Monday, January 16, 2017

The ethics of self-driving cars

As self-driving cars become ever more sophisticated and reliable (despite the odd hiccup from time to time), the era of the autonomous car cannot now be far off. However, an article I read recently reminded me of some of the more thorny ethical issues involved.
For example, we often forget but we humans make ethical decisions all the time as we drive. These are generally of the less drastic and "easier" type, like "should I let a car in if it will improve the flow of traffic, even if it holds me personally up?" or "should I run over that dog, rather than brake or swerve sharply and risk causing an accident?"
But, in the absence of a human agent, an autonomous vehicle would also have to make such split-second decisions, and by the nature of things such decision-making would need to be preprogrammed into the car's software. Artificial intelligence is developing apace, but a car or a computer is still not capable of making those kinds of decisions unaided. It represents a whole level of added complexity over and above relatively simple mechanical things like self-correcting if a vehicle drifts out of its lane, braking automatically if an object is in its way, or warming of vehicles in a driver's blind spot.
And then, of course, there are the even more fraught moral decisions that even humans have difficulties with, such as whether to swerve to avoid a pedestrian even if it puts the driver's own life in danger, or what to do when the choice is between five unknown pedestrians or five known passengers in a car. A self-driving car would need to have guidelines for those kinds of decisions too, and manufacturers are already encountering mixed messages among its users: people want cars to minimize total harm, but at the same time they don't want cars that might diminish their own safety. It's not a trivial problem.
So what kind of ethical and moral choices should be programmed into a car? What should the standards be, and who should be responsible for setting them? Should standards be set nationally or internationally? With this in mind, the US government has recently appoint a committee of transportation advisors with the remit of coming up with standards.
There is also a MIT-initiated website called Moral Machine, which describes itself as "a platform for gathering a human perspective on moral decisions made by machine intelligence, such as self-driving cars", and which provides various ethical transportation scenarios involving self-driving vehicles, passengers, pedestrians, animals, etc, and asks for users to choose their preferred outcomes from a set of choices. The scenarios include decisions taking into account whether the victims are male or female; whether they are old or young; whether they are flouting the traffic light laws or not; whether they are homeless, pregnant, overweight, criminals; etc, etc. It is already yielding some interesting results, including some geographical difference between attitudes in North America and elsewhere in the world. Fascinating stuff!

How to live longer, scientifically

It has been known for some years now that the length of our telomeres (in simplistic terms, the tips of chromosomes that keep them from fraying) are a major factor in how people age. Telomeres shorten slightly with each cell division, and when they get too short, the cells' ability to divide and renew is compromised, and the particular body tissue they are part of begins to break down, resulting in what we think of as a normal part of the ageing process. They are not the only factor in ageing - the oxidative damage caused by free radicals during the cells' normal metabolic processes are also implicated, and there may be other causal factors too - but the length and gradual shortening of telomeres, and the activity of the telomerase enzyme that replenishes them, is definitely an important causal element, and a good prediction of the ageing process.
Now, Elizabeth Blackburn, the Australian-American biologist who was a joint recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize for her work in discovering the telomere connection, has published a book for the layman called The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer. It sounds like another of those New Age-y self-help books, but it is actually science-based with copious references to research and studies. What it tells us is pretty much common-sense, though, and not revolutionary at all, but it also explains why this common-sense approach works, and how it affects our telomeres.
So, what is it we need to be doing?
  • Exercise - we probably all know it, but exercise is the single best activity for almost all health problems, including ageing. However, not all exercises are born equal: resistance exercise like weightlifting apparently has little effect on our telomeres, while aerobic exercise (even just some light jogging or fast walking a few times a week) is much more effective, as is short but high intensity interval training. Gruelling marathons and ultra-marathons, on the other hand, add little benefit over much shorter regular workouts. And the more stressed we are, the more effective exercise is for telomere maintenance.
  • Weight - actual absolute weight has little effect on our telomeres, although faddy diets and repeated losses and gains of weight actively shortens our telomeres. Reducing belly fat (as distinct from hip and thigh fat) can have a specifically beneficial effect on our telomeres, though, and the best way to achieve that - again, as well as know in our heart of hearts - is to reduce sugar intake.
  • Diet - studies have show that the higher the blood levels of omega-3 essential fatty acids, the less telomeres shorten over the following years (fish, seaweeds and flaxseed are all particularly high in omega-3s). But a general healthy Mediterranean diet, high in whole grains, vegetables, fruits and nuts, has also been shown to maintain telomeres well, and the usual suspects of sugar, processed meats, white bread, pastries, saturated fats, and excessive alcohol, have all been shown to shorten telomeres.
  • Mental health - depression, particularly chronic depression, has been shown to have a deleterious effect on cell telomeres, and the longer and more severe the depression, the shorter the telomeres. Anxiety, pessimism, hostility, mind-wandering and excessive rumination have also been shown to shorten telomeres. On the other hand, meditation, mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques, yoga and tai chi all increase telomerase activity and work to lengthen or at least maintain telomeres.
  • Supplements - pills, creams and injections that purport to boost telomerase are commercially available, but their efficacy is at best debatable, and they can even prove to be dangerous (to much of the enzyme in the wrong cells at the wrong time can even trigger the kind of uncontrolled cell growth that leads to cancer). Commercial tests to track telomere length are expensive and largely unregulated, and could also lead to unhealthy anxiety and obsessiveness.
So, the best way to live a long healthy life? Keep fit, eat well and be happy. Obvious really.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Wyoming tries to ban renewable energy

To give a preview of just how bad things could get in the new "Great" America, a group of nine Republican legislators in the state of Wyoming is pushing a new bill that would actually forbid Wyoming electricity utilities from taking advantage of any large-scale renewable energy resources like solar and wind.
The unprecedented bill - which specifies that the only eligible electricity sources in the state would be coal, natural gas, hydroelectricity, nuclear and oil - is perhaps the most blatant attack yet on clean energy in the United States. Even if it does not actually pass in the legislature, the very fact that such a bill exists at all is scary enough.
Wyoming is a Republican red neck state par excellence. It is the largest coal producer in the country and the fourth largest natural gas producer. Nearly 90% of its electricity comes from coal, although, ironically, wind is currently its next largest electricity-producing resource (it's wind potential is considered huge). It produces much more electricity than its small population requires, the rest being exported to surrounding states.
Although Republicans outnumber democrats 51-9 in the state, it is still by no means certain that the bill will succeed. But, hey, welcome to the new "Great" America.

What can be done about Canada's high drug prices?

Interesting documentary on CBC' s The Fifth Estate, following the vagaries of the Canadian health system, and particularly its prescription drug system.
Most Canadians are justifiably proud of our universal publicly-funded healthcare system, and we often compare ourselves with the nightmare south of the border. But among other similar countries who do have socialized medicine, we don't stack up so well. In fact, Canadians pay some of the highest drug prices in the world, second only to the United States, and those prices are still rising. In particular, we are the only country with universal healthcare which does not also have a publicly-funded drug care system. So, while we are well looked after while in hospital (including all the necessary drugs), as soon as we leave the hospital we are very much on our own, and must cover the cost of drugs ourselves, either through a private drug plan (if we are lucky) or just out of our savings (again, if we are lucky). Many Canadians just can't afford drug treatments they need, and prescriptions often go unfilled (the documentary is replete with poignant examples).
Part of the problem is the cost of the drugs we sell. Many doctors prescribe more expensive, brand-name drugs, rather than the cheaper or generic alternatives. For one thing, doctors are influenced by the marketing ploys of pharmaceutical companies, including visiting sales reps bearing gifts - apparently, that stuff really works.
Another part of the problem is private health insurance companies, which charge their own cut on corporate drug plans. Private insurance costs have increased ten-fold in the last ten years, and there is no impetus for the system as it is to change, as it is the companies themselves who cover the higher costs. Private drug plans in Canada are estimated by the program researchers to be wasting up to $3 billion a year.
One country, though, has drastically changed its system, and this has had a huge impact on drug care costs. New Zealand, a small country with a population just a tenth of Canada's, has a universal healthcare system not dissimilar to Canada's. But they have taken on the might of the pharmaceutical industry, and they have won. In New Zealand, any prescription costs just $5.
Drug companies in New Zealand are forced to compete against each other, and the lowest drug price wins the government contract. These negotiations have resulted in cost reductions of up to 99% in some cases! As a result NZ drug prices are around 10% of Canada's on average. For example, one popular hypertension drug which is actually manufactured in Canada, sells in Canada for $130 a year, while in New Zealand it sells for just $10 a year. A particular cancer drug costs $85,000 a pop in Canada, and yes it costs just $5 in New Zealand.
There is a trade-off, though. The range of treatments available in New Zealand is not as wide as in Canada, but New Zealanders are well aware of this and are apparently happy with the trade-off. The program asks whether we might not be better accepting such a trade-off here too.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Trump's Kennedy appointment another step back into the dark ages

In the midst of all the tub-thumping Sturm und Drang drama of Donald Trump's cabinet appointments and their confirmation hearings, one appointment that has been all but overlooked is that of Robert Kennedy Jr. to oversee and chair a committee on "vaccine safety and scientific integrity".
Like several other of Trump appointments, this is rather like putting a wolf in charge of the sheep. Kennedy is a notorious anti-vaxxer, who still believes strongly that standard vaccines cause autism. He blusters that "we ought to be debating the science", when in fact the science has been debated ad nauseam, and the autism claims have been definitively disproven.
Trump too is an anti-vaxxer, who even made a point during the election campaign of seeking out and meeting with discredited English physician Andrew Wakefield, the man who was single-handedly responsible for starting the whole vaccination-autism misinformation saga, before his paper was comprehensively debunked and Wakefield himself had his medical license revoked for ethical violations.
So, the Kennedy appointment is perhaps not a big surprise, coming as it does straight out of the Trump playbook. But it is certainly a scary development, and another indication of how far back into the dark ages Trump is going to drag his country.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Mr. Pallister's season in the sun

I can't resist commenting on the recent revelations that Brian Pallister, the Conservative Premier of Manitoba, is spending long, and increasing, lengths of time in Costa Rica, particularly during the brutal Manitoba winter. Manitoba is really not an important province, in the scheme of things, but such behaviour is unprecedented and has raised eyebrows around the country.
When I say "long", he spent 34 days in the balmy Central American country last year, and apparently he plans to go for 6 to 8 weeks this year. He must have enjoyed it. And this is not just vacation time, although even that would have been unprecedented. This is, supposedly, work time. According to his office: "The Premier finds it effective to spend time away from sessional responsibilities of his office in a space where he able to focus uninterrupted attention on policy documents, research material and speech-writing". I'll just bet he does. Also, he prefers not to use email while way on these jaunts, preferring phone and snail-mail, "to ensure that the urgent does not overtake the important" (whatever THAT might mean). Apparently, he would return to Manitoba immediately if there were to be some sort of an emergency, though, which is good of him.
Pallister won a landslide election in Manitoba last year, ending 17 years of NDP leadership. I can imagine a good many Manitobans rueing their little experiment with Conservatism right now.

UPDATE
It was -33°C the other day in Winnipeg, -46°C with the windchill. You could almost forgive Pallister. Almost, but not quite.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Women of America, unite! - please

The big Women's March on Washington DC, timed for January 21st, just after Donald Trump's inauguration, should be an occasion to galvanize all American women of all stripes and backgrounds, even those foolish females who actually voted for the pussy-grabber-in-chief.
What seems to be happening, though, is that the organization of the march is splintering into factions, the most distinct schism being between black and white. In fact, it is turning into something of a female pissing contest of the worst sort, amid more-feminist-than-thou assertions and allegations of "privilege".
Claims are being bandied around that white organizers of the march are merely racist latecomers to the civil rights movement, and that they should defer to the black contingent, who have "real" issues that privileged white women could not possibly understand. Some white feminists have pulled out of the March completely, complaining that they feel unwelcome. Even some of the smaller "sister marches" are foundering as a result of the kvetching of racial sub-groups.
This is unfortunate to say the least. So much for the much-vaunted feminist values of tolerance and inclusivity. Surely this is a time to put such wranglings aside, and focus in the job in hand. But then, what do I know, I'm just a privileged middle-aged white guy.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

How indigenous does Joseph Boyden need to be?

The "scandal" that has arisen in literary circles recently over the indigenous heritage of best-selling and award-winning Canadian author Joseph Boyden is overblown, and actually not that much of a scandal anyway.
I've never thought he looked particularly aboriginal myself, but I never thought it important. His novels, generally on First Nations topics, stand up for themselves regardless, and have been generally well-received by the native community. Neither can it be denied that his tireless work for a plethora of committees and organizations in bringing the plight of Canada's native peoples to the attention of a wider audience has been any the less valuable whatever his heritage and racial make-up.
The whole "scandal" was cooked up by an Aboriginal People's Television Network (APTN) investigation into his background, which was probably more akin to muckraking than investigative journalism, and I am not sure what (other than sour grapes) initially prompted it. The report did not definitively prove anything, but was enough to throw doubt on Boyden's authenticity as an indigenous man. Boyden, who clearly self-identifies as indigenous and usually described himself as M├ętis or mixed-blood, has since come out to explain that, although his heritage is mostly Celtic, he does have some Nipmuc roots in his father's side and some Ojibwa roots on his mother's side. Sounds reasonable to me, regardless of whether or not there is documentary proof.
And what effect has all this had? Not a lot. All of Boyden's publishers, the book awards organizations, the film companies working on movies of his books, the native and grass roots organizations he has worked with over the years, have all without exception stood by him.
Which raises the question: what was the purpose of the APTN smear campaign against him? Boyden has become one of Canada's go-to people for comments on aboriginal affairs, and he does a very good job of it. Why would anyone begrudge him this, or his literary success, even if he is perhaps not as native as they? I would have thought that native Canada needs all the help it can get, from whatever sources available.