I was on CBC Radio 1's Day 6 last weekend, talking about some of the reasons why scientists can't answer key questions about guns — whether current gun policies do anything to reduce violent crime, for instance, or whether more guns cause less (or more) violence. In a related debate, you should also read the article on the science of video games and real-life violence that Brandon Keim wrote for PBS' NOVA. The truth is that this branch of science also has big problems connecting cause and effect and, as with gun policy research, the best kinds of experiments can't really be done for logistical and ethical reasons. Read the rest
This is a fascinating problem that affects a lot of scientific modeling (in fact, I'll be talking about this in the second part of my series on gun violence research) — the more specific and accurate your predictions, the less reliable they sometimes become. Think about climate science. When you read the IPCC reports, what you see are predictions about what is likely to happen on a global basis, and those predictions come in the form of a range of possible outcomes. Results like that are reliable — i.e, they've matched up with observed changes. But they aren't super accurate — i.e., they don't tell you exactly what will happen, and they generally don't tell you much about what might happen in your city or your state. We have tools that can increase the specificity and accuracy, but those same tools also seem to reduce the reliability of the outcomes. At The Curious Wavefunction, Ashutosh Jogalekar explains the problem in more detail and talks about how it affects scientist's ability to give politicians and the public the kind of absolute, detailed, specific answers they really want. Read the rest
The state of gun violence research is poor, writes Maggie Koerth-Baker. Right now, whatever your beliefs on guns are, it’s incredibly difficult to back them up with any solid science at all.
I'm late getting to this (my own fault, I missed an important email), but We: Robot, the Robotics and the Law Conference at Stanford Law
School is still accepting papers until Jan 18. Last year's event was apparently smashing, and this year's CFP is quite enticing:
The following list is by no means exhaustive, but rather meant as an elaboration on conference themes:
Legal and policy responses to likely effects of robotics on manufacturing or the environment*
Perspectives on the interplay between legal frameworks and robotic software and hardware*
Intellectual property issues raised by collaboration within robotics (or with robots)*
Perspectives on collaboration between legal and technical communities*
Tort law issues, including product liability, professional malpractice, and the calculation of damages*
Administrative law issues, including FDA or FAA approval*
Privacy law and privacy enhancing technologies*
Comparative/international perspectives on robotics law*
Issues of legal and economic policy, including tax, employment, and corporate governance
In addition to scholarly papers, we invite proposals for demos of cutting-edge commercial applications of robotics or recent technical research that speaks one way or another to the immediate commercial prospects of robots.
Call For Papers: Robotics and the Law Conference at Stanford Law
School Read the rest
I was born in 1981 and, because of that, I largely missed the part of American history where our rivers were so polluted that they did things like, you know, catch fire. But it happened. And, all things considered, it didn't happen that long ago. The newspaper clippings above are from a 1952 fire on Ohio's Cuyahoga river. Between 1868 and 1969 that river burned at least 13 times.
That's something worth remembering — not just that we once let our waterways get that trashed, but also the fact that we've gone a long way towards fixing it. We took 200 years of accumulating sewage and industrial degradation and cleaned it up in the span of a single generation. At Slate, James Salzman writes about that reversal of environmental fortune, a shift so pronounced — and so dependent upon a functioning government in which a diverse spectrum of politicians recognize the importance of investing in our country's future — that it seems damned-near impossible today.
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... discharging raw sewage and pollution into our harbors and rivers has been common practice for most of the nation’s history, with devastating results. By the late 1960s, Lake Erie had become so polluted that Time magazine described it as dead. Bacteria levels in the Hudson River were 170 times above the safe limit. I can attest to the state of the Charles River in Boston. While sailing in the 1970s, I capsized and had to be treated by a dermatologist for rashes caused by contact with the germ-laden waters.
It's a familiar story line in America: the type of medical care people receive suffers because doctors are pressured to put profit before patients. In this Businessweek article, a closer look at how many prostate cancer patients may not be receiving the optimal course of treatment for their disease, because care providers can bill more for certain forms of treatment.
The article begins with the story of Max Calderon, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2010. His urologist recommended radiation therapy at a clinic in Salinas, CA. Calderon was 77 years old, lab tests suggested that his cancer had metastasized, and he was not the ideal candidate profile for the specific kind of treatment he was going to receive. Read the rest
BURN: An Energy Journal, the radio documentary series hosted by former NPR journalist Alex Chadwick, has a 2-hour election special out. It's the most powerful piece of radio journalism I've listened to since—well, since the last episode they put out. You really must do yourself a favor and set aside some time this weekend to listen to “The Power of One.”
Energy policy, defining how we use energy to power our economy and our lives, is among the most pressing issues for the next four years. In this special two-hour edition of BURN, stories about the power of one: how, in this election season, a single person, place, policy or idea can — with a boost from science — affect the nation’s search for greater energy independence.
The documentary examines how "individuals, new scientific ideas, grassroots initiatives and potentially game-changing inventions are informing the energy debate in this Presidential Election year, and redefining America’s quest for greater energy independence." It was completed and hit the air before Hurricane Sandy, but the energy issues illuminated by that disaster (blackouts, gas shortage, grid failure, backup power failure at hospitals) further underscore the urgency. Read the rest
I've written a sequel to my talk The Coming War on General Purpose Computing, called "The Coming Civil War Over General-Purpose Computing," which I'll be delivering twice this summer: first on July 28 at DEFCON in Las Vegas, and then on July 31 in San Francisco at a Long Now Foundation SALT talk, jointly presented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. As far as I know, both talks will be online, along with slides (a rarity for me -- I normally hate doing slides, but I had a good time with it this time around). Read the rest
"Test, Learn, Adapt" is a new white paper documenting the ultimate in evidence-based-policy: government policies that are improved through randomized trials. It's co-authored by Laura Haynes, Owain Service, Ben Goldacre and David Torgerson. Ben Goldacre elaborates:
We also address – and demolish – the spurious objections that people often raise against doing trials of policy (like: “surely it’s unfair to withold a new intervention from half the people in your trial?”).
Trials are widely used in medicine, in business, in international development, and even in web design. The barriers to using them in UK policy are more cultural than practical, and this document will, I hope, be a small part of a bigger battle to get better evidence into government.
More than that, the paper describes several fun examples of trials that have been conducted in UK government over just the past year, reporting both positive and negative findings. The tide is turning, and there are lots of smart people in the civil service.
Anyway, I think (I hope!) that the paper is readable and straightforward, like the Ladybird Book of Randomised Policy Trials, and I really hope you’ll enjoy reading it.
It’s free to download here.
Here’s a Cabinet Office paper I co-authored about Randomised Trials of Government Policies Read the rest
How much do you know about energy subsidies? National Geographic has a really interesting quiz that covers some of the basics, as well as a few interesting background details. Here's one freebie: The first fossil fuel subsidy in America was instituted by George Washington. It was a 10% tariff on imported coal, aimed at making American coal competitive in comparison to British coal. (Via Matt McDermott) Read the rest
The video, made by Mae Ryan for Los Angeles public radio KPCC, traces trash from a burger lunch to its ultimate fate in a landfill. It reminds me of those great, old Sesame Street videos where you got to see what goes on inside crayon factories and peanut butter processing plants. Which is to say that it is awesome.
The process you see here, though, is L.A.-centric, which started me wondering: How much does the trash system differ from one place to another in the United States?
Over the last couple years, as I researched my book on the electric system, I spent a lot of time learning about how different infrastructures developed in this country. If there's one thing I've picked up it's the simple lesson that these systems—which we are utterly dependent upon—were seldom designed. Instead, the infrastructures we use today are often the result of something more akin to evolution ... or to a house that's been remodeled and upgraded by five or six different owners. Watching this video it occurred to me that there's no reason to think that the trash system in place in L.A. has all that much in common with the one in Minneapolis. In fact, it could well be completely different from the trash system in San Francisco.
I'd love to see more videos showing the same story in different places. Know of any others you can point me toward?
Suggested by maeryan on Submitterator
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Lee sez, "The next generation of robots will be in homes, offices and hospitals, not to mention driving cars, flying around as drones, and, yes, working as prison wardens. Robots will be programmed to learn, and will exhibit emergent behavior not necessarily contemplated by their designers. What happens when good robots do bad things? Who is responsible? And what ethical and legal constraints should be considered at the design stage so that the robotics industry does not become the next full employment opportunity for lawyers? What kinds of public policies should we put in place to encourage the smart deployment of robots, striking the right balance between encouraging innovation and safety? These are the kinds of questions to be examined at We Robot, "an inaugural conference on law and policy relating to robotics" at the University of Miami School of Law on April 21 & 22, 2012. The We Robot call for papers, and a parallel call for live-from-the-frontlines-of-design reports from robot-makers, is open for initial expressions of interest until Jan. 12, 2012.
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Topics of interest for the scholarly paper portion of the conference include but are not limited to:
* Effect of robotics on the workplace, e.g. small businesses, hospitals, and other contexts where robots and humans work side-by-side.
* Regulatory and licensing issues raised by robots in the home, the office, in public spaces (e.g. roads), and in specialized environments such as hospitals.
* Design of legal rules that will strike the right balance between encouraging innovation and safety, particularly in the context of autonomous robots.
* Issues of legal or moral responsibility, e.g.
My latest Guardian column is "Movie fans turn to piracy when the online cupboard is bare," a report on the Open Rights Group's study of the lawful options for people who want to watch great British movies online. The UK government and courts keep ratcheting up Internet censorship proposals because they say that there are so many lawful marketplaces that there's no excuse for "piracy." But ORG's research shows that large swathes of critical material isn't available for sale. And as we saw when major rightsholders pulled out of Hulu and iTunes before, the availability of their material on BitTorrent spiked -- if you don't offer lawful channels, you drive customers to unlawful markets.
Read the rest
Here's what ORG found: though close to 100% of their sample were available as DVDs, more than half of the top 50 UK films of all time were not available as downloads. The numbers are only slightly better for Bafta winners: just 58% of Bafta best film winners since 1960 can be bought or rented as digital downloads (the bulk of these are through iTunes – take away the iTunes marketplace, which isn't available unless you use Mac or Windows, and only 27% of the Bafta winners can be had legally).
And while recent blockbusters fare better, it's still a patchwork, requiring the public to open accounts with several services to access the whole catalogue (which still has many important omissions).
But even in those marketplaces, movies are a bad deal – movie prices are about 30% to 50% higher when downloaded over the internet versus buying the same movies on DVDs.
In a New Scientist op-ed, Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi take aim at the trendy idea of "nudging" people towards healthy, socially beneficial choices. The authors find the evidence for the effectiveness of nudging isn't supported by the literature, and policy-by-nudging misses the key to good governance: an informed citizenry who are part of the solution, not the problem to be solved.
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This points to the key problem with "nudge" style paternalism: presuming that technocrats understand what ordinary people want better than the people themselves. There is no reason to think technocrats know better, especially since Thaler and Sunstein offer no means for ordinary people to comment on, let alone correct, the technocrats' prescriptions. This leaves the technocrats with no systematic way of detecting their own errors, correcting them, or learning from them. And technocracy is bound to blunder, especially when it is not democratically accountable.
As political scientist Suzanne Mettler, from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, argues, libertarian paternalism treats people as consumers rather than citizens. It either fails to tell people why choices are set up in particular ways, or actively seeks to conceal the rationale. When, for example, Obama's administration temporarily cut taxes to stimulate the economy, it did so semi-surreptitiously to encourage people to spend rather than save.
Mettler uses experiments to show how ordinary people can understand complicated policy questions and reach considered conclusions, as long as they get enough information. This suggests a far stronger role for democratic decision-making than libertarian paternalism allows. People should be given information, and allowed to reach conclusions about their own interests, and how to structure choices to protect those interests.
As much as 40 percent of the people who start out majoring in science and engineering end up switching to other degrees. Why? The answers are complex, and the people who drop out are often the best-of-the-best. The New York Times looks at why college students leave science majors and what can be done to change that. Read the rest
If you've paid much attention to policy in general, you won't be too surprised by what I'm about to tell you about energy policy. Many of our well-meaning public programs use tax dollars for the near-exclusive benefit of the wealthy—the group of people who need those shared funds the least.
Today I spoke at "What Will Turn Us On in 2030?", a conference about the short-term future of energy in the United States. At the conference, I met Lisa Margonelli, director of the Energy Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation. Margonelli has spent the last year researching the effects of high gasoline prices on middle class and working class families. (I'll be posting some more about that project later.) Along the way, she noticed some serious problems with the way we're currently trying to change energy systems in the U.S.—problems that actually endanger our ability to make real, long-term change.
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The green policies put in place by the Bush and Obama administrations are not only not aimed at the middle class; they’re benefitting the wealthy at precisely the moment that high gas prices have slammed the lower middle class.
Consider the flashiest green support for consumers at the moment: tax credits for the purchase of electric cars and solar panels. Buy an electric car (more than $40,000) or a solar array (more than $20,000) and get a tax credit. But most American families making the median income (about $50,000) spend more per year on their old used cars and fuel ($7,900) than they do on taxes ($6,000).
Senator John Pastore: “Is there anything connected with the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of the country?”
Physicist Robert Rathburn Wilson: “No sir, I don’t believe so.”
Pastore: “Nothing at all?”
Wilson: “Nothing at all.”
Pastore: “It has no value in that respect?”
Wilson: “It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of man, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.”
— From the testimony of Robert Rathburn Wilson before the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, 1969. As quoted in a lovely memorial to Wilson and the Fermi National Laboratory's Tevatron by science blogger Jennifer Ouellette
The Tevatron is set for shutdown on September 30. The point here, I think, is not that the Tevatron, specifically, must be kept alive at all costs. But rather that the willingness to fund curiosity-driven research is one of our better angels. Humanity benefits from knowledge, even if that knowledge doesn't immediately and directly lead to cool gadgets, bigger bombs, or a cure for cancer. And it benefits the United States to be the sort of place that contributes to the betterment of humanity. Read the rest