flu virus

Scientists are now raising the dead and enslaving them to serve the needs of the living. This is not really much of an exaggeration because that’s exactly what happened when researchers in need of a suitable virus for gene therapy applications decided to create an extinct version of a modern virus by reverse-engineering its evolution and printing the now lost DNA into an empty capsid waiting to be activated. Let’s pause for a second and consider that this is the world that we now occupy. We can traverse the evolutionary tree of an organism and order up the DNA of its ancestors to be 3D printed on command. Beyond being basically horror movie fodder in real life though, this experiment isn’t just an exploration into seeing what’s possible. No, this turning back of the clock might become wildly effective cures for diseases and conditions for which the current treatment just isn’t enough or doesn’t really exist by producing a virus that our immune systems haven’t seen yet, and which repairs our genomes to fix what may one day kill us.

Now, I’ve talked about gene therapy and its promise before. It could combat complex disorders like cystic fibrosis, shrink, or at least arrest the growth of cancers, and eliminate problems that can be traced to single genes by altering them once and for all. While the very first human tests did get off to a rocky start, the technology is now much safer and much better understood, and has been showing some promise. In one inspiring trial, the engineered HIV virus sent an acute strain of pediatric leukemia into remission and showed evidence that precise targeting for gene therapy was definitely possible. However, current approaches have a major limitation before we can get really consistent results and that limitation is us. To be more specific, our immune cells pick up on the viruses’ signatures and attack them before they can do any good. This means a lot of good engineering that would have worked never makes it to its target and the patient just doesn’t react to the therapy. Considering that out immune systems have faced at least some of the strains we can use as therapeutic vectors, there’s not much else we can throw at them.

Or at least not much else that exists, thought the researchers in question here. Our bodies had not seen the viruses they brought back through their modern evolutionary history, so bringing a long lost ancestor back from the dead by identifying which mutations happened over the many generations and reversing them, would find our bodies defenseless. Which is exactly what we’d want for gene therapy. Before our bodies can mount a defense, the infection has spread so far and wide that the therapeutic edits should have had their intended macro effect. Just think of it as sending high altitude stealth bombers and special operations teams instead of flying enough conventional fighter planes and tanks against formidable defenses to get at least some through enemy lines. Just far cooler because it involves resurrecting extinct genomes. But rest easy for now if you’re worried about scientists trying to create a real Jurassic Park with this method. The technology we have now can’t just create mammoth and dinosaur DNA we can use to grow full creatures. Well, at least not yet, though we may have to revisit that question soon enough…

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Since John Oliver’s weekly deep dives tend to explode across the web, you may have seen this scathing expose of the sorry state of sex education in America which shows that how prepared you are for becoming sexually active and how safe you will be depends largely on where you’re living at the time. Or perhaps more accurately, what a bunch of middle aged men and women in windowless rooms think your sex life should be like. Just in case you haven’t, take a look…

What we’ve been effectively shown is that in America, when it comes time to sit down with their teenagers and talk to them about sex, all too many parents just say “um… well… err, don’t they teach you this stuff at school?” Now, saddled with the major responsibility of teaching kids how to become sexually mature responsibly, schools do one of three things and the following two of them are alarmingly far more common than the third. This first of them is to sit teenagers down in a class and say “um… well… err, don’t they teach you this at home?” because the teacher is poorly trained and doesn’t know much about the topic, uncomfortable talking about it, afraid of an immediate backlash by fundamentalist parents, or all of the above. The second of the most frequent responses is an abstinence only class where the “educators” are one step away from some sort of teenager exorcism, visibly holding themselves back from starting an assembly or a class with “we gather here today so the Lord can purify thee of your filthy carnal urges…”

Far too few teenagers actually receive comprehensive sexual education that is legally required to be medically accurate. That’s horrible because despite the asinine threats and rhetoric from abstinence-only dogmatists, comprehensive sex ed has been proven to accomplish every goal they claim to be pursuing. California refused federal funds for abstinence-only education so the state can teach what it wanted and found that open and accurate sex ed delayed the average age of first sexual encounter and sent the rates of STDs and unwanted pregnancies to record lows. In the meantime, studies of how well abstinence-only education fares found the opposite results. Instead of being scared out of sex as intended, teenagers indoctrinated with it had sex younger, were less likely to use protection, and were more likely to get infected or pregnant, or both. Remember virginity pledges, which 82% of those who made them denied making them in the first place after a few years and had sex anyway? Every shred of evidence shows that this form of sex ed is an abject failure which makes things worse for those who must endure it and comprehensive sex ed is an empowering force for long term personal and social good.

It’s at this point that rational people would stop, look at the all of the available stats, and defund abstinence-only education instead of giving it even more money because funding public health hazards is a really stupid thing to do. But we’re not dealing with rational people. We’re dealing with the kind of people who want to be able to tell how many times you had sex by the number of kids you have. These are people with a pathological obsession with everyone’s genitals and whose internal cultural dynamics are best described as abusive. In fact, those abstinence-only educators in the video look overdue for a psychiatric evaluation. They give unsolicited, woefully uneducated advice, then defend themselves by basically slut-shaming those of us who are fine with actually having a sex life beyond the bi-monthly missionary with the intent to conceive. Like the sneering polyamorists of over-sexed New Age woo-friendly havens who assume that if you are monogamous, there’s something wrong with you, the abstinence zealots declare that there is nothing to be gained by more than one sexually active relationship but misery and woe, and the most devoted and irrational few even want premarital sex to be punishable by law.

But perhaps even worse than the hysterical moralists who refuse to accept that their way failed consistently for the last 60 years, that they cannot reshape society to their personal whims, and that despite what they’re told on talk radio and in the news, people are actually having sex with fewer and fewer partners each generation, are the politicians who pander to them. Allowing the irrational and dogmatic to rule over sex ed in their school districts with an iron fist simply for the sake of votes is a massive disservice to both the kids and the community. In their quest for the title and the paycheck, the politicians who could change things keep on allowing their cities and towns to shoulder the fallout of the terrible education kids will receive. No one is holding any of them accountable for the single teenage moms, the rise of STDs, the extra taxpayer cash that will need to help with the damage, or the toxic culture that excuses and perpetuates extremely dysfunctional relationships. And for as long as only the aggrieved senior citizen told by tabloids and sleazy pundits about imaginary crises goes out to vote in local elections, on one will…

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babel fish

When finding yourself in a debate with a partisan ideologue who claims that all higher education is simply anti-American socialist brainwashing, he will often bring up that Noam Chomsky is one of the most cited scholars in the world despite his penchant for left wing radical conspiracies he adamantly supports in his books. However, the reason why Chomsky is cited so often has zilch to do with his politics and everything to do with his study of language, particularly his theory of a universal grammar. According to his work, all human languages share common patterns which we can use to create universal translators and pinpoint the semantic details of each word with a proper context. This idea is particularly popular in the field of computer science, particularly in a number of AI experiments because it can give us algorithms for symbol grounding, a fancy term for deciding exactly what a word is supposed to represent in a given situation. This is one of the fundamental leaps needed to make for machines to truly understand what humans say.

Of course, as with any theory with the word universal in the title, there’s plenty of criticism about how universal it actually is, and some escalated into a full blown feud among linguists. Critics of the theory have went as far as to say that that universal grammar is whatever Chomsky wants it to be when it’s being debated, which in academia is actually a pretty vicious burn. But it’s rather expected since a theory that claims to apply to every language on the planet can be challenged with a single example that fails to conform to it, no matter how obscure. Considering that we not only have to consider modern languages, but the evolution of all known languages to make the theory airtight, there’s still a lot to flesh out in Chomsky’s defining work. Working with all modern languages is hard enough, but working with historical ones is even more challenging because a majority of modern human history was not recorded, and the majority of what has been is pretty sparse. I’d wager that 95% of all languages ever created are likely to be lost to time.

Even worse than that is knowing our languages change so much that their historical origins can be totally obscured with enough time. While the first physiologically modern humans evolved in North Africa some 100,000 years ago, a comparative analysis of today’s language patterns just doesn’t show any founder effect, meaning that if one of our first ancestors stumbled into a time machine and traveled to today, she would not be able to understand even a single sound out of our mouths without instruction from us. Research like this has led many linguists to believe that language is shaped by culture and history more than just the raw wiring of our brains as per the universal grammar theory. Others, disagree producing papers such as the recent MIT study of logical patterns in 37 languages showing that all of the languages prefer very similar rules when it comes to their grammatical style, meaning that the underlying logic had to be the same, even when comparing Ancient Greek to modern languages as different as English and Chinese.

By analyzing how closely related concepts cluster in sentences across all the languages chosen for the project, researchers found that all of them prefer to keep related concepts close to each other in what they considered a proper, grammatically correct sentence. To use the example in the study, in the sentence “John threw the trash out,” the domestic hero of our story was tied to his action and the villainous refuse was tied to where it was thrown. These concepts weren’t on the opposite sides of a sentence or at a random distance from each other. This is what’s known as dependency length minimization, or DLM, in linguist-speak. One of the few undisputed rules of universal grammar is that in every language, the core concepts’ DLM should be lower than a random baseline, and this study pretty solidly showed that they weren’t. In fact, every language seemed to have an extremely similar DLM measure to the others, seemingly proving one of the key rules of universal grammar. So where exactly does that leave the theory’s critics?

Well, as said before, calling any theory universal is fraught with problems and leaves it open to the most minor, nit-picking criticism, and we all know of exactly one society based around logic, and that’s the Vulcans from Star Trek. To dispute the theory, linguists had to go out of their way to tribes so vaguely aware of the modern world, we may as well be from another planet to them, and look for the smallest cultural inconsistencies that conflict with the current interpretation of a theory they say is somewhat vague. Certainly they could produce a language that eschews the rules of universal grammar in favor of tradition and religion, and maybe Chomsky can just tone his theory’s presumptuous name down a bit and accept that his work can’t apply to every single language humans have ever used or will invent in the future. But in the end, universal grammar does seem to appear extremely useful and shows that logic plays the most important part of all languages’ initial structures. We might not be able to use the theory to build perpetual universal translators, but we could come quite close since the required patterns exist as predicted.

[ illustration of a Babel Fish by John Matrz ]

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futurama takeoff

Far be it from me to claim physic powers, because those aren’t real, but the moment the news of weird results coming from experiments to test the EmDrive came to my attention, I knew that one day I’d have to write a post about it. Not sure whether to jump on the bandwagon to simply join the chorus of voices explaining that it was impossible, I waited until proper experiments will show that the minuscule thrust being recorded in earlier tests was within the margins of error, a little bit of interesting noise but nothing beyond that to prove my premonition wrong. But as odd as it sounds, the EmDrive is still being tested and showing faint signs of life, and getting a whole lot of press claiming we’re on the verge of building a warp drive. And so, it’s time to quit stalling, roll up my sleeves and explain why the EmDrive can show us some interesting physics in weird environments, but simply would not work as a viable spacecraft engine as it was planned.

Getting right to the point, the biggest concern with the EmDrive is that it’s yet another version of a reactionless drive proposed by those who thought they spied something that isn’t there when looking at general relativity and tortured complex equations until they seemed to say what they wanted them to say. But such devices are impossible because they violate fundamental laws of physics we know to be true after centuries of observation and study. Objects at rest stay at rest until energy is added to the system and causes other objects to act on them. That’s what we’re taught in our very first physics class as one of the fundamental laws governing motion. When a device like the EmDrive comes along, it asks us to throw out this law and believe that whatever is going on inside the object can act as an external force large enough to make it move without actually adding energy to the mix. How that happens is usually peppered with tortured ret-cons of general relativity and buzzwords about group motion, frequencies, and reference frames.

Basically, think of piloting spacecraft with EmDrives as trying to make sailboats in a vacuum go simply by blowing into the sails. Sure, they’ll react a little at first as you introduce the initial tidbit of new energy, but in a closed system, the air you blow out of your lungs will simply dissipate as the system reaches equilibrium and all motion will stop fairly quickly. Same with the EmDrive. It seems that bouncing microwaves do produce some odd effects as they collide in the resonant chamber, but in a closed system, in which it has never actually been tested by the way, this too will dissipate and reach equilibrium so even the infinitesimal thrust currently being detected will be gone. Tellingly, the experiments on the versions of the EmDrive that seemed to be the most promising deviate in principle from the original design by including a nozzle to expel photons in the chamber as the reaction takes place, while the original was just supposed to propel craft by resonating away with no propellant or thruster like an alien warp drive in a sci-fi movie.

In the end, we’re left with pop sci blogs and news telling us the the EmDrive works while citing a few possibly intriguing experiments with a very inefficient Q-thruster design that departs from a core principle of the EmDrive’s planned implementation. That’s how it works. It’s not breaking a fundamental law of physics, it’s trying to resonate well known, but still rather poorly understood quantum particles that pop in and out of existence from the fabric of space and time. It’s a cool concept and not out of the realm of plausibility, but it’s very unclear whether it could actually be used as a real spacecraft engine and it’s not a reactionless drive we are being told it is by pretty much all of the media. That’s what a small skunk woks lab at NASA actually tested just to see if the concept was plausible, not the “impossible drive that violates the laws of physics,” and while it might not really go anywhere and seems rather buggy and hard to definitively verify today, it’s still a pretty interesting way to if we can actually do anything with zero point energy.

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low poly factory

Today’s startup founders can be a wacky bunch, often set on turning personal problems into a company with a massive valuation to repeat the success of Uber and Airbnb, or to some extent, the trajectory of Soylent, the love-it-or-hate-it food substitute invented by Rob Rhinehart to sate his need for calories while avoiding cooking. Personally, as a programmer who will far too often forget to eat when working away on some complicated piece of code, I find the concept a more scientific take on earlier efforts in meal replacements, and would be willing to try it for breakfast and lunch when I’m in the office. However, unlike its predecessors, Soylent is actually meant as a substitute for food in general because Rhinehart seems to take some of his ideas way too far, starting off with a sound notion, then running with it way after it crosses the line into mania. Just consider his meme-worthy ode to sustainability waiting to become a manifesto for hipsters who grew tired of sipping PBR and knitting in bars, and are just waiting for their next obsession…

As mentioned earlier, the basic idea is sound. We waste too much energy and much of it is still coming from fossil fuels instead of clean renewable sources. Coal and oil are dirty, and burning them fills the air with harmful particles. Replacing them soon should be right up there on the list of priorities for anyone with an eye on the future, and in the meantime we can all do our part by putting up solar panels where it will make sense, wiring up more wind farms, switching to smart, energy-efficient appliances which can use big data to better manage the flow of electricity, and seriously considering LEDs for lighting. Technology for eco-friendly homes exists and its prices will keep falling as it becomes more and more common. Even in places where people proudly proclaim their disdain for the science of climate change, renewables are heavily favored. If that was the extent of Rhinehart’s commitment to hepling the environment, that would be great, but as the introduction hopefully made obvious, he goes off the rails with gems like this…

First, I never cook. I am all for self reliance but repeating the same labor over and over for the sake of existence is the realm of robots. I utilize soylent only at home and go out to eat when craving company or flavor. This eliminates a panoply of expensive tools and rotting ingredients I would need to spend an unconscionable amount of time sourcing, preparing, and cleaning. It also gives me an incentive to explore the city’s fine restaurants and ask friends out to eat.

If you’re cooking the same thing over and over, so much so that you might as well consider the process to be robotic, you’re doing it wrong. Rhinehart doesn’t like cooking, doesn’t know what to do in the kitchen, and can’t imagine why he should bother, therefore, he concludes, kitchens are just a waste of time an energy and dismantled his, vividly comparing it to a torture chamber filled with knives and electronic monsters growling at the hapless humans who try to tame them long enough to extract some sustenance to go on living for another day. If it sounds like a pitch for his product, well, it is. But keep in mind that this is exactly why he invented Soylent. He’s not just trying to pour his slurry down your throat, he’s completely genuine in his disdain for cooking and food in general. Which is fine, I suppose, we’re all entitled to our opinion about what should go in our mouths. The problem comes when he frames it from an environmental angle.

Soylent is mass produced in industrial quantities and shipped around the world. The footprint of this production and delivery is not at all trivial. Vast quantities of water and fuel are used around the clock to keep making it and moving it around into consumers’ hands, and this is before we’ll start adding the footprint of the supply chain necessary to ship enough raw ingredients to keep the factory churning out more Soylent. Same goes for restaurants. Rhinehart may not cook, but he sure goes out to eat, meaning that restaurants have to spend said unconscionable amounts of time sourcing, preparing, and cleaning with the aforementioned panoply of expensive tools. I could play Devil’s advocate and say that one kitchen making food for hundreds of people is far more efficient than hundreds of them making food for one to four people at a time, but whether the savings per person really add up to anything serious is a big question since restaurants far too seldom hesitate to just toss anything not visually appealing or done right in the trash.

But rather than consider whether the waste generated by a professional kitchen and one in our homes may cancel each other out, or consider a study on how efficiently restaurants distribute food between customers vs. home chefs where the question of leftovers may tilt the field to our humble dwellings, Rhinehart decides to give us a peek into how he sees grocery stores. Spoiler alert, it sounds like an omitted level of Hell from Dante’s Inferno, probably in the City of Dis…

I have not set foot in a grocery store in years. Nevermore will I bumble through endless confusing aisles like a pack-donkey searching for feed while the smell of rotting flesh fills my nostrils and fluorescent lights sear my eyeballs and sappy love songs torture my ears. Grocery shopping is a multisensory living nightmare. There are services that would make someone else do it for me but I cannot in good conscience force a fellow soul through this gauntlet. […] I buy my staple food online like a civilized person.

Aside from the histrionic description and the implication that my desire to actually see the food I will later consume apparently makes me a feral savage, we see Rhinehart again make the leap to advocating a third party distributing his needs more efficiently. On its face, the idea makes a modicum of sense, however, it fails to consider that a delivery truck will optimize a route among its customers, not necessarily in the most efficient way for the environment and fuel usage, and that goes double for where Rhinehart and I live: LA. Traffic jams on the 101 and the 405 waste immense quantities of gas for minimal gain. Meanwhile, when I go to the grocery store, I simply pick the nearest one and arrive by back roads with few stoplights and no traffic. So believe it or not, just going to the closest grocery store may be more efficient in midsize to bigger cities than ordering your staples online, relying on the delivery service to find the optimal fuel economy for dropping off the goods. But hold on folks, it gets even worse when it comes to his clothes…

I enjoy doing laundry about as much as doing dishes. I get my clothing custom made in China for prices you would not believe and have new ones regularly shipped to me… [I]t takes less water to make my clothes than it would to wash them, and I donate my used garments. The overwhelming majority of clothing that Americans buy is made overseas anyways. I just buy direct. And container ships are amazingly efficient.

While he does acknowledge that container ships do go through immense amounts of fuel in the part of this excerpt left out for brevity, he still thinks he makes less of an ecological footprint with buying new clothes instead of doing laundry, clothes that mind you, are made from a petroleum derivative he praises as being more efficient than natural fabrics like cotton. This is his common theme; instead of doing things himself, he outsources his ecological footprint to others and then credits himself with expanding less stress on the environment. The only place where he is really doing the planet any favors is in his house, with solar panels and LED lighting. Otherwise, what he’s actually doing can best be described as eco-outsourcing. Restaurants, delivery trucks, the army of Uber drivers, buses, container ships, and factories that meet all of his needs are eating the environmental costs of his consumption. If we ignore them, Rhinehart’s eco-minimalism is a good faith effort in sustainability. But when we take them into account as we should, it becomes an exercise in strenuously patting oneself on the back for delegating much of life to others.

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blood bag

Generally, when skeptics or popular science writers talk about medicine and money, it’s to ward off something one could call an argument ad-shillium, or rejecting scientific studies outright with declarations that anyone who sticks up for doctors and pharmaceutical companies over the hot and trendy snake oil salesperson of the month must be a paid shill. Shilling certainly happens in both the real world and online, but when one’s argument rests in basic science, money is not a topic relevant to the conversation. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not important when new ideas come along and gain some serious traction. Case in point, Theranos, a company which a lot of people rightly suspect can shake up healthcare in the United States by offering dozens of blood using just a drop of blood at your corner pharmacy, is facing a barrage of questions as to how exactly its tests work and seems to be unwilling to tell anyone about their lab on a chip.

Ordinarily, this is where an experienced skeptic would look for signs of quackery. Useless tests, pseudoscientifc mumbo-jumbo on the website, avoidance of the FDA, and special pleading for the enigmatic technology which offers vague benefits that don’t run afoul of the agency’s rules for the same of pharmaceuticals and medical devices. But that’s not the case with Theranos. In fact, the company recently got a nod from the FDA to continue its work and is seeking approval of its technology and testing methods, and scientists who have tried to parse how it can test for so many things with so little blood say that it’s more than likely upgrading old technology into a new, compact toolkit. There’s no voodoo or snake oil here, just good old fashioned science and faster, better computers and machinery. Furthermore, the fees for each test are posted openly, and they’re a lot less than what’s offered by its competitors, whose pricing is opaque at best.

So if there’s nothing amiss at Theranos, why all the secrecy? Well, after many millions spent on research, development, and testing, the company wants to expand significantly and if it shares how it does what it does with the world, especially if it’s just an overhaul of existing methodology with better machinery, its competitors can quickly catch up and limit its growth. I’m sure it’s also trying to avoid getting patent trolled and bogged down in expensive litigation, more than likely of the frivolous, made to line lawyers’ pockets variety, since there’s no shortage of people with an abandoned medical testing device patent from which a troll can manufacture an infringement or two and file in East Texas. Perhaps this is unfair to scientists, and to some degree patients who may want a second opinion after Theranos’ tests show something alarming, but this is the result of setting up a healthcare system with opaque pricing and strict regulation, and legal minefields in the technology world through easy to obtain and vaguely worded frivolous patents.

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kids

Anti-vaccine activists would have us believe that autism is the result of some sort of undefined, or scary sounding toxicity and should be cured by a gluten-free diet and detoxification typically conducted by a profiteering quack. However, the real scientific evidence points to genetics and brain development, meaning that no one develops autism or turns autistic, but is born this way and will fall at some point along the spectrum when the condition can be diagnosed. Recently, another study provided additional evidence for this theory by comparing how modified skin cell cultures taken from those with autism, reverted into stem cells, and induced to grow into micro brains developed to skin cells from their non-autistic parents, subjected to the same treatment. Right away, the researchers noted an over-abundance of inhibitory neurons which created the roadblocks to forming necessary connections for sensory and social input processing.

While this isn’t confirmation that this is in fact what causes autism, it’s a substantial step toward identifying the culprits. It also narrowed down the gene responsible and gave the researchers a good idea for how to control its expression. While some pop sci outlets trumpet this as work we can use to develop a cure for autism, I’m not so sure that it’s so simple. After all, autism isn’t a structural disorder in which an excess of inhibitory neurons blocks important functions and pills or even gene therapy would suddenly turn autistic individuals into neuro-typical ones. With their brains affected from birth, their lives have been built around their neurons compensating for all the neurotransmitter dead ends. It would take many years for their brains to re-wire themselves and fashion a new personality. And while those with severe autism would greatly benefit, would this be a desired, or even an ethical treatment for high functioning autistic people?

If autism shapes how you see the world and you have always had it, yes, it can make life really confusing and difficult. But when one learns to overcome, to recognize one’s problems and find coping mechanisms, the journey has made this person who he or she is today. It’s tempting, in the words of autism quacks to “fix” them, but considering how integral autism has been to how they became who they are, the “fix” in question would mean undoing a lifetime of learning, and in some way undoing what they are today for the ability to better process certain stimuli, social interactions, and better emotional coping skills. Again, for low functioning autistic people, there are arguments in favor of the benefits outweighing the risk, but for those who’ve learned to see this condition as a part of who they are and can easily function on their own, even benefiting a little from some of its positive side effects, being “cured” won’t always be the best choice…

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self-steeping tea

All right, look Newsweek, I get it. You need a catchy title for a throwaway article, ideally one you can tie into recent events bubbling up on search engines to get those sweet, sweet hits. And it’s understandable that once you start off with that headline, you don’t want to disappoint all those readers who came in to read about people who believe that a flyby of Pluto was just a part of a complicated conspiracy. But at the same time, two idiots who can’t even articulate what it is that was actually conspired and why, and seem to have no idea that there are two of them, aren’t a movement by even the most generous stretch of the imagination. No one except them believes that the New Horizons flyby didn’t happen and most of the people who comment on their videos do so to tell them how incredibly scientifically illiterate they are. For example, take this gem…

A man who goes by Crow Trippleseven questioned the initial Pluto images in a YouTube video last week… His argument: How is it that NASA’s images of Pluto, supposedly taken from a only few million miles away, are of poorer quality than those he took of Jupiter with his telescopic camera from 484 million miles away?

Well, let’s see, you have the lack of an adjustable focal length on the space probe to reduce the amount of moving parts and the fact that Jupiter has a diameter of 86,881 miles and comes as close as 365 million miles to us, while Pluto is 3 billion miles away at its closest and is just 1,473 miles across, or 8 times farther away, 58 times smaller, and fainter by a factor of thousands. So Crow expects a far smaller object, much farther away to be seen as clearly as the largest one in our solar system, gets schooled by countless people who actually realize this because they can do basic math and understand middle school optics, and his ignorance of basic science is proof of a conspiracy and comments calling him out on his imbecilic video are actually “death threats” in light of which he must keep his identity secret. But hold on, what is the actual conspiracy he’s trying to expose? Why is NASA staging a flyby of a would people are slightly curious about?

Maybe the truth is that NASA can’t do as much as we’ve been led to believe. It is a hard thing to know. Why does any government lie to its people? While there seems to be no simple answer, it seems to be the way of things. Governments lie and always have.

Ah, that clears it up. No, wait, no it doesn’t. He’s basically saying that he has no idea why there was a staged flyby of Pluto, what anyone had to gain form it, and what was the point of doing it in the first place, but dammit government lie and this must be a lie too. He’s just there to wake up the sheeple to the fact that there are conspiracies everywhere. His supposed counterpart in the movement of two dullards is just as clueless, basically just saying that he has no idea why a space agency would fake a mission but he knows they faked it. He also appears quite sure that the flouride in his local drinking water is poisonous and doesn’t understand that spacecraft can indeed propel themselves through a vacuum on top of re-tweeting pro-precious metal standard economic pamphlets based on what I’d like to call the peek-a-boo theory of economics, i.e. “if a currency isn’t backed by precious metal I can see and touch, it’s not real money.” So in short, he appears to be a somewhat bored rebel looking for a cause rather than for a clue.

However, this pair does teach us an important lesson. While some of us look to space to get an amazing little dose of inspiration and hopefully a glimpse of our future beyond humanity’s small, fragile blue cradle, others look to the heavens to find something else to complain about with the utmost confidence in their own genius, desperate to come across as incisive thinkers who have answers to life’s toughest questions and out-think the average person. These are people with a huge chip on their shoulders, people who want to be appreciated and admired for their feats of intelligence and insights, and whose eggshell-thin egos cannot process the fact that they more often than not end up coming across as the exact opposites of what they wanted to project. I’m sure they think of an article about them in Newsweek as long overdue recognition, while it really just let them humiliate themselves in public while calling them a movement to milk a few hits…

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woman on bench

Once in a while, the internet remembers random things, such as a woman who wanted to trim the male population by at least 90% and use the survivors as breeding stock to reduce gender inequality across the world. While MRAs believe that this is what all feminists secretly want and most people understand that this is little more than a joke that went too far and has absolutely zero chance of happening, ever, all of the online discussions on the subject have focused on a trip down the histrionics-laden minefield of gender politics instead of a relevant scientific issue that should be front and center. Sure, being one of the few males left on Earth and given a life filled with relative luxury and constant sex sounds like the plot of a particularly wishful porn film which I’m sure has been made a few hundred times by now. But would it actually work? What’s the consequence of eliminating up to 99% of men from the gene pool? Well, it could very likely doom our species in the long run, even with heavy reliance on artificial insemination and gene therapy. We thrive thanks to variety, and reducing our genetic diversity will only harm us.

Let’s say that 90% of men are somehow culled. With about 10 women for every remaining man we’d quickly end up with the same problem as Iceland worldwide. In just a few generations, the attractive stranger with whom you’re flirting is likely your half-sibling. Sure, you can curate who gets to reproduce and how, but the sheer lack of new male genes will quickly have you trying to fight math. Artificial insemination using same sex donors is possible and has been done, but it’s still a very touchy, expensive process that doesn’t always work. Women in poverty or in remote, undeveloped parts of the world are going to have extremely limited access to this resource and women in wealthy nations will be looking at high costs and failure rates. Nature got really, really good at this whole reproduction thing over 3.5 billion years and re-inventing the wheel is not an easy feat. Today, the best we can do with tried and true technology is successful about 15% of the time per implanted zygote on average. After just ten generations, there’s going to be a very serious threat of a genetic bottleneck which spells evolutionary doom for any organism.

An even more base, but still relevant question in the face of us no longer being able to just out-breed our way through genetic defects and weaknesses as we do today, is what about women who want monogamous, long-term heterosexual relationships? That’s close to 90% of those on the planet in this post-male apocalypse world. Instead of having a boyfriend or a husband they just plain want, they’re now on waiting lists among rationed men who also can’t have any sort of meaningful relationship. While more women than men admit to same-sex fantasies, and acting on them, you might end up with artificially high same-sex pairings among women simply out of emotional and physical necessity. It’s one thing if you’re homosexual and have your choice of a partner everywhere you look. But if you’re not, your choices are to get on a waiting list for some person to whose gender you have a strong innate attraction, pair up with a same sex partner to release some stress until you can’t do it anymore, or be lonely. Again, there are good reasons why nature prefers a 50/50 ratio between the sexes, one of which is more choices in mating.

For better or worse, the survival of humanity depends on having plenty of men available, and a significant amount of genetic diversity. Look at every successful species in history. They thrived in enormous numbers because they reproduced efficiently and had many mates available on a moment’s notice. Small, inbred populations nearly always die out because they lack the genetic diversity and numbers to absorb a change in diet, or the environment, or new diseases to come out on the other end as strong as ever. Humans survived a supervolcanic eruption which left an uncomfortably small population that might have dropped to as few as 10,000 individuals, awful plagues, and an ice age. Had we become too dependent on over-structured breeding systems, or had our species grown far too sex-lopsided, we would’ve went extinct. So an idea involving a reduction of up to 99% of one sex shouldn’t just be met with political and social objections, but it should be first dismissed from the most important point of all: that of evolutionary biology.

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sci-fi plane

Now, I don’t mean to alarm you, but if Boeing is serious about its idea for the fusion powered jet engine and puts it into a commercial airplane in the near future more or less as it is now, you’re probably going to be killed when it’s turned on as the plane gets ready to taxi. How exactly your life will end is a matter of debate really. The most obvious way is being poisoned by a shower of stray neutrons and electrons emanating from the fusion process, and the fissile shielding which would absorb some of the neutrons and start a chain reaction much like in a commercial fission plant but with basically nothing between you and the radiation. If you want to know exactly what that would do to your body, and want to lose sleep for a few days, simply do a search — and for the love of all things Noodly not an image search, anything but that — for Hiroshi Ouchi. Another way would be a swift crash landing after the initial reaction gets the plane airborne but just can’t continue consistently enough to stay in the air. A third involves electrical components fried by a steady radioactive onslaught giving out mid-flight. I could go on and on, but you get the point.

Of course this assumes that Boeing would actually build such a jet engine, which is pretty much impossible without some absolutely amazing breakthroughs in physics, material sciences, and a subsequent miniaturization of all these huge leaps into something that will fit into commercial jet engines. While you’ve seen something the size of a NYC or San Francisco studio apartment on the side of each wing on planes that routinely cross oceans, that’s not nearly enough space for even one component of Boeing’s fusion engine. It would be like planning to stuff one of the very first computers into a Raspberry Pi back in 1952, when we theoretically knew that we should be able to do it someday, but had no idea how. We know that fusion should work. It’s basically the predominant high energy reaction in the universe. But we just can’t scale it down until we figure out how to negotiate turbulent plasma streams and charged particles repelling each other in the early stages of ignition. Right now, we can mostly recoup the energy from the initial laser bursts, but we’re still far off from breaking even on the whole system, much generate more power.

Even in ten years there wouldn’t be lasers powerful enough to start fusion with enough net gain to send a jet down a runway. The most compact and energetic fission reactors today are used by submarines and icebreakers, but they’re twice the size of even the biggest jet engines with a weight measured in thousand of tons. Add between 1,000 pounds and a ton of uranium-238 for the fissile shielding and the laser assembly, and you’re quickly looking at close to ten times the maximum takeoff weight for the largest aircraft ever built with just two engines. Even if you can travel in time and bring back the technology for all this to work, your plane could not land in any airport in existence. Just taxiing onto the runway would crush the tarmac. Landing would tear it to shreds as the plane would drive straight through solid ground. And of course, it would rain all sorts of radioactive particles over its flight path. If chemtrails weren’t just a conspiracy theory for people who don’t know what contrails are, I’d take them over a fusion-fission jet engine, and I’m pretty closely acquainted with the fallout from Chernobyl, living in Ukraine as it happened.

So the question hanging in the air is why Boeing would patent an engine that can’t work without sci-fi technology? Partly, as noted by Ars in the referenced story, it shows just how easy it is for corporate entities with lots of lawyers to get purely speculative defensive patents. Knowing how engineers who design jet engines work, I’m betting that they understand full well that this is just another fanciful take on nuclear jet propulsion which was briefly explored in the 1950s when the dream was nuclear powered everything. We’re also entertaining the idea of using small nuclear reactors for interplanetary travel which could ideally fit into an aircraft engine, though lacking all the necessary oomph for producing constant, powerful thrust. But one day, all of this, or even a few key components, could actually combine to produce safe, efficient, nuclear power at almost any scale and be adopted into a viable jet engine design for a plane that would need to refuel a few times per year at most. Boeing wants to be able to exploit such designs while protecting its technology from patent trolls, so it seems likely that it nabbed this patent just in case, as a plan for a future that might never come, but needs to be protected should it actually arrive.

[ illustration by Adam Kop ]

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