New freelance writings: Surveillance of truckers; clumps of stardust; religion & science

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published for Medium, Inside Science, and StarTrek.com. Thanks as usual to my excellent editors! I’m only posting brief excerpts here, so if you’re interested, please check out the whole thing using the links below.

You can stay more up-to-date if you follow my electronic newsletter, Ramin’s Space!

 

Robot Truckers Are Here — They Just Happen to Be Human

Electronic tracking devices and other surveillance tech monitor just about everything human drivers do, automating what was once an independent job.

Truckers drink coffee and complain about Mondays just like everybody else. Work can be a slog. But unlike what you’re probably used to in your office, many truck drivers now deal with rigorous and near-constant electronic surveillance — a camera pointed at them to closely monitor productivity, for example.

“You feel like you’re being watched all the time,” says John Grosvenor, founder of Truckers United for Freedom, a group that advocates for truckers’ rights. “Some people act out in inappropriate behaviors at times — they stick their finger in their nose or do something crass—as a form of rebellion. All in all, they hate it.”

Devices now track every aspect of a trucker’s job, including their current location, where they’re going, how fast they’re driving, and when they take a break and how long it lasts. Mostly for insurance purposes in the event of an accident, trucks often come equipped with cameras trained on both the driver and the road. They also have a variety of radar, lidar, and ultrasound sensors, as well as accelerometers and gyroscopes. The data feeds into an onboard computer, similar to self-driving vehicles. One firm has even developed a steering wheel with built-in heart monitors to monitor fatigue.

Since companies need truckers to deliver specific things at specific times, truckers don’t have regular routes like other drivers, but instead might be hauling paper towels to New York one day and motoring a haul of bolts down to Pittsburgh the next. Any delay can foul up assembly lines and supply chains. “That’s really the foundation of the day-to-day, routine monitoring of truck drivers since the mid-1990s,” says Steve Viscelli, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream. “[Trucking] has slowly evolved to look very much like the algorithmic management that everyone thinks is new about platforms like Uber.”

[Read the entire piece in Medium, published on 1 October.]

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New freelance writings: apocalypses in comics, big black holes, fooling facial recognition

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published for Quanta magazine, Inside Science, and Physics magazine. Thanks as usual to my excellent editors! I’m only posting brief excerpts here, so if you’re interested, please check out the whole thing using the links below.

You can stay more up-to-date if you follow my electronic newsletter, Ramin’s Space!

 

Apocalypse How-To? Better Science Fiction Stories About Threats to Humanity

While plenty of apocalypses occur in science fiction, the risks could be shown more realistically, experts argue.

Which science fiction movies, TV shows, and comic books give a realistic portrayal of the consequences of “antibiotic resistance”? None, said Jessica Petrillo, a State Department senior health security officer. There’s a dearth of stories exploring how overusing antibiotics is fueling drug-resistant diseases that kill more and more people every year, she said. Her first goal is to try to raise awareness of the global problem, including through “comic book diplomacy.”

That’s an extreme case, but a panel of government agents and scientists at San Diego’s Comic-Con last Friday argued that science fiction writers and artists can craft better stories about disasters that could imperil civilization. The possibility of a coming apocalypse pervades science fiction today, but how likely are those possibilities in the next few decades or the next century? These experts tried to figure out how nuclear proliferation, killer asteroids and pandemics might actually arise.

Take nuclear terrorism. Many movies and TV programs, including “24,” make it appear almost easy to acquire or engineer nuclear devices. But countries typically hold such devices with the highest security measures, such that maybe only a terrorist organization with the capabilities of SPECTRE from the James Bond movies or The Syndicate in the DC Comics universe could get around them, said Gregory Bernard, a Department of Homeland Security officer…

[Read the entire piece in Inside Science, published on 24 July.]

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New freelance writings: smartphone border searches, new moonshots, AI gone awry

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published for Medium, Inside Science, and StarTrek.com. Thanks as usual to my excellent editors! I’m only posting brief excerpts here, so if you’re interested, please check out the whole thing using the links below.

You can stay more up-to-date if you follow my electronic newsletter, Ramin’s Space!

 

Smartphone Privacy Is Under Threat at the Border

Picture this: You’re driving up from Tijuana to San Diego, and as you cross the U.S. border, agents stop you and demand to see your iPhone. With no explanation, and no warrant, they can thumb through your phone, or simply take it and extract all the data they want — every embarrassing text, private photos, even deleted files. And this happens more often than you think.

Over the past few years, with little fanfare, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers have rapidly ramped up the number of digital searches they carry out, using powerful tools to copy personal data from people’s smartphones, tablets, and laptops as they cross the border. More than a million people cross the border or arrive by airport every day in the U.S., with around 100,000 passing daily by foot, car, and bus through the Tijuana-San Diego port of entry alone. A not insignificant number of these people — now thousands annually — are being subjected to invasive searches of their devices.

“The government’s national security powers are strongest at the border,” says Catherine Crump, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley law school and director of the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic. “But this just gives the government an incredible opportunity, a situation ripe for abuse. The government has untrammeled access to people’s most sensitive information.”…

[Read the entire piece in Medium magazine, published on 7 June.]

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Could universal basic income become a presidential campaign issue?

[Backstory: This is a draft of a story that didn’t work out for the magazine I wrote it for, so I decided to share it here on my website.]

The Universal Basic Income is now a 2020 campaign issue. Longshot candidate Andrew Yang, a New York businessman, is getting increasing press for his platform centered around a universal basic income plan. Senator Bernie Sanders also supports the policy, and Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez has included a kind of UBI in her proposed Green New Deal.

But UBI isn’t just some abstract, pie-in-the-sky idea; it’s already being tested and implemented in a bunch of places around the country. Small pilot programs and versions of a universal basic income—though not always with that name—have gained steam in a variety of cities and states, from Stockton to Chicago to Hawaii. The policy usually means dishing out cash, no strings attached, to everyone, on a monthly or annual basis, an influx that can keep many families above the poverty line. And while the idea is certainly being pushed mainly by progressives, it’s a rare policy with support among many on the left and right and in financially strapped as well as more well-off places.

“There’s a great deal of momentum in the movement right now,” says Karl Widerquist, a political economist at Georgetown University in Qatar and co-chair of the Basic Income Earth Network, which supports UBI. He attributes its increasing popularity over the past decade to factors including Occupy Wall Street, awareness of stagnating wages, growing inequality and increasing concerns about automation.

But even as the idea gains steam, these early programs are running into problems. Many are primarily funded by billionaires, which makes them unsustainable—and they face uncertain futures when only a few policy-makers are ready to put government money behind them.

The most robust cash-distribution program ever attempted in the U.S. comes out of Alaska. In the 1970s, Alaska opened the North Slope to oil drilling, and some of the oil revenue was invested in a fund the state called the Permanent Fund. Since 1982, the Permanent Fund has paid out a dividend between $1,000 and $2,000—depending on oil prices—to every resident every year, regardless of age. (More than 660,000 Alaskans received their 2018 check for $1,600 in October.) While that’s not an enormous sum, it means a lot to someone close to the poverty line, and it adds up in a household with kids.

“By creating a fund, they were able to keep that [oil revenue] money invested and keep it around for a long time,” says Damon Jones, a University of Chicago economist. “They’ve preserved it over time for future generations.”

The Alaska Permanent Fund has been around long enough to provide documented outcomes for those studying the policy. For example, a common political objection to such programs is that “free riders” will quit their jobs or work less once they get that extra paycheck. But a new study shows that the small number of free riders aren’t enough to drag the economy down. Jones and Ioana Marinescu, a University of Pennsylvania economist, find that the policy has had no significant effect on the Alaska job market, as employment levels there match that of other, similar states.

“We explain this by saying that there is a balancing out of people’s lesser desire to work and companies’ desire to hire in order to respond to added demand from Alaskans who are spending their cash,” Marinescu says. In other words, the economy remains pretty stable: If there are any people working less, any impact they might have is offset by people spending their extra money on goods and services, which means local businesses hire more.

Many economists, especially conservative ones like Milton Friedman and his followers, prefer UBI to other wealth redistribution programs because it gives people the freedom to spend their money however they want, and they see it as preferable to expensive social welfare programs, like food stamps and health care.

And the Alaskan experiment has shown that untethered cash grants can improve public health and safety. For one, babies in the state, especially those of less-educated mothers, have had higher birth weights since the policy was implemented in the 1970s.

Another UBI experiment saw a similar effect: About 20 years ago, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina started channeling casino money to all adult tribal members—about 16,000 people. They received two payments per year adding up to $4,000-$6,000 annually, and afterwards poverty and criminal activity went down while children’s health improved dramatically.

Though these experiments arguably accomplished what they were intended to do, whether the policy can be politically and economically sustainable in other places around the country still remains to be seen. Four out of five Alaskans say their program provides an important source of income for people in their community and improves their quality of life. But nationwide polls of eligible voters show that about 48 percent of them support a guaranteed basic income, with higher support from people under 50 and people of color.

And, of course, financing from oil and gas or from casinos isn’t a possibility in most other places, so the Alaskan and Cherokee systems can’t be replicated elsewhere.

Two of the newest pilot programs include Stockton and Oakland, California, whose populations add up to about Alaska’s. Starting later this year, about 100 Stockton volunteers selected by researchers will receive $500 a month for 18 months, and 1,000 Oakland participants will get $1,000 a month for a year. The experiments’ funders include Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and the startup company incubator Y Combinator led by Sam Altman. Other Silicon Valley heavyweights like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk have voiced support for a basic income as well, at least in principle, partly because of the fear that artificial intelligence and robots will take over more people’s jobs.

Others look to an even wider scale. Democratic Representative Chris Lee passed legislation last year for Hawaii to form an economic security working group to study how UBI could work throughout the state. And Chicago’s City Council could soon implement a UBI pilot to provide $500 a month to 1,000 families, likely partly funded by philanthropists.

If either ultimately comes to fruition for all their residents, however, it would cost billions of dollars annually. And that likely means raising taxes.

“I think one of the promising avenues for financing basic income is to think about a carbon tax or more broadly a tax on pollution,” Marinescu argues.

But then it really becomes more of a political challenge rather than an economic one. The biggest carbon tax proposal on the 2018 midterm ballot, in Washington state, failed by a wide margin—56 percent to 44 percent. A bill in the House with bipartisan cosponsors (the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act) would create a small carbon tax and the money would be given to taxpayers in a dividend, but its support currently remains small. Until a federal carbon tax becomes a political reality, each city and state will have to come up with their own financing scheme for a basic income, and for many, that won’t be easy to solve.

But a guaranteed income isn’t the only big idea in town, and other similar measures have become part of the national debate. New Jersey Democratic Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman, introduced legislation last September to make caregivers and students pursuing higher education eligible to receive the Earned Income Tax Credit. And in October, Senator Kamala Harris announced the LIFT (Livable Incomes for Families Today) the Middle Class Act, which would basically expand the EITC. On the other hand, Senators Sanders and Kirsten Gillibrand have called for an even more ambitious universal job guarantee instead, which would mean employment as well as a livable income for everyone.

“I think this is a really interesting conversation because it pushes us to think really hard about our social contract,” says Rakeen Mabud, director of the nonprofit Roosevelt Institute’s 21st Century Economy and Economic Inclusion programs. “It forces us to think about those big ideas, push past assumptions we have about the poor and about what our government should be doing and get toward a vision of a good society.”

New freelance writings: space arms race, scientific racism, women in physics

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published for Medium, Nature, and Smithsonian magazine. Thanks as usual to my excellent editors! I’m only posting brief excerpts here, so if you’re interested, please check out the whole thing using the links below.

You can stay more up-to-date if you follow my electronic newsletter, Ramin’s Space!

 

Are We at Risk for a Space Arms Race?

The Pentagon’s space-based missile defense plans could escalate tensions with rival space powers.

On March 27, India tested its first anti-satellite weapon, an interceptor missile that blew up an Indian military satellite in space. The test put India in an exclusive club of nations — including the U.S., Russia, and China — that are building the capacity to shoot down both missiles and satellites. And the other members of the club aren’t happy.

On April 1, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine criticized India’s test, angry that the resulting debris may have reached the orbit of the International Space Station and other satellites.

“That is a terrible, terrible thing, to create an event that sends debris in an apogee that goes above the International Space Station,” Bridenstine said at a town hall meeting that was livestreamed on NASA TV. “And that kind of activity is not compatible with the future of human spaceflight that we need to see happen.”

Yet the future of human spaceflight looks increasingly militarized. The Department of Defense has declared its own plans to attach missile-detecting sensors on satellites, and more menacingly, to seriously consider building interceptors that could be deployed in space. If Congress approves new funding for these projects, the technology could encourage rivals to ratchet up their own space weapon capabilities, triggering an arms race that could make orbital wars with lasers and satellites a reality…

[Read the entire piece in Medium magazine, published on 18 April.]

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New freelance writings: women in engineering, Arctic climate impacts, and planets’ tectonics

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published for Smithsonian, Inside Science, and Undark magazine. Thanks as usual to my excellent editors. I’m only posting brief excerpts here, so if you’re interested, please check out the whole thing using the links below.

You can stay more up-to-date if you follow my electronic newsletter, Ramin’s Space!

 

At Major Engineering Conferences, Women Are Still Hard to Find

At the Optical Fiber Communication Conference and Expo last week, most of the participants — and nearly all of the high-profile speakers — were men.

Society of Women Engineers (2018). Other engineering conferences are often rather male-dominated.

More than 15,000 attendees and 700 exhibitors descended upon downtown San Diego last week for the Optical Fiber Communication Conference and Exposition (OFC), presenting and talking about the latest developments in the field, such as new kinds of integrated circuits for mobile phones and quantum computing technologies. As with many conferences, there was much to see and discuss, but one topic in particular became something of a sore spot with engineers in the field: Nearly all of the high-profile speakers were men.

“We are very concerned. There are few women here,” said Alba Vela, a postdoctoral researcher at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain. She joked that a conference photographer seemed to be following her around, given that there were relatively few women to highlight with photos on the conference website…

For years, engineers and advocates for women in engineering and science have talked about gender disparities and tried to educate the community in hopes of changing the dynamics and achieving gender parity. “We thought it would happen organically,” said Elizabeth Rogan, chief executive of the OSA, “but it didn’t.” And as it relates to the Optical Fiber Communication Conference and Exposition, it still hasn’t…

[Read the entire piece in Undark magazine, published on 13 March.]

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We’re not in climate change’s “end times”

I just wanted to write down some of my unedited thoughts here, for posterity’s sake…

Credit: NOAA

As people in the Midwest and Northeast of the United States cope with the polar vortex and frigid temperatures, right after people in the Southwest endured arguably the worst-ever wildfire season, it’s easy to feel like the end of the world’s upon us and there’s nothing we can do.

But that would be a huge mistake. We have to avoid that feeling. Even some science journalists, have been acting like the end times are here. Jokes about an imminent apocalypse and collapse of civilization might get a few likes on social media, but when they become the norm, we all suffer a loss in morale and our motivation for action dissipates into the warming atmosphere.

My one-month-old daughter and two-year-old son will likely live to 2100, assuming they at least average lifespans. Climate scientists tells us what they can expect if our business-as-usual scenario continues. They’ll experience more extreme weather events, from heat waves and droughts to floods and extreme cold. They’ll witness more frequent and intense wildfires and stronger hurricanes. They’ll deal with the loss of key fisheries and crops that can’t adapt quickly enough. Coastal people will lose their shores and infrastructure there, while arctic people lose their livelihoods and island dwellers entirely lose their homes and communities.

To prevent all this, or to mitigate the damage, we need positive action, not counterproductive and depressing talk of worst-case scenarios. I was an activist myself while I was a university student in the 2000s. Even as my fellow student activists and I took on David versus Goliath fights on things like university products from sweatshops and old-growth forests, living wage campaigns for local workers, and opposition to disastrous wars in the Middle East, we felt more optimistic as we engaged in the struggles, even if we objectively had slim chances for success.

There’s social science evidence for this phenomenon. Over the past couple decades, sociologists and psychologists have found that collective action can lead to more feelings of hope and less of fear among the participants — which in turn leads to more action. In contrast, I worry that a constant, myopic focus on the worst that can happen paralyzes us. We might write a click-friendly article or complain on Facebook and Twitter, and then we do nothing. That helps no one.

But let’s be honest: despite the daunting challenges we all face today, we’re not living through the end of the world — either environmentally or politically. It’s not like we’re all about to die and our government’s about to collapse. Our grandchildren and their political leaders will still be grappling with the myriad implications of climate change in the 22nd century, even if some crops will already have been lost and some people will have had to retreat from flood zones and fire-prone regions.

The proposals in the Green New Deal provide an excellent example of what can be done in the US across a range of industries. If some version of it were to come to pass, it would include popular infrastructure projects and create thousands or even millions of quality green jobs as well as support for the people who will bear the brunt of climate change and have the fewest resources to withstand it.

We can and should argue over the details, including ways these projects would be funded and whether to promote carbon taxes, nuclear energy, and so-called negative-emission technologies. We need major society-wide changes that decouple our economy from fossil fuels, and people have been clamoring for it for years. Finally influential members of Congress like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey have begun to listen and propose legislation. Yes, this is ambitious and might seem challenging politically during the Trump administration, but remember that environmentalists managed to spur the Nixon administration to create the Environmental Protection Agency and Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

If we really want to achieve a better future, let’s live in the present as if that future is possible. Climate change has become the most pressing — and the most formidable — threat of our generation and the next. But if we mobilize, think big, and act now, rather than dwell on everything that can go wrong, we’ll eventually weather these storms.

December freelance writings: From Iceland to Mars, simultaneous wildfires, and white Christmases

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published for Hakai magazine and Inside Science. Thanks as usual to my excellent editors. I’m only posting brief excerpts here, so if you’re interested, please check out the whole thing using the links below.

You can stay more up-to-date if you follow my electronic newsletter, Ramin’s Space!

 

The Search for Life on Mars Begins in Iceland

NASA is sending a rover to Mars in 2020 to look for signs of life. To know which signs to look for, scientists are studying geothermal sites in coastal Iceland.

Photo courtesy: Sarah Black

On a misty day near Reykjavik, on Iceland’s west coast, Bethany Ehlmann hiked along the edge of the fjord Hvalfjörður. Nestled between the steep cliffs and vertical veins of lava, she found what she was searching for: a rock with signs that showed water once flowed here.

The marks in the rock were subtle—little more than speckles and banding—but they suggested much more than the presence of an ancient trickle of water. They were earthly clues that would help Ehlmann, a planetary scientist and geologist at the California Institute of Technology, better understand the conditions in which life may have arisen on Earth. And, potentially, on Mars.

Before Mars became the frigid, inhospitable desert it is today, scientists think it looked a lot like coastal Iceland. Modern Iceland’s iron-rich rocks, glaciers, volcanoes, and hot springs reflect conditions on Mars more than three billion years ago. This makes Iceland a great trial ground for upcoming missions to Mars, including that of the Mars 2020 rover. Set to launch in 2020, this mission will, among other things, search for evidence of extraterrestrial life…

[Read the entire piece in Hakai magazine, published on 12 December.]

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November freelance writings: the brain science of adolescence and learning languages

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published for Knowable magazine and Inside Science. Thanks as usual to my excellent editors. I’m only posting brief excerpts here, so if you’re interested, please check out the whole thing using the links below.

You can stay more up-to-date if you follow my electronic newsletter, Ramin’s Space! (I had to plug it.)

 

Age-Based Justice System Approach Overlooks That Adolescence Extends Beyond Age 18, Scientists Say

Psychological and brain development extends years beyond the end of puberty, new research shows.

In the U.S. when a person reaches 18 years old, they enjoy new rights such as voting. They also shoulder new burdens, especially in the legal system. Federal and state law can treat an offender on his or her 18th birthday very differently than they would have the day before. But does developmental science agree that an 18-year-old can reason as an adult?

Contrary to the prevailing legal perspective, a person’s brain and psychological abilities typically don’t fully mature until around age 22, according to B.J. Casey, a psychologist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, who presented her research probing the adolescent-adult transition at the Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego last week. Considering that 18- to 21-year-olds are in many ways still adolescents who are becoming adults, she and other scientists argue that the legal system should account for that and avoid overly harsh punishments.

Brain development “extends beyond what we typically associate with adolescence based on legal definitions — into the young adult period,” Casey said…

[Read the entire piece in Inside Science, published on 15 November.]

 

How a second language can boost the brain

Being bilingual benefits children as they learn to speak — and adults as they age

Even when you’re fluent in two languages, it can be a challenge to switch back and forth smoothly between them. It’s common to mangle a split verb in Spanish, use the wrong preposition in English, or lose sight of the connection between the beginning and end of a long German sentence. So — does mastering a second language hone our multitasking skills or merely muddle us up?

This debate has been pitting linguists and psychologists against one another since the 1920s, when many experts thought that bilingual children were fated to suffer cognitive impairments later in life. But the science has marched on. In the Annual Review of Linguistics, psycholinguist Mark Antoniou of Western Sydney University in Australia outlines how bilingualism — as he defines it, using at least two languages in your daily life — might benefit our brains, especially as we age. He addresses how best to teach languages to children and lays out evidence that multiple-language use on a regular basis may help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease…

[Read the entire Q&A in Knowable magazine, published on 29 November.]

New freelance writings: Oumuamua, police algorithms, neighborhood violence

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published for Quanta magazine, Undark magazine, and Knowable magazine. Thanks as usual to all of my excellent editors. I’m only posting brief excerpts here, so if you’re interested, please check out the whole thing using the links below.

 

Interstellar Visitor Found to Be Unlike a Comet or an Asteroid

The mystery of ’Oumuamua, the first interstellar object ever observed, continues to deepen. A new analysis argues that if it were a comet, it would have broken apart as it passed near the sun.

Artist’s concept of interstellar object1I/2017 U1 (‘Oumuamua) as it passed through the solar system. (Image credit: ESO / M. Kornmesser)

Like a hit-and-run driver who races from the scene of a crash, the interstellar guest known as ’Oumuamua has bolted out of the solar system, leaving confusion in its wake. Early measurements seemed to indicate that it was an asteroid — a dry rock much like those found orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. Then by this past summer, astronomers largely came around to the conclusion that it was instead a comet — an icy body knocked out of the distant reaches of a far-off planetary system.

Now a new analysis has found inconsistencies in this conclusion, suggesting that ’Oumuamua may not be a comet after all. Whether it’s actually a comet or an asteroid, one thing is clear: ’Oumuamua is not quite like anything seen before.

The object was first spotted a year ago by scientists with the Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii. ’Oumuamua (a Hawaiian word meaning “scout”) appeared to be a rocky, elongated asteroid at first, a stubby cosmic cigar.

Other astronomers quickly joined in the hunt, measuring everything they could. (One team even trained radio telescopes on it to check whether it might be transmitting extraterrestrial broadcasts. It was not.)…

[Read the entire piece in Quanta magazine, published on 10 October.]

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