Archive for the ‘Science’ Category
At last. I imagine you’ve seen the numerous stories cropping up. Here are three good ones, and the videos in the stories are excellent and worth watching. (I write that as someone who is generally too impatient to watch videos.)
Motherboard: Gravitational Waves Have Been Detected, a Century After Einstein Predicted Them, by Beck Ferreira
Quanta: Gravitational Waves Discovered at Long Last, by Natalie Wolchover
NY Times: Physicists Detect Gravitational Waves, Proving Einstein Right, by Dennis Overbye
The video at the NY Times link is particularly beautiful.
Here’s the story. Note that it has a huge potential market as Baby Boomers hit the Golden Years, hard. So: scam? or not?
Pretty clear struggle as corporations work to privatize education and thus create new profit centers with government-enforced participation—start slashing costs because every dollar of cost eliminated drops right to the bottom line. Obviously, some oppose this move, and many of them because they have devoted their lives to education and don’t want to see things happening like Mount St. Mary’s, blogged earlier today.
Obama as president should have the right to take executive actions, but the current Supreme Court is very political and very conservative, so they will happily deal him a setback (cf. throwing the Florida vote to George W. Bush and forbidding a recount). Adam Liptak reports in the NY Times:
The Supreme Court on Tuesday temporarily blocked the Obama administration’s effort to combat climate change by regulating emissions from coal-fired power plants. The brief order was not the last word on the case, which is most likely to return to the Supreme Court after an appeals court considers an expedited challenge from 29 states and dozens of corporations and industry groups.
But the Supreme Court’s willingness to issue a stay while the case proceeds was an early hint that the program could face a skeptical reception from the justices.
The vote was 5 to 4.
The challenged regulation, which was issued last summer by the Environmental Protection Agency, requires states to make major cuts to greenhouse gas pollution created by electric power plants, the nation’s largest source of such emissions. The plan could transform the nation’s electricity system, cutting emissions from existing power plants by a third by 2030, from a 2005 baseline, by closing hundreds of heavily polluting coal-fired plants and increasing production of wind and solar power.
“Climate change is the most significant environmental challenge of our day, and it is already affecting national public health, welfare and the environment,” Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. wrote in a brief urging the Supreme Court to reject a request for a stay while the case moves forward.
The regulation calls for states to submit plans to comply with the regulation by September, though they may seek a two-year extension. The first deadline for power plants to reduce their emissions is in 2022, with full compliance not required until 2030.
The states challenging the regulation, led mostly by Republicans and many with economies that rely on coal mining or coal-fired power, sued to stop what they called “the most far-reaching and burdensome rule the E.P.A. has ever forced onto the states.” A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in January unanimously refused to grant a stay. The court did expedite the case and will hear arguments on June 2, which is fast by the standards of complex litigation.
The states urged the Supreme Court to take immediate action to block what they called a “power grab” under which “the federal environmental regulator seeks to reorganize the energy grids in nearly every state in the nation.” Though the plan’s first emission reduction obligations do not take effect until 2022, the states said they had already started to spend money and shift resources to get ready.
Eighteen states, mostly led by Democrats, opposed the request for a stay, saying they were “continuing to experience climate-change harms firsthand — including increased flooding, more severe storms, wildfires and droughts.” Those harms are “lasting and irreversible,” they said, and “any stay that results in further delay in emissions reductions would compound the harms that climate change is already causing.”
In a second filing seeking a stay, coal companies and trade associations represented by Laurence H. Tribe, a law professor at Harvard, said the court should act to stop a “targeted attack on the coal industry” that will “artificially eliminate buyers of coal, forcing the coal industry to curtail production, idle operations, lay off workers and close mines.”
The E.P.A., represented by Mr. Verrilli, called the requests for a stay “extraordinary and unprecedented.” The states challenging the administration’s plan, he said, could point to no case in which the Supreme Court had “granted a stay of a generally applicable regulation pending initial judicial review in the court of appeals.” In a later brief, the states conceded that point. . .
Very interesting column by Radley Balko in the Washington Post on how sleep deprivation facilitates false confessions:
Here’s the write-up, from New Scientist:
“To the average person it’s inconceivable how a false confession can happen,” says Saul Kassin of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, who has been an expert witness in dozens of wrongful conviction cases. He says the suspect usually sees it as a short-term measure, thinking that when all the evidence is in, their innocence will become obvious. “They believe that in the end they won’t have to pay for the confession.”
Such a gamble is hard for juries to understand, he says, but the latest study might help. In this, 88 people did various computer tasks as part of a fake experiment, then either slept for 8 hours or had to stay awake all night. The next morning they were accused of losing all the study data by pressing the “Escape” key, something they had been repeatedly warned against.
“It’s not as awful as confessing to murder but some of these people feel really bad – they think the experiment is ruined,” saysElizabeth Loftus of the University of California, Irvine, who took part in the work.
When asked to sign a statement admitting their guilt, half of those who were sleep deprived complied, compared with only 18 per cent of those who got a night’s rest.
There are some clear limitations to any study of false confessions — there’s just no way to really replicate the conditions under which they’re typically given. But given those limitations, this study is pretty compelling. It’s also intuitive. Sleep deprivation is a common method of torture. And as with other methods of torture, people will say what they think they need to say to get relief. It’s not hard to see why innocent people might be more likely to confess when sleep-deprived, especially if they believe there’s other evidence out there that will later clear them. A guilty person has more incentive to endure the discomfort.
We should also be suspicious of information obtained through sleep deprivation because of what it does to the body. From Psychology Today:
One of the first symptoms of sleep deprivation in humans is a disordering of thought and bursts of irrationality. Beyond 24 hours of deprivation people suffer huge drops in cognitivefunctions like accurate memory, coherent speech, and social competence. Eventually the victims suffer hallucinations and a total break with reality.
Whatever sounds come out of people’s mouths at that point, whatever words they may seem to be saying, have to count as the least reliable kind of information one could possibly conceive. A mind tortured to that extremity will not provide anything that can be trusted as relevant to the real world. Even if the person really knew some vital bit of information (e.g., the location of a ticking time bomb), prolonged sleep deprivation will make it less likely the person could accurately and meaningfully communicate that information. Beyond a certain point the sleep deprived individual can no longer maintain enough cognitive coherence to say anything useful to anyone.
A recent study from the University of California-Irvine found that sleep deprivation can also make people susceptible to false memories, meaning that if coupled with suggestion, it not only can lead to a false confession, but also could make for a pretty convincing one.
The New Scientist article notes several cases in which a sleep-deprived suspect was later exonerated, including Damon Thibodeaux, who was wrongly imprisoned in Louisiana for 15 years. There’s also Daniel Anderson of Chicago, who spent 25 years in prison for a sleep-deprived confession. Frank Sterling served more than 18 years in a New York prison after falsely confessing to raping and killing a 74-year-old woman in 1988. His confession came after 12 straight hours of interrogation. He tried to explain what he was going through to New York magazine in 2010: “They just wore me down . . . I was just so tired. Remember, I hadn’t had any sleep since about 2:30 Tuesday night . . .“It’s like, ‘Come on, guys, I’m tired—what do you want me to do, just confess to it?’ It’s like, yeah—I wanted to get it over with, get home, and get some sleep . . . Eighteen years and nine months later, I finally get to go home.”
Sleep deprivation can even cause people to falsely admit to raping and killing their own children. ..
The example provided of the man who falsely admitted to raping and killing his own daughter is stunning. But now that prosecutors are aware of the dangers of a false confession coming from sleep deprivation, perhaps they will review the circumstances of a confession and reject confessions likely to be false—by, for example, considering whether the person confessing was sleep-deprived and revisiting the confession after she or he is rested. But it does seem that it’s not uncommon for that a prosecutor just wants a confession and a conviction and is willing to go to any length to get that without much concern about whether the person confessing is actually guilty.
Elizabeth Drew reviews some relevant books in the NY Review of Books:
2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure
by the American Society of Civil Engineers
available at infrastructurereportcard.org
Rust: The Longest War
by Jonathan Waldman
Simon and Schuster, 288 pp., $26.95
Move: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead
by Rosabeth Moss Kanter
Norton, 325 pp., $26.95
The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure
by Henry Petroski
Bloomsbury, 322 pp., $28.00
Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath
by Ted Koppel
Crown, 279 pp., $26.00
It would be helpful if there were another word for “infrastructure”: it’s such an earnest and passive word for the blood vessels of this country, the crucial conveyors and connections that get us from here to there (or not) and the ports that facilitate our trade (or don’t), as well as the carriers of information, in particular broadband (if one is connected to it), and other unreliable structures. The word “crisis” is also overused, applied to the unimportant as well as the crucial. But this country has an infrastructure crisis.
The near-total failure of our political institutions to invest for the future, eschewing what doesn’t yield the quick payoff, political and physical, has left us with hopelessly clogged traffic, at risk of being on a bridge that collapses, or on a train that flies off defective rails, or with rusted pipes carrying our drinking water. Broadband is our new interstate highway system, but not everyone has access to it—a division largely based on class. Depending on the measurement used, the United States ranks from fourteenth to thirtieth among all nations in its investments in infrastructure. The wealthiest nation on earth is nowhere near the top.
Congress’s approval last December of a five-year bill to spend $305 billion to improve the nation’s highway system occasioned much self-congratulation that the lawmakers actually got something done. But with an increase in the gasoline tax politically off-limits, the means for paying for it are dubious and uncertain. This was the longest-term highway bill passed since 1998 and the thirty-fifth extension of an authorization of highway construction since 2005. Some of the extensions of the highway program approved by Congress lasted for only three months. The previous extension was for just over three weeks. Such practices don’t allow for much planning of the construction or repair of highways and bridges and mass transit systems.
Our political myopia has put us in actual physical danger as we go about the mundane business of getting about. We let essential structures and facilities deteriorate or go unbuilt. A politician is more likely get in trouble with constituents for spending federal money than for not spending federal money. Moreover, as a rule Washington politicians, whether in office for two or four or six years, aren’t keen on spending for something that doesn’t have a near-term payoff—perhaps a structure that they can dedicate and even get their names inscribed on.
The water pipes underneath the White House are said to still be made of wood, as are some others in the nation’s capital and some cities across the country. We admire Japan’s and France’s “bullet trains” that get people to their destination with remarkable efficiency, but many other nations have them as well, including Russia, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. A friend of mine recently rode on the Turkish bullet train and noted that the coffee in his full cup didn’t spill. Last year, Japan demonstrated its new maglev train, which, using electromagnets, levitates above the tracks, and can go about an amazing 375 miles per hour, making it the fastest train in the world. The fastest commercially used maglev, in Shanghai, goes up to 288 miles per hour. But the United States hasn’t a single system that meets all the criteria of high-speed rail. President Obama has proposed a system of high-speed railroads, which has gone nowhere in Congress.
When it comes to providing the essentials of a modern society, it has to be said that we’re a backward country. California Governor Jerry Brown, a longtime visionary, has initiated the building of a high-speed rail system between Los Angeles and San Francisco; one high-speed rail system scheduled to come into service soon to carry people between the wealthy cities of Dallas and Houston will be privately financed. (Shopping and business made easier.) But not many communities have the means to build their own train.
Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) conducts a study of where the United States stands in providing needed infrastructure in various sectors. Though the organization obviously has an interest in the creation of more construction jobs, its analyses, based as they are on information from other studies, are taken seriously by nonpartisan experts in the field. In the ASCE’s most recent report card, issued in 2013, the combined sectors received an overall grade of D+. In the various sectors, the grades were: aviation, D; bridges, C+; inland waterways, D–; ports, C; rail, C+; roads, D; mass transit, D; schools, D; hazardous waste, D; drinking water, D. No sector received an A. That none of the infrastructure categories received an F is hardly grounds for celebration.
The ASCE says that the estimated need of support for America’s infrastructure by 2020 is $3.6 trillion. Total spending at current levels is estimated by the ASCE to be $253 billion annually and estimated spending between 2013 and 2020, before passage of the highway bill, is estimated at $2 trillion, leaving us $1.6 trillion short.
We watched in horror in August 2007 when during the evening rush hour a bridge in Minneapolis over the Mississippi River collapsed, killing thirteen people and injuring another 145. In Washington State in 2013 a bridge with two cars on it collapsed. TheASCE’s 2013 report card said that one in nine bridges was structurally deficient; that as of 2013 the average age of the nation’s 607,380 bridges was forty-two years, while the Federal Highway Administration estimates that “more than 30 percent of existing bridges have exceeded their fifty-year design life.” According to the ASCE, to have safe bridges by 2028, the US needs to invest $20.5 billion per year, but current spending annually on bridges is $12.8 billion.
As for aviation, the report said, “The national cost of airport congestion and delays was almost $22 billion in 2012.” Inland waterways, which get little attention, are, the ASCEsays, “the hidden backbone of our freight network,” carrying “the equivalent of about 51 million truck trips each year.” But the waterways haven’t been updated since the 1950s and because half of the locks, according to the ASCE, are over fifty years old, barges have to be stopped for hours each day, “preventing goods from getting to market and driving up costs.”
As for ports, critical to the US as a trading nation, a few have been built by private investment through port authorities—some of these, as has been apparent in New Jersey, can get enmeshed in petty local politics; but dredging to accommodate large vessels is paid for in large part by the federal government and federal spending for that has decreased.
The recently enacted highway bill will make only a dent in the needed roadway construction. According to the ASCE, 42 percent of American major urban highways remain congested, costing the US economy roughly $101 billion in wasted time and fuel annually. As of 2013, the report said, 32 percent of America’s major roads were “in poor or mediocre condition.” As a result of congestion, according to the ASCE, Americans wasted 1.9 billion gallons of gasoline and an average of thirty-four hours in 2010, and the cost to the US economy of wasted fuel was $101 billion. But the mass transit we now have far from makes up for the road conditions, and isn’t available to an estimated 45 percent of American households; millions more have inadequate mass transit systems. The report said that “deficient and deteriorating transit systems cost the US economy $90 billion in 2010.” At the time of the report, the Federal Transit Administration estimated a backlog of nearly $78 billion in maintaining mass transit.
Perhaps a step forward was taken in . . .
What we see is a country in decline, the US moving in the direction of a third-world country with terrible infrastructure, widespread poverty, and an enormously wealthy controlling elite that treats their own country as a colony to exploited.
UPDATE: It occurs to me that such third-world countries, like the US, have a heavy emphasis on security, in their case to protect the elite, not the people, who are often victims of the security services: a strong military, police forces without accountability, even death squads, which fortunately the US so far lacks.
The US has been bombarded for decades with statement and arguments about the benefits of capitalism, how it fosters innovation and efficiency and entrepreneurship, but we see much less about the costs. Most people are aware that there is no such thing as a free lunch (a sentiment capitalists in general strongly endorse), but we don’t often get a direct look at the tab we run up eating capitalism’s lunch. We see glimpses: the high price and low quality of care (in general) at for-profit hospitals compared to non-profit hospitals, the communities devastated and sometimes destroyed when a corporation moves all the jobs to some region that pays lower wages (thus boosting corporate profits), and so on.
In The Chronicle of Higher Education Steve Kolowich inteviews Marc Edwards, who describes the costs of the capitalizing of science in academia:
When Marc Edwards opens his mouth, dangerous things come out.
In 2003 the Virginia Tech civil-engineering professor said that there was lead in the Washington, D.C., water supply, and that the city had been poisoning its residents. He was right.
Last fall he said there was lead in the water in Flint, Mich., despite the reassurances of state and local authorities that the water was safe. He was right about that, too.
Working with residents of Flint, Mr. Edwards led a study that revealed that the elevated lead levels in people’s homes were not isolated incidents but a result of a systemic problem that had been ignored by state scientists. He has since been appointed to a task force to help fix those problems in Flint. In a vote of confidence, residents last month tagged a local landmark with a note to the powers that be: “You want our trust??? We want Va Tech!!!”
But being right in these cases has not made Mr. Edwards happy. Vindicated or not, the professor says his trials over the last decade and a half have cost him friends, professional networks, and thousands of dollars of his own money.
The infrastructural problems go beyond the public utilities of certain American cities, he says. In an interview with The Chronicle, Mr. Edwards said that the systems built to support scientists do not reward moral courage and that the university pipeline contains toxins of its own — which, if ignored, will corrode public faith in science.
The following interview has been edited and condensed.
Q. I just came back from Flint, and it may not come as a surprise to you that you’re something of a folk hero there. What do you think about that?
A. It’s a natural byproduct of science conducted as a public good. Normal people really appreciate good science that’s done in their interest. They stepped forward as citizen scientists to explore what was happening to them and to their community, we provided some funding and the technical and analytical expertise, and they did all the work. I think that work speaks for itself.
Q. Scientific studies by university-affiliated researchers, namely you and Mona Hanna-Attisha, were a big part of what broke this case open. On the other hand, it took a Flint resident writing to a professor in Virginia to start the process of finding out that there was lead in the drinking water. Do you see this as an academic success story or a cautionary tale?
A. I am very concerned about the culture of academia in this country and the perverse incentives that are given to young faculty. The pressures to get funding are just extraordinary. We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill — pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index— and the idea of science as a public good is being lost.
This is something that I’m upset about deeply. I’ve kind of dedicated my career to try to raise awareness about this. I’m losing a lot of friends. People don’t want to hear this. But we have to get this fixed, and fixed fast, or else we are going to lose this symbiotic relationship with the public. They will stop supporting us.
Q. Do you have any sense that perverse incentive structures prevented scientists from exposing the problem in Flint sooner?
A. Yes, I do. In Flint the agencies paid to protect these people weren’t solving the problem. They were the problem. What faculty person out there is going to take on their state, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency?
I don’t blame anyone, because I know the culture of academia. You are your funding network as a professor. You can destroy that network that took you 25 years to build with one word. I’ve done it. When was the last time you heard anyone in academia publicly criticize a funding agency, no matter how outrageous their behavior? We just don’t do these things.
If an environmental injustice is occurring, someone in a government agency is not doing their job. Everyone we wanted to partner said, Well, this sounds really cool, but we want to work with the government. We want to work with the city. And I’m like, You’re living in a fantasy land, because these people are the problem.
Q. Now that your hypothesis has been vindicated, and the government has its tail between its legs, a lot of researchers are interested.
A. And I hope that they’re interested for the right reasons. But there’s now money — a lot of money — on the table.
Q. Not as much as some of them would like. I heard a lot of people say they thought that a zero might have been missing from the grant moneythat the University of Michigan made available.
A. Right. But the expectation is that there’s tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars that are going to be made available by these agencies. And some part of that will be directed toward research, so we now have a financial incentive to get involved. I hate to sound cynical about it. I know these folks have good intentions. But it doesn’t change the fact that, Where were we as academics for all this time before it became financially in our interest to help? Where were we?
Q. Now, of course, when you walk around Flint and ask people about the reassurances they’re hearing now, they don’t believe anybody. When is it appropriate for academics to be skeptical of an official narrative when that narrative is coming from scientific authorities? Surely the answer can’t be “all of the time.”
A. I’m really surprised how emotional this interview is making me, and I’ve given several hundred interviews. What these agencies did in [the Washington, D.C., case] was the most fundamental betrayal of public trust that I’ve ever seen. When I realized what they had done, as a scientist, I was just outraged and appalled.
I grew up worshiping at the altar of science, and in my wildest dreams I never thought scientists would behave this way. The only way I can construct a worldview that accommodates this is to say, These people are unscientific. Science should be about pursuing the truth and helping people. If you’re doing it for any other reason, you really ought to question your motives.
Unfortunately, in general, academic research and scientists in this country are no longer deserving of the public trust. We’re not.
Q. I think of that rock with the spray paint on it that says, “You want our trust??? We want Va Tech!!!” That’s a vote of confidence in you at the expense of confidence in anybody else. Is that a happy piece of graffiti in your eyes? . . .