Earthpages.org

The Real Alternative


Leave a comment

Link between fracking and newborn deaths?


Leave a comment

Philosophy is useless, theology is worse?

Some older readers might recognize the title/lyric from a 1980s Dire Straits tune, “Industrial Disease.”

That sentiment might seem somewhat cynical but, in a way, I can see where Dire Straits was coming from. When I wrote about the social thinker Michel Foucault in my PhD program, I could sense that some of the most powerful players in my life at the time either didn’t give a damn or just didn’t understand.

One professor, so I heard through the grapevine, apparently said that “a university is a place where a professor gets a paycheck.” Well yes, but that’s pretty cynical. This guy ended up shafting me at the last minute, effectively trashing my chances at getting postdoc funding.

Pearls Before Swine – Pieter Brueghel via Wikipedia

Another professor was so incompetent that he got visibly upset at the very idea of my studying Michel Foucault. He thought Foucault’s work abrogated morality. I had to explain to this guy that Foucault was interested in how some moralities are highlighted while others are ignored at a given moment in history. Foucault wasn’t advocating the abandonment of morality.

The bottom line?

Even academics can be incredibly callous, uncaring or just uninformed. However, that doesn’t mean we should give up and stop looking at society in intelligent ways. But be beware. A lot of people won’t get what you’re saying. And some might even try to turn your wisdom against you.

Didn’t someone else say this a long time ago?

Do not cast your pearls before swine…”

Jesus, of course, was talking more about holiness and spirituality. But I think his teaching applies to many fields, and sadly, to more than a few people today.


Leave a comment

These caterpillars eat plastic… have we stumbled upon a pollution solution?


Leave a comment

EP Today – Total revision on entry about Pantheism


1 Comment

There’s a new generation of water pollutants in your medicine cabinet

Lee Blaney, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Image 20170418 10221 ajxgkl

Every day we each use a variety of personal care products. We wash our hands with antibacterial soaps and clean our faces with specialty cleansers. We wash and maintain our hair with shampoo, conditioner and other hair care products. We use deodorant and perfume or cologne to smell nice. Depending on the day, we may apply sunscreen or insect repellent. The Conversation

All of these products contribute to our quality of life. But where do they go after we use them?

When we bathe, personal care products wash off of our bodies and into sewer systems that carry them to regional wastewater treatment plants. However, these plants are not designed to treat the thousands of specialty chemicals in pharmaceuticals and personal care products. Many of the active and inactive ingredients present in these products pass through our wastewater treatment plants and ultimately end up in rivers, streams or oceans.

Once in the environment, these chemicals may cause hormonal effects and toxicity in aquatic animals. In my laboratory we are studying these emerging water pollutants, which are turning up in surface water, groundwater and even treated drinking water. Although they are typically found at low concentrations, they may still threaten human and ecological health.

New pollutants, present worldwide

Personal care products and their ingredients are widely distributed throughout our environment. In one recent study, our lab aggregated over 5,000 measurements of active ingredients from a variety of personal care products that were found in untreated wastewater, treated wastewater and surface waters such as rivers and streams. They included N,N-diethyl-3-methylbenzamide, or DEET, an insect repellent; galaxolide, a fragrance; oxybenzone, a sunscreen; and triclosan, an antibacterial compound.

Other studies conducted near the Mario Zucchelli and McMurdo & Scott research bases confirmed that chemicals in personal care products were even present in Antarctic seawater. Those reports identified the presence of plasticizers, antibacterials, preservatives, sunscreens and fragrances in the Antarctic marine environment. Together, these studies suggest that the active ingredients in personal care products can be found in any water body influenced by human activity.

These substances are typically present in the aquatic environment at concentrations of 10 to 100 nanograms per liter, which is equivalent to 1 to 2 drops in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. But even at these low levels, some still pose a risk.

Moving up the food chain

Depending on their chemical properties, we can classify some of these products as hydrophilic (“water-loving”) or lipophilic (“lipid-loving”). The fat layers in our bodies are comprised of lipids, so lipophilic personal care products can accumulate in the tissue and organs of aquatic animals like fish, birds and even dolphins.

Our group has recently detected a suite of sunscreen agents and 17α-ethinylestradiol, a synthetic form of the hormone estrogen that is the active ingredient in birth control pills, in crayfish from urban streams near Baltimore, Maryland. We have also measured sunscreens in oysters and mussels collected from the Chesapeake Bay. The uptake of these chemicals by aquatic animals raises environmental concerns.

Specifically, as lipophilic chemicals from personal care products accumulate in animals at higher concentrations, there is a greater potential for them to cause toxic effects. For instance, many personal care products disrupt hormone systems in the body. Some chemicals used in personal care products affect reproductive systems and function, causing the feminization of male fish.

These reproductive effects can have important consequences for aquatic animals in the environment, and they may even represent a potential health risk for humans. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration banned the use of triclosan and a number of other antibacterial agents in antiseptic wash products due, in part, to health risks associated with hormonal effects.

U.S. Geological Survey hydrologists sampling shallow groundwater near septic systems on New York’s Fire Island in 2011. The scientists found hormones, detergent degradation products, fragrances, insect repellent, sunscreen additives, a floor cleaner and pharmaceuticals, indicating that contaminants were moving from the septic systems into groundwater.
Chris Schubert, USGS

Recent research has shown that oxybenzone, a sunscreen agent used in many personal care products, is toxic to corals. For many coastal communities, coral reefs are critical to local economies. For example, the net value of Hawaii’s coral reefs is estimated to be US$34 billion.

Earlier this year Hawaii introduced legislation to ban the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate in order to protect coral reefs. While research and policymaking are still ongoing in this area, it is important to note that a number of new consumer products have started using labels like “coral safe” and “reef safe.”

Multiple solutions

Typical wastewater treatment plants are designed to treat multiple pollutants, including organic carbon from human and food waste; nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus; and pathogenic bacteria and viruses that cause disease. However, they are not equipped to handle the many ingredients of concern that are present in personal care products.

Protecting the environment and human health from these substances will require progress in several areas. They include improving technologies for wastewater treatment plants; conducting more testing and regulation of personal care products to avoid unintended toxicity to aquatic animals; and designing “green chemicals” that do not pose toxicity concerns. This multi-pronged approach will help us to ensure that personal care products continue to improve our quality of life without harming the environment.

Lee Blaney, Assistant Professor of Environmental Engineering, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Leave a comment

EP Today – Great article about tensions between religion and individuality

Today’s Top Tweet outlines some of tensions that arise whenever a thinking person enters into a religious community. The fact that we all have different views is hardly surprising. The earliest disciples argued over doctrine and practice. Why should we be any different in the 21st century?

What often turns me off, however, is how some eggheads criticize Christianity because it has so many variations.

Umm… yeah… and your local community or faith group doesn’t?

Well, maybe if you’re in a cult. But in the free world… we like to think for ourselves.


Leave a comment

Melding mind and machine: How close are we?

Image 20170408 2918 1u1y3bz
A noninvasive brain-computer interface based on EEG recordings from the scalp.
Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE), Photo by Mark Stone, CC BY-ND

James Wu, University of Washington and Rajesh P. N. Rao, University of Washington

Just as ancient Greeks fantasized about soaring flight, today’s imaginations dream of melding minds and machines as a remedy to the pesky problem of human mortality. Can the mind connect directly with artificial intelligence, robots and other minds through brain-computer interface (BCI) technologies to transcend our human limitations? The Conversation

Over the last 50 years, researchers at university labs and companies around the world have made impressive progress toward achieving such a vision. Recently, successful entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk (Neuralink) and Bryan Johnson (Kernel) have announced new startups that seek to enhance human capabilities through brain-computer interfacing.

How close are we really to successfully connecting our brains to our technologies? And what might the implications be when our minds are plugged in?

How do brain-computer interfaces work and what can they do?

Origins: Rehabilitation and restoration

Eb Fetz, a researcher here at the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE), is one of the earliest pioneers to connect machines to minds. In 1969, before there were even personal computers, he showed that monkeys can amplify their brain signals to control a needle that moved on a dial.

Much of the recent work on BCIs aims to improve the quality of life of people who are paralyzed or have severe motor disabilities. You may have seen some recent accomplishments in the news: University of Pittsburgh researchers use signals recorded inside the brain to control a robotic arm. Stanford researchers can extract the movement intentions of paralyzed patients from their brain signals, allowing them to use a tablet wirelessly.

Similarly, some limited virtual sensations can be sent back to the brain, by delivering electrical current inside the brain or to the brain surface.

What about our main senses of sight and sound? Very early versions of bionic eyes for people with severe vision impairment have been deployed commercially, and improved versions are undergoing human trials right now. Cochlear implants, on the other hand, have become one of the most successful and most prevalent bionic implants – over 300,000 users around the world use the implants to hear.

A bidirectional brain-computer interface (BBCI) can both record signals from the brain and send information back to the brain through stimulation.
Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE), CC BY-ND

The most sophisticated BCIs are “bi-directional” BCIs (BBCIs), which can both record from and stimulate the nervous system. At our center, we’re exploring BBCIs as a radical new rehabilitation tool for stroke and spinal cord injury. We’ve shown that a BBCI can be used to strengthen connections between two brain regions or between the brain and the spinal cord, and reroute information around an area of injury to reanimate a paralyzed limb.

With all these successes to date, you might think a brain-computer interface is poised to be the next must-have consumer gadget.

Still early days

An electrocorticography grid, used for detecting electrical changes on the surface of the brain, is being tested for electrical characteristics.
Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering, CC BY-ND

But a careful look at some of the current BCI demonstrations reveals we still have a way to go: When BCIs produce movements, they are much slower, less precise and less complex than what able-bodied people do easily every day with their limbs. Bionic eyes offer very low-resolution vision; cochlear implants can electronically carry limited speech information, but distort the experience of music. And to make all these technologies work, electrodes have to be surgically implanted – a prospect most people today wouldn’t consider.

Not all BCIs, however, are invasive. Noninvasive BCIs that don’t require surgery do exist; they are typically based on electrical (EEG) recordings from the scalp and have been used to demonstrate control of cursors, wheelchairs, robotic arms, drones, humanoid robots and even brain-to-brain communication.

The first demonstration of a noninvasive brain-controlled humanoid robot “avatar” named Morpheus in the Neural Systems Laboratory at the University of Washington in 2006. This noninvasive BCI infers what object the robot should pick and where to bring it based on the brain’s reflexive response when an image of the desired object or location is flashed.

But all these demos have been in the laboratory – where the rooms are quiet, the test subjects aren’t distracted, the technical setup is long and methodical, and experiments last only long enough to show that a concept is possible. It’s proved very difficult to make these systems fast and robust enough to be of practical use in the real world.

Even with implanted electrodes, another problem with trying to read minds arises from how our brains are structured. We know that each neuron and their thousands of connected neighbors form an unimaginably large and ever-changing network. What might this mean for neuroengineers?

Imagine you’re trying to understand a conversation between a big group of friends about a complicated subject, but you’re allowed to listen to only a single person. You might be able to figure out the very rough topic of what the conversation is about, but definitely not all the details and nuances of the entire discussion. Because even our best implants only allow us to listen to a few small patches of the brain at a time, we can do some impressive things, but we’re nowhere near understanding the full conversation.

There is also what we think of as a language barrier. Neurons communicate with each other through a complex interaction of electrical signals and chemical reactions. This native electro-chemical language can be interpreted with electrical circuits, but it’s not easy. Similarly, when we speak back to the brain using electrical stimulation, it is with a heavy electrical “accent.” This makes it difficult for neurons to understand what the stimulation is trying to convey in the midst of all the other ongoing neural activity.

Finally, there is the problem of damage. Brain tissue is soft and flexible, while most of our electrically conductive materials – the wires that connect to brain tissue – tend to be very rigid. This means that implanted electronics often cause scarring and immune reactions that mean the implants lose effectiveness over time. Flexible biocompatible fibers and arrays may eventually help in this regard.

Co-adapting, cohabiting

Despite all these challenges, we’re optimistic about our bionic future. BCIs don’t have to be perfect. The brain is amazingly adaptive and capable of learning to use BCIs in a manner similar to how we learn new skills like driving a car or using a touchscreen interface. Similarly, the brain can learn to interpret new types of sensory information even when it’s delivered noninvasively using, for example, magnetic pulses.

Learning to interpret and use artificial sensory information delivered via noninvasive brain stimulation.

Ultimately, we believe a “co-adaptive” bidirectional BCI, where the electronics learns with the brain and talks back to the brain constantly during the process of learning, may prove to be a necessary step to build the neural bridge. Building such co-adaptive bidirectional BCIs is the goal of our center.

We are similarly excited about recent successes in targeted treatment of diseases like diabetes using “electroceuticals” – experimental small implants that treat a disease without drugs by communicating commands directly to internal organs.

And researchers have discovered new ways of overcoming the electrical-to-biochemical language barrier. Injectible “neural lace,” for example, may prove to be a promising way to gradually allow neurons to grow alongside implanted electrodes rather than rejecting them. Flexible nanowire-based probes, flexible neuron scaffolds and glassy carbon interfaces may also allow biological and technological computers to happily coexist in our bodies in the future.

From assistive to augmentative

Elon Musk’s new startup Neuralink has the stated ultimate goal of enhancing humans with BCIs to give our brains a leg up in the ongoing arms race between human and artificial intelligence. He hopes that with the ability to connect to our technologies, the human brain could enhance its own capabilities – possibly allowing us to avoid a potential dystopian future where AI has far surpassed natural human capabilities. Such a vision certainly may seem far-off or fanciful, but we shouldn’t dismiss an idea on strangeness alone. After all, self-driving cars were relegated to the realm of science fiction even a decade and a half ago – and now share our roads.

A BCI can vary along multiple dimensions: whether it interfaces with the peripheral nervous system (a nerve) or the central nervous system (the brain), whether it is invasive or noninvasive and whether it helps restore lost function or enhances capabilities.
James Wu; adapted from Sakurambo, CC BY-SA

In a closer future, as brain-computer interfaces move beyond restoring function in disabled people to augmenting able-bodied individuals beyond their human capacity, we need to be acutely aware of a host of issues related to consent, privacy, identity, agency and inequality. At our center, a team of philosophers, clinicians and engineers is working actively to address these ethical, moral and social justice issues and offer neuroethical guidelines before the field progresses too far ahead.

Connecting our brains directly to technology may ultimately be a natural progression of how humans have augmented themselves with technology over the ages, from using wheels to overcome our bipedal limitations to making notations on clay tablets and paper to augment our memories. Much like the computers, smartphones and virtual reality headsets of today, augmentative BCIs, when they finally arrive on the consumer market, will be exhilarating, frustrating, risky and, at the same time, full of promise.

James Wu, Ph.D. Student in Bioengineering, Researcher at the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering, University of Washington and Rajesh P. N. Rao, Professor of Computer Science and Engineering and Director of the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering , University of Washington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.