Tuesday, October 5th, 2021


The Fusion Beat

Is it a dream? Is it a pipe dream? At this point, we should try anything to slow climate change. And there are some folks trying anything and everything (and getting somewhere) on the dream of nuclear fusion. Rivka Galchen in The New Yorker: Can Nuclear Fusion Put the Brakes on Climate Change? "Let's say that you've devoted your entire adult life to developing a carbon-free way to power a household for a year on the fuel of a single glass of water, and that you've had moments, even years, when you were pretty sure you would succeed. Let's say also that you're not crazy. This is a reasonable description of many of the physicists working in the field of nuclear fusion. In order to reach this goal, they had to find a way to heat matter to temperatures hotter than the center of the sun, so hot that atoms essentially melt into a cloud of charged particles known as plasma; they did that. They had to conceive of and build containers that could hold those plasmas; they did that, too, by making 'bottles' out of strong magnetic fields. When those magnetic bottles leaked—because, as one scientist explained, trying to contain plasma in a magnetic bottle is like trying to wrap a jelly in twine—they had to devise further ingenious solutions, and, again and again, they did." (I was supposed to take out the garbage this morning. I didn't.)

+ "It was Manabe, now at Princeton University, who built one of the first climate models in the 1960s that explained how human-produced carbon dioxide could warm the planet." The Nobel Prize in physics honors work on climate change and complex systems.


Good Times, Bad Times

In my book, Please Scream Inside Your Heart, I describe how tech was both one of the best things about the pandemic (it kept us connected, working, schooling) and one of the worst things (it divided us, amplified falsehoods, nearly destroyed democracy). With that in mind, let's take a look at two AP headlines today. Ex-Facebook employee says network hurts kids, fuels division. And, Outage highlights how vital Facebook has become worldwide.

+ Frances Haugen made some solid points during her Congressional testimony. "The dangers of engagement-based ranking are that Facebook knows that content that elicits an extreme reaction from you is more likely to get a click, a comment or reshare." I shared a few takes on the Facebook saga yesterday. But let me add a little more context: To corral the damage Facebook does to democracy, we need government action. It complicates matters that half of that government has done far more damage to American democracy than Facebook ever could. (Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley are going to rein in Facebook for the good of democracy? Really?) It's also notable that many of the key stories about Facebook's malfeasance have been published by The Wall Street Journal, owned by Fox News mogul, Rupert Murdoch. And Fox News has done more damage to American democracy than Facebook. (Rupert Murdoch is going to rein in Facebook in the name of truth and transparency? Really?) Frances Haugen has done a good job connecting Facebook to the Jan 6 insurrection. But again, punishing Facebook for damaging democracy while letting Trump and his enablers walk free would be the biggest farce in American history.

+ In the end, internet users have to decide what they are and aren't willing to put up with. In an act of perfect timing, these issues are topping the headlines on the day Dave Eggers' sequel to The Circle is dropping. It's excellent, timely, and will make you think about something you really ought to be thinking about. Grab your copy of The Every from McSweeney's or your local bookstore (it's not for sale on Amazon).


In Front of the World’s Eyes

"Everyone uses different methods. Some even use a wrecking bar, or iron chains with locks. Police would step on the suspect's face and tell him to confess ... The torture in police detention centers only stopped when the suspects confessed, Jiang said. Then they were usually transferred to another facility, like a prison or an internment camp." Chinese detective in exile reveals extent of torture against Uyghurs.


Pain, No Gain

"Some 216,000 children - mostly boys - have been sexually abused by clergy in the French Catholic Church since 1950, a damning new inquiry has found. The head of the inquiry said there were at least 2,900-3,200 abusers, and accused the Church of showing a 'cruel indifference towards the victims.' Pope Francis 'felt pain' on hearing about the inquiry's finding, a Vatican statement said." OK, he feels pain. Let's call it a wash. (When people aren't punished for crimes, they will keep committing those crimes. And I'm not sure how you describe systematically committing mass child rape, but "cruel indifference" doesn't cut it.)


Slippin Through the Hair Net

"A generally accepted hypothesis about stem cells says they replenish tissues and organs, including hair, but they will eventually be exhausted and then die in place. This process is seen as an integral part of aging. Instead Dr. Yi and his colleagues made a surprising discovery that, at least in the hair of aging animals, stem cells escape from the structures that house them. 'It's a new way of thinking about aging,' said Dr. Cheng-Ming Chuong, a skin cell researcher and professor of pathology." The excellent Gina Kolata in the NYT (Gift Article for ND Readers): Losing Your Hair? You Might Blame the Great Stem Cell Escape. (I suppose this helps explain why so many Americans wear tin foil hats.)


A Teachable Moment

"Earlier, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that 95% of full-time employees had received at least one shot. However, about 3,700 substitute teachers were needed Monday." 96% of NYC schools teachers now vaccinated after mandate. (This is a double dose of good news. First, the mandates are working across industries. Second, if you have a kid in NYC schools, you don't have to worry about them bringing Covid home from school because, even after going over 700,000 pieces of data, a school employee is still doing their research.)


Cops Out

"This exodus couldn't come at a more difficult moment. Following the murder of George Floyd last year and other high-profile instances of police violence, American cities erupted in the largest protests in generations, if not ever. Police departments are facing new political pressures, and relationships between departments and Black Americans are at a low point—which makes reversing the demographic trend both more pressing and more challenging." The Atlantic: America Is Losing Its Black Police Officers.


Havana Conniption

"National security officials at the White House were recently issued a warning: move away from the immediate area as soon as possible if you ever feel the acute onset of pressure, sound or heat in the head. In brown bag lunches over the past week, policy staff at the Pentagon have been instructed to report any strange, sudden health symptoms without delay." Convinced ‘Havana syndrome' is real, Biden team issues sharper guidance for U.S. personnel. (I cover this story a lot because I know people who are paid to worry about threats like this, and they're worried.)


A Short Debate

Update from the Dem v Dem budget talks in Congress. Manchin says: "Basically I'm more concerned about our nation and our country turning into a more of a entitlement society, versus a rewarding society. So there's a balance to be had here." Reality says: The richest Americans became 40% richer during the pandemic.


Bottom of the News

"It seems so obvious now. Yeah, of course. You create stuff on your Mac. But back then, the people to whom that seemed obvious were part a tiny club. We only made up a couple percent of computer users. We'd see each other at small, dank Mac stores and wonder why the rest of the world didn't see what we could see." It's been a decade since Steve Jobs died. And a decade since I wrote this: I Made This on a Mac.

+ A defendant attempted to carry out a citizen's arrest of a court judge after telling him he did not recognize his authority before being wrestled away by security guards.

+ Elijah Wood says a Lord of the Rings orc design was based on Harvey Weinstein.

+ The Nature Conservancy Photo Contest Winners.