Discovery of Parasitic Plant Control Mechanism May Lead to Better Containment

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons
A media release from Virginia Tech reveals a groundbreaking discovery about parasitic plants: They exchange RNA (mRNA, or “messenger” RNA) with their hosts to “communicate,” probably to control the way the host plant behaves. The release quotes Julie Scholes of the University of Sheffield: “Parasitic plants such as witchweed and broomrape are serious problems for legumes and other crops that help feed some of the poorest regions in Africa and elsewhere.” The new work could lead to better ways for humans to control parasitic plants. Biologist Jim Westwood states, “The beauty of this discovery is that this mRNA could be the Achilles hill for parasites.”

Out of Africa, but When?

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Writing for IO9, Annalee Newitz summarizes a recent discussion at New Scientist about when people first migrated out of Africa. Catherine Brahic writes:

A closer look at the genetics also suggests there was an earlier migration. Recently, Katerina Harvati of the University of Tubingen in Germany and her colleagues tested the classic “out of Africa at 60,000 years ago” story against the earlier-exodus idea. They plugged the genomes of indigenous populations from south-east Asia into a migration model. They found that the genetic data was best explained by an early exodus that left Africa around 130,000 years ago, taking a coastal route along the Arabian peninsula, India and into Australia, followed by a later wave along the classic route.

We’re all Africans ultimately; the question is how far back did our various ancestors leave Africa?

Snails Are a Thousand Times More Deadly than Sharks

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Conrad Hacket of the Pew Research Center published an informative graphic on Twitter about the relative deadliness of various animals (hat tip to Michael Shermer). Following is his list of beasties with the number of people they kill every year:

  • Sharks 10
  • Snails 10,000
  • Snakes 50,000
  • People 475,000
  • Mosquitos 725,000

The Weather Channel has out a lengthier list (again shown with annual number of human victims):

  • Sharks 10
  • Wolves 10
  • Lions 100
  • Elephants 100
  • Hippopotamus 500
  • Crocodiles 1,000
  • Tapeworms 2,000
  • Ascariasis Roundworms 2,500
  • Snails 10,000 (by causing the parasitic disease schistosomiasis)
  • Assassin Bugs 10,000
  • Tsetse Flies 10,000
  • Dogs 25,0000
  • Snakes 50,000
  • Humans 475,000
  • Mosquitos 725,000

So why do people obsess about sharks, and why have so many horror/suspense films been made about sharks? Where’s the “Shells” or “Trunks” film? The lesson here is that people’s fears often have little to do with objective risks.

On Blogging and the Information Explosion

Image: Opte Project
Image: Opte Project

What’s the point of creating Rational Beacon as another aggregator of news and views? In times past, the problem for readers was the paucity of information; today it is the hyperabundance of information. A chart illustrating “The Explosion of Digital Data” fundamentally altered my thinking about producing and consuming information in the digital age; see also “The World’s Technological Capacity to Store, Communicate, and Compute Information.” In a world of hyperabundant information, writers can help readers by essentializing and condensing information and by filtering information. My hope is that Rational Beacon will effectively serve those functions for select readers. In brief, I spend a lot of time reading news and opinions so that you can spend a short amount of time doing so.

Films on Disk Might Survive (On Another Earth)

What is the future of movie rental?

My wife and I watched Another Earth this evening. I posted to Facebook: “Another Earth is basically a tragic drama set to a sci-fi premise. The premise of the drama is implausible; the premise of the sci-fi backdrop totally impossible. Still, we found the writing to be sharp, the acting to be fantastic, the directing to be interesting (though there’s too much zooming!), and the story to be engaging throughout.”

But my parenthetical comment about the business of movie rentals is perhaps more interesting: “Incidentally, Amazon has started running regular specials on streaming video rentals; I don’t see how disks can possibly survive more than a few more years.”

We rented Another Earth for 99 cents, and Amazon regularly puts movie rentals on sale for a buck or two. With online rentals at $3.99, I’ll make the trek to Red Box to rent a disk, even though that requires two trips (one to pick up, another to drop off). But as the price of online rentals drops, I just don’t see how movies on disk can survive, at least in the rental market. (There’s some advantage to buying disks if you want to own a copy, as a disk can be loaned or sold.)

What struck me was that I watched a science-fiction movie in a way that shows the real world rapidly progressing beyond the world envisioned in a lot of older science fiction. Who needs to contemplate another earth when we’ve got this one?

Integrating Aerial Photography in Search and Rescue

During the search and rescue effort in which I played a (very small) role, it occurred to me that it would have been nice to use aerial photography in the search.

Our group had aircraft available, but in the end ground teams found the vehicle. There are several obvious limitations to searching by eye out of an aircraft window. You can look away. You can fail to see something subtle. You can sneeze at just the wrong moment.

Far better would be to borrow a plan (or a drone) with aerial photography capabilities. Then the idea is to fly quickly in a grid pattern, snapping detailed photos of the ground as you go.

Once these photos are taken, they could be uploaded to the internet (as a friend of mine suggested), where dozens (or thousands) of eyes could pour [pore] over them. (Alternately, they could be subject to digital processing.) What one person working alone might miss, one of a hundred might spot.

Our landscape was perfect for such aerial photography. The land was relatively barren, with stumpy desert trees. The weather was mostly perfect, with clear skies. Obviously in a dense forest or in fog the idea wouldn’t work.

My understanding is that there are quite a number of planes throughout the country already equipped with aerial photography. It would be fantastic if one of these planes could be easily rented (or borrowed) in search and rescue efforts.

In our case, it turned out, the delay didn’t matter (to the missing persons). But in other cases, rapid discovery could mean the difference between life and death.

Apple Phases Out Optical and Magnetic Drives

Years ago in school we students plugged standard tape recorders into computers to load programs and save files. (That was a big advancement over the older card systems.) Then came the 5.25 inch floppy, which lasted quite a while, then the 3.5 inch floppy, then the zip disk, with a whopping 100 megabytes of storage!

During the development of the magnetic removable disk, of course, the magnetic hard disk drive also became prominent; today terabyte drives are common and cost less than a hundred bucks.

But removable magnetic disks are not commonly used today. They have been replaced by CD and (a bit more recently) DVD optical drives. It seemed reasonable to think that the trend would continue to higher-capacity optical disks (namely Blu-Ray). But now that seems not to be the case.

What is interesting about Apple’s latest design changes is that the company dropped its base-model $999 MacBook, which featured both an optical drive and a hard disk, making its entry-level laptop the MacBook Air, which features neither sort of media. Instead, the Air runs exclusively on flash memory; the entry-level model carries 64 gigs of it. Meanwhile, the entry level $599 Mac Mini dumps the optical drive but keeps a hard drive.

How, then, do you load up software and move around files? The Air is basically an internet-driven machine. Apple has facilitated online software sales with its app store, and later this year it is rolling out its own cloud service for file storage. If you want to move stuff around via physical media, you can plug in a flash drive, optical drive, or hard drive. The computer, then, is going the way of Apple’s portable devices in terms of using (primarily) the internet to transfer data, rather than optical or magnetic drives.

Of course, this model kind of sucks if the internet ever comes down or falls under political control.

I realize I’m describing pretty obvious trends; still, sometimes I think it’s worth stepping back to observe the breathtaking evolution of technology.


Rob commented July 30, 2011 at 10:38 PM
Have you noticed that an entire industry has now sprung up just to make URL’s shorter?

Technology Catches Up with Harry Potter Magic

J. K. Rowling’s first novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, came out June 30, 1997. The release of the series spans the 20th and 21st Centuries, and new technology has started to catch up to Harry Potter magic.

In the novels, newspapers show moving photographs. On June 29, 2007, a decade after the release of the first Potter novel, Apple released its iPhone, which brings constantly updated news, complete with video, to one’s fingertips. The iPhone and similar devices are much more useful and powerful than the magical papers in Harry’s world, and owl delivery seems positively primitive by comparison.

A few days ago, Technology Review published the article, “A Practical Way to Make Invisibility Cloaks” (thanks to Paul Hsieh over at Geek Pressfor the link).

The idea is that new production techniques allow for large-scale printing of “metamaterials,” largely made of metals, which could be fashioned into things like invisibility cloaks and superlenses.

Provided politicians and bureaucrats manage to restrain themselves from crashing our economies, technology will continue to gain ground on the magic of the Potter universe. Indeed, thanks to the wonders of science and technology, we are living in the most “magical” age of human history, in which doctors can scan people’s bones and hearts, people can quickly fly around the world, the average person in advanced economies owns self-propelled coaches, and we can take vast libraries of books and music around with us in pocket computers.

The Potter novels will always remain great literature — for reasons I explain in my book Values of Harry Potter — but technology will make the magic of the novels seem increasingly less magical. Thankfully, the deeper magic of the novels has nothing to do with casting spells or riding brooms.

Shermer Explains ‘The Believing Brain’

Arch-skeptic Michael Shermer spoke at Tattered Cover May 31 about his new book, The Believing Brain. With permission, I filmed the presentation, and I’ve edited three selections.

In the first video, Shermer explains the basics of how people tend to find patterns both where they are real and where they are not. We need science to tell the difference, he argues.

In the second video, Shermer argues that people tend to find agency even in complex systems and inanimate things.

Finally, Shermer explains people’s tendency to mentally construct agencies and project them into the world.

Shermer also offered some fascinating insights into political battles, specific conspiracy theories (deathers, birthers, truthers), and the importance of free-trading liberal democracies (broadly understood) for preserving the peace and keeping dangerous people from gaining power. For all that and more, you’ll have to read his book!


Tess commented June 2, 2011 at 11:55 AM
This is great!! I was there at the lecture as well. Nice job on filming and editing it. Is there any chance you’d be willing to post the entire lecture or maybe send it to me? Thanks again for posting this!

TJWelch commented June 6, 2011 at 7:44 PM
Many years ago, I read the original (1997) edition of Shermer’s book _Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition and Other Confusions of our Time_. In what was otherwise a good book, he included a chapter called “The Unlikeliest Cult: Ayn Rand, Objectivism, and the Cult of Personality”. While purporting to be a debunking of Objectivism, it was at most an indictment of the alleged behavior of some Objectivists–largely sourced from the Brandens’ memoirs. I don’t remember much in the way of arguments against the philosophy itself, other than an arbitary assertion that morality cannot be objective.
Keep in mind that the rest of the book dealt with creationists, Holocaust deniers, UFOlogists and the like. I found it intellectually dishonest to lump Objectivism in with such company on flimsy pretext.
Rand herself exposed the use of such tactics in her essay “‘Extremism,’ or the Art of Smearing.”