All posts by David Harris

Hacking on a Journal of Brief Ideas

Today I was fortunate to spend the afternoon at an unconference session at the KIPAC@10 conference at SLAC. The session turned into more of a hackathon for the project I was leading, based on my thoughts about a Journal of Brief Ideas, from a few years ago.

We only had a few hours to spend so we had a good chat about the desired feature set for a Journal of Brief Ideas, the kinds of views the user interface would have, and what we might achieve in code during the session. I had previously decided to use figshare as the foundation of JOBI, seeing as it provides DOIs and permanence for all data stored there.

In the end, we drew a few wireframes, thought about what a classic paper by Edwin Hubble would look like as a series of brief ideas, and started the journal. Yes, that’s right, the first couple of entries and the first internal citation now exist on figshare. There are still plenty of issues to resolve but we have a sense for what the minimal model of this journal would look like.

We didn’t get too far on the code as the OAuth caused us some trouble, as it always seems to, but we plan to work on this at the upcoming dot.astronomy conference and Science Hack Day SF 2013. There is, however, a GitHub repository with the initial code we worked on.

Thanks to my coworkers (listed on the front page of the slide set we showed at the end of the session) and to @drphilmarshall for organizing the meeting and including an unconference session.

Real-cost-of-driving meter (Ingenuity hack day 2013)

The real-cost-of-driving meter prototype that parses data coming from a car enabled with OpenXC.

A few weeks ago I went to the BoingBoing/Ford OpenXC Hack day, held at TechShop in San Francisco. About 40 or so hackers with different backgrounds came together to see what we could do using the new OpenXC open source interface to Ford (and other) cars. The system delivers about 50 performance variables from the car up to 60 times per second.

The resulting hacks were useful, intriguing, or just plain fun. I worked with a guy I just met, Steven Kryskalla, a developer from lumosity on a project that I had conceived when I saw the data available.

We built a real-cost-of-driving meter, which basically showed you in real time what your trip was costing. It incorporated the actual amount of fuel being used along with a charge for maintenance and ownership costs.

Seeing as we didn’t have an actual car to drive around and play with, we ran the tests for the device from 5 recorded trips made by a real car. The outputs from those trips were all recorded for the purpose of testing add-ons like ours. So the code was interpreting a stream of data from a file rather than direct from the car but it does the same thing. When the data was parsed, we made the calculations needed and sent the information over a serial port to an Arduino.

The cost was then displayed as a mobile Web page and a physical display that looked a bit like an old-fashioned taximeter, employing 7-segment LED displays driven by the Arduino. The 7-seg display is multiplexed (hence all the wiring you see) but controlled via a very cool library that makes it really easy to operate.

We managed to get the whole system working in about 6 hours of work and were awarded the Best Use of Data prize by the organizers.

You can see the code, which is available to play with and adopt at Steven’s github page. You can also see some (rather blurry) photos of the finished device here.

Thanks to BoingBoing, Ford, and Audeze for the experience and the prizes!

January 31

For an explanation of this project, read here.

Every day, we are reminded of a mental disorder that affects our society. The schizophrenic brain is hobbled by three problems — delusions, hallucinations and thinking difficulties. This month, President Barack Obama said it again. Fact checking keeps getting more interesting.

This ends the experimental Science News uncreative writing project.

January 30

For an explanation of this project, read here.

A rare peek into drug company documents reveals troubling differences between publicly available information and materials the company holds close to its chest. Pfizer Inc. has agreed to plead guilty and pay $430 million in fines to settle charges that its Warner-Lambert unit flouted federal law by promoting non-approved uses for one of its drugs. One of the hidden secrets of the medical literature is that the named authors on a paper’s byline, particularly in the case of clinical trials, are not necessarily the individuals who wrote the paper. New estimates from a Norwegian research project show meeting targets for minimizing global warming may be more achievable than previously thought. Policymakers are attempting to contain global warming at less than 2°C. At least in America, CO2 emissions have dropped dramatically. New research produced by a Norwegian government project, described as “truly sensational” by independent experts, indicates that humanity’s carbon emissions produce far less global warming than had been thought: so much so that there is no danger of producing warming beyond the IPCC upper safe limit of 2°C for many decades. Purveyors of climate doubt have seized on a news release from the Research Council of Norway with this provocative title: “Global warming less extreme than feared?” Last year, after opponents of hydraulic fracturing made much of an unpublished paper by a doctoral candidate in economics who reported finding health impacts in infants from nearby gas drilling operations, I wrote a piece titled “When Publicity Precedes Peer Review in the Fight Over Gas Impacts.” A press release last week appeared to present the results of new research suggesting earth’s climate is not as sensitive to carbon dioxide as scientists previously thought. A press release from a Norwegian project attempting to estimate the Earth’s climate sensitivity (generally measured as how much the planet’s surface will warm in response to the energy imbalance caused by the increased greenhouse effect from a doubling of atmospheric CO2) has drawn quite a bit of attention in the media as suggesting that global warming may be “less extreme than feared.” A just-completed evaluation reveals that many of Norway’s independent regional research institutes are too small.

January 29

For an explanation of this project, read here.

In the wake of a Ministry of Health announcement of two fatalities among the three confirmed human cases of avian flu in the new year, authorities this weekend increased efforts to eradicate affected birds, even as some officials reported a fourth case. Bird flu experts on Wednesday ended a voluntary halt on research into how to make the deadly H5N1 avian influenza capable of spreading to mammals, and perhaps rapidly to people. Experiments with a deadly flu virus, suspended last year after a fierce global debate over safety, will start up again in some laboratories, probably within the next few weeks, scientists say. One year after public uproar forced them to pause, researchers who study H5N1 avian influenza by designing new, extra-virulent strains are set to resume their work. Controversial experiments on bird flu could resume within weeks because leading influenza researchers around the world have finally called a halt to an unusual moratorium that has lasted more than a year.

January 28

For an explanation of this project, read here.

A couple of weeks ago, an article was published in Science about online science communication (nothing new there, really, that we have not known for a decade, but academia is slow to catch up). Over time I’ve grown more and more suspicious of stories about breakthrough technologies. Quite frankly, if the company’s numbers are correct, this could be the biggest solar news of the decade. Here’s an interesting solar technology I recently ran across — Solarphasec’s 3D Spin Cell Generators (or, as I call them, solar cones). For the vast majority of those looking to harvest energy from the sun to satisfy domestic or business electricity needs, the photovoltaic world is a static and flat one. Anyone knows to get the most out of a solar cell it needs to be angled at the sun. As our expanding economies continue to demand more and more energy, things are getting more expensive. A solar venture says it has developed a “spin cell” technology using specialized lensing and a rotating conical shape that could generate five times more electricity from a given amount of land than conventional solar methods. Hey, Kids!

January 25

For an explanation of this project, read here.

Giant squid – also known also by their scientific name Architeuthis – have been the stuff of both legend and science for hundreds of years. Many willl be surprised as it dawns that the biggest catastrophic event likely to happen today in California is a flood caused by a rainstorm. We all know about the deal you make with earthquakes to live in California. The intense rainstorms sweeping in from the Pacific Ocean began to pound central California on Christmas Eve in 1861 and continued virtually unabated for 43 days. Geologic evidence shows that truly massive floods, caused by rainfall alone, have occurred in California every 100 to 200 years. The U.S. Geological Survey, Multi Hazards Demonstration Project (MHDP) uses hazards science to improve resiliency of communities to natural disasters including earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires, landslides, floods and coastal erosion. A massive California rain event — one expected to occur once every 200 years — would far surpass destruction caused by a “Big One” earthquake, causing more than $700 billion in damage and hobbling the state’s economy for decades, federal scientists are warning. For thirty days and thirty nights the rain fell in unending torrents.

January 24

For an explanation of this project, read here.

“Punditry is fundamentally useless,” Nate Silver said repeatedly, in one form or another, after the election. Thursday morning, Politico announced that it was joining with Facebook to “measure GOP candidate buzz” and give its readers an “exclusive look at the conversation taking place on the social networking site” ahead of the January 21 South Carolina primary. One to two inches of snow fell Tuesday night over Shippingport, Pa., as a result of an unusual cause: steam from a nearby nuclear power plant. Sometimes, you don’t need a lake to get lake-effect snow. Just when I think I’ve seen everything. Need proof that human activities can influence the environment? A blast of snow came down last night on Interstate 79 on Tuesday evening. You’ve probably heard of lake-effect snow and ocean-effect snow, but now you should add “nuclear snow” to the list of strange winter weather phenomena. You could even say it glows? First things first: It wasn’t nuclear snow. Pittsburgh was coated in a layer of snow last night – but not from Mother Nature.

January 23

For an explanation of this project, read here.

There’s been a sudden burst in articles about science and science news communication websites – and the comments left on such sites. Because of a number of heated exchanges in the comments over the past few weeks here at Retraction Watch — mostly in response to our coverage of the shutdown of the Science Fraud site — we’ve added this to our FAQ: In late 2011, in a nearly 6,000-word article in The New York Times Magazine, health writer Tara Parker-Pope laid out the scientific evidence that maintaining weight loss is a nearly impossible task—something that, in the words of one obesity scientist she quotes, only “rare individuals” can accomplish. George Church, 58, is a pioneer in synthetic biology, a field whose aim is to create synthetic DNA and organisms in the laboratory. They’re usually thought of as a brutish, primitive species. Where’s Fred Flintstone when you need him? In a controversial interview that has ignited commentary across the world, a respected Harvard professor of genetics has suggested an “extremely adventurous female human” might someday serve as surrogate mother for a cloned Neanderthal baby. A prominent genetics expert from Harvard Medical School wants to make one thing perfectly clear: He is NOT looking for a woman to bear a Neanderthal baby. The headline flying across the Internet yesterday seemed too outlandish to be true: A prominent genetics expert from Harvard Medical School wants to make one thing perfectly clear: He is not looking for a woman to bear a Neanderthal baby. A Harvard geneticist has raised eyebrows by declaring that scientists could make a Neanderthal clone baby if they had an “extremely adventurous female human” as a surrogate. As 21st century technology strains to become ever faster, cleaner and cheaper, an invention from more than 200 years ago keeps holding it back. Lithium-ion batteries became crucial to the design of Boeing Co.’s new Dreamliner jet because they offered a combination of high power and low weight. A scale model of a Reaper drone rumbled down the runway and lifted into the gray Canadian sky, powered by a plastic propeller and a lithium-ion battery. Two major safety incidents involving Boeing 787 Dreamliners have caused two Japanese airlines to ground their fleets of the aircraft. Talk about whisky on ice: Three bottles of rare, 19th century Scotch found beneath the floor boards of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackelton’s abandoned expedition base were returned to the polar continent Saturday after a distiller flew them to Scotland to recreate the long-lost recipe. Three bottles of rare 19th century Scotch whisky left behind by Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton have finally been returned to his desolate snowbound base. Two crates of Scotch whisky which belonged to the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton are to be recovered after a century buried in the Antarctic ice. A road tunnel in Norway has been closed – by a lorry-load of burning cheese. Minerals found underground on Mars are the “strongest evidence yet” that the planet may have supported life, according to new research.

January 22

For an explanation of this project, read here.

“Science,” a colleague once said at a meeting, “is a mighty enterprise, which is really rather quite topical.” A few years ago, Google’s human resources department noticed a problem: A lot of women were leaving the company.