Blood sugar tech’s magic

Paul Raven @ 20-07-2011

Medical implants – think pacemakers and the like – are getting more commonplace, and that trend is likely to continue. But as any gadget-hound will know, tech needs juice to keep running… and you don’t really want to have to keep digging out a device from inside your body so you can swap out the batteries, do you? Of course you don’t… which is why the University of Frieburg’s research into biological fuel cells powered by the host’s blood sugar is a promising development.

They are looking into the use noble metal catalysts, such as platinum, to trigger a continuous electrochemical reaction between glucose in the blood and oxygen from the surrounding tissue fluid. The use of platinum (or a similar metal) would be ideal, as the material exhibits long-term stability, it can be sterilized, and electrodes made from it wouldn’t be sensitive to unwanted chemical reactions, including hydrolysis and oxidation.

The Freiburg scientists are ultimately hoping that the surfaces of implants could be covered with a thin coating of the fuel cells, which would then power the devices indefinitely.

Medical uses are all well and good, of course, but there’s a whole bunch of other cyborg gubbins that could use the same power-source. Book your combat hardening and sousveillance countermeasure systems implant appointments today!

[ Yeah, yeah, I know. Puns don’t kill people; people kill people. ]


Fukushima: eating my words

Paul Raven @ 13-05-2011

OK, score one for the pessimist realists among you; looks like Fukushima was a lot messier than we were told, which makes me look a bit of a fool for claiming otherwise. Mea culpa.

That said, I think my overall point still stands: the circumstances of said accident were exceptional, and the course of wisdom would surely be to view it as a cautionary lesson rather than an excuse to completely write off a technology that could be of great use in the medium-term. Yes, it’s a mess that’ll take a long time to clean up… but nuclear has still killed or injured far less people per teraWatt-hour than coal.


Thorium: the new nuclear?

Paul Raven @ 31-08-2010

Via NextBigFuture, the UK’s foremost conservative middle-class broadsheet hopes President Obama can leapfrog red tape and stop the momentum of the fossil fuel industry dead in its tracks (without any explosive dissipation of said momentum, one assumes) by rushing through research on thorium-based nuclear reactors:

There is no certain bet in nuclear physics but work by Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) on the use of thorium as a cheap, clean and safe alternative to uranium in reactors may be the magic bullet we have all been hoping for, though we have barely begun to crack the potential of solar power.

Dr Rubbia says a tonne of the silvery metal – named after the Norse god of thunder, who also gave us Thor’s day or Thursday – produces as much energy as 200 tonnes of uranium, or 3,500,000 tonnes of coal. A mere fistful would light London for a week.

“There are (obviously!) no magic bullets, but this might just be a magic bullet.” Riiiight. Nonetheless, onwards:

Thorium eats its own hazardous waste. It can even scavenge the plutonium left by uranium reactors, acting as an eco-cleaner. “It’s the Big One,” said Kirk Sorensen, a former NASA rocket engineer and now chief nuclear technologist at Teledyne Brown Engineering.

“Once you start looking more closely, it blows your mind away. You can run civilisation on thorium for hundreds of thousands of years, and it’s essentially free. You don’t have to deal with uranium cartels,” he said.

Thorium is so common that miners treat it as a nuisance, a radioactive by-product if they try to dig up rare earth metals. The US and Australia are full of the stuff. So are the granite rocks of Cornwall. You do not need much: all is potentially usable as fuel, compared to just 0.7pc for uranium.

OK, sounding reassuring so far. So why haven’t we been doing anything with this before?

You might have thought that thorium reactors were the answer to every dream but when CERN went to the European Commission for development funds in 1999-2000, they were rebuffed.

Brussels turned to its technical experts, who happened to be French because the French dominate the EU’s nuclear industry. “They didn’t want competition because they had made a huge investment in the old technology,” he said.

Those dastardly French! I might have known! Where’s Churchill now we need him most blahblahblahlingeringcryptoracismandEuropanic

And now, having revved up the patriotic emotions and ecological consumer-guilt of the reader, here’s the venture capital pitch:

The Norwegian group Aker Solutions has bought Dr Rubbia’s patent for the thorium fuel-cycle, and is working on his design for a proton accelerator at its UK operation.

Victoria Ashley, the project manager, said it could lead to a network of pint-sized 600MW reactors that are lodged underground, can supply small grids, and do not require a safety citadel. It will take £2bn to build the first one, and Aker needs £100mn for the next test phase.

Yeah, I know, I’m being snarky… reading The Telegraph just has that effect on me, I’m afraid. But beneath the coded writing is a story we’ve covered before: thorium really is (at least in theory) cheaper and safer than all the other nuclear fission options, and much less sci-fi-pie-sky than fusion. But as pointed out above, someone needs to invest big money (and/or big political backing) to get it working and viable.

So, The Telegraph gamely suggests Mr Obama kick-start a modern-day Manhattan Project to that end… forgetting, perhaps, that the impetus for the Manhattan Project was somewhat more pressing and politically expedient than the abstract and contentious doom du jour of Peak Hydrocarbon, that there weren’t massive entrenched business interests lobbying and obfuscating against it, and that America as a nation actually had a few cents to rub together at the time.

Though, to their credit, they do invite the US to team up with China to get the job done. The Telegraph staff and readership will doubtless cheer on from the sidelines; if that’s not enough to get things moving, well, I don’t know what is.


Are great powers the product of tough neighbourhoods?

Paul Raven @ 25-08-2010

Richard Gowan of Global Dashboard points us to the blog of one Dhruva Jaishankar, who’s wondering whether the ability for states to project power is a function of the stability of their political surroundings. Turns out there are historical examples to the contrary: Europe, Japan and China, for instance.

Exhibit C. China. The growth of China is a remarkable story, but once again it has come despite—not because of—its political relationships with its neighbours. Certainly, China has not had a significant conflict since 1979 and it has settled many of its land boundary disputes. However, it continues to have uneasy relations with almost all its neighbours, including a sizeable dispute with its largest regional competitor, India. It also has one of the most unstable states in the world—North Korea—immediately bordering it. And the military presence of the world’s preeminent power in its region severely limits its actions. None of this, however, has stopped China’s rapid rise.

If you’re thinking “yeah, so what?”, then consider the fairly universal expectation that there’s more political and economic disorder coming down the pipeline, thanks to things like climate change, resource shortages and disruptive technologies. As such, predicting the next generation of global players is not a clear-cut game; nation-states we currently overlook for an assortment of reasons may jockey to the fore, while the pre-race favourites fall at early fences.

For example, what happens if a nation-state strengthens itself economically and politically by taking on all the jobs that the citizens of more fortunate states object to? Call it YIMBYism [via BoingBoing]: let the big boys outsource their problem jobs to you, and alongside the money you get political leverage (and a whole raft of vested interests in maintaining and/or manipulating the status quo to boot).

This works for corporations, too; think of all the mercenary outfits like Blackwater who’ve been taking on the dirty work in democracy- and stability-exporting (ho-ho-ho) conflicts around the world. Comparatively small change for a big nation’s military budget, but big money for a small post-national organisation, who – as a bonus, or perhaps as they intended all along, depending on the ambition and longsightedness of their founders – also get access to the broken and corrupt power systems in the areas where they’re employed.

I think it’d be interesting to look at this on a more local scale as well – zooming in to the level of states and counties, say, or even further in to urban neighbourhoods. How does power and advantage shift in a city like Sao Paolo, for instance, with its rapidly shifting map of interstitial favelas?

Yet another subject to add to the list of “stuff I’d love a small research grant to cover”…


Nice people acquire power and are then corrupted by it

Paul Raven @ 16-08-2010

Once again, research results seem to reinforce the oldest aphorisms in the book… which would be more gratifying, perhaps, if they weren’t the aphorisms we tell to commiserate over the fundamental brokenness of the social and political systems we inhabit. It turns out that nice people are far more likely than nasties to ascend to a position of power and authority… but once they get there, that power corrupts them, and they become reckless, selfish and unpleasant [via BigThink]. Who knew?

“It’s an incredibly consistent effect,” Mr. Keltner says. “When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools. They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive.” Mr. Keltner compares the feeling of power to brain damage, noting that people with lots of authority tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe, a brain area that’s crucial for empathy and decision-making. Even the most virtuous people can be undone by the corner office.

Why does power lead people to flirt with interns and solicit bribes and fudge financial documents? According to psychologists, one of the main problems with authority is that it makes us less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. For instance, several studies have found that people in positions of authority are more likely to rely on stereotypes and generalizations when judging other people. They also spend much less time making eye contact, at least when a person without power is talking.

Turns out it’s all about self-justification:

In a recent study led by Richard Petty, a psychologist at Ohio State, undergraduates role-played a scenario between a boss and an underling. Then the students were exposed to a fake advertisement for a mobile phone. Some of the ads featured strong arguments for buying the phone, such as its long-lasting battery, while other ads featured weak or nonsensical arguments. Interestingly, students that pretended to be the boss were far less sensitive to the quality of the argument. It’s as if it didn’t even matter what the ad said—their minds had already been made up.

This suggests that even fleeting feelings of power can dramatically change the way people respond to information. Instead of analyzing the strength of the argument, those with authority focus on whether or not the argument confirms what they already believe. If it doesn’t, then the facts are conveniently ignored.

Sound familiar? As in, remind you of pretty much every director or upper-echelon manager you’ve ever worked for, anywhere? Yeah, me too.

Now, how much of that is due to a Stanford Prison Experiment type of situation, i.e. people playing up to an arbitrary role as it is defined in the collective subconscious (we know bosses act like ass-hats, so when we’re told to play the boss, we act like an ass-hat), and how much of it is due to some genuine qualitative difference in perception that comes from being elevated into a more exclusive and powerful cadre or subsection of a social group?

[ The irony of this article appearing in the Wall Street Journal is almost palpable. I can just imagine loads of investment bankers reading it, tutting quietly and shaking their heads, doubtless reminded of someone that little higher up on the pyramid than themselves. Oh, how the mighty have fallen, hmm? ]


Next Page »