Category Archives: Technology and Society

How Precise Are Clocks Getting?

This precise:

To tap the F1’s full accuracy, scientists have to know their precise relative position to the clock, and account for weather, altitude and other externalities. An optical cable that links the F1 to a lab at the University of Colorado, for example, can vary in length as much as 10 mm on a hot day — something that researchers need to continually track and take into account. At F1’s level of precision, even general relativity introduces problems; when technicians recently moved F1 from the third floor to the second, they had to re-tune the system to compensate for the 11-and-a-half foot drop in altitude.

In Defense Of Audiophilia

Fred Kaplan makes the case. I hadn’t been aware of how much the quality of the sound was degraded to compress it into an MP3. Of course, I’ve never gotten into the MP3 thing, other than to listen to interviews and the like on my Treo. When I want to listen to music, I still go with CDs and vinyl.

And I don’t think that Teachout is going to persuade very many people to give up their high-end equipment. One would think that he, of all people, would remember the old dictum that there’s no accounting for taste.

Some Advice On Home Theater Sound

From Amazon, who have been running a series.

The main reason I’m linking is to explain this, because it struck me that some might wonder why:

Unless you have a high-end receiver and speakers capable of generating a lot of bass, I recommend setting them to “small.” This will send their bass to your subwoofer.

Some might ask, “…but what about the stereo for the bass? I thought that stereo required separation. How can you get that if it’s all coming from a single speaker?”

Here’s the deal. The ability to discriminate the direction of sound is a function of its wavelength. The wavelength of notes in the bass frequency is substantially longer than the distance between your ears, so there’s no way for you to tell what direction the sound is coming from at those frequencies. Can you tell where thunder is from the sound? Yes, you can tell how far away it is, if you see the lightning and count the time until you hear it (about five seconds per mile), but absent visual clues, there’s no way to tell the direction purely from the sound.

That’s why you can not only get away with sending all bass to the subwoofer, but it doesn’t even matter where the subwoofer is. So you can place it where it’s convenient, or aesthetic (as long as it’s at least in the same room). It’s the high frequencies where speaker placement matters.

Smart Cars

John Tierney has an interesting piece on the current state of the art.

I don’t really look forward to this particular future–I like driving (though I have to confess that having a computer replace most of the other lousy drivers out there appeals to me greatly).

But my biggest concern, that I never see addressed, is reliability. Not just of the smarts in the car, but in the car itself. What happens if cars are barreling along at ninety miles an hour ten feet apart, and a tire blows? Or the brakes fail? Or the engine dies?

There simply won’t be the margin to avoid a collision, as we (generally, but not always) have at current spacing. You can make the cars as smart as you want, but physics will remain physics.

Anti-Anti-Aging

A long but very worthwhile essay by Aubrey De Grey on the societal resistance to ending aging–“old people are people, too“:

Geronto-apologists simultaneously hold, and alternately express, the following two positions:

* They refuse to consider seriously whether defeating aging is feasible, because they are sure it would not be desirable;
* They refuse to consider seriously whether defeating aging is desirable, because they are sure it is not feasible.

Like a child hiding in a double-doored wardrobe, they cower behind one door when the other is opened, then dash to the other when it is closed and before the first is opened. Only when both doors are flung open in unison is their hiding-place revealed. They are both well and truly open now, and the time when this sleight of hand was effective has passed.

There is no question that indefinite lifespan will cause a host of new problems to be solved. But that doesn’t mean that they’re insoluble, or that they’d be so bad as to want to continue the current holocaust that has been going on since the dawn of humanity, in which everyone is sentenced to death after only a century or so. In any event, it’s probably inevitable, barring some societal catastrophe in the next few decades, so we’d better start thinking about how to solve them.

[Update a few minutes later]

A comment I just made in the comments section made me think about this flawed argument that De Grey pointed out:

The litany of obfuscation begins by exploiting the terminological ambiguity of the word

Hybrid Computers

The distinction between hardware and wetware is going to really start to blur in the coming years:

Charles Higgins, an associate professor at the University of Arizona, has built a robot that is guided by the brain and eyes of a moth. Higgins told Computerworld that he basically straps a hawk moth to the robot and then puts electrodes in neurons that deal with sight in the moth’s brain. Then the robot responds to what the moth is seeing — when something approaches the moth, the robot moves out of the way.

Higgins explained that he had been trying to build a computer chip that would do what brains do when processing visual images. He found that a chip that can function nearly like the human brain would cost about $60,000.

“At that price, I thought I was getting lower quality than if I was just accessing the brain of an insect which costs, well, considerably less,” he said. “If you have a living system, it has sensory systems that are far beyond what we can build. It’s doable, but we’re having to push the limits of current technology to do it.”

There are going to be some humdinger ethics issues to deal with along this road.

Bring It On

Early detection of cancer and Alzheimers with blood tests:

The company is also validating protein-based tests for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, the latter an affliction for which the only conclusive test is currently an autopsy. Among the possible benefits of a proteomic Alzheimer’s test, due out late next year, would be the ability to definitively separate sufferers from those with other neurodegenerative problems, now a major obstacle to running effective clinical trials of drugs for Alzheimer’s.

“Power3 won’t do it all,” says Essam Sheta, the company’s director of biochemistry. “But my expectation is that in the next five years, we as a scientific community will be able to develop diagnostic tests for many, many types of diseases.”

Let’s hope so.