Saturday, January 26, 2008

Zen and the Art of Brain Maintenance

It seems, much of the time, that not more than a few hours, days, or (for the lucky ones amongst us) weeks can pass by without facing a difficult problem. While some people have developed methods for confronting such problems, scientists have decided to tackle the subject to determine the mechanics that take place behind such decisions.

Their hopes and definition of the issue at hand:

’This insight is at the core of human intelligence … this is a key cognitive function that the human can boast to have,’ says Joydeep Bhattacharya, an assistant professor in Goldsmiths's psychology department. "We're interested [in finding out] whether—there is a sudden change that takes place or something that changes gradually [that] we're not consciously aware of," he says. The researchers believed they could pin down brain signals that would enable them to predict whether a person could solve a particular problem or not.

The findings shed some light on human thought processes: Once at a mental impasses, subjects experienced strong gamma rhythms, patterns of brain wave activity which has previously been associated with selective attention, in the parietal cortex—think upper rear of the brain, responsible for integrating information obtained from sensory input. When offered clues in this particular increased gamma-rhythmic state, subjects were less likely to gain insight on getting past their impasses.

If there’s excessive attention, it somehow creates mental fixation,” Dr. Bhattacharya notes: Your brain is not in a receptive condition.

When patients did not consciously monitor their thinking about a particular subject, they had their “eureka!” moments: The researchers likened it to an experience of emotional relief. Application of conscious information processing by the brain was associated with alpha waves—which have been previously associated with a relaxed and open mind. It has been shown that volunteers who were more apt to unwittingly solve problems exhibited more robust alpha rhythms as opposed to those who had to knowingly adjust their thinking to come up with the answer. In other words, the findings indicated that it is better to confront issues with an open mind rather than concentrating too much on them.

For a moment, let’s explore the larger network that the implications of these findings fit into. Research has shown that sleeping on a difficult issue is conducive to helping solve that issue, for instance. Just like any other muscle, the brain can be configured to have perspective to solve problems from a general sense, it can be trained to solve a specific set of problems, or it can be manipulated in the moment to work on a problem. My classic approach to solving a problem is that I prefer to take the tactful, graceful approach first; if that fails, then I will be apt to use a brute force approach. This particular philosophy fits in with the above, as grace employs techniques which are more concise, sophisticated, and even “Zen-like” in a sense, as opposed to the brute force approach where instead of coaxing a situation to become more to your satisfaction, you utilize more forceful techniques to control the situation to your satisfaction.

The solution for tough problems is simple, then: Either brute force your way through the toughness of the issue at hand…or use the smarter approach and walk away from the situation for a while. The alternative is to “train your brain” to have the perspective that is conducive to resolving these sorts of issues more quickly—by conditioning it to be more of a generalist than being focused on a specific manner of thinking.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Ethanol: Update


You should make sure you've read the post before this one regarding Ethanol; then read this one.

Now...recall the portion where I mentioned ingenuity and innovativeness as part of the way to counter the un-economical nature of ethanol? I forgot to mention that the same ingenuity and innovativeness could also be applied to the ethanol problem.

Like what this company is doing: They claim to be able to make ethanol from most any biological material using a bacteria-based method for $1 per gallon. Apply economies of scale, an experience curve, and you have some potentially cheap biofuel!

The Un-Promise of Ethanol

I’m not usually one to write about topics that are very much political in this forum mostly out of respect for everyone’s political views, the polarizing nature that such views can be, and the fact that I could care less about a person’s political views: They are of a personal nature, and it is as simple as that. That being said, I’m going to breach what is mainly an energy topic in this post, and what is only a political topic by extension of it being an election year.

I saw a commercial today in which someone said “I don’t want to drill my fuel, I want to grow it:” Conventional wisdom that flows nicely and strikes an emotional note with many people sympathetic to the so-dubbed energy crisis.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, senior Democrat Senator from California, describes the promise of Ethanol: It is “a perfect, win-win solution for both the nation's farm economy and its energy needs. According to the National Corn Growers Association, ethanol production could make 1.4 billion bushels of corn "disappear" in 2004 ... enough to replace more than 2 billion gallons of gasoline and provide a much-needed market for farmers stricken with chronically low corn prices. People feel the pinch of gasoline prices at the fuel pumps, eliciting an emotional reaction; furthermore people will tend to feel the plight of the depressed corn farmer—heck, I grew up on a farm and understand how economics work in agriculture.

However, I am an economist. From this perspective a dispassionate view of the situation must be done in order to properly assess the situation. What does the science say? What about the data?

David Pimentel has some insight on the situation. As an ecology professor at Cornell University, his research indicates that it takes the equivalent of just about 1 1/3 gallons of gasoline to produce enough ethanol to replace 1 gallon of fuel that goes into anything from your SUV to hybrid. In larger quantities, according to an article he authored in the science journal Natural Resources Research, it takes the equivalent of 271 gallons of gasoline to grow 2.47 acres of corn: Tractor fuel and the manufacture of nitrogen fertilizers are the biggest culprits here. The National Corn Growers Association, reporting on a study done by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, agrees: In June 2004, the U.S. Department of Agriculture updated its 2002 analysis of the issue and determined that the net energy balance of ethanol production is 1.67 to 1. (For every 100 BTUs of energy used to make ethanol, 167 BTUs of ethanol is produced.) In 2002, USDA had concluded that the ratio was 1.35 to 1.

Then, there’s the whole thing with the corn as part of the food supply situation: The U.S. ethanol sector will need 2.6 billion bushels per year by 2010—1.2 billion bushels more than it consumed in 2005. That’s a lot of corn, and how the market adapts to this increased demand is likely to be one of the major developments of the early 21st century in U.S. agriculture. The most recent USDA Baseline Projections suggest that much of the additional corn needed for ethanol production will be diverted from exports. MSNBC goes on to elaborate on the demand factors in the formula: Demand has risen so sharply, the amount of corn in storage is expected to drop to half of last year's levels, the department said. Farmers should harvest 10.55 billion bushels of corn, a 5 percent drop from last year.

Heck, it’s even making the price of the tacos I love so dearly to increase.

What are the essentials of the ethanol-as-a-biofuel situation? Ninety five percent of ethanol is produced from corn, and 11 percent of the U.S. corn crop went into ethanol production in 2004. With these numbers in hand, the U.S. Congress passed into law the Energy Policy Act of 2005; Section 1501 of which mandates 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol in use by 2012. As of August 2007 there were 124 ethanol plants around the country with 7 being expanded and 76 more being constructed: As a whole, somewhere in the range of 200 to 300 have been proposed.

The General Accounting Office of the U.S. Government, a body that deals almost entirely in numbers, has been quoted as saying that “ethanol's potential for substituting for petroleum is so small that it is unlikely to significantly affect overall energy security."

Now that we’ve defined the problem, what about the solution?

Human ingenuity, especially in the capacity for which the United States has been known, knows no bounds. If one is to take the two fundamental areas of scientific research of basic and applied, the former applies to research for the sake of research and “basic” or fundamental knowledge in the sciences; the latter is the sort such that the end result is a product or technology. With that, I believe strong basic research of a nation translates into a strong national defense—and I don’t believe that there is any political debate in this premise.

The best solution to this problem, then, is a joint approach whereas the markets and government work together towards the same goal of a economical form of energy which is either renewable or easily enough produced, and integrated into the current circumstances of our economy. Although not impossible, we live in an economy fueled by oil—making all that more difficult for this to happen. However, if part of economics is the risk-reward quotient, data firmly suggests that with the right motivation, impetus, and resources the reward hiding behind the risk could someday be a reality.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Myth of the “Google Generation”

Perhaps you’ve heard the news: Younger generations born or raised during the last several years, the co-called “Internet Age,” are the most web-literate. They have an ease and familiarity with the technology of computing and the Internet which often dwarves those of older generations. They can find information readily out on the World Wide Web, process it readily, and use it effectively.


A recent study by the “CIBER” research team over at the University College of London claims that these assertions become more incorrect the further one reads into the above paragraph.

Research-behaviour traits that are commonly associated with younger users – impatience in search and navigation, and zero tolerance for any delay in satisfying their information needs – are now becoming the norm for all age-groups, from younger pupils and undergraduates through to professors.

What do they intend to do about it? Dr. Malcom Read, Executive Secretary of the British Joint Information Systems Committee, says:

These findings add to our growing understanding of subjects that should concern all who work in further and higher education – the changing needs of our students and researchers and how libraries can meet their needs. We hope that this report will encourage debate around these important questions. We hope it will also serve to remind us all that students and researchers will continue to need the appropriate skills and training to help navigate an increasingly diverse and complex information landscape.”

I’ll be curious to see what comes from the forthcoming debate.