Monthly Archives: June 2008

A biography of T. Edison, comparisons to Tesla, and TANSTAAFL

This little snippet of a book review is 100 years old. It was written about Thomas Edison while he was still alive.

Thomas Alva Edison: Sixty Years of an Inventor’s Life. By Francis Arthur Jones. From Nature 11 June 1908: This biography should do much to disillusion the impressions which are so commonly formed about successful men, that they only have to invent something to make a fortune. It shows clearly that the only road to success is through failure. His career as a telegraph operator was most precarious, and one of his first inventions—a vote-recording machine for election purposes—was refused, really because it was too ingenious and perfect; in fact, it could not be tampered with.

Common wisdom holds Edison above Tesla in terms of fame and historical import. Edison certainly made a great deal more money. Scientifically, it is probably a fair statement that Tesla was the more gifted. The underground conspiracy culture holds Tesla in high regard and supposes that his inventions were so good that they were suppressed so that Edison (and his like) could make more money. Of course, they are not called the conspiracy culture for nothing. I think that the comparison between the two inventors illustrates this: that the balance between science and what we would now call marketing is as fine as a razor’s edge.

Tesla lacked the marketing savvy to get credit for his science. Edison had talent, but also a shrewdness that allowed him to capitalize on it. Ironically, the conspiracy culture that idolizes Tesla is the embodiment of his opposite: they are all savvy and no science. The market for free energy devices is as active as it was 800 years ago, and its success is as imminent now as it was then. It’s too bad that Tesla’s name is caught up with those memes.


P.S. TANSTAAFL is the universal principle that There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch.  So don’t you forget it.

Getting enough sleep is key, but how much is enough?

I posted about some gumption traps before, and I mentioned caffeine as one of my favorite solutions. The underlying issue, of course, is sleep. Not too long ago, I made a note of the fact that even the simplest creatures imaginable have something like sleep. Evidently, it is pretty important.

According to this article over at, most people perform best on about 7.5 hours per night. My experience is consistent with the results presented in the news bit. Too little sleep leaves me uncreative and groggy; too much and I am lethargic. There is a balance to be struck. My problem is mornings. I hate getting up. I always feel less tired when I go to sleep than I do when I wake. That makes no sense. It drives me crazy. I’ll be rearing to go at midnight, and I force myself to go to bed then have to meditate to calm down enough to fall asleep. Then I wake up 8 hours later when the alarm goes off and I fell like my world will cave in if I don’t get 4 more hours of sleep. It’s absurd.

I’ve tried polyphasic sleep (I live a 7 min walk away from my work, so I can go home to sleep if I want). I’ve tried the rolling 28 hour day. They both left me with horrific nightmares. I felt like I was on a fast track to a mental breakdown. It was not good. So I muddle along.

I have mentioned nootropics here as well. I have not tried anything except caffeine. Maybe that’s why people get into them. Matt (that other guy on this site) sent me the sleep article; he also tells me that the use of nootropics is common among pharmaceutical representatives (he used to be one). Go figure. Think of science as the Sport of the Mind, except that there’s no rule against doping. Makes me want to go get a bottle of Nerve Tonic.


Biofuels, economics and starvation – concerns for U.S. profit and conscience

I’m a chemist, and I love the idea of biofuels. America could do better on the energy production side of things, and biofuels seem like an opportunity. What we need is a replacement for petroleum, but what we have is an agricultural production capacity. Biofuels are also an opportunity for readjustment of markets. Right now, big farm production has pushed the third world out of the agricultural game – they don’t have the technology to produce cheap food. It’s cheaper to ship food from the US than it is to grow it almost anywhere else. Ironically, raising food prices and cutting US subsidies could end up really helping the poor, since they could then make a profit selling the food that they grow for themselves.

Think of it this way: cheap US food means that farming is financially useless in places without massive agribusiness infrastructure. Yet, growing food has been the way people have built their own economies since the advent of agriculture. It’s only recently with industrial farming that it has become necessary to trade factory labor for food.

Now, I hope that it is obvious that this is an oversimplification. The above implies  that it’s more complicated than simply making the choice to burn our corn instead or feed the poor. But there is some truth to that, too. The economic reality is that a price increase on food could end up being the best thing ever for poor communities. They can begin to farm their own food and supply their own needs. But if the price goes up faster than the demand can be met by local sources, then people will starve.

When people are going hungry, it is unacceptable to turn corn into fuel. It is unacceptable to be wasteful consumers of corn while our fellow humans contend with food riots. There are new projects on the books. Turning inedible plants and plant waste into liquid transportation fuels feels a lot more reasonable. Congress is investing in these options which I think is a wise move on the part of our legislators.


Food and drink: eat the stuff you like, eat more vegetables, don’t drink bottled water

Mark Bittman’s ideas about food mirror my own. I posted about this before. He tells us all about his opinion in his TED talk. I happen to agree with the omnivorous perspective. I like all kinds of food, and I won’t give up something I enjoy in moderation for a blanket rule about what I will or won’t eat. And I’m not going to insult people who offer me something because it doesn’t fit my food rules.

There are good health reasons to eat vegetables. Eating massive quantities of meat is pretty clearly not good for people. Moreover, it’s not good for the environment. Every pound of meat represents an investment of many pounds of grain. People who are worried about food prices need not worry too much – if we cut down meat production we can raise overall food production by a great deal. That’s not a mandate for vegetarianism, it’s just good sense. ‘Less meat’ is not ‘no meat.’

Then there is bottled water. I am really irritated by bottled water. There’s a Penn and Teller’s Bullsh!t episode that sells hose water to yuppies in expensive looking bottles. They assure each other that they can ‘taste the difference.’ And there is a case to be made that the placebo effect is perfectly valid for perception of flavor – if it tastes better, it tastes better, even when it is exactly the same. But you can fool yourself into thinking it tastes better with a bit of lemon instead of burning gasoline to haul a bottle of water across the state or across the world.

Think about it: if you buy water from the French Alps, you just paid to have water shipped from the french alps. That’s insane. If you buy other, cheaper brands, you are paying to have someone re-filter your local tap water (at least they are not shipping it across the world) and put it in a bottle for you. Here’s the best part: it’s not safer. Not too far back the CocaCola company had to pull Dasani water off the shelves in Britain because it had more bromate than was allowed in tap water.

For the money we spend shipping and re-purifying drinkable water in the United States, we could afford to provide safe water to everyone in the world. According to the EPIThe United Nations Millennium Development Goal for environmental sustainability calls for halving the proportion of people lacking sustainable access to safe drinking water by 2015. Meeting this goal would require doubling the $15 billion a year that the world currently spends on water supply and sanitation. While this amount may seem large, it pales in comparison to the estimated $100 billion spent each year on bottled water.” There are people whose ground water has arsenic in it. They are drinking arsenic from a local well while we are shipping fashion water from France to the U.S. where we already have water without arsenic in it to begin with. I’m in favor of free markets, but that’s tantamount to the decadence of eating the ortolan.


P.S. via wikipedia: For centuries, a rite of passage for French gourmets has been the eating of the Ortolan. These tiny birds—captured alive, force-fed, then drowned in Armagnac—were roasted whole and eaten that way, bones and all, while the diner draped his head with a linen napkin to preserve the precious aromas and, some believe, to hide from God.

The Wine Spectator

Bacteria ‘invent’ new enzyme in the lab under scientific supervision

The importance of this cannot be overstated. There are levels of understanding of evolutionary theory. In Chemistry, my chosen field, you learn the “basics” of chemistry about 5 times before you’re done with an undergraduate degree. Every time you re-learn it, you learn all of the problems with the old way you learned it and all of the ways the new way of understanding is better. It’s unrealistic to teach graduate chemistry to elementary school students – they need the context of a few benign simplifications in order to approach the deeper understanding. It’s the same way with evolution. I’m not an evolutionary biologist, but I understand that there are levels of subtlety and that the simple explanations are not the whole story.

One of the most hard-to-believe concepts is that biologcal ‘designs’ come from the vast sea of probability. How could randomness produce an invention? Doesn’t invention require intelligence? It all comes down to amplification. Looking for a fully formed functional enzyme in the sea of randomness would take forever (almost literally). But if you had a way to amplify every useful step along the way from any random junk all the way to something useful, then the whole thing can happen pretty fast.

How fast? About 30,000 generations. Scientists have put bacteria in an environment where it would be advantageous to invent an enzyme. The bacteria did it in 30,000 generations. That’s ‘macro-evolution’ on a pertri-dish. It’s a terrible blow to those who have touted the idea of ‘irreducible complexity,’ and people who consider evolution to be an unproven hypothesis.

Of course, they hold themselves to a different standard of truth, so there’s really no basis for rational argument. I’m not sure about it being a ‘miracle,’ but I will concede this: the wow factor is really high for the feat of making critters invent an enzyme on cue.