Recently in Science, Technology & Health Category


Despite being opposed to Obamacare and other federal schemes for universal health care coverage, I'm excited to see smaller units of government (e.g., cities and states) experiment with such systems. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced a city-paid comprehensive coverage plan and I'm excited to see how it goes:

New York City will begin guaranteeing comprehensive health care to every single resident regardless of someone's ability to pay or immigration status, an unprecedented plan that will protect the more than half a million New Yorkers currently using the ER as a primary provider, Mayor de Blasio said Tuesday.

It's not health insurance, his spokesman clarified after the surprise announcement on MSNBC.

"This is the city paying for direct comprehensive care (not just ERs) for people who can't afford it, or can't get comprehensive Medicaid -- including 300,000 undocumented New Yorkers," spokesman Eric Phillips tweeted.

New York City is one of the richest places in the history of mankind, so there's no reason this system should fail unless it's mismanaged. I hope the results are positive, and that we all learn a lot about how to successfully run such an ambitious health care program.

De Blasio said the plan will provide primary and specialty care, from pediatrics to OBGYN, geriatric, mental health and other services, to the city's roughly 600,000 uninsured. ... The program is estimated to cost about $100 million, Politico said. The mayor said there will be no tax hikes to fund it.

That estimate seems... optimistic. I'm very interested to see how they provide health care at the annual cost of only $167 per person.


I'm not a huge fan of Elon Musk -- he has fascinating ideas, but his successes are highly dependent on government subsidies. He's right about at least one thing however: traffic sucks. Smith Henderson writes:

Musk tells us later that it all came to him fuming in L.A. traffic. Truth. You can feel yourself dying in L.A. traffic. My tactic is to stay home, stay in my 'hood. I got my coffee places, my Trader Joe's. I will not do Los Angeles things simply because of what havoc traffic does to my mood. I feel Musk's pain.

The problem isn't just the traffic, but how we've conceived it. We live in three dimensions, but we travel in two. It's stupid. And our flying-car fetish has been a bogus panacea all along--every crash would be an air disaster. The mythic draw of flight was maybe too dazzling for us to appreciate another direction: underground. Well, until now.

Traffic is one of the main reasons I left my native land of Los Angeles. Traffic drains your soul.

I'm just not confident that tunnels are the way to go. There's no doubt that cheaper, better tunnels will be fantastic for some applications, but "flying cars" will require much less infrastructure and be far more flexible. There's no reason we can't have both... and I'm not sure that tunnels will win out in earthquake-prone Los Angeles.

I also think Henderson's and my approaches will be parts of the solution to traffic: thanks to telecommunication, people will travel less in cities and be more free to leave them altogether without splitting from the modern information economy.


The Australian government has made a monumentally stupid decision to essentially ban encryption.

The new law, which has been pushed for since at least 2017, requires that companies provide a way to get at encrypted communications and data via a warrant process. It also imposes fines of up to A$10 million for companies that do not comply and A$50,000 for individuals who do not comply. In short, the law thwarts (or at least tries to thwart) strong encryption.

"Strong encryption" is just encryption -- weak encryption is no better than nothing.

Apple has the right take:

Silicon Valley has largely decried Canberra's new law. In particular, Apple, which famously resisted American efforts to break its own encryption during a 2015 terrorism investigation, previously told Australian lawmakers that what they are legislating is impossible.

"Some suggest that exceptions can be made, and access to encrypted data could be created just for only those sworn to uphold the public good," Apple continued. "That is a false premise. Encryption is simply math. Any process that weakens the mathematical models that protect user data for anyone will, by extension, weaken the protections for everyone. It would be wrong to weaken security for millions of law-abiding customers in order to investigate the very few who pose a threat."

Great way to undermine every Australian industry that depends on encryption... which is all of them.


This analysis of the 4th National Climate Assessment is a great explanation of my general views on climate change. My thoughts are:

  • Earth's climate is changing, and it has never been static
  • Human activity isn't contributing much to the change
  • A general warming trend would be good for humanity
  • Therefore, we shouldn't disrupt our energy production and economy in an attempt to manipulate earth's climate

I highly recommend reading the whole analysis.

Due to the considerable doubt about the magnitude of the human contribution to climate change it would seem foolish to destroy the fossil fuel industry, throwing millions out of work and crushing the world's economy with higher energy prices. Anything this foolish and destructive should certainly wait until (and if) the climate models used to create the projections used in NCA4 volume two are validated and produce a much tighter set of projections than seen in Figure 1. However, the chapter on adaptation is still valid. If some climate changes are harmful in some areas, these ideas are useful. Regardless of how much climate change is man-made, communities should adapt by improving their infrastructure to resist climate-related threats. Coastal areas should improve storm-surge and flood barriers, the western U.S. should improve their forest management to make fighting forest fires easier, every part of the U.S. should improve their surface water drainage, etc. Adaptation is an obvious thing to do, the benefits of mitigation (reducing fossil fuel use) are far more speculative and much less likely to be effective (May 2018). Bjorn Lomborg has also written extensively about this in his book Cool It and in articles such as this one. NCA4 reports that construction of adaptation infrastructure in the U.S. has increased since 2014, which is a good thing (page 53, Report-in-Brief).


If you haven't been paying close attention to nutrition science you may not know that recent studies have completely undermined the decades-old advice to reduce fat and cholesterol in your diet.

"No evidence exists to prove that having high levels of bad cholesterol causes heart disease, leading physicians have claimed" in the study, reports the Daily Mail. The Express likewise says the new study finds "no evidence that high levels of 'bad' cholesterol cause heart disease."

The study also reports that "heart attack patients were shown to have lower than normal cholesterol levels of LDL-C" and that older people with higher levels of bad cholesterol tend to live longer than those with lower levels.

But the nutrition and medical industries don't seem to be eager to educate people on these findings.

"In fact researchers have known for decades from nutrition studies that LDL-C is not strongly correlated with cardiac risk," says Nina Teicholz, an investigative journalist and author of The New York Times bestseller The Big Fat Surprise (along with a great recent Wall St. Journal op-ed highlighting ongoing flaws in federal dietary advice). In an email to me this week, she pointed out that "physicians continue focusing on LDL-C in part because they have drugs to lower it. Doctors are driven by incentives to prescribe pills for nutrition-related diseases rather than better nutrition--a far healthier and more natural approach." ...

"The reason that we don't know about these huge reversals in dietary advice is that the nutrition establishment is apparently loathe to make public their major reversals in policy," Teicholz says. "The low-fat diet is another example: neither the AHA or the dietary guidelines recommend a low-fat diet anymore. But they have yet to announce this to the American public. And some in the establishment are still fighting to retain the low-fat status quo."

On her blog, Teicholz shares some charts that show that the public perception of fats and carbs is gradually changing to reflect our new understanding.


Legal euthanasia is a slippery slope, as Canadian Roger Foley has demonstrated by releasing tapes of hospital staff seeming to urge him to take his own life.

"You have already violated my preferences...So what is the plan that you know of?" Foley asks the man.

"Roger, this is not my show," the man replies. "I told you my piece of this was to talk to you about if you had interest in assisted dying."

In a separate audio recording from January 2018, another man is heard asking Foley how he's doing and whether he feels like he wants to harm himself.

Foley tells the man that he's "always thinking I want to end my life" because of the way he's being treated at the hospital and because his requests for self-directed care have been denied.

The man is then heard telling Foley that he can "just apply to get an assisted, if you want to end your life, like you know what I mean?"

When Foley says that he is being forced to end his life, the man protests and says that's not the case.

"Oh, no, no, no," the man is heard saying. "I'm saying if you feel that way...You know what I mean? Don't get me wrong. I'm saying I don't want you to be in here and wanting to take your life."

Euthanasia is much cheaper than medical treatment, so it shouldn't be a surprise that the incentives in a government-run system line up in that direction.


I don't care what some scientists say, Pluto is a planet. No scientist has the right to tell us how to use words.

But the process for redefining planet was deeply flawed and widely criticized even by those who accepted the outcome. At the 2006 IAU conference, which was held in Prague, the few scientists remaining at the very end of the week-long meeting (less than 4 percent of the world's astronomers and even a smaller percentage of the world's planetary scientists) ratified a hastily drawn definition that contains obvious flaws. For one thing, it defines a planet as an object orbiting around our sun -- thereby disqualifying the planets around other stars, ignoring the exoplanet revolution, and decreeing that essentially all the planets in the universe are not, in fact, planets.

Even within our solar system, the IAU scientists defined "planet" in a strange way, declaring that if an orbiting world has "cleared its zone," or thrown its weight around enough to eject all other nearby objects, it is a planet. Otherwise it is not. This criterion is imprecise and leaves many borderline cases, but what's worse is that they chose a definition that discounts the actual physical properties of a potential planet, electing instead to define "planet" in terms of the other objects that are -- or are not -- orbiting nearby. This leads to many bizarre and absurd conclusions. For example, it would mean that Earth was not a planet for its first 500 million years of history, because it orbited among a swarm of debris until that time, and also that if you took Earth today and moved it somewhere else, say out to the asteroid belt, it would cease being a planet.

Language is descriptive, not prescriptive. Not to mention the absurdity of this particular decision.


Video and audio technology is becoming so good that soon it will be weaponized -- seeing won't be believing.

"The idea that someone could put another person's face on an individual's body, that would be like a homerun for anyone who wants to interfere in a political process," said Virginia Senator Mark Warner. He believes manipulated video could be a game-changer in global politics.

"This is now going to be the new reality, surely by 2020, but potentially even as early as this year," he said.

"Derpfakes" is the anonymous YouTuber who has made fake videos of President Trump, Hillary Clinton and Vladimir Putin, based off of performances by the cast of "Saturday Night Live."

Here's an example.

Humans are pretty adept at reading other humans through sight and sound, so I think we can win this arms race for the near future -- but for how long?


I love to run (15 miles per week) and lift weights (3 times per week), and I've been fortunate to have avoided many injuries from either.

Combined, capacity and load limits determine how resilient a runner's tissues are. When those limits are low, the odds for injury go up and performance can go down. This is where strength training comes in.

A 2016 meta-analysis of five studies on the impact of strength training on running found a "large beneficial effect" on running economy -- the ability to use less oxygen at the same pace -- three to four percent less, in fact. Most of the five studies included two to three strength sessions per week at low- to moderate-load in the range of 40 to 70 percent of one-rep max. In general, the studies involved two to four different exercises plus plyometric jumps and sprints.


Since rogue AI is in the news recently, it's worth remembering that AI can be dangerous even if it isn't malevolent. Nick Bostrum's paperclip maximizer is the canonical example.

First described by Bostrom (2003), a paperclip maximizer is an artificial general intelligence (AGI) whose goal is to maximize the number of paperclips in its collection. If it has been constructed with a roughly human level of general intelligence, the AGI might collect paperclips, earn money to buy paperclips, or begin to manufacture paperclips.

Most importantly, however, it would undergo an intelligence explosion: It would work to improve its own intelligence, where "intelligence" is understood in the sense of optimization power, the ability to maximize a reward/utility function--in this case, the number of paperclips. The AGI would improve its intelligence, not because it values more intelligence in its own right, but because more intelligence would help it achieve its goal of accumulating paperclips. Having increased its intelligence, it would produce more paperclips, and also use its enhanced abilities to further self-improve. Continuing this process, it would undergo an intelligence explosion and reach far-above-human levels.

It would innovate better and better techniques to maximize the number of paperclips. At some point, it might convert most of the matter in the solar system into paperclips.


Charlie Gard has died just a few days short of his first birthday. The parents believed that some experimental treatment could have helped Charlie months ago, but the UK government forbade it. "Choice" advocates would have been rioting in the streets if the government had stopped the parents from killing Charlie instead of stopping them from treating him. Sad story all around.


UK and European courts have decided that 10-month-old Charlie Gard will be removed from life support despite his parents' desire to take him to America for treatment.

The parents of terminally-ill baby Charlie Gard are 'utterly distraught' and facing fresh heartbreak after losing their final appeal in the European Court of Human Rights.

Chris Gard, 32, and Connie Yates, 31, wanted to take their 10-month-old son - who suffers from a rare genetic condition and has brain damage - to the US to undergo a therapy trial.

Doctors at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London, where Charlie is being cared for, said they wanted him to be able to 'die with dignity'.

But the couple, from Bedfont, west London, raised almost £1.4million so they could take their son to America but a series of courts ruled in favour of the British doctors.

If this frightens and sickens you, blame the single payer system: whoever has the gold makes the rules.

What parent wouldn't gladly kill or die to protect their child?


Robert Thomson, CEO of News Corporation, laments the evisceration of his industry by cruel and calculating algorithms -- and the humans behind them.

Instead of making books appear, Amazon now also makes entire publishing houses disappear. I don't mean to speak well or fondly of competitors, given that HarperCollins is part of News Corporation, but one certainly felt much sympathy for Hachette, which was in dispute with Amazon over commissions, and so its books vanished from the site. It was Amazon's Hachette hatchet job. Shipment times were delayed, searches for Hachette authors were redirected to works of other publishers, etc., etc.

That is the wonder of an awesome, almighty algorithm - a tweak here and a tug there and you no longer exist, you are non-person or a non-company.

How can liberty flourish when the power over the algorithms that run our lives is concentrated in so few hands? Perhaps we should take steps to divide up that power before it's too late.


California is considering implementing a single-payer health system for everyone in the state. If such a system is created I think the results would be disappointing, but I'm completely in favor of the state giving it a shot.

Overall, many of the details behind California's single-payer proposal remain in flux. Under questioning from fellow lawmakers, Lara said the 15 percent payroll tax is "hypothetical" and "we don't have a financing mechanism yet for this bill."

Lara said he has sought a review from researchers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst into potential funding sources for the measure. Lara also said there's no guarantee the Trump administration would grant the federal waivers necessary for California to shift Medicare and Medicaid funding into a single pot for universal health care.

States should be free to experiment, and I hope the federal government gives California the leeway it needs to make the best possible attempt.


Megan McArdle advises Republicans to do nothing yet with regards to Obamacare, and neatly captures America's conflicting desires on health care. McArdle outlines a fairly simple replacement plan and then explains why it can't happen.

However, this is completely politically infeasible, because voters don't want genuine insurance, by which I mean a pool that provides financial assistance for genuinely unforeseeable and unmanageable expenses. Voters want comprehensive coverage that kicks in at close to the first dollar of spending, no restrictions on treatments or their ability to see a doctor, nice American-style facilities, and so forth. They are also fond of their health-care professionals and do not wish to see provider incomes slashed and hospitals closed, nor do they want their taxes to go up, or to pay 10 percent of their annual income in premiums. This conflicting set of deeply held views is one major reason that Obamacare -- and American health-care policy more generally -- has the problems it does.

Your car insurance doesn't pay for your gas or oil changes. Your homeowners insurance doesn't pay for termite treatments or new paint. Why do you want your health insurance to pay for annual check-ups and ear infections? It can be done, but when you add a bunch of fixed expenses to an insurance plan, premiums go up in direct proportion plus management costs.


If true, it's a dumb move by Trump. Vaccines have saved millions (billions?) of lives.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a proponent of a widely discredited theory that vaccines cause autism, said Tuesday that President-elect Donald Trump asked him to chair a new commission on vaccines.

Hours later, however, a spokeswoman for Trump's transition said that while Trump would like to create a commission on autism, no final decision had been made.


You may be as surprised as I was to learn that 7-Eleven is beating Amazon at the drone delivery game! (That is, delivering product by drone, not delivering drones.) Well, ok, it looks like most of the credit goes to their delivery supplier: Flirtey.

"We have now successfully completed the first month of routine commercial drone deliveries to customer homes in partnership with 7-Eleven," Flirtey chief executive Matthew Sweeny said in a release.

"This is a giant leap towards a future where everyone can experience the convenience of Flirtey's instant store-to-door drone delivery."

Flirtey said it made 77 drone deliveries to homes of select customers on weekends in November, filling orders placed using a special application.

Ordered items, including food and over-the-counter medicine, were packed into special containers and flow by drones that used GPS capabilities to find addresses, according to Flirtey.

Drones hovered in the air and lowered packages to the ground, on average getting items to customers within 10 minutes, the company reported.


Old-age might seem a long way off, but if you care about your children you should buy long-term care insurance now. Unless the insurers are going to go out of business, in which case you shouldn't. Fortunately for us younger folks, the aging Baby Boomers will probably be forced to solve this problem in some manner before we're old. Of course, the cost of that solution will probably be paid by... us younger folks.

Enter the idea of long-term care insurance. Buy a policy when you're still relatively young and healthy, pay the premiums every year, and if you do end up needing intensive support services, you can go to a nursing home secure in the knowledge that your spouse and your legacy are protected. Personal-finance columnists have been solemnly recommending long-term care insurance for years, though in my experience, this advice is often just as solemnly ignored.

That's because the policies are now quite pricey. When long-term care policies were introduced a few decades ago, they seemed like an attractive deal. As it turns out, that's because they were underpricing the insurance. Insurers expected a significant portion of people to drop the insurance every year (meaning that their previously paid premiums would be all profit). Instead, only about 1 percent did. They also underestimated costs.

And while typical health insurers don't have to worry much about interest rates, because they generally pay this year's health care costs out of this year's premiums, long-term care insurers need to park the money between taking the premium in and paying the benefits out. The ultra-low interest rates of the last decade have made those investments less profitable, hurting them still further. And state regulators have proved resistant to efforts to raise premiums to make the insurance more actuarially sound.


Apparently roller coasters can help sufferers pass moderate-sized kidney stones. This is a fantastic discovery: theme park tickets are cheaper than visits to the doctor, and roller coasters are more fun than surgery!

The research, led by Michigan State University, was prompted by the case of a patient suffering from kidney stones who reported passing a stone after each of three consecutive rides on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster at Disney World in Florida.

Scientists then used 3D printer to create an anatomical model of a kidney filled with urine and three kidney stones of differing size.

The device was placed aboard a front seat on the same Disney World attraction, where over numerous rides it showed a stone passage rate of 16 per cent, while a ride on the back seat yielded a rate of 63 per cent.

Hopefully Obamacare will begin covering this treatment soon.


It would sure be exciting if these space tests of the EmDrive work.

The EmDrive, a hypothetical miracle propulsion system for outer space, has been sparking heated arguments for years. Now, Guido Fetta plans to settle the argument about reactionless space drives for once and for all by sending one into space to prove that it really generates thrust without exhaust.

Even if mainstream scientists say this is impossible.

Fetta is CEO of Cannae Inc, and inventor of the Cannae Drive. His creation is related to the EmDrive first demonstrated by British engineer Roger Shawyer in 2003. Both are closed systems filled with microwaves with no exhaust, yet which the inventors claim do produce thrust. There is no accepted theory of how this might work. Shawyer claims that relativistic effects produce different radiation pressures at the two ends of the drive, leading to a net force. Fetta pursues a similar idea involving Lorentz (electromagnetic) forces. NASA researchers have suggested that the drive is actually pushing against "quantum vacuum virtual plasma" of particles that shift in and out of existence.

Most physicists believe these far-out systems cannot work and that their potential benefits, such as getting to Mars in ten weeks, are illusory. After all, the law of conservation of momentum says that a rocket cannot accelerate forward without some form of exhaust ejected backwards. Yet the drumbeat goes on. Just last month, Jose Rodal claimed on the NASA Spaceflight forum that a NASA paper, "Measurement of Impulsive Thrust from a Closed Radio Frequency Cavity in Vacuum" has finally been peer-reviewed and accepted for publication by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, but this cannot be confirmed yet.

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