Category Archives: Science/Medicine

Recommended Reading

Dan Froomkin, What should Trump be doing differently about coronavirus? Elizabeth Warren has some ideas is a twofer: it draws attention to an important statement by Senator and Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren on what we should be doing about the Coronavirus, and it has some savvy things to say about why Warren’s well thought-out ideas weren’t very prominently covered in the news (hint: horse-race).

Barring something strange on or after Super Tuesday, I plan to vote for Warren in the upcoming Florida primary.  In primaries you vote your heart, in the general election you vote you head.  Warren is the candidate whose speeches — and whose policies — inspire. I think she’d be a terrific Chief Executive.  Sanders has virtues, and I’m grateful that he moved the Overton Window.  I’m sure he’d be infinitely better than Trump, but I have some pretty big doubts as to how effective he’d be as an executive.

That said, the only ‘Democrats’ running who would really seriously challenge my ability to fill in the oval are Gabbard and Bloomberg. I’m pretty practiced at holding my nose when I vote in a general election.

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Understatement Indeed

Big

In a discussion of the (still totally theoretical) Alcubierre Warp Drive, the author notes that modern estimates of the energy needed to create a space-time bubble are down from the clearly infeasible “energy mass equivalent to the entire Universe.”

However, it goes on to note, the current estimate of  the energy equivalent of “a Jupiter-mass amount of exotic matter is still prohibitively large.”

Don’t plan to book your ticket for Alpha Centauri any time soon.

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The Apocalypse Will Be Televised

Graphical Real-Time Map of Confirmed Cases of Coronavirus: Wuhan Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Global Cases (by JHU CSSE)


Above as of Jan 27, 2020 9 am EST. The map is real-time in the sense that it’s updated when new info is provided by authorities.  It can also be adjusted to show any country or city, and a timeline and scale of contagion.

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On Pain

You are supposed to say “ouch”

For reasons I may or may not get around to writing about I have had some considerable amount of experience with various sorts of pain lately. So I found this NYT article by Austin Frakt, If ‘Pain Is an Opinion,’ There Are Ways to Change Your Mind particularly interesting. It seems, for example, that I was a captive of a common ‘naïve’ fallacy:

One thing we tend to believe about pain, but is wrong, is that it always stems from a single, fixable source. Another is that pain is communicated from that source to our brains by “pain nerves.” That’s so wrong it’s called “the naïve view” by neuroscientists.

In truth, pain is in our brain. Or as the author and University of California, San Diego, neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran put it, “Pain is an opinion.” We feel it because of how our brain interprets input transmitted to it from all our senses, not necessarily because of the inherent properties of the input itself. There are no nerves dedicated to sensing and transmitting pain.

But I’m not taking up the trumpet (read the article).

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Asteroid Miners Wanted (Not Really)

The enticing ad ran on the bottom right of page A9 of today’s New York Times.

Welcome to Kuiper Belt Mining Corp. We are global leaders in sustainable asteroid mining initiatives, committed to replenishing our planet’s natural mineral resources. We work with governments and private enterprise to bring the wealth of the Solar System back to Earth. If you have always dreamt of seeing Jupiter and Mars you will be excited to become a part of the KBMC Asteroid Mining Recruitment Program set in the heart of the Kuiper Belt – the largest asteroid belt ever discovered. While no prior experience is necessary, we are seeking candidates with a post-grad or equivalent in astrophysics, geophysics or engineering, or two years private or commercial flying experience. If you are able to leave Earth for up to 2,000 days and can start August 2084, then we would like to invite you to apply to join our team today.

Sadly, I fear the Kuiper Belt Mining Corp. is mainly a ploy to sell the themed merchandise linked to from their page, since I doubt a lot of people alive today will be in shape to go asteroid mining in 2084 — some 64 years from now.  (Cf. the MIT Technology Review’s story six months ago, How the asteroid-mining bubble burst.)

Pity.

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Just Uploaded–Big Data: Destroyer of Informed Consent (Final Text)

I’ve just uploaded the final text of Big Data: Destroyer of Informed Consent which is due to appear Real Soon Now in a special joint issue of the Yale Journal of Health Policy, Law, and Ethics and the Yale Journal of Law and Technology. This pre-publication version has everything the final version will have except the correct page numbers. Here’s the abstract:

The ‘Revised Common Rule’ took effect on January 21, 2019, marking the first change since 2005 to the federal regulation that governs human subjects research conducted with federal support or in federally supported institutions. The Common Rule had required informed consent before researchers could collect and use identifiable personal health information. While informed consent is far from perfect, it is and was the gold standard for data collection and use policies; the standard in the old Common Rule served an important function as the exemplar for data collection in other contexts.

Unfortunately, true informed consent seems incompatible with modern analytics and ‘Big Data’. Modern analytics hold out the promise of finding unexpected correlations in data; it follows that neither the researcher nor the subject may know what the data collected will be used to discover. In such cases, traditional informed consent in which the researcher fully and carefully explains study goals to subjects is inherently impossible. In response, the Revised Common Rule introduces a new, and less onerous, form of “broad consent” in which human subjects agree to as varied forms of data use and re-use as researchers’ lawyers can squeeze into a consent form. Broad consent paves the way for using identifiable personal health information in modern analytics. But these gains for users of modern analytics come with side-effects, not least a substantial lowering of the aspirational ceiling for other types of information collection, such as in commercial genomic testing.

Continuing improvements in data science also cause a related problem, in that data thought by experimenters to have been de-identified (and thus subject to more relaxed rules about use and re-use) sometimes proves to be re-identifiable after all. The Revised Common Rule fails to take due account of real re-identification risks, especially when DNA is collected. In particular, the Revised Common Rule contemplates storage and re-use of so-called de-identified biospecimens even though these contain DNA that might be re-identifiable with current or foreseeable technology.

Defenders of these aspects of the Revised Common Rule argue that ‘data saves lives.’ But even if that claim is as applicable as its proponents assert, the effects of the Revised Common Rule will not be limited to publicly funded health sciences, and its effects will be harmful elsewhere.

An earlier version, presented at the Yale symposium which the conference volume memorializes, engendered significant controversy — the polite form of howls of rage in a few cases — from medical professionals looking forward to working with Big Data. Since even the longer final version is shorter, and if only for that reason clearer, than much of what I write I wouldn’t be surprised if the final version causes some fuss too.

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