#76: I can't feel my body

Welcome back!

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season, and that you were kept warm by the toasty fires and strongly beating hearts of your loved ones, and by a couple freshly brewed, flat white, non-fat presidential nuclear dick tweets.

This was our longest layoff since kicking off so many issues ago, so thanks for your patience as we took a little time off/tried not to just go ahead and let our kids electrocute themselves, we've told you six goddamn times not to touch the tree lights, Johnny. The break was much needed.

In the meantime, we've somehow been brewing up even more fun stuff. We're very excited to announce we've got a brand new podcast in the works (yay! we're just like everyone else!), bringing you The Conversations Most Vital to Our Survival As A Species. Less "topical" and "newsy", more "tell us how it's gonna end". We think you'll love it. More to come on that, soon!


Climate change is happening faster than we thought, surpassing expectations provided just three years ago. The boat is sinking. 

While our fucking president thinks one snowstorm equals no global warming (my man Dr. Michael Mann has WORDS), many of the world's "great" cities are already facing down the enormous financial, structural, and social costs of climate change (not least in part, let's remember, because most human development has occurred near a source of water for fishing and/or drinking, and well, the water's a rising).

And the fun's just begun. Here's a cartoon

On to the news!


Abandon Ship!

Let's check in with those cities already dealing (or not dealing) with effects.

Rising pollution levels in Delhi and the National Capital Region of India (NCR) could soon see residents walking around carrying oxygen cylinders on their backs to counter it, experts warn. If the situation in Delhi-NCR remains the same, experts believe that citizens would soon need at least five oxygen cylinders in a day.

In Delhi, the rising pollution levels has become the cause of several ailments, including premature birth, strokes, decrease in lung immunity, heart and lung disease, allergies or aggravation of existing allergies, cancer and other acute respiratory diseases.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) also said that the 92 per cent of the world’s population, including those living in India, lives in areas where air quality is below acceptable standards. The report further says that about 88 per cent of premature deaths that takes place in middle-income countries is due to severe air pollution or where the air pollution is escalating.

+ India's made a lot of climate related moves, many more aggressive than our own. But sticking with coal doesn't help. Of course, this was always going to be the shitty tradeoff. Twentieth century empires built on coal, climate goes bad, we tell new rising nations they can't rely on it like we did. It's a tough one.


Next up: Hawaii

The Hawai‘i Climate Change Mitigation & Adaptation Commission has accepted its first major report since its formation last fall. The Sea Level Rise Vulnerability & Adaptation Report is a comprehensive 304-page-long description of where Hawai‘i is today and where we will be in the future as sea level rise increases with global warming.

With 3.2 feet of sea level rise, more than 11 miles of major coastal roads would become impassible jeopardizing critical access to and from many communities.


Down on the Bayou, but not for much longer: Louisiana.

Louisiana is finalizing a plan to move thousands of people from areas threatened by the rising Gulf of Mexico, effectively declaring uninhabitable a coastal area larger than Delaware.

A draft of the plan, the most aggressive response to climate-linked flooding in the U.S., calls for prohibitions on building new homes in high-risk areas, buyouts of homeowners who live there now and hikes in taxes on those who won’t leave. Commercial development would still be allowed, but developers would need to put up bonds to pay for those buildings’ eventual demolition.

Not everybody is going to live where they are now and continue their way of life,” said Mathew Sanders, the state official in charge of the program, which has the backing of Governor John Bel Edwards. “And that is an emotional, and terrible, reality to face.”


Jakarta Is Sinking So Fast, It Could End Up Underwater

Rasdiono remembers when the sea was a good distance from his doorstep, down a hill. Back then he opened the cramped, gaily painted bayside shack he named the Blessed Bodega, where he and his family sell catfish heads, spiced eggs and fried chicken.

It was strange, Rasdiono said. Year by year, the water crept closer. The hill gradually disappeared. Now the sea loomed high over the shop, just steps away, held back only by a leaky wall.

With climate change, the Java Sea is rising and weather here is becoming more extreme. Earlier this month another freakish storm briefly turned Jakarta’s streets into rivers and brought this vast area of nearly 30 million residents to a virtual halt.


New York, New York

New York City was not built to withstand an onslaught of floodwater.

Much of the city is protected only by sand dunes, vegetation, or low walls. New York’s flood zones are packed with more than 400,000 residents and $129 billion worth of real estate. The aging sewer system handles both storm water and waste and is easily overwhelmed; Hurricane Sandy sent 1.6 billion gallons of raw sewage spilling into nearby waterways.

Even the city’s position works against it. “New York City is vulnerable to storm surge because of its special location at the junction of the New Jersey coast and Long Island,” says Ning Lin, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Princeton University. “If a storm comes, then the water would be pushed into that angle without any other place to go.”

Lin has spent years studying how water could inundate New York. She’s finding that flood damage will take a punishing toll on the city in coming years, and no single strategy to stem the tide will work for every neighborhood.


The many ways Indiana is not prepared to handle disasters

Indiana scores in the bottom fifth of states when it comes to being prepared to handle a public health emergency, such as either of these natural disasters or an infectious disease outbreak.

Scoring just three out of 10 indicators of preparedness, Indiana was among the worst states in the nation, according to the annual study released Tuesday by the Trust for America’s Health. Only Alaska, with a mere two out of 10, performed worse.

+ I could go on, but you get the point. We have to act now, or it only gets much, much worse. 


Report: Tennessee scores 50 percent on public health emergency preparedness

How prepared is Tennessee for a public health emergency?

More prepared than Alaska, Ohio or Texas; nowhere near as prepared as tiny Massachusetts or Rhode Island.

"Ready or Not? Protecting the Public's Health from Diseases, Disasters and Bioterrorism," a December report by the nonpartisan nonprofit policy organization Trust for America's Health, puts Tennessee squarely in the middle of states, saying it's achieved five of 10 preparedness indicators.


Report: More Than 30 Million People Live in U.S. Floodplains

Two-thirds of the population living in the nation’s combined floodplain lived in one of five states: California, Florida, Arizona, Texas, and New York. An average of 15 million people nationwide (nearly 5% of the U.S. population) lived in the 100-year floodplain in 2015.

Contrary to popular conception that floodplains are mostly a problem for coastal areas, Arizona had the largest share of the population living in the combined floodplain (64%), followed by Florida (26%), North Dakota (20%), and Louisiana (17%). In the vast majority of states, less than 10% of the state’s population lived in the combined floodplain in 2015.

Nearly one-third of households in the 100-year floodplain include children and/or seniors. Of the households in the combined floodplain, 33% include children and 28% include seniors. 

Compared to the U.S. population as a whole, a higher share of the population living in areas vulnerable to flooding identified as Hispanic (25% in floodplain vs 17% nationally), and a lower share of the population in the combined floodplain was white (55% in floodplain vs 62% nationally). 

+ Here's a map.
+ Important to know, because we're getting much more capable of pinning extreme weather events on climate change.


What We're Already Doing About It

Fighting Climate Change, One Laundry Load at a Time

A Danish biotechnology company is trying to fight climate change — one laundry load at a time. Its secret weapon: mushrooms like those in a dormant forest outside Copenhagen.

In the quest for a more environmentally friendly detergent, two scientists at the company, Novozymes, regularly trudge through the mud, hunting for oyster mushrooms that protrude from a fallen beech or bracken fungi that feast on tough plant fibers. They are studying the enzymes in mushrooms that speed up chemical reactions or natural processes like decay.

“There is a lot going on here, if you know what to look for,” said Mikako Sasa, one of the Novozymes scientists.

Their work is helping the company develop enzymes for laundry and dishwasher detergents that would require less water, or that would work just as effectively at lower temperatures. The energy savings could be significant. Washing machines, for instance, account for over 6 percent of household electricity use in the European Union.


Planning the fight (and adaptations) against climate change

In short: Change, but also adapt. Fire season in the West is now a permanent condition; don’t build buildings that burn so easily in places that burn every year. Hurricanes and storm surges are going to continue to walk up the Caribbean and onto the Gulf Coast, or maybe along the seaboard. Don’t put houses on top of the wetlands that absorb those storms. Don’t insure the people who do. Build ways for people to get around without cars. Create a power grid that pulls everything it can from renewable sources like wind and solar. Keep funding public health research, surveillance, and ways to deal with mosquito-borne diseases that thrive in a hotter world.

And the next time someone in a city planning meeting says that new housing shouldn’t get built in a residential area because it’s not in keeping with the sense of the community and might disrupt parking, tell them what that means: that they want young people to have lesser lives, that they don’t want poor people and people of color to have the same opportunities they did, and that they’d rather the planet’s environment get crushed by letting bad buildings spread to inhospitable places than increasing density in cities.

+ And more:

Kentucky coal company plans to build the state’s largest solar farm

Mining giant to leave coal group over climate change stance

China Unveils an Ambitious Plan to Curb Climate Change Emissions

+ Here's more of what you can do, today.


Fuck Cancer, Volume LXXVI

Blood test spots ovarian cancer years before it is usually found

Ovarian cancer is known as the “silent killer” because most patients don’t know they have it until it spreads to other organs and causes symptoms, at which point it is usually too late to treat.

Now, Martin Widschwendter at University College London and his colleagues have shown that the disease can be detected years earlier by looking for tell-tale DNA fragments that ovarian tumours leak into the bloodstream.

By analysing DNA fragments in 648 blood samples from healthy women and ovarian cancer patients, they were able to pinpoint 3 fragments that marked the presence of the disease.

In a follow-up study of 250 women, they showed they could identify those with ovarian cancer with 91 per cent accuracy by measuring these 3 DNA fragments in their blood.

Finally, they showed that the new blood test could detect ovarian cancer 1 to 2 years before it is usually diagnosed in 88 per cent of cases. They did this by retrospectively analysing blood samples collected from over 100,000 women in a previous study, 43 of whom were diagnosed with ovarian cancer over the next 2 years.

The blood test has the potential to be used in population-wide screening for ovarian cancer, says Widschwendter. This may help prevent premature deaths, since ovarian cancer has a 90 per cent cure rate if it is found early and removed before it spreads.


Improving Vaccine and Immunotherapy Design Using Biomaterials

Polymers, lipids, scaffolds, microneedles, and other biomaterials are rapidly emerging as technologies to improve the efficacy of vaccines against infectious disease and immunotherapies for cancer, autoimmunity, and transplantation. New studies are also providing insight into the interactions between these materials and the immune system. This insight can be exploited for more efficient design of vaccines and immunotherapies.


Deep Learning vs. Pathologists

Question  What is the discriminative accuracy of deep learning algorithms compared with the diagnoses of pathologists in detecting lymph node metastases in tissue sections of women with breast cancer?

Finding  In cross-sectional analyses that evaluated 32 algorithms submitted as part of a challenge competition, 7 deep learning algorithms showed greater discrimination than a panel of 11 pathologists in a simulated time-constrained diagnostic setting, with an area under the curve of 0.994 (best algorithm) vs 0.884 (best pathologist).

Meaning  These findings suggest the potential utility of deep learning algorithms for pathological diagnosis, but require assessment in a clinical setting.

+ AKA it's very early days, but the future we've been promised is looking more and more...promising. Dammit.


Other Tiny Things That May Save or Kill You/Me/All of Us at Once

US lifts ban on funding research for gene-modified super viruses

For the past 3 years, the US has maintained a moratorium on backing research that involves genetically modifying viruses to make them more potent, whether it's their ability to spread or their lethality. You can kiss that de facto ban goodbye, however: the government has lifted the restriction in favor of a new review step. Scientists who want to engineer these super viruses will be subject to scrutiny by a "multidisciplinary group" that will consider the intentions and risks, such as whether or not it's "ethically justifiable" and whether or not there are safer methods of accomplishing the same goal.


Life expectancy in the U.S. is falling — and drug overdose deaths are soaring

Life expectancy in the U.S. has fallen for the second year in a row, the first time it’s dropped for two consecutive years in more than half a century.

People born in the U.S. in 2016 could expect to live 78.6 years on average, down from 78.7 the year before, according to a new report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The most common cause of death: heart disease.

The report also found death rates — calculated from the number of deaths per 100,000 people — actually rose among young adults between 2015 and 2016. And while the authors didn’t draw a direct link, another report also released Thursday by the CDC found an estimated 63,600 people died of drug overdoses in 2016. Two-thirds of those deaths were caused by opioids. Adults between the ages of 25 and 54 had the highest rate of drug overdose death.

+ Life expectancy is dropping, in 2017, in the richest country in the world, with the most expensive health care in the world. 


CRISPR in 2018: Coming to a Human Near You

In just the past few years, advances in CRISPR have been happening at a breakneck speed—and companies have sprung up to commercialize the technology. Now, patients in Europe and the U.S. could be treated with CRISPR-based therapies as soon as 2018.

The hope is that CRISPR could be used in a one-time procedure to cure some of the most devastating inherited disorders and cancers, some of which have no or few current treatment options. Scientists want to deploy the technology to fix genetic errors in a person’s DNA, getting at the root of disease.

That might be the dream, but the reality is far different.


An Update on Earth v2

First up: a reminder that space travel/exploration changed forever this year. This is something to fucking celebrate.

For the first time, a used SpaceX rocket booster has flown again.
On March 30, the first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket sent its second payload into space, after having launched and landed in April 2016.
The achievement is an important milestone in the company's road to creating a reusable launch system—and a feat that's 15 years in the making. The launch and subsequent landing on a drone ship proves, as SpaceX CEO Elon Musk noted, "you can fly and re-fly an orbit-class booster."

The private spaceflight company estimates that by reusing its liftoff boosters rather than tossing them away in the sea, it can slash launch costs by about 30 percent, providing cheap(er) access to the final frontier.

+ Dated March 30. They've recovered 14 of 14 boosters launched this year, reusing them for five launches. Shit. Is. Real.


That looks...familiar. Google + Kepler = SearchRank, but for other places we can live.

NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope was designed to determine the frequency of Earth-sized planets orbiting Sun-like stars, but these planets are on the very edge of the mission’s detection sensitivity. Accurately determining the occurrence rate of these planets will require automatically and accurately assessing the likelihood that individual candidates are indeed planets, even at low signal-to-noise ratios.

We present a method for classifying potential planet signals using deep learning, a class of machine learning algorithms that have recently become state-of-the-art in a wide variety of tasks. We train a deep convolutional neural network to predict whether a given signal is a transiting exoplanet or a false positive caused by astrophysical or instrumental phenomena. Our model is highly effective at ranking individual candidates by the likelihood that they are indeed planets: 98.8% of the time it ranks plausible planet signals higher than false positive signals in our test set. We apply our model to a new set of candidate signals that we identified in a search of known Kepler multi-planet systems.

We statistically validate two new planets that are identified with high confidence by our model. One of these planets is part of a five-planet resonant chain around Kepler-80, with an orbital period closely matching the prediction by three-body Laplace relations. The other planet orbits Kepler-90, a star which was previously known to host seven transiting planets. Our discovery of an eighth planet brings Kepler-90 into a tie with our Sun as the star known to host the most planets. 

+ More here.


NASA takes their shot at Alpha Centauri

NASA scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory are now working on what could become one of the most ambitious undertakings of mankind-sending a probe on a 40-year mission to Alpha Centauri, our solar system’s nearest neighbor, according to a JPL manager.

At the recent fall conference of the American Geophysical Union in New Orleans, Anthony Freeman, manager of the Innovation Foundry at JPL, presented the concept paper titled “The First Interstellar Explorer,” revealing that a 2016 NASA funding bill has sped up a project to study what kind of propulsion technology could send the probe Alpha Centauri.

With the technology to enable that speed still non-existent, the project has not been named yet, but Freeman says there is enough time to work on the technicalities since it would be about 50 years before such a mission could be launched.

As Freeman explained, the mission will be divided into six stages, the first of which is the simplest: traveling outside the solar system, a feat that the Voyager 1 spacecraft has already accomplished.

The other five stages include surviving the journey to Proxima Centauri, lowering the speed on approach, making a trajectory adjustment for a near encounter, getting data, and relaying the information collected back to Earth.

+ Here's five questions regarding, for example, how the hell they'll get there. No questions regarding competition with Breakthrough Starshot.

+ I know you all opted in to this newsletter. But there's probably times your eyes glaze over and you think: yeah yeah, that's crazy, far-out, sci-fi shit, and not #vital. In that case, I'd encourage you to re-read the entries above, regarding this planet, our planet, going (quickly) down the shitter, and remember: we have nowhere to go. We don't have a backup plan. For the species. Why WOULDN'T news like this be #vital?


The Leftovers