Archive for December, 2019

Dec 30 2019

A Climate Change Lost Decade

Published by under General Science

It’s fun and interesting to look back over the last decade and think about what has happened and how far we have come. Round years are arbitrary, but it’s a sufficient trigger to take stock and hopefully gain some perspective on the medium course of history. There is a lot to say about the 2010s, and I may take the opportunity to say more, but I want to discuss in this essay what is perhaps our greatest challenge and disappointment over the last decade. In many ways this has been a lost decade for climate change mitigation.

Over the last decade the scientific evidence (and resulting consensus) that the planet is warming, that humans are the primary driver of this trend, and that the consequences are not likely to be good, has only become greater. The last five years have been the hottest five years on record, and this has been the case for most of the last decade. The year 2016 was the hottest, because it was an El Niño year (short term fluctuations will still be overlaid on top of the longer term trend) but the trend is unmistakable. The story of the world’s ice is more complex, with greater regional and year-to-year variations, but total global ice has been decreasing, and if anything accelerated over the last decade. The Greenland ice sheet in particular experienced accelerated melting. As a result there is a real and growing scientific consensus, north of 97% among relevant scientists, that anthropogenic climate change is happening.

We are also experiencing more extreme weather events. We are seeing more droughts, fires, heat waves, and more powerful storms. In the last decade it become clear that, while the worst consequences of climate change are decades and even centuries in the future, we are starting to see real consequences now.

Economists have started to weigh in as well. Numerous studies were published over the last decade, concluding that – climate change will cost the world many billions of dollars and will reduce economic growth, costing even more. Further, the option of allowing climate change to happen and adapting to the results will likely be the costliest option. In addition to the monetary cost, there is a quality of life cost. Extreme weather causes displacement, psychological trauma, and social upheaval. If you think we are having a refugee crisis now, just wait as flooding increasing and more locations become essentially uninhabitable.

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Dec 20 2019

Commercial Spaceflight in the 2020s

Published by under Technology

To spaceflight enthusiasts, the 2010s was a transitional decade. The shuttle program ended in 2011, and along with it America’s ability to put astronauts into space. We have been hitching rides with the Russians to get to the space station (ISS) ever since. NASA had no plans to replace the shuttle anytime soon, and instead announced that it would focus on deep space capability while relying on commercial companies to take over missions to low Earth orbit. So, after almost a decade, how is this plan working out?

Well, there have been the inevitable delays, but otherwise I think NASA’s plan was a good one. Earlier this year SpaceX successfully tested their Dragon capsule, and they are planning to launch their first astronauts in the first quarter of 2020. SpaceX has had an impressive decade. Not without failures, but the development of reusable rockets able to land vertically is a game-changer for space travel and is definitely an impressive achievement for the company.

Meanwhile, Boeing also received a contract from NASA to develop the capacity to launch people into space. They are about to launch their Starliner capsule to the ISS with supplies as a final test before being approved the take crew. The capsule will also have an “anthropomorphic test device (ATD)”, which is fancy tech speak for a test dummy. The ATD will be loaded with sensors to see what an astronaut will experience during take off and landing. The capsule is designed for a ground landing, using parachutes and airbags to land on desert sand in New Mexico. If all goes well they also plan to launch people in 2020.

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Dec 19 2019

Sequestered Life

Published by under General Science

Researchers may (and I emphasize “may”) have found life in isolated underground pockets of water in South African mines.  What makes this potential find interesting is that this water has been isolated for about 2 billion years. Scanning electron microscopes have found what researchers believe may be a dividing bacterium. If this is confirmed it will be an exciting discovery for a few reasons.

But first – what do we know now? The water was collected from isolated pockets underground. The water is about 7 times as salty as sea water and can get up to about 54 degrees C. This is right at the limit for known extremophiles, but it is possible for bacteria or archaea to exist in these conditions. The evidence for possible life comes mainly from the microscopic images, which are suggestive but not definitive. One of the researchers, Devan Nisson, a graduate student, noted that “It’s possible the shapes were minerals.”

This would not be the first time that geological structures were confused for life. In 1996 researchers famously announced possible signs of life in a meteorite from Mars. Over 20 years later that claim is still not generally accepted. While there remains some controversy, the consensus is that the tiny structures are minerals, not microbes.

Making the claims for life in the South African mines at least plausible is the fact that there are nitrates and sulfates in the water, which could potentially be used by microbes as an energy source. There are abundant small organic acids, which could serve as building blocks and nutrients. So while extreme, it is possible that this water could support life.

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Dec 17 2019

Where is Fusion?

Published by under Technology

The promise of commercial-scale fusion energy has been looming in the background of our collective conversations about climate change and the future of our energy infrastructure. The potential of fusion is tremendous, but we are likely still decades away from commercial power plants. Exactly how far away is a matter of debate. There are some indications, however, that the industry is progressing from proof of concept research to commercialization. No one is seriously arguing that we are close, but this may be a sign of real progress.

Fusion energy is the energy that powers the sun. It comes from fusing light elements into heavier elements, starting with fusing two hydrogen atoms into one helium atom. You can get net energy out of fusing light elements, all the way to iron. Iron requires energy to either fuse or to undergo fission, and so that is the end of the line in terms of energy production. The heavier the element, the more pressure and heat it takes to fuse. All suns start our fusing hydrogen into helium, by definition. Once the hydrogen fuel is burned, suns that are sufficiently massive will contract, increasing their temperature and pressure, until their helium core starts to burn. More and more massive stars can fuse more and more heavier elements. The most massive stars can fuse lighter elements into iron, and then, as stated, that is as far as they can go.

Here on earth researchers hope to build devices that create sufficient heat and pressure to fuse hydrogen into helium. Deuterium and tritium (isotopes of hydrogen with one and two neutrons respectively) are easier to fuse, so that is what is being used. The advantage to a successful fusion reactor is that the conversion efficiency of fuel into energy is tremendous, greater than fission. Only matter-antimatter annihilation can produce more energy for a given mass. Further, fusion produces no long-lived nuclear waste, and releases no carbon or other pollutants. The end product is helium, which is a useful element. Tritium itself is radioactive, but very short-lived. Also, the containment vessels will become bombarded with neutrons, and it remains to be seen what technologies will be used to protect the structure.

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Dec 16 2019

Smartphones, AI, and Disease Management

Published by under Technology

As new technologies come online they often reverberate in other industries in unanticipated ways. New technologies may offer possibilities that did not previously exist. The smartphone is perhaps the best recent example of this. This was designed to be primarily a phone, including texting and video capabilities, but with access to the internet. So it is also a handheld computer. But it didn’t take long for app developers to realize that – hey, if people are carrying around an internet-connected computer at all times, that opens up a whole world of new possibilities.

Most smartphones also have three sensors in them, a microphone, a camera, and a vibration sensor. This allows for the convenient gathering of information from the user. Sure, this can be used for nefarious purposes, but also can be leveraged for things that can benefit the user. There are now, for example, apps that will monitor your sleep, or your daily exercise. Even simple things can be really useful. Patients, for example, can take pictures of themselves while having intermittent symptoms, to show their doctors later. The ability to take pictures pre-existed smartphones, but the fact that almost everyone now has a camera on them at all times, which produce digital pictures that are easily shared, is a game-changer.

This is all even without designing specific sensors optimized for medical applications. It does seem likely that the smartphone will evolve to some degree into a “tricorder” like medical sensory device, communicating information to your doctors in real time. Things like monitoring your pulse, heart sounds, breath sounds, retinal scan, and skin examination are already possible. Specialized plug-in or bluetooth devices could greatly expand this capacity, making some medical testing cheaper, more convenient, and also better in some ways. The big advantage is the ability to do long-term monitoring during normal life activities. Such applications also have the potential to expand modern medical testing into poor or developing areas that would otherwise lack it.

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Dec 13 2019

Who Gets to Decide?

Published by under Culture and Society

One of the things I like about blogging is that it is an interactive forum. Often times the conversation in the comments dwarfs the original article in scope and depth. I use this to learn as much from my readers as they do from me, and improve my understanding of topics and ability to communicate them. Sometimes points raised in the comments deserve the treatment of a full blog post, not just answers in the comments.

Yesterday I wrote in support of crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe applying standards to protect their users from fraud and abuse, specifically not allowing their site to be used to fund clear medical quackery. I took the time in this article to spell out my basic approach to the concept of regulation, because it is a common theme here. Part of skeptical activism and science communication is consumer protection against fraud and abuse. I believe that proper regulation is essential to protect the public from fraud, and so I am often called upon to defend the very concept of regulation itself.

One commenter raised what I find to be the two most common pillars of objection to regulation – the slippery slope argument and the question of who gets to decide. Neither objection, when used as a blanket or overreaching argument against regulation, is valid. Let’s start with the slippery slope.

For background, a slippery slope argument is one that concludes that if step A is taken, this will lead inevitably or very likely to step B. Since most people would find B unacceptable, we should be cautious about taking step A. To support this argument it is often further argued that there is no difference in principle between A and B, and therefore in order to be fair and internally consistent, we cannot take step A without B. This form of argument becomes a slippery slope fallacy when the premise that A inevitably leads to B or should if we are being consistent is simply wrong, or at least an unwarranted assumption. Remember, we are talking about informal logical fallacies here, so they are not always wrong. That depends on the specific context.

What the slippery slope fallacy ignores is that ethics and legislation is often about balancing two or more valid principles and concerns. When it comes to regulation we are often talking about freedom vs security or protection. Striking a balance between these two does not mean we will inevitably surrender all our freedom, any more than it means we will inevitably live in total anarchy. In fact, legal principle and precedent enshrines this balance – the state has the right to regulate various things, but must demonstrate a compelling interest before encroaching on a recognized personal freedom.

Let’s take helmet laws as an example. People have the freedom (in principle) to decide for themselves if they want to wear a helmet when riding a bike or motorcycle, but governments often assert their right to decide for individuals, and essentially make it a fineable offense to ride without a helmet. What is the state’s compelling interest? Well, if you get into an accident which results in brain injury, you may become a burden to the state and therefore others. Your injury would affect other people, by raising their health insurance premiums, or using public resources. Is that enough? Regardless of where you come down, the deeper point is – the decision is based upon a balancing of these various concerns. We can make an individual decision without obligating every similar decision to be decided in the same way. If we allow the state to force us to wear helmets, that does not mean they have a green light to micromanage every single life decision we make. Or if we decide the state does not have that right, that doesn’t mean they also don’t have the right to enforce speed limits. For every decision, the state has to demonstrate a compelling interest which is greater than the personal freedom being sacrificed. Each decision is individual – no slippery slope.

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Dec 12 2019

Crowd Funding Quackery

A recently published ethics paper addresses the issue of whether or not it is proper for crowdfunding sites, like GoFundMe, to allow campaigns to fund dubious medical treatments. This question is also part of a more general issue – how tech companies have replaced traditional industries and institutions thereby bypassing existing mechanisms of safety, justice, and quality control. On the medical issue, the authors write:

Recent studies have shown that many individuals are using crowdfunding to finance access to scientifically unsupported medical treatments. Recently, GoFundMe prohibited campaigns for antivaccination groups on the grounds that they “promote misinformation about vaccines” and for treatment at a German clinic offering unproven cancer treatments due to “the need to make sure people are equipped to make well‐informed decisions.” GoFundMe has not taken any additional actions to regulate the much larger presence of campaigns seeking to fund unproven medical interventions on the platform. In this article, we make the ethical case for intervention by GoFundMe and other crowdfunding platforms.

The basic principle is that tech companies still retain an ethical and legal responsibility for how their platforms and technology are used. Most applications and social media outlets begin as an unregulated peer-to-peer environment, just facilitating an individual exchange between two private citizens. In a way this is a Libertarian nirvana. However, as such applications scale up the downsides that have already had to be dealt with in the traditional industries they are supplanting begin to resurface.

We can take any such app as an example, such as Uber. The Uber app, which I use, is very convenient. They have definitely made a better mousetrap. But as Uber has grown huge, we begin to question what responsibility they have to their drivers and riders. How much do they have to vet drivers to protect riders? What kinds of protections and benefits should they offer drivers? Did they just replace a regulated industry with an unregulated one? The same questions have arisen with Air bnb, which critics warn is being used to simply create de facto hotels that skirt regulations.

There are two principles here. The first has to do with the role of regulations in general to protect the public from exploitation of various sorts. I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole entirely, but just summarize my position as this. I support carefully considered and monitored regulation to keep society functioning optimally and prevent exploitation, externalizing costs, unfair competition, and the like. The only truly free market is a regulated one, because an unregulated market will become increasingly distorted over time as the powerful use their power to obtain more power (rather than play fairly).  At the same time we have to be humble regarding unintended consequences, which is why regulations need to be minimalistic and monitored for their effects. If you buy some version of this basic premise, and are not an anti-regulation purist, then it should be concerning that effective regulations are being nullified by an app. This is happening without any elected representatives of the people making any decisions – without any public representation. In the extreme this can evolve into a tech oligarchy.

The second principle is fairness. If one industry that is regulated is competing with another that is unregulated, that gives an unfair advantage to the unregulated one (regardless of what you think about regulations in general).

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