Algorithms increasingly control our lives; is that a good thing?

Read this article; it’s important.  We’ve discussed this topic before.

Social media, e-commerce, and entertainment sites (Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, gmail/Microsoft, Instagram, Netflix, Hulu, etc.) increasingly make decisions for us–what news we see and pay attention to, which people we communicate with, what products we are likely to buy, which movies we watch, who we date, who we marry, how we respond to email, what we eat, etc., etc.

Is this good?  Or, is this bad?

“Internet companies will tell you it’s a good thing; algorithms can apply data and process-learning to help us make better decisions and optimize every aspect of our lives.”

“Skeptics will point out that those algorithms are designed by corporations to serve their interests, not yours.”

How much power and control over our daily lives have we already surrendered to algorithms?  How much more are we willing to give up?

Take this paragraph to heart–“it’s telling that companies like Facebook are only beginning to understand, much less manage, any harm caused by their decision to divert an ever-growing share of human social relations through algorithms.  Whether they set out to or not, these companies are conducting what is arguably the largest social re-engineering experiment in human history and no one has the slightest clue what the consequences are.”

Remember, you can still make your own decisions.  You can choose whether or not to use social media, e-commerce, etc. and, if you do, you can choose how and how much you will use it.  That’s the crux.  Make choices based on real knowledge and understanding–not out of fear or inertia.  Your life and our society is not a spectator sport.

(Amanda Taub and Max Fisher, New York Times, September 6, 2018).

For more information about the impacts of social media, search the Science Primary Literature Database and the Headline Science Database.


Higher temperatures will lead to additional crop damage from insects

Hotter temperatures brought by climate change are already bringing additional challenges to world agriculture–more weather extremes including more drought, more flooding, and more high heat all of which damages crops causing lower yields and lower nutritional content.

A new study confirms another threat.  A study from 2008 showed that “as temperatures rise, nearly all insects multiply and rev up their metabolisms.”  More heat means “living things start to speed up, and they need to consume more calories.”  Even without warming temperatures, “insects already consume 5% to 20% of major grain crops” worldwide.

The new study used a computer model “that combined physiological data on hundreds of insect species with climate models.”  Studies predict that global wheat crops will decrease by 46%, rice crops will decrease by 19%, and corn crops will decrease by 31% as the Earth warms by an average of 2 degrees C by the year 2100, if not sooner.

On top of those losses, “yield lost to insects will increase by [another] 10% to 25% per degree C of warming” especially for corn and wheat.  These losses due to increased insects will have the greatest impact in temperate areas worldwide like the corn belt in the United States Midwest where large amounts of grain are currently produced.

While other factors might impact and possibly limit the predicted insect crop losses, the United Nations estimates that at least “815 million people worldwide already go hungry every day, and corn, rice, and wheat are the main food sources for about 4 billion people.”  “The people hardest hit by crop loss will be the world’s poorest households.”

We need to plan for this added impact on the global food supply.  Read the article (Frankie Schembri, Science, August 30, 2018).

For more information about the impacts of climate change, search the Science Primary Literature Database and the Headline Science Database.

The world IS warming … and there are consequences.

See this interactive graphic that illustrates an impact of climate change–the increase in the number of 90+ degree (F) days (32 degrees C) since 1960 in locations world-wide.

The impact of hotter weather has been variable to date; some regions–like the midwestern United States–have yet to see noticeable increases (on average) in 90+ degree days.  Other areas though have already seen substantial increases in hot weather.  For example, Delhi, India has seen a 27% increase in 90+ degree days from 1960 to 2017, Karachi in Pakistan has seen a 32% increase, and Miami, Florida, USA has seen a 56% increase (from an average of 85 days in 1960 to 133 days in 2017).

The graphic then projects warming to the year 2089–using the assumption that countries will take action to meet the emissions goals established through the Paris Agreement.  In reality, many countries are not likely to meet their goals, and the actual increase in hot weather is likely to be even greater than forecast in the graphic.

For example, the further increase in 90+ degree days from 2017 to 2089 may be 13% for both Delhi and Karachi, 23% for Miami, Florida (from 133 days to 163 days), and a 140% increase for the midwestern U.S.

“Already hot tropical regions can expect even more heat in the future.”  Another example–Jakarta in Indonesia experienced an average of 5 months of 90+ degree weather in 1960.  By 2089, 90+ degree heat “may last for most of the year.”

“More very hot days worldwide bring direct and dangerous impacts on people and the systems on which we depend.  Food, water, energy, transportation, and ecosystems will be affected both in cities and the country.  High-temperature health effects will strike the most vulnerable”–the elderly, infants, people with chronic medical conditions, and people with lower incomes.

Explore the graphic (Nadja Popovich, et al., New York Times, August 31, 2018).

For more information about the impacts of climate change, search the Science Primary Literature Database and the Headline Science Database.


Wind energy had a big year in 2017

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2017 Wind Technologies Market Report, wind power had a big year.

Over 7,000 MW of new capacity was added in the United States, and over 2,000 MW of upgrades to existing wind turbines were completed.  $11 billion was invested in wind energy in the U.S. in 2017.

Over the last 10 years, wind power has constituted 55% and 44% of the electric-generating capacity additions in the Interior and Great Lakes regions of the U.S., respectively.

While the U.S. is second to China in terms of wind power capacity and annual wind/electricity generation, the U.S. remains well down the list compared to other countries in wind energy penetration.  For instance, as of the end of 2017, wind power supplied about 48% of the electricity demand in Denmark; in the U.S., it’s about 7%.

However, on an individual U.S. state basis, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and South Dakota used wind to supply over 30% of “all in-state electricity generation in 2017.”  And, “14 states exceeded 10% wind energy penetration.”

While wind “is a variable source of energy”, it is very comparable to hydroelectric energy in the percentage of time that electricity is being sent to the grid; each are in the range of 34 to 38% of the time.

Also, the cost of wind energy continues to decline–down to as low as $20 per megawatt-hour (compared to $102 per megawatt-hour for coal).  In addition, improved wind turbine technology (especially larger rotors) allow new wind turbines to produce over 220% more electricity than “turbines built 20 years ago.”

Read the article (Megan Geuss, Ars Technica, August 27, 2018)

For more information about wind energy or wind power, search the Science Primary Literature Database and the Headline Science Database.


Air pollution can cause declines in human intelligence

It’s well-known that high levels of air pollution are linked to various physical and psychological ailments in humans–including premature death (an estimated 7 million deaths per year) especially “in people with mental disorders,” increased risk for dementia, and “increased mental illness in children.”

However, new research links air pollution to a decrease in intelligence as measured by “significant drops in test scores in language and arithmetic, with the average impact equivalent to having lost a year of the person’s education.”

“The effect is worse for the elderly, especially those over 64, and for men, and for those with low education.”  The loss for those people may be as much as ” a few years of education.”  This study was “the first to examine [the impact on] people of all ages and the difference between men and women.”

This study was based in China and looked at 20,000 people between 2010 and 2014; the pollutants analyzed were nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide.  However, the results are relevant world-wide; by some estimates, 95% “of the global population” breaths unsafe air.

The longer people were exposed to air pollution, the larger the damage–language ability and men were more harmed than mathematical ability or women.  “High air pollution can potentially be associated with oxidative stress, neuroinflammation, and neurodegeneration of humans.”

“Air pollution was seen to have a short-term impact on intelligence as well;” a finding that has consequences for students living in highly polluted areas.

“There is no shortcut to solve this issue; governments really need to take concrete measures to reduce air pollution.”

Read the article (Damian Carrington and Lily Kuo, The Guardian, August 27, 2018).

For more information about the impacts of pollution, search the Science Primary Literature Database and the Headline Science Database.

Understand the context of information important to you; reduce the fear and anxiety

Knowledge brings understanding; understanding reduces fear and anxiety.  Understand the value of information that is important to your life; use that understanding to make your own decisions.  Do not let others make important decisions for you!

To gain understanding, to reduce fear, try these guidelines —

Seek information, not affirmation: understand the algorithm-driven thought bubble of social media; social media can surround you with people who share many of your opinions.  That may seem comforting, but true understanding of an issue or topic may require breaking that bubble and going outside your comfort zone.

Source + Motivation = Value:  always go to the original source of the information, if you can.  And, think about the context in which that information was produced; what was the motivation of the people who ultimately created that information–commercial, political, religious, etc.?  You can decide for yourself the real value of that information.

Dig deeper–do not rely on just one source of information:  in order to understand, look for evidence that supports and contradicts a finding, an analysis, an assertion.  Seek opinions other than your own.

See a list of questions to help you think about the value of information important to your life (Kevin Engel, August 27, 2018).