Science and Technology

Six States, Six Fates for Pro-Life Bills

(Flickr/SMN)
As states around the country consider legislation to limit access to abortion and reproductive rights, the outlook isn't bright for women's health advocates. Here's the latest from five states: Through a tied-vote, the Iowa Senate defeated a measure that would stop public dollars from funding abortions in rape and incest cases. Iowa currently allows tax dollars to fund abortion procedures for low income women if there's a danger to the life of the mother or if the pregnancy came through rape or incest. The House already approved the bill earlier in the week. In Tennessee, the state House has approved a measure that creates criminal penalties for harming embryos. The state can already prosecute someone for harming a fetus, but those laws don't include the first eight weeks of pregnancy. Of course that may be because, in the first eight weeks, many don't know they're pregnant yet and many embryos die from a variety of natural causes. The bill passed 80-18 Thursday in the House and now...

Rise of the Machines

What's he doing in my office? (Flickr/brixton)
Seemingly intuiting my desire for a quick diversion from politics into a more important topic, Kevin Drum links to this post by Stuart Staniford discussing the day, not long in coming, when Planet Earth's robots outnumber its humans, including a semi-serious projection that shows Them outnumbering Us some time in the early 2030s. Should we be worried? Well, yeah, but not because they're going to kill us all. The problem is capitalism. Keep in mind that even as the number of robots increases dramatically, that doesn't mean there will be millions of self-aware humanoid machines walking around, planning the day when they finally rise up against their meat-sack oppressors. Instead, there will lots and lots of relatively simple robots doing things that now can only be done by humans, and nearly all of them will look nothing like us. Can a robot run a burrito truck? Not now it can't, but some steady advances in speech recognition and mechanical coordination will certainly bring that day...

To Infinity—and Alabama

(Flickr/NASA Goddard)
I have one word I want to say to you: Spaceports. The space shuttle program may be over, but for some states, now's the time to get excited about the great beyond, thanks to the idea of launch sites for cargo, satellites, and—of course— commercial flights . The Federal Aviation Authority has already licensed eight such sites in six states across the country . Now Alabama is shooting to get one of its own. A new proposal filed Tuesday would create a nine-person committee that could recommend builing the "Alabama Spaceport Authority." If approved by the panel and the feds, the project would be fully funded with federal dollars. But as WHNT reports "it could still be another four to six years before Alabamians could launch into orbit from their backyard." This is all part of NASA's new effort to encourage private space exploration and private launches. Two private companies, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp,, have already hired a slew of laid-off NASA scientists and, according to the...

Tennessee Travels Back to 1925

(Flickr/latvian)
By the end of this week, teachers in Tennessee will likely have new protections if they teach creationism alongside evolution or rely on dubious reports that climate change is a myth. A measure awaiting gubernatorial approval explicitly protects teachers who give countering theories to evolution, climate change, and the like, in an effort to foster critical-thinking skills. The bill received overwhelming legislative support, and the governor is expected to approve it. "It's a really sad state of affairs," says Steven Newton, policy director at the California-based National Center for Science Education. "In an era where other countries are pushing forward … the United States is passing anti-science bills in some of its states." As I wrote last week , the measure create any requirements, and, as the Times Free Press reports , its sponsor has been adamant that it "does not endorse, promote or allow the teaching of any nonscientific, nonconventional theories in the scientific classroom."...

Worries About Scientific Weakness of Scientific Theories

(Flickr/Loren Javier)
Monday was a busy day in the Tennessee Legislature. In the Senate, they were debating a measure that guarantees teachers the right to help students "understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught, such as evolution and global warming " (Emphasis mine). The eight members of the state's National Academy of Science have vocally opposed the measure. Since the state was also home to the 1925 Scopes "monkey" trial , over the right of teachers to teach evolution, the comparisons have been frequent. "Let me say what this bill does not do ... as may have been mischaracterized by many," Watson told the Times Free Press . "This bill does not endorse, promote or allow the teaching of any nonscientific, nonconventional theories in the scientific classroom." It does however give credence to the supposed "scientific weakness" of theories that the vast majority of...

Internet Killed the Political Party Star?

(Flickr/DonkeyHotey)
One of the most visible publicity campaigns at South by Southwest Interactive festival this year featured two guys dressed up as a fighting elephant and donkey. They ran around downtown complete with gloves, satin boxing shorts, and even a referee. Americans Elect —the political group they represented that wants to nominate an independent presidential challenge for the 2012 election—tweeted photos of the pair fighting. They also tweeted attendees to invite them to the group's lounge. The room featured t-shirts, hats, and "Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots"—with a donkey and elephant head instead of robotic heads. Of course, the biggest draw was the free beer, which they advertised nonstop. South by Southwest is known more for hipsters and indy music than it is for campaign nerds and public policy. But this year's interactive portion of the festival featured an entire "Government and Global Issues" track—much of which dealt particularly with political changes caused by the evolving internet...

Can't Stop, Won't Stop

(leondel/Flickr)
Analysts predict that Apple will sell a whole lot of iPads: “With our checks indicating record pre-orders and 2–3 week wait times for new iPads, we anticipate a record iPad launch this weekend,” said analysts T Michael Walkley and Matthew Ramsay. They raised their iPad unit estimate to 65.6 million from 55.9 million for 2012, and to 90.6 million from 79.7 million for 2013, saying rivals will likely struggle to introduce competitive products over the next couple quarters. This is why I’m skeptical of calls for Apple to build a smaller iPad, to compete with the Amazon Fire or other competitors. Apple won’t have any trouble selling iPads, and the tablet market is new and malleable enough that the company doesn’t have to worry about matching competition—they can continue to grow the market by finding new customers. Nintendo’s success with the Wii is a perfect example of this. Instead of competing with Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo moved horizontally in an attempt to bring in non-gamers...

The Future of Apple Is the iPad 2

(yum9me/Flickr)
Matthew Yglesias makes a smart point about Apple and the iPad: The iPad is already the market leader to such an extent that simply coming out with a better one doesn’t change the landscape. But if Apple’s supply chain allows them to ramp up production of a new high-end product while continuing to sell the iPad 2 in volume as a cheaper option, that shakes up the landscape. If you look at iPad sales compared to competitors, it’s hard not to conclude that the “tablet market” is a fiction—what we have is an iPad market, with a few companies operating outside of it. Moreover, high demand means that the iPad market continues to have tremendous room for growth at premium price points. But—as demonstrated by the success of the Kindle Fire—its also true that there is room for growth at the lower bound of the tablet space. And, because Apple doesn’t have much in the way of competition, the price of iPads depends mostly on Cupertino’s ability to produce them. If Apple rereleases the iPad 2 as a...

Self-Driving Cars Can't Come Soon Enough

A thing of the past, eventually. (Flickr/huggs2)
So how long will it be before this whole "driving ourselves around in cars" thing is done with? Atrios predicts that "a whole lot of public money will be spent setting up a 'driverless car' system that will never actually work." Kevin Drum is much more optimistic — he predicts that "There will be a transition period that's likely to be messy—though probably no messier than today's all-human traffic nightmare—but eventually you won't even be allowed to drive a car. Every car on the road will be automated, and our grandchildren will be gobsmacked to learn that anything as unreliable as a human being was ever allowed to pilot a two-ton metal box traveling 60 miles an hour." I'm with Kevin on this — technologically speaking, the ability for cars to drive themselves is coming really soon (see this recent article in Wired for a primer). Yes, it will be difficult to get to the fully automated system where the cars speak to the roads and to each other, but between here and there, there are...

When the World Is Your iPhone

If your iPhone is the center of your existence, you might be wondering what life is going to look like in a couple of decades as this kind of technology advances. Corning, the company that you might associate with things like dishes, but these days makes things like the glass on that iPhone, has the answer. Unlike, say, Kodak—another large upstate New York-based company that flourished in the 20th century—Corning has managed to adapt to recent technological changes and find its niche (although it had a fourth quarter slump , the company is still extremely profitable). And guess what they think the future is: more glass! Everywhere! Just take a look at the glass-based techno-utopia they're promising in this video: It may not turn out exactly like this, but it actually seems a pretty plausible projection of where we're headed. I'd be pretty surprised if 20 years from now we're still carrying around powerful computers in our pockets, each of which has huge amounts of storage space to...

Faster-Than-Light Travel Just Got That Much Harder

Of the theoretical means for achieving faster-than-light travel, the most plausible one is the “warp” drive, where a ship travels at superluminal speeds by creating a bubble of space behind it, while compressing the space in front of it. The ship would not move inside of the bubble, but would be carried along with it, like a wave. The upside of this is that it achieves FTL speeds while avoiding time dileation and other relativistic effects. In other words, you can travel across the galaxy and not worry that thousands of years have elapsed on Earth in your absence. However, as Jason Major details at io9, there is one important downside to warp travel. The energy built up during the voyage could incinerate everything around it: Space is not just an empty void between point A and point B… rather, it’s full of particles that have mass (as well as some that do not.) What the research team - led by Brendan McMonigal, Geraint Lewis, and Philip O’Byrne - has found is that these particles can...

Copyright Fight Hits the Lab

The Research Works Act keeps the battle started by SOPA and PIPA in the headlines.

(AP Photo/ailatan)
This week, the scientific publishing giant Elsevier , which produces thousands of academic journals, and Representatives Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat, and Darrell Issa, a California Republican, withdrew their support for the Research Works Act after public outcry from public-access advocates. Currently, some federal agencies require that researchers who rely on government funding make their resulting journal publications freely accessible online. The Research Works Act would have forbidden any agency from imposing this requirement, allowing publishers to retain rights to the papers. As with the recent battles over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), opposition and the sudden drop-off in support for the legislation suggests that big content companies are losing some of the traction in Washington they once enjoyed. But the Research Works Act was always largely symbolic. “It’s a stake in the ground,” said Allan Adler of the American Association of...

Today's Robot News

UPenn GRASP lab nano quadrotor
The geek superstars at the University of Pennsylvania's GRASP (General Robotics, Automation, Sensing, & Perception) lab have taught their nano quadrotors—and if you know robots, you know that UPenn's are among the coolest of quadcopters—to play the James Bond theme. My judgment that this is awesome is unaffected by the fact that I went to grad school at UPenn. Just watch until the end for the guitar: And Rick Santorum thinks college is for snobs!

Do You Know What Your Voter Wants to Hear?

Street view on Google maps still sort of wows me. I'm still not sure I'm prepared for the power of being able to see almost every house in America, block by block. So it's really no surprise that VoterMapping blew my mind. VoterMapping is a new campaign tool that allows a user to see not only every house, but who lives in the house, how they vote, and even what kinds of magazines they get. You can map the state of Illinois based on Democrats who give to religous organizations and enjoy gardening magazines. The tool not only can give likely ethnicities, income levels, and tell you whether people have a premium credit card, but it can also show all the data points around congressional districts, state legislative districts—even elementary school districts. In the meantime, national campaigns—with access to state money—can use the internet to figure out where you live, what you like, and where you shop. After that, it's easy to tailor web ads to appeal to you. Welcome to the new world of...

Education on the Cheap

(Flickr/DraXus)
Publicly funded online schools run by private companies have been controversial with teachers groups and some education advocates since they started to take off a few years ago. But the concept of educating kids by computer has a strong appeal—not just among lawmakers but also among portfolio managers and investors. The two biggest companies offering online education—K12, Inc. and Connections Academy—are both for-profit, and until recently K12 had been a stock-market favorite. But an article this week on Seeking Alpha , a major investment website, casts doubt on the long-term profitability of K12 in light of poor student results. In the past few years, school districts and charter schools have increasingly subcontracted out certain operations to either Connections Academy or K12, Inc. In many states, lawmakers embraced the idea, which promised to bring private-sector efficiency to education. Online education also offered an idyllic image: Kids can take classes anywhere, at times that...

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