Tesla (Re)Coil

There was an article circulating last week about a man who drove his Tesla electric car across the country, almost 3,000 miles, without paying a dime.  While there is a feel-good aspect to the story, part of his journey was to promote the electric car and its potential to lower greenhouse gas emissions.  He packed a cooler full of food and set off, and spent no money on the entire trek.

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Inspired by this feat, I performed a similar stunt.  I drove my stretch Hummer limo coast-to-coast, towing another stretch Hummer with its parking brake engaged, without spending a dime during the trip.

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How did I do it?  Not by packing a cooler—I need at least 2 hot meals a day.   I just bought a pre-paid Visa card worth $10,000 before I left, and I even had enough credit on the card to play some blackjack on the strip at Vegas.

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Since I prepaid, I insist that I didn’t spend anything on the trip—I just spent a lot before the trip.  If you think that’s cheating, then bear in mind that when you blow $80,000 on a Tesla, you can use their charging stations for free.  Granted, you have to map out a course that connects the dots of the charging stations every 300 miles, since that is the range of the Tesla, but, apparently, it can be done.  But this guy did the same thing I did—he prepaid for his fuel by paying so much for the Tesla.

But there’s the rub.

Charging his Tesla involves using electricity, duh, much of which in the US (about 50% last year) is generated by burning coal and other fossil fuels.  And with the energy lost in generating electricity and sending it along wires to its ultimate destination (which is lost in heat dissipation), using electricity to power a car generates more greenhouse gases than burning gasoline in a reasonably efficient internal combustion engine.  Don’t believe me?  Well, take it from the electric horseless carriage’s mouth:

A caveat to consider is that when coal plants supply the majority of the power in a given area, electric vehicles may emit more CO2 and SO2 pollution than hybrid electric vehicles.     (taken from this pro-ev report.)

It’s called the problem of the long tailpipe.  Just because you don’t see any emissions at the back of the car doesn’t mean there aren’t pollutants getting produced elsewhere.  When we get the electricity from coal, the emissions are significant and, in most cases, worse that the emissions from using gasoline.

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And things don’t get any better with hydrogen-fuel-cell cars.  You see, the way to get hydrogen is to crack water into oxygen and hydrogen via hydrolysis, and cracking requires a whole lot of electricity.  Almost half of which is generated from burning coal and other fossil fuels.  The long tailpipe is still there.  And, although this is an unfair thing to say, I can’t resist:  What could go wrong at a hydrogen filling station?

ImageBut this brings up another issue—the infrastructure investment required to make either of these technologies practical is enormous.  If you’ve ever had a diesel car, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

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You quickly learn where every diesel station within a 20-mile radius is, because you’re always worried about running out of gas, no matter how good your mileage is.

While electric charging stations are more straightforward and becoming more common, my mind simply boggles at how difficult and expensive the project of building a network of hydrogen filling stations would be.  And again, even though it is unfair:

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Add to this the pesky problem of battery replacement and disposal, and it looks like there may be even more coming out of the long tailpipe than we first thought.

And while Elon Musk took the admirable and nearly unprecedented step of releasing a great number of his patents into the public domain to encourage the electric vehicle market, we will have to wait and see whether the way we generate electricity in this country will make it reasonable to these cars.

In my next post I will address the prospects for alternative energy production to lessen the long tailpipe effect, or whether we simply have to reduce energy use to combat climate degradation.

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I was going to save this for next week, but it is getting a lot of play.  So here’s a bonus post for this week.  Lucky you.

In a recent Gizmodo post that has singularity fans all atwitter (literally), it was reported that a program calling itself Eugene Goostman, written by Russian programmers, had beaten the Turing Test.

Spoiler Alert:  No, it didn’t.  But that didn’t stop the onslaught of “gee whiz!” reporting and spreading of the word.  Even the Gizmodo article breathlessly claimed

It’s still an obviously exciting breakthrough, though, one that has critics already raising red flags about its implications. “Having a computer that can trick a human into thinking that someone, or even something, is a person we trust is a wake-up call to cyber crime…”

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Are there serious concerns about what this means for online security in the future? Sure. But today they’ll have to take a back seat to the understanding that we’ve entered a new era of computing. One that’s alive with possibilities, or at least convincingly enough so.

Umm…no.

And, on Tuesday, June 10, 2014, The Colbert Report had a lengthy (and hilarious) segment on the victory of machine over man.  But it seems like Stephen Colbert is one of the few people in the media that understand the insignificance of this story.

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The Turing Test was proposed by the late, great Alan Turing in the middle of the last century in order to give some structure to the maddeningly vague question, “Could machines ever think?”

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Turing was inspired by a party game of the era, the so-called “Imitation Game,” in which an interrogator asks questions of two contestants, a man and a woman.  The contestants are in a different location, and the interrogator tries to determine from their answers (preferably written) who is who.  The contestants try to fool the interrogator and win if they do.  It’s really kind of like texting or chatting with someone these days and trying to figure out whether you are dealing with a pervert.  Or like getting on online customer-service “representative” that is really just a bot.

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I don’t know about you, but I have never been fooled by those bots yet.  I always ask them to write a sonnet, and they just can’t do it (see below).  Citing Stephen Colbert once more, these online bots are about as convincing as this.

Turing decided that a similar game could be used to test whether a machine, in his case, a digital computer, was thinking at the same level as a person.  An interrogator asks questions of two respondents and, if the interrogator cannot do better than guessing at which is the person after she is through with her questioning, the machine has passed the test and should be considered to have been thinking in as important a way as the other respondent was.  After all, all we have to go on when we decide another humanoid is thinking is their external behavior, so getting fooled is no different being confronted with a thinking person.

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In his seminal article, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, Turing gives the following hypothetical question-and-answer exchange as an example to skeptics who think the test would obviously be conclusive in every case:

Q: Please write me a sonnet on the subject of the Forth Bridge.
A : Count me out on this one. I never could write poetry.

Q: Add 34957 to 70764.
A: (Pause about 30 seconds and then give as answer) 105621.

Q: Do you play chess?
A: Yes.

Q: I have K at my K1, and no other pieces. You have only K at K6 and R at R1. It is your move. What do you play?
A: (After a pause of 15 seconds) R-R8 mate.

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Later, during his exhaustive attempt to answer objections to the very idea that machines could think, he gives us this Q&A script:

Interrogator: In the first line of your sonnet which reads “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” would not “a spring day” do as well or better?

Witness: It wouldn’t scan.

Interrogator: How about “a winter’s day,” That would scan all right.

Witness: Yes, but nobody wants to be compared to a winter’s day.

Interrogator: Would you say Mr. Pickwick reminded you of Christmas?

Witness: In a way.

Interrogator: Yet Christmas is a winter’s day, and I do not think Mr. Pickwick would mind the comparison.

Witness: I don’t think you’re serious. By a winter’s day one means a typical winter’s day, rather than a special one like Christmas.

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Specifically, Turing is replying to a skeptic who has suggested that the most a machine could do is learn things in “parrot fashion.”  After all, we could record a series of answers on a tape machine and then turn on the appropriate clip at the appropriate time and mimic or “parrot” intelligence.

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But after the above exchange, Turing reasonably writes

I do not know whether [the skeptic] would regard the machine as “merely artificially signaling” these answers, but if the answers were as satisfactory and sustained as in the above passage I do not think he would describe it as “an easy contrivance.” This phrase is, I think, intended to cover such devices as the inclusion in the machine of a record of someone reading a sonnet, with appropriate switching to turn it on from time to time.

Clearly, the “test” that Eugene Goostman passed was not a test like the one envisioned by Turing.  Eugene “portrayed” “himself” as a 13-year-old boy for whom English was a second language.  And with that caveat, “he” “fooled” one out of three judges in a 5-minute online interview.  I hope it is clear that this is a pale imitation of the imitation game Turing proposed in his paper.  The limiting of the scope to questions that an ESL teenager could be expected to answer is just one of the problems.  Calling this test “The Turing Test” is another—several organizations sponsor such things for their own reasons, and several bots have “passed” them in similar ways to the Goostman bot.  Add to that the time limit and the fact that we have no idea what the questions (and answers) were and this just isn’t interesting news.  For anyone.  Watson’s performance on Jeopardy! was more exciting.

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This was a contrived and artificial experiment, and Turing’s genius deserves better than this intellectual equivalent of a hot dog eating contest.

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Turing believed that it was likely that his test would be passed by a digital computer eventually

…I  believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.

Our computers (and programs) aren’t there yet, and in a future post I will wade into these controversial waters.  We’re certainly closer than Turing was to achieving this milestone, but Eugene Gootsman is surely not evidence of our progress.

Until next time, I’ll leave you with a link to the upcoming movie about Alan Turing:  The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

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I think it’s a fair bet that the test being written about was, in part, created to promote the film.

 

 

Turing Test-Tube Babies

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TV is Bad for You, or, CSI, brought to you by Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, et al.

Two of my favorite facts about the effects of scientific illiteracy involve CSI (and other similar TV shows) and the advertisers who bring them into your home each week.  First of all, there are lots of these shows, with new ones already planned for the fall season…

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It seems like there has to be a natural limit to how many of them we can have, given the finite number of hours in prime time.  Prime time is typically defined as the three hours between 8pm and 11pm in EST, adjusted for other time zones.  Since that gives us at most 21 hours of prime time, I suppose there is an end in sight, but it is still a few shows away.

Anyway, the pressure is on the writers of these shows to concoct elaborate murder plots where, with the scantest evidence, the scientists-turned-investigators use a dazzling array of techniques to nail the perp.  From Blood spatter analysis a la Dexter to endless DNA panels to fiber and paint analysis to god-knows-what, the crime fighters always get the bad guy.  And it almost all relies on the fact that the crime-fighters, as the immortal (and terrible wooden) William Petersen always said in the role that started it all, “Let the evidence speak.”  In fact, I once played a drinking game in which we took a shot every time he said some version of this, and I was on the floor within half an hour.

ImageIncreasingly, these shows use shockingly little traditional police work such as interviewing witnesses and the like.  They don’t, in the vernacular, use up a lot of shoe leather.

But this is just TV, right?  What’s wrong with a little harmless entertainment?  After all, Sherlock Holmes’s deductive prowess isn’t really all that realistic, but the stories are timelessly entertaining.  Well, there’s this:

Prosecutors across the country are reporting what has become known as “the CSI effect.”  Without knock-down scientific evidence of the sort portrayed in these shows, convictions are getting harder to achieve.  Since people are addicted to these TV shows, they expect every case to be decisively settled by some lab-coated investigators or else they find reasonable doubt.   A thorough and nicely-cited article about this can be found here.

And besides this, fingerprint and DNA evidence are not always as dispositive as most people believe them to be.  Fingerprints found at crime scenes are compared with exemplars taken in laboratory conditions and assessed by the number of matches that are found between the crime scene prints and the prints on file.  The problem is that different jurisdictions count different numbers of matches as “proof” that the person who left the collected prints is the person on file.  Some jurisdictions have set the standard number of points of comparison at 12 while others go as high as 20 points needed for certainty in identification.  But these are simply arbitrary standards, and they are seldom explained to the public or to juries.  Until I learned otherwise, I assumed the two prints were overlaid on two transparencies and were seen to be entirely identical.

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Similar issues exists for DNA matching–there are various techniques, lab error, forensic misinterpretation and the like yet, like fingerprinting inits heyday, the DNA evidence is often taken by jurors to be infallible, at least in part because of the way it is represented in the mass media.  DNA identification is more reliable than fingerprinting, but the results are still open to interpretation and error.

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You can imagine the state of the art in finding matches between bullets fired from the same gun, fiber samples, shoe prints, paint flecks and the like.  It is all less, rather than more, precise than fingerprints and DNA, yet juries crave it.  And, sadly, what juries are very often swayed by, eyewitnesses, are less reliable than almost any ot these other pieces of evidence.  The by now well-known Gorilla Effect is just one demonstration among many of how bad we are at seeing what is literally right before our eyes.

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And now, a message from the advertisers who bring you these programs.  In recent years, the placebo effect has been getting stronger.  The placebo effect, from the Latin for “I shall please,” is the measurable tendency of noneffective therapies such as sugar pills to bring about cures or remediation of symptoms in a group of patients.  All therapies are tested in controlled conditions to see how well they perform against the placebo effect.  The closer the two treatments are in effectiveness, the less reason there is to use the drug, especially in light of the near-certainty of side-effects (a typical result for some of the popular statins is that the drug lowers cholesterol by 20% while the placebo lowers it by 8%.)

As nearly as anyone can figure, the cause of the greater placebo effects we are seeing is that people are coming to believe that there is a pharmaceutical cure for any problem that ails you.  This faith in pills is probably due to the ubiquity of pharmaceutical advertising and the claims that are made in the ads before the hurried reading of the possible side-effects.  If the trend continues, I suggest that we save all the R&D money, buy more ads to convince people and just hand out placebos, since they will be getting more and more effective and will be free of pesky side effects.

Indeed, the public must have a fairly high degree of faith in the drug companies’ products when they continue to consume them despite the presence of rather severe side effects associated with many popular medicines.  Just pay attention to the laundry list of possible consequences the next time you see a drug commercial.  For many antidepressants, one of the side effects is suicidal thoughts.  For a popular treatment for asthma, one side effect is increase frequency and severity of asthma attacks.  And almost all of them have some sort of death listed at the end of the list of possible problems.  I don’t know about you, but first of all, if death is a possible outcome, I’d like that to be mentioned first and, second, if I am taking a drug to treat an ailment, I would like it not to make that ailment worse as a known side effect.

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But to end on a lighter note, let’s see how great the confidence of consumers is with respect to the efficacy of pharmaceuticals.  As our example, take Alii, one of the most profitable prescription drugs of all time and the best-selling over-the-counter drug for months when it became available.  According to the manufacturer, GlaxoSmithKline, Alli has the following side effects (which they charmingly call “treatment effects”):

  • You may feel an urgent need to go to the bathroom. Until you have a sense of any treatment effects, it’s probably a smart idea to wear dark pants, and bring a change of clothes with you to work
  • You may not usually get gassy, but it’s a possibility when you take alli. The bathroom is really the best place to go when that happens
  • You can use a food journal to recognize what foods can lead to treatment effects. For example, writing down what you eat may help you learn that marinara sauce is a better option than Alfredo sauce

Take a few moments to let that sink in.  To lessen the severity of these effects, one is advised to eat fewer than 15 grams of fat per meal and less than 42 grams per day.  Just to compare, a Big Mac has 29 grams of fat, a Kind Dark Chocolate & Sea Salt Bar has 15 grams of fat and a cup of baked chicken breast meat has 6 grams of fat.  Bon Appetit!

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Besides the fact that a diet that would decrease the severity of the treatment effects would get you losing weight anyway, Alli claims its maximum benefit to be 1 pound of extra weight loss for each 2 pounds you would have lost anyway.  And the stuff costs about $50 for a 20 day supply!  NBC News has a good write-up here, and a very funny but a bit curse-filled translation of the Alli “treatment” effects by Jeff Kay can be found here.

To cap it all off, the brochure that comes with Alli advises one to look on the bright side of the treatment effects:  they are reminders to keep with the program and incentives not to cheat.  I’ll say.  Yet this is still one of the most popular drugs ever to enter the marketplace.

So let’s all hope that juries and drug consumers stop watching so much TV so we can get rational conviction rates and wiser consumption of pharmaceuticals in the future.

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GMOs really are bad for you (just not how you think)

Disclaimers—(1)  From here on out, I will use GMO as a plural as well as a singular term, because it can be both.  Just like RPM.  When people say “RPMs,” my head comes close to exploding.  (2) I regularly teach a course in sustainable eating, and might be expected to have strong opinions about this issue.  I do, but perhaps not for the reasons you think.

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First, it was GMO hysteria—Frankenfoods were going to make us all have three-headed babies.    Even now this article is zooming around Facebook, warning people to stop drinking some types of beer because GMO ingredients (among other things) used in their manufacture.  I think 5 people have shared it on my wall in the last week.

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Then (now, actually), there was the backlash—everyone is scolding the GMO alarmists for being afraid of GMO foods when there is no evidence that eating them is harmful in any way.  And besides, we have miracle foods like golden rice that seem to make things better for everyone.  But I still think about all the effort by the Monsantos and Cargills of the world to keep labeling GMO foods illegal?  It must be about money—probably because very few people would select a GMO tomato if there were a non-GMO tomato for sale right beside it.

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While all these pro-and con GMO articles are being read by people on social media, there’s another aspect of GMO food that bears attention.

The history of agriculture has been the history of genetic modification.  The same goes for animal husbandry.  We, as a species, have been cross-pollinating and hybridizing plants and selectively breeding animals for a long, long time.  In fact, the types of pigeons that bird fanciers could bring about played a role in Darwin’s thinking about evolutionary theory.  What is that, if not genetic modification?  For me, I think they jury may still be out on the issue of modern vs. traditional genetic modification.  Like other modern things we didn’t evolve with, GMO could be as dangerous as Asbestos, which was once hailed as a miracle fire-retardant, proudly used in an astonishing array of products.

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But there’s one very important difference between old- and new-style genetic modification.  And that difference gives me my answer to the question,  “What’s really wrong with GMO-based foods?”

In the modern era, where we find companies not only modifying an organism’s genome directly but also adding genes from one organism to another’s genome (creating what is properly called a chimera), things are a bit different.  Monsanto can (and has) created crops that are resistant to their best-selling herbicide RoundUp and crops that do not produce fertile seeds for the next generation of plant.  The RoundUp Ready plants allow the grower to spray herbicide from the moment they are in the ground, allowing weeds to be killed while the crop survives.  Terminator seeds leave no viable seeds for next year’s planting, and force the grower to buy new seeds each year.  We’ll look at each genetic modification in turn.

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RoundUp Ready seeds increase the amount of herbicide used by growers each year.  This starts an arms race between weed and herbicide that will lead to herbicide-resistant weeds by the same mechanism that yielded multi-resistant TB and staph for human beings.  On top of this, herbicide production adds carbon cost to the growing process, making agriculture energy negative for the first time ever.  For example, Corn produced by small farmers produces 83 calories per calorie of fossil fuel used.  In ADM and other corporate farms, 33 calories of fossil fuel gets 1 calorie of food, mostly because of the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

Adding to this problem is the fact that GMO strains of corn have a far greater crop density and yield-per-acre compared to previous strains.  This super density corn depletes the soil of nutrients quite quickly and thus necessitates the use of large amounts of chemical fertilizer, further raising the carbon cost of producing food.

Since the Supreme Court ruled in Diamond v. Chakrabarty (1980) that a living organism could be patented if part of its genome had been “manufactured” by humans, the list of patentable living things has grown from the original bacterium in question to include plants and animals.  The gruesome Oncomouse, a creature with a lamentable, introduced mutation that makes it highly susceptible to getting cancer, was patented by Harvard University, who profits by licensing the mouse to cancer researchers.

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Once a company like Monsanto has modified a plant’s genome, they can patent the seed and charge farmers to use the seed each year.  In the case of soy beans, Monsanto seeds make up well over 90% of the North American crop, and farmers have to re-buy seeds each year.  The very thing that made agriculture possible, seed-saving, is illegal in the age of patented organisms.  Monsanto aggressively prosecutes seed-savers and has sued any farmer whose crop contains any Monsanto plants.  The problem is, if your neighbor has Monsanto field, the odds are that some of those seeds have found their way into your field, and now you are violating Monsanto’s patent.  And they will sue you, even though Monsanto says they won’t.  (By the way, if you think that’s an egregious overreach of patent law, the Supreme Court recently upheld the astounding ruling by the lower courts discussed here.)

Of course, enforcement is expensive, so Monsanto, according to many experts, is trying like hell to extend terminator seed technology into all its product lines, I mean seeds.  Monsanto’s official position is that they have agreed not to introduce the suicide gene into food crops.  It would certainly be in their interest to do so.

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On top of all this, Monsanto holds tremendous sway in policies and laws due to its lobbying efforts and its placement of former executives with high-level appointments to the USDA, FDA and elsewhere in the government.  Remember, this is the same FDA that prohibited labelling of GMO food.  Maybe it’s just me, but I think having the food supply patented by gigantic corporations that attend only to their own bottom lines is a bad thing.  And I think creating terminator seeds that could, conceivably, spread by cross-pollination from corn to other types of grass like wheat, rice and barley is even worse.

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 It’s time to turn on the Bat Signal…

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