Where’s the duct tape?

Obviously, I did it all wrong. I have a digital video microscope in my lab, but what I did was spend about $20,000 on a nice microscope, $1000 on a digital still camera and about $500 on a digital video camera, and $200 on a pair of custom adapters to link them together. The principle is simple enough, though; you’re just mounting a camera on the scope where your eye would be and grabbing images with a standard computer interface. So here’s New Scientist bragging about building a video microscope for £15.

I’ve done something similar in the past, but I can one-up Lewis Sykes: I made my adapter with cardboard and duct tape, instead of going all out and fabricating fancy-pants acrylic rings.

I should confess that there is a little bit of a quality difference between the images I get on my lab scope and the ones you can get out of $30 microscope. As long as you’re not trying to resolve sub-micron details, though, you can probably get by.

Grrrr, bad laptop. Bad!

I’m struggling with some annoying problems with my computer right now: every once in a while, it spontaneously dies without warning, and the system says there’s something wrong with the battery. It’s happened now several times today, always right when I’m in the middle of writing something. I’ve ordered a new battery, but until then, I may be spending some time getting apoplectic with the stupid friggin’ unreliable machine.

Do not be alarmed if updates are irregular, I’m busy punching the keyboard.

Another reason to avoid visiting Answers in Genesis

Those porn sites you’ve been browsing? They’ve been slurping in more of your private data than you think. A paper has been published documenting the invasive practices of many websites. They’re doing something called history hijacking, using code that grabs your entire browsing history so they can monitor every site you’ve visited. Cute, huh? There are tools you can use to block this behavior if you’re using Firefox, at least.

Several people have written to me about this because of Table 1 on page 9 of the paper. There among the porn and gaming and commercial sites one stands out as unusual. It’s the only site with the category of “religion”.

It’s Answers in Genesis.

Yep, don’t be surprised. Answers in Genesis wants to know where you’ve been.

Even better, a reader named Ivan extracted the sleazy history hijacking code from the AiG site. Wanna see it? It’s actually rather amusing. I’ve put it below the fold.

[Read more…]


People are always asking me for the source of those nice t-shirts that illustrate how long we’ve diverged from a given species. I think the name must be hard to remember: they’re at evogeneao.com. Now there’s a little software widget that will be just as neat-o.

Look up TimeTree, and remember to show it to the kids. This is a page with a simple premise: type in the name of two taxa (it will accept common names, but may give you a list of scientific names to narrow the search), and then it looks them up in the public gene databases and gives you a best estimate of how long ago their last common ancestor lived.

Grasshoppers and I, for instance, shared a many-times-great grandpa 981 million years ago. My zebrafish and I are practically cousins, with our last shared ancestor living a mere 454 million years ago. Hey, tree, we’ve been apart for 1407 million years, how’s it going? Sparrow! Long time no see! 325 million years, huh?

You get the idea. It’s great for getting the big perspective. The kids will pester you all the time for dates. Especially since…it’s got an iPhone app! Get on the App Store on your smart phone or iPad and search for TimeTree — it’s totally free (except for the cost of owning such a gadget, of course).

Oh, and once you’re done entertaining the children and yourself, it’s actually a serious tool. Tap on the results and it’ll take you to all the scientific details: breakdown of mitochondrial vs. nuclear date estimates, source papers, all that sort of thing.

For details on how it works, there’s also a published paper:

Hedges SB, Dudley J, Kumar S (2006) TimeTree: a public knowledge-base of divergence times among organisms. Bioinformatics 22(23):2971-2972.

Look, a cat! 92 million years.

What is this abomination called knol?

I’d never heard of knol before, but apparently it was Google’s attempt at creating a competitor to Wikipedia. Wikipedia has its flaws, but wow, it was revealing to see the alternative: knol is awful.

It was brought to my attention because it is infested with woo. To see how bad it is, compare the answers to this question:

Does god exist? (wiki)

Does god exist? (knol)

The Wikipedia query returns a fairly objective article that lists various arguments that different faiths and philosophies have made. The knol query returns a
ghastly article by a creationist that actually uses the argument that if you shake the pieces of a broken watch, they’ll never spontaneously reassemble into a working watch. This isn’t a useful starting point for asking the question; it’s a pile of nonsense that misleads. Other articles returned are, for instance, sectarian testimonials by various churches.

Well, the story is that knol is young, it hasn’t developed a full knowledge base yet, but its supposed to be good for scientific and medical topics. So I gave it a shot, and searched for a familiar term of art, cell signaling, on both.

Cell signaling (wiki)
Cell signaling (knol)

Wikipedia returns a respectable summary article that gives a general overview, brings up some of the key terms, and gives examples. It would be a fine starting point for starting to look into the subject.

The knol search returns a hodge-podge of articles; the top link is to a grad student’s scan of part of a poster on signaling. It’s not at all useful. Otherwise, it’s a mix of fragments, mixed up with a few bits on how mobile phones work. It’s useless.

I tried to help the knol search a bit by adding a few other terms, but discovered that most of them just confused it worse; don’t ever try to include the word “protein”, for example, unless you’re really looking for fad diets.

Here’s the real test: I asked Wikipedia about knol, and knol about Wikipedia.

Knol (wiki)
Wikipedia (knol)

The Wikipedia article presents just the facts; knol returns yet another mess,
some of them OK, others are
incoherent tirades against Wikipedia.

This thing was announced in 2007, and it supposedly has been building up content for a few years. A link to it was sent to me because it really has become the domain of kooks and crazies and fringe ideas, I think with the idea that making it more widely known would help it acquire more credible contributors.

I don’t know. After looking it over, I think the best answer is…let it die. If google won’t do it the kindness of putting it out of its misery, just let it drown in its own toxic effluent.

Bad, bad Webkit

I’ve been going insane this morning, thinking I might have mysteriously lost my ability to type, or even recognize valid HTML…and I’ve been seeing really weird stuff everywhere I type on the web.

It looks like the problem is Webkit, the browser I usually use. I updated it this morning, and it seems to have decided that normal spaces aren’t good enough anymore, and is inserting non-breaking spaces instead. It’s been an infuriatingly difficult problem to track down, because I do most of my composing offline in a text-editor that isn’t afflicted with this bug, and it’s just when I edit that I end up inserting invalid garbage into my stuff.

Anyway, it looks like I’m giving up Webkit and switching to Firefox.

There’s an app for that

If you ever argue with creationists, you know that the Index to Creationist Claims is an incredibly useful site, as is the book version, The Counter Creationism Handbook. Life just got a little sweeter: it is now available as a smartphone app for the blackberry and iPhone (just get into the App Store and search for ‘creationist’). Well, sweeter for us; creationists will find themselves a little more readily refuted now.

Goofy gadget, falsified by SCIENCE!

RCA (which is not the old and reputable company I remember, but has gone out of business and its name sold to anyone with the right amount of cash) recently announced a device called the Airnergy harvester, which supposedly simply soaks up the RF energy emitted by WiFi devices in the neighborhood and uses it to charge portable batteries. Wow, what an idea…but a moment’s thought makes it clear it can’t work. My local wireless router simply can’t be pumping out that much energy, or it would an awesomely wasteful device, and there can’t be that much power floating free in every few cubic inches of my home. Fortunately, one of the commenters at that site did the math and made it explicit. Don’t you just love math? It’s so powerful and so handy.

Here’s some math. Long story short, by my calculations, 100% efficiency and absorption at 5 feet away from a 100mW home router, (reasonable figures), it would take 34.5 years to charge that blackberry battery.

It’s not a Dyson Sphere, so you only get the power that hits the antenna.
Surface of a sphere = 4pir^2, r = 60″ (5 feet).
Surface area of a 5′ sphere = 45,216 square inches.

The device appears about 2″ x 3″ = 6 square inches.
The device then picks up, best case, 0.000133 of the power out from the router, which is 100mW, so.. 0.0133mW

If you leave it there for 24 hours, 0.0318 mWh are stored.
According to Will’s battery, it has ~4,000 mWh capacity.

So, it would take 12,579 days, or 34.5 years, to charge your blackberry battery once, presuming 100% absorption, no losses.

I call BS. Even adding up all the laptops, cell phones, routers, portable phones, everything, all the noise in the RF spectrum that could hit that device, I don’t see it charging the internal battery even in a week.

Ah, reality.

For a dose of unreality, though, read through the comments there. The earliest are all fast explanations of the lack of plausibility of the device, and then what happens? It alternates between clueless dopes saying, “Awesome! I want one of those!” and exasperated skeptics saying, “Read the comments up top, it can’t work!”