applied science

Epigenetics and Memory

Excitatory signals, are an essential part of working memory. Disrupt them and you affect memory.

In Alzheimer’s Disease a lot of glutamate receptors are down regulated or lost and that disrupts excitatory signals.


The villain of the piece is a process called repressive histone modification[1,2]. This is an Epigenetic process and it is found to be elevated in AD patients.

The histone modifiers affect the structure of Chromatin (you know, the double-helix and all those proteins around it – the epigenome)

You can read more about it in this article “It may be possible to restore memory function in Alzheimer’s, preclinical study finds” on

The title sounds great but they’ve only tested this in animal models and post-mortem tissue samples from AD patients so it won’t be helping your aunt Sally come back in the near future. But it’s another avenue of attack on this horrible disease – and – it’s more information about how our brains really work (or not).

Kinda makes me wonder how many people out there will be looking into ways to do their own testing on themselves or those they’ve lost but are still living with. Or how many quack schemes will pop-up promoting a false sense of hope.


How Your Measuring Tool Was Made Makes A Difference In Cosmology

Last week I wrote about a dawning realization in Cosmology that White Dwarf stars may be older than previously thought. There are likely implications for how this might affect predicted values of distance and age of the regions they live in.

It turns out that there’s another aspect of those stars’ evolution that might throw off the calculation of age.

At a certain point in their aging process a White Dwarf will explode as a
Type Ia SuperNova. Specifically: “When the white dwarf reaches 1.4 solar masses, or about 40 percent more massive than our Sun, a nuclear chain reaction occurs, causing the white dwarf to explode. The resulting light is 5 billion times brighter than the Sun.”

Now the calculation of when that would happen used to be pretty straightforward because ‘we knew the process well’. But we don’t. As my previous post pointed out we are learning more about how these starts age and they aren’t exactly doing what we thought.

Now we find out that the Supernova event can be triggered by the White Dwarf’s companion . . . without having to wait until the WD reaches critical mass by itself.

More rejigging of those stellar measurements likely required . . .


Neurons from The Spectrum are different from the not on the spectrum


Big News On Dwarf Stars Rejigs Stellar Clocks

Stars like our Sun get old and become Red Giants. Then they get older and eventually Shed Their Skins (outer layers) leaving behind a remnant which we call a White Dwarf.

White dwarf stars are some of the oldest stellar objects in the universe. They are incredibly useful to astronomers as their predictable lifecycle allows them to be used as cosmic clocks to estimate the age of groups of neighboring stars to a high degree of accuracy

In this article “Fading White Dwarfs Confirm the Age of the Universe” you can see what that means. That article is from 15 yeas ago and in it you will find this: ” The rate of white dwarf cooling is well understood “

I remembered that from my youth when I was more interested in cosmology. Cosmologists like standard candles and standard clocks. They make determining the age and size / distance of stars, galaxies and the universe possible.

This is how that works: When I was 12 I used what I knew of the the expansion of the universe and the Red Shift (the farther away a galaxy is the faster it is receding from us) to calculate the edge of the visible universe to around 12.5 Billion Light Years. At / after that point the stars are receding from us at the speed of light so we’d never see anything – a simplistic idea but that’s where the limit worked out to be. It was a fun exercise from before I had any access to a calculator. (PC’s didn’t show up for nearly 20 years.) And it you believe in the Big Bang that would also correlate with the approximate age of the universe.

But the nature of science is to push back the boundaries of our knowledge and understanding – to make the universe of our knowledge larger. And it’s not uncommon for the gains to show us where we were wrong or our understanding was incomplete. Which is a good thing.

So when I was reading “Thousands of stars turning into crystals” at Science Daily I got a smile when I read “This could make them potentially billions of years older than previously thought”. Cool (that’s a pun also)

What does that mean for the research in the article from 15 years ago?
Does it change the calculations that Richer used to determine an age of the universe?

I’ll confess that I’m not all that sure if it does or not because Richer’s team was looking for a thermal cutoff point in white dwarf populations – the older the stars the cooler the stars so when you run out of them you have found the coldest stars.

From that temperature you can reverse the clock and determine age because “the rate of white dwarf cooling is well understood ” as was believed back then. But if that rate isn’t what they thought it was back then, if the stars they could find are actually billions of years older than they had thought 15 years ago then it’s likely that this calculation will have be redone. And the best guesstimate of the age of the universe will have to be adjusted . . . again. (Steady State was so much simpler – there was no ‘beginning’ 🙂

Meanwhile another part of my brain is trying to figure out if there’s any SF material in mining White Dwarf cores for dense crystalline Oxygen . . . or Carbon. Maybe the Oxy cores are clad in Diamond or some other exotic variant of Carbon. And that there may be 15,000 of these within 300 light years from here . . . makes it feel like the Big Empty is kinda crowded. Which makes for more potential SF fodder.

social commentary tech gripes

Daring or Dangerous?

This is the last lost draft I’m dredging up to publish. (it’s not that old)

I’ve been involved with computers for a long time. And have picked up a lot of bits of knowledge about a lot of things along the way. Human psychology seems to pervade most industries and affect how they work – computers are similar in that every industry that adopts them changes forever in ways incomprehensible to those who were in it before.

I’ve been in the position of deciding whether or not I wanted to allow public postings on sites I manage and am therefore legally responsible for. And I’ve watched as sites such as Napster, YouTube, and Facebook took decisions opposite to what I’d make regarding open-ness and allowing the public to decide on the content.

It appears that the credo of ‘move fast and break things’ that Facebook had works to grow your business enormously. Leaving the inevitable work to rein in rampant abuse to a time down the road when you’re better equipped financially and experiential-ly to deal with it.

It also appears that the problem with (not) actually doing it that way is also a human psychology one – by the time you’re in a position to need to do something about it you’re focused on other things like growth, marketing, trying to please the investors, trying to appear your best for your IPO.

So the hard work on these issues that needs to get done gets short shrift.

Being tech companies they all seem to think that they can throw tech resources at it to manage the problem better. Better Data to make Better Decisions and Plans. Meaning more code to monitor and analyze human / system interactions. And lately that means an AI.

If you become embroiled in a dispute on YouTube or Amazon you find yourself in a system that doesn’t appear to care that you’re an honest producer / seller / broker because you almost never get to hear from a human. The system can be gamed by those who know how its done and that can be painful for those victims who don’t.

For some reason they seem to be averse to actually deploying more people to handling people problems. Possibly because they are technology oriented rather than people oriented. Even the vanguard ‘social network’ Facebook appears to be using humans in ways that make them appear like replaceable modules. By that I mean they took a while to get around to deploying more humans to monitor content and then didn’t back those staff up with proper support for when they suffered repercussions from what they were exposed to in their jobs.

This article in the Verge “Prime and Punishment” shows how the online marketplace that is Amazon has evolved into a nasty jungle rife with dirty dealing denizens if you’re a seller.

Rivals can engage in dirty tricks, various versions of identity theft of your trademark, product or company name and it can cost you lots of time, money and anguish to fix something that a half hour conversation with a human being could solve.

Considering that this anguish might entail a number of people who work for you losing their jobs and you losing your company this behaviour is problematic at best and dangerous at worst.

If this was a government people could petition to get things changed. They could express their displeasure at the voting booths. Politicians would be bending over backwards to let voters know that they will not stand for this and will do their best to fix it.

Because it’s a commercial concern there’s not much that can be done. You can bitch and complain to Amazon but until a human being hears your plea nothing will get done. Just having reached a human is still not enough to get things changed however. To do that you’d have to get someone high up, like Jeff Bezos, to make changes happen. From everything I’ve heard about Jeff he’s not all that inclined to get involved with human beings with problems. And that’s not likely to change until something comes along that does listen to humans and threatens Amazon’s monopolistic position in the online marketplace.

So don’t hold your breath . . . until that happens you have to daring to bet your future on the dangerous marketplace that Amazon has become. And if you’re thinking of ever running for public office you have to be wary of being daring in your public postings and comments because those have a dangerous way of coming home to roost later on when you least expect them.


After we lock it up, what can we do with the locker?

Another lost draft being published late . . .

Researchers have found a way to dramatically speed up the formation of the mineral magnesite. Magnasite formation removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Normally this process takes many, many years but they say they can shorten that to days . . .

So if all goes well we’ll be producing magnesite as fast as we can . . . which brings me to the question: What is Magnesite good for?

The Wikipedia article on its uses lists many. But a lot of them involve burning it and release the Carbon. What else could mega-tons of magnasite be used for?

social commentary

Potentially More Legal Overreach by USA

This is another forgotten draft from Feb 2018.

Last June in a previous posting I opined on the potential worst-case scenario for Canadian businesses that run afoul of US government restrictions on trade with Cuba. In that piece it was about travel companies that are subsidiaries of Canadian airlines.

In this piece at the Electronic Frontier Foundation it’s about application of Patent Law. The article is part of their Stupid Patent Of The Month series.

Essentially the meat of the piece concerns damages awarded to a patent holder for infringement.

If company A has obtained a patent in the USA for something, say a device, then if  US company B sells essentially that same device to non-US company C which sells it in the USA the US court can award damages to A in an amount related to how much B made from what C sold in the USA. But if C sold that same device outside the USA then A has to take them to court in other jurisdictions where A has obtained the legal protection of a patent.

This is how the law has been applied up to now. US patents cover the USA. In other jurisdictions you need to get patents from those governments. But that might change if the Solicitor General has its way . . . potentially US patents could be considered global by US courts. And company B would end up having to fork over all the profit it made from selling company C the device that infringes on a US patent – even from products that never entered the USA.

IT all comes down to how the US interprets its own laws.

Nature photography

Photographing Birds On The Fly

Apparently I created this, saved a draft and didn’t get around to posting it. Probably two years ago but I’m not all that sure. Better late than never . . .

I’ve got a really nice Panasonic DMC-FZ1000 camera that I carry with me everywhere. Or almost everywhere. The glass is by Leica and even though the lens is not detachable it covers the range I shoot in the most” 25 – 400 mm. It has a fast burst mode for action which I employ in these shots. It can shoot 12 fps but in the operating mode I use it only gets 7. That’s 7 Hi-res shots per second.

I was standing on my back deck and watching the little birds flitting about . . . and had to see if I could ‘catch them’ with my camera in burst mode. The little animated GIF you see is from one of the sequences I shot.


The thing about shooting these little critters is you have to be guessing ahead of time where they are headed – and half the time you’re wrong. It’s harder than following the puck while shooting hockey (which I do for the local team in the winter).


One last note. Since it appears to be a thing these days . .  . I get nothing from anyone for this post. No one paid me. I get no points or price cuts or anything from Panasonic – they don’t even know I exist afaik.

This is my second serious Panasonic camera (my other is a G3) and I have only good things to say about their cameras. And on that camera I also have a Leica lens. And I love Leica lenses . . . to bad I’m not rich enough to afford more of them 🙂

applied science

Do AIs See Animals In Cloud Shapes?

I’ll tell you up front that I don’t have the answer to the question posed in the title. It’s a question I’ve wondered about for a while now though.

When humans look up at a cloudy sky they often see shapes in the clouds. Often it’s animals or cartoon characters. This is part of our visual processing system – trying to find objects in the visual field and make some sense of them. The actual broad term for this is apophenia. If you see images and faces it is called Pareidolia.

The term apophenia was coined in 1958 by a German psychiatrist working on Schizophrenia. This has the extra connotation of adding significance to the perception. The more appropriate term pareidolia is actually the one we want – it means seeing shapes as objects instead of what they really are. Like clouds. OR like ink blots in Rorschach tests. OR finding shapes in
jiggly long exposure photos like the one below.

Do you see the Roadrunner?

A while back I wondered if an AI could / would do the same thing. Do AIs have imaginations? I’d guess they don’t have one in the original sense of the word “to picture one’s self” because I’m not sure we’ve gotten to self aware sentience just yet.

Not having access to a captive AI to tinker with I can only wonder about it. I guess I could try feeding clouds images to Google’s Lens app and see if it comes up with anything but that somehow feels like a very limited test. I’m more curious what researchers have found out. Or maybe try feeding it scans of ink blots to see what it thinks might be there.

The reason I’m picking this to blog about today is a little article on ScienceDaily. It’s titled: Can an artificial intelligence tell a teapot from a golf ball?

In the article they describe testing AI’s with confusing visual information to find the limits of their abilities. In the test from the title they fed the AI an image of a teapot shape with a golf ball texture. The AI sees golf ball. Teapot is lower on its guess list.

From their results it would appear that the Deep Learning AIs tend to take texture into account far more than they do shape. So outlines and silhouettes confuse them. One would hope that over time shape becomes equally important. But I’m getting the idea that today’s crop of visual AI’s might not exhibit pareidolia just yet.

applied science

Another Astounding Agent of Change

The other day I caught an article on ScienceDaily about a major (in my mind) advance in plant biology and just had to blog about it so you’d hear about it too. That was about making plants up to 40% more productive.

Then last night I’m watching CBS 60 Minutes and they do this piece about this guy named Marshall Medoff. I’d never heard of him or his company but after a little while I’m saying things out loud like ‘Holy Shit’ and ‘Oh Wow’ and ‘this guy is like Edward Land’.

That last bit means, in my estimation, this person is a different sort of animal from regular folks. This person sets out to find solutions to problems that stump the best and brightest in the world. Problems in areas this person might have no scientific training in whatsoever but that doesn’t stop them from forging ahead . . . and coming out the other end with a solution.

Ed Land (1,2) did that. His parents sent him off to university but he had other ideas. He wanted to do something about Polarization.

Science was aware that light could be polarized but no one had figured out another way to create optical polarizers than herapathite. In 1852 it was discovered that feeding quinine to dogs created the conditions for proper crystal formation of this polarizing material in their urine.

Land took the money he was supposed to go to school with and spent it on solving the problem of finding a better way to make better polarizing material. Hiring a machinist to make equipment he needed. And he succeeded.

This guy Medoff in the 60 Minutes piece did something like that. He stopped and paid attention to what he was hearing about coming future threats from problems like climate change. And then went to Walden (yes that pond at that Walden) to think about it.

Most of the world’s plant matter is cellulose. And cellulose contains sugars which could be very very useful if only they could be released from the cellulose. Various teams were working on different ways to do this with limited success. This became Mr’s Medoff’s project.

Then he crawled into a large garage building for 15 years and learned what he needed to about the problems and potential solutions. Which meant learning a lot of science . . . pretty much on his own.

When he was done and ready to try and make his solution real he hired an MIT grad to help him. If you believe the 60 Minutes piece Mr. Medoff has done it. He’s found a way to do what everyone else was trying to. And because he can extract the sugars directly from the cellulose he can make things that petroleum is used for currently. Plastics for instance. Plastic with programmable degradability from 11 weeks to years. Fuels for internal combustion engines. Alcohol you can drink and also put in your fuel tank. Edible sugar that doesn’t rot your teeth.

All that from plant matter we consider waste. Cobs after the kernels are removed for instance. Cellulose is the most abundant plant material on the planet.

And he’s using Electron Accelerators to break the cellulose down and a custom enzyme mix to extract the sugars. Old CRT TV tubes were Electron Accelerators. But they operated in a vacuum and I suspect the industrial EA’s Xyleco uses are quite different.

Marshall Medoff guesstimates that this new access to the sugars in plant cellulose could increase our usable material resource by 30%. Add that to the potential 40% in the article about improving photosynthesis and the future’s not so lacking after all. Here’s hoping the useful advances allow us the keep ahead of the looming disasters predicted for the not so distant future.