Ohio Finally Taking the Non-Pentobarbital Killing Plunge

I suppose it’s ending the year on a downer…or not, depending on how you look at it.

The Wire (fomerly The Atlantic Wire) notes that Ohio will finally implement its new pentobarbital-free execution protocol.  It was supposed to happen last month, but the condemned man at that time had his execution stayed.  Now there is an execution scheduled for January 16th.  Ohio has not been able to avail itself of the compounding pharmacy option, and will go with its two-drug cocktail of midazolam and hydromorphone.

In part, I think, due to challenges brought to the death penalty by limited drug supplies, executions in 2013 were amongst the lowest in the last 40 years.

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Oh, To Be A Wallacist

Over at The Atlantic there is a short article covering a recent animation focused on a founding evolutionary theorist.  This ‘other Darwin’ was A.R. Wallace, who developed the idea of natural selection independently of Darwin in the middle of the 19th century.  The point of the article, arguably, isn’t so much a reminder that Darwin wasn’t alone, but that there’s an excellent animated dramatization of R.A. Wallace’s scientific travels.

Put together by Sweet Fern Productions for The New York Times, the video is a paper-based animated journey with Wallace through his scientific journeys through the tropical world.  It’s quite worth the seven minutes.  The conflicts with Darwin come up around the 5:20 mark.

Darwin was certainly an accomplished scientist.  But Wallace’s story is an integral part of Darwin’s, and the ‘other Darwin’ deserves more attention than he’s gotten, certainly by the general public.  Hopefully Sweet Fern has helped, if just seven minutes at a time.

Trade Your Medical Masterpiece For Another

New Scientist has been running a contest since mid-November seeking works of art connected to medicine.  The contest is in connection with a Wellcome Trust exhibit called Foreign Bodies, Common Ground, which placed six artists in medical research centres funded by the Trust.  Entrants must be “an original creation that depicts your view of modern medicine and why it matters.”  Winners will receive an original work donated by the Trust, and the best entries will be featured on New Scientist’s CultureLab section of the website.

Entries are due by 23:59 Greenwich Mean Time on January 5th.  The entry form and additional rules are available online.

Now You Don’t Need A Drone To Obtain HD Surveillance Video

December 29 – Edited to Add – I missed a company.  As Phil Plait notes on his Bad Astronomy Blog, Skybox has company.  UrtheCast recently launched cameras to be installed on the International Space Station.  These cameras would provide still and video footage that is comparable to what Skybox can do.  Unfortunately, there are still some problems with the UrtheCast cameras, so that service is not yet available.

Original Post – Via The Atlantic there comes word (and video) that San Francisco company Skybox has the capability to take HD video from outer space.  This is a private company using commercially available technology to manufacture satellites (called SkySats) that can take video like this.

As with much ‘high technology’ if its commercially available, there’s a very likely chance that the military and/or the intelligence community has access to technology that can take much better that what appears to be high quality video at one-meter resolution (one meter corresponds to one pixel).

While that should be enough to give pause, current commercially available hardware only allows 90-second segments of video at 30 frames per second.  But without some market constraints or other forces muting incentives to improve this technology, continuous video from space could become commercially available.  Perhaps you might be comfortable with governments able to take such video, but would you say the same of your neighbors?

And Now There Are Two – Franklin’s List Lives!

When one of the forces behind a science political action committee ended up returning to Congress, the effort was placed on hold.  But while Representative Foster remains in Congress, the PAC he wanted to form keeps plugging away.  Now called Franklin’s List (earlier discussions had mentioned the name Albert’s List), it recently unveiled a web presence (website, Facebook and Twitter) and is taking small steps to flesh out its organization.

It should complement the efforts of the First in Science Super PAC, or at a minimum, have very little duplicity of effort. For one, the two organizations are different kinds of political action committees and operate under different sets of rules.  As I am not a lawyer, I will not go into further details, and would recommend you consult the Franklin’s List or First in Science organizations, or the Federal Election Commission for further information.  Heck, even follow the travails of Stephen Colbert’s Super PAC to figure out the legal complexities.

We are just turning into an election year, so it’s not too early to kick the tires of either organization and see if they would pass muster with you for your individual contributions.  Both organizations strike me as non-partisan in focus, which I think is essential for long term success as a special interest PAC or Super PAC.  If you’re a scientist interested in running, seek them out and see if they might be able to help.  What could it hurt?

PCAST Closes 2013 With MOOC Report

On December 18 the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued its final report of 2013, a letter report focused on massive open online courses (MOOCs).  An infographic is available highlighting both the major (general) recommendations and some statistics explaining why PCAST finds MOOCs and similar innovations of interest – as means to increasing access to higher education.  PCAST considers the issue important enough to make this report the first of a series on similar education innovations.

MOOCs are different in some ways from previous innovations in online education (like OpenCourseWare or Khan Academy).  For one they provide much more than course material.  The ability to assess student progress and learning through the length of the course is much greater than what was previously available through more conventional correspondence or online opportunities.  The distance between the student and the classroom can be effectively shrunk in ways that weren’t previously available.  That is beneficial regardless of how large or open the course might be.

There have only been sufficient number of courses and students in MOOCs to generate two years worth of data to analyse.  Additionally, the cost recovery mechanisms (while cheaper, the courses are certainly not cost-free) have yet to be worked out.  As a result, the major recommendations of the report are to effectively monitor the situation but to let current providers continue to experiment (and possibly innovate) with MOOCs.  We don’t yet know enough to determine which courses are best suited to this kind of teaching (are labs a practical MOOC activity?), and at what point are the benefits of in-person education lost to the MOOC student.

PCAST recommends that the government be ready to support research on these courses and the demonstrated learning outcomes.  It can also support communities of research and practice to facilitate the gathering and exchange of information that can help students and teachers achieve what they want (and need) from online education.