in most other aspects of their lives.

The point is not to resist all change or improvement of humans. But any lasting change for the better is likely to happen from the bottom up, not from the top down.

Nothing illustrates the different approaches to a better world than the contrast between the French and American revolutions of the late 19th century.
The primary difference in causes that led to the American Revolution and the French Revolution was based in the world view of the innate goodness or innate evil of man. _Hyperhistory
Not all utopians believe in the innate goodness of men -- sometimes they only believe in the innate perfectibility of men. But utopias born of such ideas all come to a bitter end.

Every child has to learn to think for himself, from the beginning. But he must have a beginning from which to start.
The need for foundations is quite clearly an adaptation, and these foundations must provide the promise of protection and love, if they are to fit the new organism for its brief time in the world. If that is so, you are not going to eliminate the need for faith: the best you can do is to withhold all objects of faith, so that a child goes hungry into the life to which he or she is destined. More often than not, a humanist education will leave a child exposed to massive and mind-clogging superstitions of the Harry Potter and Star Wars kind. But these superstitions contain far less in the way of insight than is contained in the first chapter of Genesis.

Religious stories are also the result of natural selection – though selection at another level: they have come down to us because they have fulfilled a moral need. They have survived refutation because they contain, beneath their superficial falsehood, the moral truths that people need, when they must order their lives by good examples. _The Art of Certainty
This is true not only of religious stories, but of all the mythology and lasting moral fables from antiquity. Children must have some kind of foundation that transcends deductive logic, because that is how minds begin. Then, later, when they choose to either reshape or reaffirm their beliefs, they will have a sense of having decided for themselves, and feel stronger for it.

Yes, humans can make choices that make them better. Improved nutrition of mother and child can make humans stronger, smarter, taller, and sometimes capable of clearer thought. But a power structure that attempts to legislate morality, to engineer the moral and ideological purity of the human souls of its citizens -- that power structure is morally bankrupt, and deserves to die quickly. If it is allowed to continue, its leaders will eventually decide that the recalcitrant citizens do not deserve the benefit of the leaders' great wisdom. Then, beware.

This question has been acquiring an ever greater urgency over the past century -- even longer. It is now coming to a head in the demographic and economic crises of many of the world's most advanced nations. A culture that has rested on its own laurels, that has comforted itself with mental images of its own progressive improvement, is soon to be reawakened to a coarse and unruly history.

Originally published at Al Fin blog. Subsequently posted here at Al Fin the Next Level on 16 July 2010, it is being re-published here in honour of the coming 2011 - 2012 holiday season in the hopes that readers will face the future with an optimism built upon a solid foundation of gritty realism and competent preparation.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Incredible Shrinking Spy: Surveillance Scales to Miniature

The new generation of spies tend to be on the small side. Some of the new, advanced mobile "bugging" devices actually are bugs: insect cyborgs to be more precise.

Professor Khalil Najafi, the chair of electrical and computer engineering, and doctoral student Erkan Aktakka are finding ways to harvest energy from insects, and take the utility of the miniature cyborgs to the next level.

"Through energy scavenging, we could potentially power cameras, microphones and other sensors and communications equipment that an insect could carry aboard a tiny backpack," Najafi said. "We could then send these 'bugged' bugs into dangerous or enclosed environments where we would not want humans to go." _SD
These tiny, stealthy spies can retrieve information from places you would never dream of sending one of your human agents. And the process of miniaturisation has just begun.
Image Source
Above you see a type of wasp known as the "fairy fly." It is smaller than an amoeba, and roughly the size of a paramecium. Imagine such a mini-wasp outfitted with a full kit of spy equipment. Where could such a tiny spy not go?

Well, of course your cyborg insects would be vulnerable to insecticide. Which is one reason why you would want to pursue research into non-cyborg miniature spy machines. But evolution has a long head-start on artificial nano-machine makers. There is a great deal which we must learn before we are able to mimic living miniature machines in terms of functionality.

The new generation of miniature machine makers will have to learn from nature, rather than to attempt the enterprise from scratch. Even Eric Drexler has been forced to move away from his early "diamondoid architecture" in pursuit of more proven nano-machine materials.

As for the concept of nano-spies, expect it to take off. Literally. An upcoming 2012 space mission aims to launch 4 nano-satellites. And that is only the beginning.

Expect invisible spies to surround you wherever you go -- whether at sea, on land, in space, or underground. Some living, some pure machine, some half machine and half animal. It is a new era, in which it becomes more difficult to remain invisible.

Consider your counter-measures. And consider stocking up on insecticides and advanced insect repellants. Your privacy may depend upon it.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Wilderness Videos of Two of the Last Rough Men

Dick Proenneke (via Evenfall Woodworks)

Dick Proenneke learned many practical skills during his childhood in Idaho, his time in the Navy, his schooling as a diesel mechanic, his work on a sheep ranch in Oregon, and his life as a skilled mechanic and salmon fisherman in Kodiak and King Salmon, Alaska. He put those practical skills to good use in the 30 years he lived alone in the Twin Lakes, Alaska, wilderness.

Dick Proenneke Alone in the Wilderness

Dick Proenneke Alone in the Wilderness Part II

Dick Proenneke The Frozen North

This video documents a week in the life of Heimo and Edna Korth. Heimo Korth is "The Final Frontiersman." He and his wife Edna are the last legal full time residents of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They move between three cabins every year, so as not to deplete the game as they trap and hunt for a living. (more here)

It is interesting to draw parallels between the lives of Richard Proenneke and Heimo Korth. Both moved far away from civilisation, deep into the Alaskan Wilderness. Both men thrived in the wild, despite the many hardships and challenges.

While Proenneke chose the solitary life, and Korth chose to raise a family in the far North, both men chose to challenge themselves to the utmost.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Coevolution of Species: Microbes and Vertebrates (Including Humans) the June 13, 1997, issue of Science [a report] by Frederico J. Gueiros-Filho and Stephen M. Beverley of Harvard describes the "Trans-kingdom Transposition" of a gene-size piece of DNA known as a transposable element (19). The particular transposable element they studied, called mariner, has already been found in planaria, nematodes, centipedes, many insects, and humans (20). Until recently, transposable elements were considered to be functionless, or "junk DNA." But John McDonald, a professor in the department of genetics at the University of Georgia, concludes, "It now appears that at least some transposable elements may be essential to the organisms in which they reside. Even more interesting is the growing likelihood that transposable elements have played an essential role in the evolution of higher organisms, including humans" (21).

... viruses could easily provide a way for new genes never before encountered by a species to become part of its genome. That viruses install new genes into their hosts is not speculative — it is a well known fact. That transferred genes are important in evolution is becoming well established. _Panspermia

Bacteria and parasites also play roles in evolution and speciation. This trans-species gene transfer phenomenon is easiest to see in bacteria :: bacteriophage interations, but has also been seen in vertebrates, with evidence of having occurred in humans.

Such evolutionary interactions between humans and microbes is not likely to have ended. The particularly high infection and infestation rates in tropical parts of the globe suggest that intense evolutionary pressures are being applied. The extremely high STD infection rates among particular population groups suggests that the interaction between genes, behaviour, and evolution is more complex than generally admitted.

Each individual human is actually a vast interacting colony of microbial and microscopic creatures. We have only barely begun to understand all the gene transfers and transformations which are occurring continuously.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Fusion Energy: The Big and the Small

The general principle behind fusion is relatively simple. If you can fuse together lightweight atoms, you can create a heavier atom plus lots of energy. The trick becomes that in order for the atoms to fuse together, enough energy needs to be provided to heat atoms into the range of 150 million degrees (Celsius). _Thomasnet

Los Alamos National Lab

The current approaches to large scale fusion power have not been successful. Neither the large tokamak approach -- magnetically confined plasmas -- nor the laser inertial confinement approach as practised by Lawrence Livermore Lab, have provided significant returns for all the money that has been spent on them.

That is why the Los Alamos National Labs are trying a different approach, magnetised target fusion:
“We built a plasma injector, and they built a can-crusher, and you put the plasma into that aluminum canister, and then you crush the aluminum can, with the huge current produced by the capacitor bank,” Wurden began.

“”You put 11 million amps of current, and that produces a big magnetic field on the outside; that crushes the can very smoothly and uniformly.

“We put a magnetic field inside the can, we then inject the plasma from the magnetic field into the can; if the plasma’s in there and you do it right; we crush it by a factor of 10.”

Wurden then explained how the process works further.

“If you take a can from 10 centimeters in diameter to 1 centimeter of diameter; when you change the area by a factor of 100, the magnetic field in the can gets 100 times stronger than it was. This gives you a magnetic field of 5 million Gauss; and we have that plasma supported by this incredibly large magnetic field.

“We can hold the plasma together for 1/millionth of a second, at this incredible density and incredible temperature; we take the energy of motion in the can.
We’ve merged the technology of crushing a can, fast and smooth, with the plasma injector we have.”

Wurden, who has been working on fusion since 1977, said that the Magnetized Target Fusion approach is something in between the strictly magnetic fields approach, and the inertial compression approach used at the Livermore Lab in California. _Thomasnet
More from Los Alamos Labs:
MTF is intermediate between magnetic confinement and inertial confinement fusion (ICF) in time and density scales. In contrast to direct, hydrodynamic compression of initially ambient-temperature fuel (e.g., ICF), MTF involves two steps: (1) formation of a warm (e.g., 100 eV), magnetized (e.g., 100 kG), wall-confined "target" plasma prior to implosion; (2) subsequent quasi-adiabatic compression by an imploding pusher, such as a magnetically driven imploding liner. In many ways, MTF can be considered a marriage between the traditional magnetic and inertial confinement approaches, which potentially eliminates some of the pitfalls of either. In particular, MTF requires simpler, smaller, and considerably less expensive systems than either magnetic confinement or inertial confinement ("laser") fusion. The instabilities which plague traditional approaches to fusion are potentially mitigated in MTF due to wall confinement, shockless acceleration and relatively low velocity (e.g 1 cm/m sec) of the pusher, and low required convergence ratios (e.g., 10:1). Similar to inertial confinement fusion (ICF), MTF relies on an implosion to compress a DT fuel to ignition conditions. Yet, also similar to magnetic fusion energy (MFE), MTF relies on a magnetic field to reduce the thermal diffusion of energy to the walls of a chamber. _LANL MTF
The LANL article goes on to describe the benefits obtained from their "hybrid" approach to fusion. But even with all the benefits of MTF, the researchers do not actually expect to achieve reliable fusion for at least 50 years.

That is where small fusion approaches come in: By trying so many different things, there is always the chance that one of the small fusion startups might create a winning technology. Here is a picture gallery of small fusion startups, borrowed from Al Fin Energy blog:
Bussard IEC Fusion

Bussard inertial electrostatic confinement fusion (EMC2 Fusion) involves an electrostatic plasma confinement to achieve fusion. The history and development of the concept is explained in a video reached via the link above. The Bussard IEC has been financed almost entirely by the US Navy. EMC2 is based near Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Dense Plasma Focus Fusion

Lawrenceville Plasma Physics is based in New Jersey. The dense plasma focus approach uses a special pulsing "spark plug" to ionise a gas, and to form a plasmoid "pinch," with the emission of high energy photons, ions, and fusion neutrons.

Hyper V Technologies utilises a spherical array of mini railguns to accelerate plasma beams into a central target of deuterium or deuterium-tritium, to achieve fusion (hopefully).

TriAlpha is an Irvine, California venture, which has been fairly successful in the venture capital game. TriAlpha is a bit secretive with non-investors, but you can read their patent for yourselves. The concept seems to involve the highly sophisticated evolution from an earlier colliding beam fusion approach.
General Fusion

General Fusion is a small startup headquartered near Vancouver, BC. The compression of plasma to achieve fusion is accomplished by a coordinated spherical plasma compression, using pneumatics and advanced switching.

Helion Energy is located in Redmond, Washington. It is based on a principle of "colliding plasmas," and like all the rest of the small fusion approaches, it is a long shot.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Brave New World of Unlimited Food and Fuels c/o Craig Venter

Microbes will be the (human) food- and fuel-makers of the future, if J. Craig Venter has his way. The man responsible for one of the original sequences of the human genome as well as the team that brought you the first living cell running on human-made DNA now hopes to harness algae to make everything humanity needs. All it takes is a little genomic engineering.

"Nothing new has to be invented. We just have to combine [genes] in a way that nature has not done before. We're speeding up evolution by billions of years," Venter told an energy conference on October 18 at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. "It's hard to imagine a part of humanity not substantially impacted." _SciAm

La Jolla Algal Growth Facility Synthetic Genomics

Craig Venter wants to tweak algae and other microbes, so that humans can get most of their food, fuel, chemicals, plastics, medicines, and other high value items from microbial production. It is a matter of understanding the language of biology to a depth never before mastered. It is a difficult goal. But the payoff is almost inconceivably large.
Given algae's multibillion-year track record with photosynthesis and genetic experimentation Agradis's purpose is to turn that genetic cornucopia into improvements in agricultural crops, whether corn or canola—as well as use algae as a model for testing various new genetic combinations. A similar partnership between Monsanto and algae company Sapphire Energy will "use our algae platform that we developed to mine for genes that can transfer into their core agricultural products," explained Tim Zenk, Sapphire's vice president for corporate affairs in a prior interview with Scientific American. "When you do genetic screening in algae, you get hundreds of millions of traits in the screen and that accelerates the chances of finding something that can be transferred."

If that's not enough, Venter sees a role for synthetic biology in food beyond crops and livestock—specifically the growing hunger for meat around the world. "It takes 10 kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of beef, 15 liters of water to get one kilogram of beef, and those cows produce a lot of methane," another potent greenhouse gas, Venter observed. "Why not get rid of the cows?" The replacement: meat grown in a test tube from microbes thanks to synthetic biology.

...look at the potential output from algae, and it's one to two orders of magnitude better than the best agricultural system. If we were trying to make liquid transportation fuels to replace all transportation fuels in the U.S. and you try and do that from corn it would take a facility three times the size of the continental U.S. If you try to do it from algae, it's a facility roughly the size of the state of Maryland. One is doable and the other's just absurd, but we don't have an algae lobby.

...We need three major ingredients: CO2, sunlight and seawater, aside from having the facility and refinery to convert all those things. We're looking at sites around the world that have the major ingredients. It helps if it's near a major refinery because that limits shipping distances. Moving billions of gallons of hydrocarbons around is expensive. But refineries are also a good source of concentrated CO2.

It's the integration of the entire process. [Synthetic Genomics] is not trying to become a fuel company. You won't see SGI gas stations out there, we're leaving that to ExxonMobil. We will help them shift the source of hydrocarbons to material recycled from CO2. _SciAm

Venter takes the "food vs. fuels" debate and turns it on its head: Why not make both, using the same type of platform?

A scientist at the University of Maastricht is not waiting for Venter's breakthroughs before beginning to grow meat in the lab. Mark Post is a vascular biologist at the university, who is in the process of growing multiple thin slices of meat which he plans to glue together with fatty substance. Such an approach would allow for a wide variety of programmed nutritional content -- perhaps food that is personalised to one's needs.
'Cultured meat' begins with stem cells harvested from slaughterhouse leftovers.

Dr Post nurtures the cells with a liquid feed containing sugars, protein building-blocks, fats, minerals and other nutrients.

So far he has produced strips of meat 2.5cm long. Like muscle, these need to be exercised to grow - by stretching them repeatedly between Velcro tabs.

"The first one will be a proof of concept, just to show it's possible," he said.

Dr Post argues that an alternative to livestock farming is needed to satisfy the world's growing hunger for meat.

Animals need to be fed 100g of vegetable protein to make 15g of muscle.

"Current livestock meat production is just not sustainable. Not from an ecological point of view, and neither from a volume point of view.

"Right now we are using more than 50% of all our agricultural land for livestock."

Most journalists, energy analysts, policy makers, and academics have no concept of the biological potential of the planet Earth. Having fed their intuitions and imaginations on a steady diet of scarcity, they are at a loss in the larger world of actual possibilities.

But don't let the shortcomings of your overlords and masters in the media, government, and academia keep you from understanding the world as it is and as it could be. There is a whole new level of thought and existence coming. We simply need to survive until it gets here.

In the meantime: Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

Adapted from an Al Fin blog article.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

News From the World of Nuclear Fusion

A major upgrade to the DIII-D tokamak fusion reactor operated by General Atomics in San Diego will enable it to develop fusion plasmas that can burn indefinitely. Researchers installed a movable, 30-ton particle-beam heating system that drives electric current over a broad cross section of the magnetically confined plasma inside the reactor's vacuum vessel. Precise aiming of this beamline allows scientists to vary the spatial distribution of the plasma current to maintain optimal conditions for sustaining the high temperature plasmas needed for fusion energy production. _Eurekalert

Image Credit

Physicists in San Diego have removed a stumbling block to sustained plasma fusion in tokamak reactors. This development should allow plasma fusion specialists to move ahead in their quest for essentially infinite energy.
The so-called "H-mode" where turbulence ceases and a tokamak becomes much more efficient was discovered as long ago as the 1980s, but working out how to make it happen - and keep happening, sometimes a tokamak will flick in and out of H-mode hundreds of times a second - has been difficult.

... The problem was that, until work began in San Diego, nobody really understood how and when turbulence ceased as surface flow built up. But Dr Lothar Schmitz and his crew are pleased to report that their method of using microwave radar guns - not dissimilar to police speed guns aimed into the torus using focusing mirrors - has given them a good handle on what's going on.

"We found that the turbulent eddies on the surface of the plasma produced surface flows that eventually grow large enough to shred the eddies, turning off the turbulence," says Schmitz. "Much like the population of predators and prey find a balance in the wild, we find that the plasma flow and the plasma turbulence reach an equilibrium in the tokamak plasma." _Register

Alan Boyle provides a nice overview on the state of the art of various approaches to fusion, including laser ignition, magnetic confinement, and assorted other types

Brian Westenhaus looks at news from the Bussard IEC fusion front

Gamma ray laser fusion technology has even been novelised recently by a Los Alamos scientist covers the unpredicatble developments in "cold fusion" or LENR -- low energy nuclear reactions

And Brian Wang's Nextbigfuture provides nice overall coverage of most large energy topics

The field of fusion is long past due for significant breakthroughs. When they begin coming, they may arrive too quickly to assimilate at once.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

What Would the Emergence of A New Human Species Look Like?

What if a new species of human emerged, with larger brains and higher neuron counts than the average human possesses? Would this new species have an advantage over regular homo sapiens sapiens? It depends upon whether the excess neurons were well integrated with the rest of the brain, and added additional functionality or thinking power. For this exercise you are encouraged to suspend judgment, and assume semi-whimsicality.

Consider a modern day example of a group of people with brains of higher neuron count:
The brains of boys with autism were heavier and contained two-thirds more neurons than similarly aged males without the disorder, according to a new, post-mortem analysis.

The study, while small, suggests that brain overgrowth may be occurring in the womb, according to the findings published in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Researchers examined the brains of seven autistic boys, age two to 16, most of which died from drowning. The 16-year-old's cause of death was undetermined and one eight-year-old died of muscle cancer.

When they compared them to a control group of six boys without autism who died in accidents, they found that the brains of autistic boys had 67% more neurons in the prefrontal cortex and were nearly 18% heavier than normal brain weight for age. _Cosmos
In conditions such as autism, the extra brain neurons do not typically provide a competitive advantage, and may represent a malfunctioning "pruning" mechanism of excess neurons sometime after birth.

Consider homo neandertalis, otherwise known as the neanderthal: At birth, the brains of neanderthals were of comparable size as the brains of modern humans. But by adulthood, the brains of neanderthals were larger.

Consider that new anthropological data places modern humans in Europe at a much earlier time than previously believed, allowing roughly 15,000 years of coexistence between homo sapiens sapiens and homo neandertalis in Europe. Over that time period, mating between sapiens and neandertal becomes somewhat likely.

Scientists believe that sapiens and neandertal did indeed interbreed. They further believe that neandertal dna persists in all modern humans except Africans. And these neandertal genes may even play an important role in sapiens' immune systems.

But what else are these neandertal genes doing? In fact, human genetics is still at such an infantile stage that geneticists have very little idea what effect neandertal genes have on the modern human phenotype. Could some rare neandertal genetic or epigenetic sequences play a role in the postnatal neuronal pruning of human brains? Could autistic brains with higher neuron counts indicate the influence of neandertal "gene ghosts" influencing the bodies of modern human children?

Or are these larger brains in some autistic children a sign of a new species trying to emerge?

If there is no advantage to the trait, it is not likely to go anywhere, evolutionarily speaking. But if the excess neurons were able to somehow integrate and add functionality and power to the brains of these autistics, an advantage might well exist in a modern society where food is plentiful and meeting mental challenges were more important to fitness than meeting physical challenges.

Am I Sirius? No, Sirius is a star, and I am but a mere human, and a whimsical one at that. The idea is to allow your mind to make associations, both narrow and wide. They can always be pruned down later. Unless, of course, your brain is autistic.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Farming the Desert: Pulling Water from the Air via Airdrop


Australian Ed Linacre has devised a way of farming the drylands down under. He calls his device the "Airdrop," and it has won him a James Dyson Award. He has installed the first device in his mother's backyard.
Airdrop consists of a mast-like tube with a wind-powered turbine that sucks air down into a coiled metal pipe. The air descends under the earth and cools until it hits 100% humidity and the water starts to drip out. Linacre installed one in his mother’s back yard in Australia and it pulled out a liter of water in a day.

The units also have storage tanks, from where they pump out the water into underground irrigation systems.

The units are small, can be self installed and are easy to repair while still in the ground. Linacre sees farmers installing fleets of them in fields, where they could sit and water the plants with no human help. The pumps are even solar-powered, a great idea in deserts. _Wired
With efficient mass production, such units should prove relatively inexpensive. The concept is simple, but it isn't yet clear where the best niches for the device might be.

The more humidity in the air, the more moisture that can be condensed out. But the greatest need for such devices would seem to be in dry, low humidity areas, without economical irrigation. There are large areas of arid land globally which are relatively close to large bodies of water. Such places tend to experience regular moist sea breezes or fogs, suggesting that Linacre's device might work efficiently there.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Evolving New Species of Humans of [Enriquez'] most revolutionary ideas, which he discuses in the book New Human Species, is the expected evolution of a new hominid species in near future. The homo evolutis, which he said he speculates will be the most adapted hominid, endowed with tremendous mental capabilities, he said, “Twenty thousand species have gone around and become extinct,” Enriquez said. “I believe that we’re going to move into a homo evolutis, and our grandchildren will begin to live it.”

What will set apart this hominid from us, he said, is what he labeled “the ultimate reboot.”

“This hominid could take direct control of his species, this species and other species, and that of course, would be the ultimate reboot,” he said. _globalist
Evolution of Man

Juan Enriquez is an author visionary of life technologies, and a venture capitalist. He founded Harvard Business School's Life Sciences Project, and has worked with Craig Venter on a number of projects. So when Juan Enriquez says that humans are evolving a new species, he is likely to have good reason for saying so.
What does it take to make a new species?

We're beginning to see that it's an accumulation of small changes. Scientists have recently been able to compare the genomes of Neandertals and modern humans, which reveals just a .004 percent difference. Most of those changes lie in genes involved in sperm, testes, smell, and skin.

Engineering microbes alone might speciate us. When you apply sequencing technology to the microbes inhabiting the human body, it turns out to be fascinating. All of us are symbionts; we have 1,000 times more microbial cells in our bodies than human cells. You couldn't possible digest or live without the microbial cells inside your stomach. Some people have microbes that are better at absorbing calories. Diabetics have a slightly sweeter skin, which changes the microbial fauna and makes it harder for them to cauterize wounds

One concern about human enhancement is that only some people will have access, creating an even greater economic divide. Do you think this will be the case?

In the industrial revolution, it took a lifetime to build enough industry to double the wealth of a country. In the knowledge revolution, you can build billion-dollar companies with 20 people very quickly. The implication is that you can double the wealth of a country very quickly. In Korea in 1975, people had one-fifth of the income of Mexicans, and today they have five times more. Even the poorest places can generate wealth quickly. You see this in Bangalore, China. On the flip side, you can also become irrelevant very quickly.

Scientists are on the verge of sequencing 10,000 human genomes. You point out this might highlight significant variation among our species, and that this requires some ethical consideration. Why?

The issue of [genetic variation] is a really uncomfortable question, one that for good reason, we have been avoiding since the 1930s and '40s. A lot of the research behind the eugenics movement came out of elite universities in the U.S. It was disastrously misapplied. But you do have to ask, if there are fundamental differences in species like dogs and horses and birds, is it true that there are no significant differences between humans? We are going to have an answer to that question very quickly. If we do, we need to think through an ethical, moral framework to think about questions that go way beyond science. _TechnologyReview_Juan Enriquez

The video above gives you an idea of how Enriquez expresses his ideas to the public, and reveals some of the things that he thinks about.

His ideas about the evolution of a new human species -- and the great need for humans to face the important genetic differences between different populations of humans -- sets him apart from ivory tower academics, politicians, and media skanks. In his day job, he has to think clearly and make good decisions -- unlike academics, politicians, and journalists, who rarely have to pay for their own mistaken thought processes.

When a venture capitalist makes decisions involving large sums of money, he cannot afford to wallow in political correctness, affirmative action, groupthink, or other modern dysfunctional aberrations of thought. He must be honest with himself and with his backers. In this case, it is likely that Enriquez is being honest with the public, based upon his intimate association with advanced biotechnological projects.

But something that not even Enriquez may be willing to say publicly, is that not all humans population groups will evolve in what is seen as a favourable direction. New genes are evolving and affecting the human brain, but not all population groups are sharing equally in the benefits of these changes.

The evolutionary history of Ashkenazi Jews is a useful, small-scale illustration of what is happening. These Jews of European descent possess the highest average IQ of any distinct population group known. This difference can be seen in terms of accomplishment at the highest levels of science, math, and other areas of scholarship and life achievement. This group has paid a price for this advantage, in terms of inherited disease. But for the group as a whole, the tradeoff appears to have been worth it.

As humans get better at tweaking the genome and epigenome, they should learn better how to acquire more of the advantages of superior adaptation without too many of the disadvantages. Then slowly, but surely, perhaps over dozens, or even hundreds of years, new human species will diverge from older human species.

To many people, this idea of diverging coexisting human species is a new one. To others, not so much. Anyone who has deliberated over the difference between the accomplishments of Australian aboriginals and the descendants of the English transportees to Australia, must have considered the possibility of divergent evolution.

As Enriquez points out, it is critical for humans at this juncture in time to be honest about our broad genetic heritage -- and what this breadth means in terms of aptitudes and behaviours. And what it means for our future selves.

Previously published on Al Fin blog and subsequently published at Al Fin Potpourri

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Future of Flight? First Manned Multi-Copter Flight by e-Power

The e-volo multicopter is an innovative, vertically starting, human carrying transportation device that is uncatagorisable to its current flight counterparts.

The e-volos sixteen propellers allow it to take off and land similar to a helicopter. Its massive plus points compared to a helicopter are the simplicity of its engineered construction without complicated mechanics and its redundant engines. Should anything go wrong, e-volo can still safely land even if up to four of its sixteen motors should fail. Flight time can last between ten to thirty minutes, depending on the payload and the capacity of the lithium batteries. With an empty weight at 80 kg (including batteries), e-volo fits into the class of ultralights.

In difference to other helicopters or multi-rotors, e-volo can use a safety parachute, as there are no propellers blocking the deployment area above.

The propellers create the full lift, and are also responsible for balancing the device on all three axes only by independent speed control of the motors. E-volo from the beginning has been designed entirely as an electrically powered device. Unlike the rotor of a helicopter, the propellers dont´t have any pitch control and therefore no wear. These factors make the multicopter mechanically simple, with close to no maintenance necessary.

The automatic attitude and directional control are taken care of by multiple separate and mutually monitoring onboard computers, controlling the engines with the precise rotation speed necessary to fly this tri-axis device. A simple joystick allows the pilot to control the aircraft via a fly-by-wire system. Whether during vertical takeoff, in flight, or landing, the pilot has to pay little attention to minimum speed, stall, gas mixture control, pitch control or one of many other things that make conventional flight as challenging as it is. _e-volo

At the end of October 2011, Thomas Senkel of e-volo had completed a series of unmanned tests and was ready for the first manned flight on an airstrip in the southwest of Germany. The flight lasted one minute and 30 seconds, after which the constructor and test pilot stated:

"The flight characteristics are good natured. Without any steering input it would just hover there on the spot".

This could be the future of flight, piloting a device as simple as a car. _e-volo
Combine a precision multi-copter with a lighter-than-air lifting body, and you have the makings of a flying pickup truck all-purpose utility vehicle.