space station concept

Not too long ago, Ars ran an article detailing proposals for modifying the proven and successful hardware built for Apollo for flyby missions to Venus and Mars.None of these plans are new by any means because they were actually made in the 1970s, when the lunar program was coming to an end and NASA’s big wigs wanted to show Congress and the American people how far their flagship spacecraft could go. Of course we know that nothing ever came form these plans, but in recent times, the Mars One idea, and the Inspiration Mars project, seem to be planned in much the same vein. Let’s use what we have, make the crew as comfortable as we can in an austere ship for about two years or so, and do some attention-grabbing missions to show we can do the kinds of things emerging space powers can only dream of attempting one day. As the sage and endlessly quotable Mark Twain once said, history might not repeat itself but it does rhyme and in the case of rushed, crewed flybys of other planets, the second go-around is likely to end like the first: we talk about it and nothing gets done because the ideas are just too rough and costly.

I have to say though, the notions of explorers cramped in tiny vessels braving the harshness of space in the name of our species’ progress have a romantic ring to them. But for the majority of the population, this is going to be something for someone else to do. If more people could work on space exploration and actually travel into space as a part of their job to clean up space junk, launch and repair scientific probes or spy satellites, and even go beyond to mine valuable parts of asteroids, allowing us to tap into the immense resources of the solar system, wouldn’t you see a lot more support for the space program? I’ve written more than I can count about the benefits of investing in space travel and exploration, from medical, to engineering, to energy generation, but the bottom line is that people have to see an immediate benefit to them from the program to pressure politicians to invest; a benefit like potential careers in space. For that to happen, we’re going to need to think beyond flybys and short excursions with long travel times. We’re going to need to think about launching interplanetary space stations with artificial gravity and a whole lot of creature comforts to help astronauts do their jobs and have fun as they’re traveling.

You could argue that we’d have no shortage of would-be explorers willing to travel to Pluto in a rusty, old, sardine can if given a chance, and you’d be right. But odds are, most of them will not be qualified to make that trip and the ones who do will face mental challenges for which we can’t really prepare them. Consider NASA’s latest astronaut class. Out of 1,500 applicants, only eight have been deemed worthy of living in a space station in LEO. What do you think will be the rate of selection for deep space travelers in spartan conditions for years on end with no hope of help from Earth in the event of emergency? We shouldn’t be focused on finding tougher people and billionaires who want to throw technology built for brief orbital travel into interplanetary space. It won’t help us in the long run. We should be focused on developing efficient and powerful means of propulsion, large, comfortable spacecraft, and setting up self-sufficient ready-to-go-anywhere ecosystems that will let us launch more people in space, keep them there longer with less risk to their muscles and bones, and enable them to do more and more jobs there.

Would the price tag be high? Absolutely. But the trade-off is that we could tell more than one in roughly a million people that they’re astronaut material and we have a job for them. Now, space travel would still be challenging, even with a lot of attention paid to the amenities, but it will make long term exploration missions more viable and generate more spin-offs we can apply right back on Earth while testing new generations of materials, medical devices, genetic engineering, and cyborg technologies for applications in space. We’ve been treating the Final Frontier as fodder for philosophy and romanticism for a little too long. We need to start seeing it as a business and an investment in new industries vying to make a real world difference, and old industries that will once again be needed to work as full capacity after they’re upgraded to meet the demands of a new space-faring age. As I said before, I can think of no nation that ever went bankrupt investing in science, technology, and education. But many have collapsed when they tried to cover for the shortfalls of their economy with bread, circuses, war, and zero-sum political brinkmanship…

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quantified self

With the explosion in fitness trackers and mobile apps that want to help manage everything from weight loss to pregnancy, there’s already a small panic brewing as technology critics worry that insurance companies will require you to wear devices that track your health, playing around with your premiums based on how well or how badly you take care of yourself. As the current leader of the reverse Singularitarians, Evgeny Morozov, argues, the new idea of the quantified self is a minefield being created with little thought about the consequences. Certainly there is a potential for abuse of very personal health metrics and Morozov is at his best when he explains how naive techno-utopians don’t understand how they come off, and how the reality of how their tools have been used in the wild differs drastically from their vision, so his fear is not completely unfounded or downright reflexive, like some of his latest pieces have been. But in the case of the quantified self idea being applied to our healthcare, the benefits are more likely to outweigh the risks.

One of the reasons why healthcare in the United States is so incredibly expensive is the lack of focus on preventitive medicine. Health problems are allowed to fester until they become simply too bothersome to ignore, a battery of expensive tests is ordered, and usually expensive acute treatments are administered. Had they been caught in time, the treatments would not have to be so intensive, and if there was ample, trustworthy biometric information available to the attending doctors, there wouldn’t need to be as much testing to arrive at an accurate diagnosis. As many doctors grumble about oceans of paperwork, logistics of testing, and the inability to really talk to patients in the standard 15 minute visit, why not use devices that would help with the paperwork and do a great deal of preliminary research for them before they ever see the patient? And yes, the devices would have to be able to gather data by themselves because we often tell little white lies about how active we are and how well we eat, even when both we and our doctors know that we’re lying. And this only hurts us in the end by making the doctors’ work more difficult.

That brings us full circle to health insurance premiums and requirements to wear these devices to keep our coverage. Certainly it’s kind of creepy that there would be so much data about us so readily available to insurance companies, but here’s the thing. They already have this data from your doctors and can access it whenever they want in the course of processing your claim. With biometric trackers and loggers, they could do the smart and profitable thing and instead of using a statistical model generated from a hodgepodge of claim notes, take advantage of the real time data coming in to send you to the doctor when a health problem is detected. They pay less for a less acute treatment plan, you feel healthier and have some piece of mind that you’re now less likely to be caught by surprise by some nasty disease or condition, and your premiums won’t be hiked as much since the insurers now have higher margins and stave off rebellions from big and small companies who’ll now have more coverage choices built around smart health data. And all this isn’t even mentioning the bonanza for researchers and policy experts who can now get a big picture view from what would be the most massive health study ever conducted.

How many times have you read a study purporting the health benefits of eating berries and jogs one week only to read another one that promotes eating nuts and saying that jogs are pointless with the different conclusions coming as a result of different sample sizes and subjects involved in the studies? Well, here, scientists could collect tens of millions of anonymized records and do very thorough modeling based on uniform data sets from real people, and find out what actually works and for whom when it comes to achieving their fitness and weight loss goals. Couple more data and more intelligent policy with the potential for economic gain and the gamification offered by fitness trackers, and you end up with saner healthcare costs, a new focus on preventing and maintaining rather than diagnosing and treating, fewer sick days, and longer average lifespans as the side effect of being sick less often and encouraged to stay active and fit, and you have a very compelling argument for letting insurance companies put medical trackers on you and build a new business model around them and the data they collect. It will pay off in the long run.

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magazine kiosk

When an expansive article on GMOs became the lead story in Elle Magazine, it wasn’t exactly a shocker that the story got its science wrong and horribly abused quotes to create a controversy where one didn’t exist. In fact, it’s par for the course when GMOs are mentioned in publications not known for their scientific reporting. Just like conservative political outlets go out of their way to deny global warming and denigrate the scientists involved in climate modeling, generally left-leaning lifestyle magazines do whatever they can to cast some doubt on the viability of GMOs in a noxious mix of conspiracy-mongering and double standards. No matter how many tests looking for potential allergens or toxins are done over decades, the anti-GMO pundits declare that there aren’t enough studies of the modified crops’ safety and surely this means that Monsanto turned millions of people into their unwitting guinea pigs for the sake of profit.

Meanwhile, even a single experiment which claims to find some sort of a problem with GMOs, no matter how horribly done and how much the researchers conduct it threaten reporters who want a second opinion or ask questions, has to be held up as the definitive proof that we’re all being slowly poisoned by greedy tycoons. The reality is quite different, of course. GMOs are actually strictly regulated, unlike organic food, since each new protein or genetic modification is treated as a food additive and has to be cleared by an independent panel of experts and by the FDA to ever hit the market. By contrast, anything described as "natural" and used in organic food does not have to be subject to any studies thanks to the codification of the naturalistic fallacy into law and despite the fact that nature can be very, very deadly. However, it’s not all regulations, good science, and securing the food supply. GMO makers use and abuse the patent system to milk a hefty profit from every stage of their products’ lifecycles and bilk farmers.

But don’t expect a discussion about the patent system and biology in Elle because the story isn’t so much about GMOs as about the author and her quest to rid herself of allergies, transitioning into a standard storyline of a woman in search of truth. Though by truth what I really mean is an exploratory trip into the land of conspiracy theories because that’s what the readers want. It’s a story written for the magazine’s target demographic, which is why it’s first person and focuses on vague, scary-sounding concerns to keep readers hooked. And this is why the admonition given to this article after a fact check sounds a bit silly to put it mildly, as it laments the science abuse and rampant misquotes to create a controversy for the sake of eyeballs…

It represents a major setback for science journalism, and for consumers who rely on hugely popular lifestyle publications to make their way through complicated issues. Is GMO corn causing allergies or other disorders? Are GMOs a threat? Elle perpetuates a “controversy” that just doesn’t exist in the mainstream science or medical communities. Worse, it fans the flames of doubt and distrust that fuel unilateral opposition to a sophisticated technology that could improve global food security.

Here’s the thing. If people are getting their science information from the same magazines which tell them what shoes are in this season, or what celebrity is working on what new movie, we have much bigger problems than are being highlighted here. Why would anyone think that relying on the latest edition of Vanity Fair, or Esquire, or, yes, Elle, for the latest and greatest in important, everyday science is a good idea? Certainly, one doesn’t expect fashion tips and celebrity gossip in their edition of National Geographic. Likewise, why would people rely on fashion magazines to navigate important policy debates? The really scary thing is that despite most people singing all manner of praises to science and a STEM education in popular surveys, they by in large do not care about the science that actually gets done or why, and even worse, don’t want to care. And considering that, is it any wonder that publications that cater to people who only say they care to be scientifically literate focus on creating controversy, peddling conspiracies, and moving copies to charge advertisers more? The Elle story is just one symptom of a much bigger issue…

[ photo illustration of news kiosk in Zurich via Wikimedia Commons ]

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server rack

Yes, I know, it’s been a while since my last post but life has a way of getting in the way of steady, regular blogging. And of course there’s still the work on Project X on the horizon which will affect that happens to Weird Things, but more on that in due time. Today’s topic is one which I heavily debated with myself before addressing because it’s been a near constant drumbeat in the news and the coverage has been almost overwhelmingly tilted towards setting the outrage dial all the way to 11 and tearing the knob off. I’m talking about the family of NSA surveillance programs for monitoring the internet and intercepting immense amounts of traffic and metadata, of course. As the revelations have been dropped on a regular schedule, the outrage keeps getting louder. In the techie media the most prominent reaction is "how could they?" According to online activists, the internet exists for the free exchange of ideas and a way to speak truth to power when need be, so the NSA’s snooping is a violation of the principles on which the internet was built.

Unfortunately, that’s just a soothing fantasy we tell ourselves today. Originally, the internet was developed as a means to exchange information between military researchers and Tor, the go-to tool for at least partial online anonymity (unless you get a nasty virus) was being developed to hide the tell-tale signs of electronic eavesdropping via onion routing by the U.S. Navy until it was spun off by the EFF. And while the web was meant to share scientific data for CERN over a very user unfriendly network at the time, it was given its near-ubiquity by big companies which didn’t adopt the technology and wrote browsers out of the goodness of their heart and desire to make the world into one big, global family, but because they wanted to make money. The internet was built to make classified and complex research easier, tamed for profit, and is delivered via a vast infrastructure worth many billions operated by massive businesses firmly within the grasp of a big government agency. It’s never been meant for world peace, anonymity, and public debate.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s great that we can give political dissidents voices and promote ideas for peace and cooperation across the world at nearly the speed of light. We should be doing as much of that as possible. But my point is that this is not the primary function of the system, even if this is what cyber-anarchists and idealistic start-up owners in the Bay Area tell you. It’s a side-effect. So when massive companies give data flying through the web to spy agencies on request and even accept payment for it, we’re seeing the entities that built the system using it to further their own goals and means, and to comply with orders of governments that have power to bring them down if they want. It’s not fair, but picking a fight with the NSA is kind of like declaring that you’re going to play chicken with a nuclear aircraft carrier while paddling a canoe. At best, they’ll be amused. At worst, they’ll sink you with nary an effort. Wikipedia can encrypt all of its traffic as a form of protest, but a) the NSA really doesn’t care about how many summaries of comic book character plot lines you read, and b) if it suddenly starts caring, it’ll find a way to spy on you. It’s basically the agency’s job, and we’ve known it’s been doing that since 2006.

For all the outrage about the NSA, we need to focus on the most important problems with what’s going on. We have an agency which snoops on everyone and everything, passively storing data to use if you catch their attention and it decides you merit a deep dive into their database that’s holding every significant electronic communication you’ve had for the last decade or so. This is great if you’re trying to catch spies or would-be terrorists (but come on people, more than likely spies based on the infrastructure being brought into focus), but it also runs against the rights to due process and protection from warrantless, suspicionless searches and seizures. Blaming the legal departments of Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo for complying with official orders is useless, and pretending that an information exchange network built to make money and maintained by a consortium of profit-minded groups is somehow a bastion of freedom being corrupted by the evil maws of the U.S. government just seems hopelessly naive. Americans don’t like to think of their country as a global hegemony just doing what global hegemons do and using its might to secure its interests. They like to think of it as having a higher calling. For them, reality bites.

But again the sad truth is that this is exactly what’s going on. While transparency activists loose their fury and anger in the media and on the web, realpolitik is relentlessly brutal, treating entire nations exactly like pawns on a chessboard. For all the whistleblowing of the past five years, not that much of the leaked information was really that shocking. It just confirmed our fears that the world is ran by big egos, cooperation is rare and far between, and that as one nation is aiming to become another global hegemon, the current one is preparing for a siege and quietly readying a vast array of resources to maintain its dominance, if not economic, then military and political. On top of that, rather than being elected or asked to rise into its current position, it chose to police much of the planet and now finds itself stuck where it doesn’t want to be. We know all this and a great deal of this is taught in history class nowadays. We just don’t really want to deal with it and the fits of rage towards corporations and government agencies somehow corrupting the system they built for power and profit seem to be our reaction to having to deal with these fast after the last whistle was blown. Sadly, we don’t get the world we want, we get the one we really build.

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censorship ad

Policy wonks, like most people, tend to think of IT as a magical black box which takes requests, does something, and makes their computers do what they want, or at least somewhat close to it. And so it’s not really surprising to see Ronan Farrow and Shamila Chaudhary rail against major cybersecurity companies for enabling dictators to block internet content at Foreign Policy, with allegations that show how poorly they understand what these companies do and how virtually all of the products they make work. You see, blaming a tech company for censorship is kind of like blaming a car manufacturer for drunk drivers. Certainly their tools are intended to block content but they’re not designed to filter all undesirables from a centralized location to which a dictator can submit a request. They’re meant to analyze and block traffic coming from malicious sources to prevent malware and any time you can analyze and stop traffic, you can abuse the ability and start blocking legitimate sites just because you don’t like them or the people who run them.

Most of the software they cited is meant to secure corporate networks and if they no longer get to stop or scan data, they’re pretty much useless because they can’t do threat identification or mitigation. WebSense does filter content and uses a centralized database cluster to push how it classifies sites to its customers so, as Farrow and Chaudhary noted, it was able to change up a few things to help mitigate its abuse by authoritarians. But McAffee and others are in a tougher spot because they’ve simply sold a software license to network admins. Other than virus and bot net definitions, there’s not much they can control from a central location, and trying to shame a company for selling tools made for something entirely different puts them in a position in which it would be very hard to defend their actions to someone convinced that they can just flip a switch and end the digital reign of tyranny across the world. And its even worse when the first reactions to articles about the abuse of their wares blame them for just being greedy.

On top of that, it’s not exactly hard to write your own filters and deep packet inspection tools. It’s just difficult to scale them for millions of users but it’s nothing out of the authoritarians reach. As they spend billions on security and control, surely they could divert a couple of million to build a capable system of their own. In fact, the Great Firewall of China is mostly home-grown and uses the country’s ISPs to scan incoming and outgoing traffic on a daily basis to find what to block. It sounds like a powerful indictment to point out that the Chinese use Cisco routers in their system, but it’s not as if they outsourced the task of pinging and blocking Tor nodes to the company. To be perfectly fair in charging tech companies in aiding and abetting censorship, you’d have to be talking about search engines that agree to modify their functionality to get a toehold in markets ruled over by authoritarians who will get someone to censor searches if not the company which was trying to expand. Bottom line: dictators will find a way to censor what they want to censor. If they use network monitoring security tools to do it, the blame still rests with them.

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noodly_horror_600

While we’re talking about chemophobia, here’s another area where a selective focus on health isn’t helping in the big picture: food. The cover story for the current edition of The Atlantic is an expansive, New Yorker style, 10,500 word case against chemophobic foodism that’s currently in vogue in many metropolitan cities. David Freedman’s thesis basically boils down to calling out foodies on their caloric hypocrisy while noting that the companies they demonize are working to cut down on calories in their most popular offerings, which could have huge downstream effects for tens of millions of people. And with obesity arguably being America’s biggest health problem, combating it could shave trillions off our healthcare expenditures. That’s a big deal, so focusing on only "wholesome, natural, farm-to-table" fare while relegating food conglomerates to the role of the foodie movement’s sworn enemies is shortsighted and naive. As you can imagine, there’s no shortage of detractors to Freedman’s indictment and many of them base their opposition on the very chemophobia he sites, recycling the same arguments he tries to dispel.

Of course the article itself isn’t without flaws, but arguing with its focus on noting out how foodie idols aren’t helping to reduce caloric intake, but instead jack up the price in the name of style or ideology misses an important point. You see, the foodies aren’t actually helping people lose any heft by substituting fast, cheap, fattening food with wholesome, fresh, simple dishes that are so aesthetically pleasing they’re bordering on gastronomic pornography, yet every bit as bad as all those Big Macs and fries. Their excuse? It’s better for you because it’s all wholesome! Disregard the terrifying amount of flour, butter, bacon, and sugar going into these recipes. They’re labeled organic and they’re not — gasp! — processed with chemicals. Oh and if you want to lose weight, don’t eat this often and stay active; because all this stuff is natural and organic it will burn off all the faster. But the fact of the matter is that it won’t. Remember the craze about the high fructose corn syrup and the call to replace it with natural sugar? There’s a reason why it died down. The science says that sugar is sugar and both HFCS and cane sugar are equally dangerous.

Couple this almost religious faith in the power of "wholesome and natural food" with a big dollop of affluence and advice like "don’t eat something with more than five ingredients or containing chemicals you don’t immediately recognize," and you get a classic situation in which a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. Not only are foodies disregarding food that’s more immune to being left out unrefrigerated for a few hours and safer from germs and spoilage (that’s what the vast majority of those strange sounding chemicals in processed food do by the way), but they’re also paying premiums for what they do find acceptable. This is great for Whole Foods, or as it’s known in some places Whole Paycheck, but not so great for John and Jane Public who are now thinking that they’re priced out of eating healthy. Fresh, more local food that travels from farms to supermarkets and forks faster is actually a good thing. It’s less resource intensive and helps the food stay edible longer. But it’s also being sold at a premium instead of being the default for markets. Why? Because foodies are willing to pay extra and margins in the grocery business are slim to put it mildly. Like many "green, eco-friendly" products, food is being upmarketed.

Worst of all, a great deal of the foodie motivation behind spending more money and avoiding a gret swath of basic chemistry to keep food fresh and safe longer is useless when it comes to the big goal of fighting obesity. The chemicals are not making people fat. The tomato from a frozen warehouse and the tomato from a local farm won’t break down differently in someone’s stomach and fuel the body with different calories. Obesity is so much more complex than that. When you want to tackle the question of why people gain weight you have to also look past exercise and a sum total of calories. You also have to consider that Americans work too much, sit too much for their jobs, don’t get exercise breaks in their routine, try to cram some 20 hours of tasks into a 16 or an 18 hour day, have to drive everywhere, some have genetic predispositions for weight gain, and others have emotional problems that drive them to food, etc. If you want to tackle the country’s weight problem holistically, you don’t do it with bad science, throw money at it, or try to shame people who can’t afford to eat like a foodie to do so. You have to do a lot more.

People eat fast food because it’s convenient and yes, cooking it with higher quality ingredients while cutting out calories and improving flavor with judicious use of benign and helpful chemicals would go a long way. But we also need to encourage more mass transit, more urban lifestyles in growing cities to get more people walking, jobs that allow for more flexible schedules to get a bit of exercise into the day and break up the monotony of being chained to desks and office chairs, and teach coping strategies for an insane workload both at the office and at home. Fighting the scourge of obesity and its attendant health problems requires many years of work and we have good studies showing us how we can start doing it. Demonizing processed foods with naturalism and pseudoscience with an irrational fear of chemistry isn’t going to help. It’s just going to make some foodies feel like they’re doing good things for their health. A number of whom, I might add, flip out in terror if their food contains half a gram of aspartame, but think nothing of having botox injections. You know, injections of the deadliest toxin know to humans to paralyze their faces so they look younger by poisoning their muscles into submission until their crow’s feet are gone…

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model with glasses

When last we left Pat Fagan, he was aghast that premarital sex was legal and demanding that a country in which more than nine in ten adults had sex before marriage punish all the fornicating sinners lest society fail. As you probably won’t be surprised to find out, his delusion is so strong that he’s proclaiming momogamous, one-partner fundamentalist Christian couples to be masters of all things sexual in the same manner as a certain Fox New contributor decided that losing his virginity in a honeymoon suite made him a sexual and relationship black belt. Now, unlike almost every argument in his verbal assault on premarital sex, Fagan actually managed to cobble what seem like real numbers and real data to add an undertone of possible sanity under his claims of fundamentalist couples getting the best of porn stars in bed. You see, according to a survey of adult sexual habits, some 88% of married couples say they enjoy their sex lives, which is a 22% gain over divorced couples and a 14% advantage over singles. Unfortunately for Fagan though, these numbers are exceedingly unlikely to mean what he thinks they mean.

Basically, his thesis is that couples who had no other partners besides each other to compare a sexual relationship’s overall quality, are happy because they can’t make those comparisons. But that’s kind of like saying that Weird Things is the best blog on the web because Weird Things is the only blog you’ve ever read. Or that Taco Bell is the best Mexican food in the world because that’s the only Mexican food you’ve ever tried. How do you explain how ridiculous this is to a man who says this out loud and actually means it? At least we could take a crack on why he says this based on the horror-fantasies religious fundamentalists have about sex in the secular world. You see, they seem to assume that secularists have sex all the time. Life, outside of work and family, is just a big orgy for us with no complications, feelings, or attachments because we don’t care to emotionally support each other and if something goes wrong, we can just turn to antibiotics and have an abortion since the evils of modern science have enabled this kind of terrifying life away from Godly consequences to exist, and we secularists bask in the resultant debauchery.

Of course when you think that non-fundamentalists are living a life somewhat along these lines you’re going to assume that they spend every other sexual experience comparing it to the last, and rating partners on some sort of complicated scale. In reality, premarital sex is kind of a test drive for many couples, and after establishing general compatibility and tying the knot, of course they’ll report being happier than singles or divorcees. They’re having sex with someone able to satisfy them and had time to learn what they want and what they need. By contrast, singles are just trying to find the person to push all their buttons and divorcees are still dealing with a fallout from their last marriage and getting back into the game. This explains Fagan’s numbers far, far more plausibly than first-timers in sex and marriage being zapped with divine prowess in bed, so much so that they can give adults with many years of relationship and sexual experience under their belts a run for their money. I still have no explanation for what compels Fagan to open his mouth and say the things he does, but then again, I think I never will…

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t. rex fossil

Last time we tackled the question of whether the mighty T-Rex was a predator or a scavenger, the math seemed to point to a mix at the very least. There was no way a creature that large had enough to eat just by moving from carcass to carcass and picking off the scraps left by the apex predators of its day if we take into account the average distances between the kills, decay, and the need to compete with smaller, faster scavengers. But on the other hand, there was the issue of not finding any clear signs of T-Rex predation. Sure there have been some teeth marks on a couple of fossilized bones but all of them could be equally explained by both scavenging and by hunting, with a few specimens having teeth marks in such awkward places that they were hard to explain in the first place. Now, however, there’s proof that the Tyrant Lizard King was indeed the fierce predator we always imagined. One of its fangs was found buried in the hip bone of a duck bill dinosaur, exactly where one would expect a predator to bit to take out the hind legs of a prey animal, and it shows signs of infection and two months of healing after the attack.

Well that’s pretty definitive then. The fossil record has given us a little forensic puzzle that points to a moment in time when a T-Rex tried to chase down a duck bill and the herbivore escaped to live for another two months or so with a terrifying souvenir in its body. Alternatively, we can try and imagine other scenarios during which the T-Rex didn’t have to chase it down. Maybe it was sleeping and attacked by surprise. Maybe it fell and managed to defend itself from a huge beast that came to gnaw on it. But either way, we have pretty clear signs of predation that can put the debate to rest. Now, of course T-Rex would’ve also scavenged because all predators do it as an occasional supplement to their diet. If someone else already took the risk and did the work that goes into a big kill and can be scared off, why not simply take the carcass like lions and hyenas often do from each other? But with predation now verified, little kids can keep on safely thinking of these enormous creatures as intimidating hunters stalking the plains, looking for a chance to strike quickly and violently with enough force to chew through a car…

And of course there’s another interesting fact that this debate about the nature of T-Rex’s diet and predatory habits reveals about science. Because there are always questions to answer in the process of learning more about our past, scientists really are comfortable going after even the most sacred cows. Since the first fossil of this creature was discovered and erected into the towering, fierce stance that was its trademark for almost a century afterwards, paleontologists have been figuring out how it really looked, how it really stood, and how it really moved, which raised questions about what and how it really ate. In the process they lowered its body, raised the giant, muscular tail, leveled its enormous head to its now horizontal spine, and found out it moved faster that first thought, as did its prey. Now we know it really was the terrifying beast we always thought it was, but we know this based on concrete, well, fossilized evidence, not just the popular imagination of what it might have done with its banana-sized chompers. And that’s the beauty of science. It gives us the tools not just to imagine, but to really know.

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sara jean underwood

The city where I live, the college town/aspiring big city of Columbus, OH, the weather isn’t really known for being nice. And we’ll tell you how much the weather sucks when you ask what it’s like to live here. It will be either our opening line or the caveat we sneak in at the end. Right now, it’s hot and incredibly humid, which makes walking outside feel like stepping into a blast furnace that cooks you in your own juices. This means that if you want to work out, it’s best to get indoors to the treadmill. Unfortunately, some of my wife’s and my mutual friends seem to disagree because lately, they’ve gone granola on us and ascribe to the trend that exercising in hot, humid weather is perfect to sweat out toxins. Ah, yes, the t-word, used as the magical justification for just about every New Age lifestyle trend, much like the word quantum is used as an automatic free pass for them to say whatever they want about science. Now, trust me, I know it sounds compelling to go out there and sweat out all your toxins, but what you’ll really be doing is getting heat stroke and putting your body in danger so for the love of all things cute and fluffy, don’t do it.

Here are the two big problems with this idea. First and foremost, there’s a reason why it feels so miserable to run around in 90+ degree weather and high humidity. Your body needs to transfer heat to the outside environment to cool down and if the temperature is close to, or exceeds your body heat, that transfer is very much inhibited. Sweat doesn’t evaporate cooling you off, it’s just stuck to you and your clothing, keeping you uncomfortably warm. According to research by the people who created the mantra "pain is weakness leaving your body," the U.S. Army, — probably the absolute last institution you could accuse of not knowing enough about fitness and physical training — the optimal ambient temperature during your workout should be about 65° F. It’s not so cold that your body tries to hold on to heat and interferes with your muscles, and not nearly hot enough to get in the way of sweat giving off excess heat efficiently so you could work much harder and train a lot longer than you would otherwise. This is why many gyms have thermostats set to the mid to low 60s, we know it’s good for your body as you’re exercising.

The second big problem is this. What toxins are you trying to sweat out? Chemophobes can get tests to determine what sort of residue can linger in their tissues and hyperventilate about every chemical under the sun on the basis of the results. Whatever chemical name they don’t readily recognize or the nature of which they don’t understand, they call a toxin and proceed to spend a good deal of time and effort "detoxing." For example, formaldehyde is a commonly cited toxin but it actually occurs naturally as a byproduct of your metabolism and is used to help chain together amino acids into proteins. The problem is that if you’re exposed to industrial quantities of it, the excess formaldehyde is converted into formic acid which could cause nerve and kidney damage in sufficient quantities. So where do our New Agey chemophobes go wrong? Well, they assume having a few parts per million of it in our bodies is dangerous and must be the result of pollution, despite the fact that it naturally occurs in our tissues and their concentrations of it are orders of magnitude lower than what it would take to even raise a yellow flag. Dose makes the poison, but the granola crowd assumes that if it can be a poison, it’s just a matter of time before it is.

And so they go out in the blazing heat to sweat out chemicals that aren’t going to harm them just to overheat their bodies to the point of exhaustion, and take how miserable they feel as a detox regimen working as designed. In reality, however, the headaches, weakness, and nausea aren’t toxins leaving the body. They’re your body’s way of telling you "don’t pull this shit on me again, I mean it!" Having less and less discomfort after working out in the heat for a while isn’t a coup for the detox protocol either, it’s your body begrudgingly accepting its fate and getting used to the stress at the expense of overworking the heart and the kidneys. While heat stroke and its milder precursors will generally go away after a brief rest without doing permanent damage, repeated exertions can take their toll in the form of cramps and muscle pain. Really, if the workout in the air-conditioned gym and the miserable routine in the sticky heat won’t actually rid your of all the chemicals that are actually not harmful to you in the amounts everyone carries, why run the risk of heat exhaustion? Why not just keep yourself in shape safely and using real science?

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Yes, Pacific Rim is a loud popcorn movie best viewed with your brain operating at half capacity, just enjoying the show without asking any questions. And that’s exactly what makes it fun. This may shock film snobs and critics who review Oscar bait, but not every movie in theaters needs to be an epic character drama that explores the fundamental issues with existence and the human condition, or brutally cataloging a bloody genocide while repeatedly beating its viewers over the head with heavy-handed questions about morals, ethics, free will, and what lurks within us all. At the same time though, big budget Hollywood spectacles with thin plots are usually outsourced to Michael Bay, or directors who emulate his style, who latch on to formulas that even the writers of Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller movies would find too flimsy and groan-inducing, then proceed to viciously drill them into your eyes to a soundtrack of explosions. Pacific Rim was thankfully made by Guillermo del Toro and easily avoids this trap by being a simple and very straightforward little tribute to giant robot vs. giant monster anime many twenty-somethings watched as kids.

But that said, there’s something just not right about humanoid robots brawling with giant beasts sent from another world through an undersea portal called The Breach. Jaegers might deliver a knockout punch to a 30 story Kaiju or pound one over the head with a container ship to give the monster a hell of a concussion, but the mechanics just don’t quite work. Kaijus are fleshy, which means they’re more flexible and heal minor cuts and scrapes quickly. By comparison, a Jaeger would be made of comparatively brittle metal alloys and have to be refurbished after every fight, making it extremely expensive and labor-intensive to operate. When the Kaijus appear every six months or so as they did at the beginning of the war, the cost can be managed. But as the giant brutes keep getting bigger and bigger, and start appearing as often as once a week, resources are quickly going to start running dry, so building ever more Jaegers would quickly become very difficult. No wonder that the bureaucrats who run the world in Pacific Rim want to shut down this once promising program for a wall to keep the Kaijus out. They can’t afford it anymore.

Of course one also wonders how they got the Jaegers to be bipedal at such a scale. Walking on two legs is very computationally expensive for a machine that’s as big as a high rise, and even a small bump in the road could send these robots falling, and falling badly. Not only that, but they give the Kaijus excellent points of attack: the ankles and the knees. To truly make their punches count, the Jaeger pilots have to get their robots to behave just like a human fighter and put the core and hips into the blow. Punching in a basic one-two sequence, the weight would swing from leg to leg, so a counter-attack from a Kaiju aimed at the thigh or the side of the knee could send a million tons of robot down hard with its head lined up for a finishing blow from above. You can see the same idea in mixed martial art disciplines which use stomps and side-knees in a clinch to shift an opponent’s weight so you can topple him and get full mount for a well placed elbow, or a swift hammer fist to the side of the head. Jaegers would simply not be flexible enough to survive this sort of assault in the real world. Many much less brittle and more coordinated humans aren’t without at least a little training or a whole lot of mass to counteract the impacts.

For better fight mechanics, I would have designed Jaegers to look more like sumo wrestlers. An extremely wide base either on tracks or hovering with the aid of nuclear powered jet engines, no legs, and stuffed with ranged weaponry to soften up the Kaiju as it charges. Large, thick, heavy arms with huge claws would pummel the monsters at close range and its barrel-like core would spin naturally, so tipping it over or even getting it off-balance would be a Herculean task, even for the fat Category 4 Kaiju which attacks Hong Kong in the movie’s second act. Its hull could be made of something flexible like kevlar to make it tougher for a Kaiju to bite through and diffuse a good deal of the force that would be generated by a direct hit. One could even imagine it pulling off a complicated sequence just by rotating around its axis. For example, it could hit a Kaiju with an enormous left hook starting about 30 degrees left off center, keep spinning until it can follow the punch with a right elbow at between 60 and 120 degrees right off center, and returning back with a left hammer fist and a right hook, using the hits on the Kaiju to redirect its momentum.

And while we’re redesigning the Jaegers, we should ask why they can’t be piloted remotely. We can control drones halfway across the world in real time and all of the infrastructure to pull off a similar feat with a giant robot seems to be in place in the film. To minimize lag, the pilots should be in the base from which their Jaegers would be launched, but they wouldn’t have to be in their robot. Their brain-machine interfaces with their co-pilots and with their machine are going to be implemented as an abstraction over the kernel of the Jaeger’s operating system anyway so the pilots could fight, lose, and be ready to fight again as soon as a new machine is ready to go. It’s actually kind of a no-brainer that allows them to switch tactics, pushing the Jaegers further and taking risks that could kill them if they were in the actual robot but win the day in the end. There would be a huge psychological boost from seeing a Kaiju on a big screen in a bunker instead of up close and personal, its fangs tearing through the cockpit and rattling the robot around. Yes, it’s not as heroic or dangerous, but much more militarily effective and politically beneficial.

But then again, all of this is based on the idea that Jaegers make for the best front-line defense when a Kaiju attacks. That’s not necessarily true. We know they can be killed by nukes, but the proposition of turning the world’s most populated coastlines into radioactive deserts is a tough sell and actually doing that will kill food production and give the Kaijus a beachhead from which they can mount assaults further and further inland. However, launching a very large kinetic kill vehicle from orbit, basically a huge spike dropped from a satellite, could hit a Kaiju with roughly the same yield as a 300 kiloton nuclear warhead without all the radiation. Currenly we can’t build and launch wepaons like this because they violate the Outer Space Treaty, but when there’s an angry horde of aliens that can flatten a city block with each step rampaging on Earth and all of the nations unite in building and deploying Jaegers, I’m sure exceptions could be made and the current space faring powers can launch a system of satellites ready to drive a super-heated alloy slug into a Kaiju at hypersonic speeds at a moment’s notice. Should that somehow fail and some time needs to be bought for another shot, Jaegers can coral the beast into the kill zone.

This is how you would fight a Kaiju in the real world. Orbiting KKV launchers that can fire off an exceptionally engineered slug at the planet below at a moment’s notice, drone bomber swarms, and giant mobile weapon platforms known as Jaegers, remotely piloted as a last line of defense against the nightmarish beasts. Pacific Rim’s spectacle is great for a live action anime movie, a solid tribute to the genre, and it creates tension by putting the main characters in real danger in the maws of the Kaiju, but if we were to translate any of it to the real world, it would be a militarily unsustainable strategy with little chance of actually working. The only worse strategy would be a giant wall to keep the monsters out, i.e. the Wall of Life being built in the movie, but it seems like the competent commanders in the Pacific Rim universe were all on leave throughout the war and this is why the world has been stuck with worse and worse ideas for fighting the alien titans. But hey, how mad can you be at a movie’s plot holes if it lets you mentally design giant robots and a swarm of global space-based defenses to fight aliens the size of an office block?

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