Category Archives: Science/Medicine

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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Why Atmospheric CO2 Should Be Part of the Weather Report

I don’t necessarily want to associate myself with every word in John’s Buell’s post at Informed Comment, The Politics of the Local Weather Broadcast: Call your Station and Demand News of Climate Crisis, but it inspired me to wonder why it is that the local and national weather news doesn’t include the latest figure on atmospheric carbon dioxide. I’m not a climate scientist, but the overwhelming scientific consensus seems to be that the more CO2 in the air, the more the earth traps heat. That should be of concern to everyone. And the data are not hard to find–such as at CO2.Earth, which reports a current number of 409.95 ppm, which is certainly the highest number in the past 1,000 years.

Mentioning the weekly CO2 number as a routine part of the weather report would not only make the point that weather forecaster think carbon matters, it would sensitize the public to the so-far inexorable rise in a key heat-trapping gas.

This is a international issue, but it’s one of particular salience to South Florida: There’s a pretty simple thermodynamic correlation between atmospheric heat and water temperature. And we know that hurricanes get stronger when they go over warmer water. Higher temperatures also contribute to ice-cap melt, raising sea level. Want to avoid more of this? Time to call or email your local weatherperson?

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Fusion Allegedly Just Five Years Away — BBC

I’ve written before on how fusion power is always coming, never here. About a year and a half ago I posted this:

Fusion Power is Only 15 Years Away, we’re told. I guess that’s progress since in just the last few years people have said its Always 50 Years Away, or maybe Always 30 Years Away, or maybe formely 30 years away, now its more like 50 years away, or maybe just forever 20 years away, or 13 Years Away.

So ten years away is progress, right? Then again three years ago it ten years away so maybe we’re going backwards?

Or maybe we’re looking at the wrong scientific advance here: what we really have is an odd form of time travel?

But comes now the BBC to tell us that according to some startups, maybe fusion power is just five years away, which certainly seems like the frontier is getting closer…or some startups have at least got fusion going on their hype…

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New Math

This octonion math looks very cool. I wish I understood it. Anything that explains quantization in nature has something going for it.

Obligatory Tom Lehrer video:

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