Christopher Merle

Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be, but first I need more coffee.

Category: Science (page 1 of 3)

All about science


Yeah, I don’t know what it stands for either*. It’s the acronym for the Berkeley distributed computing project. Back in the late 90’s I participated in the SETI@Home project. You let the software use idle CPU cycles to search for artificial signals from deep space. I participated for a few years and ended up earning 2000 credits. I printed out my certificate and it’s laying about someplace. Anyway the distributed computing project was so popular Berkeley created a platform called BOINC and now there are dozens of projects. Tens of thousands of computers have participated creating vast networks of supercomputing power very cheaply.

I’ve got two old laptops I’m using as home servers (one is for web development work). Originally the laptops were used to play around with Linux and also to do development work for clients. I ended up turning the first one into a print server on our home network. Now we don’t have to take our laptops into my office to print. Since this server is on all the time heating up the room (slightly), my mind harkened back to SETI@Home. I knew there were other projects so I looked at the list to see what struck my fancy. I found two. MilkyWay@Home and

MilkyWay@Home uses data from the Digital Sloan Sky Survey to help generate an accurate 3D model of our own galaxy. The other is to run climate models and test the accuracy of climate models up to the year 2100. I chose the latter first as it seemed to be more practical. Actually I ended up choosing both, and I’m┬árunning each on their own laptop.

Although I accept the science for global warming, if I discuss it I don’t need to base my arguments on climate models. There’s plenty of hard evidence that humans have altered the climate. However, we do need to be able to predict the climate if people (mostly Americans) do not change the way they live to stop climate change. Computer climate modeling got underway in the 1970’s and those models have gotten more accurate and computers have gotten immensely more powerful since them. It would be useful to test to verify how accurate those models are. And if they are off then they can be improved.

If it turns out the climate models predict less serious consequences of human activity and those models have been made more accurate then that would be a good thing. I think it’s unlikely but we won’t know until we look. I suspect (and computer models have already predicted) that human caused climate change is going to be very bad for us. But we still have a window of opportunity to mitigate the worst consequences. We can’t stop it, but can slow it and eventually reverse it, but that will take centuries. However, that window is closing, and I don’t know how much time we’ve got.

Whether it’s for fun or serious reasons these distributed computing projects allow citizens to participate in large projects. And as computing power continues to improve these projects will help to solve pressing problems.

*Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing

82,000 Feet

On October 9, 2008 at 1:06PM CDT (19:06 UTC), The Cassini probe orbiting Saturn just flew within 25 kilometers of the moon Enceladus’ surface. That’s 82,000 feet. The altitude the SR-71 flew at or a little over twice as high that most commercial jets fly at. All I can say is wow, just wow!

Cassini flyby of Enceladus
Emily Lakdallawalla of the Planetary Society detailed Cassini’s itinerary Cassini flies within 25 kilometers of Enceladus tomorrow

And JPL scientist Shadan Ardalan, Cassini Navigator tells us Cassini made it Xtreme Navigation,Not for the Faint of Heart

Rendering Assistance

This is not as well written as I’d like, but I get my point across. I probably won’t rewrite it and clean it up. I’m just bein’ lazy. So there. I’ll just call it a final first draft.

I was on my way home from Pei Wei with a take away order. Melissa and our neighbor Christine were waiting for me at home. It was around 5:45pm Sunday evening. I was driving up Lewis from 61st St. when I saw a car facing north on the west curb of the street at 56th St. light. It looks like a car accident happened. I hadn’t seen anybody pulling over yet, so I go past to turn around. As I drove back I saw people going over to the car. I pull into the parking lot. People had pulled out cell phones and called 911. I hoped that’s what they were doing.

I want to say the car was a newer model Pontiac sedan. The driver was an elderly lady. There were two younger women talking to her. Checking on her. One was on a cell phone. I wnet over to the car and the lady is just sitting there in the car. The left front wheel is broken off and I can see a something spinning. So the motor must have still been on. I got the lady to turn it off. I went around the car to the street side and introduced myself. I reached in and turned on the flashing lights. After going back around the car to the others I asked if someone had called 911. They had. A couple of people said they had witness the accident. They said the lady had driven through the light and was swerving all over the road. One had followed her up Lewis.

I kept thinking we ought to get the lady out of the car because it was facing oncoming traffic, and she was in the sun. The car was sitting on top of a street sign she’d run over on the curb. The door was sticking from the bent metal but I pulled it open. It didn’t require any extraordinary effort.

Finally after about five minutes the cops show up, and I’m not sure those were the ones dispatched because they were driving slow. So I waved them over. They flashed their lights on and pulled up. Cop got out came over. I said I didn’t see it happen. He ignored me and that was fine. The odd thing was the lady was fidgeting in the car. While we were waiting for help, she’d been rifling through her glove box. Getting her insurance verification?

One of the two younger ladies waiting said the woman thought her husband was driving the vehicle. I only spoke the driver a few times and she followed my instructions when I told her to turn off the engine, put it in park so she could get her keys. I told her my name so as not to startle her when I turned on the emergency lights.

I’m not saying I was trying to be the good Samaritan, I had hot food that I wanted to get home. If I’d been delayed because of the accident I would have called Melissa for her to come and get the food. But I wasn’t a witness. Fresh in my mind I’d seen stories in the news of people seeing an old man run over and no one rendered assistance and the story about the women collapsing and dying in a waiting room and no one rendering assistance. Hello people! You can never be too busy to help. Thankfully there had been people that had stopped as well. Once the police were there and the fire truck showed up, the situation was under control and I left.

I am totally dumbstruck when I hear or see stories about people not doing anything when others are in distress. The thing is this happens in nature too. I saw National Geographic’s Strange Days on Planet Earth. They showed what happened to a monkey population when the top predators were removed. An artificial lake in South America created a bunch of islands that created isolated populations of all sorts of animals. Scientists were studying this accidental experiment.

As more and more monkeys populated the island and stripped it’s resources, the monkeys social cohesion broke down. No longer would they look out for each other, nor help each other. It was almost every monkey for himself. I’ve also heard of studies about rat overpopulation that is very detrimental as well. So my question is are we starting to see a real or perceived overpopulation in humans that is causing a breakdown in social norms? Or is it that we are more isolated from each other because of our car culture and televisions? Does the Internet help break down those barriers or reinforce them? Or is it something else entirely different and people have always behaved this badly? I feel we are seeing something new and disturbing.

Buckminster Fuller on Global Warming 1981

It’s really only within the last three years that I came to accept global warming and that humans were responsible. I’d been a skeptic for the stupidest of reasons: because the way the media portrayed it. Most science reporting in the mainstream media sucks because of they… well, don’t understand science. Rather than going over the evidence they would keep citing scientific consensus. To me because to me that smacked of argument from authority. But when I saw this BBC
In pictures: How the world is changing
I had to take a step back and reassess my understanding or rather my ignorance. I then bypassed the MSM and started looking at the evidence not the consensus. The tree rings, the ice cores, and the sediment cores. I already knew that the Earth’s climate had changed dramatically over the eons, but now it is humans who are driving the change not nature. And not in a good way.

As I’ve educated myself and verified that the science is good, I’ve started googling some of the authors and thinkers I’ve admired on what they had to say or if they had anything to say on the subject. I remember a scene from the 1979 PBS adaptation of Ursula K. LeGuin’s 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven. It was people complaining at how warm it had gotten in Portland from the way it used to be. Actually the book is very prophetic about the world we live in today.

I found two very telling quotes, one from Buckminster Fuller and the other from Isaac Asimov. I chose them because both are deceased, and they do not have the added benefit of what we know now.

From Buckminster Fuller’s book Critical Path (p. 112) published in 1981:

“those who own oil also own the atomic energy and have long ago assumed that, if humanity exhausts or abandons oil, it will automatically switch over to atomic energy. Humanity has had nothing to say about all this because the know-how was so obscure and the lawyers’ strategems so invisibly large. The lawyers’ omnilegal international strategems were and as yet are so obscure, in fact, that no government authorities – let alone the public – knew that the world energy monopoly’s scientists had not taken into account earthquakes, for instance, in the construction of New England atomic energy plants, nor had the public or government anticipated that the intuitive wisdom of humanity would develop such an antipathy to atomic energy as eventually to force lawyer capitalism to fall back on its ‘ownable’ coal mines and shale for conversion into pipable and meterable liquid fuels. It is as yet inscrutable to the public, government, and lawyer capitalism just how strong literate humanity’s intuitive wisdom will be in preventing the full-scale conversion of coal and shale into liquid energy fuel when it learns, as it has now been learned in a scientifically undeniable way, that this selfishly exploitable energy fuel strategy will inexorably destroy the atmosphere’s capability of supporting biological life on planet Earth. Like all fossil fuels coal gives off carbon dioxide when burned, but coal gives off 25 percent more of it per unit of energy than oil and 50 percent more than natural gas. Although carbon dioxide comprises less than 1 percent of the Earth’s atmospheric gases, this concentration has risen 17 percent since preindustrial times and is expected to rise an equivalent amount in the next twenty years. The ‘greenhouse’ effect from the Sun’s heat and increasing amounts of this otherwise harmless gas could send average global temperatures soaring by as much as 6 degrees Farenheit within fifty years according to a U.S. government study. This unprecedented global environmental catastophe would be virtually irreversible for centuries.

“No one knows whether the cessation of the waste radiation of atomic energy exploitation or the cessation of coal and shale conversion into fluid fuel will occur in time to permit the physical continuance of humans on planet Earth. What we do know however, as we have previously stated, is (1) that, with the unselfish use of technology, it is now possible to take care of all humanity at a higher standard of living than any have ever experienced and do so on a sustaining basis by employing only our daily energy income from Sun and gravity and (2) that we can do so in time to permit the healthy continuance of humans on plant Earth.”

And Isaac Asimov had this to say about global warming in 1989:


I just couldn’t leave well enough alone 1989, 1981, 1971. I managed to find a concern about pumping lots of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from 1958:

TED is cool

TED is this who’s who of elite geeks conference held in Monterey, CA every year. I watched a video about the conference which showed what it was all about. Then I went to their website and found lots more videos of talks and performances. I’ve seen some very cool and very entertaining stuff. The first really exciting video was about a multi-touch interface for a computer. And then I watched a lot more fascinating and inspiring videos and then I saw one today that amazing. In fact it was empowering.

The Fab Lab developed by MIT is revolutionary. It’s a personalized factory. But that’s only the beginning. In a lot of ways it’s even more revolutionary as the OLPC and the BOGO light. All of them can change the world. Watch Neil Gershenfeld:

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