Clinging to relevance

14 12 2010

I have been thinking about the relationship between religion and science lately. It has always been a strained, complicated relationship. To be honest, I really have never understood the conflict. They seem to deal with two very separate areas of human thought. Then it struck me, this was not always the case. During the Dark Ages, the church dictated what science could and could not say. Today, we have a battle for relevance between science and religion and religion is losing.

There is a long history of religious institutions acting as a road block to scientific or social progress. The Catholic Church censured Galileo for his scientific conclusions. Baghdad was the center of scientific discovery on Earth for centuries until conservative Islamic forces took hold. Then there is the Catholic Church’s stance on contraception, claiming that it is sinful because it prevents new life. (This seemed like an odd argument, seeing as that is the explicit purpose of contraceptives.) In 2009, the Pope went as far to say that condoms help spread the AIDS virus. He said this on a trip through Sub-Saharan Africa, where about 22 million people are infected with HIV. There are a host of other examples.

Really, what we can see here is a religious establishment, centuries old, that is finding its ship in shallower and shallower waters. With the increasingly educated global population and the persistent advance of scientific knowledge, it is harder for them to maintain previous public opinions. There is little religious leaders can do about this trend except try to modernize their respective faiths much as possible.

In a world where fewer and fewer of our problems can be solved with faith and spirituality, religion can no longer offer us the advice or insight we need. If anything, it is doing the exact opposite at a time when we cannot afford many mistakes. Humanity needs clear thinking and a sharp turn toward rationality if it is to survive.

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Uncertainty is not an excuse for ignorance

20 10 2010

It would be arrogant to say that science has had its heyday and that all the big discoveries are behind us. The universe is as complex as it is large. The need for good science will never go away.

Imagine if we had stopped physics research after Newton had worked out calculus and classical physics. Imagine if we had stopped biology research after Henry Gray published his text book on human anatomy.

Isaac Newton was a brilliant person. He figured out the motions of the planets and worked out his now well-known three laws of motion. He discovered that the planets do not revolve around the sun but the planets and the sun all orbit around a common center of mass. In the process of doing this, he had to come up with differential and integral calculus.

However, Newton was confounded by something. He and other astronomers kept detailed logs of the planets’ motion in the sky. They indicated that the planets’ orbits were not constant; they were constantly being perturbed by the gravitational pull of the other planets and other objects. According to all the math he had done up to that point, he found that the planets should be knocked out of their relatively stable orbits. Rather than try to solve the problem, he supposed that there was a divine hand in keeping the planets in the proper places in the sky.

The is the tragedy of Isaac Newton’s life. He was undoubtedly smart enough to figure out this perturbation problem but he did not. It was another 200 years before a comprehensive description for perturbation theory was established.

Because we might be amazed at what we have discovered or that we do not know what we will discover in the future, that does not mean that we should not expect to discover anything. The universe is huge and our understanding of it is anything but complete. Until we are absolutely certain of everything, then scientific advance has to continue on.





An appeal to technocrats

2 08 2010

This is really just an open request to anyone who believes that science and technology are the means to achieving a brighter future for humanity. I suppose it is even a request to those who do not, as well.

As has been demonstrated time and time again throughout human history, we have an ability that most other species lack – the ability to fashion tools to more easily achieve a task. Granted, we are not the only species on Earth that has this ability. However, we seem to have taken this skill the furthest.

When we were first starting out, we created shelter and clothing for ourselves. This was a skill that allowed us to more easily endure multiple ice ages. Much later, we began to gain a meaningful understanding of the world around us and created life-saving vaccines and devices. We even sent a total of twelve people to the moon.

I do not believe these accomplishments are isolated incidents or momentary flashes of intellect and ability. We really are capable of doing some capable things. Our civilization is faced with increasingly serious threats. They will not be solved with good intentions and empty commitments. We have to solve our own problems and the people who will make it happen are scientists and engineers. We will need people with technical abilities to build a better society. More than just needing scientists and engineers, we need to inspire future generations of them. They will make even more incredible things.

I realize that this is all empty talk but we all need to keep in mind that politicians do not solve real-world problems, nor do artists, performers, or businessmen. It is the people with knowledge in their heads and tools in their hands who build and sustain civilizations. Without them, we would be nothing.





Dumb terminal redux

1 01 2010

Currently, netbooks are being sold successfully. Essentially, they are small, low-priced, cramped, underpowered laptop computers that are designed for light internet and word processing duties. These remind me of the dumb terminals of the 60s and 70s. For those too young to remember, a dumb terminal is computer with only enough processing power to connect remotely to a more power computer. Back then, you would probably be connecting with a mainframe.

In addition cloud computing is becoming more and more popular. While still a buzzword, government agencies are getting set to adopt Google Docs for its document storage and collaboration. Clearly, working on a remote server is coming back into vogue, but for different reasons than the ones in the past.

In the past, there was incentive to work on remote computers because they were far more powerful than the more affordable computers of the day. People would get time on a mainframe and carry out complex calculations, often for research purposes. Now, remote computing is used for off-site backup as well as easy sharing and collaboration amongst several people.

With the rise of cloud computing and underpowered netbooks, could we be on the verge of seeing even lower-powered computers coming into the market? Could these computers have the explicit function of connecting to services like Google Apps and Gmail and having the user do all work on the internet, rather than storing data and executing software locally? The next few years should reveal that. There are some serious caveats to putting all faith in the cloud and keeping your data there. Google Apps and Gmail are great when they work, but sometimes they go down and disrupt life for millions of users who rely on them heavily already. What happens when you cannot access an important paper or get to your email?

Would you be willing to ditch your regular computer and move to 21st century dumb terminal?





The dangers of laziness

20 11 2009

When I see the state of the world, I am filled with mixed feelings: optimism and despair, hope and fear. It is my opinion that most people are well-adjusted and sympathetic human beings who just want to be left alone as they go about their day. However, there are others, a vocal minority who tend to destabilize things on local or global scales.

I see two possibilities. We can die out as a species because nature selects us for extinction. The other possibility is that we drive ourselves into extinction by means like war, genocide, weapons of mass destruction, and the like.

Humanity can have such a rich and long future, but only if we make the right decisions now. The first thing that we have to get over is the notion that the world’s problems are permanent. With enough discipline, anything is possible.

Really, this whole situation could go either way. We could destroy ourselves or not. I much prefer the latter option.





Thinner devices spell end for ports

23 11 2008

MacBook_Air_front

Let’s face it, laptop computers and other electronic devices are getting smaller, thinner, and more powerful everyday. Computers like the MacBook Air are a good example of how compromise on functionality was required to make the device as thin and light as it is. It is 0.76 inches thick and tapers off 0.16 inches and weighs in at three pounds. However, significant compromises and a custom processor from Intel were required to make this a reality. The

MacBook_Air_ports

 computer has a customized power cable. It has room for either a 160-gigabyte hard disk or a 128-gigabyte solid-state drive, nothing more. It can only come with 2 gigabytes of RAM. There is a video-out connector, either Micro-DVI or DisplayPort. There is an audio-out port and a single, solitary USB 2.0 port. Only one! Of course, the Air is too thin to include an optical drive. This only becomes a problem if you want to import an audio CD, watch a DVD, burn a disc, or install software from an optical disc. Apple offers a USB-connected optical drive for $100. Also, there is no ethernet port. All networking is done over 802.11g/n wifi.

I hate to sound like I am bashing Apple or the MacBook Air. I love the MacBook Air. I could live with its compromises and would love to own one. I think Apple is an extremely innovative company that makes lots of great, high-quality products. I just felt it was important to illustrate the compromises made in order to make an ultracompact computer to prove my point.

My point is this: wireless data transfer rates are high that simple file transfers can easily be done wirelessly in most situations. It typically has a throughput of 74 Megabits per second. In my own opinion, that is fast enough to move music, standard-definition movies, and software around with relative ease. Larger files might be better left overnight to transfer. However, like most thinks technological, wireless networking continues to evolve and data throughput will only continue to get faster.

That’s wifi. Then there are technologies like Wireless USB and Bluetooth. These have a much shorter range than wifi. Bluetooth 2.0 +EDR has a maximum speed of 3 Mb/s and Wireless USB 1.1 will have a theoretical maximum speed of 1.0 Gb/s. So, this allows devices that are enabled for either of these technologies to exchange data very quickly when they are in close proximity. For most cases, this is when a computer and a phone or PDA are sitting on a desk next to each other.

MacBook_Air_powerNow, that’s data transfer. What about power? Power ports are huge issue because they take up space, both inside and outside. This puts a minimum thickness requirement on what ever device the power port is installed. Apple was able to (somewhat) work around this by curving the bottom of the MacBook Air, putting the MagSafe port on the bottom and including a 90-degree bent power connector. Since all electronic devices need to be powered, a power port has always been a necessary evil and will continue to be for at least several years. There are currently companies like WildCharge who are creating induction-based charging systems for consumer electronics. This would allow for a device to be placed on an inductive charging surface and charge with out cables. Unfortunately, this technology has yet to receive wide adoption and WildCharge’s own website only offers solutions for three mobile phones, the Motorola Razr and Blackberry’s Curve and Pearl.

Here is my vision for compact electronics and ultracompact notebooks. I see them moving away from conductive charging systems (power adapters, cords, etc.) and into inductive charging systems. Imagine simply having a small pedestal that you put your mobile phone, iPod, and notebook onto when you get home. It charges even faster than the old charging systems. You don’t have to keep track of cables or having your outlets filled up with chargers. Without all those power cables running around, there is less clutter in your work area. There are fewer cords to trip over. There is zero risk of accidental electrocution. The convenience goes even further because it is now possible to install inductive charging systems in tables, desks, and countertops. You can just set your notebook down on the kitchen counter and it starts charging.

As for pushing files around, again, you have less clutter. No more cables and ports, remember? Wireless technologies have advanced to the point where you can surf the web, download and upload files, and transfer contacts, photos, music, and video around your house without plugging in a single USB or Ethernet cable. Since phones already have Bluetooth and have used it successfully for years, it is a simple matter of moving into our mp3 players like the iPod and the Zune.

I realize that some of the advances I am seeing would take a while to successfully implement. Induction power systems are a reality today. Some of the advances in data transfer technology are still a few months or years off, but they are coming and they will be affordable to nearly everyone. Without the need to build ports into our lightweight compact devices, we will no longer have to make so many compromises and these stripped-down notebooks will become even more appealing. I seriously hope you will give the next few years of hardware evolution some thought. I would welcome any thoughts you may have on the subject.