Monday, July 06, 2020

Is The Computer World Getting Beyond Repair?


Louis Rossman runs the Rossman Group, a team of about a dozen computer repair people in Manhattan.  Recently he was interviewed on the topic of the "right to repair," a concept that is of intense interest both to technicians employed in the repair industry and to anyone whose computer or phone goes on the blink, and is not prepared to chuck it and buy a new one. 

In the interview, Rossman describes the many ways that companies like Apple make it hard for anyone outside of Apple (and often inside too) to repair their ubiquitous devices.  For starters, a blanket of proprietary exclusion conceals useful information such as schematic diagrams, part numbers and identification, and diagnostic software.  Rossman has developed back-channel connections with engineers who work for the companies whose products he tries to fix, and sometimes can get the information he needs that way.  But he says that repair organizations shouldn't have to resort to legal gray areas such as under-the-table schematics to fix things.

Another obstacle arises when companies intentionally make their designs hard to fix.  Rossman said that some firms go to the trouble of pairing certain hardware chips with the particular computer they are installed in.  The machine would run just as well without this feature, which from the repair viewpoint is a bug.  All it does is prevent anyone from fixing the machine if that chip breaks, because even putting in a new chip won't work because the new chip is no longer paired to the machine, and it won't run.  Designs like this are aimed specifically at making the unit harder to repair.

Rossman devotes a small amount of time to promoting legislation and awareness publicity concerning the right to repair, but he isn't optimistic that huge changes will occur.  In an era when large corporations have skewed the intellectual-property field steeply in their favor, it's hard for small, independent operators like Rossman to gain a hearing.  And Rossman himself doesn't want too much government interference, as he is personally inclined toward libertarianism. 

If consumers were simply more aware of what was being done to make the products they buy harder to fix, they might make better choices, and repairability might become a cultural value like sustainability.  And the connection between the two is closer than you think.  For every computer (or phone, or car) that is fixed and stays in service, there is a new device that doesn't have to be made and sold, and the day is put off when that device ends up in a dump somewhere, as most electronics does despite increasing efforts at recycling. 

The simplistic view of this from the manufacturer's standpoint is that repair, especially by someone other than the company that made the product, simply cuts into sales of new units, and is to be discouraged as a pernicious legacy habit that consumers can eventually be trained to break.  But this is not the only way to go, as the automotive industry has abundantly demonstrated.  The average internal-combustion-engine car needs more maintenance and repair as it ages, and if you get attached to your old car (as I do), the inside of a car repair shop becomes very familiar. 

Perhaps if computers and phones had visible odometers like cars (and buried somewhere in the software, they probably do), it could become a point of pride to show how many hours your machine has racked up. 

But fixing things and keeping them for a longer time than absolutely necessary is to buck a trend that has been going mostly the other way since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when cheap machine-made products helped to bring millions up from poverty into the middle classes, both as employees of factories and as consumers of the products they made.  I'm not in favor of poverty, nor am I calling for a return to the bad old days when a watch was built mostly by hand, and a man expected it to last most of his life for the simple reason that most people couldn't afford to buy more than one watch in a lifetime. 

With Rossman, I'm in favor of reasonable accommodations for small repair firms and even individuals who are willing to crack open a computer or phone and see if they can fix it rather than simply getting a new one.  Such behavior is good stewardship of the built environment, which includes computers and phones.  Waste is not one of the seven deadly sins, but it's not a good thing either.  And when a fiendishly complex thing like a computer, with all its billions of coordinated parts that do amazing things, gets tossed in the trash simply because one of those parts falls down on its job, the world in general takes a hit that is not that noticeable, perhaps, but is significant nonetheless. 

Years ago I saw a TV episode of The Twilight Zone, I think it was, in which the writers wanted to show a man who lived a deplorably extravagant lifestyle.  So five minutes after the man picked up a new car, he pulled back into the dealership and said, "Hey, I want to trade this in on a new model."

When the salesman asked him why, the man said scornfully, "The ashtrays are full!"  (For those below a certain age, most cars used to have ashtrays, and most drivers used to smoke.)

Throwing away a complex piece of electronics simply because one part breaks that could be easily repaired (given enough information from the manufacturer) isn't much better than trading in a car because the windshield is dirty.  While there are plenty of other things to think about these days, perhaps people will use the extra time they have on their hands to take up a new occupation such as electronics repair.  And maybe the rest of us could look into how easy or hard our next piece of gear is to fix, and let repairability be a factor in our choices.  It would make Louis Rossman's job easier if companies recognize the value of repairability and start doing something about it.  And to let things go the way they're headed, which is a world where repairing stuff is unheard of, would be a waste in more ways than one. 

Sources:  The article "A Computer-Repair Expert Takes On Big Tech," appeared on the website of National Review on July 1, 2020 at https://www.nationalreview.com/2020/07/a-computer-repair-expert-takes-on-big-tech/.  I most recently blogged on the right to repair on Nov. 6, 2017 at https://engineeringethicsblog.blogspot.com/2017/11/for-consumer-electronics-fix-is-outor.html.

Monday, June 29, 2020

A Burning Question: Trees Into Electricity?


Ancient humans probably learned first about fire by watching a forest burn.  One would think that in this era of nuclear and solar energy, the very old-fashioned alternative of burning wood for power is passé, but one would be wrong.  A recent article on the Wired website points out that biomass-fueled power plants are enjoying a comeback both in the U. S. and Europe, but for different reasons.  And the reasons are controversial.

Burning wood releases the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, so other things being equal, generating electricity with solar or nuclear power is ecologically friendlier for that reason alone.  However, every tree on the planet has a natural life cycle, and before humans came along, the fate of many trees was to perish in a lightning-ignited forest fire.  We now know that such fires are a normal way for forests to renew themselves, and nature is not taken by surprise when a forest burns.  A few years later seedlings have sprouted into trees and the scars are largely healed. 

But in places like California, where residents of forested areas have promoted fire-prevention efforts that allow a buildup of dead trees and underbrush, the inevitable fires that nevertheless result can prove even more devastating than if people had just left nature to itself.  So a movement has arisen in that state to cut down dead trees and burn them in biomass plants, so much so that California leads the nation in the number of biomass-to-electricity facilities.

At first glance, this looks like a win-win situation.  The forests are better managed with those dead trees pruned away, the electric grid gets some much-needed power plants, and the local job markets benefit through the creation of labor-intensive logging and chipping activities.  But critics point out that burning any kind of biomass has a carbon footprint we could avoid, and the carbon sequestered in dead trees doesn't contribute to global warming.

I suppose somebody could get a grant to figure out exactly what mix of benign neglect, active harvesting of dead or even living trees, and biomass energy production would lead to the optimum of electricity and minimum carbon footprints, but even if you could figure it out, other factors would intervene before you could optimize things. 

Such factors include politics, both domestic and abroad.  In the Southeast U. S., where attitudes toward forests are more commercial than esthetic, it turns out there is a booming business in planting and harvesting pine forests to make wood pellets for export to Europe.  In a controversial decision, the European Union decided to designate biomass-fueled power plants as renewable energy, and now European countries are importing lots of wood pellets from the U. S. to burn for electricity.

Back when we lived in New England a couple of decades ago, a friend of ours started a business selling wood-pellet stoves for home heating.  As long as the pellets were made locally, they were cheaper per heating unit than fuel oil, which was the only alternative for many homes.  But somehow I doubt that shipping wood pellets across the Atlantic is as cost-effective as shipping oil, or even coal.  But it's renewable, and that label is valued increasingly by an ecologically-conscious public willing to pay more for it.

If you consider the life cycle of a particular tree, there is a good but not certain chance that it will perish in a forest fire some day.  In prehistoric natural forests, this fate was probably more common than it is today in California's fire-protected forests, but as recent years have shown, it's impossible to prevent all forest fires.  And when an artificially-protected forest choked with dead trees and dry underbrush does catch fire, the resulting conflagration can be a lot worse than if we had just walked away from the place a few dozen years ago and let nature do its own burning at its own pace.  But people with million-dollar homes in the middle of a forest don't want to do that, and so you get the situation that California faces now, where many forests resemble powder kegs waiting for a match.

If you look at the situation from a sustainable-energy perspective, it seems to me that biomass energy fits the description better than many other so-called sustainable options.  Over the long term, here's what happens.  Trees use sunlight, water, carbon dioxide, and a few other things to make cellulose.  Either before or after the tree dies, people come along and chip up the tree and burn it for power, releasing the carbon dioxide back into the air.  But other trees will come along some day and grab that same carbon dioxide and repeat the cycle.  Sounds pretty sustainable to me.

One practical problem in the way of going completely biomass for our electricity is that biomass plants don't scale very well.  Just as an example, the largest biomass plant in Texas has a capacity of only 100 megawatts (MW).  The smallest natural-gas plant in Texas has a capacity of 176 MW, and the largest can put out 2051 MW, comparable to the two nuclear plants in Texas.  The fact of the matter is that it takes a whole lot of wood chips to make not that much energy, and so far, most biomass plants in the U. S. have been built not simply to produce power, but to achieve other ends as well:  reduction of dead-tree mass, employment, and so on. 

So we probably shouldn't envision a future in which all our power comes from burning trees.  There just aren't enough trees to go around for that.  But in situations where labor, forestry policies, and politics coincide, biomass energy can both make sense and do some good.  It's not all good, but it's not all bad either, like most things in life.  And in burning wood for fuel, we are doing something that humanity has done since the dawn of time. 

Sources:  The Wired story by Jane Braxton Little entitled "The Debate Over Burning Dead Trees to Create Biomass Energy" appeared at https://www.wired.com/story/the-debate-over-burning-dead-trees-to-create-biomass-energy/ on June 27, 2020.  I also referred to the Wikipedia article "List of power stations in Texas" and some websites promoting the economy of wood pellets over oil, such as https://www.woodpellets.com/support/save-money-woodpellets.aspx. 

Monday, June 22, 2020

What is Section 230 and Why Should We Care?


Sometimes obscure legal matters turn out to play key roles in huge areas of life.  A case in point is a law I had not given any thought to recently:  Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.  As it has been under attack lately from various quarters, it might be worth while to examine what it says and explore its ramifications for how the Internet is used, as the law also has defenders such as Charles C. W. Cooke of National Review, whose recent article about Section 230 brought my attention to it.

The law has to do with who should be sued for libel if someone gets libeled.  Not being a lawyer, I am no expert on libel, but my man-on-the-street understanding is that in the U. S., if someone knowingly and maliciously says something about you that is demonstrably false, you can sue them for libel.  If it's just a guy standing on a street corner shouting insults about you, identifying the party to sue is pretty simple.  But what if the alleged libel was carried by some sort of medium of communication?  Then it depends.

Let's take two extremes and then see how the Internet falls in between. 

Back in the glory days of newspapers, say the 1930s, the newspaper's publisher was responsible for pretty much anything that was said on the editorial pages of the paper.  That's because the editors (who worked for the publisher) actively selected and sometimes wrote the editorial material themselves.  So it's only reasonable to allow people who feel they've been libeled by a paper to sue that paper, because the paper was the effective speaker or publisher of the libel.

Now go to the other extreme:  the telephone system of the 1930s.  All that Ma Bell promised to do was to let two people talk with each other.  What they said was none of her concern.  If Mr. A called up Mr. B and said something libelous about Mr. C, no one in their right mind would think it was appropriate for the libeled Mr. C to sue Ma Bell for libel.  Mr. A was the person committing the libel, and the telephone company was a completely passive participant, simply serving as a messenger and having no part in or responsibility for the libel itself.

And then in the 1990s along came the Internet, and some clever inventors had the bright idea of "hosting" third-party content on websites, and letting users put up their own material.  But in certain lawsuits that arose around then, the courts couldn't make up their minds whether an internet service provider was more like a newspaper publisher—who could indeed be sued for libelous content in his paper—or like a telephone company, simply passively conveying messages for which the company bore no responsibility.  Congress decided, and President Bill Clinton signed, the Communications Decency Act of 1996, whose Section 230 contains these fateful words: 

"No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."

So to use a germane example, when President Trump tweets something about, well, anything, it's not Twitter that is at fault if someone thinks the President is libeling him or her.  It's the President's sole responsibility, and so on all the way down to the lowliest user of the Internet, whoever that might be at the moment (yours truly excepted, I hope). 

There are exceptions, of course, for heinous stuff such as sex-trafficking and so on.  You can still go after Internet companies who harbor such things.  But as Charles C. W. Cooke points out, the immunity from libel lawsuits applies even if the service provider moderates or otherwise curates the content.  So if Twitter begins to run a spell-checker over President Trump's tweets and corrects his spelling, that still doesn't make Twitter the publisher of that content, as far as Section 230 is concerned.

Some people don't like the way that the large media companies selectively edit or suppress certain sites and types of speech, and Cooke cites Sen. Josh Hawley as wanting to repeal Section 230 altogether in something that would look a lot like revenge.  Repeal would mean that if some crank on Facebook called your mother an indecent word, for example, you could sue not only the guy who posted the insult but Facebook as well.

One thing we can be sure of:  if Section 230 was repealed, with the prospect of all that Internet-generated wealth in the offing we'd have huge flocks of lawyers descending on Google, Facebook, Twitter and company like buzzards after a dead deer.  While it might not kill the free-speech aspect of the Internet altogether, it would certainly cripple it severely.  The world needs a lot of things right now, but more lawyers filing more lawsuits is probably not one of them.

Are things just hunky-dory with regard to libelous and otherwise harmful internet content?  By no means.  Michael Cook, who edits MercatorNet.org (which carries this blog from time to time) recently drew my attention to one of the worst abuses of the sophisticated digital trickery known as deepfakes:  the practice of merging the faces of well-known people, or even unsuspecting female victims whose pictures are harvestable from the Internet, onto pornographic images that are then sold to whoever wants them.  Currently, the only recourse such victims have is to try to sue the parties responsible, but even finding them can be a difficult challenge and most people simply don't have the resources to do so.  In my opinion, pornographic deepfakery should be a criminal offense, like rape, as it is essentially a virtual digital version of that crime. 

As we mentioned, Section 230 doesn't prevent lawsuits that go after the originators of such content as pornographic deepfakes, so repealing it wouldn't help in that situation.  Overall, history seems to show that Section 230 has done more good than harm, and repealing or seriously modifying it would have effects that nearly everyone might regret later—except maybe lawyers. 

Sources:  Charles C. W. Cooke's article "Why We Need Section 230" appeared on National Review's website at https://www.nationalreview.com/magazine/2020/06/22/why-we-need-section-230/.  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. 

Monday, June 15, 2020

Amazon's Ban on Police Use of Its Face Recognition Software


Last Wednesday, June 10, the tech giant Amazon announced that it was banning police agencies from using its face recognition technology Rekognition for a year.  The company gave no official reason for its timing, although it comes less than two weeks after the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police force. 

Critics have charged that face recognition technology in general, and Rekognition in particular, has biases when it comes to race or gender.  According to an Associated Press report, in the past Amazon has defended its software against the results of studies by MIT researchers who showed that such software marketed by Microsoft, Amazon, and IBM sometimes made mistakes that put darker-skinned people and women at a disadvantage.  (Microsoft and IBM pledged to address the deficiencies as a result.)  Amazon's product is a fairly minor player in a field that includes products from Japan and Europe as well, which many police agencies use.  Both Amazon and other producers have called for federal regulation of face recognition technology amid concerns of abuse and bias.

Another portion of the human anatomy has been used for identification by police and security agencies for decades, largely without recent controversy:  the unique patterns on fingertips.  But at least so far, fingerprints cannot be sensed remotely, and taking them usually requires the cooperation or at least physical contact with the individual being examined.  With the proper optical technology, one can image a face from a distance of a kilometer or more, leading to the possibility of mass identification in crowds with software that can unambiguously connect faces to persons.

Speaking from an engineering ethics viewpoint, we can identify the parties in this controversy as follows.  There are the firms that make face-recognition technology.  There are the customers and potential customers for such technology, which include but are not limited to law-enforcement agencies, governments in general, and also private firms wanting to make personalized advertisement appeals, for example.  There are regulatory agencies with the potential ability to regulate such technology.  And then there is the general public, a subset of whom are criminals, but the vast majority of whom are just ordinary people trying to live their lives in these lately rather extraordinary times. 

The dangers of misusing face-recognition technology are many, even if it works perfectly.  In China, for example, it is already being used in combination with other techniques to monitor movements and activities of the general public in what we in the U. S. would consider gross violations of privacy.  But even if the agency using the technology was entirely benign (and if there are real human beings running it, it won't be entirely benign), flaws in the technology such as a preferential tendency to make false positive identifications of darker-skinned people will lead to injustices such as innocent persons being identified, and possibly arrested and worse, in connection with wrongs they did not commit. 

So concerns like these are probably behind the motivation that made Amazon ban its Rekognition software from police use for a year.  Such concerns comprise at least one reason that face-recognition firms have called for federal regulation of the technology as well.

However, it does seem rather perverse for a company to defend a product they made for police departments, only to turn around and take it away from them for a year.  And here I wish to tread lightly, because in today's "cancel culture," anything you say can be used against you, as the police used to say (and maybe still say, for all I know).  Only you used to have to be formally charged with a crime for that to be the case, but no longer.  Anyway, here goes.

The publicity surrounding George Floyd's death has led to both intense outrage expressed in print, in words, and in massive demonstrations, as well as to criminal acts such as looting and rioting.  Understandably, a lot of the hostility inspired by Floyd's death has been directed against law enforcement agencies ranging from local police organizations up to and including the federal government.  Recently, some have called for "defunding" police forces, the interpretation of which varies, but at a minimum means a punishing cut in financial support.

Order is a fundamental need for any functioning society.  It is not the ultimate good of society, which lies elsewhere, but it is needed as much as food and water.  Because there are always a few people who will not follow the rules simply because someone in authority tells them to, most functioning societies of any size have law-enforcement agencies. 

The modern concept of law includes the principle that it applies equally to everybody.  Sometimes the police fall short in trying to achieve that ideal, and certain groups that include minorities receive unfair treatment.  Every reasonable means should be used to try to remedy such wrongs, and to get closer to the ideal of equal treatment under the law. 

But to penalize entire organizations for the wrong acts of a few of their members is to erode the very thing we are trying to achieve, namely, equal treatment under the law.  A crippled (or, perish the thought, abolished) police force will lead to increased disorder, and a reaction that may well institute a much harsher order than any of us want. 

Speaking specifically of Amazon and Rekognition, if the software really didn't work that well, Amazon should never have sold it to the police in the first place.  Taking it away for a year looks suspiciously like the time I took away my 10-year-old nephew's toys for a day to punish him for not minding his aunt and uncle.  And one can certainly question the right of a private company to punish police departments, which are under the authority of those governmental divisions that control them, not Amazon. 

Sources:  The Associated Press article about Amazon's banning Rekognition from police use appeared in numerous news outlets, including the Tampa Bay Times on June 12 at https://www.tampabay.com/news/2020/06/10/amazon-bans-police-use-of-its-face-recognition-for-a-year/.  The argument about the rule of law was inspired by an interview I heard with Princeton professor Robert P. George on the Sheila Liaugminas Relevant Radio network show "A Closer Look."

Monday, June 08, 2020

The Danger of Deepfakes


A recent article on the Forbes website shows photos of four fairly normal-looking faces:  two young women, a more mature woman, and a man.  Thing is, none of these people exist.  The faces are composites made with artificial-intelligence (AI) technology that produces what are called deepfakes:  fictitious images that only sophisticated specialists armed with software can tell from the real thing, and sometimes they can't even tell either. 

Deepfakes aren't limited to still pictures.  Another example the article cited was a State Farm commercial that purported to show a 1998 ESPN commentator making eerily accurate predictions about events in 2020.  There was no such commentator, but deepfake technology enabled the producers to make it look that way.

I've blogged about deepfakes before, but in our current volatile circumstances, the topic deserves some revisiting.  Like almost anything having to do with AI these days, the quality of deepfakes is increasing as the computer horsepower needed to make them decreases.  One way AI developers have found to improve the quality of deepfakes is to pit one program against another in what's called a "generational adversarial network," or GAN.  It's a digital version of what a writer does when she first throws down anything she can think of on a page, and then takes off her creative cap, puts on her editor's cap, and looks for the best parts of what she's written and develops those.  One system comes up with attempts at deepfakes and the other system critiques them, and together the two systems can approach something closer to realistic images than either one can by itself.

Regardless of how it's done, it's becoming harder to tell a fake still or video image from the genuine article, and thereby hangs the rub.

Every so often, the body politic enters what one might call a critical moment.  We've had more than our share of these lately.  I'd say one critical moment came last March over the weekend of the 13th to the 16th.  That was when the full implications of the COVID-19 pandemic registered with officialdom, and emergency-restriction edicts began to show up everywhere from the local to the national level. 

Another critical moment came after news reports of what happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 included the famous nine-minute video of officer Derek Chauvin pinning Floyd's neck under his knee.  In today's video-saturated age, no number and quality of words can have the effectiveness with large masses of people that a single video clip can have. 

There was never any serious question about the video's authenticity, which added to its impact.  Without getting into the complicated issues of the relationship between videos and total reality, I will simply point out that the Floyd video created a hypersensitized public ready to be outraged by anything similar in nature, whether real or otherwise.

There are actors and institutions out there which would like nothing better than to sow discord in a city, a state, or a nation.  The 2016 presidential elections provided abundant evidence that Russia engaged in a well-resourced attempt to influence the election in ways that were disguised to appear as simply concerned U. S. citizens expressing their opinions, or spreading rumors. 

We would like to believe that truth will eventually triumph, that lies and fakery eventually get discovered and discredited, and that if you just explain the facts to people in a logical way that they will agree with you.  But in the heat of the moment, such as the runup to an election, a lie can get five miles down the road while the truth is still getting its pants on, and that can change the course of history in an election.

Most of the deepfakes that have drawn much attention so far are extremely unbelievable, and made so intentionally to show off their apparent authenticity.  The ESPN prophet is one example.  When a deepfake specialist makes former President Obama say something that no one would believe he'd actually say, the result isn't going to fool anybody.

For a deepfake to cause serious trouble, it would require a coordinated effort among the deepfakers and a conspiracy of false witnesses to the alleged event.  Just to play devil's advocate for a moment, you may recall some time back when actor Jussie Smollett had two people attack him in Chicago with slurs and a rope around his neck.  I chose the construction "had two people" intentionally, because a police investigation subsequently turned up strong evidence that Smollett paid his attackers to stage the incident for publicity purposes. 

What if Smollett had instead hired a deepfaker to create a video of the incident, along with suborning witnesses who would testify to its authenticity?  Now you've got potential dynamite instead of just a little firecracker that would take authorities just a few days to see through.  And the ever-roving eye of the public, greedy for outrageous confirmation of its suspicions, would eagerly seize upon such evidence of bigotry and go to town, so to speak.  Smollett would have stood a much better chance of being believed, at least for a while, and it's possible that lots of people would be convinced by the video and might not ever change their minds afterwards.

The Smollett incident happened in January 2019, which in comparison to today seems like the bygone Edwardian era of England before the catastrophe of World War I.  If  someone fabricates a deepfake-assisted fraudulent incident that is primed to touch a sensitive nerve such as racism or the intense dislike that members of the public have toward a prominent political figure, it will not take much to set off reactions such as we have been seeing for the last couple of weeks since George Floyd's death. 

Over the centuries, society has learned how to cope with forgery in documents and paintings, counterfeiting in currency, and darkroom manipulation of still photographs.  As the technology of deepfakes advances, I expect that we will also learn how to deal with the fact that no matter how realistic a video looks, there is always the possibility that it was faked.  And that thought is especially important to hang onto in distressed times such as these, and in critical times leading up to important elections.

Sources:  The Forbes article by Rob Toews appeared on May 25, 2020 at https://www.forbes.com/sites/robtoews/2020/05/25/deepfakes-are-going-to-wreak-havoc-on-society-we-are-not-prepared/.  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on Jussie Smollett and George Floyd.  I thank my wife Pam for bringing this article to my attention. 

Monday, June 01, 2020

SpaceX Launches NASA Astronauts At Last


On Saturday, May 30, American astronauts flew into orbit on an American-made space vehicle for the first time since 2011.  SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket carried Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, both veterans of the old Space Shuttle program, inside the Dragon capsule, and once the capsule separated safely, the first stage returned automatically to earth and landed intact on a barge to be reused.  Meanwhile, the Dragon capsule has been catching up to the International Space Station (ISS) where, assuming the docking goes smoothly this morning (I'm writing this Sunday), the astronauts will stay for the next several months.  The return flight in the Dragon capsule is planned to end in the ocean, a mode of re-entry that hasn't been done for over forty years. 

Many news reports remarked on the contrast between the good news of a successful launch and the general tone of recent U. S. news events:  the COVID-19 virus and all its consequences, riots over police brutality, and so on.  But this is nothing new. 

The space race between the U. S. and the USSR over who would get to the moon first was conducted during what was probably the most tumultuous decade in the last half of the twentieth century.  The 1960s were not exactly peaceful:  the Vietnam War, antiwar protests, race riots, and the sexual revolution are just a few items of turmoil that come to mind.  But amid all the strife, America found the will and the capability to land men on the moon on July 20, 1969.

Engineers are not much into symbolism.  But space exploration carries a heavy load of symbolism, and it's worthwhile considering what that means in light of the huge effort and expense that sending people into space entails.

In retrospect, the Apollo program was mainly a way to carry on the Cold War by peaceful means.  Its extraordinary expense was justified not for scientific reasons, although there was some useful science done.  But being the first nation to put men on the moon would show our technological superiority to the world, and in an age dominated by technology, that achievement had implications that everyone understood.  It took a couple more decades for the USSR to crumble away, but it did.  Nevertheless, in their rough-and-ready way, the Russians maintained their ability to travel into space despite all kinds of political reverses, and once the Space Shuttle program outlived its usefulness, America turned inward with regard to space and paid taxi fare to the Russians to put people on the International Space Station.

When one asks about the ultimate motivations of the younger generation of space cadets—Elon Musk being their spiritual leader—the answer isn't as clear-cut as it was for my generation.  Nationalism pure and simple doesn't seem to be a big factor, although Musk is enough of an American to take pride in the fact that the rocket was made here and launched from here.

To be sure, profit is a motive as well.  That's why the fact that SpaceX and not NASA was the builder of the rocket is so significant.  It may be the case that SpaceX is a long way from turning a profit with direct commercial space activities, as opposed to government-subsidized projects such as the ISS launches.  But with ideas such as asteroid mining around, it may be that some of the next great fortunes may be made in space. 

If I had to guess, though, I'd say that the new space explorers see themselves taking part in a long-term project that will end up putting significant numbers of people out in space, in places that will be just as habitable as Earth, if not more so.  Every so often I come across a student who wants to get involved in the space program somehow, and there's often a kind of glitter in their eye when they talk about it.  The phrase "manifest destiny" has fallen under a cloud in recent years, as its original meaning that the United States was destined to conquer the whole midsection of the North American continent has been taken to be insensitive to the people (and animals) who were already here.  But presumably, displacing natives is not a big problem in the solar system, at least.  And believing that humanity is fated to found colonies on other planets, and perhaps beyond the solar system, seems to be close to an article of faith for many space enthusiasts.

It's interesting that the word "fate" came up in a quote from Musk himself as he commented on the successful launch yesterday.  Remarking on the contrast between Saturday's successful launch and the earlier attempts that were scrubbed by weather conditions, he said, "Today, I don't know, it felt like just the fates were aligned." 

Without putting undue weight on what may have been just an offhand remark, I think it's interesting that the leader of the company that launched Americans into space for the first time in nearly a decade attributes success to the fates being aligned. 

Musk mixed his metaphors, for one thing.  The usual phrase is to say that the stars are aligned, which harks back to the time when astrology—forecasting auspicious times and events by observing stars and planets—was every bit as respectable as forecasting the progress of pandemics is today.  And the Fates were mythological goddesses who presumably determined one's lifespan and, well, fate in life.  Either way, he was saying that despite all the highly technical and cross-checked planning involved, there is an element in the venture that wasn't under human control.  But we don't believe in Fates or astrology any more, do we? 

It depends on what you think life and the world are about.  If the most one has to look forward to is playing a brief role on a stage where your only hope of immortality is to make a big splash that will be remembered by future generations, then living a Musk-like life makes some sense, especially if humanity is fated to live among the stars.  Then you will be viewed by future generations as a Columbus (if that name isn't too offensive any more), or someone equally famous for venturing out to discover and eventually populate new worlds. 

But if everything we do and are is owing to a supernatural Ground of existence, namely a God who is intensely interested in what we puny humans do, then one has a different perspective on things.  It still may be worth while to explore space, and even for some people to live there.  But other priorities and other goals may intervene.

Sources:  I viewed the pre-launch clip and read the accompanying news copy about the SpaceX launch at https://apnews.com/da66485df4d82c055ce9d6b84a20e450.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Do-It-Yourself Insulin?


For those of us with diabetes that is severe enough to require regular insulin injections, going without insulin is not a realistic option.  In the U. S., such people are at the mercy of the drug companies that make insulin, and they (or their insurance or governtment benefits, if they have any) have to pay whatever those companies charge.  A graph of insulin prices versus time gives a good imitation of an exponentially rising curve, increasing about 50% from 2014 to 2019.  A vial of insulin can cost today as much as $300, and as a result, many poorer diabetes patients are skipping doses and incurring complications from the disease such as infections and blindness.  For a drug whose inventor, Frederick Banting, refused to put his name on the patent because he thought it should belong to humanity, it looks like patients who need the drug to live are being gouged by Big Pharma.

An article in the May 25 issue of The New Yorker describes how some do-it-yourself-biology groups are trying to come up with an end run around this problem.  In "The Rogue Experimenters," Margaret Talbot interviews people at a meeting of the Open Insulin Project in Baltimore, where Ph. D's in biochemistry mingled with volunteers who set up DNA labs in their apartments.  Their goal is to engineer a bacterium to manufacture insulin, and make it available at a much lower cost than the big three U. S. manufacturers charge.  But even if the rather rag-tag group of professionals and volunteers succeed, they face huge hurdles in the form of the Food and Drug Administraion (FDA) approval process, which can cost millions of dollars.  The big drug companies like it that way, because it means that nobody much smaller than them can even hope to compete.

When asked about the high price of insulin, drug manufacturers point to patented improvements they have made over the years.  Each patent allows them to exclude competition, and while technically the U. S. market is not a monopoly, the only three significant insulin manufacturers operate what looks to this outside observer like a cartel, successfully defending their practices against attempts by government to break up the cartel.  But although one type of synthetic insulin introduced in 1996 has gone from $20 a unit to about $200 today, no one is claiming that it works ten times better than it used to.

A little historical perspective might help us see what is wrong here, and what might be done to fix it. 

Much if not most of modern medicine can be traced to two sources with Christian roots:  the tradition of charitable care, which gave birth to the modern hospital; and the tradition of scientific investigation, which led to the monumental achievements of medical science that makes medical care so effective today.  We sometimes forget how recently medicine has transformed itself from a sort of guesswork sideshow that only rich people could afford to a huge and largely effective enterprise that makes life better, or even just possible, for billions around the globe. 

As late as the 1950s, it was fair to say that while most doctors and drug companies were not hurting for cash, most of the people involved in medical care were in it primarily for reasons of love rather than money.  They wanted to help people, and a medical-related job or business did that.  This attitude explains Banting's willingness in the 1920s to forego what might have been a highly profitable patent in the interests of benefiting humanity.  But once medical science adopted the Big Science style made possible in other fields by government funding, enterprising business people found that if you made a drug that people had to have in order to live, they would pay almost whatever you charged for it.  And their patent lawyers found clever ways to prolong patents so as to exclude competition from this operation, which is a big part of how Big Pharma got where it is today.

Ah, but if all those profits hadn't been available to fund further research, would we have as many advanced drugs and medical technologies as we do today?  There is no way to tell for sure, but one thing that is certain is that the drug companies now look at medical needs mainly with an eye toward profit, rather than asking about who is suffering and what can be done about it?  This leads to situations such as "orphan drugs" that have small patient populations, have been around too long to patent, or are unprofitable for other reasons. 

This problem has been a long time in the making, and I'm not about to solve in it one column.  The biological do-it-yourself movement may lead to some changes, although if it gets to be a serious threat to Big Pharma, they can deploy herds of lawyers to manipulate the government regulatory system to put the DIY'ers out of business.  Government intervention of some kind may be helpful, but not simply by subsidizing whatever the drug companies charge, which is partly how we got here in the first place. 

Humanly speaking, any institution that gets too powerful and begins to exploit the public, needs to have an equally powerful force applied to it to make it quit.  That is why most of the solutions posed for this problem involve government intervention of one kind or another, because government (mainly meaning the federal government) is the only institution whose power and resources can compare with the multibillion-dollar multinational drug corporations.  There is some significance in the fact that although the U. S. insulin market is comparatively small compared to the rest of the world, the drug companies make about half of their insulin profits from that market alone.

And while it is perhaps a remote and forlorn hope, another thing that would help is if everyone involved in medicine—drug companies, hospitals, doctors, and yes, even patients—would recall the roots of the discipline in the motivation of the kind of love that wishes the best for the beloved, including healing.  Millions of ordinary health-care workers still have that self-sacrificial love, as the COVID-19 crisis has shown us in recent months.  But the marketplace is not a good place to look for love, so maybe we should start from a different place altogether in thinking about how to fix problems such as the high price of insulin.

Sources:  Margaret Talbot's article "The Rogue Experimenters" appeared on pp. 40-49 of the May 25, 2020 issue of The New Yorker.  I also referred to an article on the Vox website at https://www.vox.com/2019/4/3/18293950/why-is-insulin-so-expensive and a graph of diabetes care costs versus time at https://www.goodrx.com/blog/goodrx-list-price-index-rising-cost-of-diabetes-treatments/.