When we think of ancient biological killers, we typically think of a Black Plague or a smallpox, an often recurring disease that wipes out millions of people and has been recorded since humanity started recording things. The plague killed more than a third of all Europeans in outbreaks from the fall of Rome while smallpox killed well over a billion people over the last 10,000 years. What rarely gets brought up in this pantheon of ancient killers, however, is cancer. It’s been with us a very long time, found in Egyptian mummies over 4,000 years old and named by Greek doctors puzzled by patients who died of “crab-like growths” as they were described, from which we get the disease’s name. But cancer doesn’t just affect us. It kills all living things. Even dinosaurs got tumors because cancer isn’t one disease but abnormal cell growth that is often fatal. If you’re a complex multicellular organism, chances are that there’s a cancer you can develop in time.

One of the most common alt med tropes employed to convince you to buy some new snake oil preaches that frequent cancer diagnoses are a result of our world becoming too polluted and a toxic cocktail of Cthulhu-knows-what circulating through your tissues is to blame. In reality, the reason why so many people get cancers today is because humans are living longer than ever, and are armed with the technology and knowledge to catch more varieties of it earlier, allowing them to subdue it and extend their lifespans even further. In fact, someone I personally know is a survivor of three cancer diagnoses, each a different type, and each was cured with outpatient surgeries. Just a few decades ago, this person would’ve been diagnosed too late and die swiftly even after surgery and chemotherapy, and it’s very likely that with age, there will be yet another cancer diagnosis because cancer is degenerative. The longer you live and the more cells are in your body, the more chances there are for a tumor to spawn after a botched cell division.

But it seems that no one told that to our pachyderm friends, who, despite being large and with fairly long lifespans, have cancer mortality rates half to a fifth of ours. How? Is their blood full of chemo drugs? Not exactly. Their secret weapon against cancers is their genome. Instead of a single copy of the gene encoding the protein p53 like we do, they have 38 in 20 versions. Since this is a protein used to suppress tumor growth, it’s critically important for fighting cancer during its first and most vulnerable stage. More versions of it means better ability to recognize growths that could turn cancerous and a chance to destroy all affected cells earlier. Elephant cells prune such mutations so aggressively, it’s difficult for a new tumor to take hold and this results in their much lower susceptibility to the disease. Given that we’re currently experimenting with medical gene therapy, a hypothetical pop sci afficionado might wonder, could we engineer our very own versions of p53 encoding genes to create a similar resistance to cancers and deal our decisive blow to nature’s murderous defect that’s plagued us since the dawn of complex life?

Sadly, probably not. These p53 variants evolved in elephants against types of tumors that often affect them and which went through millions of years of trial and error in pachyderms, not in us, which means that whether our own gambit to follow this strategy would be successful is unclear at best. Instead, humans could more easily adopt the biochemical strategy employed by naked mole rats, which uses p53 alongside several other mechanisms, including a special sugar, that simply prevent cells from clumping together, breaking up cancerous tumors as a side-effect. It’s a more viable method of combating earliest stage cancers and wouldn’t require inserting some dozen new genes into our DNA, a cocktail of drugs could change how existing genes work. We should continue to study the elephants’ genome to see if we can actually figure out a way to be more proactive with our own evolution to help resist cancer, but for now, we need to take what certainly is a very neat little tidbit of information and keep in mind that anyone in the media who tells us that we could just edit our genes to be more like a pachyderm’s — which we all know will happen sooner rather than later nowadays — is using coming book science for attention…

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microtree in glass

How about we run through a few basic statistics about our effects on the world around us? Over the last hundred years or so, we paved nearly 11.2 million miles of roads, built 845,000 dams to divert over a third of all rivers on the planet, consumed over a billion gallons of water, generated and then used 142,000 Terrawatt hours of electricity, and belched 33 billion tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The only things that impact Earth more than human industrialization are supervolcanic eruptions and massive asteroid impacts, which is why environmentalists have been thinking about a bold plan to somehow mark half the planet as conservation areas. While you might think that there’s no place where humans can’t thrive, the fact of the matter is that an amazingly large percentage of Earth isn’t extremely welcoming to humans or practical to settle in the long run. We are still tropical creatures who like mild, warm climates and want access to the world’s oceans, which is why 44% of us live in coastal areas rather than deserts and tundras. As well adapted to this planet as we are, we’re really not as spread out as we often think we are.

Even more interestingly, we’re converging more and more into megacities like Shanghai, Tokyo, Mumbai, New York, and Los Angeles. More than half the global population now calls cities home and the trend is very likely to continue in a post-industrial economy where efficiency is king, and geographic hubs for many professions are still very important. What’s more is that the new trend towards automated vertical farming, which reduces costs, water use, and eliminates the need for pesticides, would also free up millions and millions of acres of land currently used for growing all of our crops. Sure, not all farming can be done indoors and livestock raised for consumption will either still need to be raised the old-fashioned way, or we’d need to create synthetic meat that’s palatable to most people. We may never live in cities contained within skyscrapers for maximum efficiency, but there are a lot of demographic projections saying that 80% of us will be living way closer together on average than we do today, in massive, sprawling cities, and we’re making the necessary preparations already. So while at first glance, it may seem odd to abandon half of all land to become a nature preserve, maybe, just maybe, it will be possible in some 35 years…

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pluto render

From the “space is amazing” files comes the new revelation that skies on Pluto aren’t dull gray, or almost transparent white, as drawn in so many hypothetical illustrations we’ve seen over the years, but an almost Earthly tint of blue. Although Pluto’s atmosphere is also nitrogen-rich, that bluish glow doesn’t come from the nitrogen particles scattering the sunlight like they do here on Earth, but from that nitrogen and methane being broken down by the Sun’s ultraviolet radiation and forming soot-like organic molecules called tholins. As they settle down to the surface below and create deposits, they not only give the atmosphere a blue hue, but give Pluto its brownish-red appearance, much like they color Titan’s atmosphere and Triton’s cryovolcanoes. Standing on one of the ice mountains looking out at Sputnik Planum, you might just see something not at all dissimilar from classic artists’ impressions of how Mars might look mid-terraformation.

And here’s another fascinating thing about Pluto’s skies and atmospheric chemistry. We know a few other dwarf planets in the Kupier Belt, like Sedna and Ixion, that are also very rich in tholins and would look reddish to the naked eye. If they get enough sunlight to scatter, they might also have blue skies, though probably significantly muted compared to what we see on Pluto due to the extreme distance between them and the Sun. Who would’ve ever thought that as we finally make our way to the outer reaches of our solar system, we’d find familiar skies created by alien chemistry which rains the building blocks of life onto the surfaces of worlds chilled to -440° F, or about as close to absolute zero as nature allows, orbiting in perpetual twilight? That’s by far the best thing about space exploration. You never know what amazing things you’ll find until you go and take a look for yourself because something is guaranteed to surprise you when you do.

update 10.09.2015: Whoops, it seems that when figuring out what Pluto’s sky would look like, I forgot just how little atmosphere it actually has. Because its pressure is so low and the nitrogen is so thin, you actually wouldn’t be able to see a blue sky, but a blue line on the horizon at dawn and dusk. The Bad Astronomer has the exact details of how long you could see Pluto’s blue sky in action, and sadly, it’s not for long. This also means that Sedna would have similar conditions and Ixion would lack the atmospheric gases to scatter light even if there is enough light that can be scattered into something visible to the naked eye. My apologies for the mistake. I try to keep this blog scientifically accurate to the best of my ability but I do make mistakes, especially when writing off the cuff, and this was one of those mistakes, hence the update to the post.

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College in America is the ultimate solution to any problem involving income. We’re told to go to one to get a four year degree, and suddenly, we’ll have lucrative jobs, fulfilling careers, and just as a bonus, make an extra million dollars over our lifetimes. Or at least that’s how it works in an oft-repeated fairy tale told to teenagers every day across the country. The reality is that college nowadays isn’t just an expensive guessing game, but leaves half of its graduates unable to get enough money together to start their independent lives while saddling them with debt. Not only that, but some 57% of people with jobs say that the work they do simply doesn’t need a degree at all in a trend that held steady for the last decade. And if you think working in a job that needs one will put that sheepskin to use, you’re in for a rude surprise. Just 27% of people actually use their degree in their daily job as it was intended. Things get even worse when you’re actually in your new office because many employers view college degrees with thinly veiled contempt.

Even if you got a job in the field to which your degree is relevant, be prepared for your future to include applying for new jobs with ridiculous, unrealistic requirements, and companies praising college graduates while complaining bitterly about them, refusing to train new workers and then expecting colleges to act as their apprenticeship programs. Even if we do make public colleges free of charge, as some are proposing, all we’d be doing is increasing access to something that has been oversold to the public as a cure for all that economically ails us, and fails to anticipate what happens as automation continues to crater job growth. Companies have already turned a four year degree into a prerequisite for higher paying jobs, but do not seem to care much about whether the degree their require is actually relevant to the job, as we can see by the practice of constantly employing people with irrelevant degrees. And that prompts the question of why we’d spend our own or taxpayer money on traditional four year programs unless we actually need to for the job at hand. Demanding a $30,000 check mark on an application is utterly asinine.

Consider that 70% of people either couldn’t care less about, or outright hate their jobs, then just factor in that between them is something like a trillion dollars in student debt, fewer than a third of them are actually doing what they studied, most taking all those courses and tests, going into all that debt just to get a piece of paper in the grand scheme of things, and pile on the stagnant wages, rampant automation, and managerial indifference of today’s workplace, and suddenly it all makes sense. People are miserable because they’re being asked to jump through expensive and painful hoops only to end up somewhere they didn’t want to be, bosses included. They too are every bit not happy with their jobs as their subordinates, filtering their noxious attitude down until the cloud of toxic ennui consumes the workplace. The drive to get everyone to go to some sort of college, any college, and study something, doesn’t matter what, just something because hey, a million dollars, created a lot of over-educated graduates whose skills can’t be relevant to what employers need, because colleges insist on existing in their own economic vacuum. They don’t carer to the marketplace, they say, because their job is to educate rather than train.

What we need isn’t even more education, or better education, whatever that means, we need a flexible, responsive, and relevant higher-education system with real world apprenticeships and internships as required parts of the degree program. Instead of rushing kids into college armed with a BLS report that was stale by the time it was published, we should encourage them to get some real world experience in a year off from school, and companies should help. It’s just plain irrational to expect the kind of workers they want to appear ex nihilo; they should be exposing a new generation to what they actually do day in, day out when they’re still living with family, able to take lower paying jobs and still deciding what they want, and not relegate them to busy work that no one wants to do. If a teenager wants a philosophy or history degree only to find out that no one is going to give him or her a job even when it costs pennies to do so, that would be one hell of a wake up call to reconsider. And if the job doesn’t require specialized skills you can only learn in college, why require a degree? Just let the new apprentice advance up the ladder. How would that not make sense? Why force him to her to waste time instead of learning the job?

College as we know it today was started to give a liberal arts education to the wealthy and their children, people not really concerned with how they’ll make a living after they graduate, though perpetually in the habit of asking for more spending money. Widespread public literacy and the requirement for all kids to be educated is barely a century old, as is the concept of a steady job with a regular schedule. Most of our ancestors never sat in offices for 250 days a year and got paychecks on a regular schedule. In many ways, the so-called gig economy was the norm until the industrial revolution created an insatiable demand for jobs as we understand them today. In the last 150 years, we’ve adapted colleges to teach skills relevant to many professions, such as medicine and applied sciences, aka the STEM majors, but we haven’t changed how many four year programs still exist simply for the sake of education aren’t offering any attractive incentive to keep these vocational programs up to date and relevant with the marketplace. Education for education’s sake is still the order of the day, which is really bad for current vocational majors.

It’s not that education for the sake of self-betterment is somehow wrong or should be seen as a waste of time and effort, quite the opposite. It’s just that we can’t have it both ways, demanding that colleges turn into vocational schools that also teach expansive theory and general classes for expanding one’s mind, while deriding vocational schools as a refuge for C and D students to perhaps make something useful of themselves, seeing as how they weren’t good enough to go to a four year institution. Millenials have a chip on their shoulders precisely because they had a childhood filled with warnings that flipping burgers and fixing cars was for losers, then after over a decade and a half of education, finishing with strong GPAs, they’re now derided for being “too proud” to flip burgers and fix cars. Which they were told was a punishment for incompetence. If they had been gently tracked, if vocational schools were presented to them as a viable and just as honorable of an option as four year colleges, and if we stopped demanding college degrees for things no college needs to teach, is it somehow unreasonable to think we would all be much happier and have more ways to find gainful employment while remaining fiscally solvent?

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statistical analysis

As on every other day that ends in “y,” every plausible, implausible, and grasping-at-straws-to-keep-it-alive association between vaccines and autism was ruled out by a mountain rage worth of studies. But for anti-vaxxers, like for any ideological movement, not finding proof of their core belief only means that no one is looking hard enough because if scientists and doctors who did those studies weren’t all on the take from Big Pharma or the alien lizards who secretly ruled our world for thousands of years, they would’ve found that vaccines are nothing but a soup of brain melting toxins. And so, with that general approach in mind, an anti-vaccine group funded a very thorough study of vaccine schedules on macaques which looked for any difference in the brains of vaccinated and non-vaccinated monkeys. Every hypothesis they had was thrown in, from the different vaccination schedules, to thimerosal-containing shots, and any the brain tissues of the test subjects was going to be examined for even the slightest sign of possible abnormalities.

After observing the behaviors of all the monkeys as they grew, learned new skills, and studying the brains of some 36 of those with the most extreme vaccination application differences, there was absolutely no trace of anything abnormal in their neurons. None. Zip. Zilch. Which, if you’re paying attention to the science, is exactly what you’d expect unless the blood-brain barrier in all complex organisms simply vanished overnight. The only difference between a vaccinated and a non-vaccinated child is the likelihood of catching some diseases because we’re now pretty sure that the key causes of autism are genetic and affect the development of inhibitory neurons, not trace amounts of chemicals that yuppies who refuse to understand the concept of dosage think are toxic because some greedy, scientifically illiterate internet cranks told them so. There have been cases where vaccines had medically significant adverse effects but those cases are quite literally fewer than one in a million, and they have nothing to do with mental development.

But if you think that SafeMinds, the anti-vaccine think tank that funded this study is going to just shrug and accept it, you would be wrong. Instead, it’s adamantly claiming that it was mislead by reports from the team and accusing the researchers of cherry-picking their data, demanding to do its own statistical analysis on the findings. In other words, they didn’t get the study they really wanted and are now trying to save face by accusing the scientists of doing what they wanted to do in the first place: fake it ’till they make it and cherry-pick the data until they got the result they paid for. Far too many autism biomed cranks and quacks are depending on them being right to keep bilking parents to turn their kids into guinea pigs, and far too many parents are convinced that whatever is wrong with their child was caused by vaccines, SafeMinds and groups like it go to any lengths to keep the manufactroversy going. It must be the vaccines, it cannot not be the vaccines, they’ve invested too much time, money, and emotion for it not to be the vaccines. To them, this study is already “discredited” because wouldn’t give them what they needed.

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When you’re doing studies on controversial and explosive subjects, or even discussing them, a significant uptick in criticism isn’t just expected, it’s practically guaranteed. And few topics have been as politically charged as the legal frameworks around consensual sex, particularly when it comes to colleges. Citing a study which claimed to have found that 1 in 5 women in college will be sexually assaulted, activists have raised a steady drumbeat about the need for heavy hands when it comes to dealing with sex in the courtroom and their proposed methods are not without worried critics. Not only are people worried that some of the proposed laws will be applied with little forethought, creating crimes out of whole cloth, as happened in North Carolina in a bizarre case that has legal experts baffled about the utter lack of prosecutorial discretion, but they are extremely uncomfortable seeing universities using Title IX to turn themselves into police, judge, jury, and executioner when it comes to matters that should be handled by law enforcement. A common joke in comment sections wonders if we’ll soon need to sign contracts before sex.

Against this highly charged background, the AAU released a study of 150,000 students to get a more clear picture of the problem, which was predictably both quickly praised and ridiculed. On the one side, activists pointed to its finding that as many as 1 in 4 women in colleges had some sort of unwanted sexual advances come their way and focused on a statistic that between 59% to 64% of women didn’t think what happened was serious enough to report, or felt that anyone would do something about it as a glaring admission that law enforcement and colleges are just not pulling their weight in cases of sexual misconduct on campus. On the flip side, critics tried to poke holes in the survey’s methodology and extremely low response rates, and their expansive definition of what constitutes sexual assault, which they say clouds the picture, and significantly exaggerates the number and severity of incidents. A more nuanced critique of these viewpoints to the survey by Emily Yoffe, one of the few writers who really know how social research works, even argued that it’s not feasible to paint a clear picture of a complex topic with surveys.

Oddly, one of the things that the critics of the study seem to have missed is that the authors not only acknowledge the limitations being pointed out, but proactively call them out as problems to be studied in more depth and don’t pretend that their report is the definitive last word on what’s going on when college students have sex. They’re rather alarmed that only 19% of the 780,000 students offered to take the survey responded, that the colleges surveyed aren’t a good cross-section of colleges across the nation, and point out that the higher rate of response at selected colleges correlates strongly with more reports of sexual misconduct. This means that less than two thirds of the students they expected to respond filled out the survey, and that those who did were more likely to be victims of sexual assault or harassment than in an ideally representative study. But they don’t seem to be concerned about their broad definitions of sexual misconduct, however, which include everything from forced intercourse, to groping, to kissing while deciding if the subject wanted to have sex or not, which seems like a rather wide net to cast here.

While unwanted intimate contact is always an issue, we do have to at least try and deal with the question of severity of the offense and something that doesn’t necessarily escalate to sex being done while you’re still deciding if you want to have sex with a person doesn’t seem like it should count on par with being drunkenly pawed. And it doesn’t look like the students think otherwise, as noted by the near two thirds majority across the sample size saying that they didn’t feel that what happened merited intervention from a third party. By the standard of the survey, the great majority of us who went to college parties will have at least a few stories of something the AAU survey will qualify as sexual assault, both men and women, and that’s a problem. Muddying the question with a very wide net of what constitutes sexual misconduct means that we simply can’t get a clear answer of how many people are being victimized and how so we can step in to help them, and fix whatever issues exist in college administrations and for law enforcement for them to get justice without over-policing and overly aggressive activism encouraging misleading and downright libelous narratives, as it did in the retracted Rolling Stone story about UVA.

So with all these limitations and issues, did the study find anything concrete? Actually, yes. The numbers basically show that if you’re a college student drinking at parties or bars nearby, your odds of being groped, taken advantage of, or worse, at least once, are between 13% and 23%, and the situation is most dire for freshmen and sophomores, especially women. While the AAU did survey men, it didn’t ask the question of whether they were, as it’s called in legalise, “made to penetrate” and focused only on whether they were penetrated themselves. It’s seems like a really nitpicky point to make, but there are people arguing that it omits numerous cases of rape because there is no statistic for it. And if there’s no statistic for the AAU to collect, we can’t state for a fact how bad the problem is for both genders. This is not a case of who has it worse, but a matter of getting the true sense of the problem. As evidenced by another AAU finding, those in greatest danger overall are actually transgendered students so the issue isn’t cut and dry when it comes to who needs the most help, and the most resources to prevent and cope with being a frequent target of unwanted sexual attention, especially when alcohol is somehow involved.

All this is very much in line with previous surveys on the subject, which found the unsurprisingly strong correlation between heavy drinking and sexual assault, and that students struggling with gender identity are disproportionately victimized. Sadly, many warnings about binge drinking on campus in the context of preventing sexual assault are far too often met with ireful accusations of victim blaming, and colleges seem unwilling to crack down on underage drinking so much so that police reports paint their campuses as dens of sin, debauchery, and crime. Meanwhile, as the parties continue, the definition of sexual assault keeps expanding, and activists keep steady media mentions of an escalating crisis. And so it seems that the AUU report’s main findings will be ignored as we’re not allowed to address binge drinking, or rethink how we define what really constitutes sexual misconduct and who should address it for fear of being smeared as careless and cruel apologists for rape. That’s what happens when activism overshadows the data. What numbers and facts are collected just become another political football to toss around.

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grumpy cat

Some days I read stories about machine learning being deployed to fight crime, exoskeletons to help the paralyzed walk again, or supercomputers modeling new spacecraft, and feel very lucky to be in my current profession. Computers changed the world, and the discipline behind making these computers work is based around the egalitarian concept of tinkering. You need electricity and a little bit of money to get started, true, but the path from wanting to build something useful to doing it has never been more straightforward or shorter. Anyone with enough dedication can make something from scratch, even without formal training, though it’s highly recommended for those who want to become professionals. And then, other days I read about things like Peeple, the app that lets you review other humans, currently valued at $7.6 million, and groan that what people like me do is both helping the world while slowly ruining it by letting awful ideas like this spawn into existence with little effort. Because there’s no way this can possibly end well…

Just consider that out of a hundred people who read something online, just one might respond, or somehow interact with the content. People are not going to go through the effort of creating usernames, passwords, and e-mail or social media verification unless they are really motivated to do so. And when are people most motivated? When they’re upset or are expecting a reward in return for their trouble. Consider that when a business is in the news for an ugly misdeed, its pretty much a given that the first thing to happen to them will be angry torrents of one-star Yelp reviews which the admins of the have to clean up. It’s not going to be any different with people, and whereas businesses are just legal entities that can be re-branded or ran by someone new which would give them the benefit of the doubt, a person is a person, and reviews about him or her will be around for years, no matter whether this person turned a new leaf, or the reviews for past bad behavior are actually legitimate complaints, a misunderstanding, or just malicious, and it’s likely that negativity will quickly trump whatever positive feedback the apps encourage.

As an example, take last year’s flash in the smartphone app pan Lulu, which allowed women to rate men as sexual partners. Negative reviews vastly outnumbered the positive ones, and while the app’s goal may have been helping women to avoid selfish partners and bad dates, it turned into a place for women to complain about men they didn’t like. I’m sure that the same exact app made for men to rate women would have the same results. For Peeple to really be any different would require human beings to fundamentally change how they interact with each other. And to add to the unpleasantness of dealing with judgmental, demanding, and hypersensitive people in the real world, all their unfiltered, nasty remarks now have a megaphone and are searchable by future romantic partners, landlords, and employers who have only these strangers’ opinions as their introduction to you. Have the creators of Peeple or Lulu thought whether it would be better for all of us if someone could type in a name and in an instant see our sexual history, a laundry list of opinions and complaints about us by friends and strangers alike on top of everything that already was made public about our lives through social media, or the potential for abuse?

We live at a time when revenge porn and social media turned leaked sex tapes and nudes into quaint mishaps and you have to develop a strategy to deal with your most intimate details in an enormous data dumpof millions of others’ most intimated details and fantasies. Isn’t that a sign that we’ve taken this social media thing far enough? When banks are mulling the idea of giving you loans based on your friends’ social media profiles, and employers are poking around your tweets and Instagram pictures, do you need to give malicious hackers or exploitative friends an additional way to take advantage of you? Even worse, just think about the fact that a third of all reviews on the web are likely to be fake and imagine a future where you have to buy a positive review bundle to offset nastiness said about you on Peeple, or make up a small horde of really, really satisfied and vocal sexual partners on a Lulu follow-up, which would be inevitable when a people rating app catches on. The bottom line is that apps that let you rate people like products are a textbook example of why being able to do something doesn’t mean you should, without a second thought about the potential consequences of what you’re unleashing on the world.

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Whenever I write a post about why you can’t just plug a human brain or a map of it into a future computer and expect to get a working mind as a result, two criticisms inevitably get sent to both my inbox and via social media. The first says that I’m simply not giving enough credit to a future computer science lab because the complexity of a task hasn’t stopped us before and it certainly won’t stop us again. The second points to a computer simulation, such as the recent successful attempt to recreate a second of human brain activity, and say it’s proof that all we need is just a little more computing oomph before we can create a digital replica of the human brain. The first criticism is a red herring because it claims that laying out how many proponents of this idea are severely underestimating the size and scope of the problem is the equivalent of saying that it’s simply too hard to do, while the actual argument is that brains don’t work like computers, and to make computers work more like brains can only get you so far. The second criticism, however, deserves a more in-depth explanation because it’s based on a very hard to spot mistake…

You see, we can simulate how neurons work fairly accurately based on what we know about all the chemical reactions and electrical pulses in their immediate environment. We can even link a lot of them together and see how they’ll react to virtual environments to test our theories of the basic mechanics of the human brain and generate new questions to answer in the lab. But this isn’t the same thing as emulating the human brain. If you read carefully, the one second model didn’t actually consider how the brain is structured or wired. It was a brute force test to see just how much power it should take for a typical modern computer architecture to model the human brain. And even if we provide a detailed connectome map, we’ll just have a simulated snapshot frozen in time, giving us mathematical descriptions of how electrical pulses travel. We could use that to identify interesting features and network topologies, but we can’t run it forward, change it in response to new stimuli at random, and expect that a virtual mind resembling that of the test subject whose brain was used would suddenly come to life and communicate with us.

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desert road

Just in case you’ve been taking a year-long vacation from the news, the state of California is as dry as the bleached bone in a Western’s foreshadowing of a long, slow death in the desert. The last time it rained in LA was almost three months ago. The time before that? Sometime in April, maybe? Coming from the often rainy, lousy with thunderstorms Central Ohio, rain is an exciting event now. This is especially true as the Sierra Nevada snowpack is the lowest it’s been in 500 years and the drought is the worst in over 1,200 years. Of course looking at what’s going on all over the American Southwest and in Alaska, where native towns are being flooded a little more every year and the permafrost is starting to thaw, you could point to global warming. With much of the last decade and a half breaking records for warmest year ever and the hottest summer in recorded history just coming to a close, it seems like a reasonable conclusion. But if that’s really just too establishment for you, you can join the Alex Jones crowd in blaming chemtrails and the shady government agencies behind it diverting rain from the Southwest to do… something.

Unlike the right wing’s favorite conspiracy theory that global warming in a hoax to impose some sort of communist New World Order led by the UN, the idea that the government is in charge of weather lacks even the smallest kernel of plausibility behind it. It’s one of those rare ideas that’s not even wrong because it’s based on a profound lack of understanding of basic physics. Cloud seeding is a real thing and it’s been tried. But it’s effect is the exact opposite of what Jones and his acolytes have been claiming. It actually induces rain from clouds that just need a push to let loose with a torrent of precipitation and has been employed in experiments to try and divert the paths of hurricanes and increase rainfall for crop irrigation. Its track record is very uneven, it’s a very debatable notion that it has any measurable effect and every paper arguing that it could do all sorts of amazing things has so far been proven wrong in the real world. Weather systems on our planet are just far too energetic for a little dusting of silver compounds to dramatically affect them, and way too turbulent to be predictable enough for real geoengineering applications.

Even more importantly, chemtrails, a bugaboo of conspiracy theorists who don’t know how very simple water vapor forms contrails in the wake of jet engines, are completely unusable for cloud seeding. As mentioned before, silver compounds is what researchers would use and seeding is not going to produce any sort of wispy contrail. In fact, it would be invisible to your naked eye. If you want clouds to accept foreign materials, you have to release a very fine mist of them so the wind keeps them aloft and lets them mix into the cloud. Jets of them would simply dissipate into a kind of snow scattered by the winds, and eventually fall back to Earth as pollution. And it gets even worse when HAARP gets dragged into the picture. How exactly a nuclear launch detector and sensor array meant to study the ionosphere changes the weather has never actually been explained, but just like Yosemite Sam, they don’t know how it’s done it but they know it’s done it and nothing is going to convince them otherwise. It looks weird and most of what it does is held to be classified, therefore, it’s fair game to be and do anything in a pet conspiracy theory.

Adding the final cherry on top of this insipid mess are the many contradictory motives for those nefarious powers that be to do any sort of weather manipulation. In one breath they’re trying to control the planet’s resources under a military junta, in another they’re trying to slow down and reverse global warming, in a third they’re following some sort of master plan only they have full access to but it apparently involves seemingly random droughts and storms. Why, why, oh why, in the name of Cthulhu’s mouth tentacle polish, must the concept of pumping trillions of tons of greenhouse gases warming the atmosphere and exacerbating climate extremes by altering our typical weather patterns be met with cries of malevolent government weather manipulation that seem ripped straight out of comic books? Is it so the conspiracy theorists can think they’re plain smarter than everyone else? I know Jones’ and Mike Adams’ motivation in all this, cashing in on another conspiracy since neither haven’t met one with which they weren’t immediately in lust as the cash from advertisers and viewers comes pouring in, but what about those who won’t make even a penny on this hysteria? Why does weather, of all things, get them so worked up?

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hazy mars

NASA’s recent big announcement, leaked before it was publicly made, is really quite interesting and offers the strongest evidence yet that Mars does have liquid water that might host life. Odd gullies and wet-looking streaks around the planet’s equator have been scrutinized for years, but after finally managing to get a spectroscope close enough to study them, the data confirms the tell tale signs of extremely salty liquid water, practically a brine, being responsible for these wet streaks on the Martian surface. No matter how they formed, their chemical signatures require a non-trivial amount of liquid to be present throughout the process, and this discovery means that something dynamic is happening under the surface where living things could be safe from a UV bombardment that has seemingly sterilized the surface. This means the next probe we send is going to be looking for alien microbes in Martian caves and will be planned and built post haste now that we know where to look and have the strongest indication yet of possible life, right?

Well, maybe not. One of the big catches is that while we now know there’s liquid water on Mars and that it has a visible effect on the surrounding environment, we don’t know in what form it is, and whether there are sub-surface aquifers or it’s a side-effect of another process. Without any direct signs of persistent water we don’t actually have a great indication for potential life. And as the water that does exist must be briny to avoid freezing solid right away, it’s full of alien salts, a few of which are actually extremely poisonous to life as we know it. Perchlorate has been found before in massive quantities and we know that whatever oceans Mars once had contained it, so while it may be possible that extremophile bacteria evolved to cope with it in the water and later on survived ever-increasing concentrations as the seas boiled, then froze away, it’s significantly lowering the number and variety of possible organisms we might find. And we can’t rule out the grim possibility that it completely snuffed out life because perchlorate salts break down organic compounds that would’ve been by far the most likely building blocks for Martian microbes.

Another thing to consider is that while Mars could well have large cave networks, giving several alien ecosystems a chance to hide from the windstorms and radiation on the surface, without a source of nutrients and neutral solvents, those organisms couldn’t survive. We don’t know if any of these nutrient sources exist, and whether anything underground could purify Martian brine of its toxic salts, which could prevent more complex life from evolving in what would have been an otherwise safe and stable environment. We would have to figure out what organisms could feed and reproduce in environments rich in the chemicals found on the red planet, and devise a way to explore Martian caves with restrictions imposed on us by the size and power of the robots we can actually launch and operate in mind. Digging to find an existing cave is out of the question, we’d have to find an entrance into one. Likewise, the robots we send would require a degree of independent thought most machines currently don’t have because they would have a very hard time communicating with mission control through the many tons of Martian rock and sand.

Compare the missions that would be required to find a microscopic extremophile colony cluster on Mars with the promise of missions to Europa and Enceladus with vast, warm, salty oceans a lot like ours and offering the chance for complex living things to evolve, and it seems that while looking for signs of life on the red planet would be interesting, the payoff isn’t that great. Again, this is not to rule out that there’s life on Mars, but given the abundance of chemicals we’re very confident are poisonous to every organism with even remotely recognizable chemistry, there is the chance that Mars is no longer a habitable world for anything we would readily identify as an unambiguously living thing. And that’s kind of sad to consider because for the last 200 years, a great deal of scientific literature fixated on Mars having advanced intelligent life which built vast canal systems for global irrigation and erected large cities much the same way we tend to do. If after all that hoping we find out that Mars is now a dead world, emotionally, that would hurt. But that’s science for you. Often times the reality isn’t what you wanted it to be, and with in the very long running hunt for life on red planet it seems that its past was rosier than its present…

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