Lab-Grown Beef and Zombie Cows

Cow-Dartmoor-England

Writer and student of philosophy Rhys Southan provides some food for thought in his essay over at Aeon on the ethics of eating meat. The question is simple enough: would our world be better if humans ate only lab-grown meat or meat from humanely raised farm animals?

The answer may not be as simple or as black and white as you first thought. For instance, were we to move to 100 percent lab-grown beef, it is likely that there would be a far reduced need, if any, for real cattle. Thus, we’d be depriving an entire species from living and experiencing some degree of sentience and happiness. Or, if we were to retain some cows, but only in the wild, wouldn’t that be tantamount to torture for a domestic animal raised for millennia in domesticity? This might actually be worse than allowing cows to graze on humane farms for a good portion of their lives before being humanely killed — if there is such a thing — and readied for our plates.

From Aeon:

Three years ago, a televised taste test of a lab-grown burger proved it was possible to grow a tiny amount of edible meat in a lab. This flesh was never linked to any central nervous system, and so there was none of the pain, boredom and fear that usually plague animals unlucky enough to be born onto our farms. That particular burger coalesced in a substrate of foetal calf serum, but the goal is to develop an equally effective plant-based solution so that a relatively small amount of animal cells can serve as the initial foundation for glistening mounds of brainless flesh in vats – meat without the slaughter.

For many cultured-meat advocates, a major motive is the reduction of animal suffering. Vat meat avoids both the good and the bad of the mixed blessing that is sentient existence. Since the lives of animals who become our food are mostly a curse, producing mindless, unfeeling flesh to replace factory farming is an ethical (as well as literal) no-brainer.

A trickier question is whether the production of non-sentient flesh should replace what I will call ‘low-suffering animal farming’ – giving animals good lives while still raising them for food. Ideally, farmed animals would be spared the routine practices that cause severe pain: dehorning, castration, artificial insemination, branding, the separation of mothers from calves for early weaning, and long, cramped truck rides to slaughterhouses. But even in its Platonic form, low-suffering animal farming has detractors. If we give farm animals good lives, it presumably means that they like their lives and want to keep living – so how do we justify killing them just to enjoy the tastes and textures of meat? By avoiding all the good aspects of subjective experience, growing faceless flesh in vats also escapes this objection. Since vat meat cannot have any experiences at all, we don’t take a good life away by eating it.

This could avoid what many see as the fatal contradiction of humane animal farming: it commits us to treating animals with love and kindness… before slashing their throats so that we can devour their insides. It’s not the most compassionate end to a mutually respectful cross-species friendship. However, conscientiously objecting to low-suffering animal husbandry can be paradoxical as well. Those who want plants and nerveless animal cells to replace all animal farming because they think it wrong to kill happy creatures seem to believe that life for these farmed animals is such a good thing that it’s a shame for them to lose it – and so we should never create their lives at all. They love sentience so much, they want this to be a less sentient world.

So, which of these awkward positions has more going for it? In order to figure this out, I’m afraid we’ll need a thought experiment involving, well, zombie cows.

Read the entire essay here.

Image: Highland cow, in southern Dartmoor, England, 2009. Courtesy: Nilfanion / Wikipedia. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.

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Clicks or Truth

The internet is a tremendous resource for learning, entertainment and communication. It’s also a vast, accreting blob of misinformation, lies, rumor, exaggeration and just plain bulls**t.

So, is there any hope for those of us who care about fact and truth over truthiness? Well, the process of combating conspiracies and mythology is likely to remain a difficult and continuous one for the foreseeable future.

But, there are small pockets on the internet where the important daily fight against disinformation thrives. As managing editor Brooke Binkowski at the fact-checking site Snopes.com puts it, “In cases where clickability and virality trump fact, we feel that knowledge is the best antidote to fear.”

From Washington Post:

In a famous xkcd cartoon, “Duty Calls,” a man’s partner beckons him to bed as he sits alone at his computer. “I can’t. This is important,” he demurs, pecking furiously at the keyboard. “What?” comes the reply. His answer: “Someone is wrong on the Internet.”

His nighttime frustration is my day job. I work at Snopes.com, the fact-checking site pledged to running down rumors, debunking cant and calling out liars. Just this past week, for instance, we wrestled with a mysterious lump on Hillary Clinton’s back that turned out to be a mic pack (not the defibrillator some had alleged). It’s a noble and worthwhile calling, but it’s also a Sisyphean one. On the Internet, no matter how many facts you marshal, someone is always wrong.

Every day, the battle against error begins with email. At Snopes, which is supported entirely by advertising, our staff of about a dozen writers and editors plows through some 1,000 messages that have accumulated overnight, which helps us get a feel for what our readers want to know about this morning. Unfortunately, it also means a healthy helping of venom, racism and fury. A Boston-based email specialist on staff helps sort the wheat (real questions we could answer) from the vituperative chaff.

Out in the physical world (where we rarely get to venture during the election season, unless it’s to investigate yet another rumor about Pokémon Go), our interactions with the site’s readers are always positive. But in the virtual world, anonymous communication emboldens the disaffected to treat us as if we were agents of whatever they’re perturbed by today. The writers of these missives, who often send the same message over and over, think they’re on to us: We’re shills for big government, big pharma, the Department of Defense or any number of other prominent, arguably shadowy organizations. You have lost all credibility! they tell us. They never consider that the actual truth is what’s on our website — that we’re completely independent.

Read the entire article here.

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Tabby’s Star

KIC_8462852_in_IR_and_UV

Tabby’s Star, officially known by the cryptic notation KIC 8462852 is a very odd object. The star is around 1,500 light years from Earth, and has been puzzling astronomers with its strangely fluctuating brightness. Recent analysis shows that is even weirder than first thought, which has scientists baffled. Could the observations be caused by a storm of wildly orbiting comets? Or, much more compelling (for SciFi buffs), could it be an alien megastructure periodically shrouding the star?

From Space:

KIC 8462852 was observed by NASA’s Kepler mission and has become infamous for its bizarre and unprecedented transit signal that was flagged by citizen scientists. Now new research of precision Kepler observations has shown that the overall brightness of the star — unofficially named “Tabby’s Star” after astronomer Tabetha S. Boyajian who discovered the peculiar signal — has been decreasing, which poses a new and confusing problem for astronomers trying to understand what the heck is going on.

Kepler’s prime mission is to look for small worlds that pass in front of their parent stars causing a slight dimming of starlight. The “transit method” has been hugely successful and has confirmed well over 2,000 planets orbiting other stars in our galaxy.

But Tabby’s Star’s transit signal, otherwise known as a “light-curve”, stopped astronomers in their tracks. Something passed in front of it, dimming its starlight a whopping 20 percent and other jumbled transit signals revealed that something wasn’t quite right with this particular star. Then, in an interview with The Atlantic, Penn State University astronomer Jason Wright speculated that the signal could be indicative of an “alien megastructure” that’s in the process of being built. You can catch up on the controversy surrounding the anomalous signal in my recent Discovery News article “Closing In on ‘Alien Megastructure’ Clues.”

So, in an effort to track down a rational explanation, Bradley Schaefer from Louisiana State University decided to study historical observations of KIC 8462852 in astronomical photographic plates from the past century to see if the star exhibited any bizarre fluctuations in brightness in the past. Sure enough, yes, the star is a bit of an oddball and has shown a long-term decreasing trend in brightness! Since the 19th Century, its brightness has decreased steadily by nearly 20 percent.

Now, astronomers Ben Montet (from Caltech) and Joshua Simon (from the Carnegie Institute) have released a paper to the arXiv preprint service detailing recent Kepler observations of KIC 8462852 since the space telescope was launched in 2009. Although the dataset for this time period is comparatively small, Monet and Simon found yet another surprise.

In the 4 years of Kepler’s primary mission, the star showed an unprecedented dimming of 3.5 percent. So not only did Kepler detect transient dips in brightness of up to 20 percent, there also seems to be a very definite downward trend in brightness throughout our observational history of the star.

No matter how you slice it, this is strange.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Tabby’s Star, KIC 8462852, in infrared (2MASS survey) and ultraviolet (GALEX). Courtesy: IPAC/NASA (Infrared), STScI/NASA (Ultraviolet). Public Domain.

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Of Zebrafish and Men

Zebrafisch

A novel experiment in gene-editing shows how limbs of Earth’s land-dwelling creatures may have evolved from their fishy ancestors.

From University of Chicago:

One of the great transformations required for the descendants of fish to become creatures that could walk on land was the replacement of long, elegant fin rays by fingers and toes. In the Aug. 17, 2016 issue of Nature, scientists from the University of Chicago show that the same cells that make fin rays in fish play a central role in forming the fingers and toes of four-legged creatures.

After three years of painstaking experiments using novel gene-editing techniques and sensitive fate mapping to label and track developing cells in fish, the researchers describe how the small flexible bones found at the ends of fins are related to fingers and toes, which are more suitable for life on land.

“When I first saw these results you could have knocked me over with a feather,” said the study’s senior author, Neil Shubin, PhD, the Robert R. Bensley Distinguished Service Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago. Shubin is an authority on the transition from fins to limbs.

The team focused on Hox genes, which control the body plan of a growing embryo along the head-to-tail, or shoulder-to-fingertip, axis. Many of these genes are crucial for limb development.

They studied the development of cells, beginning, in some experiments, soon after fertilization, and followed them as they became part of an adult fin. Previous work has shown that when Hox genes, specifically those related to the wrists and digits of mice (HoxD and HoxA), were deleted, the mice did not develop those structures. When Nakamura deleted those same genes in zebrafish, the long fins rays were greatly reduced.

“What matters is not what happens when you knock out a single gene but when you do it in combination,” Nakamura explained. “That’s where the magic happens.”

The researchers also used a high-energy CT scanner to see the minute structures within the adult zebrafish fin. These can be invisible, even to most traditional microscopes. The scans revealed that fish lacking certain genes lost fin rays, but the small bones made of cartilage fin increased in number.

The authors suspect that the mutants that Nakamura made caused cells to stop migrating from the base of the fin to their usual position near the tip. This inability to migrate meant that there were fewer cells to make fin rays, leaving more cells at the fin base to produce cartilage elements.

Read more here. A female specimen of a zebrafish (Danio rerio) breed with fantails. Courtesy: Wikipedia / Azul.

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Prepping for the Day When Something Hits the Fan

Luxury_bunker

The end of the world may come in any one of hundreds of forms. Off the top of my head I can think several Hollywood-esque grand finales: a global pandemic, an errant asteroid, a careless Presidential error with nuclear codes, a biological terrorism attack, a leftist mind-control takeover, unfriendly aliens from Proxima Centauri, a misanthropic AI.

But a growing cadre of survivalists isn’t idly debating the pros and cons and probabilities of one apocalyptic scenario versus another. No. These “preppers”, as they have come to be known in some quarters, are actively preparing; they’re planning, moving, hoarding and readying themselves for the ultimate civilizational collapse. You’ll find quite a number of preppers in a rural area of the Pacific Northwest known as the American Redoubt.

Quite why the number of preppers has been rising recently is open to speculation. But I’d hazard a guess that most perceive their current lives under threat from a collection of at least three of the following: politicians (probably left-leaning ones), global elites, multiculturalism, atheists, the media, investment banks, Muslims, Jews, the Pope, and millennials [this last one is a joke].

From the Washington Post:

Don and Jonna Bradway recently cashed out of the stock market and invested in gold and silver. They have stockpiled food and ammunition in the event of a total economic collapse or some other calamity commonly known around here as “The End of the World As We Know It” or “SHTF” — the day something hits the fan.

The Bradways fled California, a state they said is run by “leftists and non-Constitutionalists and anti-freedom people,” and settled on several wooded acres of north Idaho five years ago. They live among like-minded conservative neighbors, host Monday night Bible study around their fire pit, hike in the mountains and fish from their boat. They melt lead to make their own bullets for sport shooting and hunting — or to defend themselves against marauders in a world-ending cataclysm.

“I’m not paranoid, I’m really not,” said Bradway, 68, a cheerful Army veteran with a bushy handlebar mustache who favors Hawaiian shirts. “But we’re prepared. Anybody who knows us knows that Don and Jonna are prepared if and when it hits the fan.”

The Bradways are among the vanguard moving to an area of the Pacific Northwest known as the American Redoubt, a term coined in 2011 by survivalist author and blogger James Wesley, Rawles (the comma is deliberate) to describe a settlement of the God-fearing in a lightly populated territory that includes Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and the eastern parts of Washington and Oregon.

Those migrating to the Redoubt are some of the most motivated members of what is known as the prepper movement, which advocates readiness and self-reliance in man-made or natural disasters that could create instability for years. It’s scenario-planning that is gaining adherents and becoming mainstream in what Redoubt preppers described as an era of fear and uncertainty.

They are anxious about recent terrorist attacks from Paris to San Bernardino, Calif., to Orlando; pandemics such as Ebola in West Africa; potential nuclear attacks from increasingly provocative countries such as North Korea or Iran; and the growing political, economic and racial polarization in the United States that has deepened during the 2016 presidential election.

Nationally, dozens of online prepper suppliers report an increase in sales of items from water purifiers to hand-cranked radios to solar-powered washing machines. Harvest Right, a Utah company that invented a $3,000 portable freeze dryer to preserve food, has seen sales grow from about 80 a month two years ago to more than 900 a month now, said spokesman Stephanie Barlow.

Clyde Scott, owner of Rising S Bunkers, said pre-made, blast-proof underground steel bunkers are in big demand, including his most popular model, which sleeps six to eight people and sells for up to $150,000.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Luxury bunker able to withstand a 20-kiloton nuclear blast. Courtesy of Harry Norman Realtors / Cater News. Daily Mail.

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Intolerance and Divine Revelation

Intolerance_film

Another day, another heinous, murderous act in the name of religion — the latest this time a French priest killed in his own church by a pair shouting “Allahu akbar!” (To be fair countless other similar acts continue on a daily basis in non-Western nations, but go unreported or under-reported in the mainstream media).

Understandably, local and national religious leaders decry these heinous acts as a evil perversion of Islamic faith. Now, I’d be the first to admit that attributing such horrendous crimes solely to the faiths of the perpetrators is a rather simplistic rationalization. Other factors, such as political disenfranchisement, (perceived) oppression, historical persecution and economic pressures, surely play a triggering and/or catalytic role.

Yet, as Gary Gutting professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame reminds us in another of his insightful essays, religious intolerance is a fundamental component. The three main Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — are revelatory faiths. Their teachings are each held to be incontrovertible truth revealed to us by an omniscient God (or a divine messenger). Strict adherence to these beliefs has throughout history led many believers — of all faiths — to enact their intolerance in sometimes very violent ways. Over time, numerous socio-economic pressures have generally softened this intolerance — but not equally across the three faiths.

From NYT:

Both Islam and Christianity claim to be revealed religions, holding that their teachings are truths that God himself has conveyed to us and wants everyone to accept. They were, from the start, missionary religions. A religion charged with bringing God’s truth to the world faces the question of how to deal with people who refuse to accept it. To what extent should it tolerate religious error? At certain points in their histories, both Christianity and Islam have been intolerant of other religions, often of each other, even to the point of violence.

This was not inevitable, but neither was it an accident. The potential for intolerance lies in the logic of religions like Christianity and Islam that say their teaching derive from a divine revelation. For them, the truth that God has revealed is the most important truth there is; therefore, denying or doubting this truth is extremely dangerous, both for nonbelievers, who lack this essential truth, and for believers, who may well be misled by the denials and doubts of nonbelievers. Given these assumptions, it’s easy to conclude that even extreme steps are warranted to eliminate nonbelief.

You may object that moral considerations should limit our opposition to nonbelief. Don’t people have a human right to follow their conscience and worship as they think they should? Here we reach a crux for those who adhere to a revealed religion. They can either accept ordinary human standards of morality as a limit on how they interpret divine teachings, or they can insist on total fidelity to what they see as God’s revelation, even when it contradicts ordinary human standards. Those who follow the second view insist that divine truth utterly exceeds human understanding, which is in no position to judge it. God reveals things to us precisely because they are truths we would never arrive at by our natural lights. When the omniscient God has spoken, we can only obey.

For those holding this view, no secular considerations, not even appeals to conventional morality or to practical common sense, can overturn a religious conviction that false beliefs are intolerable. Christianity itself has a long history of such intolerance, including persecution of Jews, crusades against Muslims, and the Thirty Years’ War, in which religious and nationalist rivalries combined to devastate Central Europe. This devastation initiated a move toward tolerance among nations that came to see the folly of trying to impose their religions on foreigners. But intolerance of internal dissidents — Catholics, Jews, rival Protestant sects — continued even into the 19th century. (It’s worth noting that in this period the Muslim Ottoman Empire was in many ways more tolerant than most Christian countries.) But Christians eventually embraced tolerance through a long and complex historical process.

Critiques of Christian revelation by Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, Rousseau and Hume raised serious questions that made non-Christian religions — and eventually even rejections of religion — intellectually respectable. Social and economic changes — including capitalist economies, technological innovations, and democratic political movements — undermined the social structures that had sustained traditional religion.

The eventual result was a widespread attitude of religious toleration in Europe and the United States. This attitude represented ethical progress, but it implied that religious truth was not so important that its denial was intolerable. Religious beliefs and practices came to be regarded as only expressions of personal convictions, not to be endorsed or enforced by state authority. This in effect subordinated the value of religious faith to the value of peace in a secular society. Today, almost all Christians are reconciled to this revision, and many would even claim that it better reflects the true meaning of their religion.

The same is not true of Muslims. A minority of Muslim nations have a high level of religious toleration; for example Albania, Kosovo, Senegal and Sierra Leone. But a majority — including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq and Malaysia — maintain strong restrictions on non-Muslim (and in some cases certain “heretical” Muslim) beliefs and practices. Although many Muslims think God’s will requires tolerance of false religious views, many do not.

Read the entire story here.

Image: D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) movie poster. Courtesy: Sailko / Dekkappai at Wikipedia. Public Domain.

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Tantalizing Enceladus

Fountains_of_Enceladus

Sorry, Moon but my favorite satellite doesn’t even orbit the Earth.

Enceladus is my favorite moon, despite its diminutive size — its diameter is only around 500 km. It circles Saturn and while it only ranks as the ringed planet’s sixth largest moon, it is perhaps the most fascinating.

A decade of images courtesy of the Cassini spacecraft and the Hubble Space Telescope show amazing  plumes of icy material spouting from one or more underground sources. To date, astronomers and planetary scientists have catalogued over 90 geyser-like jets on the surface of Enceladus.

More recently, a couple of year’s ago, NASA’s researchers confirmed the presence of a vast subsurface ocean of liquid water beneath Enceladus’ icy crust. Scientists believe this ocean powers its many geysers or cryovolcanoes. Moreover, the many geysers spew a particle cocktail of ices and organic compounds. It is this mixture of liquid water and organic chemistry that has many scientists agog — pondering the possibility of life beyond the shores of our home planet.

Catch the latest on the search for possible signs of life on Enceladus from Scientific American, here.

Image: Fountains of Enceladus. Recent Cassini images of Saturn’s moon Enceladus backlit by the sun show the fountain-like sources of the fine spray of material that towers over the south polar region. Courtesy: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. Public Domain.

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176 Reasons to Vote Against the Bully

I implore you to watch the entire video and (re-)learn why the Republican nominee for President should never be elected. The piece is 17 minutes long — it’s increasingly impossible to distill Trump’s truly deplorable and vulgar bile into anything shorter.

Video: 176 Reasons Donald Trump Shouldn’t Be President
In the debut episode of his new series, “The Closer with Keith Olbermann,” GQ’s Keith Olbermann tallies the most outrageous of Donald Trump’s offenses in what is now his 15-month assault on American democracy. Courtesy: GQ.

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If it Disagrees With Experiment it is Wrong

google-search-sciam

This post’s title belongs to the great physicist and bongo player Richard Feynman. It brings into sharp relief one of the many challenges in our current fractured political discourse — that objective fact is a political tool and scientific denialism is now worn as a badge of honor by many politicians (mostly on the right).

Climate science is a great example of the chasm between rational debate and established facts on the one hand and anti-science, conspiracy mythologists [I’m still searching for a better word] on the other. Some climate deniers simply wave away evidence as nothing but regular weather. Others pronounce that climate change is a plot by the Chinese.

I firmly believe in the scientific method and objective fact; the progress we have witnessed over the last 150 or so years due to science and scientists alone is spectacular. Long may it continue. Yet as Scientific American tells us we need to be alarmed and remain vigilant — it wouldn’t take much effort to return to the Dark Ages.

From Scientific American:

Four years ago in these pages, writer Shawn Otto warned our readers of the danger of a growing antiscience current in American politics. “By turning public opinion away from the antiauthoritarian principles of the nation’s founders,” Otto wrote, “the new science denialism is creating an existential crisis like few the country has faced before.”

Otto wrote those words in the heat of a presidential election race that now seems quaint by comparison to the one the nation now finds itself in. As if to prove his point, one of the two major party candidates for the highest office in the land has repeatedly and resoundingly demonstrated a disregard, if not outright contempt, for science. Donald Trump also has shown an authoritarian tendency to base policy arguments on questionable assertions of fact and a cult of personality.

Americans have long prided themselves on their ability to see the world for what it is, as opposed to what someone says it is or what most people happen to believe. In one of the most powerful lines in American literature, Huck Finn says: “It warn’t so. I tried it.” A respect for evidence is not just a part of the national character. It goes to the heart of the country’s particular brand of democratic government. When the founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, scientist and inventor, wrote arguably the most important line in the Declaration of Independence—“We hold these truths to be self-evident”—they were asserting the fledgling nation’s grounding in the primacy of reason based on evidence.

Read the article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Beware the Nooscope

diagram-capitalisation-of-the-future

Now we know why Donald Trump is cozying up with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It’s not about the budding bromance between two so-called strong men. It’s not that Trump is financially beholden to various, shady Russian money men.

It’s all about the Nooscope.

The Nooscope is described in complex academic papers authored by Puti’s new chief of staff Anton Vaino. Apparently, the Nooscope can “tap into global consciousness and detect and register changes in the biosphere and in human activity”.

Is the Nooscope the ultimate weapon, allowing a government to control both its citizens and its enemies? If so, it’s no wonder Trump continues to look towards the Kremlin.

Or is the Nooscope nothing more than pseudo-scientific hot air?

Please let me know if you figure it out.

From BBC:

He does not appear to have given any press interviews in his past career, and his official biography reveals little, beyond a steady rise over many years of service to the Kremlin.

Before his Kremlin promotion the Estonian-born high flyer served as a diplomat, including a stint at the Tokyo embassy.

But an investigation by BBC Russian into Mr Vaino’s academic work reveals intriguing details about him and may offer clues about his worldview.

Like many officials of his generation, reports say he has a master’s degree in economics and has contributed to various scientific publications.

In 2012 an article appeared in a specialist journal called Economics and Law written by an “AK Vaino” – widely believed to be one and the same person as Mr Putin’s new chief of staff.

It was titled “The capitalisation of the future”.

Levers of power

Written in a dense academic prose – which many Russian commentators this week said they found almost impossible to understand – and accompanied by even more complex charts and diagrams, the article outlines new ways of organising and understanding society.

Mr Vaino argues that the economy and society in general have become too complex to manage by traditional means. Governments need to seek new ways of regulating and controlling them.

The article describes a new device called a “nooscope” which, it says, can tap into global consciousness and “detect and register changes in the biosphere and in human activity”.

The “nooscope” bewildered many in Russia this week. Does the device really exist, they asked. What does it actually do? Is Mr Vaino really serious?

BBC Russian tracked down Viktor Sarayev, an award-winning economist and businessman who has co-authored a number of articles with Mr Vaino.

He described the nooscope as “a device that scans transactions between people, things and money”, and claimed it was an invention of parallel significance to the telescope and the microscope.

Read the entire story here.

Image: The capitalisation of the future diagram. Courtesy: BBC.

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Hedging With Death

Wiertz-burial

I’ve never met a hedge fund guy. I don’t think I ever will. They’re invariably male and white. Hedge fund guys move in very different circles than mere mortgage-bound morals like me, usually orbited by billions of dollars and extravagant toys like 200 ft yachts, Tuscan palazzos and a Lamborghini on every continent. At least that’s the popular stereotype.

I’m not sure I like the idea of hedge funds and hedge fund guys with their complex and obfuscated financial transactions, nano-second trading, risk shifting strategies, corporate raids and restructurings. I’m not against gazillionaires per se — but I much prefer the billionaires who invent and make things over those who simply bet and gamble and destroy.

So, it comes as no surprise to learn that one predatory hedge fund guy has found a way to make money from the death of strangers. His name is Donald F. “Jay” Lathen Jr. and his hedge fund is known as Eden Arc Capital Management. Lathen found a neat way for his hedge fund to profit from bonds and CDs (certificates of deposit) with survivor options. For each of his “death transactions” there would be two named survivors: himself or an associate and a terminally-ill patient at a nursing home or hospice. In exchange for naming Lathen as a financial beneficiary the patient would collect $10,000 from Lathen. Lathen would then rake in far greater sums from the redeemed bonds when the patient died.

Lathen’s trick was to enter into such deals only with patients that he calculated to be closest to death. Nothing illegal here, but certainly ethically head-scratching. Don’t you just love capitalism!

From Bloomberg:

A vital function of the financial system is to shift risk, but that is mostly a euphemism. Finance can’t make risks go away, or even really move them all that much. When the financial system shifts the risk of X happening from Y to Z, all that means is that Z gives Y money if X happens. If X was going to happen to Y, it’s still going to happen to Y. But now Y gets money.

Death is a central fact of human existence, the fundamental datum that gives meaning to life, but it is also a risk — you never know when it will happen! — and so the financial industry has figured out ways to shift it. Not in any supernatural sense, I mean, but in the regular financial-industry sense: by giving people money when death happens to them. One cannot know for certain how much of a consolation that is.

Another vital function of the financial system is to brutally punish the mispricing of risk through arbitrage. Actually I don’t really know how vital that one is, but people are pretty into it. If someone under- or overestimates a risk, someone else will find a way to make them pay for it. That’s how markets, even the market for death, stay efficient.

The normal way to shift the risk of death is life insurance — you die, the insurance company gives you money — but there are other, more esoteric versions, and they are more susceptible to arbitrage. One version involves “medium and long-term bonds and certificates of deposit (‘CDs’) that contain ‘survivor options’ or ‘death puts.'” Schematically, the idea is that a financial institution issues a bond that pays back $100 when it matures in 2040 or whatever. But if the buyer of the bond dies, he gets his $100 back immediately, instead of having to wait until 2040. He’s still dead, though.

But the bond can be owned jointly by two people, and when one of them dies, the other one gets the $100 back. If you and your friend buy a bond like that for $80, and then your friend dies, you make a quick $20.

But what are the odds of that? “Pretty low” was presumably the thinking of the companies issuing these bonds. But they didn’t reckon with Donald F. “Jay” Lathen Jr. and his hedge fund Eden Arc Capital Management:

Using contacts at nursing homes and hospices to identify patients that had a prognosis of less than six months left to live, and conducting due diligence into the patients’ medical condition, Lathen found Participants he could use to execute the Fund’s strategy. In return for agreeing to become a joint owner on an account with Lathen and/or another individual, the Participants were promised a fixed fee—typically, $10,000.

That is, needless to say, from the Securities and Exchange Commission administrative action against Lathen and Eden Arc. Lathen and a terminally ill patient would buy survivor-option bonds in a joint account, using Eden Arc’s money; the patient would die, Lathen would redeem the bonds, and Eden Arc would get the money. You are … somehow … not supposed to do this?

Read the entire story here.

Image: Antoine Wiertz’s painting of a man buried alive, 1854. Courtesy: Wiertz Museum, Netherlands / Wikipedia. Public Domain.

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The Ambition of Limited Access to Email

IMG_7615

Ubiquitous and constant connectivity has thoroughly reshaped our world over the last couple of decades. We are always reachable, personally and professionally — mobile phones, email and texting have seen to that. Yet, the automated out-of-office message still persists. You know, the email text goes something like this:

I’m currently out of the office and have limited access to email.

Yet, we all know that we can have unlimited access, all the time, and from almost anywhere on the planet. So, what do our automated messages of absence really mean? There are some suggestions that our absence from the connected world ranks as an indicator of status — the less reachable you are, the higher your status. Also, it’s quite possible that some of us use the rather lame excuse of communications service interruption as a smoke-screen for our inability to say no to the 24/7 demands of our work.

From the Guardian:

My favorite literary form of the summer of 2016 is the automatic email out-of-office message. When future scholars of literature reflect on the way that we wrote in this tumultuous, steaming-hot summer, what will they focus on? Perhaps it will be the way these utilitarian missives shifted towards a particular kind of magical thinking.
“I’m away,” these out-of-office messages say, dropping into my inbox one after another, “and I have limited access to email.”

Limited access wasn’t always our collective ambition. Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, when Wi-Fi was but a dream for the masses, I recall a television commercial that often aired during my father’s favorite basketball games. A tropical beach, a sleeves-rolled-up business executive kicking back with a clunky, black-box laptop. This was the exciting future of work: going somewhere beautiful but still being able to show everyone how important you were by bringing your 30lb ThinkPad, kicking back with a couple of spreadsheets and a piña colada.

Now, a generation later, with unprecedented portability, connection, we feel the urge to note our limitations, or the ones that we’d like to envision that we have. We are world-weary: with staring at screens, yes. But also with anticipation of how important we’ll feel when we look at our inbox after two, three hours away, note the stack of communiques at which we will sigh, with which we’ll reluctantly cope.

This is progress: the demonstration of status not through our ability to work wherever we go, but our inability to work. Our distance. Our ability to divide between the mundanity of day-to-day life and the sublimity of vacation. Our genuine and admirable devotion to personal time and space. Or at least our desire to have that devotion: our understanding that it is something to aim for. A wish.

“Limited access to email,” we write, wilfully overlooking the existence of smartphones, playacting as if every hotel in the world doesn’t place the Wi-Fi password in our sweaty palms along with our room key cards. We are aloof, too good to feel a thrill at the buzzing notification that our high school friend has posted a 20-year-old photo of the time that we all went to a water park.

Read the entire story here.

Image: No signal from here. Courtesy: the author.

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The Death of Permissionless Innovation

NeXTcube_first_webserver

The internet and its user-friendly interface, the World Wide Web (Web), was founded on the principle of openness. The acronym soup of standards, such as TCP/IP, HTTP and HTML, paved the way for unprecedented connectivity and interoperability. Anyone armed with a computer and a connection, adhering to these standards, could now connect and browse and share data with any one else.

This is a simplified view of Sir Tim Berners-Lee vision for the Web in 1989 — the same year that brought us Seinfeld and The Simpsons. Berners-Lee invented the Web. His invention fostered an entire global technological and communications revolution over the next  quarter century.

However, Berners-Lee did something much more important. Rather than keeping the Web to himself and his colleagues, and turning to Silicon Valley to found and fund the next billion dollar startup, he pursued a path to give the ideas and technologies away. Critically, the open standards of the internet and Web enabled countless others to innovate and to profit.

One of the innovators to reap the greatest rewards from this openness is Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Yet, in the ultimate irony, Facebook has turned the Berners-Lee model of openness and permissionless innovation on its head. It’s billion-plus users are members of a private, corporate-controlled walled garden. Innovation, to a large extent, is now limited by the whims of Facebook. Increasingly so, open innovation on the internet is stifled and extinguished by the constraints manufactured and controlled for Facebook’s own ends. This makes Zuckerberg’s vision of making the world “more open and connected” thoroughly laughable.

From the Guardian:

If there were a Nobel prize for hypocrisy, then its first recipient ought to be Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook boss. On 23 August, all his 1.7 billion users were greeted by this message: “Celebrating 25 years of connecting people. The web opened up to the world 25 years ago today! We thank Sir Tim Berners-Lee and other internet pioneers for making the world more open and connected.”

Aw, isn’t that nice? From one “pioneer” to another. What a pity, then, that it is a combination of bullshit and hypocrisy. In relation to the former, the guy who invented the web, Tim Berners-Lee, is as mystified by this “anniversary” as everyone else. “Who on earth made up 23 August?” he asked on Twitter. Good question. In fact, as the Guardian pointed out: “If Facebook had asked Berners-Lee, he’d probably have told them what he’s been telling people for years: the web’s 25th birthday already happened, two years ago.”

“In 1989, I delivered a proposal to Cern for the system that went on to become the worldwide web,” he wrote in 2014. It was that year, not this one, that he said we should celebrate as the web’s 25th birthday.

It’s not the inaccuracy that grates, however, but the hypocrisy. Zuckerberg thanks Berners-Lee for “making the world more open and connected”. So do I. What Zuck conveniently omits to mention, though, is that he is embarked upon a commercial project whose sole aim is to make the world more “connected” but less open. Facebook is what we used to call a “walled garden” and now call a silo: a controlled space in which people are allowed to do things that will amuse them while enabling Facebook to monetise their data trails. One network to rule them all. If you wanted a vision of the opposite of the open web, then Facebook is it.

The thing that makes the web distinctive is also what made the internet special, namely that it was designed as an open platform. It was designed to facilitate “permissionless innovation”. If you had a good idea that could be realised using data packets, and possessed the programming skills to write the necessary software, then the internet – and the web – would do it for you, no questions asked. And you didn’t need much in the way of financial resources – or to ask anyone for permission – in order to realise your dream.

An open platform is one on which anyone can build whatever they like. It’s what enabled a young Harvard sophomore, name of Zuckerberg, to take an idea lifted from two nice-but-dim oarsmen, translate it into computer code and launch it on an unsuspecting world. And in the process create an empire of 1.7 billion subjects with apparently limitless revenues. That’s what permissionless innovation is like.

The open web enabled Zuckerberg to do this. But – guess what? – the Facebook founder has no intention of allowing anyone to build anything on his platform that does not have his express approval. Having profited mightily from the openness of the web, in other words, he has kicked away the ladder that elevated him to his current eminence. And the whole thrust of his company’s strategy is to persuade billions of future users that Facebook is the only bit of the internet they really need.

Read the entire article here.

Image: The NeXT Computer used by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN. Courtesy: Science Museum, London. GFDL CC-BY-SA.

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Occam’s Razor For a Trumpian World

William_of_OckhamOccam’s razor (or Ockham’s razor) is a principle from philosophy popularized by 14th century philosopher and logician William of Ockham.

Put simply, it states that if there are two or more explanations for a possible occurrence, the simplest explanation is usually the best. That is, the more assumptions required for a possible hypothesis, the less likely is the explanation for that hypothesis.

While Occam’s razor has been found to apply reasonably well in the philosophy of science and more generally, it is not infallible. So, in this 21st century, it’s time to give Occam’s razor a much needed, fresh coat of paint. Further, it also requires an update to make it 100 percent accurate and logically water-tight.

So, let me present Trump’s razor. It goes like this:

Ascertain the stupidest possible scenario that can be reconciled with the available facts and that answer is likely correct.

Unfortunately I can’t lay claim to this brilliant new tool of logic. Thanks go to the great folks over at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall and John Scalzi.

Read their insightful proposal here.

Image: William of Ockham, from stained glass window at a church in Surrey. Courtesy: Wikipedia. Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0.

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Osiris-Rex and Bennu

Osiris-Rex_Bennu

You might be mistaken for thinking Osiris-Rex and Bennu are the names of two rather exotic dogs. No.

Bennu is a 1,500 foot wide space rock, which circles the Sun at around 60,000 mph. OSIRIS-REx is the space probe which aims to catch the near-Earth asteroid in 2018 and return samples back to Earth in 2023. NASA is scheduled to launch OSIRIS-REx from aboard an Atlas V rocket on September 8, 2016, from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Follow NASA’s asteroid mission here.

In case you were wondering, as is NASA’s wont, OSIRIS-REx is of course a convoluted acronym for the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer spacecraft.

From the Guardian:

At Cape Canaveral air force station on the Florida coast stands an Atlas V rocket bearing the Osiris-Rex probe, Nasa’s first hope to smash-and-grab material from a speeding asteroid and bring it safely back to Earth.

The size of a transit van, the two-tonne spacecraft is set to blast off Thursday night on a seven-year mission to a 500m-wide ball of rubble called Bennu, which circles the sun at more than 100,000km per hour.

The probe is the third of Nasa’s ambitious New Frontiers missions. It follows on the heels of the New Horizons spacecraft, which last year beamed home stunning images from Pluto, and the Juno spacecraft, which arrived at Jupiter in July.

In returning a pile of asteroid to Earth, scientists hope to learn more about the source of water in the solar system and the origins of organic molecules from which life first arose. But getting their hands on pristine asteroid will also give researchers fresh clues about how to mine the bodies for valuable materials, and defend against wayward space rocks that may one day threaten our planet.

The mission has a title that is unwieldy even for the US space agency. Osiris-Rex stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security-Regolith Explorer. “It is a mouthful,” said Ed Beshore, deputy principal investigator on the mission at Arizona State University. “But the name really does speak to our principal mission objectives.”

Bennu orbits the sun on a similar path to Earth. Classified as a “potentially hazardous asteroid”, it swings close to the Earth – in cosmic terms, at least – once every six years. The nearest encounter scientists can predict is slated for 2135, when the coal-black space rock will hurtle between Earth and the moon at a distance of 300,000km.

One major question the mission will ask is how sunlight affects the orbits of asteroids. As they spin close to the sun asteroids are constantly heating up and cooling down. The heat the asteroid re-emits to space provides a minuscule thrust which over time can alter its course. But the effect is hard to quantify. “Often when we look at asteroids that may be a hazard to Earth, the limiting factor in predicting the orbit is this process called the Yarkovsky effect,” said Beshore. “We’d like to understand that and measure it much more precisely when we’re at Bennu and in doing so improve our predictive accuracy for other asteroids that may represent a future threat to Earth.”

Osiris-Rex aims to catch up with Bennu in August 2018 and spend two years mapping the surface. When mission scientists find a good spot, it will swoop down, blast the asteroid with a powerful jet of nitrogen, and collect dislodged material with a robotic arm. Once the material is safely aboard, the spacecraft will retreat and later send it home in a capsule due to land via parachute in the Utah desert in 2023.

Read the whole story here.

Image: Artist concept of OSIRIS-REx probe traveling to near-Earth asteroid Bennu on a sample return mission. Courtesy: NASA.

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Bringing Work to the Homeless

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Many of us have had interactions — usually fleeting and impersonal — with the homeless. Those of us fortunate enough to have made our own luck (it doesn’t come from the sky) usually find the less fortunate on street corners asking for a donation. Sometimes, some of us may give them a dollar or two to assuage guilt or to just “make them go away”. More often than not we hear voices — sometimes our own — asking, why don’t they just get a job?

The Mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico, Richard Berry, had a novel answer to this question, and it seems to be working. In the process, his program is moving the homeless off the street and, more importantly, delivering kindness and compassion and instilling hope and dignity in some of our most vulnerable souls.

From the Washington Post:

Republican Mayor Richard Berry was driving around Albuquerque last year when he saw a man on a street corner holding a sign that read: “Want a Job. Anything Helps.”

Throughout his administration, as part of a push to connect the homeless population to services, Berry had taken to driving through the city to talk to panhandlers about their lives. His city’s poorest residents told him they didn’t want to be on the streets begging for money, but they didn’t know where else to go.

Seeing that sign gave Berry an idea. Instead of asking them, many of whom feel dispirited, to go out looking for work, the city could bring the work to them.

Next month will be the first anniversary of Albuquerque’s There’s a Better Way program, which hires panhandlers for day jobs beautifying the city. In partnership with a local nonprofit that serves the homeless population, a van is dispatched around the city to pick up panhandlers who are interested in working. The job pays $9 an hour, which is above minimum wage, and provides a lunch. At the end of the shift, the participants are offered overnight shelter as needed.

In less than a year since its start, the program has given out 932 jobs clearing 69,601 pounds of litter and weeds from 196 city blocks. And more than 100 people have been connected to permanent employment.

“You can just see the spiral they’ve been on to end up on the corner. Sometimes it takes a little catalyst in their lives to stop the downward spiral, to let them catch their breath, and it’s remarkable,” Berry said in an interview. ”They’ve had the dignity of work for a day; someone believed in them today.”

There is a persisting stigma that people begging for money are either drug addicts or too lazy to work and are looking for an easy handout.

But that’s not necessarily the reality. Panhandling is not especially lucrative, but for some people it can seem as if it’s the only option. When they’ve been approached in Albuquerque with the offer of work, most have been eager for the opportunity to earn money, Berry said. They just needed a lift. One man told him no one had said a kind word to him in 25 years.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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New Worlds

Syndney-Spring-Catherine-Nelson

Although I hung up my professional photographer credentials a while ago I continue my quest for great imagery — whether mine or belonging to others. It’s increasingly difficult nowadays to separate the wheat from the chaff with so many images from so many aspiring photographers armed with their ubiquitous smartphones. Yet, some image-makers continue to rise to the top, their special and unique views separating them from the armies of millions (now probably billions) of regular snapshot-takers.

Catherine Nelson is one such visual artist. Some of her recent work is on display at New York’s Saul gallery. But I urge you to visit her work here. Her series are rich, eerie and (appropriately) other worldly — my favorites: Other Worlds, Submerged and Origins.

Image: Sydney Spring. Courtesy: Catherine Nelson.

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Texas Versus Women’s Health

Texas-map

During the period between 2010 and 2014 the rate of women who died from pregnancy-related complications doubled. Not in an impoverished third world nation, but Texas. This increase in maternal mortality is second to none across the United States and all other developed nations.

Perhaps not coincidentally this same period is also marked by Texas’ significant budget cuts that all but destroyed reproductive healthcare clinics and Planned Parenthood services in the state.

This is a great (and sad) example that clearly demonstrates how political ideology can have serious and fatal consequences for 51 percent of the population. I have to wonder if the other half of the population will ever come to its senses. Though, with Republicans firmly in control at the local and state level I’m sure even these concrete facts will be fair game for some hyperbolic fictional distortion.

From the Guardian:

The rate of Texas women who died from complications related to their pregnancy doubled from 2010 to 2014, a new study has found, for an estimated maternal mortality rate that is unmatched in any other state and the rest of the developed world.

The finding comes from a report, appearing in the September issue of the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology, that the maternal mortality rate in the United States increased between 2000 and 2014, even while the rest of the world succeeded in reducing its rate. Excluding California, where maternal mortality declined, and Texas, where it surged, the estimated number of maternal deaths per 100,000 births rose to 23.8 in 2014 from 18.8 in 2000 – or about 27%.

But the report singled out Texas for special concern, saying the doubling of mortality rates in a two-year period was hard to explain “in the absence of war, natural disaster, or severe economic upheaval”.

From 2000 to the end of 2010, Texas’s estimated maternal mortality rate hovered between 17.7 and 18.6 per 100,000 births. But after 2010, that rate had leaped to 33 deaths per 100,000, and in 2014 it was 35.8. Between 2010-2014, more than 600 women died for reasons related to their pregnancies.

No other state saw a comparable increase.

In the wake of the report, reproductive health advocates are blaming the increase on Republican-led budget cuts that decimated the ranks of Texas’s reproductive healthcare clinics. In 2011, just as the spike began, the Texas state legislature cut $73.6m from the state’s family planning budget of $111.5m. The two-thirds cut forced more than 80 family planning clinics to shut down across the state. The remaining clinics managed to provide services – such as low-cost or free birth control, cancer screenings and well-woman exams – to only half as many women as before.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Maps.

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Psychopath Versus Sociopath

psycopath-vs-sociopath-infographic1

I’ve been writing for a while now about a certain person who wishes to become the next President of the United States. His name is Donald Trump. He carries with him an entire encyclopedia — no, bookshelves of encyclopedias — of negative character traits. But chief among these he lacks empathy, tends to feel no guilt or remorse, and disregards the needs and rights of others. These are traits common to both psychopaths and sociopaths.

Over the last few years I’ve been describing Mr. Trump as a psychopath. Others, particularly recently (here, here, here), characterize him as a sociopath. Who’s right?

I’m turning to some psychological resources, excerpted and paraphrased below — American Psychological Association, Psychology Today, WebMD — to help me clarify the differences.

On first analysis it looks like Mr. Trump straddles both! Though I must say, that regardless, I don’t want either a sociopath or a psychopath, or a psycho-sociopath or a socio-psychopath in the White House with fingers anywhere close to the nuclear codes.

Sociopath:

Sociopaths tend to be volatile. That is, they tend to be nervous and easily agitated or angered. They are volatile and prone to emotional outbursts, including fits of rage. In addition, they may be uneducated and live on the fringes of traditional society, unable to hold down a steady job or stay in one place for very long. They are frequently transients and drifters.

It is difficult but not impossible for sociopaths to form attachments with others. They are capable of bonding emotionally and demonstrating empathy with certain people in certain situations but not others. Many sociopaths have no regard for society in general or its rules. Sociopathy, on the other hand, is more likely the product of environmental influences (“nurture”), such as childhood trauma and physical/emotional abuse.

Psychopath:

Psychopaths are unable to form emotional attachments or feel real empathy with others, although they often have disarming or even charming personalities. Psychopaths are very manipulative and can easily gain people’s trust. They learn to mimic emotions, despite their inability to actually feel them, and will appear normal to unsuspecting people. Psychopaths are often well educated and hold steady jobs. Some are so good at manipulation and mimicry that they have families and other long-term relationships without those around them ever suspecting their true nature.

It is believed that psychopathy is the largely the result of “nature” (genetics) and is related to a physiological defect that results in the underdevelopment of the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and emotions.

Infographic courtesy of Psychologia.

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Can We Move There?

Pale Red Dot is an international search for an Earth-like exoplanet around the closest star to us, Proxima Centauri. It will use HARPS, attached to ESO’s 3.6-metre telescope at La Silla Observatory, as well as the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (LCOGT) and the Burst Optical Observer and Transient Exploring System (BOOTES). It will be one of the few outreach campaigns allowing the general public to witness the scientific process of data acquisition in modern observatories. The public will see how teams of astronomers with different specialities work together to collect, analyse  and interpret data, which may or may not be able to confirm the presence of an Earth-like planet orbiting our nearest neighbour . The outreach campaign consists of blog posts and social media updates on the Pale Red Dot Twitter account and using the hashtag #PaleRedDot. For more information visit the Pale Red Dot website: http://www.palereddot.org

I’ve been toying with the idea of uprooting and moving to Canada should a certain orange-haired bigot win the US presidential election. But, no offense to Canadians, scientists have just discovered an Earth-like planet a mere 4.25 light-years away, our nearest celestial neighbor.

Can anyone convince Elon Musk (of SpaceX) to get cracking on a suitable spacecraft that will get us there, or at least help us leave, before November 8, 2016? Forget Mars, Proxima Centauri here I come!

From Space.com

The star closest to the sun hosts a planet that may be very much like Earth, a new study reports.

Astronomers have discovered a roughly Earth-size alien world around Proxima Centauri, which lies just 4.2 light-years from our own solar system. What’s even more exciting, study team members said, is that the planet, known as Proxima b, circles in the star’s “habitable zone” — the range of distances at which liquid water could be stable on a world’s surface.

“We hope these findings inspire future generations to keep looking beyond the stars,” lead author Guillem Anglada-Escude, a physics and astronomy lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, said in a statement.”The search for life on Proxima b comes next.” [In Pictures: The Discovery of Planet Proxima b]

The discovery of Proxima b was a long time in the making.

Astronomers have been hunting intensively for planets around Proxima Centauri for more 15 years, using instruments such as the Ultraviolet and Visual Echelle Spectrograph (UVES) and the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), both of which are installed on telescopes run by the European Southern Observatory in Chile.

UVES, HARPS and other instruments like them allow researchers to detect the slight wobbles in a star’s movement caused by the gravitational tugs of orbiting planets.

Astronomers found hints of such a wobble back in 2013, but the signal was not convincing, Anglada-Escude said. So he and a number of other researchers launched a campaign to ferret out the planet. They called this effort the Pale Red Dot — a nod to Carl Sagan’s famous description of Earth as a “pale blue dot,” and the fact that Proxima Centauri is a small, dim star known as a red dwarf.

The Pale Red Dot team focused HARPS on Proxima Centauri every night from Jan. 19, 2016, through March 31 of this year. After they combined this new data with UVES observations from 2000 through 2008 and HARPS observations from 2005 through early 2014, the signal of a possible planet came through loud and clear.

Then, after analyzing observations of the star’s brightness made by several other telescopes, Anglada-Escude and his colleagues ruled out the possibility that this signal could be caused by the variable activity of Proxima Centauri.

“The conclusion: We have found a planet around Proxima Centauri,” Anglada-Escude said Tuesday (Aug. 23) during a news conference.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Pale Red Dot, an international search for an Earth-like exoplanet around the closest star to us, Proxima Centauri. It will use HARPS, attached to ESO’s 3.6-metre telescope at La Silla Observatory, as well as the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (LCOGT) and the Burst Optical Observer and Transient Exploring System (BOOTES). It will be one of the few outreach campaigns allowing the general public to witness the scientific process of data acquisition in modern observatories. The public will see how teams of astronomers with different specialities work together to collect, analyse and interpret data, which may or may not be able to confirm the presence of an Earth-like planet orbiting our nearest neighbour. The outreach campaign consists of blog posts and social media updates on the Pale Red Dot Twitter account and using the hashtag #PaleRedDot. For more information visit the Pale Red Dot website : http://www.palereddot.org. Courtesy: ESO/Pale Red Dot – http://www.eso.org/public/images/ann16002a/

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A Global and Imperiled Treasure

Trail Ridge Road RMNP 2

About 25 miles from where I write lies Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). It’s a gorgeous part of the world — pristine forests, blue alpine lakes, frigid streams and ragged peaks. Luckily thanks to the persistent work of Enos Mills and President Woodrow Wilson’s signature RMNP has been protected from development and destruction since 1915. So too are its 411 sister regions and monuments that now make up the US National Park System.

The nationwide park system was officially founded 100 years ago today, August 25, 1916. It is a precious and priceless jewel — truly one of America’s best ideas.

On this centenary we should be reminded that each one of our parks and monuments requires our constant and vigilant protection. We must do all that we can to ensure that our children and their children can experience for themselves — over the next 100 years (and beyond) — some of nature’s true wonders.

Though keep in mind that while our parks may be protected from direct human exploitation they’re not immune to the ravages of climate change.

From the Guardian:

After a century of shooing away hunters, tending to trails and helping visitors enjoy the wonder of the natural world, the guardians of America’s most treasured places have been handed an almost unimaginable new job – slowing the all-out assault climate change is waging against national parks across the nation.

As the National Parks Service (NPS) has charted the loss of glaciers, sea level rise and increase in wildfires spurred by rising temperatures in recent years, the scale of the threat to US heritage across the 412 national parks and monuments has become starkly apparent.

As the National Parks Service turns 100 this week, their efforts to chart and stem the threat to the country’s history faces a daunting task. America’s grand symbols and painstakingly preserved archaeological sites are at risk of being winnowed away by the crashing waves, wildfires and erosion triggered by warming temperatures.

The Statue of Liberty is at “high exposure” risk from increasingly punishing storms. A national monument dedicated to abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who will be enshrined on a new $20 note, could be eaten away by rising tides in Maryland. The land once walked by Pocahontas and Captain John Smith in Jamestown, the first English settlement in the US, is surrounded by waters rising at twice the global average and may be beyond rescue.

These threats are the latest in a pile of identified calamities to befall national parks and monuments due to climate change. Receding ice, extreme heat and acidifying oceans are morphing America’s landscapes and coasts at a faster pace than at any time in human history.

“Yosemite’s famous glacier, once a mile wide, is almost gone,” fretted Barack Obama during a visit to the vast park in June.

“Rising temperatures could mean no more glaciers in Glacier national park, no more Joshua trees in Joshua Tree national park.

“Rising seas can destroy vital ecosystems in the Everglades and at some point could even threaten icons like the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. That’s not the America I want to pass on to the next generation.”

Change, however, is inevitable no matter how quickly greenhouse gas emissions are cut. An NPS study from 2014 found four in five of America’s national parks are now at the “extreme end” of temperature variables charted since 1901.

“We are starting to see things spiral away now,” said Gregor Schuurman, an ecologist at the NPS climate change response program. “We are going to look back at this time and actually think it was a calm period. And then people will start asking questions about what we were doing about the situation.”

Read the entire story here.

Image: Above the clouds, near the famed Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park, Summer 2016. Courtesy: the author.

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Another Step Closer to Artificial Photosynthesis

google-search-leaf

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago have constructed an artificial leaf that captures sunlight and uses it to convert carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to usable hydrocarbon fuel. Senior author on the study, Amin Salehi-Khojin assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, notes that “the new solar cell is not photovoltaic — it’s photosynthetic.” Using a combination of intricately engineered nano-membranes and unique combinations of catalytic molecules the artificial leaf takes in sunlight and CO2 and produces syngas or synthetic gas (hydrogen and carbon monoxide gas) from the cathode, and free oxygen and hydrogen ions at the anode.

This is a remarkable breakthrough that holds real promise — not only producing energy in a sustainable way from renewable sources but also removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Read more about this pioneering work here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Thoughts As Shapes

wednesday is indigo blue bookcoverJonathan Jackson has a very rare form of a rare neurological condition. He has synesthesia, which is a cross-connection of two (or more) unrelated senses where an perception in one sense causes an automatic experience in another sense. Some synesthetes, for instance, see various sounds or musical notes as distinct colors (chromesthesia), others perceive different words as distinct tastes (lexical-gustatory synesthesia).

Jackson, on the other hand, experiences his thoughts as shapes in a visual mindmap. This is so fascinating I’ve excerpted a short piece of his story below.

Also, if you are further intrigued by this subject I recommend three great reads on the subject: Wednesday Is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia by Richard Cytowic, and David M. Eagleman; Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, by Oliver Sacks; The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Richard Cytowic.

From the Atlantic:

One spring evening in the mid 2000s, Jonathan Jackson and Andy Linscott sat on some seaside rocks near their college campus, smoking the kind of cigarettes reserved for heartbreak. Linscott was, by his own admission, “emotionally spewing” over a girl, and Jackson was consoling him.

Jackson had always been a particularly good listener. But in the middle of their talk, he did something Linscott found deeply odd.

“He got up and jumped over to this much higher rock,” Linscott says. “He was like, ‘Andy, I’m listening, I just want to get a different angle. I want to see what you’re saying and the shape of your words from a different perspective.’ I was baffled.”

For Jackson, moving physically to think differently about an idea seemed totally natural. “People say, ‘Okay, we need to think about this from a new angle’ all the time!” he says. “But for me that’s literal.”

Jackson has synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon that has long been defined as the co-activation of two or more conventionally unrelated senses. Some synesthetes see music (known as auditory-visual synesthesia) or read letters and numbers in specific hues (grapheme-color synesthesia). But recent research has complicated that definition, exploring where in the sensory process those overlaps start and opening up the term to include types of synesthesia in which senses interact in a much more complex manner.

Read the entire  story here.

Image: Wednesday Is Indigo Blue, bookcover, Courtesy: By Richard E. Cytowic and David M. Eagleman, MIT Press.

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Pessimism About Positive Thinking

Many of us have grown up in a world that teaches and values the power of positive thinking. The mantra of positive thinkers goes something like this: think positively about yourself, your situation, your goals and you will be much more motivated and energized to fulfill your dreams.

By some accounts the self-improvement industry in the US alone weighs in with annual revenues of around $10 billion. So, positive thinking must work, right? Psychologists suggest that it’s really not that simple; singular focus on positivity may help us in the short-term, but over the longer-term it frustrates our motivations and hinders progress towards our goals.

In short, it pays to be in touch with the negatives as well, to embrace and understand obstacles, to learn from and challenge our setbacks. It is to our advantage to be a pragmatic dreamer, grounded in both the beauty and ugliness that surrounds us.

From aeon:

In her book The Secret Daily Teachings (2008), the self-help author Rhonda Byrne suggested that: ‘Whatever big thing you are asking for, consider having the celebration now as though you have received it.’

Yet research in psychology reveals a more complicated picture. Indulging in undirected positive flights of fancy isn’t always in our interest. Positive thinking can make us feel better in the short term, but over the long term it saps our motivation, preventing us from achieving our wishes and goals, and leaving us feeling frustrated, stymied and stuck. If we really want to move ahead in our lives, engage with the world and feel energised, we need to go beyond positive thinking and connect as well with the obstacles that stand in our way. By bringing our dreams into contact with reality, we can unleash our greatest energies and make the most progress in our lives.

Now, you might wonder if positive thinking is really as harmful as I’m suggesting. In fact, it is. In a number of studies over two decades, my colleagues and I have discovered a powerful link between positive thinking and poor performance. In one study, we asked college students who had a crush on someone from afar to tell us how likely they would be to strike up a relationship with that person. Then we asked them to complete some open-ended scenarios related to dating. ‘You are at a party,’ one scenario read. ‘While you are talking to [your crush], you see a girl/boy, whom you believe [your crush] might like, come into the room. As she/he approaches the two of you, you imagine…’

Some of the students completed the scenarios by spinning a tale of romantic success. ‘The two of us leave the party, everyone watches, especially the other girl.’ Others offered negative fantasies about love thwarted: ‘My crush and the other girl begin to converse about things which I know nothing. They seem to be much more comfortable with each other than he and I….’

We checked back with the students after five months to see if they had initiated a relationship with their crush. The more students had engaged in positive fantasies about the future, the less likely they were actually to have started up a romantic relationship.

My colleagues and I performed such studies with participants in a number of demographic groups, in different countries, and with a range of personal wishes, including health goals, academic and professional goals, and relationship goals. Consistently, we found a correlation between positive fantasies and poor performance. The more that people ‘think positive’ and imagine themselves achieving their goals, the less they actually achieve.

Positive thinking impedes performance because it relaxes us and drains the energy we need to take action. After having participants in one study positively fantasise about the future for as little as a few minutes, we observed declines in systolic blood pressure, a standard measure of a person’s energy level. These declines were significant: whereas smoking a cigarette will typically raise a person’s blood pressure by five or 10 points, engaging in positive fantasies lowers it by about half as much.

Read the entire article here.

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Comfort, Texas, the Timeship and Technological Immortality

Timeship-screenshot

There’s a small town deep in the heart of Texas’ Hill Country called Comfort. It was founded in the mid-19th century by German immigrants. Its downtown area is held to be one of the most well-preserved historic business districts in Texas. Now, just over 160 years on there’s another preservation effort underway in Comfort.

This time, however, the work goes well beyond preserving buildings; Comfort may soon be the global hub for life-extension research and human cryopreservation. The ambitious, and not without controversy, project is known as the Timeship, and is the brainchild of architect Stephen Valentine and the Stasis Foundation.

Since one the the key aims of the Timeship is to preserve biological material — DNA, tissue and organ samples, and even cryopreserved humans — the building design presents some rather unique and stringent challenges. The building must withstand a nuclear blast or other attack; its electrical and mechanical systems must remain functional and stable for hundreds of years; it must be self-sustaining and highly secure.

Read more about the building and much more about the Timeship here.

Image: Timeship screenshot. Courtesy of Timeship.

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What’s Up With Middle-Aged White Males?

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Not too long ago I came across a number of articles describing the high and growing incidence of suicide among middle-aged white males. Indeed, the suicide rate has skyrocketed 40 percent since the early 2000s.

Understandably, and no less sad, the increase in suicides seems to be driven by acute financial distress, chronic pain and/or illness, alcoholism and drug addiction.

Now, it seems that there is a corresponding increase in the number of white males faking their disappearance or fantasizing about it. A classic example is John Darwin from the UK, also known as “canoe man“, who faked his own death in 2002. But a key difference between this group and those who take their own lives is that the group of white males looking to disappear tends to be financially and (reasonably) emotionally stable.

So what on earth is going on?

A soon too be published book — Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud, by Elizabeth Greenwood, examines what it’s like to fake your own death and burgeoning “disappearance” industry.

Here’s an excerpt:

Perhaps Todd’s plan for faking his death will remain in the realm of pure fantasy. But were he to put his plan into motion, Todd fits the prime demographic for a death fraudster. As a middle-aged, middle-class, heterosexual white man with a family, Todd represents the person most likely to fake his death. I’d noticed this disproportion in the demographics, and I wondered if there was anything to it. Privacy consultant Frank Ahearn and author of How to Disappear told me that the majority of his clients who sought to leave their lives behind were men, and J. J. Luna, author of How to Be Invisible: Protect Your Home, Your Children, Your Assets, and Your Life, told me that “far more men than women!” seek his “invisibility” services. In the 1996 guidebook How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, disappearance enthusiast Doug Richmond writes, “To a man of a certain age, there’s a bit of magic in the very thought of cutting all ties, of getting away from it all, of changing names and jobs and women and living happily ever after in a more salubrious clime!”

But why do these seemingly privileged men, who enjoy every perk that DNA has to offer, feel so hemmed in that they must go off the radar entirely? Perhaps it’s because although men still out-earn women, they then entangle themselves in financial trouble trying to enhance their fortunes. Maybe they shrug off because they feel less responsibility to see their children grow and flourish. Women shoulder the burdens of family and community—they take care of dying parents, snotty kids, shut-in neighbors—anyone before themselves. Though that might be relying too heavily on conventional wisdom about gender roles, the numbers speak for themselves: faking death seems to be a heavily male phenomenon. After combing through the stories and examining the traits that men like Todd share, I noticed that they all seemed to feel emasculated, made impotent, by their mundane lives. So, not earning enough money, they invest in a harebrained scheme. Underwhelmed with their monogamous sex lives, they take up with other women. Faking death seems to be not only a way out but also, counterintuitively, a way to be brave.

Read more here.

Image: Actor Leonard Rossiter plays Reginald Iolanthe Perrin, from The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, a mid-1970s BBC sitcom. Courtesy: BBC.

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Foreign Accent Syndrome

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As a Brit living in the United States I have first-hand evidence that the British accent is superior to its American counterpart — as judged by Americans themselves. Americans usually characterize a person with a British accent as being more intelligent, more charming, more authoritative and more sincere. Brilliant (for my US audience, “awesome”)!

So, it would come as no surprise to find some Americans imitating the plummy pronunciation of its Old World cousin to score social points. But such impostors are usually universally derided by both Americans and Brits, save for American actors who tend only to be derided by Brits for never quite grasping the Queen’s English.

This leads me to the peculiar case of a Texan woman — with a Texan accent — who developed a British accent after surgery to correct an overbite. Her case in one of only a hundred or so ever documented examples of Foreign Accent Syndrome.

You may well ask, how is this possible? Read more over at Wired.

Image: Keep Calm screenshot. Courtesy: Keep Calm-o-Matic.

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The Two Percent and The Hum

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By some estimates 2 percent of the population can at some time hear a mysterious sound known as “the Hum”. It’s a low pitched, droning noise that seems to have no source, yet comes from all around. The Hum has been heard in tiny Scottish villages, in Florida, Western Canada, New Mexico and other regions around the world. Hearers of The Hum have variously blamed distant diesel engines, remote submarines on maneuvers, underground pipes, industrial generators. The sources have never been definitively identified, and so the Hum sufferers have continued to search in vain for an explanation to the maddening sound.

Various theories — mostly of the conspiracy kind — have been proposed. Some put the sound down to secretive government agencies testing ultra-low frequency mind control. Others believe the sound to come from UFOs or instruments of socialist torture.

A more mundane explanation suggests the mysterious signal to be inside the heads of its listeners — nothing more than a form of irritating tinnitus. But many have remained unconvinced and have sought rational explanations elsewhere. Recently, sufferers and researchers have honed in on a potential source — low frequency oscillations of the Earth caused by long ocean waves on the sea floor.

Read more about The Hum here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Early Adopters of Inconvenient Truths

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Conspiracy theorists are a small but vocal and influential minority. Their views span the gamut of conspiracy theories: holocaust denial, President Kennedy’s assassination, UFOs, extraterrestrials, Flat Earth, alternate technology suppression, climate change, to name just a handful.

The United States is after all host to a candidate for the Presidency who subscribes to a number of conspiratorial theories, and, importantly, there’s even a dating app — Awake Dating — for like-minded conspiracy theorists. Though, the site’s COO Jarrod Fidden prefers to label his members “early adopter[s] of inconvenient truths” over the term “conspiracy theorist”, which, let’s face it, is often used pejoratively.

So, perhaps it serves to delve a little deeper into why some nonsensical and scientifically disproved ideas persist in 2016.

Briefly, it seems that zombie ideas thrive for a couple of key reasons: first, they may confer some level of group identity, attention and/or influence; second, they provide a degree of simplistic comfort to counter often highly complex scientific explanations. Moreover, conspiracy theories do have a generally positive cultural effect — some bring laughter to our days, but most tend to drive serious debate and further research in the quest for true (scientific) consensus.

From the Guardian:

In January 2016, the rapper BoB took to Twitter to tell his fans that the Earth is really flat. “A lot of people are turned off by the phrase ‘flat earth’,” he acknowledged, “but there’s no way u can see all the evidence and not know … grow up.” At length the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson joined in the conversation, offering friendly corrections to BoB’s zany proofs of non-globism, and finishing with a sarcastic compliment: “Being five centuries regressed in your reasoning doesn’t mean we all can’t still like your music.”

Actually, it’s a lot more than five centuries regressed. Contrary to what we often hear, people didn’t think the Earth was flat right up until Columbus sailed to the Americas. In ancient Greece, the philosophers Pythagoras and Parmenides had already recognised that the Earth was spherical. Aristotle pointed out that you could see some stars in Egypt and Cyprus that were not visible at more northerly latitudes, and also that the Earth casts a curved shadow on the moon during a lunar eclipse. The Earth, he concluded with impeccable logic, must be round.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Azimuthal equidistant projection, used by some Flat Earthers as evidence for a flat Earth. Courtesy: Trekky0623 / Wikipedia. Public Domain.

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A Reminder That Evil People Exist

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Recently discovered diaries of Heinrich Himmler, the architect of the Holocaust, should serve as a reminder to us all that evil people are in our midst. His diary entries are all the more disturbing for their simple casualness:

January 3, 1943

  • 8pm: Dinner

  • 9pm: More meetings, one reacting to news that Nazi-allied police officers in Poland were refusing to fight.

  • 9-10pm: Orders all ten officers be executed and their families sent to concentration camps before going to bed

More from the Telegraph:

Newly discovered diaries have revealed the schedule of Heinrich Himmler, the man who planned the Holocaust, which suggests he was more concerned about what he had for lunch than his role in the Nazi massacre of at least six million people.

The documents, uncovered by German newspaper Bild, had been buried in the archive of the Russian ministry of defence in Podolsk near Moscow and were all but forgotten for more than 70 years.

The service diaries, which cover 1938 and the crucial war years of 1943 and 1944, had been snatched by the Red Army towards the end of the war.

Extracts document the hour-by-hour schedule of the reviled SS chief, juxtaposing phone calls with his wife and daughter alongside writs of execution.

Several of them allude to massage appointments taken early in the day which could last up to hours.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Himmler (front right, beside prisoner) visiting the Dachau Concentration Camp in 1936. Courtesy: German Federal Archives. Public Domain.

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