Apr 18 2019

Should We Ban Plastic Bags

Probably – but it’s complicated.

That is often the unfortunate answer when we ask big questions about how best to manage the world. We want to feel good about ourselves for being good citizens, or at least champion clear policies that are objectively better and effective at achieving our goals. Reality rarely accommodates these desires.

Part of the problem is that there are over 7 billion people on the planet and growing, and our industrial civilization uses a lot of resources. So anything that millions or billions of people do is likely to have an impact. Because of this there may simply be no perfect option.

But further, the available options tend to have trade-offs. Therefore if you ask, which option is better, the answer often is – it depends. It depends on how you ask and how you answer the question. Defining the problem is often easier – the solution, not so much.

The problem here is clear – single use plastic products do not biodegrade. They survive in the environment for about 400 years. They will break down into microplastics, but these stay in the environment and can still cause problems. A recent study found microplastics in remote regions of the Pyrenees. They are basically everywhere. Plastics clog our oceans and increasingly animals are turning up dead bloated with plastic waste.

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Apr 16 2019

FDA Takes On Misleading GMO Labeling

The FDA has released its guidelines for voluntary labeling of food products with respect to whether or not they contain ingredients that either are, or are derived from, genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The guidelines, if nothing else, are a good way for consumers to become more savvy to all the ways in which companies can use food labels that are technically truthful, but are designed to deceive.

However, it’s frustrating that these are just voluntary guidelines. They are not policy, so companies are free to just ignore them. Hopefully, they are a precursor to actual policy and regulations, but Congress had done a good job of keeping the FDA too weak to actually fulfill its mandate. So often they are left to firing off strongly worded letters, warnings, and voluntary guidelines.

Here are some of the deceptive practices the FDA discusses. Obviously they go over the basics of being accurate and truthful – what it considers a GMO, etc. These are mostly obvious or technical. More interesting are the ways in which labels deceive by omission or by implications.

For example, the guidelines note:

For example, on a product made largely of flour derived from genetically engineered corn and a small amount of non-genetically engineered soybean oil, a claim that the product “does not contain bioengineered soybean oil” could be misleading if consumers believe that the entire product, or a larger portion of it than is actually the case, is free of bioengineered material.

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Apr 15 2019

Furthering the Flying Car Thought Experiment

I love the conversation stemming from my last post on flying cars, and also our discussion on the SGU. Some great points were raised, and I want to further the conversation by addressing them.

I will begin by more explicitly laying out the various ways to frame the question of what impact flying cars may have. Whenever we ask a question about how something will affect a complex system, the answer always seems to be – it depends. It depends on exactly what question you ask and how you try to measure the effect. Are air dryers better than paper towels? It depends on what factors you think are important, and on several variables.

Thinking about the flying car question more deeply, it seems to me there are three levels to consider when it comes to efficiency. The first level is trip efficiency – what is the energy cost of making one trip for one passenger from point A to point B, comparing an electric flying car to a gasoline ground car and electric ground car? This was the level of the analysis of the recent paper I was discussing.

What they found is that flying cars can be more efficient than gasoline ground cars if the travel distance is long enough. For a 100 km trip they found that flying cars are 35% more efficient than gasoline, but 28% less efficient than electric vehicles. So that’ right in the middle of the pack.

Further, for longer trips the relative efficiency improves, but also if we consider geography and traffic the flying car, in some situations, may become the most efficient option. The authors point out that the average commute is 17 miles (which is close to other sources I found, some say 16 miles) but this also translates into 1 hour round trip travel time. But actually this is not enough information. We also need to know the average trip efficiency of these commutes. In other words – how much does the commute path deviate from a straight line? Also, how long does the commute take compared to no-traffic travel times? And further, how much of that commute is city driving vs highway?

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Apr 12 2019

We May See Flying Cars Yet.

Over the years I have waxed and waned in terms of my optimism that one day flying cars will be a reality – and not just prototypes, but in general use for transportation. I was at an ebb in my enthusiasm, but a recent article has nudged me toward more optimism.

By “flying car” I mean a vehicle used for personal transportation that can fly but also be driven by someone with about the level of training required to drive a regular car. If you need a pilot’s license, have to land an an airport, and the vehicle primarily uses wings for lift, then it’s not a “car”, it’s a plane. Occasionally developers put forward what is essentially a driving plane and claim it is a flying car, but I would not put it in that category.

The flying car has been a science-fiction promise for over half a century. Just about every vision of even the near future contains flying cars. It is a fixture in our mental image of the “future.” I think part of the reason it has so captured our imagination is the obvious utility. Who does not fantasize about flying over frustrating traffic and taking a straight line unobstructed path to your destination?

There have essentially been two hurdles to the development of the flying car. The first is safety – designing something that the average person can operate with moderate training and with minimal accidents, at the level of driving a regular car or lower. This nut has essentially been cracked. Computer algorithms can handle the difficult aspects of maintaining stability, and can even mostly fly themselves. Fifty years ago this was an issue, it no longer is.

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Apr 11 2019

Herbals Potentially Unsafe in Pregnancy

I know this blog is a metaphorical finger in the dike of a massive corporate advertising and misinformation campaign, but I need to say it as often as possible that herbal products are drugs. They are consumed or applied for the pharmacological effects of the chemicals they contain. But they are advertised as “natural” which is somehow magically supposed to alter that reality.

Many people, I suppose, don’t contemplate the fact that arsenic, hemlock, curare, strychnine, and countless other chemicals are all natural powerful poisons. The natural world is full of toxins, poisons, and powerful drugs. To a first approximation the natural world is trying to kill you. I would not, for example, recommend eating any part of a plant you cannot identify. Those are not dice you want to throw.

Literally centuries of snake oil marketing, however, has created a health halo around the vague concept of something being “natural”. The herbal supplement industry makes billions off this misconception, and of course does everything it can to promote it. Even the term “herbal supplement” is a misnomer – the result of the industry lobbying the government to treat these unpurified dirty drugs as if they were food.

As a result we have a drug industry that is largely unregulated and sells their products directly to the consumer, without prescription or any medical oversight, and are allowed to make or imply all sorts of health claims. Their products are rife with contamination, substitution, mislabeling, and adulteration. Even when the label is accurate, we often don’t know what the active ingredients are, their doses, or their interactions.

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Apr 09 2019

Quantum Acupuncture

In 2017 Chinese scientists published a paper in the journal Chinese Acupuncture & Moxibustion titled, “Discussion on quantum entanglement theory and acupuncture.” There are several layers to the erosion of science that this paper represents. Fortunately the paper was recently retracted, for reasons the editors do not make clear. I suspect they were just embarrassed.

The first layer I would like to peal away is the use of quantum mechanics to essentially explain magic. The authors write (originally in Chinese – this is the bad translation):

After learning the quantum entanglement, the authors have found that many characteristics of quantum are reflected in TCM, acupuncture theory and clinical practice. For example, the quantum entanglement phenomenon is mutually verified with the holism, yinyang doctrine, the theory of primary, secondary, root and knot in TCM, etc. It can be applied to interpret the clinical situations which is difficult to be explained in clinical practice, such as the instant effect of acupuncture, multi-point stimulation in one disorder and the points with specific effects.

Let me parse that a bit for you. What they are essentially admitting is that there are several aspects to acupuncture that cannot be explained with actual science, by appealing to evidence, logic, or what has been established about how the human body actually works. One of those aspects is the “instant effect” that acupuncture often seems to have on patient.

In real life, it takes time for the body to respond to any intervention. There are some drugs that, when given intravenously, can have a very rapid effect. Otherwise it takes time for substances to get absorbed, be distributed to their targets, for cells to respond, to make proteins, to begin healing, etc. Depending on the effect and the mechanism of the intervention, an almost instant response to treatment may be physiologically impossible.

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Apr 08 2019

More Research into Bullshit

Often times when I state that I do not accept a claim at face value, I am challenged with the question – “Well, do you think they are lying?” The question results from a false dichotomy – that someone is either telling the truth or consciously lying. It misses a phenomenon that is perhaps vastly more large than conscious lying – bullshit.

Lying is when you say something that you know to be false. Bullshitting is when you say something that you don’t know is true or not. There is a spectrum here also, where people may be exaggerating or stretching what they know to be true, mixing in speculation and opinion with facts, distorting what is known with a conscious or unconscious agenda (motivated reasoning), or they are simply gullible themselves. How carefully do you vet a specific piece of information before you accept it and repeat it as true, and how transparent are you about your sources and your confidence in the information?

Most people, I would argue, are not careful enough. Being skeptical is essentially about being really careful and transparent about the information you accept.

Psychological researchers are trying to understand the phenomenon of bullshit, and actually use that term in the literature. A recent study extends this a bit, and is in line with previous research. Pennycook and Rand looked at 1,606 participants through online surveys. They evaluated how receptive they are to statements which are referred to as “pseudoprofound bullshit” and also their ability to discriminate real news from fake new.

Pseudoprofound bullshit are statements that are designed to superficially sound deep, but are actually utterly meaningless (think of pretty much anything Deepak Chopra says). For example, “Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.”

There is even a website that generates random “Chopraesque” statements. For example, it just generated for me, “Innocence gives rise to subjective chaos.” This literally just uses an algorithm to string together random words but structured in such a way as to produce such statements.

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Apr 05 2019

The Color of Vowels

What is the color, if you had to choose, of the “oo” sound in “boot”? What about the “ay” sound in “say”?

Researchers asked 1,000 participants this question, 200 of which have synesthesia – a condition in which different sensory and cognitive modalities blend into each other. Interestingly, 70% of non-synesthetes still had a structured answer to these questions. They had a mental map of what vowel sounds had which colors.

Synesthesia is a fascinating phenomenon, that is also a good reminder that our brains are just squishy machines, and they have quirky flaws like all machines. Brain function is mostly a result of networks of neurons firing together. There are various biological mechanisms that control the firing of neurons, so that they participate in networks but these electrical signals do not spread randomly through the brain (that’s basically what a seizure is).

These networks are horrifically complex, and interact with each other is complex ways to create neurological function. There are all sorts of variations of this brain wiring that can produce all the variation we see in people, including some that we would consider disorders or pathological.

Synesthesia is more of a condition than a disorder because it does not necessarily cause any demonstrable harm, and may even be an advantage in certain ways. Synesthetes have their brain networks crosses in unusual ways, so that they smell sound, see odors, or hear colors. They may also assign sensations to abstract concepts. Numbers may have a color, texture, or contour, for example. This is not imagination – they really perceive these things.

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Apr 04 2019

Deep Learning is Changing the World

This is a big-picture story I have been following closely, partly because it feels like we are still on the steep part of the curve. Every now and then in the development of technology we hit upon something that may seem small at first, but in retrospect changed the world completely. Electricity is an obvious example. At first scientists didn’t think it would be useful for much, but once we realized we could power devices and do other things with electricity, we remade our world with technology that uses it. The digital revolution was another such transformative breakthrough. Such technologies don’t just win the game – they change the rules of the game.

It’s easy to see such disruptive technologies in retrospect, and much harder to anticipate them. We are somewhere between these two extremes with current technologies that are in the process of transforming our world. It is becoming increasingly clear, for example, that artificial intelligence (AI) is rapidly turning into such a transformative technology.

Specifically we are starting to see an explosion of deep learning algorithms. These are AI programs that can learn general rules or patterns from examples. They can be fed examples, or take in examples by observing the world, or even generate examples through trial and error. This technology also dovetails with the age of big data – we have massive data sets and now we also have the AI to make use of those data sets in novel ways.

As is often the case, the early use of a technology is for frivolous purposes, if only as a proof of concept. Deep learning algorithms have been demonstrated to the world by winning at Jeopardy, chess, and now the game, Go. The news of these milestones were a flash in the social media pan, commanding our attention for five minutes before we went onto the next thing. But I think in retrospect we will see them as the harbingers of a new age of technology. The age of AI.

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Apr 02 2019

Another Massive Cambrian Find

I know this is two paleontological posts in a row, but I had intended to blog about this before the stunning KT discovery. Chinese paleontologists announce in the journal Science a new early Cambrian fossil bed in South China – the The Qingjiang biota.

This is now just the third major Cambrian find – the first being the famous Burgess shale, and the second the Chengjiang, also in China. This find is amazing for several reasons.

First, the Cambrian Explosion is an incredibly important period in the evolution of life. The Cambrian period lasted from 541 to 485 million years ago. This was the first appearance of the multicellular life that clearly lead to all subsequent plants and animals, including modern species. There was a previous period called the Ediacara fauna, but it is still unclear if this lead to the Cambrian life or was a side branch or even an independent origin of multicellular life that didn’t make it. Recent evidence suggests that some Ediacara life were animals, and therefore ancestors to some Cambrian life and not a total dead end. But this is still not fully resolved.

Either way, the massive diversification of multicellular life in the Cambrian period lead to all the modern phyla, and many additional phyla that did not survive the Cambrian. Our first real evidence of this diversification was from a famous fossil find in Canada, the Burgess Shale. Most of what we know about the Cambrian still comes from these fossils.

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