The peril of being a fairy tale hero

The peril of being a fairy tale hero

The peril of being a fairy tale hero

International Women’s Day – Women earn less

Women earn less

Women earn less

As today is the day, I was invited to express with my own metaphoric tools, the condition of the woman in today’s workplace. I was asked, more particularly by the editor to emphesise the discrepancy in salaries between women and men. My reply to him, above.

Hidden truths behind China’s smokescreen

Hidden truths behind China’s smokescreen

Hidden truths behind China’s smokescreen

‘When countries become richer, do they pollute their environment more or less?’

Tim Harford

The pictures from Beijing tell their own story: pollution there is catastrophic. Bad news for residents, and awkward for me too. Just over a decade ago, I wrote a book, The Undercover Economist, which among many other things cheerfully asserted that particulate air pollution in urban China was sharply falling as the country grew richer. It’s a claim I believed at the time (based on well-regarded research in the 2002 Journal of Economic Perspectives) but with each new report of smog over China, I felt a nagging sense that I had led readers astray. I figured it was time to do some more research and to set the record straight.

There is a broader question here. When countries become richer, do they pollute their environment more or less? For a while it seemed obvious that pollution and riches went hand in hand: industrialised nations spewed out more of everything.

But then the leading countries began to crack down on pollution. London no longer suffers from smog. The European Union reduced sulphur dioxide emissions by more than 80 per cent between 1990 and 2011. At the same time, the United States has reduced atmospheric lead by 98 per cent.

In the early 1990s, Princeton economists Gene Grossman and Alan Krueger coined the phrase “environmental Kuznets curve” to stand for the idea that as countries become richer, their emissions first rise but then fall, as richer citizens demand cleaner air from the governments they elect and the companies from whom they buy. There’s some evidence that this is true but it’s hard to interpret that evidence. An optimistic view is that countries reduce pollution with or without economic growth because they can use clean technologies developed elsewhere. If true, China may be able to clean up its air faster than we’d expect.

A grimmer possibility is that the richer countries aren’t really reducing pollution — they are exporting it, by banning dirty factories at home while happily buying from dirty factories abroad. On this view, China is unlikely to be able to clean its air any time soon.

How serious a problem is offshoring pollution? It’s not trivial. In 2007, Joseph Aldy of Harvard’s Kennedy School published research showing clear evidence of this pollution-export effect within the US. Richer states seemed to be emitting less carbon dioxide per person as their economies grew. Alas, Aldy concluded that the effect could be explained entirely by the rich having bought their electricity from poorer states rather than generating it at home. A more recent study (Peters, Minx, Weber and Edenhofer 2011) estimated that by 2008, developed countries were net importers from developing countries of goods whose production represented about 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, roughly 5 per cent of the global emissions total. No prizes for guessing that much of this energy-intensive manufacturing is taking place in China, alongside the production of steel, cement and coal-fired electricity for domestic use.

The dreadful air quality in Beijing, then, is no mystery. First, China is not yet rich, so it may be on the wrong side of the environmental Kuznets curve anyway, the side where pollution has not yet begun to fall. Second, China is not a democracy, and that will partially dampen the power of its citizens to demand cleaner air. Third, China is a major exporter of manufactured goods.

But as I stood ready to pen my correction, I realised something: I didn’t actually have a time series for air pollution in urban China. I could see that things were bad but not what the trend was.

“The challenge with particulates is that we keep changing what we want to measure and regulate,” Aldy told me. Researchers now track PM2.5, very fine particles thought to be particularly hazardous to health; but, in 1985, when my original data series began, nobody was collecting PM2.5 data.

So how much worse have things got in China? I called Jostein Nygard of the World Bank, who has been working on Chinese air pollution issues for more than two decades, and I was surprised at his response: in many ways, China’s urban air quality has improved.

Sulphur dioxide is down and coarser particulate matter is also down since good records began in 2000 — a fact that is explained by Chinese efforts to install sulphur scrubbers and to move large pollution sources away from the cities. “You could see the air quality improving through the 1980s and 1990s and to the 2000s,” says Nygard. PM2.5 is very bad, he says — but not necessarily worse than 10 years ago, and serious efforts are now under way to track it and reduce it.

To my surprise, not quite a correction at all, then. But if local air pollution in China is actually on an improving track, how come we see so many stories about pollution in China? One reason, of course, is that the situation remains serious. Another is that the Chinese government itself seems to be using smog alerts as a way to send a message to local power brokers that clean air is a priority. But there is also the question of what counts as news: sudden outbreaks of smog are newsworthy. Slow, steady progress is not.

Written for and first published at ft.com.

Identity crisis

 

Identity crisis

Identity crisis

Here is my humble contribution for the mighty struggle for some sanity in these horrific republican party presidential primaries.

Good luck to us all.

The prison within

Self incarceration

Self incarceration

We all seem to recognize our limits and limitations in the outside world, yet we find it more difficult to observe our own limitations and the hurdles we provide ourselves on our way to fulfill our own potential.

These two images accompanied Shlomo Artzis weekly column, writing about Ehud Olmert. Former Israeli prime minister and a convicted criminal who started his jail term last week.

Self incarceration

Self incarceration

 

Can Our Minds Live Forever?

Can a brain’s connectome be preserved forever?

By Michael Shermer , SKEPTIC, on February 1, 2016

Can Our Minds Live Forever?

Can Our Minds Live Forever?

The soul is the pattern of information that represents you—your thoughts, memories and personality—your self. There is no scientific evidence that something like soul stuff exists beyond the brain’s own hardwiring, so I was curious to visit the laboratories of 21st Century Medicine in Fontana, Calif., to see for myself an attempt to preserve a brain’s connectome—the comprehensive diagram of all neural synaptic connections.

This medical research company specializes in the cryopreservation of human organs and tissues using cryoprotectants (antifreeze). In 2009, for example, the facility’s chief research scientist Gregory M. Fahy published a paper in the peer-reviewed journal Organogenesis, documenting how his team successfully transplanted a rewarmed rabbit kidney after it had been cryoprotected and frozen to −135 degrees Celsius through the process of vitrification, “in which the liquids in a living system are converted into the glassy state at low temperatures.”

Can brains be so preserved? Fahy and his colleague Robert L. McIntyre are now developing techniques that they hope will win the Brain Preservation Technology Prize, the brainchild of neuroscientist Kenneth Hayworth (I’m on their advisory board as the advocatus diaboli). As I write this, the prize is currently valued at more than $106,000; the first 25 percent of the award will be for the complete preservation of the synaptic structure of a whole mouse brain, and the other 75 percent will go to the first team “to successfully preserve a whole large animal brain in a manner that could also be adopted for humans in a hospital or hospice setting immediately upon clinical death.”

I witnessed the infusion of a rabbit brain through its carotid arteries with a fixative agent called glutaraldehyde, which binds proteins together into a solid gel. The brain was then removed and saturated in ethylene glycol, a cryoprotective agent eliminating ice formation and allowing safe storage at −130 degrees C as a glasslike, inert solid. At that temperature, chemical reactions are so attenuated that it could be stored for millennia. If successful, would it be proof of concept?

Think of a book in epoxy resin hardened into a solid block of plastic, McIntyre told me. “You’re never going to open the book again, but if you can prove that the epoxy doesn’t dissolve the ink the book is written with, you can demonstrate that all the words in the book must still be there … and you might be able to carefully slice it apart, scan in all the pages, and print/bind a new book with the same words.” Hayworth tells me that the rabbit brain circuitry he examined through a 3-D scanning electron microscope “looks well preserved, undamaged, and it is easy to trace the synaptic connections between the neurons.”

This sounds promising, but I have my doubts. Is a connectome precisely analogous to a program that can be uploaded in machine-readable format into a computer? Would a connectome so preserved and uploaded into a computer be the same as awakening after sleep or unconsciousness? Plus, there are around 86 billion neurons in a human brain with often 1,000 or more synaptic connections for each one, for a total of 100 trillion connections to be accurately preserved and replicated. Staggering complexity. And this doesn’t include the rest of the nervous system outside the brain, which is also part of your self that you might want resurrected.

Hayworth admitted to me that a “future of uploaded posthumans is probably centuries away.” Nevertheless, he adds, “as an atheist and unabashed materialist neuroscientist, I am virtually certain that mind uploading is possible.” Why? Because “our best neuroscience models say that all these perceptual and sensorimotor memories are stored as static changes in the synapses between neurons,” which is what connectomics is designed to record and preserve, allowing us to “‘hit pause’ for a few centuries if we need to.” Imagine a world in which “the fear of death, disease and aging would have been mostly removed,” he says.

It sounds utopian, but there’s something deeply moving in this meliorism. “I refuse to accept that the human race will stop technological and scientific progress,” Hayworth told me. “We are destined to eventually replace our biological bodies and minds with optimally designed synthetic ones. And the result will be a far healthier, smarter and happier race of posthumans poised to explore and colonize the universe.”

Per audacia ad astra.

Update (2/9/16): On January 29, 2016, Robert McIntyre and Greg Fahy won the Small Mammal Brain Preservation Prize for their work preserving rabbit brains. The winning rabbit brain was in fact the one that this author witnessed while writing this article. The prize committee’s evaluation of 21st Century Medicine’s rabbit brain can be found here and the scientific paper describing the winning technique can be found here. Robert McIntyre has since gone on to start a neuroscience company called Nectome to further develop aldehyde-atabilized cryopreservation.

 

Biometric banking

Your inevitable private account in the biometric bank is now open. yet you are not its owner.

This drawing occupied a double spread in G magazine, accompanying an article which covered the reality of our very personal and unique biological assets being translated into numbers. These details are then stored and precariously ‘protected for our own benefit’ by mere humans like ourselves who suffer from the same vulnerabilities of curiosity, fear, greed, delusionary dreams of power and abuse. I could think of a better investment for my private parts…

Biometric bank AW

Biometric bank (Detail)

Biometric bank (Detail)

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