Category Archives: news

Viruses mine for copper at the University of BC; microscopy at the University of Victoria; the Henry Louis Gates Jr. affair, human nature, & human enhancement

Professor Scott Dunbar at the University of British Columbia’s (Canada) Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering needed to partner with colleagues Sue Curtis and Ross MacGillivray from the Centre for Blood Research and the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology after (from the media release on Nanowerk News),

“I read an article about bacteriophage – viruses that infect bacteria – being used to create nanodevices in which proteins on the phage surface are engineered to bind to gold and zinc sulfide,” says Dunbar. “And it struck me: if zinc sulfide, why not copper sulfide? And if so, then it might be possible to use these bio-engineered proteins to separate common economic sulfide minerals from waste during mineral extraction.”

Together the researchers have developed a procedure called “biopanning.” It’s a kind of genetic engineering which could lead to some useful applications.

It turns out that the phage that bind to a mineral do affect the mineral surfaces, causing them to have a different electrical charge than other minerals. The proteins on the phage also form links to each other leading to aggregation of the specific sulfide particles. “The physical and chemical changes caused by phage may be the basis for a highly selective method of mineral separation with better recovery. Another possible application is bioremediation, where metals are removed from contaminated water” says Dunbar.

In other BC news, the University of Victoria (Canada) will be getting a new microscope which senses at subatomic levels. (From the media release on Azonano),

The new microscope-called a Scanning Transmission Electron Holography Microscope (STEHM) — will use an electron beam and holography techniques to observe the inside of materials and their surfaces to an expected resolution as small as one-fiftieth the size of an atom.

This is being done in collaboration with Hitachi High-Technologies which is building the microscope in Japan and installing it at U Vic in late 2010. The microscope will be located in a specially adapted room where work to prepare and calibrate it will continue until it becomes operational sometime in 2011.

After my recent series on robots and human enhancement, I feel moved to comment on the situation in the US vis a vis Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and his arrest by the police officer, James Crowley. It’s reported here and elsewhere that neither the recording of the 911 call nor the concerned neighbour who made the call support Sergeant Crowley’s contention that the two men allegedly breaking into the house were described as ‘black’.

Only the participants know what happened and I don’t fully understand the nuances of race, class, and cultural differences that exist in the US so I can’t comment on anything other than this. It is human to hear what we expect to hear and I have an example from a much less charged situation.

Many years ago, I was transcribing notes from a taped interview (one of my first) for an article that I was writing for a newsletter. As I was transcribing, I noticed that I kept changing words so that the interview subject sounded more like me. They were synonyms but they were my words not his. Over the years I’ve gotten much better at being more exact but I’ve never forgotten how easy it is to insert your pet words (biased or not) when you’re remembering what someone said. Note: I was not in a stressful situation and I could rewind and listen again at my leisure.

I hope that Crowley and Gates, Jr. are able to work this out in some fashion and I really hope that it is done in a way that is respectful to both men and not a rush to a false resolution for the benefit of the cameras. For a more informed discussion of the situation, you may find this essay by Richard Thompson Ford  in Slate helpful. It was written before the recording of the 911 call was made public but I think it still stands.

My reason for mentioning this incident is that human nature tends to assert itself in all kinds of situations including the building of robots and the debates on human enhancement, something I did not mention in my series posted (July 22 – 24, 27, 2009).

Cascio thoughts on augmenting intelligence and some other odds and sods

It’s Jamais Cascio time … again! He’s got an article here in the Atlantic (July/August 2009 issue) about humans surviving because we get smarter. In the past this has been a passive, reactive response to changing environmental conditions but now we’re evolving ourselves in a proactive fashion. From the article,

Yet in one sense, the age of the cyborg and the super-genius has already arrived. It just involves external information and communication devices instead of implants and genetic modification. The bioethicist James Hughes of Trinity College refers to all of this as “exo­cortical technology,” but you can just think of it as “stuff you already own.” Increasingly, we buttress our cognitive functions with our computing systems, no matter that the connections are mediated by simple typing and pointing. These tools enable our brains to do things that would once have been almost unimaginable:

Cascio goes on to describe curent and potential augmentations and possibilities. My biggest reservations centre around his enthusiasm for using drugs to augment intelligence. Specifically, he extolls the virtues of modafinil (trade name Provigil) which, according to Cascio, is widely used in the tech community for its intelligence enhancing capabilities and for the fact that you will need to sleep less. Have you ever looked at a Compendium of Pharmaceuticals? It’s a comprehensive listing of drugs that doctors and pharamacists use to see what kinds of side effects and problems a drug can cause? I haven’t looked up this drug but I have done it for others and I’m willing to bet that there are any number of unpleasant side effects possible. As to what impact, long term (decades long?) regular use might have … who knows?

Interestingly some of the enhancements that Cascio attributes to the drug are also described by sages as a consquence of something called awakening,

… I noticed a much greater capacity for clarity and simplicity. My mind became a more subtle tool, a more powerful tool; it coud be used in a very precise way, like a laser. Before this transformation happened, I wouldn’t say my mind operated on that level, so there was some sort of a transformation that led to a new sense of clarity and focus. (pp. 121-2) The End of Your World; uncensored straight talk on the nature of enlightenment by Adyashanti.

For another take on Cascio’s article, go to the Foresight Institute here.

If you are interested in a roundup of Nanotechnology News this week, you can visit the blog ‘This Week in Nanotechnologyhere. Also, I received an invitation from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars to an event at the Smithsonian. It doesn’t look like there will be a webcast but if you’re in Washington, DC (Wednesday, July 8, 2009, 10 am to 11 am at the Woodrow Wilson Center),

Secretary [of the Smithsonian] Wayne Clough explains how the Smithsonian Institution can make major contributions on issues of national and international concern, particularly global warming and biodiversity, education, and issues of national identity. He discusses how the Institution is connecting in new ways with new audiences.

If you can attend, contact: [email protected].

Have a nice weekend!

Stone of Destiny and blogging for Darwin

The Stone of Destiny is a movie being released today. I saw it last week at an early screening event (a local moviehouse has a breakfast/preview movie event at 10 am on some Sundays). I’ve been reading the reviews in the local papers with some surprise; they seem mildly cranky. Personally, I enjoyed the movie. I learned a little bit about Scotland and its history through a well told story about idealists who bumble their way through an extraordinary caper. They ‘retrieve’ the Stone of Destiny (also known as the Stone of Scone [scone, in this case, is rhymed with stone]) from Westminster Abbey. The stone had significance to the Scots as it was used as part of their coronation ceremonies when they had their own kings and queens. The English took the stone when they gained dominance over Scotland. They took it home to London and Westminster Abbey where It actually sat on a ledge beneath the chairseat of the chair used in English coronation ceremonies. The symbolism is hard to miss. The stone, by the way, weighs between 300 and 400 pounds.

The movie is pretty much true to the events as they transpired, according to the director. (People stayed to talk to the director, Charles Martin Smith, after the screening.) I liked it for more than just the history. The idealism and the exuberance portrayed on screen was refreshing when we are so often surrounded (drowning) in cynicism and bitterness.

As for the three professional reviewers, it’s interesting to note that two (Greg Ursic in the WestEnder and Jay Stone in the Vancouver Sun) of them tell us that the Stone of Destiny is no Braveheart. I would pretty much concur although I’m not sure why they’ve mentioned it. The movie is not Gone with the Wind nor  The Lord of the Rings nor Mary, Queen of Scots, for that matter. As for Ken Eisner in The Georgia Straight, he was the most dismissive of all. I gather that he would have given the movie more political edge and tragedy if he’d made it.

One thing I should note before finishing ths, cranking out reviews is tough work. You can get very jaded and you don’t have the luxury of writing only about the shows/movies/exhibitions that move you strongly. I know because I used to review dance and I couldn’t hack it for much more than two years (roughly). That said, I stand by comments about the ‘cranky’ reviews.

Unfortunately, I missed the Blogging for Darwin event which was held (Feb. 12 – 15, 2009) to commemorate the 200th anniversary of his birth. It was an international event which attracted poets, artists, and scientists. You can read a bit more about it here or you can go directly to Blog for Darwin.

The CATTW and me plus John Miles Foley

My presentation has been made. The good stuff: lots of interesting ideas and I got more practice and talking about nanotechnology. To be improved on: more coherence. The funny thing is that I was talking about nonlinear presentation of ideas and that’s pretty much what I gave them. As for the Canadian Association of Teachers of Technical Writing, it’s an interesting little group. I had thought that some of these people had been technical writers i.e. had worked in the field. After yesterday I have a strong suspicion that’s not the case for most of them. I will test that hypothesis over the next few days.

Today I’m attending two of the special Congress presentations. I’m particularly interested in the guy (John Mile Foley) who’s talking about oral culture and the Internet.  Plus, there’s a session about teaching science in the 21st century with Carl Weiman. I suspect that’s going to be oriented to science profs and not informal science education.

This congress hasn’t gotten lots of coverage in the local papers. There are 10,000 or 9,000 expected to attend this event and they all went to student services for lunch yesterday and I have suspicion today will be busier.

Nano, wikis, and the sun

About a week or so ago, I read about a new nano wiki being proposed or developed by the International Council on Nanotechnology (ICON). This wiki is  going to focus on international best practices for environmental health and safety vis a vis nanoparticles. I’d forgotten about it until this morning when I saw some comments about the wiki on an IEEE blog.  The writer also questions whether or not council truly is international. (You can go see the comments here.) It’s a bit of a puzzle trying to get representation that’s truly international.  For example, I’ve had a proposal accepted for a presentation at the Language and the Scientific Imagination  conference in Helsinki and I’ve noticed that most of the people presenting are from the UK, a few are from Australia, and then there are assorted single presenters (Belgium, Canada, Germany). I’m willing to bet the organizer worked really, really hard and that group is as diverse as she could manage.

IBM was busy announcing some sort of advance that could reduce the costs fro solar panels (more here). Don’t know why but it reminded me of IBM’s pr stunt last year where they reproduced a famous paining (17th century, I think) of the sun. I’m being a little facetious but it does seem as if IBM wants to brand the sun.

Oh, and the British Columbia Nanotechnology Alliance is putting on a golf tournament June 19, 2008. It’s a benefit for BC Technology Social Venture Partners. You can register and get more details about the golf tournament here and about the charitable society here.

Nano Oreal, Bonifacho, and Krazy

I received an invitation to a nanotech event “Small is Beautiful” just yesterday for a June 5, 2008 at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, DC. Luckily they webcast their events so you can tune in 1pm – 2pm EST here. And in case that link doesn’t work, you can try here in the invite and click in the right sidebar under Webcast Live. And, here’s why you might be interested. They’re featuring a representative from L’Oreal, Dr. Francis Quinn, and the Chief Science Officer for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, Dr. Andrew Maynard. Apparently, L’Oreal ranks sixth in nanotech patents in the US. So, the beauty and cosmetics sector has embraced nanotechnology and introduced it into their products. I will be interested to hear about any risk assessments L’Oreal has made for people slathering nanoparticles onto their skin. Maynard should be interesting too. He writes a about risk on a Safenano Community blog here.

On another note, an artist I know, Bratsa Bonifacho, just had a launch event for his latest project, a series of street banners that have been placed along Cambie St. and its eponymous bridge in Vancouver. He was invited to Vancouver City Hall and feted by mayor Sam Sullivan and various city councillors yesterday for the launch. (late breaking…here are some links to articles about Bratsa and his banners…Vancouver Sun and Metro News…despite Metro News, the banners are not about anti-homophobic rallies…Bratsa did a series of paintings about computer viruses and that’s what you can see on the street banners)

Tomorrow I’m off to a press preview of Krazy! The delirious world of Anime + Comics + Video Games + Art at the Vancouver Art Gallery. More about that afterwards.

I was out of commission for a few days. Twisted ankle on Saturday, May 10 and tooth extraction yesterday, May 13. I should be back to normal in the next few days.