Life on Mars?: The ExoMars is about to begin searching for the surest sign of life — the gas it leaves behind

Published: Salon (October 17, 2016)

After successfully pulling off a crucial technical maneuver, the ExoMars spacecraft is now two days away from making history.

The primary objective of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission is to determine if enough methane and other gases exist on the Martian surface to prove that life exists — or used to exist — on the Red Planet. To complete the first phase of the process for doing this, ExoMars needs to release an orbiter known as the Trace Gas Orbiter into the Martian atmosphere and safely deposit a lander called Schiaparelli on the planet’s surface. On Sunday morning, Europe’s and Russia’s two probes successfully separated from each other, a move that was necessary to successfully send each one to their intended destination. If all goes according to plan, both probes will get where they need to be on Wednesday.

“We know that there’s methane in the atmosphere, but we’re not sure how it got there,” explained Nicolas Thomas, a member of the team responsible for the orbiter, in an interview with New Scientist. “Methane has a relatively short life in the atmosphere, so the fact that it’s there suggests an active source.” This is why, when hints of methane were first detected on the planet in 2003, scientists speculated that it could be a sign of extraterrestrial life. In addition to searching for methane, the Trace Gas Orbiter will also improve maps of the planet and relay signals between Earth and other rovers on Mars’ surface. Schiaparelli, on the other hand, will provide data on temperature, humidity, winds, and pressure where it lands.

You can track ExoMars’ progress at this here. It’ll be a gas.

Hyperlate: Elon Musk and Tesla delay their next big product launch

Published: Salon (October 17, 2016)

It seems that followers of Elon Musk will have to wait another two days before his latest product unveiling.

In a tweet sent out on Sunday afternoon, Musk announced that Tesla needs until Wednesday to refine its upcoming launch. This was going to be part of a pair of product launches that Musk had promised last week, one for today and the other for Friday, October 28th. While the details of the latter launch are already public — Musk is going to unveil a residential solar roof with integrated batteries — the former has been kept secret.

According to USA Today, experts speculate that Musk will either reveal an improved version of Autopilot, the self-driving program in his Model S and X sedans; a sneak peak of the interior of the upcoming Model 3 sedan; or the announcement of a Model Y crossover vehicle. If the announcement pertained to a new version of Autopilot, Musk’s delay may be related to a recent request by Germany’s Federal Motor Transportation Authority that Tesla stop using that term. Germany’s concern is that “Autopilot” is misleading, since it allows Germans to believe the driving system is fully autonomous when that is not the case.

Musk’s product launches are closely watched, highly produced and super-hyped affairs, leading some industry analysts to compare the corporate culture at Tesla to that of Apple. Certainly Musk has built an aura around himself modeled on the cult of personality that once surrounded Apple’s CEO, Steve Jobs. Musk has also garnered headlines for his audacious promises, most recently by promising to finance space travel beyond Mars by 2018.

When it comes to his latest technological development, though, Musk fans will simply have to wait a little longer to find out whether the hype was worth it.

Sick Bern: Bernie Sanders’ tweet cost Ariad Pharmaceuticals $387 million

Published: Salon (October 17, 2016)

With a single tweet, Sen. Bernie Sanders has cost Ariad Pharmaceuticals $387 million.

The article retweeted by Sanders was from Stat, a publication that specializes in covering health and medical news. It reported that, since the beginning of the year, Ariad has raised the price of its Iclusig chronic myeloid leukemia treatment by 27 percent. The drug now has a pre-rebate list price of $16,560 a month, or almost $199,000 a year. Even worse for Ariad’s image (to say nothing of consumers), this isn’t the first time they raised the price on that drug, having done so twice last year.

As a result of Sanders’ tweet, Ariad stock ended the day down by 14.8 percent, falling to $11.14 a share. In a statement, Ariad argued that “our pricing reflects our significant investment in R&D, our commitment to the very small, ultra orphan cancer patient populations that we serve and the associated risk with research and development.”

This isn’t the first time a Democratic presidential hopeful has hurt Big Pharma’s bottom line by criticizing unfair practices. In August, Hillary Clinton caused Mylan NV’s shares to fall by 6.2 percent within minutes of calling for them to lower their prices for EpiPens. Then in September, she drove down the Nasdaq Biotechnology Index by tweeting: “Price gouging like this in the specialty drug market is outrageous. Tomorrow I’ll lay out a plan to take it on.” It has also been reported that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has negatively impacted biotech stocks, as his perceived weaknesses as a candidate makes more likely that Clinton will be elected and implement reforms on the industry. Her plan for lowering drug costs includes allowing Medicare to negotiate them down and not allowing pharmaceutical companies to spend government grants on advertising.

Halt and catch fire: Samsung scraps the Galaxy Note 7… because it spontaneously combusts

Published: Salon (October 11, 2016)

Less than two months after Samsung launched its highly anticipated Galaxy Note 7, and less than one month after issuing a recall, it has now been announced that the new smartphone is being scrapped altogether. The reason, it seems, is that consumers aren’t too fond of having their smartphones catch on fire.

That happens more often than you might think. In 2014, a iPhone 5c allegedly caught fire in its owner’s back pocket, while a Galaxy S2 nearly exploded near its owners genitals back in 2011. In 2012 a Droid Bionic burned through the pants of a Defcon employee, while less than a year later a similar incident occurred with a Galaxy Note in South Korea. Needless to say, this explains why people were so alarmed when a family in Florida discovered their jeep engulfed in flames because their Galaxy Note 7 had exploded in the vehicle.

Why does this happen? The reason is that cell phone batteries are powered by lithium ion battery packs, which usually contain highly flammable liquid. To make matters worse, these sorts of fires are almost impossible to put out without a powdered fire extinguisher. When the batteries catch on fire, it is usually because they were either exposed to a nearby source of intense heat (often another fire) or because of a physical defect in the battery itself, causing a thermal runaway within the device.

Hopefully our phone manufacturers will be more careful when creating these essential devices in the future. So far no one has been seriously hurt, but it should be enough to make you stop carrying your phone in your pants pocket.

Jill Stein and Donald Trump are both linked to a dangerous anti-vaccine myth that just won’t die

Published: Quartz (August 3, 2016)

Green Party candidate Jill Stein likes to present herself as a pro-science, more idealistic alternative to Hillary Clinton. Stein has so far managed to stay out of the media maelstrom, but a series of troubling comments are making headlines for all the wrong reasons. One of Stein’s most problematic opinions resurfaced this week when her campaign deleted a tweet in which she claimed there is “no evidence that autism is caused by vaccines.” (The Tweet was eventually replaced with one that qualified her position as “I’m not aware of evidence linking autism with vaccines.”) Although she hasn’t gone quite as far as Donald Trump—the Republican nominee has openly suggested that vaccines cause autism—Stein’s statements are at best irresponsible and misinformed. They are also baffling, given that the Green Party likes to tout its pro-science credentials.

In some ways, Stein’s anti-vaccination comments are more insidious than Trump’s—at least Trump has made his position clear. During a Reddit AMA in May, Stein claimed that she distrusted vaccines because “regulatory agencies are routinely packed with corporate lobbyists and CEOs. So the foxes are guarding the chicken coop as usual in the US. So who wouldn’t be skeptical?” This line is blatantly misleading. As Stein (who is herself a medical doctor) ought to know, most of the people who sit on the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee are scientists and public health experts. Nevertheless, she reiterated this statement during a July 29 interview with The Washington Post, arguing that although “vaccines are an invaluable medication” they need to be “approved by a regulatory board that people can trust.”

She later added that when she was a medical doctor, “there were concerns among physicians about what the vaccination schedule meant, the toxic substances like mercury which used to be rampant in vaccines. There were real questions that needed to be addressed. I think some of them at least have been addressed. I don’t know if all of them have been addressed.”

The problem here is that in fact, researchers have spent a long time answering the “questions” Stein mentions. The academic article that helped spark the most recent iteration of the anti-vaxxer movement in 1998 has been conclusively discredited, and 10 of the paper’s 12 co-authors have since retracted their support. Subsequent studies have repeatedly found no correlation between vaccines and autism, and have confined that vaccines given to adults and children are safe with rare exceptions.

Similarly, there is no evidence that the recommended schedule of vaccines can cause other diseases later in childhood or that vaccines overwhelm a baby’s immune system. Although there is evidence that the MMR and MMRV shots have been linked to febrile (fever-caused) seizures, the episodes do not cause any long-term health effects. More importantly, such seizures are twice as likely to happen if a child’s vaccination schedule is delayed.

What are clear, however, is the anti-vaccine movement’s consequences. Unvaccinated children have caused outbreaks of diseases that would have otherwise been preventable, including the mumps and whooping cough. An unvaccinated child was also tied to the worst US measles epidemic in twenty years. “A substantial proportion of the US measles cases in the era after elimination were intentionally unvaccinated,” wrote researchers at Emory University and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health earlier in 2016. “The phenomenon of vaccine refusal was associated with an increased risk for measles among people who refuse vaccines and among fully vaccinated individuals. Although pertussis resurgence has been attributed to waning immunity and other factors, vaccine refusal was still associated with an increased risk for pertussis in some populations.”

And then there’s the anti-vaccine movement’s offensive undertones. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome who has written extensively about our culture’s evolving attitudes toward autism, I am deeply disturbed by the ease with which spectrum personalities are dismissed and belittled by anti-vaxxers. One of the main goals of the socially active autistic community is to explain why having the high-functioning version of this condition, as millions of Americans do, is not a disability, nor is it inherently debilitating. While social intolerance toward non-neurotypical behaviors can make life difficult for autistic people, high-functioning autism itself is neither healthy nor unhealthy. It is simply a difference in neurological structure.

In the future, the notion that high-functioning autistic people need to be “treated” or “prevented” will likely be viewed with the same contempt that we currently direct towards those who think you cure homosexuality. Unfortunately, people like Jill Stein are helping to keep this reality out of reach. So long as a large section of our population continue to view autism as a “disease” or a “glitch” caused by corrupt doctors or medical boards, autism will remain stigmatized.

In light of the stakes involved here, Stein must unambiguously denounce the idea that vaccines cause autism. If she will not do this, she must admit that she is, in fact, part of the anti-vaxxer conspiracy movement. Stein is running on a platform that champions economic and social injustice, and has told voters that she deserves to be taken just as seriously as her more mainstream rivals. Should she refuse to repudiate her vaccine comments, however,  progressives need to accept the fact that their Green Party candidate is not serious about contesting this election.

Do We Each Experience Time Differently?

Published: The Good Men Project (July 30, 2016)

“It appears therefore more natural to think of physical reality as a four dimensional existence, instead of, as hitherto, the evolution of a three dimensional existence.”

This is a quote from Albert Einstein, who offered it to explain how the past and future both co-exist in the present moment. When Einstein made this observation, he was referring to how physical forces like speed and gravitational pull influence how each body experiences time. Since then, psychologists have learned that individual organisms will also experience time differently based on factors like age and the accumulation of memories.

Yet I’ve often wondered if people can experience time differently for reasons other than their internal chronology or the fundamental laws of matter. In particular, I’d like to explore whether our intellectual conceptualizations of time can influence how we perceive it in our day-to-day lives. I have no research of my own to back up the hypotheses I’ll lay out here, and I wasn’t able to find any scientific or philosophical sources that touched on these same subjects, so everything I’m about to say is based on my own speculation.

My guess is that there are two primary ways in which one’s intellectual understanding of time influences personal interactions with it:

  1. If you have an early familiarity not only with specific events from the past, but the patterns within those events that tend to dictate certain outcomes, you can interpret present and potentially future events within the context of what we know about history.
  2. Similarly, if you can map out the history of one’s own life and discern certain patterns, you can view your own past and potential futures as one and the same with your present.

As an example of #1, I point to a trend I’ve tried to point out throughout the American presidential election. As I’ve written in several pieces for Salon and Quartz, American liberals have developed a habit of abandoning Democratic tickets that they feel are insufficiently liberal and, as a result, facilitating the election of a Republican president who is far worse. The two main examples are the 1968 election (in which Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy supporters refused to back Hubert Humphrey, thus electing Richard Nixon) and the 2000 election (in which Ralph Nader supporters refused to back Al Gore, thus electing George W. Bush). When I see Bernie Sanders supporters mouthing past logic in order to justify not backing Hillary Clinton – a logic that ultimately resulted in the carpet bombing of Cambodia, Watergate, the Iraq war, and an unprecedented redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor – I can’t help but shudder at the thought of this pattern repeating itself in 2016, with its beneficiary being Donald Trump. Visions of race riots, trade wars, and a radioactive cloud loom in the distance.

While much of this is simply being drawn from my knowledge of the past, I wonder if there is an emotional difference being felt by liberals who feel the same way that I do and the progressives with a “Bernie or Bust” mentality. For those of us who lived through and recall these events (like myself and the 2000 election), to what extent are we being influenced by our sense of immediate closeness to that chapter of the past? For of those of us who only read about these events in books (like myself and the 1968 election), to what extent are we capable of feeling the past’s relevance to the present even when our personal connection with it is entirely abstract? As for the progressives who can’t intuitively grasp the past’s relevance to the present – who may be able to conceptualize it, sure, but fail to perceive its tangible relevance – why is this the case? Can anything be done to rectify it?

For example #2, I need to get more personal. I’ve often written about how difficult it is for me to accept it when friends, exes, and other people close to me “freeze me out.” One friend observed that it may be because certain people perceive their own personal histories differently, and as a result what feels like ancient history to others may always seem more current to them. I suspect she may be right, and to this notion I would add that I’ve noticed that there are two ways in which people will discuss their own past. On the one hand, there are those (myself included) who seem to organize everything according to a linear model and attempt to analyze details for their greater significance; on the other, you have those who view their pasts as a series of stories, each one more or less disconnected from the others. As someone who falls into the former category, I’ve found it difficult to emotionally disconnect from the past, since I can always detect its vibrations in the present. Whether this is true for others like me I can’t say, and the same goes for what is or isn’t true for those who aren’t. Hopefully future scientists will see fit to study this subject, since I suspect a great number of psychological ailments can be better understood when viewed through this paradigm.

Like I said before, I’m not pretending to be an expert on the physics of the fourth dimension. My gigs are those of a writer and graduate student, both in the humanities, and so this article has not been my bailiwick. Nevertheless, I find myself internally mulling over these questions quite often, and have long itched to put my thoughts on digital paper. What’s the point of having my own column if I don’t every so often use it for musings like this?

How Donald Trump would destroy America (and possibly the world)

Published: The Good Men Project (May 19, 2016)

America is in a “boy who cried wolf” situation right now. We’ve grown so accustomed to comparing our presidents with tyrants, or insisting that a candidate’s ascent to power will result in calamity, that even those of us who see an actual wolf in our midst aren’t being taken seriously. The people voting for Donald Trump are well aware of our concerns but – having grown jaded to polemical hyperbole – aren’t able to recognize that the threat is real this time.

Make no mistake about it, though: The danger posed by Trump is very, very real. One may disagree with the policies pursued by George W. Bush and Barack Obama, but the hysterical response to their presidencies was always grossly disproportionate. Bush was a neoconservative and Obama is a moderate liberal; Trump, on the other hand, is a man driven more by bold stabs in the dark than any consistent ideology. Assuming he follows through on his proposals, it is quite likely that some of them would cause terrible consequences not only for America, but the entire world.

To explain how this is so, though, we need to stop with the inappropriate comparisons to Hitler (which I debunked in this piece for MSNBC) and instead focus on the nitty gritty of what he has said he would try to do:

1. The economy.

Although Trump makes valid points about America’s anti-working class trade policies, his proposed solutions would be disastrous. As president, he would have the power to increase tariffs on Chinese and Mexican goods by as much as 45 percent. If he did this, those countries would almost certainly retaliate with comparable measures targeting America’s products. The resulting trade war would inevitably increase prices and reduce job growth, knocking the American economy back on its heels only a few years after the Obama administration led us to a precarious recovery. Even more troubling than what we know, though, is what we don’t know. The slightest adverse development can have unforeseen ripple effects in our globalized economy, and because America has been a staunchly pro-free trade nation since the 1930s, it is impossible to predict the full impact of an about-face as abrupt as the one Trump is proposing. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t modify our trade policies to be more amenable to the interests of our working class, but we need to do so responsibly.

2. Global warming.

Trump’s is a well-known denier of man-made global warming, a position that perfectly fits in with his other conspiratorial views (he believes the scientific consensus on global warming is a plot by the Chinese to control the world economy). As a result, when he vows to “renegotiate” the Paris deal in which more than 200 nations vowed to curb greenhouse gas emissions, it’s safe to assume that he would not care one whit about slowing our planet’s dangerous overheating. Unfortunately, the science isn’t going to accommodate Trump’s iconoclasm; as the earth continues to overheat, humanity will face mega-storms, droughts, famines, and the mass extinction of countless species. As Peace and World Security Studies Professor Michael T. Klare wrote last October, “Scientists have long worried that climate change will not continue to advance in a ‘linear’ fashion, with the planet getting a little bit hotter most years. Instead, they fear, humanity could someday experience ‘non-linear’ climate shifts (also known as ‘singularities’ or ‘tipping points’) after which there would be sudden and irreversible change of a catastrophic nature.” As Klare notes, there are early signs that this is already happening, and it stands to reason that if Trump torpedoes an international agreement to reduce carbon emissions, that could very well push us past the tipping point.

3. Nuclear war.

Ever since Harry Truman dropped the bomb on Japan in 1945, American presidents have been expected to appreciate the sober responsibilities that come with being a nuclear power. In the 1964 presidential election, when Republican candidate Barry Goldwater was accused of being fast-and-loose about how he’d use our nukes, the threat of nuclear apocalypse helped sink his campaign. More than half a century later, however, Trump has openly discussed using tactical nuclear weapons against the Islamic State, arguing that “I don’t think you’re going to be successful [with Muslim countries] unless they respect you.” Even foreign policy hawks should be concerned by this position, and not merely because Trump has advocated it in places beyond the Middle East (he once told Chris Matthews that he wouldn’t take using nukes in Europe “off the table”). By equating the use of nuclear force with earning respect, Trump reveals an ominous thought pattern – namely that (a) if America is threatened by foreign enemies, it’s because they don’t respect us and (b) we can demand their respect by threatening them with total annihilation. This is the exact mentality that the United States and Soviet Union scrupulously avoided succumbing to during the Cold War, since both superpowers understood that if nuclear nations were permitted to behave this way, the final result would be total destruction.

Regardless of how one feels about Hillary Clinton, there is no sound reason to believe that she poses an existential threat to our future. Trump, on the other hand, has proposed policies that could plausibly result in economic collapse, ecological devastation, and even worldwide nuclear war. Every American voting in the 2016 presidential election is going to have to make one of the most important choices of their lifetime. For once, it isn’t an exaggeration to say that failure here could bring about the end of the world as we know it.

How will we preserve our digital future?

Published: The Daily Dot (April 24, 2016)

Some of my fondest childhood memories were set in libraries. I still recall wandering through stacks of books, my eyes glancing from title to title in the hope that they would land on some previously-undiscovered treasure. Sometimes I would take a step into the past by setting up a roll of microfilm and letting it whir through the scanner until it landed on an intriguing story from a bygone era.

The sights, the sounds, even the smells of these libraries linger in my brain long after I last set foot in them. As the Library of Congress celebrates its 216th anniversary today, it’s worth taking a moment to ask: What sources will be available to future young scholars?

The Library of Congress is one of the oldest cultural institutions in Washington, D.C. Founded as a legislative library in 1800, it gradually expanded into that of an all-purpose center for scholarly research; as a result, it is currently the largest library in the world. Its collection includes more than 38 million books and printed materials, 3.6 million recordings, 14 million photographs, 5.5 million maps, 7.1 million pieces of sheet music, and 70 million manuscripts. On top of this, the library “receives some 15,000 items each working day and adds approximately 12,000 items to the collections daily.”

What sources will be available to future young scholars?

Needless to say, this is quite a step forward from 1815, when the library became an international sensation after purchasing 6,487 books from Thomas Jefferson’s estate. Now in a world where we live online, through social media posts and websites and email, it’s hard to imagine how we will preserve our digital future. The days have long past in which a library’s responsibilities were limited to safeguarding and cataloguing books.

This is why Michael Agresta writes in Slate that “a library without books was unthinkable. Now it seems almost inevitable.”

After discussing how the advent of the Internet has caused a decline in library attendance—and, in many cases, sharp cuts in funding—Agresta points out that “librarians have begun to identify a rationale for institutional survival in the ancillary public benefits noted above, in particular the principle of a ‘third place’ focused on learning.” To cultivate this image, many libraries establish “maker spaces” in which bookshelves have been replaced by collections of old and new technologies, where people can study in ways that aren’t necessarily possible with only an Internet connection.

This trend is also evident in Britain, where the Independent Library Report discovered that libraries are actually making a comeback by reinventing themselves as community hubs that focus on “the need to create digital literacy—and in an ideal world, digital fluency.”

Similarly, a 2013 Pew Poll found that 90 percent of respondents believe their communities would be negatively impacted if public libraries closed, particularly those for whom libraries are frequently their best opportunity at conducting meaningful intellectual research (e.g., the unemployed or people from lower income families). By recasting libraries as locuses of digital scholarship—places where anyone can come, regardless of their economic background, and have access to both the Internet and a wide range of digital resources—modern libraries have found new ways of staying relevant in the 21st century world.

In that same year, the Boston Public Library launched the Digital Public Library of America, which endeavors to make the holdings of America’s research libraries, archives, and museums available to all Americans free of charge. As Robert Darnton of the New York Review of Books explained, “the DPLA will be a distributed system of electronic content that will make the holdings of public and research libraries, archives, museums, and historical societies available, effortlessly and free of charge, to readers located at every connecting point of the Web.” While it won’t serve as a substitute for the communal atmosphere provided by institutional libraries themselves, it will allow them to maintain an indispensable role by channeling their resources to broader audiences throughout the nation—in effect, taking libraries home to each and every American.

There are concerns about the mass digitization of libraries, however.

“What worries us all,” explains Nancy Cline, Larsen librarian of Harvard College, in an interview with Harvard Magazine, “is that we really haven’t tested the longevity for a lot of these digital resources.” Whereas paper and ink are physically tangible and thus capable of being preserved throughout the generations, digital technology has only existed for a few decades. There is no reliable way of knowing whether these materials will remain intact, become degraded, or in some other way get compromised. In a worst-case, nightmarish scenario, it is entirely possible that millions of pages of material could be wiped away overnight.

This brings us back to the future of the Library of Congress. On the one hand, it is important that the Library of Congress embrace the same “maker space” mentality that is helping smaller libraries remain relevant. Because the Internet and projects like DPLA have given ordinary citizens access to the kind of information that used to only be available at libraries, it is no longer sufficient for the Library of Congress to merely view itself as a repository for data. It needs to also recognize its potential as a place where individuals can congregate for scholarly purposes, a need that cannot be met from an iPhone or one’s home computer.

At the same time, we need to be careful about letting technological progress blind us to the verities of tried-and-true methods of preserving information. There is a good reason why paper-and-ink have endured for so long as the main method of record-keeping, whether for novels and other fictional literature to scholarly works. We know that it is effective and, consequently, the Library of Congress should never allow the passion for digitization to cause it to dispense with books in the process.

This is one of those rare situations in which we not only can have it both ways, but should absolutely insist on doing so. I say this not only as a PhD student and writer, but as the adult counterpart to that curious teenager who made an informal home in his local libraries.