Science and Technology

If Pot Becomes Legal

What will become of its secretive California hometown?

AP Photo

At one point in Humboldt: Life on America’s Marijuana Frontier, Emily Brady’s account of her year in a remote Northern California county where pot is the cash crop that drives the local economy, one of the book’s subjects—a native of the area named Emma Worldpeace—talks to a new friend about the pictures of deceased classmates that hang on tackboard on Emma’s dorm room wall.

“Did you know all these people who died?” she asked.
“Yeah, I grew up with all of them,” Emma replied.
“Oh my god, that seems so tragic.”

David Brooks and the Anti-Neuroscience Backlash

Flickr/TZA

Neuroscience has come a long way in recent years. Our understanding of the brain is expanding rapidly, even as we grasp more and more just how spectacularly complex the blob in your head really is. And as we gain new understanding and new tools to look at what's going on in the brain, like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), it's not surprising that there are people—both legitimate scientists and hucksters—eager to push the technology where it might not be quite prepared to go. For instance, people are working on turning fMRI machines into lie detectors; there are even companies that claim they can use a brain scan to tell whether you're lying. But there's still disagreement about how reliable these methods are.

So it's also not surprising that as neuroscience advances, we're seeing something of an anti-neuroscience backlash. Some of it is perfectly reasonable and measured, but some of it—like today's column by David Brooks of the New York Times—leaps right from criticism of ambitions racing ahead of our current knowledge to something that looks a lot like rejection of the potential of science itself. Here's some of what Brooks has to say:

Nothing to Hide, Much to Fear

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

In reviewing the public’s ambivalent reaction to the disclosures of NSA data mining, I find that some people conclude that it’s no big deal, while others are uneasy but can’t quite explain why. It’s just a modest generic invasion of privacy that is not even activated in most cases. Presumably, this is a weapon that the authorities need to keep us safe. After closed-door hearings yesterday, some skeptics on Capitol Hill were somewhat reassured that safeguards are adequate.

If you are in this camp, here are three good reasons to reconsider.

Keeping the Grim Reaper at Bay

Grandpa? Is that you? (Wikimedia Commons/Gaetan Lee)

This Sunday's New York Times business section had a big article on a guy named Dmitry Itskov, a Russian multi-millionaire who is using some of his money to solve the problems of hunger, environmental degradation, and mortality by creating a world in which all of us have out consciousness uploaded into avatars, or robot bodies. He calls it the 2045 Initiative, since that's his target date for it all coming together. Sound like a good idea? My opinion on this is complicated, but let's hear from him first:

Your Next Car Will Be Part Robot

One of Google's self-driving cars. (Flickr/Guillermo Esteves)

Futurists have been predicting self-driving cars for decades, but for a long time it wasn't because the idea was a natural extrapolation of existing technology. Instead, from the standpoint of the 1950s or so, it just seemed like something we'd have in The Future, along with robot maids, vacations on the moon, and a spectacular network of vacuum tubes in every home. Today, almost all the technology necessary to allow cars to drive themselves is either already in existence or in the development process, and Google has already allowed its driverless cars to go hundreds of thousands of miles on their own. So the Department of Transportation has issued a policy statement laying out some of the issues that are likely to be confronted as these technologies develop, and establishing its research agenda to address the questions they'll need to answer in order to properly regulate driverless cars.

Washington, Colorado, and the Headaches of a Legal High

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

When Colorado and Washington State passed ballot measures legalizing marijuana last November, they weren’t just the first states in the country to do so—they were the first governments in the world to do so. While other nations and states, most notably the Netherlands and California, have decriminalized marijuana possession, the drug is still technically illegal. That means that while it’s tolerated by law enforcement, the government need not concern itself with a full-scale system for regulation and taxation.

Face It: You're Crazy (But So Is Everyone Else)

Flickr/Mark Turnauckas, Carling Hale

Commonly referred to as "the DSM," the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is often referred to as psychiatry's "Bible." If that's the case, imagine the outcry if an overzealous publisher merged the Gospels of Luke and Mark, and you have a pretty good idea of the controversy surrounding the release of the manual's fifth edition.

Big Brother Is You, Watching

Google's Sergey Brin, sportin' the specs. (Flickr/Thomas Hawk)

I stole the title of this post from an essay Mark Crispin Miller wrote 25 years ago about the effects of television, in which he argued that instead of a totalitarian government forcing us to submit through fear and oppression, we'd happily voluteer to be anesthetized by our TVs. Today though, the more proximate danger involves the rise of a kind of universal surveillance where we're being watched through much of our days, by governmental authorities, corporations looking to part us from our money, and each other. It's bad now, and it's only going to get worse.

Which brings us to Google Glass, the augmented reality glasses rig that is getting closer to becoming a consumer product. People are starting to become concerned about the privacy implications of Google Glass, namely that you could be talking to someone who, unbeknownst to you, is recording everything you say. Or maybe you aren't even talking to them; maybe they're just walking behind you in the street, or sitting next to you in a restaurant. Maybe they'll have their Glass use facial recognition software to identify you, and then post to Twitter that you're in this restaurant, and you're looking a little tipsy. Members of the Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus (yes, I didn't know there was such a thing either) in the House just sent a letter to Larry Page, Google's CEO, expressing their concerns.

And what's Google's response? Don't sweat it, bro:

Will Blog for Swag

Why tech reporters should feel a little wrong about all that free stuff they're taking home

Flickr/ MDrX

Yesterday was Google I/O, the tech giant’s annual developer conference. It’s where Google thinkers, technology journalists, and the genius programmers who make it all possible commune and geek out over the pixelated (and actual) buffet that awaits. It’s also the poor man’s World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC), the annual Apple event made famous by way of Steve Jobs’ puckish, turtleneck-clad theatrics, which left the whole world slavering for the newest iThing. But Steve is gone, as are his trademark presentation pyrotechnics. Google I/O, pushing incremental updates to Maps like it’s the second coming, is what we're left with. 

Schooling Richwine

The link between genetics and I.Q. is unclear, much less the link between genetics and race.

The academic and policy worlds have been roiled by last week’s announcement that a Heritage Foundation study on the cost of immigration reform was co-authored by Jason Richwine, who wrote a dissertation on the purported low I.Q. of immigrants. It beyond belief that, in the year 2013, there are still some that want to posit that there is a genetic basis for race. Even more surprisingly, these arguments come endorsed with a seal of approval by some of the nation’s top universities, like Harvard in this case. As an alumnus of the Kennedy School and a scholar of race and Hispanic identity, I feel obliged to provide a response.

They Know What You're Doing

One guy's LinkedIn network visualized. (Flickr/Luc Legay)

The big social media sites all recommend people they think you should add to your network. In most cases, it's pretty obvious, at least on the surface, how the recommendation algorithm works; Twitter offers you a few people it suggests you follow, and says they're followed by people you already follow. But after joining LinkedIn a couple of years ago, I found its recommendations to be not just highly accurate, but disturbingly so. That isn't to say they don't recommend people I don't know, but often they'll recommend someone I do know, but I can't for the life of me figure out how they did it. Like hey, there's a woman I went on one date with in 1993, haven't spoken to since, and who knows no one I know. Why in god's name did they suggest her? There's the little brother of a guy I knew 15 years ago, and to whom I have no professional connection. How did he come up? It's particularly odd since I never use LinkedIn; my profile pretty much just sits there. The first couple of times it was remarkable, but after that it got a little disturbing.

Well it turns out it's not just me.

You Think We Have Lots of Guns Now...

The first working gun made (almost) entirely on a 3-D printer.

There's even more exciting gun news today, coming from a small non-profit organization called Defense Distributed. They announced that they have successfully test-fired a gun made almost entirely in a 3-D printer. The only part that wasn't 3-D printed was the firing pin. And the bullet, of course. Now previously, people had made gun components in 3-D printers, but prior tests of entire weapons had been unsuccessful. This raises some rather troubling questions, which we'll get to in a moment. But first, here's their short video, which shows the firing and construction of the gun, inexplicably interspersed with shots of World War II-era bombers:

Cleaning Up the Airwaves

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Last week, President Obama announced he would nominate his good friend and venture capitalist Tom Wheeler to lead the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Wheeler will replace another Obama good friend and venture capitalist, Julius Genachowski, who leaves in his wake an agency more embattled than ever.

In announcing the nomination, the president noted that Wheeler is “the only member of both the cable television and the wireless industry hall of fame. So he’s like the Jim Brown of telecom or the Bo Jackson of telecom”; Wheeler was president of the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) from 1979 to 1984, and Chief Executive Officer of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA) from 1992 to 2004. He is currently managing director of Core Capital Partners, a venture-capital firm, and he has been a prolific fund-raiser for the president. By all accounts Wheeler—one of the very few FCC nominees who is not a lawyer—has been a successful businessman. But the larger question is: Can he make good on the president’s early promises to make the U.S. a 21st Century digital nation that reflects the diversity of our country?

The STEM-Shortage Myth

Flickr/jasonandrebecca09

The Economic Policy Institute published a report yesterday on the supposed shortage of professionals in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). You've probably heard of the crisis by now. America is not producing enough STEM degrees. This will be the death of innovation and global competitiveness. We must reorient higher education to convert more liberal arts students into STEM students. And so on.

The problem with this alleged crisis is that it is not real. As the EPI report lays bare, the common wisdom about our STEM problem is mistaken: We are not facing a shortage of STEM-qualified workers. In fact, we appear to have a considerable STEM surplus. Only half of students graduating with a STEM degree are able to find STEM jobs. Beyond that, if there was an actual shortage of STEM workers, basic supply and demand would predict that the wages of STEM workers would be on the rise. Instead, wages in STEM fields have not budged in over a decade. Stagnant wages and low rates of STEM job placement strongly suggest we actually have an abundance of STEM-qualified workers.

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