Saturday, April 25, 2009

Do Bankrupt Companies Dream of Electric Cars?

The future of cars comes into electrifying focus, courtesy of Israel.

A recent NYTimes article outlined a way to make electric cars practical even at modest battery capacity- by replacing the battery as needed on the fly, rather than waiting around to recharge. I found it a very persuasive idea, clarifying the future of the automobile.

There have been several schemes floating around for this future:
  • Renunciation- cars are bad and we should do without them, building transit for short and long distances that is more efficient than single cars.
  • Virtual reality- we eventually plug into a Matrix-like virtual reality where it would make no difference where we are. Telecommuting is only the beginning!
  • Hydrogen- a clean, light-weight fuel to replace gasoline, producing no CO2.
  • Biofuels- gasoline made from recently deceased plants rather than long-deceased plants stored courtesy of earth's geology.
  • Electric vehicles- Electricity is easy to use, and clean, like hydrogen. Whatever the fuel source, all cars are becoming electric cars for efficiency and usability reasons, as shown by today's hybrids, so there is an inherent advantage to also using electricity as the fueling medium.
I think that hydrogen is the most significant loser here, demanding a huge new infrastructure with few significant advantages over the other options. Hydrogen doesn't grow on trees- it has to be made from some other energy source. And on top of that, hydrogen is absurdly difficult to handle and transport safely and cheaply. Indeed, one suspects that hydrogen has been some kind of enormous car industry head-fake plus government boondoggle, based on a prejudice for liquid or quasi-liquid fuels.

Biofuels are impossible as far as large scale use goes, though they will be an important source of specialty chemicals and feedstocks. It is not clear that there are enough recently deceased plants to go around. Making fuel from corn that takes more petroleum to grow than it yields ... that has turned out to be a very bad idea. Shortages of arable land and water are bad enough for growing food- growing fuel is simply not possible or desirable on very large scales.

Renunciation is not going to happen if there is any technological means around it, with the developing world becomming as car-mad as the US (and rightly so, if not for the environmental costs). Virtual reality is sure to be a long-term winner, especially for long-range travel, but bodily travel will still be required for some decades at least. One problem to keep in mind, however, is that making cars themselves is energy and resource-intensive, so some amount of moderation in usage can not but be a good thing, from an environmental perspective.

Electricity, like hydrogen, has to be made somewhere else, and battery storage is not yet at the density of gasoline, making trip range small in current electric cars. It is amazing, really, how slow and painful progress has been in this field, similar to the difficulties in storing large amounts of hydrogen in adsorbed form, or making solar electric panels a few percent more efficient. Electricity storage seems likely to make significantly more progress once market incentives rise, but so far, batteries are not quite ready to substitute for gas tanks, as shown by the price of a truly practical vehicle based on the most advanced technology- the $100,000 Tesla.

The article cited above described an innovative way to deal with the problem of low battery storage capacity, which is to swap out batteries as needed, virtually on the go. A car could make a one-minute pit stop after going 50 miles, get a new battery, and be off in a jiffy with a full charge. While normal use would involve recharging one's own battery after a daily commute, the prospect of being able to swap out batteries on the fly during a long trip is enormously freeing, completing the set of basic conditions needed for an electric car future, even assuming no advances in battery performance at all. Then as battery technology slowly improves, swapping would become less frequent, batteries would weigh less, and the whole system would get increasingly efficient and convenient.

The article profiled the entrepreneur who has started operations in Israel, benefiting from key political support and a dense, small market that would benefit greatly by kicking its oil habit. They are partnering with Renault, which (alone among car companies) has promised to produce an electric vehicle with swap-able batteries. The Israeli company then would set up service stations with stocks of batteries, charging customers at profitable rates over very low cost of the electricity needed.

With peak oil, Middle East entanglement, and Climate change all looming to crisis proportions, transcending fossil fuels can not happen soon enough, and having a clear, practical path to the future of cars should have a galvanizing effect. All that is needed is one simple policy change: charge more money for fossil fuels, in accordance with their true holistic costs. But shamefully, Congress is eviscerating Obama's cap-and-trade program into a giveaway to big polluters.

This is the time to act. As the auto industry resets, we have a golden opportunity to reorient to the future, not with government regulation and meddling, but with simple, economy-wide incentives that will get us past these dirty, indeed lethal, fuels. If American car companies do not fall over each other setting up partnerships and standards to allow battery swapping in their future electric vehicles, the domestic car industry may never recover from its current insolvency, ever.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

It's all about power

Sharia, Pakistan, and what it says about theology

One of the oddest experiences in a culture war debate is when the theist says that, in the absence of his own moral code ruling the world, all that would be left would be "power". Apparently his lack of power means that power in the hands of others would be bad, reverting to a power-mad mad-max world of dog-eat-dog Darwinism. As power-grabbing gambits go, it is one of the more audacious and obvious, but the propaganda certainly gets some traction.

The rationalist reels back and wonders ... "where on earth did that come from?" Of course it did not come from earth at all, but from the imagination of the theist, by way of that most common psychological phenomenon, projection.

Power is an ever-present dynamic in human affairs, and enlightened systems have progressively found ways to limit and legitimate power on relatively sensible and equitable foundations- on the commonalities of the human condition, on the consent of the governed, on reasoned debate, and on realistic analysis of conditions. Historical examples abound of startling descents into Machiavellianism prompted ironically by unrealistic/idealistic ideologies of many kinds, including Communism, Fascism, Islamism, and the Protestant-Catholic conflict.

The example of modern Europe shows that profound secularism is compatible with, and indeed leads to, progressive and peaceable government. So what is going on in the theist argument? Assuming that the argument is not just pure tribal narcissism, (we are good, you are bad, especially when you threaten our core ideology), or a misreading of history, (Bolsheviks were atheist, therefore all atheists are Bolshevik), one is left with the proposition that this argument is about the same thing the culture war in general is about- influence, especially over the next generation. About power.

Power is the ability to have other people do what you want rather than what they want. They can be coerced or pursuaded, cowed or propagandized, but the aim is the same. We all want the world to be as we wish it, so we all want power over others to make it so. Being in charge of morals is one traditional path to such power, cooking up theological directives behind a curtain of god-talk. Maturity is in large part the realization that this aim is not only impossible, but undesirable, given our individual limitations and variation. A better way is to support a system where as many people can follow as many of their own inclinations as possible, and what rules do need to be made are made with maximal consciousness, consultation, and consensus among a people with cultivated minds and public spirit (if I can be somewhat idealistic!). The current gay marriage movement is an outstanding example of this process.

But the wish never goes away, and the negotiation of morals is perpetually vexing. The invention of gods has many more sources in our cognitive apparatus and neuroses than a communal need for morals, but it certainly is a cherry on top to have one's favorite diety tell everyone else what to do. Now the administration of power comes into the hands of shamans, priests, and so forth, who are (ideally) intuitive and humanistic geniuses providing a brake on the raw (less cloaked in spirituality) power-drive of other members of the society, providing the much-needed check to militarism and regular politics. This was the conception of most ancient societies, such as Rome. Yet who signs up to be a priest or Imam? And who vets them, and what institution restrains them? That is the practical question of the quality of spiritual leadership where virtually all institutions, notably the Catholic church and the amorphous world of Islam, leave a great deal to be desired.

The clever part of this scheme is the false humility involved. Theists humbly "serve" their deity, praise its power and wallow in their own worm-like (or sheep-like) insignificance. They may be "fallen", worthless "sinners". God may be "incomprehensible", all-powerful, and all-good. Yet when all is said and done, it is the priests who tell others what to do, not the other way around. A new social hierarchy is established, with priests in the middle and all other humans below them, with god, conveniently invisible, inscrutible and only professionally detectable/interpretable, above all.

Isn't that what is going on in Pakistan right now? Those who watch religious currents could see this battle for power brewing for years, indeed ever since the internally conflicted "islamic republic" was conjured by M. A. Jinnah. There may be practical arguments for Sharia over the existing legal system of Pakistan. But that is not why militants have forced the government install Sharia law in the Swat valley. That is not why they kill their fellow citizens in a growing war on the civil society of Pakistan. It is part of a culture war, with Islamists pursuing power over their fellows via the most base means of terrorism and intimidation while cloaking themselves in religion, of which they are apparently outstanding exemplars, being more deeply, extremely, "objectively", inhumanely, and exhibitionistically devoted than all others. Thus they want and deserve power to tell others what to do. Sickening, isn't it? Our own theists are usually prevented by relatively recent tradition from taking up arms, but are their justifications any better?
  • NYT magazine review of conditions in Pakistan.
  • Pakistani Taliban have larger goals.
  • Excellent discussion of religion ascendent.
  • To see the quality of theist morality and Orwellian "love", just take a look at their "Storm" advertisement against gay marriage.
  • Quiverfull and theological Darwinism.
  • Pakistan and regression on polio.
  • Another dire analysis of Pakistan, in the Nation.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Mimus polyglottus

Spring means birds singing. But at 2 AM?

We've been serenaded by a mockingbird for the last week, at all hours, at top volume, mixing samples collected from all over the western hemisphere to create a crazy-wild DJ scene on the premises. The bird is awe-inspiring to say the least, giving pitch-perfect renditions of titmice, crows, blue jays, and frogs, as well as a few call-and-response numbers, among many other turntable classics.

Why? What is the origin of this bird and its behaviors? A recent article in science laid out the DNA-based phylogeny of birds, of which there are over 10,000 species. It upset quite a few previous classifications, and definitively, since sequence-based phylogenies have greater resolution than character-based ones. Mockingbirds reside in the largest group, the passeriformes, along with other songbirds. I had assumed, from its shape, size, flight style, wing bars, and aggressive behavior that they are closely related to jays, which are related to corvids/crows. But not true! Mockingbirds are cousins of starlings, showing that vocal facility, which starlings share in spades, is also a crucial diagnostic trait. Indeed, an incredibly charming book, now out of print, relates how one starling was taught to speak (and sing) passable English.

The study of birds continues to fascinate the evolutionary community, with new specimens of Archaeopteryx being lovingly studied as it becomes common knowledge that birds are our only living connection to the dinosaur lineage. The fossil record in this case, as is true for whales and other organisms, is filling out to give us an ever-fuller account of complexity and gradualism in the history of life. Additionally, studies of bird memory were the first to demonstrate the birth of new neurons in adult brains, concomitant with the memorization of new songs. Subsequent work found the same phenomenon in humans- an important focus of contemporary neurobiology and even stem cell-associated hopes.

Archaeopteryx from the Jurassic (~150 to 200 million years ago).
Note the claws at the end of the wing/fingers.

Mockingbirds have upwards of 150 song samples at their command, and change their repertoires between spring and fall. The function of their singing, other than attracting mates, is not clear. But one could speculate that the high volume and enormous fund of mimicked songs functions to keep other species at bay, creating better-quality territories for the omnivorous mockingbird. The utility of this trait would in turn create a sexual selection rationale for females (who also sing, just not a 2 AM) to select mates with larger repertoires, more accurate reproduction, and higher volume.

As our culture gradually transitions away from the Christian fetishes of false hope, blood, and death at this time of year to the much more ancient themes of life, fertility, and birth, it is wonderous to participate (if unwillingly!) in the rituals of birds who are so diligently and flamboyantly engaged in the tasks of life.

  • Subscription site at Cornell is the leading resource for general bird knowledge.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Head eraser

Scientists selectively erase memories from mice.

Memory is who we are, the essence of being human, the thread of individuality. Losing memory means losing the narrative of self, as happens in Alzheimer's. Memories can be evoked by associations of all kinds, especially by physical cues such as the famous madeleine. Where are memories stored? How are they stored? Are they material? Theists would refer to a "soul", and leave it at that, but scientists have pushed a bit further.

The going scientific model of memory is that it is a pattern of neural activity stored by enhancing the connections (synapses) between the most active neurons so that future nearby activations trigger re-activation of the same pattern. In other words, memories are stored in a distributed way in the mass of the brain, like holograms, and are reactivated when some approximation of the original activity takes place, such as when tasting a long-forgotten delicacy. Anatomically, there is also a complex short-term/long-term issue, where recent memories are stored in the hippocampus, before being transferred to the neocortex for long-term storage. Another system in the amygdala is both short- and long-term, rapidly storing emotionally laden memories such as fear responses, which are then virtually impossible to erase.

In molecular terms, memory storage involves strengthening the synapses between more-active neurons, essentially encoding past activity patterns by strengthening them and making them easier to activate. The best-known gene involved in this process encodes a transcription activator called CREB, for cyclic AMP response element binding protein. CREB binds to DNA and activates a variety of genes in response to the messenger molecule cAMP, which is generated inside activated neurons (in response to dopamine or serotonin stimulation, for instance), though it is used for many other signals in other cells. CREB appears to activate a bunch of genes that build up synapses near the sites of activation, making permanent what is marked temporarily by other activity-dependent molecules.

The current report in Science shows that if those few cells showing activated CREB during a training event are killed, then the memory is lost forever. The first trick is to use mice that are programmed with a diphtheria toxin receptor gene in a re-arrangable cassette. This cassette can be turned on by a DNA recombinase which is in turn activated by a CREB-inducible promoter sequence. Now they have mice whose memory/CREB-activated neurons specifically express a receptor for diphtheria and can be killed by applying diphtheria toxin, which the researchers do by injecting it directly into their amygdalas (which does not sound so easy, incidentally).

One control for the experiment is to treat other mice with another promoter-DNA recombinase setup not involving the CREB activator which in the end kills approximately the same number of cells in the amygdala (presumably randomly) after injection of diphtheria toxin. The experimenters then trained the mice to fear a sound, tested them for having learned it, (at which point select memory-involved cells in their brains would be expressing both CREB and the experimental diphtheria receptor), then injected the toxin, and assayed for both how many cells were killed, and how the mice now responded.

Where 50% of the mice had learned the response to start with, after the injection only 20% continued to respond- a significant erasure of memory. No difference was seen in the control mice with other neurons killed, or those not treated with toxin at all. The erasure persisted for 15 days, thus appearing to be permanent. The mice could also go on to learn and remember from later training experiences, showing that their memory systems were generally intact and relatively few cells had been deleted. Likewise, the experience did not erase earlier memories formed before the treatment with the CREB-DNA recombinase system that allowed actively learning cells to be deleted.

Fig 3. Bottom- Schematic of amygdala neurons after diphtheria toxin (DT) or saline (PBS). Blue, DNA-labeled neuronal nuclei; pink, neurons activated by memory; and white, ablated neurons. CREB-cre stands for CREB-activated DNA recombinase cre (introduced by vector injection), which recombines and activates the DT receptor gene.

What is the bottom line? That our memories (and thus conscious person-hood) are physically encoded in our brains. Hopefully this is another reason to take better care of them. It may be possible eventually to treat trauma victims in ways that impair their memories, or otherwise use this information in a beneficial way. I could certainly use better memory, or the ability to forget some things, like a certain film!

Notes on animal cruelty.. This type of research can be quite cruel to animals, and just because mice are small does not mean that they do not feel pain much as we do. Indeed we would not use them as models for this type of work if they didn't. So I'll note my hopes that the experimenters used anaesthesia properly at all stages of intervention (as claimed), minimized the aversive stimulus program, and euthanized humanely. In my experience in the lab, euthanization protocols leave a great deal to be desired. And would it be so difficult to train mice on a positive stimulus rather than always relying on the amygdala-fear system? Let's have a little compassion!

  • Incidental link- Calvin does capitalism.
  • Greenwald cries corruption at treasury and the white house.
  • Moyers' stunning show on finance fraud with William Black.