All posts by Edward Willett

I'm a freelance writer in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. I've written more than 30 books (I've lost count) on a variety of topics. My nonfiction titles include books on computers, diseases, genetics, and the Iran-Iraq War, some for children and some for adults. I've also written several biographies for children, on individuals as diverse as J.R.R. Tolkien, Orson Scott Card, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and the Ayatollah Khomeini. I've loved science fiction and fantasy since I was a kid (thanks, Andre Norton, Madeleine L'Engle and Robert A. Heinlein!) and have also written young adult fantasy and science fiction. More recently I've turned to adult science fiction. My first adult SF novel, Lost in Translation, was published by Five Star in hardcover in 2005 and reprinted in paperback by DAW Books in 2006. My new SF novel for DAW, Marseguro, will be out in February, 2008. I write a weekly newspaper science column, I love good wine and good food, I'm married and have a daughter, and I'm a professional actor and singer when the opportunity presents itself, and act and sing just for fun when I can't find anyone to pay me for it. My website is at, and my blog is at edwardwillett.blogspot. com. And that is probably more about me than anyone could possibly want to know...

Internet to be an "unreliable toy" by 2012?

800px-Network_switches That’s the prediction of Nemertes Research, which will be publishing a report later this year warning that the Web has reached a critical point that could lead first to computers being disrupted and going offline for several minutes in a time, and eventually regular brownouts that will slow and even freeze their computers. (Times Online via

The primary culprit is burgeoning demand for high-bandwidth video: the report notes that the amount of traffic generated each month by YouTube is now equivalent to the amount of traffic generated across the entire Internet in all of 2000, and new video applications such as BBC iPlayer, which allows viewers to watch high-def TV on their computers. (And I guess by providing links to those sites I’m contributing to the problem!)

Monthly traffic across the Internet is currently running at about eight exabytes (an exabyte is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes), and a recent study at the University of Minnesota estimates its growing by at least 60 percent a year–and that study didn’t take into account growing demand in China and India.

Engineers are struggling to stay ahead of demand, and find other ways to deal with impending deadlock (such as the LHC Computing Grid, a parallel network designed to handle the massive amounts of data the Large Hadron Collider will produce), but it may be impossible.

In other words, we may be living in the Golden Age of the Internet. But if it all crumbles around us, at least we’ll have something to tell the grandchildren.

(Image: Wikimedia Commons.)


Best way to clean up the environment? Make everyone richer.


John Tierney at the New York Times has a couple of predictions for Earth Day:

1. There will be no green revolution in energy or anything else. No leader or law or treaty will radically change the energy sources for people and industries in the United States or other countries. No recession or depression will make a lasting change in consumers’ passions to use energy, make money and buy new technology — and that, believe it or not, is good news, because…

2. The richer everyone gets, the greener the planet will be in the long run.

Tierney acknowledges that that second prediction may be hard to believe with concerns about U.S. carbon emissions and increasing emissions from India and China as they get richer, but he backs it up with data:

By the 1990s, researchers realized that graphs of environmental impact didn’t produce a simple upward-sloping line as countries got richer. The line more often rose, flattened out and then reversed so that it sloped downward, forming the shape of a dome or an inverted U — what’s called a Kuznets curve. (See for an example.)

In dozens of studies, researchers identified Kuznets curves for a variety of environmental problems. There are exceptions to the trend, especially in countries with inept governments and poor systems of property rights, but in general, richer is eventually greener. As incomes go up, people often focus first on cleaning up their drinking water, and then later on air pollutants like sulfur dioxide.

As their wealth grows, people consume more energy, but they move to more efficient and cleaner sources — from wood to coal and oil, and then to natural gas and nuclear power, progressively emitting less carbon per unit of energy. This global decarbonization trend has been proceeding at a remarkably steady rate since 1850, according to Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University and Paul Waggoner of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.

“Once you have lots of high-rises filled with computers operating all the time, the energy delivered has to be very clean and compact,” said Mr. Ausubel, the director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller. “The long-term trend is toward natural gas and nuclear power, or conceivably solar power. If the energy system is left to its own devices, most of the carbon will be out of it by 2060 or 2070.”

Tierney says the U.S. and other Western countries seem to be near the top of the curve for carbon emissions and ready to start the downward slope. He points out that the amount of carbon emitted by the average American has been fairly flat for twenty years now, and per capita carbon emissions are declining in some other Western countries. Increasing forest land, also a by-product of increasing wealth and better agricultural technology, helps take more carbon out of the atmosphere in richer countries, too, whereas in poor countries, deforestation runs rampant as people seek fuel and farmland.

By this argument, tough restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions from developing countries could actually harm the environment by slowing their economic growth and delaying the point at which they top the curve and reach downward slope.

Tierney finishes with this:

While some American environmentalists hope that the combination of the economic crisis and a new president can start an era of energy austerity and green power, Mr. Ausubel says they’re hoping against history.

Over the past century, he says, nothing has drastically altered the long-term trends in the way Americans produce or use energy — not the Great Depression, not the world wars, not the energy crisis of the 1970s or the grand programs to produce alternative energy.

“Energy systems evolve with a particular logic, gradually, and they don’t suddenly morph into something different,” Mr. Ausubel says. That doesn’t make for a rousing speech on Earth Day. But in the long run, a Kuznets curve is more reliable than a revolution.

(Image: Unofficial Earth Day Flag, Wikimedia Commons.)

[tags]Earth Day, environment, pollution, economy, energy[/tags]

I think, therefore I Tweet

460px-EEG_32_electrodes WIRED reports on what “may be a modern equivalent of Alexander Graham Bell’s ‘Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.’:

Early on the afternoon of April 1, Adam Wilson posted a message to Twitter. But instead of using his hands to type, the University of Wisconsin biomedical engineer used his brain.  “USING EEG TO SEND TWEET,” he thought.

The research, which could provide a new means of communication for people locked in their own skulls by paralysis or other problems, is built on the BCI2000, a software tool pioneered by Justin Williams, head of the University of Wisconsin’s Neural Interfaces lab, and Wadsworth Center neural injury specialist Gerwin Schalk, which translates thought-induced changes in a scalp’s electrical fields to control an on-screen cursor.

Although it’s in wide use in labs, notes WIRED, “its communications applications have been largely restricted to messages appearing on a nearby screen. “

“A lot of these have been scientific exercises, geared to writing things out but not really doing anything with it,” said Williams. “We wanted to say, that’s not how a person would want to communicate, especially with the advent of online communications.”

Williams notes that emailing is relatively difficult and inefficient for someone using a brain-computer interface. Twitter, by contrast, “is very serendipitous. It handles all the things that we’ve been struggling to make easy for a patient to do. It puts messages where people can find them. Let the world know how you’re doing, what you’re thinking, and they’ll find you. And that’s perfect for these patients and their families.”

So brain-computer interfaces are already here for limited uses (Wilson and Williams will next install the program in the homes of 10 people already outfitted  with trial versions of the BCI2000). In the future, more advanced brain-computer interfaces could help people control prostheses, powered exoskeletons, humanoid robots

Well, what would you do if you could control a computer with your thoughts?

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

[tags]brain, computers, disabled, Twitter[/tags]

A cure for honey bee colony depopulation syndrome (a.k.a. colony collapse disorder)?

799px-Honeybee-cooling_cropped This could be encouraging news (via Science Daily):

For the first time, scientists have isolated the parasite Nosema ceranae (Microsporidia) from professional apiaries suffering from honey bee colony depopulation syndrome. They then went on to treat the infection with complete success.

In a study published in the new journal from the Society for Applied Microbiology: Environmental Microbiology Reports, scientists from Spain analysed two apiaries and found evidence of honey bee colony depopulation syndrome (also known as colony collapse disorder in the USA). They found no evidence of any other cause of the disease (such as the Varroa destructor, IAPV or pesticides), other than infection with Nosema ceranae. The researchers then treated the infected surviving under-populated colonies with the antibiotic drug, flumagillin and demonstrated complete recovery of all infected colonies.

More information on Nosema ceranae can be found at Bees for Development, which notes:

In short, we demonstrate that Nosema ceranae probably jumped host from Apis cerana to Apis mellifera within the last decade and that it has spread remarkably rapidly. It is found nowadays in the western honey bee in North and South America, the Caribbean, across Europe (from south to north and west to east) and Asia. Only on the islands of Ireland and New Zealand have we looked but found only Nosema apis. We lack samples from Africa, Australia and the UK to state anything about those locations. However, given its rate of spread and occurrence even on isolated islands of the Danish archipelago, it is quite possible that Nosema ceranae is, or will soon be, spread worldwide.

The new Spanish study can be found here.

There has of course been a huge debate over what could be contributing to the depopulating of honey bees (with cell phone radiation one of the more “out there” proposals), a serious concern because of the important role the bees play in the pollination of crops, fruit and wild flowers. This is the first time this particular parasite has been identified as the primary cause of the problem in professional apiaries, and the fact those apiaries were successfully treated is encouraging. As the principle researcher, Dr. Mariono Higes (who has been exploring the connection between Nosema ceranae and colony collapse disorder for several years), puts it, “Now that we know one strain of parasite that could be responsible, we can look for signs of infection and treat any infected colonies before the infection spreads.”

Of course this doesn’t mean that other factors could still be at play, but solving even a part of the problem is an encouraging step forward.

(Image: Wikimedia Commons.)

[tags]bees, colony collapse disorder, biology, parasites, agriculture[/tags]

Is Twitter a threat to morality and ethics?

Texting Are Twitter and other rapid-fire forms of media eating away at our moral and ethical cores?

Possibly, say the authors of a new study from a University of Southern California neuroscience group led by Antonio Damasio, director of USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute. (Via EurekAlert.)

In the study (being published next week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Online Early Edition), the researchers used real-life stories to induce admiration for virtue or skill, or compassion for physical or social pain, in 13 volunteers (verifying the emotions through pre- and post-imaging interviews).

They found, using brain imaging, that while humans can respond in fractions of seconds to signs of physical pain in others, awakening admiration and compassion take much longer: six to eight seconds to fully respond to the stories of virtue or social pain, in the case of the study.

So, what does that say about the emotional cost of relying on a rapid stream of short news bits pouring into the brain through online feeds or Twitter?

Lead author Mary Helen Immordino-Yang puts it this way:

“If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states and that would have implications for your morality,” Immordino- Yang said.

She worries that

fast-paced digital media tools may direct some heavy users away from traditional avenues for learning about humanity, such as engagement with literature or face-to-face social interactions.

Immordino-Yang did not blame digital media. “It’s not about what tools you have, it’s about how you use those tools,” she said.

(USC media scholar Manuel) Castells said he was less concerned about online social spaces, some of which can provide opportunities for reflection, than about “fast-moving television or virtual games.”

“In a media culture in which violence and suffering becomes an endless show, be it in fiction or in infotainment, indifference to the vision of human suffering gradually sets in,” he said.

Damasio agreed: “What I’m more worried about is what is happening in the (abrupt) juxtapositions that you find, for example, in the news.

“When it comes to emotion, because these systems are inherently slow, perhaps all we can say is, not so fast.”

How do you feel about that?

Take your time.

(Image: Wikimedia Commons.)

[tags]Twitter,social media, computers, communication, ethics, morality[/tags]