The Sixth Extinction

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural HistoryI have been aware of the large number of extinctions that we’re causing.  What I haven’t been aware of is the idea of ecosystem extinction.  “It is likely that [coral] reefs will become the first major ecosystem in the modern era to become ecologically extinct.”  Very frightening because “it is estimated that at least half a million and possibly as many as nine million species spend at least part of their lives on coral reefs.”

There have been five mass extinctions, The Big Five, in the earth’s history plus a number of lesser extinctions.  We are in the midst of the sixth biggie.

Amphibians enjoy the dubious distinction of being the world’s most endangered class of animals; it’s been calculated that the group’s extinction rate could be as much as forty-five thousand times higher than the background [extinction] rate.  . . . one third of all reef building corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion.

We are driving this latest mass extinction by these geological-scale changes:

  • Human activity has transformed between a third and a half of the planet’s surface.

  • Most of the world’s major rivers have been damned or diverted.

  • Fertilizer plants produce more nitrogen than is fixed naturally by all terrestrial ecosystems.

  • Fisheries remove more than a third of the primary production of the ocean’s coastal waters.

  • Humans use more than half the world’s readily accessible fresh-water runoff.

  • People have altered the composition of the atmosphere [and the oceans].  Owing to a combination of fossil-fuel combustion and deforestation, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air has risen by forty percent over the last two centuries, while the concentration of methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas, has more than doubled.

What, in the midst of this sixth, mass extinction, is going to happen to us, to homo sapiens?

One possibility is that we too will eventually be undone by our “transformation of the ecological landscape.”  The logic behind this way of thinking runs as follows:  having freed ourselves from the constraints of evolution, humans nevertheless remain dependent on the earth’s biological and geochemical systems.  By disrupting these systems – cutting down tropical rainforests, altering the composition of the atmosphere, acidifying the oceans – we’re putting our own survival in danger.  Among the many lessons that emerge from the geological record, perhaps the most sobering is that in life, as in mutual funds, past performance is no guarantee of future results.  When a mass extinction event occurs, it takes out the weak and also lays low the strong.

Another possibility – considered by some to be more upbeat – is that human ingenuity will outrun any disaster human ingenuity sets in motion.  [No logic presented for this possibility.]

I have little hope than mankind can think or invent our way out of the dilemma we have gotten ourselves into.  I fear that those who believe that human ingenuity will ride to our rescue are the same one who will not take the threat seriously.

What, me worry?  The scientists will think of something.

 

 

 

 

 

Next

NextMichael Crichton finished his novel Next in 2006.  The novel explores the ethics of bio-engineering, genetic research, and the use of human tissue.  I don’t know what has happened in this area since 2006.  I suspect that the issues Crichton raised are still unsettled.  The book is typical Crichton so I’m not going to say much about the novel.  Instead I would like to discuss the Author’s Note that describes some of Crichton’s conclusions.

1.  Stop Patenting Genes.

The first conclusion describes a point of law that I had not been aware of but that makes sense to me.

. . . genes are facts of nature.  Like gravity, sunlight, and leaves on trees, genes exist in the natural world.  Facts on nature can’t be owned.  You can own a test for a gene, or a drug that affects a gene, but not the gene itself.  You can own a treatment for a disease, but not the disease itself.  Gene patents break that fundamental rule.  [emphasis is mine]  Of course one can argue about what’s a fact of nature, and there are people paid to do that.  But here’s a simple test.  If something exists for a million years before the arrival of Homo Sapiens on earth, it’s a fact of nature.  To argue that a gene is in any way a human invention is absurd.

Consequences of gene patenting?

. . . research on SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) was inhibited because scientists were unsure who owned the genome – three simultaneous patent claims had been filed.  As a result, research on SARS wasn’t as vigorous as it might have been. That should scare every sensible person.  Here was a contagious disease with a 10 percent death rate that had spread to two dozen countries around the world.  Yet scientific research to combat the disease was inhibited – because of patent fears.

2.  Establish clear guidelines for the use of human tissues.

Historically, the courts have decided questions about human tissues based on existing property law.  In general, they have rules that once your tissue leaves your body, you no longer maintain any rights to it.

The notion that once you part with your tissue you no longer have any rights is absurd.  Consider this:  Under present law, if somebody takes my picture, I have rights forever in the use of that photo.  Twenty years later, if somebody published it or puts it in an advertisement, I still have rights.  But if somebody takes my tissue – part of my physical body – I have no rights.  This means I have more rights over my image that I have over the actual tissues of my body.

3.  Pass laws to ensure that data about gene testing is made public.

New legislation is needed if the FDA is to publish adverse results from gene therapy trials.  At the moment, it cannot do so.  In the past, some researchers have tried to prevent the reporting of patient deaths, claiming that such deaths were a trade secret.

. . .

Review studies conducted by those who have a financial or other interest in the outcome are not reliable because they are inherently biased.  That fact should be addressed by an information system that does not permit biased testing, and takes steps to ensure that it does not occur.  Yet gross bias remains far too common in medicine, and in certain other areas of high-stakes science as well.

4.  Avoid bans on research.

Bans can’t be enforced.

5.  Rescind the Bayh-Dole Act.

The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 permits

university researchers to sell their discoveries for their own profit, even when that research has been funded by taxpayer money.

As a result of this legislation, most science professors now have corporate ties – either to companies they have started or to other biotech companies. . .   Thirty years ago, disinterested scientists were available to discuss any subject affecting the public.  Now scientists have personal interests that influence their judgement.

Secrecy now pervades research, and hampers medical progress.  Universities that once provided a scholarly haven from the world are now commercialised – and the haven is gone.  Scientists who once felt a humanitarian calling have become businessmen concerned with profit and loss.  The life of the mind is a notion as quaint as the whalebone corset.

 

 

Voice Recognition

I worked for three decades in front of a monitor and a keyboard.  Never during those decades did I have a problem with carpal tunnel syndrome.  So as soon as I retire and want to devote more time to blogging and journaling on-line, what happens?  I develop carpal tunnel syndrome and am wearing a wrist brace.  So far the wrist brace has not helped.

I haven’t blogged much lately because of the carpal tunnel.  I have ordered Dragon voice recognition software that I should get in a week or so.  Using Dragon, I will dictate all my blogs and journal entries.  I’ll also try exercises to strengthen my wrists and get them more flexible.

I had one long-time avocation – playing the guitar – ended because of tendinitis.  I don’t want another to be ended by carpal tunnel.

 

 

Glass Houses

Glass Houses: Privacy, Secrecy, and Cyber Insecurity in a Transparent WorldOver the last year, I’ve been thinking about existential threats to our way of life and listing the ones that I’m aware of.  I’ve known about the vulnerability of the internet, but reading this book led me to add the taking down of our infrastructure that depends on the internet to my list of existential threats.

In my daytime job, I’ve been able to educate myself about application security in order to be able to test such security.  So I am somewhat familiar with the field of electronic security.  None of what Joel Brenner writes about in Glass Houses is exaggerated.  Almost everyone today enjoys the benefits of the internet but few are aware of its vulnerability.  So much in our world today – delivery of electricity, banking and finance, defense, etc – depends on a single system that anyone has access to.  If that system, or one of the many systems that depend on it, were to be shut down by hackers or cyber-warriors, what then?  Here is some of what Mr Brenner writes:

. . . counterintelligence must contend with the penetrations of the public and private electronic networks that are the backbone of our communications, the storehouses of our technology, and the nervous system of our economy and government.  The networks, I regret to say, are porous and insecure, vulnerable not only to casual hackers but even more so the professional electronic thieves and powerful foreign intelligence services.  But we want seamless, effortless inter-connectivity and the productivity that comes with it – who doesn’t?  And so our vulnerabilities multiply as we continue to privilege convenience over security.

Secrecy is to companies and governments as privacy is to individuals.  Both rise and fall on the same technologies and cultural proclivities, and at the moment both are falling precipitously.

It’s becoming almost impossible to be anonymous anymore.

I might add that it has become impossible also to leave one’s past behind, to pick up stakes, and start anew someplace else – to have a second, or the third, a fourth change.  Now nothing about one’s past is forgotten or forgiven – credit records, the indiscretions and mistakes of youth, a felony, a bad experience with a previous employer, driving records, health records.  Everything is part of a person’s record and can in some cases be accessed by virtually anyone.

The internet was not built for security, nor was it built to be the commercial and financial backbone of an advanced, postindustrial economy.  . . .  We’ve taken an open system based on anonymity and meant for a small, trusted community of government officials and university scientists, and we’ve turned it into the backbone of our national commerce and much of our national and military communications.  Few people, even among business and government leaders, realize how gravely vulnerable this situation makes us.

Our companies are under constant, withering attack. . . . This assault is constant, it is relentless, and it is coming from all points on the compass in ways both old and new.  . . . about 108 foreign intelligence services target the United States.

Neither the United States government nor private industry can defend the networks on which our economic and national security depend.  This situation is getting worse, not better.  . . .  Virtually every significant industrial, military, and commercial operating system in advanced nations has become electronic over the last two decades.  Manufacturing control, military command and control, banking and financial systems – they’re nearly all electronic, most of them are interconnected, and many of them are unreasonably vulnerable to operation failure.

The principal risk of insecure networks is no longer merely purloined information.  For a company, the larger risk is now losing the ability to do business.  For the nation, the risk threatens to cripple the infrastructure that makes America work – banks, dams, railway switches, electricity grids, stock exchanges – even the military.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of ColorblindnessI have read two books over the last two or three years that I think everyone in the United States should read.  The first was The New Jim Crow about the racism that is sunk deeply into our justice system.  The second is Glass Houses.  So what are you waiting for?  Go out, get a copy, read it, and then pass it on to someone else.  Do the same for The New Jim Crow.

Glass Houses

Glass Houses: Privacy, Secrecy, and Cyber Insecurity in a Transparent WorldI just started reading Glass Houses:  Privacy, Security, and Cyber Insecurity In a Transparent World.

For a number of years I was very reluctant to plunge fully into the modern world of the internet and the myriad types of devices available today, primarily because of security concerns; I knew how vulnerable the internet is.  Then I forgot my reluctance as I plunged fully into the digital, interconnected world.  I’m writing this on a Chromebook that I bought new for only $200.  It is only useful for working on the internet.  I love it.  It’s a great little machine.  So light and portable but with a full keyboard and USB ports.  It does everything I want.  The only thing I can’t do on the Chromebook is process my photos.  For that I have my big laptop so I don’t need to do it on the Chromebook.

Back to Glass Houses.  I was right to be  concerned about the vulnerability of the internet.  This is from the Introduction:

. . . counterintelligence must contend with the penetrations of the public and private electronic networks that are the backbone of our communications, the storehouses of our technology, and the nervous system of our economy and government.  These networks, I regret to say, are porous and insecure, vulnerable not only to casual hackers but even more so to professional electronic thieves and powerful foreign intelligence services.  But we want seamless, effortless inter-connectivity and the productivity that comes with it – who doesn’t?  And so our  vulnerabilities multiply as we continue to privilege convenience over security.”

“Secrecy is to companies and governments as privacy is to individuals.  Both rise or fall on the same technologies and cultural proclivities, and at the moment both are falling precipitously.

%d bloggers like this: