Archive for the ‘Hodge Podge’ Category

More Presidential Engagement with Science and Technology

March 10th, 2009

Posted by: admin

A link from inspired me to make a second post in what might be an occasional series.

Today happens to mark two noteworthy scientific or technical achievements by American Presidents.  This time, especially if you read my last post on this topic, it probably is who you think.

Two hundred twelve years ago today, then Vice-President Thomas Jefferson gave a paper as part of his Presidential Address to the American Philosophical Society.  The society was the first learned society of the United States (founded in 1745, when science was still called natural philosophy).  Jefferson’s paper focused on the bones of a Megalonyx he discovered in Virginia.  The particular species was later named after him.  Jefferson continued as President of the APS until 1815.  The modern day equivalent would be serving as Vice-president and then President while serving as President of AAAS.


Global Downturn Affecting Universities Differently

March 6th, 2009

Posted by: admin

The European University Association released a snapshot (PDF) last month of how European universities are affected by the economic downturn (H/T ScienceCareers).  Focused on January and February of this year, the snapshots suggest no Europe-wide trends.  Some universities are facing budget cuts or cancelled increases, others are benefiting from stimulus packages similar to the one in the United States.  While the EUA snapshot focused on university budgets (save the issues with British universities with holdings in Icelandic banks), the ScienceCareers article notes the impact on foundations and other non-governmental organizations in Europe that have reined in spending during the current economy.

Presidential Engagement with Science and Technology

February 12th, 2009

Posted by: admin

While Presidents usually show their support for science and technology through lines in the budget, some have notably been more directly engaged with science and/or technology.

Question: Which President is the only one to hold a patent?

Answer is after the jump, but two hints:

It’s probably not who you think

Think temporally


National Security Council Reorganization Opens Door Wider for Science Advice

February 10th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Looking at an article in Sunday’s Washington Post and remarks from National Security Adviser James Jones at the annual Munich conference on security policy, a new form is emerging for the National Security Council (NSC), one that should make it easier for science and technology advice to enter into relevant NSC discussions.  As part of a widespread reorganization of both the NSC and its Homeland Security equivalent, the membership of the NSC will become more flexible, including agencies and advisers besides the State and Defense Departments, depending on the issue.  Jones’ remarks from the Washington Post article:

“The whole concept of what constitutes the membership of the national security community — which, historically has been, let’s face it, the Defense Department, the NSC itself and a little bit of the State Department, to the exclusion perhaps of the Energy Department, Commerce Department and Treasury, all the law enforcement agencies, the Drug Enforcement Administration, all of those things — especially in the moment we’re currently in, has got to embrace a broader membership,” he said.


E-Records Remain an Archiving Challenge

February 7th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Today I listened with frustration and a lack of surprise to a piece on NPR’s On the Media about the lack of capacity in the National Archives to archive digital records.  For those who’d prefer a read, you can check out Fred Kaplan’s (interviewed by NPR) recent Slate article on the same subject for the details.  The big point – the National Archives, and because they follow its lead, other government agencies, are way behind the technology curve when it comes to archiving emails (especially with attachments), .pdf files, presentation software like PowerPoint, and other digital information.

As most business of the government has migrated from paper, the loss is for both history and transparency.  Like Kaplan, I do hope that the current administration’s efforts to make more information available online can be accompanied by increased archival capacity.  The challenge of making archiving practices uniform and consistent within government agencies is hard enough without adequate resources to maintain the fidelity of that information once it goes to the nation’s attic.

Grissom Left Vegas Just in Time

February 5th, 2009

Posted by: admin

From today’s New York Times we have a report on a pending National Academies study (probably from this Academies unit) that will put forth a significant critique of current criminal forensics techniques.  Those who are frustrated by the use of science in politics and policy may well go apoplectic if they are unfamiliar with the use of science in the courts and law enforcement.  The report was prompted by failures at several crime labs a few years ago, and could prompt greater supervision or regulation of the field.  The final report has yet to be released, so the recommendations mentioned in the Times piece may change.

In short, but hopefully not surprising, the television programs are much better at telling stories than describing accurate scientific practice in forensics.  But it does seem that both in fiction and in reality that the accuracy of the science is overstated.  While I do not object to having different standards of proof in science than in law, the overstatement of accuracy is a problem in both venues.

Leap Seconds – Time and Standards

December 31st, 2008

Posted by: admin

A quick note to help close out 2008.  Standards for time have been around since at least the establishment of time zones in the 19th century, and are another form of policy.  In this case the International Bureau of Weights and Measures is responsible for the Universal Time Scale (H/T Scientific American’s 60-Second Science blog).  I bring this up primarily to note the addition of a leap second later today, just before midnight Universal Time (or just before 5 p.m. Mountain Standard Time).  Learn more from the official U.S. Naval Observatory press release.

In Case of Voting Troubles Tomorrow

November 3rd, 2008

Posted by: admin

There will be some technology services available to report any voting equipment problems tomorrow.  If you’re more interested in tracking things, refer to my earlier post.

First, if you do encounter a problem, limit yourself to documenting and reporting the problem.  Disrupting the polling place is at best obnoxious, and could lead to jail.

There is a Twitter vote report, where you can use the microblogging service to report voting problems.  NPR explained the service this past weekend.

There are text and phone lines available through a number of sources, partisan, non-partisan and media. is one of many hotlines (866-OUR-VOTE/866-687-8683/, but also has information for each state and overseas voters. You can also search the web for the contact information for your local board of elections to report any problems.

Election 2008 on the Web

October 28th, 2008

Posted by: admin

For those in the U.S. who haven’t already taken advantage of early voting, we are one week away from the election.  Some websites have leveraged web tools to make voting information more accessible.  There are, of course, the various sites that deal with polling and predicting election results, but let’s focus on the mechanics of voting for next Tuesday.

Google has a Maps tool that can tell you where your polling place is.

VerifiedVoting has collected information on which states and counties are using what voting technology (click on your state first, the more accurate data is at the county level).

Some jurisdictions may allow you to access your registration status online.  Search for your local board of election or your state election board/secretary of state to find out for your neck of the woods.

While this is sound advice in any situation, it’s particularly important to check the sources of your information when consulting election information online.  Snopes has a page set up for ballots and elections, but it should not be considered an exhaustive list of debunked election rumors.

UPDATE (10/30) - The Weather Channel has a page focused on election related weather, both historically and for this year.

ANOTHER UPDATE (10/31) – Google’s election tools are now available for mobile phones, and a Florida news aggregator website will stream turnout from seven precincts on Election Day.

Sweat the Small Stuff – The Problem with the Large Hadron Collider

October 11th, 2008

Posted by: admin

You may have read recently that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Europe recently started operations.  Contrary to the exaggerated concerns that black holes will form – as noted in this 2000 segment from The Daily Show – there was no such incident when the LHC powered up last month.

What did happen was a magnet failure, prompted by a problem with an electrical connection.  As the BBC reports, it will take a couple of months to properly assess and repair the problem(s).  The downtime is particularly critical for the LHC, because its electricity needs – roughly equivalent to enough power for all of the households in the Geneva area – limit the amount of time it can run during the year.

There is a long list of relatively small errors that have compromised large technological systems: the O-rings and the Challenger, the failure to convert units on a Mars probe, the Spruce Goose being just too heavy to fly.  This may or may not qualify as an error, but it does reinforce the notion that the larger and/or more complex a machine is, the easier it can be for things to go wrong.  It also reinforces the idea that it’s not only the large technical hurdles that matter when trying to innovate, but making sure every part functions effectively.