Skype is the Limit

In a little over a year Skype has gone from hype to 29 million registered users. SkypeIn (where people can call your computer using their regular phone) has 1 million paying users. It is no wonder that traditional telecommunications companies who recently dismissed Skype have become silent on the subject. Skype is heading to cell phones, which are now just hand-held computers as powerful as laptop computers were in the year 2000, allowing calls to take place over Wi-Fi connections to the Internet rather than via cellular networks. Companies are increasingly turning to VoIP (and Skype) for their internal telephone needs.

Beyond the technological advances are new social phenomena emerging as Skype grows in popularity. People are contacting strangers using Skype to ask for help in practicing their foreign language skills. New dating and networking services are making use of the Skype backbone.

All of this is an example of convergence (various hardware, software, and service platforms merging) but if that were the only process at work, then Skype would be nothing more than “Telephone Version 2.0.” It is the unexpected application of new technology that says more about rapid progress and change in our time than expected uses.

Because the software is free, Skype is fast becoming an API that can be used by other software. Think of it this way: the graphical user interface (GUI) was an important advance in software during the 1980s, but now we take it for granted as more advanced GUI are standard in most modern operating systems. Right now Skype is one of the hot new products making the news, but eventually VoIP technology will be just one component in much more advanced products and services.

Technical wizards are leading the way. A new service call “Skypecasting” is merging Skype with the power of podcasts via recording software to redefine radio. This, of course, creates another problem for traditional music companies (as it will for the movie industry since Skype or a similar program will eventually allow video conferencing as well). This new use for Skype is further proof that technology is rapidly outpacing our ability to deal with it. Just when the Supreme Court is hearing a case that some believe will determine the future of peer-to-peer networking technology, along comes a new technology that will only exacerbate the issue, and perhaps put it beyond the reach of the Court’s eventual ruling.

Trying to keep up with these rapid technological and social changes is a lost cause, but perhaps describing some of the emergent patterns can be beneficial. It may also be useful to adopt a new mind set based on an understanding of these patterns. Most people do not really pay attention to such things, and they adjust when necessary, but can we continue to be reactive? “Skype is only software” some might argue, but this is an arguement they will not be able to make for long. Much more profound changes are on the horizon, changes that will soon result in paradigm shifts that no one can deny, on time scales measured in weeks and days or less.

How are you dealing with all these changes?

Plagiarism and Blogging Vigilantes

This is an incredible story. What is even more incredible is the reaction to the story (see the comments, including a “fake” comment by someone pretending to be the student and another one that may or may not be from “her” lawyer.) Then, after you read about all that, click on “Main” at the top of the page to see more current updates to what happened. Apparently it has been resolved and the blogger is going to post a wrap up sometime soon.

The power of blogs. What a crazy world we live in! With the Internet comes more opportunities for that “15 minutes of fame” but that fame is double-edged.

What do you think? Do you think the blogger was right in his actions? Did he go too far?

RADIO Frontier Channel Episode 04

“An Interview with Geologist Jay Quade” – In this fourth episode of RADIO Frontier Channel we will hear from Dr. Jay Quade, a professor in the Geosciences Department at the University of Arizona. Dr. Quade was a member of an expedition that discovered hominid fossils in Ethiopia. These fossils have been dated to around 4.5 million years ago. The research team’s paper about the discovery, entitled “Early Pliocene hominids from Gona, Ethiopia”, was published in the January 20, 2005 issue of Nature.

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An Interview with Geologist Jay Quade – Page 1

The Desert Laboratory sits on Tumamoc Hill overlooking the city of Tucson, Arizona. Rainfall amounts here have been above normal this winter and the desert is in bloom. I am sitting in the office of Dr. Jay Quade, from where the view of both Tucson and the desert is spectacular. A faculty member in the Geosciences Department at the University of Arizona, Dr. Quade has recently returned from his latest trip to Ethiopia with samples of tuff – a rock of compacted volcanic ash barely distinguishable from soil – important for dating sedimentary layers in the region. Why does the tuff need to be dated? Somewhere between layers of datable tuff lies the dates of important events in the origins of modern humans.

With a climate similar to Tucson at its warmest, Gona Western Margin in the region of Afar in Ethiopia on the African continent has become a hot spot for scientists looking for fossil evidence of hominids, those evolutionary precursor primates related to modern humans. Dr. Quade is a member of the expedition that recently announced in the journal Nature the second discovery to date of fossil remains of Ardipithecus ramidus. This species may be one of the last common ancestors of humans and chimpanzees.

“I know “ramidus” means “root” in the local Afar language,” explains Dr. Quade, “and that’s the basic idea…is that this is near the base of the human tree, in fact, down in the root system somewhere.” The sample data used by the team for their Nature article “Early Pliocene hominids from Gona, Ethiopia” suggests the fossils are nearly 4.5 million years old. This is significant because around that time the hominid branch splits, leading to chimpanzees and modern humans. In fact, Ardipithecus ramidus has both human and chimpanzee characteristics.

“If you were to encounter these creatures in the street today, they’d look like apes. You’d say ‘that’s an ape,’ except for one thing…there is some evidence that they were bipedal – in other words, upright walking.” That bipedal ability is shared with modern humans. However, Ardipithecus ramidus likely had the brain size of modern chimpanzees.

Dr. Quade was asked to join the research team in 1999 during a panicked telephone call. The original geologist was no longer available. With the expedition about ready to begin, Dr. Quade agreed to head for Ethiopia. He brought to the team the ability to work with fine layers of sediments and trace these layers over long distances, in order to find samples that can be dated by current dating procedures. He also had experience in reconstructing paleoenvironments from the little evidence available in the geologic record. As the team began to explore As Duma in Gona, Dr. Quade was able to point the way to promising sites. Should interesting fossil fragments be found, he could then help restrict their age.

Why Ethiopia? “It’s clear that Africa is the cradle of mankind. When you look at the fossil record within Africa and then outside of Africa for, say, the Pliocene period, 4.5 million years ago, or 6 million years ago, the late Miocene, our antecedents are showing up in deposits in Africa, and mostly in Ethiopia, and they’re not showing up outside of Africa. So we know that Africa itself is the cradle, but we don’t really know where. You have to keep in mind that Ethiopia is famous for its fossils not necessarily because that’s where man developed, down in the Ethiopian Rift, in these big river valleys that occupy the Ethiopian Rift, but it is were they’re preserved.”

The geologic record is preserved in the basin formed by the rifting of Ethiopia. The land is being ripped apart by tectonics, and in a few million years the Red Sea will intrude further into the African continent. There are plenty of rivers in the region to deliver sediments to lower lying areas. The fossil fragments found tend to be in sediments deposited near lake shores. (Go to Page 2.)

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An Interview with Geologist Jay Quade – Page 2

(Continued from Page 1.) Meanwhile, volcanoes in Ethiopia lay down layers of ash, pumice and other fragments through frequent eruptions. As this material begins to cement over time, it becomes tuff. Tuff sticks out from other layers because it is so light in color. The river and volcano activity are preserved in the varying layers of sediments that make up rock sequences in the region. In the background image the tuff is visible as light tan layers and the sequence is capped by a dark layer of basalt. Researchers can start to build a chronology of events by analyzing rock layers above and below the layer that contains fossil fragments from Ardipithecus ramidus, thus narrowing in on an age for the fossils.

Two types of absolute dating were of particular importance for this research. Samples of tuff from layers above and below the discovered fossil fragments were dated using radiometric dating, specifically Argon-40/Argon-39 dating. While the ash itself cannot be dated using this technique, ash nearer volcanoes may contain tiny plagioclase (a mineral) crystals that formed when magma spewed by the volcano rapidly cooled, trapping a particular amount of potassium inside individual crystals. Over time some of this potassium decayed into argon. By measuring the amount of argon to original potassium, and knowing that the decay rate is constant, an age can be determined for the sample. (This process is described in more detail in “An Interview with Geologist Jay Quade – Tools of Time.”) Combining the radiometric data with paleomagnetic data (also described in “Tools of Time“) Dr. Quade’s team was able to determine that the Ardipithecus ramidus fossils are between 4.51 and 4.32 million years old.

The article in Nature is not the end of story. While he could not speak specifically about what has been found, Dr. Quade indicated that his recent trip back to Ethiopia was fruitful. “There is much more complete evidence now. Various groups have found it but it’s unpublished. So stay tuned. […] It’s an ongoing story and there’s a lot happening.”

While the story about human origins continues to unfold, Dr. Quade is continuing other lines of research, including refining the use of the geologic record to reconstruct ancient climates and environments and studying the Atacama Desert in Chile as a Mars analog.

A few million years of evolution have led us from Ardipithecus ramidus trying to survive the violence of the Ethiopian environment to Homo sapiens sapiens – modern humans – also trying to survive the violence of the same region (see “An Interview with Geologist Jay Quade – Geology, Famine and War.”) But there is a huge difference between these two species, evident in the professional and personal passion of scientists like Dr. Quade. Modern humans also return to Ethiopia to sift through rock fragments and study rock layers because they are passionate about their interests and curious about our origins. We reconstruct our past to build a better future by using our higher brain functions, a result of the sometimes violent evolution of the primate family, to pursue knowledge.

The beckoning fossil fragments have something to tell us. That we listen is the direct result of evolution at work. Our response to this new knowledge will indicate where humanity is heading.

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An Interview with Geologist Jay Quade – Tools of Time

Geology is like forensic work; it requires time, patience, and the right tools. To the layperson, rock sedimentary layers sometimes seem to blur together. The geologist uses common sense to determine how each layer is related to the other layers, what it is made of, and how it got there. Then, using this data, the geologist begins the tedious process of reconstructing a history for the region.

Superposition is one of those geology terms with a fancy name that is really just based on common sense. It is a principle that points out how sediments are deposited in nature. You cannot deposit a new layer of sediment below an existing layer. So the new layer must be younger than the existing layer. Applied to several layers in a rock sequence, you can tell the relative age of layers in relation to each other.

If you want to know more specifically the age of a layer rather than just whether it is younger or older than other layers, you need more advanced tools. In our interview, Dr. Quade described two of them: radiometric dating and paleomagnetic dating.

Radiometric dating relies on the fact that some chemical elements (the parents) decay into different chemical elements (the daughters). Some of these decay rates are constant. If you know how much of the parent existed in a sample at some start point and can measure the amount of daughter element that has been created, you can apply the decay rate and calculate the age of the sample.

Paleomagnetic dating, “in which you just look at the orientation of magnetic grains within the deposits”, says Dr. Quade, is another important tool. “You look at the pattern of reversals – we’ll call it reversals and normals – because in the past the Earth’s magnetic field has reversed in orientation, where literally there’s certain periods in geologic time if you were to go back and take a compass with you, you’d notice that your compass would point the opposite direction. North is south and south is north. We call them magnetic flip flops in the geologic record and they happen, major flip flops, on the order of every 500,000 to 800,000 years. The duration of these flip flops is uneven and so you can use this pattern. When you end up measuring a lot of geologic sections what it ends up looking like is a bit like a magnetic stripe like in a grocery store, where you have periods where for a long time it is reversed, for short times it is reversed and it is this pattern that you match to […] you just take that and match it to a master chronology.”

When you discover a fossil of a hominid, you want to know when the individual died to give an idea of when it lived. Superposition is a way to find out where the fossil fits in relative to the layers of sediments that surround it. Fossils from different species may also be useful for relative dating, especially since the fossils of some species are more numerous than others. Dr. Quade noted that fossil pigs are especially useful. “They are really good time markers because they evolve very quickly, they change quickly in the record, and so you can use the changes, particularly in the teeth morphology, to date deposits, broadly speaking.”

The image to the left is a molar from a fossil pig (Metritiocheourus compactus) that has been dated to be about 1.6 million years old. If you find another molar with similar characteristics in a section at another site, you may be able to conclude that the layer in each section match in age.

Geologists rely on relative dating using superposition, absolute dating using radiometric dating and paleomagnetic dating, and the availability of other tools of time such as fossil pigs to help reconstruct a chronology of events. Without these tools, the origins of humanity and the history of the planet Earth might forever be shrouded in mystery.

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An Interview with Geologist Jay Quade – Geology, Famine and War

Embarking on a geology expedition might sound exciting or boring, depending on your interests. However, there is more going on behind the scenes than just scientific research. Sometimes scientists find themselves in the middle of suffering and violence, and they begin to question why they are there, even as their heart reaches out to those in need, or as they work while gunfire is heard too close for comfort.

Ethiopia is a country where climate cycles lead to prolonged periods of drought. This and ethnic and religious differences often lead to tribal clashes. The result is human suffering and death. I ask Dr. Quade about how research into ancient hominids is helpful to society and individuals, in the face of such hardship.

“[…] you go to a place like Ethiopia,” he answers, “and I often ask myself this question – surrounded by famine, people are suffering – ‘Why am I doing this? Why are we pouring…this is money from the National Science Foundation of the US and the world.’ What we actually should be doing is feeding these people.”

But there is something about this research that interests a lot of people, even those most at risk of suffering. “It tickles a nerve. It tickles an intellectual nerve. We want to know where we came from. People are fascinated with that question. And I think that’s fair.” Many of the Ethiopians that researchers come into contact with agree. “They are fascinated as well,” says Dr. Quade. “They are caught up in the fever as well. They understand what these things [hominid fossils] are. […] They are getting at the roots of our origins.”

Some members of the Afar Tribe helped the research team search for fossils, but they carried weapons with them, as the Afar Tribesman in the image on the left demonstrates while holding an AK-47 against his shoulder. At one point during an early expedition, the team continued working while military escorts held back rebels making their way through the region. War does not recognize the scientific research site as a separate zone of nonviolence.

In Ethiopia, where the geologic record is tempting scientists with a treasure trove of fossils, the logic of science runs head on into the illogic of famine and war. The best in people is in conflict with the worst. Perhaps the common thread of curiosity about our human origins through people otherwise in conflict might be the foundation on which to build a more accommodating and peaceful future.

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