Monday, May 20, 2013

What If...We Never Run Out of Oil?

Ocean-bottom methane hydrates offer that possibility.  Researchers are working hard on practical ways to “mine” the stuff.

So think about it.  What would change if we knew that we had an essentially infinite supply of naturally renewed hydrocarbon fuel?
  • Environmentalists who are convinced that carbon dioxide is causing global warming will be horrified.
  • The economic incentives for switching away from hydrocarbon fuels (still by far the most efficient way, by volume or by weight, that we know how to store energy) will be greatly reduced.  Unless, that is, government decides to distort the market with “carbon taxes” or some such thing.
  • The oil-supported country economies (Saudi Arabia, Russia, Venezuela, Nigeria, etc.) will be sorely tested.
  • Prices for most goods and many services (especially transportation) will fall.
Most of that sounds pretty good to me!

Update and bump: reader and friend Doug W. points out this marvelous quote from the above-linked article:
To ask utilities to take in large amounts of solar power—electricity generated by hundreds or thousands of small installations, many on neighborhood roofs and lawns, whose output is affected by clouds—is like asking a shipping firm to replace its huge, professionally staffed container ships with squadrons of canoes paddled by random adolescents.
Hah! Squadrons of canoes paddled by random adolescents :)

Sounds pretty good compared with the Obama administration and Congress, though, doesn't it? 

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks...

Executive summary: excellent book; read it.

Henrietta Lacks was a black woman who died in 1951 – far too young, of cancer.  Her cells were sampled (without her knowledge or informed permission) and turned out to be immortal.  Such cells are incredibly useful for many different kinds of investigations and tests.  Researchers figured out how to grow her cells (dubbed “HeLa” cells) and soon they spread throughout the world of medical research.

That's an interesting bit of science history, and I can easily imagine someone writing a book about that.  That's not what Rebecca Skloot (the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) did.  In fact, science's use of HeLa cells isn't really detailed much at all in her book.  Instead, her book is mainly about the impact of HeLa cells on Henrietta Lacks' family – and Rebecca Skloot becomes a part of that story herself as she researches her book. 

I picked up this book thinking that it was going to be a sort of standard history of science book; a genre that I particularly like.  But instead it was something else altogether, something unlike any other book I've ever read.  Part science history, part human interest, part philosophy, and in places it reads like a novel.  I couldn't put the book down, and found much in it that provoked thought about the conflicts between medical research and human rights.  Some of these conflicts are avoidable, but others are, I suspect, intrinsic to the field. 

One helluva read, and I highly recommend it – despite the New York Times also recommending it :)

Understand How It Works...

Martin Rue writes about this simple piece of advice he got from his grandfather: “Understand how it works.”  Instead of just understanding what something does, understand how it does it.

This resonates strongly with me.  I've written before about my surprise that many programmers working today really have no idea at all how a computer actually works, and yet they can still write good software.  Lots of people know how to drive a car, but they haven't a clue what actually happens when they press on the gas pedal, or the brake, or turn the steering wheel.

I've noted that it is quite powerful, sometimes, to actually understand how something works.  Martin makes this point better than I have:
If you simply remember how to do something, then all you can do is use it the same way over and over, but if you understand how it works, you can reason about it. Once you can reason about something in your mind you can contemplate why it is the way it is, you can apply your entire creative mind to making the most of it, and you can implement and question improvement – you own it intellectually.
What he said.

Good or Evil?

Here's a very compact collection of statistical formulae, nicely organized and with almost no explanation.  I can't decide whether this is a great thing (a sort of “cheat sheet” for statistics) or if it's an evil thing (encouraging programmers to misuse tools they don't understand)...

Dolphins Find Antique Torpedo Off San Diego's Coast...

Dolphins trained by the U.S. Navy to locate sea mines (at the Pt. Loma facility) have located a Howell torpedo from the late 1800s (the only other known example is at right).