Tuesday, October 22, 2013

And in the larger scheme of things ...

Given what passes these days for American government -- kicking the budgetary can down the road (again) for just a few months -- maybe you'll enjoy the distraction of news items in which actual change can be discerned.

Hysteria, anyone?
Time after time, GMO (genetically modified organisms) have passed safety trials. Europeans, nonetheless, have strenuously opposed foods derived from GMO, to the point where they've forced many African nations -- in dire need of higher-yield crops -- to abstain lest they never again sell agricultural goods in European markets. American consumers are just slightly less hysterical about GMO products. So, it's refreshing to read (from EurActiv.com) that "Chief EU scientist backs damning report urging GMO ‘rethink.’"

The report from EASAC, published in June, warns of the “grave scientific, economic and social consequences of current European Union policy towards GM crops”, saying European countries should “rethink” their widespread rejection of the technology.

(EASAC is the European Academies Science Advisory Council.)

Probably not GMO
Almost on a food theme, it seems you needn't worry about who does what with tracking cookies. It appears that big websites have other ways to follow you. See, from IEEE Spectrum, "Top Websites Secretly Track Your Device Fingerprint." It opens:

Websites that really want to track you without permission have a way. A new report shows a surprising number of top Internet websites using so-called "device fingerprints" to secretly track visitors—a method that avoids legal limits on the use of cookies and also ignores the Do Not Track HTTP header.

The new report suggests that such secret tracking of Web users is more widespread than previous studies had found, according to researchers from KU Leuven in Belgium and New York University (NYU). Researchers counted 95 of the top 10 000 websites using device fingerprinting targeted at the Flash browser plugin used to play animations, videos, and sound files. They also found 404 of the top 1 million websites used device fingerprinting targeted at the JavaScript programming language used in web applications. Such fingerprinting can identify users on mobile phones and other devices that may not use Flash.

But some news from IEEE Spectrum is upbeat. Consider "Robocopters to the Rescue: The next medevac helicopter won’t need a pilot." Consider that:

The need is great, because what we want to save aren’t the salaries of pilots but their lives and the lives of those they serve. Helicopters are extraordinarily versatile, used by soldiers and civilians alike to work in tight spots and unprepared areas. We rely on them to rescue people from fires, battlefields, and other hazardous locales. The job of medevac pilot, which originated six decades ago to save soldiers’ lives, is now one of the most dangerous jobs in America, with 113 deaths for every 100 000 employees.

Don't miss video of an autonomous chopper deciding how/where to land.

The meaning of quantum mechanics has been debated from the theory's  beginning, almost a century ago. Oh, QM works -- it lets physicists and engineers design and build your favorite electronic gadgets. What QM doesn't do is make any kind of physical sense. See, for example, from the Washington Post, “Why quantum mechanics is an “embarrassment” to science." In a 2011 survey, 12% of experts in the field chose as their preferred physical interpretation "I have no preferred interpretation.” If you happen to share my unease, then check out, from Scientific American, "Does Some Deeper Level of Physics Underlie Quantum Mechanics? An Interview with Nobelist Gerard ’t Hooft." The takeaway:

’t Hooft thinks the notorious randomness of quantum mechanics is just a front. Underneath, the world obeys perfectly sensible rules. In the models he has toyed with, those rules govern building blocks even more fundamental than particles. You’d see them only if you could zoom into the so-called Planck scale, which, according to many modern theories, is the smallest meaningful distance in nature.

Who better than Dilbert?

Finally, as an antidote against pessimism from watching the three rings (er, branches) of the DC Circus, consider, from The Wall Street Journal, "Nobels and National Greatness: Anyone who thinks America's best days are behind it should take a close look at the latest Nobel haul."

But then there is the Nobel Prize, and the fact that Americans, both native-born and immigrants, took home nine of them this year alone. Note to Xinhua: China, with 1.3 billion people, has produced a grand total of nine winners in its entire history. Of those nine, seven live abroad, including three in the U.S. Another, Liu Xiaobo, sits in a Chinese prison.

It seems America still has something going for it, after all. 


Anonymous said...

The budget issue will always be with us. Reminds me of a couple I know who cannot balance their budget: she needs to buy groceries, he needs to get the plumbing fixed ... both caused overruns after she bought the BMW and he hosted the 'business associates' at that big conference.

And speaking as one genetically modified organism to another (how else to evolve?), I'm appalled by all the new scientific breakthroughs. I'm really scared and I'm sure that my latest fear is justified by something new out there that I don't understand. We also need to rethink cell phones frying our brains and microwave ovens stopping our hearts. How about the zombies created by dye on our apples? Where else could zombies come from?

Edward M. Lerner said...

Wear a foil hat and all will be well ;-)