Posts Tagged ‘engineering’

Noted in Passing 2nd February 2013

February 2, 2013

A weekly post on things that were interesting or which I would have liked to have blogged about …….

Science and Behaviour


Exercitationes de Vena Medinensis et de Vermiculis capillaribus infantium by G. H. Velschius (1674)

It seems that human infestation by guinea worms is sharply down pointing to the success of the program to eradicate them. Carl Zimmer writes an obituary for this creature which will not be missed (by humans) if it becomes extinct. But why is it that the intentional eradication of species inimical to man is perfectly OK, but the demise of other species which have failed to adapt and can no longer compete is considered a catastrophic loss of bio-diversity? In genetic survival terms the guinea worm or the mosquito might well be more important than tigers or panda bears.

There are those who would swear that the science of climate is well understood and settled. But it seems we know very little about clouds indeed and that bacteria which survive in the upper atmosphere could be one source for the nucleation of clouds.  In the same vein, it seems that irrigation in one area can cause storms elsewhere. A new study shows that agricultural irrigation in California’s Central Valley doubles the amount of water vapor pumped into the atmosphere, ratcheting up rainfall and powerful monsoons across the interior Southwest.

The British Museum and the Smithsonian teamed up to prove that their two crystal skulls, purportedly made by Aztecs in Mexico prior to Columbus’ arrival. are actually fakes. 

Kim Ryholt shows that in the ancient Egyptian city Tebtunis, 2,200 years ago, people voluntarily entered into slave contracts with the local temple for all eternity and they even paid a monthly fee for the privilege.

New findings suggest that free-ranging cats are likely the single greatest source of anthropogenic mortality for US birds and mammals.

Dienekes suggests that even with a generations long selective breeding program to select for Neanderthal genes, achieving a 100% Neandertal might be impossible.

Engineering and Technology

NASA will use the International Space Station that to test expandable space habitat technologyand will test a Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), which is scheduled to arrive at the space station in 2015 for a two-year technology demonstration.

As they become easier to acquire and use, one of the obvious benefits of 3D printers is their ability to distribute the tools of production and manufacturing to the masses. But what they’re used to produce can create legal, regulatory, and even ethical concerns.

The PowerBuoy is a “smart” ocean-going buoy that uses piston-like motion in the float relative to its stationary spar to mechanically convert energy into electricity as it rides the waves.

Bad Science

The status of Harvard College’s investigation of student cheating has been distributed to faculty, staff and students by Arts and Science Faculty Dean Michael D. Smith.

Academics at the Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence are at war with an anthropologist at University of California at Berkeley and alleging that he stole ideas. Needless to say the UC Berkeley investigation report exonerates their own.

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia’s national science agency, may face further scrutiny into accusations of bullying and harassment of scientists and other employees.

Funding agencies may be paying out duplicate grants, according to an analysis by Harold R. Garner, Lauren J. McIver and Michael B. Waitzkin.

Forbes dumps on the unfortunate Lisa Jackson.

With the rapid growth of misconduct cases, scientific rehabilitation may have to become a necessary tool for research-integrity offices.

Noted in Passing 26th January 2013

January 26, 2013

A weekly post on things that were interesting or which I would have liked to have blogged about …….

Science and Behaviour

Half a million DVDs of data could be stored in gram of DNA according to Harvard researchers. Unfortunately the credibility of the claim is severely impaired since this comes from the lab of Dr. George Church of Neanderthal baby fame and I have to take even the memory claim with a large bushel of salt. Dr. Church seems very keen on publicity just now. (This item almost made it to the Bad Science category but the memory item gets the benefit of the doubt). The Neanderthal nonsense was taken down comprehensively by Svante Pääbo and others of the  Neanderthal Genome Project.

Protons are 4% smaller than was thought and new particles are expected to be found.

Ferdinand Balfoort posts on Stockholm’s violent past from the peaceful present and a New Zealander is causing waves with his campaign to rid his country of cats.

One hundred and one year old Fauja Singh will run his last marathon in Hong Kong in February just before his 102’nd birthday, but plans to continue running for 4 hours a day.

Scrolls of 2,000 year old Buddhist texts have been found  preserved on long rolls of birch-tree bark and written in Gandhari.

Against conventional wisdom earthquakes can occur even at zones considered stable and this is what may have happened in 2011 when the magnitude 9.0 Tohoku-Oki earthquake was followed by a devastating tsunami.

Alarmist conservationists would like us to believe that humans are on the verge of causing a catastrophic loss of biodiversity but as with most alarmist dogmas, extinction rates of species are not as bad as has been assumed.

We all believe to some extent that looks reveal  traits and humans have been associating facial features with criminality for at least 2,000 years  (“Cassius has a lean and hungry look”) and “scientifically” for at least 300 years. But a new study debunks some of the myths.

Comet ISON was discovered by Russian astronomers Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok in Sept. 2012. It bears the name of their night-sky survey program, the International Scientific Optical Network and NASA reckons it could be spectacularly visible in broad daylight this year.  On Nov. 28, 2013, this “dirty snowball” will fly through the sun’s atmosphere little more than a million km from the stellar surface and if it survives it could be a grand display.

Are Asians disadvantaged in US academia and industry? Lilian Gomory Wu and Wei Jing think so. The makings of some new urban myths lies in that those who multi-task are least capable of multi-tasking.

Engineering and Technology

Being blinded by the sun low in the sky is a pretty common hazard while driving here during winter in Scandinavia. But the development of Haptic steering wheels which vibrate could help solve this problem until cars are built that drive themselves (and they are closer than one might think).

French car manufacturer PSA Peugeot  Citroen believes it can put an air- powered vehicle on the road by 2016. The system works by using a normal internal combustion engine, special hydraulics and an adapted gearbox along with compressed air cylinders that store and release energy. This enables it to run on petrol or air, or a combination of the two.

A team of scientists from Scotland and the Czech Republic has created a “tractor” beam – a la Star Trek – which for the first time allows a beam of light to attract objects.

Materials science has always been in symbiosis with the other sciences at the transition from science to engineering and the discovery of metamaterials which can bend light, X-rays and radio waves promise a wide array of new applications in radio communications, security and automotive safety and now in imaging.

Bad Science

Paul Brookes was forced to take down his Science Fraud website last week after receiving legal threats (from some who later retracted – or had retracted – the papers that ScienceFraud exposed). Now he is marshalling support to open a new web-site to expose bad science.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is accused of bowing to political pressure in a study of bee decline which implicates some specific insecticides. The insecticide manufacturers are not amused.

A study on the impact of banning affirmative action (a pseudonym of course for discrimination) seems not only misguided but also one with a high level of confirmation bias. It looks like advocacy posing as science.

Geoffrey K. Pullum takes bad science backed up by bad journalism at the New Scientist and the Washington Post severely to task.

Noted in Passing 19th January 2013

January 19, 2013

A weekly post on things that were interesting or which I would have liked to have blogged about …….

Engineering and Technology

A work of genius: Harry Beck's map of 1933

A work of genius: Harry Beck’s map of 1933

The London Underground is 150 years old and the iconic London Underground Map is a work of some genius – by an electrical draughtsman Harry Beck – in focusing on connections and ignoring geography.

Boeing is facing a torrid time with the 787 Dreamliner and has stopped all further aircraft deliveries. This is going to hurt their cash flow even before all the claims from the airlines come in for the grounding of their aircraft.

The advent of hydraulic fracturing and the consequent availability of shale gas means that new lines are drawn on the energy map of the world and many of the oldest and most stable geopolitical truths will be turned on their heads.

If graphene turns out to be the wonder material that it promises to be then it is time to invest in graphite.

Science and Behaviour

The dangers with blindly assuming that correlations represent a causal relationship is well demonstrated by this study on milk, chocolate and Nobel prizes. Derby Proctor believes that chimpanzees have a sense of fairness but her “ultimatum game” experiments were not strictly ultimate games at all and are not convincing.  Altruism among chimpanzees is – if it exists at all – strictly limited and only after basic needs are satisfied and restricted to a very few.

Matt Ridley joins the list and also dumps on Mark Lynas and green orthodoxy

The curious case of Zuma’s deputies deals with the intricacies of politics in South Africa and in the ANC today. An interesting post on the French need to be relevant in the world and Hollande’s adventures in Africa.

How much of the chatter on Twitter or postings on Facebook are real communication and how much is noise? Nandana Sengupta looks at the pluses and the minuses of the explosion of opinions via social media in India.

Having spent a lifetime with contracts I have always taken “terms” of “terms and conditions” to signify “limits of time” but terms and conditions have now converged in usage to be almost identical in meaning.

On where Tolkien may have found the word “hobbit”.

For Wodehouse fans and for the first time since Ralph Richardson as Lord Emsworth in 1967, BBC are showing a  new TV series centred around Blandings Castle. The reviews were not very kind:

“The performances weren’t bad exactly, but there was an impression that the cast had raided the charity shop and were merely having a spiffing time in vintage clothing.”

Bad Science

Michael Marotta describes four books on bad science.

The British Met Office makes yet another misstep and demonstrates that massaging science to get a desired result makes for bad science.

Climate models are hardly worth the paper they are printed on and they don’t seem to have any idea of how to handle the effect of clouds. Models – which are pushing the alarmist cause – generally assume they have a positive feedback on global warming but in reality the feedback is negative.

Professor Debora Weber-Wulff reports on Multiple Retractions of Articles by Computer Science Professor

Noted in Passing 12th January 2013

January 12, 2013

My hope is to make “Noted in Passing” a regular, weekly post but I am not sure if I will have the discipline to maintain it. I shall try to confine myself to 3 topic areas: “Science and Behaviour”, “Engineering and Technology” and “Bad Science”. I’m trying to avoid politics as a topic in its own right but politics may well creep in under “Behaviour”.

Science and Behaviour

Polar bear numbers world-wide are up and here’s  a marvellous image of a polar bear in winter.

polar bear aurora_borealis_3-t2 free

Polar bear and the aurora borealis (from polar bear science)

Some people apparently believe that  too much genetic information could be a bad thing. Virginia Hughes disagrees strongly and I am inclined to agree with her. Genetic sequencing is here to stay and even if interpretation may lead to new challenges and new dilemmas, this genie cannot be stuffed back into the bottle.

Why did our fingers eveolve wrinkles? Was it perhaps to better be able to grip smooth objects?

John Hawks begins his descent through Darwin’s Descent of Man and has posted his “introduction” which is fascinating and – especially for a layman like me – eminently readable. “Experts” in my opinion are those who explain and not those who try to mystify (usually to inflate their own egos).

David McNeil believes that a gesture-speech unity lies at the origins of language but I am not convinced. When speech began – and that is a story in itself – gestures may well have added to man’s vocabulary but I am skeptical as to the role of gesture in the development of language and the grammar associated with language. But what seems obvious to me is that for the origins of speech as well as the origins of language we have to look to the increasing need for communication as the driving force.

In the meantime miR-941 is now being slated as a specific gene that contributed to how early humans developed tool use and language (in contrast to the FoxP2 gene which is thought to be a more general enabler). A study by psychologists claims that language learning begins before birth but I think they jump far too quickly from sound recognition to language learning and the study does not convince.

Recent excavations at an Australian site provides evidence of inhabitation ” certainly” at 41,230 years ago with the dating of charcoal found at the site. However the earliest inhabitation was much older since stone tools were found in deeper layers than the charcoal, but these have yet to be dated. This seems more consistent with the main human expansion Out of Africarabia first happening before Toba.

Even bloggers on the right are questioning the US love affair with semi-automatic weapons but I don’t expect any significant change to the gun laws in the US anytime soon.

Good grief! Greg Laden believes that summer in the Southern Hemisphere must be a sign of global warming. It’s -6°C outside my window right now and its been snowing in Jerusalem and the Lebanon, so I suppose the Northern Hemisphere must be entering a Little Ice Age.

The luminosity of our Sun varies just 0.1% over the course of its 11-year solar cycle. There is, however, a dawning realization among researchers that even these apparently tiny variations can have a significant effect on terrestrial climate. Tony Phillips from NASA comments on  “The Effects of Solar Variability on Earth’s Climate”  issued by the National Research Council.

Engineering and Technology

The technology for drones that today are used to kill could have more peaceful purposes. A Dronenet for a human free package delivery service  is attractive and does not sound so absurd.

Livefist reports that Airbus has beaten out the Russians to win the Indian Air Force’s new generation of  mid-refuelling tankers while Boeing is still going through teething troubles with the 787 Dreamliner.

The pressures on the supply of neodymium, dysprosium, and other rare-earth metals for the manufacture of strong magnets is leading to a surge in the use of nanotechnology to find alternatives.

Bad Science:

  1. Another idiot study about how our fists evolved in response to fighting!  An excellent takedown by  T. Ryan Gregory. “The most impressive thing about this study is that it managed to gain so much attention with so little substance”. 
  2. ChemBark has this update on serial data fabricator Bengu Sezen who has been hired by the Gebze Institute of Technology.
  3. Simon Kuper has some sympathy for Diederik Stapel who now finds himself in an unforgiving Dutch society. His take on the Stapel affaire is in the FT.
  4. The American Psychiatric Association would seem to be in thrall to the pharmaceutical industry as DSM -5 is adjusted to sell more drugs.
  5. John Hawks has a scathing post about Mark Lynas as “someone who had never read a scientific study on the subject, purporting to be an advocate in the popular press, and having his ignorant statements printed widely by multimillion-dollar media organizations” and the shoe fits whether Lynas is pontificating about GMO or global warming.
  6. Further retractions of social psychology papers: “Fraud committed by any social psychologist diminishes all social psychologists” and reinforces the view that social psychology is mainly for headlines and is still a long way from being a science.
  7. Most junior scientists accept academic theft by their advisors as a way of life and only a very few decide to make any noise about it.

3-D printing!! Cool

July 16, 2011

A 3-D printer.

Very cool!!

3D printing is a form of additive manufacturing technology where a three dimensional object is created by laying down successive layers of material. 3D printers are generally faster, more affordable and easier to use than other additive manufacturing technologies. 3D printers offer product developers the ability to print parts and assemblies made of several materials with different mechanical and physical properties in a single build process. Advanced 3D printing technologies yield models that can serve as product prototypes.

Airbus engineering to grow in India

October 3, 2010
Airbus A320 (9M-AFA) der Air Asia

Airbus A 320: Wikipedia

The Telegraph:

Airbus expects India to need around 1,000 new planes over the next 20 years, compared with 3,000 in China. Air traffic has expanded by 16pc in India this year.

Airbus, which has 68 per cent Indian market share, as measured by orders, believes it can build on its current success by selling more aircraft. The European plane maker is also building relationships on the ground. It has 25 partners in India, eight of them top-tier suppliers. Airbus is also leaning more and more on Indian engineers.

The company will decide this week whether to go ahead with its next development programme, a new engine for the single-aisle A320 plane that generates much of Airbus’s profit. “Airbus has never made a secret that our engineering resources are stretched thin,” Mr Enders said during a two-day visit to Airbus’s Indian operations in Bangalore last week. “We’re taking this decision very seriously because we cannot afford that other programmes, especially the 350, should suffer.”

At its base in Bangalore, Airbus has 160 engineers working on the A350 and A380 programmes in conjunction with staff in France, Germany and Britain. The company plans to have 200 staff at the engineering centre by the end of the year and 400 by 2013. India produces around 350,000 engineering graduates a year, about 25pc of which Airbus describes as “employable”. “I don’t think 400 is going to be the final number, there is a huge pool of talent we can tap into,” said Mr Enders. “In terms of the work we sub-contract, there’s a lot more to come.”

In the past, most of the work done for Airbus by external suppliers has been making parts of the airframe, and while some manufacturing work is now being done in India, it is the engineering and technology base that is more attractive, Mr Enders said. “IT, simulations, technical publication – all these are things which India is particularly good at,” he said.

It makes sense and is inevitable that more will shift to India and China – where the market is.

Human pylons across Iceland

September 1, 2010

Human Engineering !

From The Beautiful Brain

“Like the statues of Easter Island, it is envisioned that these one hundred and fifty foot tall, modern caryatids will take on a quiet authority, belonging to their landscape yet serving the people, silently transporting electricity across all terrain, day and night, sunshine or snow.”


An architecture and design firm called Choi+Shine has submitted a design for the Icelandic High-Voltage Electrical Pylon International Design Competitionwhich proposes giant human-shaped pylons carrying electricity cables across the country’s landscape.

The enormous figures would only require slight alterations to existing pylon designs, says the firm, which was awarded an honourable mention for its design by the competition’s judging board. It also won an award from the Boston Society of Architects Unbuilt Architecture competition.×281/o_r/pylons.png

Human pylons carry electricity across Iceland×425/o_r/pylons2.png


Despite the large number of possible forms, each pylon-figure is made from the same major assembled parts (torso, fore arm, upper leg, hand etc.) and uses a library of pre-assembled joints between these parts to create the pylon-figures’ appearance. This design allows for many variations in form and height while the pylon-figures’ cost is kept low through identical production, simple assembly and construction.

Applying Asimov’s Laws of Robotics

August 21, 2010

Isaac Asimov published his first short story about robotics in 1942 and his I Robot in 1950. The three laws of robotics he developed have now become the de facto basis for most science fiction dealing with robots and even in engineering:

First Law: A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm, unless this would violate a higher order law.
Second Law: A robot must obey orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with a higher order law.
Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with a higher order law.


Later as Asimov integrated his Robot series with his Foundation series he added a Zeroth Law:

Zeroth Law: A robot may not injure humanity, or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

A modern counterpart to Asimov’s fictional character is Eliza. Eliza was created in 1966 by Professor Joseph Weizenbaum of Massachusetts Institute of Technology who wrote Eliza — a computer program for the study of natural language communication between man and machine. She was initially programmed with 240 lines of code to simulate a psychotherapist by answering questions with questions.

Robotics and robot design has now advanced to the stage that engineers are now having to re-look at Asimov’s laws for practical implementation. David Woods, professor of integrated systems engineering at Ohio State University says “The philosophy has been, ‘sure, people make mistakes, but robots will be better — a perfect version of ourselves.’ We wanted to write three new laws to get people thinking about the human-robot relationship in more realistic, grounded ways.” He addresses the practical issues in his article: Beyond Asimov: The Three Laws of Responsible Robotics in IEEE Intelligent Systems by Robin Murphy , David D. Woods, July 2009, pp. 14-20. “Go back to the original context of the stories,” Woods says, referring to Asimov’s I Robot among others. “He’s using the three laws as a literary device. The plot is driven by the gaps in the laws — the situations in which the laws break down. For those laws to be meaningful, robots have to possess a degree of social intelligence and moral intelligence, and Asimov examines what would happen when that intelligence isn’t there.”

“His stories are so compelling because they focus on the gap between our aspirations about robots and our actual capabilities. And that’s the irony, isn’t it? When we envision our future with robots, we focus on our hopes and desires and aspirations about robots — not reality.”

In reality, engineers are still struggling to give robots basic vision and language skills. These efforts are hindered in part by our lack of understanding of how these skills are managed in the human brain. We are far from a time when humans can agree on a universal ethical or moral code and even further away from imbuing such a code into robots.

Woods and his coauthor, Robin Murphy of Texas A&M University, composed three laws that tries to put the responsibility back on humans.

The three new laws that Woods and Murphy propose are:

  • A human may not deploy a robot without the human-robot work system meeting the highest legal and professional standards of safety and ethics.
  • A robot must respond to humans as appropriate for their roles.
  • A robot must be endowed with sufficient situated autonomy to protect its own existence as long as such protection provides smooth transfer of control which does not conflict with the First and Second Laws.

Woods admits that one thing is missing from the new laws: the romance of Asimov’s fiction — the idea of a perfect, moral robot that sets engineers’ hearts fluttering.

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