The Unbearable Lightness of Helium

We are letting go of all our helium. This is no joke. As we satisfy our mylar bellies’ hunger for maximum buoyancy, helium escapes from our planet at a rate much faster than the Earth can replenish it, and the US, holding 75% of the world’s supply, happens to be selling it off at bargain-basement prices [dailymail.co.uk]. We’re set to fully run out of helium around the year 2035.

But some of my favorite comedians — the ones with more than trace elements of intelligence — love to make light of it.

Last night, The Daily Show ran a special report on the looming helium gas-hole. But Brian Malow (the Science Comedian . . . “dot com!”) beat both The Daily Mail and The Daily Show to the punchline back in 2009, in this nerdtastic Ignite talk at the Web 2.0 Expo in SF [laughingsquid.com]:

Helium is a nonrenewable, finite resource, yet it’s a crucial and insubstitutable element in technologies where its uniquely low boiling point is necessary for cooling, such as in MRI scanners and in the manufacture of liquid crystal displays. Why are we so frivolously letting go of helium?

Well, basically, because we can… and because people are unaware that we shouldn’t be able to. Prices have been driven up, scarcity can definitely be felt, but public understanding of the fact that helium, once consumed, can never be retrieved and won’t be replaced, is not exactly at the forefront of environmental education.

“We have to be thinking of these things,” said Lee Sobotka, a chemistry and physics professor at Washington University. “Up to now, the issue often hasn’t risen to the level that it’s important. It’s a problem for the next generation of scientists. But it’s incumbent upon us to have a vision, and tell it like it is a resource that is more strictly nonrenewable than either oil or gas.”

This is not to say that guilt would stimulate conservation. As this party balloon seller remarked in 2008 [herald-review.com], following a huge price surge in helium gas,

“Sometimes customers are a little surprised by the price, but it doesn’t prevent them from wanting a fun arrangement,” he said. “It’s sort of like price increases with things like gasoline or bread, or milk. People don’t stop buying them.”

For the consumer, helium was already an occasional luxury. Now it’s simply a more expensive occasional luxury. It will likely take prices even the rich consider ludicrous to deter consumer-market depletion of helium, which is not likely to happen without tight regulation of the supply.

Et Tu, Boyfriend?

Testing the theory that girls love a bad boy, my partner Josh fritters away our dwindling helium reserves by sending weather balloons up to near-space to take pictures and send back GPS and other sensory data via ham radio. He filed this post on his blog about the third in a series of missions dubbed “Bacchus” under thank god my girlfriend thinks this is sexy. Hmm.

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Noisebridge and 5MoF in the SF Bay Guardian

The SF Bay Guardian just turned Noisebridge‘s Five Minutes of Fame into fifteen, in their article, “Performant Nerds Vs Geeks and Other Four-Letter Words”:

…both nerds and geeks presenting at Noisebridge’s monthly “5 Minutes of Fame,” to a crowd composed of nearly 100 folks who mainly, though not exclusively, could be categorized as either, or possibly both. The premise of 5MoF is short (very) and sweet: in five minutes or less each presenter gives a talk, makes a pitch, or demonstrates a work in progress to the general public who may then in turn offer assistance or appreciation.

Topics this week included why dumb is good (‘cause Socrates said so), music you can make on your iPhone, how to combat global ignorance with a video game, the creation of a new Tenderloin performance space dedicated to “cutting-edge vintage,” the demise of the fourth estate, and what the heck is in my kombucha anyway?

Heyyy… guess who’s got two thumbs and did a presentation on kombucha that night?

In fact, guess who’s got two pictures of herself delivering said presentation sitting at the top of that article?

Shout-outs to noted supernerd Doctor Popular for taking pics that night!

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Stephen Quayle Commands Freaky Web Traffic

I’m doing some research on the sort of traffic that H+Magazine gets from various parts of the web. This dude Steve Quayle has at various intervals sent tens of thousands of visitors to articles on the H+ Magazine website.

An average amount of hits per stevequayle.com burst is about 3000. And on January 14th, his website sent over 7,500 visitors to H+ magazine to look at the article, DARPA Takes Suspended Animation: Zombie Pigs, Squirrels, and Hypersleep.

Meet Stephen Quayle

He’s a bible literalist, apocalyptic, and total Luddite. And he commands a hell of a lot of web traffic.

Unfortunately the 1998-ish quality of his website makes it impossible to link to the context on his site in which he originally put the links to Hplus articles (although he does keep an index of the links he’s posted, e.g. the technology articles such as the Zombie one above fall under the heading “Technology Decadence / Mark of the Beast”). That puts us at a disadvantage; it’s impossible (with the exception of that bit of flavor from the index) to tell what kind of message he gave his readers to compel them to click.

But we can make some good guesses just based on the sorts of things he’s likely to say and the sorts of people who are likely to follow him “religiously”.

One of the reasons I love doing market research is the interesting and sometimes (let’s say) unencouraging perspective on humanity that it brings. According to my cursory Related Keywords research, the keyword phrase “steve quayle” is highly associated with the phrases “nephilim” (12,099 searches per day), “antediluvian” (1,339 searches/day), and “sons of god” (730 searches/day).

That means… You know what, I’ll leave it you, dear reader, to determine what that means.

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Kombucha, My Lord, Kombucha

Last night at Five Minutes of Fame, I gave a talk about kombucha.

I occasionally give workshops about kombucha, and I’ve spent a lot of time ruminating and researching on it. So I knew there were dozens of different focii to choose from that would fit in 5 minutes or less, and I didn’t want to rehash what I do in workshops. (It wouldn’t be fair, anyway — the information I share in workshops is meant to be absorbed while you’re tasting and mixing kombucha.)

Eventually I settled on the idea of contesting a few kombucha health claims by highlighting how little we know about the contents of any given brew. My slides are below. I believe there’s a video recording out there, but I’ll have to find it later.

[Note: this isn’t an issue in the slides, but I made an error in my speech about hyaluronic acid. I called it a “precursor to collagen and elastin” — that’s totally inaccurate. It’s a component of synovial fluid which fills in a lot of structure around collagen and elastin. I was fishing around for a way to describe “filling in structure”, and that’s what came out — and with 5 minutes allotted, I hate correcting myself. The worst is that I think I said it twice…]

The title, also the title of this blog post, was suggested by Aesthetix over a year ago, I think for the May 2009 Five Minutes of Fame. I instead used my time slot to deliver a presentation called “UR Doin It Wrong”, a talk about how, if you love your brain and consider it your best asset, you’re probably not treating it right.

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Precious Cargo

Since I donated my car to 826 National, I’ve been just a little bit less stressed out.

I watch the DPT ticket cars on my street missing their permit placards for our neighborhood, and I sigh happily. I sail past traffic on my bike in the Mission, overloaded with groceries but happy for the exercise. The now-empty driveway I come home to seems a little lonely, but it also represents no more risk of sidewalk-parking tickets and no more paying insurance on a car whose windshield was probably going to cave in within a year.

But there is one reason I do still miss my car, and that is acquiring a watermelon.

Watermelons — whole ones, mind you — don’t fit in bike baskets. And they definitely don’t fit in the arms of an 8-months-pregnant lady like me.

So, behold! The Japanese have invented the Perfect Thing for this modern dilemma.

The Watermelon Stroller

marugoto tama-chan, the watermelon stroller

The name of this refrigerated fruit transporter is Marugoto Tama-Chan, which translates roughly as “whole round thing [cutesy name]”.

Google Translate delivers some more entertainment:

Tama-chan is the whole season, and even when cool or warm depending on the season OK.
The outdoors is the really shines more! Hot summer day is a whole watermelon “Tama-chan” into the swimming GO! By train to the core support so cool cigar socket.
We carry easy to carry with wheels rotate 360 degrees telescopic more!
And as cold weather heating cabinet is big success! Canned coffee and tea, meat, etc. “Tama-chan” if put in, you can always receive a warm still tasty.
Also, I put in the rookie of the constant cold temperature guests delicious rice.

It charges in your car (I think that’s what is meant by “so cool cigar socket”), which gives me a little bit of a “so then what’s the point” feeling, but it also charges by regular A/C. Being Japanese electronics, one would actually have no problem getting power to it here in the U.S.

There’s an appeal to specified-usage, tailored gadgets. Images of walking down the street happily pushing my watermelon baby home from the store in a chromed-up hyperbaric chamber on wheels put a smile on my face.

But at $230, I have to decide that I don’t really miss watermelons all that much. My car insurance for a quarter of a year cost roughly that. And anyway, I’ll have a real baby in a stroller soon enough.

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Do Big Cats Like Catnip?

Or: What’s a cat sex hormone doing in a plant?

Ever wondered if ocelots, leopards, lions, and tigers dig catnip the same way domestic kitties do? Watch and see.

Ok, I’m intrigued. Obviously this catnip connection reaches further back in the evolutionary timeline than just domestic cats — it looks as though, with the exception of mister King of the Jungle there, no feline animal can escape the wiles of catnip.

What makes catnip work? According to veterinarian Ramona Turner writing for Scientific American, catnip contains a chemical called Nepetalactone which happens to bind to protein receptors in a cat’s olfactory system exactly like a chemical found in the urine of a dominant female cat in heat.

When cats smell catnip they exhibit several behaviors common to queens in season (females in heat): They may rub their heads and body on the herb or jump, roll around, vocalize and salivate.

In other words, kitty’s not seeing double-rainbows; kitty thinks she or another female is in heat.

The effects seem to wear off within 10 minutes, and the cat in question won’t respond to catnip again until another 30 minutes have gone by. (Sensory adaptation?) Roughly 75% of felines are genetically wired to respond to catnip in this way; for the remaining 25%, it’s just not their cup of mint tea.

Ok, but WHY?

The author of ManhattanCats.com weighs in:

The plants that belong to the catnip family are indigenous only to the Old World, and yet, members of the feline family that respond to catnip are found in both the Old World and the New World. So, if you think about the catnip response from an evolutionary standpoint, it seems clear that some species of cats have acquired the ability to display the catnip response even though the natural source of nepetalactone was not present to influence the evolution of this behavioral response. (Yet another fun fact that adds to the overall mystique of the feline).

But this is actually a great argument for total arbitrariness: cats around the world react to this chemical that happens to grow only in certain parts of the world, so the idea certain cats somehow having evolutionarily “acquired the catnip response” is a futile line of inquiry.

Far from constituting another example of “feline mystique”, the easiest and best explanation would be that a common ancestor of all cats had this nepetalactone response as a vital part of the feline sexual cycle — and the presence of the chemical in the plant is mere coincidence. Does the presence of theobromine in chocolate, a mood-altering stimulant, tell us something useful about human evolution?

So what is a cat sex hormone doing in a plant?

A Bee on Catnip Flowers

This little bee seems to enjoy catnip too.


Nepatalactone may have evolved as a honeybee attractant and perhaps also as an unwanted-insect repellant. The chemical is also mildly antibacterial, according to Wikipedia.

Of those possibilities, the honeybee attractant theory makes the most sense. Catnip doesn’t have much to fear from mosquitoes and cockroaches, the only bugs that seem to react negatively to the chemical, and the antibacterial quality doesn’t tend to do a whole lot for plants, whose cellulose structures are more susceptible to fungus than anything else.

Does that mean that letting your ocelot go into heat and pee all over your garden will bring honeybees to your flowers?

Sure, maybe. Try that out and let me know how it goes.

iz a ocelot so grr n stuff

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Ditch the Diesel!

On July 10th (two Saturdays from today), I’ll be running another Alternative Energy Workshop at Noisebridge in the Turing classroom, starting at 2pm. It’d be excellent if you could RSVP over on the Facebook page, or comment here on the blog if you want to come, leaving an email address I can actually reach you at.

More from the FB page:

DITCH THE DIESEL! Come build your own solar energy generator.

Dr Geoff Horne of Alternative Energy Zone brings clean energy to your houseboat, homemade platform, or deck camp with a hands-on workshop designed to get you rolling with an easy-to-build, very affordable solar kit.

This is a hands-on, information-rich workshop where you’ll get to build all the components yourself and ask as many questions as you can muster.

While this workshop is geared to support the total beginner, our resident expert, Dr Geoff Horne (organizer of Alternative Energy Zone, a long-running Burning Man Camp that requires all campers to bring their own non-diesel, clean energy generators), will be able to enrich even the experienced alternative energy maker.

This is a free workshop, donations to Noisebridge (a nonprofit hackerspace in San Francisco) strongly encouraged.

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Culture is Your Operating System

Terence McKenna, well-known for his refrain of “culture is not your friend”, explains how thoughts and beliefs occur within a framework, an “operating system” — and if you want to be able to think new thoughts and have different beliefs, you need to change your operating system.

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Meme Hacking and the Memetics Conference

…wherein I more formally announce my schemes for the next 4 months.

First off, what I’m most excited about:

the MemeHacking branch of NotaCon

I’m co-organizing a separate branch of NotaCon this year dealing specifically with memetics. You can read more about it on the MemeHacking Conference page.

The call has gone out to specific persons and to the general public for interesting presentations and panel ideas. So far, the response looks utterly fascinating.

If you’re interested in memetics — i.e. the study of thoughts and ideas capable of self-replication and evolution by natural selection — check out the MemeHacking blog. We’re writing essays about recent scientific research through the lens of memetics.

MemeHacking gives damn good tweet.

You should should totally follows us on Twitter (@MemeHacking of course). We get retweeted by @Richard_Dawkins. You know, the guy who invented the word “meme” in 1976.

Relatedly, you”ll want to check out our sister site…

MemeWeaving.com

On MemeWeaving.com we’re collecting videos, papers, slideshows, podcasts, and all other content related to neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, cognition, behavioral economics, marketing, and the like. Why? Because we want to make it easy for people to surf through the stuff that’s influenced us and given us hope that we can discover the memetic operating system: US.

MemeWeaving has a little social networking doodad built in that we’re experimenting with. I added it because I think it will be useful for the Memetics Conference — people will be able to link up with and discover more interesting people who appreciate thinking about information, human brains, and culture through the memetic perspective.

Feel free to grab a free account!

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All Bosses Suck

I couldn’t help but comment on this article, “Science: Your Boss Sucks” on Fiat Lux, a Stanford-based blog about “liberal education, politics, and the intersection thereof.”

The blog references a New Scientist article that stipulates that bosses suck in general because they “rise” until they are at a level where they are consistently underperforming.

Look, companies invented this type of suckage by pretending that their pretend hierarchical structure of jobs has some kind of meaningful mapping on to a linear progression of difficulty, and that excellence in a “lower” job ought to be rewarded with the responsibilities, tasks, and rewards of a “higher” job.

Bollocks. Here is the comment I stayed up past pi o’clock writing… on a blog that has a mission statement:

These are exactly the types of problems you’d expect to see in hierarchical organizations that attach a semantic quality of importance-increase to a movement from a production-oriented job to a management-oriented job.

Is there More, Harder, or More Important work being done on various managerial levels? No. They’re simply qualitatively different jobs. On every level, you will find good, bad, and excellent managers, many of whom would be performing much better if they were shifted to a different scenario.

In my profession, a software engineer occasionally finds herself drawn “up” to the level of project manager — mostly so the company feels justified in paying her in “wages commensurate with experience” — a position with hugely qualitatively different tasks than that of her straight production job. Why exactly does being a good engineer warrant being “rewarded” with being shifted to tasks that have not much to do with engineering?

Is there really such a huge conceptual problem with paying the best engineers to stay and do the best engineering work, even if that means they are paid on a level with the best managers?

Business would be doing itself a favor by eliminating the word “promotion” altogether. Replace it with “shift” or “internal rehire”, pay people what they’re worth to do the jobs they’re great at, and let the individual stand on his own merits — not on the connotations of the new job title or the semantic quality of “upward movement” that “promotion” entails.

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