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Archive for March 17th, 2014

NASA looks at the collapse of civilization and what steps would prevent it

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As pointed out in the article (and by NASA) collapse has been the common fate of civilizations. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Nafeez Ahmed writes in The Guardian:

A new study sponsored by Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.

Noting that warnings of ‘collapse’ are often seen to be fringe or controversial, the study attempts to make sense of compelling historical data showing that “the process of rise-and-collapse is actually a recurrent cycle found throughout history.” Cases of severe civilisational disruption due to “precipitous collapse – often lasting centuries – have been quite common.”

The research project is based on a new cross-disciplinary ‘Human And Nature DYnamical’ (HANDY) model, led by applied mathematician Safa Motesharrei of the US National Science Foundation-supported National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, in association with a team of natural and social scientists. The study based on the HANDY model has been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed Elsevier journal, Ecological Economics.

It finds that according to the historical record even advanced, complex civilisations are susceptible to collapse, raising questions about the sustainability of modern civilisation:

“The fall of the Roman Empire, and the equally (if not more) advanced Han, Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, as well as so many advanced Mesopotamian Empires, are all testimony to the fact that advanced, sophisticated, complex, and creative civilizations can be both fragile and impermanent.”

By investigating the human-nature dynamics of these past cases of collapse, the project identifies the most salient interrelated factors which explain civilisational decline, and which may help determine the risk of collapse today: namely, Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, andEnergy.

These factors can lead to collapse when they converge to generate two crucial social features: “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity”; and “the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or “Commoners”) [poor]” These social phenomena have played “a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse,” in all such cases over “the last five thousand years.”

Currently, high levels of economic stratification are linked directly to overconsumption of resources, with “Elites” based largely in industrialised countries responsible for both:

“… accumulated surplus is not evenly distributed throughout society, but rather has been controlled by an elite. The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, is only allocated a small portion of it by elites, usually at or just above subsistence levels.”

The study challenges those who argue that technology will resolve these challenges by increasing efficiency:

“Technological change can raise the efficiency of resource use, but it also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource extraction, so that, absent policy effects, the increases in consumption often compensate for the increased efficiency of resource use.”

Productivity increases in agriculture and industry over the last two centuries has come from “increased (rather than decreased) resource throughput,” despite dramatic efficiency gains over the same period.

Modelling a range of different scenarios, Motesharri and his colleagues conclude that under conditions “closely reflecting the reality of the world today… we find that collapse is difficult to avoid.” In the first of these scenarios, civilisation:

“…. appears to be on a sustainable path for quite a long time, but even using an optimal depletion rate and starting with a very small number of Elites, the Elites eventually consume too much, resulting in a famine among Commoners that eventually causes the collapse of society. It is important to note that this Type-L collapse is due to an inequality-induced famine that causes a loss of workers, rather than a collapse of Nature.”

Another scenario focuses on the role of continued resource exploitation, finding that “with a larger depletion rate, the decline of the Commoners occurs faster, while the Elites are still thriving, but eventually the Commoners collapse completely, followed by the Elites.”

In both scenarios, Elite wealth monopolies mean that they are buffered from the most “detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners”, allowing them to “continue ‘business as usual’ despite the impending catastrophe.” The same mechanism, they argue, could explain how “historical collapses were allowed to occur by elites who appear to be oblivious to the catastrophic trajectory (most clearly apparent in the Roman and Mayan cases).”

Applying this lesson to our contemporary predicament, the study warns that:

“While some members of society might raise the alarm that the system is moving towards an impending collapse and therefore advocate structural changes to society in order to avoid it, Elites and their supporters, who opposed making these changes, could point to the long sustainable trajectory ‘so far’ in support of doing nothing.”

However, the scientists point out that the worst-case scenarios are by no means inevitable, and suggest that appropriate policy and structural changes could avoid collapse, if not pave the way toward a more stable civilisation.

The two key solutions are to reduce economic inequality so as to ensure fairer distribution of resources, and to dramatically reduce resource consumption by relying on less intensive renewable resources and reducing population growth: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 March 2014 at 6:34 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science

A National License-Plate Tracking Database

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Dan Froomkin reports at The Intercept:

In a  February 19 front-page story, the Washington Post appeared to be breaking news of yet another massive federal surveillance program invading the privacy of innocent Americans.

The Department of Homeland Security, the story said, had drawn up plans to develop a national license-plate tracking database, giving the feds the ability to monitor the movements of tens of millions of drivers — a particularly intrusive form of suspicionless bulk surveillance, considering how strongly we Americans feel it’s none of the government’s business where and when we come and go.

The next day, however, the Post called off the alarm. The plan, the newspaper reported, had been canceled. Threat averted. Move along.

But the Post had gotten it all wrong. DHS wasn’t planning to create a national license-plate tracking database — because several already exist, owned by different private companies, and extensively used by law enforcement agencies including DHS for years.

The only thing actually new at DHS — the solicitation for services the Post decided was front-page news — was a different form of paperwork to pay for access.

And far from going away, the databases are growing at a furious pace due to rapidly improving technology and ample federal grant money for more cameras and more computers. Tens if not hundreds of millions of observations per month are streaming into bulging electronic archives, often remaining there indefinitely, for a vast array of clients in both the public and private sector.

So rather than being the tale of an averted threat, the bulk license-plate tracking saga is actually a story about yet another previously unimaginable loss of privacy in the modern information age.

In this case, unlike the telecommunications sector, it’s not the federal government with the “collect it all” mentality; it’s the private sector, arguably doing an even better and more thorough job than the government ever could, potentially with even fewer scruples.

The private companies have figured out how to leverage enormous value out of what has historically been public — but uncollectable and unmanageable — information by gathering it into databases that put incredibly detailed and revealing personal information at a paying user’s fingertips.

In this case, the act of driving through an intersection, being anywhere near a police car, or parking on the street — not to mention passing through a toll booth — now leaves a digital residue that you don’t own, and that someone else can seize, use, and sell.

DHS is not new to the license-plate tracking business — it’s been one of the top federal consumers of such data for a while now. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 March 2014 at 3:45 pm

Federal government slightly eases restrictions on marijuana medical research

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Nicole Flatow reports at ThinkProgress:

As more states move to legalize all or some marijuana use, reform has remained stalled not just by outright federal prohibition, but also by federal policies that have suppressed research on cannabis.

On Friday, the federal government took a potentially momentous step back from this position, granting researchers who have for years borne the brunt of this policy access to a legal supply of marijuana. The decision means a psychiatry professor at the University of Arizona who specializes in treating veterans may for the first time be able to perform a triple-blind study on marijuana and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Veterans and others suffering from PTSD have long vouched anecdotally that marijuana provides unique relief for their symptoms. And a study last May that examined the brain without actually administering marijuana suggested that cannabis may mitigate the flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, and other symptoms that plague PTSD sufferers.

But federal government denial of both the legal supply of marijuana to study the issue and a supply of federal funding have thwarted studies like this one, despite approval by the Food and Drug Administration and financial backing from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.

“MAPS has been working for over 22 years to start marijuana drug development research, and this is the first time we’ve been granted permission to purchase marijuana from NIDA,” the group said in a statement.

In August, CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta announced he had reversed his position on marijuana, saying, “we have been terribly and systematically misled,” and that “sometimes marijuana is the only thing that works” to treat medical conditions. He told the story of now-7-year-old Charlotte Figi, whose transformation after using a marijuana extract to treat her seizures inspired many other parents of children with seizures to flock to Colorado for treatment.

Marijuana remains classified as a Schedule I substance by the Drug Enforcement Administration, meaning it is deemed to be a dangerous drug with no currently accepted medical value. This designation is more severe than that of cocaine and opium poppy. Sttudies like this one are needed not just to put scientific backing behind the anecdotes and better adjust prescriptions; they are also necessary to persuade the Drug Enforcement Administration to reschedule the drug. The agency has maintained in response to numerous petitions that there is not sufficient rigorous research to rebut Congress’ 1970 decision to place the drug in the Controlled Substances Act’s most restrictive category.

Last February, a a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology and one-time MacArthur Fellow analogized the suppression of marijuana research to creationist control over paleontology, citing this PTSD study. “The most blatant example of this behavior came last year, when NIDA blocked an FDA-approved clinical trial testing marijuana as a remedy for post traumatic stress disorder,” said John H. Schwarz. “… As a physicist, I can assure you that this not how physics works. … We are all expected to act like grownups and accept it gracefully as experiments prove our favorite theories are false. In physics, unlike marijuana policy, we consider the right message to send to be the message that’s true.”

He and others in the medical marijuana community have argued that the DEA and National Institute on Drug Abuse act as a “tag team” to censor science, with NIDA holding a monopoly over legal access to cannabis for research, and the DEA refusing to reconsider the drug’s designation in the Controlled Substances Act on the basis that sufficient research does not exist.

This study must still be granted DEA approval, but is expected to receive it.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 March 2014 at 3:42 pm

Posted in Drug laws, Medical, Science

Direct evidence of inflation following the Big Bang

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Wow. The Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has issued a press release:

Almost 14 billion years ago, the universe we inhabit burst into existence in an extraordinary event that initiated the Big Bang. In the first fleeting fraction of a second, the universe expanded exponentially, stretching far beyond the view of our best telescopes. All this, of course, was just theory.

Researchers from the BICEP2 collaboration today announced the first direct evidence for this cosmic inflation. Their data also represent the first images of gravitational waves, or ripples in space-time. These waves have been described as the “first tremors of the Big Bang.” Finally, the data confirm a deep connection between quantum mechanics and general relativity.

“Detecting this signal is one of the most important goals in cosmology today. A lot of work by a lot of people has led up to this point,” said John Kovac (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), leader of the BICEP2 collaboration.

These groundbreaking results came from observations by the BICEP2 telescope of the cosmic microwave background — a faint glow left over from the Big Bang. Tiny fluctuations in this afterglow provide clues to conditions in the early universe. For example, small differences in temperature across the sky show where parts of the universe were denser, eventually condensing into galaxies and galactic clusters.

Since the cosmic microwave background is a form of light, it exhibits all the properties of light, including polarization. On Earth, sunlight is scattered by the atmosphere and becomes polarized, which is why polarized sunglasses help reduce glare. In space, the cosmic microwave background was scattered by atoms and electrons and became polarized too.

“Our team hunted for a special type of polarization called ‘B-modes,’ which represents a twisting or ‘curl’ pattern in the polarized orientations of the ancient light,” said co-leader Jamie Bock (Caltech/JPL).

Gravitational waves squeeze space as they travel, and this squeezing produces a distinct pattern in the cosmic microwave background. Gravitational waves have a “handedness,” much like light waves, and can have left- and right-handed polarizations.

“The swirly B-mode pattern is a unique signature of gravitational waves because of their handedness. This is the first direct image of gravitational waves across the primordial sky,” said co-leader Chao-Lin Kuo (Stanford/SLAC).

The team examined spatial scales on the sky spanning about one to five degrees (two to ten times the width of the full Moon). To do this, they traveled to the South Pole to take advantage of its cold, dry, stable air. . .

Continue reading.

Best line:

“This has been like looking for a needle in a haystack, but instead we found a crowbar,” said co-leader Clem Pryke (University of Minnesota).

Written by LeisureGuy

17 March 2014 at 2:23 pm

Posted in Science

The Gaps, closely realted: Income and Longevity

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One problem in raising the retirement age is that those with lower incomes won’t reach retirement—I suppose to a certain mindset that is a feature and not a bug. But it is real, as reported in the NY Times by Annie Lowrey:

Fairfax County, Va., and McDowell County, W.Va., are separated by 350 miles, about a half-day’s drive. Traveling west from Fairfax County, the gated communities and bland architecture of military contractors give way to exurbs, then to farmland and eventually to McDowell’s coal mines and the forested slopes of the Appalachians. Perhaps the greatest distance between the two counties is this: Fairfax is a place of the haves, and McDowell of the have-nots. Just outside of Washington, fat government contracts and a growing technology sector buoy the median household income in Fairfax County up to $107,000, one of the highest in the nation. McDowell, with the decline of coal, has little in the way of industry. Unemployment is high. Drug abuse is rampant. Median household income is about one-fifth that of Fairfax.

One of the starkest consequences of that divide is seen in the life expectancies of the people there. Residents of Fairfax County are among the longest-lived in the country: Men have an average life expectancy of 82 years and women, 85, about the same as in Sweden. In McDowell, the averages are 64 and 73, about the same as in Iraq. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 March 2014 at 9:45 am

Posted in Daily life

George Will makes a funny in the Washington Post

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George Will opened his column today with this sentence: “Someone who is determined to disbelieve something can manage to disregard an Everest of evidence for it.” Will is pretty much an expert on this: he, like James Inhofe, views climate change as a gigantic hoax perpetrated by an enormous conspiracy of scientists who (apparently) plan to cash in on it somehow:

1. Climate change
2. ???
3. Profit!

Written by LeisureGuy

17 March 2014 at 9:42 am

Posted in Global warming, GOP

Microsoft OneNote app available for Mac: Free!

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It’s in the App Store now, and I just downloaded it and tried it out. I am more accustomed to the Windows OneNote interface, but this one seems to be good. Story at the Verge includes a link to the App Store entry. (I couldn’t find it using the App Store search.)


Written by LeisureGuy

17 March 2014 at 9:38 am

Posted in Software

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