The question of where life came from on our Earth is one that has perplexed scientists and philosophers alike for centuries. Whilst we have really robust models for how life evolved to the point it’s at today how it first arose is still something of a mystery. Even if you adhere to the idea of panspermia, that the original building blocks of life were seeded on our planet from some other faraway place, that still raises the question of how that seed of life first came to be. The idea of life coming arising from the chemical soup that bathed the surface of the young earth is commonly referred to as abiogenesis but before that process took place something else had to occur and that’s where chemical evolution steps in.
We’ve know for quite a while that, given the right conditions, some of life’s most essential building blocks can arise out chemical reactions. The young earth was something of a massive chemical reactor and these such reactions were commonplace, flooding the surface with the building blocks that life would use to assemble itself. However the jump from pure chemical reactions to the development of other attributes critical to life, like cell walls, is not yet clear although the ever closing gap between chemical evolution and regular evolution suggests that there must be something. It’s likely that there’s no one thing responsible for triggering the explosion of life which is what makes the search for the secret all the more complicated.
However like all scientific endeavours it’s not something that I believe is beyond our capability to understand. There have been so many mysteries of the universe that were once thought impossible to understand that we have ended up mastering. Understanding the origins of life here on Earth will bolster our searches for it elsewhere in the universe and, maybe one day, lead us to find a civilization that’s not of our own making. To me that’s an incredibly exciting prospect and is one of the reasons why theories like this are so fascinating.
There’s an interesting area of research that’s dubbed biomimicry which is dedicated to looking at nature and figuring out how we can use the solutions it has developed in other areas. Evolution, which has been chugging away in the background for millions of years, has come up with some pretty solid solutions and so investigating them for potential uses seems like a great catalyst for innovation. However there are times when we see things in nature that you can’t help but feel like nature was looking at us and replicated something that we had developed. That’s what I felt when I saw this video of an erodium seed drilling itself into the ground:
As you can probably guess the secret to this seed’s ability to work its way into the ground comes from the long tendril at the top (referred to as an awn). This awn coils itself up when conditions are dry, waiting for a change. Then when the humidity begins to increase the awn begins to unfurl, slowly spinning the seed in a drilling motion. The video you see above is a sped up process with water being added at regular intervals to demonstrate how the process works.
The evolutionary advantage that this seed has developed allows it to germinate in soils that would otherwise be inhospitable to them. The drilling motion allows the seed head to penetrate the ground with much more ease, allowing it to break through coarse soils that would have otherwise proved impenetrable. How this adaptation would have developed is beyond me but suffice to say this is what led to the erodium species of plants dominating otherwise hostile areas like rockeries or alpines.
Up until I saw that video I thought things like drilling were a distinctly human invention, something we had discovered through our experimentation with inclined planes. However like many things it turns out there are fundamental principles which aren’t beyond nature’s ability to replicate, it just needs the right situation and a lot of time for it to occur. I’m sure the more I dig (pun intended) the more examples I could find of this but I’m sure that each example I found would amaze me just as much as this did.
Ever wondered how we evolved to look the way we did today from our ancestors that lived millions of years ago? Wonder no longer:
I often find myself digging through our evolutionary history in order to find out why we have certain features or why we seem to lack certain adaptations that other species have. Whilst I don’t have a good explanation for everything that’s shown in the video above (had I more time I’d get my wife, a fledgling biologist, to comment on it) it is curious to see things like the progress of the nose and the reduction of the large forehead. It also struck me as to just how subtle some of the changes are from generation to generation and yet that gradual accumulation ends up with the face we all recognize.
The best thing about this video is how clear it makes the transition from our common ape ancestor to our current form as homo-sapiens. Whilst I know that simply showing someone a video like this won’t be enough to convince them that evolution is real (indeed if you don’t want to understand it there’s little I can do for you) it does illustrate the point quite aptly. It also demonstrates the idea that whilst we shared a common ancestor we evolved along a different path alongside them, addressing the “well if we evolved from apes why are there still apes” question quite nicely.
I’ve always found it fascinating just how much commonality there is between us and many other life forms on earth. The explanation is quite simple: certain biological features are the most suited to the world that we live in and thus give the highest chance of survival and procreation. Still even with that fact in mind I still marvel at how much in common we have with even the most bizarre creatures and it gets even more intriguing when you go down to the DNA level. It’s been well known for a long time that we’re genetically very similar to primates to the tune of something like 95%.
One of my favorite astrophysicists (yes I have several) Neil DeGrasse Tyson made a fascinating point about that small genetic difference (skip to 7:35, although the first point is amazing too):http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rDRXn96HrtY
All we are, all the stuff that differentiates us from the great apes is contained in that small difference of DNA. The idea then that another form of intelligent life could be that different from us again really is fascinatingly disturbing as from their point of view we’d be little above cattle to them. You’d hope though that past a certain level of intelligence you’d have some respect for any form of life (like many humans do) but our history has shown how even intelligent species can regard their own as beneath them.
Now if you’ll excuse me I’ll just go and work my way through this existential crisis I’m having.
Telstra was a brilliant example of why natural monopolies should never be put in the hands of private share holders. Whilst the situation has improved quite dramatically over the past decade thanks to strict regulation and enhanced competition we’re still suffering a few headaches of not jumping on the broadband bus earlier than we should have. Still though the Australian government is being no slouch when it comes to charging forward into the future with the National Broadband Network which, if fully implemented, will see Australia able to count themselves amongst the top tier of Internet enabled nations. Still with the high cost and long implementation timeline many are looking at alternatives that can provide similar benefits, and the first place they turn to is wireless.
Today the issue was brought into the spotlight again as Telstra announced their plans to do a nation wide rollout of 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) wireless broadband services. The comparisons to the NBN flowed thick and fast, with many questioning the benefits of having both:
Telstra will significantly upgrade its mobile network to take advantage of fast 4G technology that will allow users to obtain speeds similar to home broadband connections while on the go.
The announcement comes on the back of a government-commissioned report warning uptake to its $36 billion network could be stifled by wireless technologies.
Long time readers will know I’ve touched on this issue briefly in the past after having a few long conversations with fellow IT workers over the NBN. On a pure theoretical level 4G wins out simply because you get similar speeds without having to invest in a large scale fiber network and you get the speeds wherever you have coverage. The problem is whilst the 4G specification does make provisions for such high speeds there’s a lot of caveats around being able to deliver it at that level, and they’re not all just about signal strength.
Upgrading the current 3G network to support 4G is no small task in itself, requiring all towers to be upgraded with additional transceivers, antennas and supporting infrastructure. Whilst upgrading the towers themselves won’t be too difficult the real problem comes in when people start wanting to use this new connection to its fullest potential, attempting to get NBN speeds from their wireless broadband. This at the very least requires an infrastructure upgrade on the scale of Fiber to the Node (FTTN) as the bandwidth requirements will outstrip the current infrastructure if they are used as a replacement for the NBN. Most critics looking to replace the NBN with wireless neglect this fact and in the end not upgrading the backhauls from the towers means that whilst NBN speeds would be possible they’d never be realised in practice.
Wireless is also no replacement for fixed line as it is much harder to provide a guaranteed level of service, something businesses and government entities rely on. Sure many of the limitations can be worked around with good engineering but it will still lack the scalability of a fixed fiber solution that already has implementations in the multi-gigabit range. Wireless might make sense for some low use consumer products (I’d love to get my mobile videos faster) but the fact is that if you’re relying on your Internet connection for critical business functions you’re not going to be doing them over wireless. Heck I don’t think anyone in the 4G enabled parts of the USA is even attempting to do that.
In reality the NBN and Telstra’s 4G network shouldn’t really be seen as being in competition with each other, they’re really 2 completely different products. The NBN is providing the ground level infrastructure for an Internet revolution in Australia, something that will bring extremely high speed Internet access to the masses. 4G should be seen as an evolutionary step in the mobile sector, enabling much more rich Internet services to be delivered to our handsets whilst offering some of the capability of a fixed line when you’re on the go. The sooner everyone realizes this the better as playing them off each other is just a waste of time and won’t lead to anything positive for Australia as a nation.
Whenever you go out to buy some piece of tech you’re pretty much guaranteed that in just a couple months time there will be something better available for the same price. I asked myself the same question when I bought my iPhone about 2 months ago and came to the decision that I might as well get the most expensive one I could get (since I could write it off) and one that I would eventually be developing for. Shortly afterwards the whole iPhone 4G leak thing happened and many people asked why I didn’t “just wait a few months” to get the new one. The answer is that the benefit of having the phone for 3 months outweighed the delay in getting the new one. I could’ve snagged myself an Android phone in the mean time but again I would’ve ended up in much the same situation as the handset of choice at that time was the HTC Incredible and now it is the HTC EVO 4G.
Last night marked the official announcement of the phone everyone told me to wait for, the iPhone 4. Realistically it would be a much more impressive device if I hadn’t heard everything there is to know about it constantly over the past 2 months (thanks to Gizmodo et. al), but that doesn’t detract from the fact that it is an improvement over the current iPhone offering. Whilst Apple’s tagline for it is “This changes everything. Again.” I’ll go on record saying that it changes as much as the iPad did with all its “magic”, that is to say not a hell of a lot.
First let’s have a look over the specifications to see what we’re actually dealing with here:
(For some reason Apple wants to make mention of the fact that their iPhone has multi-touch twice, that’s not a typo on my behalf)
First off let me compliment Apple on the things that are really something. The display is pretty phenomenal, offering the highest resolution on any smart phone I’ve seen to date. They’re calling it the Retina Display as the dots per inch (DPI) is above the magic 300 DPI threshold that our eyes are able to see. Whilst most users won’t notice a whole lot of a difference (showing people my Xperia side by side with an iPhone saw most thinking the iPhone had a better display) it does mean that it should be quite a gorgeous screen. It’s no technical marvel beyond resolution though, as its just your plain old LED back lit LCD.
The other most notable upgrades are in the guts of the phone, namely an upgrade to 802.11N wireless, a 3 axis gyro, dual mics and the new Apple A4 processor which was debuted with the iPad. They’re all quite decent upgrades and really had these been left out you’d be wondering what the hell Apple’s research and development department was doing as they’ve been standard on most phones for the past year or so. The addition of Apple’s new A4 into the iPhone 4 brings it up to speed with the latest swath of Snapdragon based Androids, hopefully paving the way for some more intensive applications to make their way onto the handheld iPlatform. The inclusion of a 3 axis gyro is interesting as no one will argue against the fact that it will make motion detection more accurate but the use cases for it are small in number. Sure your Doodle Jump will be a lot more accurate, but is it really required? Time will tell though, developers always have a habit of exploiting additional features like this in ways we don’t really expect.
For the rest of the features though I’m a little less impressed. You see way back when the 3GS (and really even the 3G model) was released dual cameras, with the back one being 5+ megapixels, were the norm on many feature and smart phones. Their omission on the iPhone was puzzling to say the least as the technology had been around for quite some time, with proven implementations across several brands. Much like the lacking of MMS in the original iPhone Apple’s omission of such features confounded the tech crowd whilst the rabid fanboy population decried that it was not required. Consequently when Apple finally caved it was touted as revolutionary, an almost textbook case of the idea of doublethink. Whilst the hype about these things is on the low at the moment I’m sure I’ll come across those who trick themselves into believing that Apple is revolutionizing this space when really they’re playing catchup with the rest of the modern world.
The inclusion of HD video recording capabilities on the iPhone is a good step forward and matches many of its competitors offerings. Whilst I’ve yet to see an actual sample of the video direct from the camera I can tell you know that it’s more of a gimmick than anything else as cameras that small just don’t have the surface area required to make decent 720p video. It’s not Apple’s fault really as any camera capable of producing proper HD video will have a sensor almost 1/5th of the size of the iPhone, with an appropriately sized lens to match. No one has extolled the virtues of the video yet so I’ll let this one slide for now but if anyone dares tell me it’s good HD I’ll probably have to take a bandsaw to their new iPhone, just to teach them a lesson.
Overall I’d say it’s a good evolution of the current iPhone offering and my issues, as always, lie in the hype and marketing behind it. Looking over the phone I can say that had I known these specs before buying my current phone (neglecting the fact that they release a new damned phone every year) I would’ve given a lot more consideration to buying an Android handset first. I’m still not so sure if it would’ve changed my mind though as 3 months is quite a wait when you’ve got a free phone voucher burning a hole in your pocket. The upgraded specs are sure to please those upgrade happy tech heads and the under the hood upgrades are sure to give the devs some new ideas with their applications.
At least there’s no magic in this phone. This post would’ve been a lot less level headed if they had used that term to describe one of their products again 😉