Sometimes you look back on a month and feel like nothing very important happened. But November 2016 was obviously not one of those months! I am not going to make any attempt to be apolitical here. I was once a registered independent and still do not consider myself a strong partisan. However, I like to think of myself as being on the side of facts, logic, problem solving, morality and basic goodness. Besides, this blog is about the future of our human civilization and human race. I can’t pretend our chances didn’t just take a turn for the worse.
3 most frightening stories
- Is there really any doubt what the most frightening story of November 2016 was? The United Nations Environment Program says we are on a track for 3 degrees C over pre-industrial temperatures, not the “less than 2” almost all serious people (a category that excludes 46% of U.S. voters, apparently) agree is needed. This story was released before the U.S. elected an immoral science denier as its leader. One theory is that our culture has lost all ability to separate fact from fiction. Perhaps states could take on more of a leadership role if the federal government is going to be immoral? Washington State voters considered a carbon tax that could have been a model for other states, and voted it down, in part because environmental groups didn’t like that it was revenue neutral. Adding insult to injury, WWF released its 2016 Living Planet Report, which along with more fun climate change info includes fun facts like 58% of all wild animals have disappeared. There is a 70-99% chance of a U.S. Southwest “mega-drought” lasting 35 years or longer this century. But don’t worry, this is only “if emissions of greenhouse gases remain unchecked”. Oh, and climate change is going to begin to strain the food supply worldwide, which is already strained by population, demand growth, and water resources depletion even without it.
- Technological unemployment may be starting to take hold, and might be an underlying reason behind some of the resentment directed at mainstream politicians. If you want a really clear and concise explanation of this issue, you could ask a smart person like, say, Barack Obama.
- According to left wing sources like Forbes, an explosion of debt-financed spending on conventional and nuclear weapons is an expected consequence of the election. Please, Mr. Trump, prove them wrong!
3 most hopeful stories
- There is a vision out there for a smart electric grid. Hello Trump administration and all of Congress, if you are all really serious about infrastructure, this is an issue you could find common ground on and let’s make it happen. Oh, and you can build roads and parking lots out of solar panels.
- There is some research progress on new ways to combat antibiotic resistance.
- You might be able to learn certain types of knowledge and skills without any effort.
3 most interesting stories
- A new version of Sid Meier’s Civilization VI was released. I have fond memories of weekends in my 20s spent playing Civilization II on the couch, drunk, in my pajamas, covered in Dorito crumbs. I wouldn’t mind a couple weekends a year like that now, but overall it’s good these are only memories and I am not spending my 40s like that.
- On the data science front: Nate Silver has released some analysis of college football stats. Good luck Gators, you’re going to need it! And a new tutorial lets you play with the economics of carbon taxes and emissions schemes while learning R.
- New technology can survey and create a 3D model of a room in seconds.
This section of the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Risk Report explains in a fair amount of detail how climate change is likely to cause food shortages.
The risk to food security is especially great because agriculture is already straining to meet a rapidly growing demand from a finite resource base. The combined impact of a rising population and growth of the middle class – wealthier people eat more cereal-intensive meat – is set to drive a demand increase of 60% by 2050.3Yet the global average yield growth for cereals has slowed in recent years; it already lags behind demand growth. This gap cannot be covered by an expansion of cropland because of the need to protect forests and other areas of high value for conservation and carbon sequestration. Agriculture is increasingly competing with other uses for land – such as urbanization, transport, bioenergy, forestry and mining – and so crop production is pushed towards ever more marginal soils.4
Yet more worrying is the fierce competition for water, the lifeblood of agriculture. Water withdrawals have increased threefold over the last 50 years, and demand is anticipated to rise by a further 40% by 2030.5 With a shift in global production towards intensive systems that rely on groundwater resources for irrigation, along with the current growth in demand for water-intensive animal products, agriculture becomes even thirstier. At the same time, urbanization and industrialization in emerging and developing economies are also driving up demand for fresh water in energy production, mineral extraction, and domestic use, further stretching the already tight supply.6
Against this backdrop of tightening constraints, climate change seriously threatens food security in two ways. First, it will harm agricultural production: rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns will slow yield gains, contributing to higher food prices and an increasingly precarious supply-demand balance that will make markets more prone to volatility. Second, it will increasingly disrupt food systems: more extreme weather will destabilize tighter markets and exacerbate volatility, imperil transport infrastructure and trigger local food crises. As a result, the risks of humanitarian emergencies, national or regional instability and mass migration will increase. In the words of a former Executive Director of the World Food Programme, “without food, people have only three options. They riot, they emigrate, or they die.”7 The security implications will be felt by developing and developed countries alike.
In other words, the world might be in trouble on food even if climate change were not a factor. The combination of heat and drought that will be brought on by climate change will add to the risk, potentially destabilizing many populous areas of the world. The world’s response to climate change has been too little, too late, but at least there have been steps in the right direction the last few years. Being willfully ignorant of the risk and reversing the small progress we are making would be an evil, immoral thing to do.
I hate the election outcome, and yet you won’t find me out in the streets protesting just because I’m a sore loser. You might find me out in the streets if and when the new administration starts taking immoral actions, such as denying people access to health care, reversing progress on climate change, or endangering the stability of the international financial system.
I don’t doubt for a second that there are a lot of errors and inefficiencies in the U.S. election system. That is because it is so decentralized and disorganized. I doubt it is hackable on a broad scale though, just because it is so decentralized and disorganized. The fact that the results were so consistently surprising in so many states to me is further evidence that the polls and exit polls were just biased.
The exit polls are just weird though, as Jonathan Simon points out. The election result is different from the pre-election polls by several percentage points in Trump’s favor. One explanation that is consistent with the facts is that the way “likely voter” was defined by the pollsters was wrong. In other words, enough “unlikely voters” turned out to deliver the election to Trump.
This logic is a little harder to assign to exit polls though. Exit polls are supposed to be a random sample of people who actually voted. The exit polls in this election were very consistent with the pre-election polls, and very inconsistent with the vote count. What could explain that? Either the sample of people who actually voted has to be biased, or people have to have lied on a large scale, and in a very consistent and biased way.
I don’t have the answer. I think we need to accept these election results and move on. But a thorough review of the process to make sure it is as transparent and verifiable as possible in the future would be a great idea.
3 most frightening stories
- The U.S. and Russia may have blundered into a proxy war in Syria. And on a loosely related war-and-peace note, Curtis LeMay was a crazy bastard.
- The ecological footprint situation is not looking too promising: “from 1993 to 2009…while the human population has increased by 23% and the world economy has grown 153%, the human footprint has increased by just 9%. Still, 75% the planet’s land surface is experiencing measurable human pressures. Moreover, pressures are perversely intense, widespread and rapidly intensifying in places with high biodiversity.” Meanwhile, as of 2002 “we appropriate over 40% of the net primary productivity (the green material) produced on Earth each year (Vitousek et al. 1986, Rojstaczer et al. 2001). We consume 35% of the productivity of the oceanic shelf (Pauly and Christensen 1995), and we use 60% of freshwater run-off (Postel et al. 1996). The unprecedented escalation in both human population and consumption in the 20th century has resulted in environmental crises never before encountered in the history of humankind and the world (McNeill 2000). E. O. Wilson (2002) claims it would now take four Earths to meet the consumption demands of the current human population, if every human consumed at the level of the average US inhabitant.” And finally, 30% of African elephants have been lost in the last 7 years.
- Car accidents are the leading cause of death for children ages 5 to 24. The obsession with car seats may not be saving all that many lives, while keeping children out of cars as much as possible would be 100% guaranteed to save lives. And one thing that would be guaranteed to help us create more walkable neighborhoods and therefore save children’s lives: getting rid of minimum parking requirements in cities once and for all. And yet you don’t hear this debate being framed in moral terms.
3 most hopeful stories
- The FDA is finally banning antibacterial soap.
- An MIT professor thinks he has found an effective anti-aging pill.
- There is still hope for fusion power.
3 most interesting stories
- Monsanto is trying to help honeybees (which seems good) by monkeying with RNA (which seems a little frightening). Yes, biotech is coming.
- Some people think teaching algebra to children may actually be bad. Writing still seems to be good.
- There have been a number of attempts to identify and classify the basic types of literary plots.
Here’s an article on how J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels were influenced by his experience in World War I.
The descriptions of battle scenes in “The Lord of the Rings” seem lifted from the grim memories of the trenches: the relentless artillery bombardment, the whiff of mustard gas, the bodies of dead soldiers discovered in craters of mud. In the Siege of Gondor, hateful orcs are “digging, digging lines of deep trenches in a huge ring,” while others maneuver “great engines for the casting of missiles…”
In “The Lord of the Rings,” we meet Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, Hobbits of the Shire, on a fateful mission to destroy the last Ring of Power and save Middle-earth from enslavement and destruction. The heroism of Tolkien’s characters depends on their capacity to resist evil and their tenacity in the face of defeat. It was this quality that Tolkien witnessed among his comrades on the Western Front…
Beside the courage of ordinary men, the carnage of war seems also to have opened Tolkien’s eyes to a primal fact about the human condition: the will to power. This is the force animating Sauron, the sorcerer-warlord and great enemy of Middle-earth. “But the only measure that he knows is desire,” explains the wizard Gandalf, “desire for power.” Not even Frodo, the Ring-bearer and chief protagonist, escapes the temptation.
Great stories tend to have a clear cut line between good and evil. In real life, we tell ourselves stories about good and evil, often to rationalize our own actions. But the vast majority of evil outcomes in the real world are not caused by intentionally evil acts, but by ignorance, negligence, and amorality. People don’t have the mental tools to understand and make good decisions about the complex systems we are all embedded in, and don’t think enough about right and wrong in their daily actions. How do you tell compelling stories about that?
This article claims that our natural disgust at parasites and other gross things is the origin of morality.
A ballooning body of research by Pizarro and others shows that moral judgments are not always the product of careful deliberation. Sometimes we feel an action is wrong even if we can’t point to an injured party. We make snap decisions and then – in the words of Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University – ‘construct post-hoc justifications for those feelings’. This intuition, converging lines of research reveal, is informed by disgust, an emotion that most scientists believe evolved to keep us safe from parasites. Marked by cries of ‘Yuck!’ and ‘Ew!’, disgust makes us recoil in horror from faeces, bed bugs, leeches and anything else that might sicken us. Yet sometime deep in our past the same feeling that makes us cringe at touching a dead animal or gag at a rancid odour became embroiled in our most deeply held convictions – from ethics and religious values to political views…
These and related studies raise an obvious question: how have parasites managed to insinuate themselves into our moral code? The wiring scheme of the brain, some scientists believe, holds the key to this mystery. Visceral disgust – that part of you that wants to scream ‘Yuck!’ when you see an overflowing toilet or think about eating cockroaches – typically engages the anterior insula, an ancient part of the brain that governs the vomiting response. Yet the very same part of the brain also fires up in revulsion when subjects are outraged by the cruel or unjust treatment of others. That’s not to say that visceral and moral disgust perfectly overlap in the brain, but they use enough of the same circuitry that the feelings they evoke may sometimes bleed together, warping judgment…
From this point in human social development, it took a bit more rejiggering of the same circuitry to bring our species to a momentous place: we became disgusted by people who behaved immorally. This development, Curtis argues, is central to understanding how we became an extraordinarily social and cooperative species, capable of putting our minds together to solve problems, create new inventions, exploit natural resources with unprecedented efficiency and, ultimately, lay the foundations for civilisation.
This has interesting implications for the idea that there might be a “common morality”, akin to “common sense”, that just naturally applies to all rational people, although rational people might disagree about exactly what is included, just as scientists argue about the nature of reality but agree there is a single reality that can eventually be discovered. This is powerful because we can’t rely on reason alone as a guide to morality – there are sometimes things we could do that would be rational, but almost everyone would agree are wrong. Obvious examples would be if you could benefit yourself by lying, cheating, stealing, or killing, and be sure you could get away with it. In this case your gut tells you this is wrong even though it might be strictly rational, and that will be enough to deter most people. But if that gut sense of common morality is based partly on biological impulses shaped by past conditions that no longer apply, then maybe we should rely more on reason and less on our gut impulses of what is right and wrong.
This article talks about how a self-driving car might be programmed to make a hard decision in a split second.
Philosopher Jason Millar claims to have originated the idea of the ethically challenged self-driving car in a 2014 paper on robotics. As a grad student he proposed “The Tunnel Problem”—a formulation that has done well online thanks to its simple name (supposedly an analog to the Philosophy 101 “Trolley Problem”).
In the “The Tunnel Problem,” Millar’s driverless car (let’s call her Porsche again) is fast approaching a narrow tunnel, the entrance of which is blocked by a child who has fallen in the roadway. The car can either kill the kid or hit the wall of the tunnel, killing the driver (who is really just a passenger).
The trolley problem is fun – here is a run-down on Wikipedia. You can adapt it to a lot of real-life problems. Is it okay to hurt the few to help the many? Is it okay to hurt bad people who do bad things? Is it wrong to damage natural ecosystems, even if people are not directly hurt or they may even be helped? What if you aren’t sure whether people will be hurt, and the people who might be hurt aren’t even alive yet? Is it enough to not directly cause harm, or are you a bad person if you are not actively trying to reduce harm caused by others? What if you are doing something to reduce harm, but not everything you could be?
As fun as these ethical puzzles are to think about, with predictions that self-driving vehicles could reduce the death toll on our highways and streets by 80%, there is no moral ambiguity in choosing to make that happen as quickly as possible. I think it would be unethical not to.
Back where the rubber meets the road, I think you would just program the computer to always have a plan for how it would stop if it had to stop. Human drivers are supposed to do this, and a computer should be much, much better at it. I suppose there are cases where swerving is the better option – if something jumps out unexpectedly from the side, like a deer, or drops from above, like a tree branch, I suppose swerving could be the right response. But with almost anything unexpected that happens with another vehicle ahead or to the side, it seems like the best option would usually be for all vehicles to stop as quickly as possible. And if all vehicles are computer controlled, it seems like unexpected things shouldn’t happen that often.
This post is about CRISPR and gene drive, which are interesting in their own right. What I am going to quote is the author’s ideas on how to develop a promising but potentially dangerous technology responsibly:
For starters, public notification and broadly inclusive discussions should always precede and inform development of gene drive interventions in the lab. A clear description of the potential impact of an experiment – as my colleagues and I have provided for the technology as a whole – must be followed by transparency throughout the development process. This community-guided approach to research provides opportunities to identify and address potential problems and concerns during development. If a perceived problem cannot be adequately addressed, researchers should be prepared to terminate the project…
Another feature of a responsible approach would be a commitment by scientists to evaluate each proposed gene drive intervention – say, immunizing mice so that they cannot transmit Lyme disease to ticks – individually, rather than making a blanket decision on the technology as a whole. After all, the benefits and risks of each intervention would be entirely different.
A final safeguard against the irresponsible development of gene drive technology is to ensure that early interventions are developed exclusively by governments and nonprofit organizations. Given the potential of financial incentives to skew the design and results of safety tests, keeping the profit motive out of the development and decision-making processes will encourage balanced assessments.