Saturday, September 21, 2019


Just six weeks ago I posted about Google quantum AI guru Hartmut Neven predicting that quantum computing would grow at an unheard-of doubly exponential rate, and that the long-sought benchmark of quantum supremacy would be reached sometime this year.

Quantum computer core
Credit: Flickr

True to Neven's predictions, word has filtered out that Google has submitted a scientific paper reporting the first demonstration of a quantum computer solving a problem that even the most powerful classical computer can't manage--the hallmark of quantum supremacy. Reportedly, the problem Google's 54-qubit computer solved in 200 seconds would have taken a supercomputer 10,000 years to do.

One caveat--the problem was a very specific task known to be particularly well suited to a quantum computer. Much more work is needed before quantum computers will be able to tackle a full range of real-world problems. However, those developments will almost certainly happen much sooner than most people imagine.

This milestone is important in itself, meaning that scientists in every field, cryptographers, AI researchers, etc., will soon be able to tackle tasks that were previously impossible. However, what really demands everyone's attention is that easily-missed prediction, now known as Neven's law, that progress in quantum computing is going to unfold at a doubly exponential rate.

"To our knowledge," the Google team writes, "this experiment marks the fi rst computation that
can only be performed on a quantum processor. Quantum processors have thus reached the regime of quantum supremacy. We expect their computational power will continue to grow at a double exponential rate."

You can get a sense of what this astonishing rate of change means in my earlier post, "Forget Moore's Law. Neven's Law Rules Now." The bottom line is that we can expect as much progress in quantum computing in the next five or six years as we've seen in the digital world over the past five or six decades. After that point, all bets are off. If you think that the digital revolution has been earth shaking, just wait for the quantum revolution.

As Nevens says, "It looks like nothing is happening, nothing is happening, and then whoops, suddenly you're in a different world."

Well, we're in that new world now. It's going to make words to describe the rate of change, such as "breathtaking," "jet propelled" or "explosive" seem far too slow.


Robert Adler


In my post of May 19, 2017 entitled "L'etat c'est moi--Trump's identity problem," I argued that given Trump's blatant narcissim, he would inevitably come to see the presidency and the government as extensions of himself, with which he could do as he wished:

"It's no secret that our current president has the same proclivity [narcissim]. From his point of view, it's his country, his military, his secrets to share or withhold as he wishes, his realm to do with as he pleases. The Constitution, the rule of law, checks and balances, Congress and the courts are irrelevancies that had best get out of his way."

 Donald Trump

Nothing could illustrate this more clearly than the unfolding whistleblower scandal involving Ukraine. If what's being reported turns out to be true, Trump used the office of President and the coercive power of the United States to attempt to strong-arm a foreign government into an investigation to dig up dirt on Joe Biden and his son.

Joe Biden, of course, is Trump's most likely opponent in the 2020 elections, an opponent who, even according to polling by Fox News, leads Trump 52 to 38.

The fate of Ukraine is of importance to the United States. It would be totally appropriate for the President to negotiate forcefully with it, for example, to get it to reduce corruption and strengthen it's democratic institutions. However, using it as a cat's paw to dredge up dirt on a political opponent is not just inappropriate and possibly illegal, it is, or should be, an impeachable offense.

It's also worth noting, that Trump appears to be a repeat offender in such matters, having just dodged a bullet by Attorney General Barr's mealy-mouthed interpretation of the Mueller Report, which was  the result of a multi-year investigation into Trump's use of political ammunition provided by, and possibly coordinated with Russia, targeting Trump's previous opponent, Hillary Clinton.

What isn't clear is whether this pattern represents pure corruption--the conscious, willful breaking of laws and norms for his own political gain--or pathological narcissim, a narcissism so profound as to blind Trump even to the possibility of separating his own needs from our nation's priorities. It would still be corrupt, but might represent the kind of distinction that criminal law makes between, for example, premeditated murder and vehicular manslaughter.

My bet is that Trump, in his narcissism, feels 100 percent justified in using the Presidency and the powers of the United States any way he pleases.

Unfortunately, that doesn't make what he has done or is likely to do any less dangerous to all of us.


Robert Adler

Friday, September 20, 2019


Ever since election day, 2016, I've joked about how I (and everyone reading this now) were bumped into an alternative universe, one where Trump became president instead of Clinton. Here's how it happened:

Credit: ABE  Books

A group of us were vacationing in San Luis Potosi, Mexico on election day, 2016. I got permission from the management of the hotel we were staying in to connect my laptop to the large-screen television in their breakfast room so that we could livestream US channels and watch the election results come in.

We settled in with some drinks and were chatting happily as we watched the first returns get posted. As you remember, the polsters and pundits were quite sure that Hillary Clinton would win, and those early returns seemed to point the same way.

Then, without warning, a huge storm blew up. Rain was pouring down, a blast of wind smashed open an outside door and sheets of water blew in, flooding the floor. The downpour continued along with blasts of thunder and lightning, and within a few minutes the electricity and the wifi feed went off.

The hotel staff lit some candles to give us light, and we hunkered down for the next hour or so until the storm gradually abated and the power and the internet came back on.

You guessed it. By the time we could tune into the election results again, the votes from the midwest were coming in and Trump was winning. The storm, it seemed, had blown us into a different universe.

Now I realize that my feeling of having been transported into an alternate world may have been seeded by a science fiction story that I read nearly 60 years ago.

With the help of the internet, it didn't take long to find the story, called "A Sound of Thunder," wirtten by Ray Bradbury and first published in Collier's Magazine on June 28, 1952. I read it a few years later in a collection of Bradbury's short stories, The Golden Apples of the Sun, published in 1953.

The story is set sometime after the year 2055, one day after a US presidential election in which Keith,  a man who " . . . will make a fine President of the United States," defeated the dangerous Deutscher,

"If Deutscher had gotten in," Bradbury writes, "we'd have the worst kind of dictatorship. There's an anti everything man for you, a militarist, anti-Christ, antihuman, anti-intellectual."

We learn that time travel is now possible, and that Eckels, the story's protagonsit, has contracted with  a company that will take him on a  hunting excursion back to the age of the dinosaurs with the aim of bagging a Tyrannosaurus Rex. It's explained that the company has targeted a particular T. Rex that would have died by natural causes seconds later, so as not to change anything in the past. His hunting guides also emphasize that Eckels absolutely must stay on a floating metal pathway, again to avoid making an inadvertent change to the past that could reverberate in unpredictable ways back to the future.

Unfortunately, when confronted by the actual tyrannosaur, Eckels panics and stumbles off the metal path back to the safety of the time machine.

When they get back to the present, things are subtly, subliminally different. In particular, a sign that had been written in good English before the trip back in time is now written in a crude pidgin. Eckels scrapes the mud off his boots and finds a single crushed butterfly. Bradbury writes:

"It fell to the floor, an exquisite thing, a small thing that could upset balances and knock down a line of small dominoes and then big dominoes and then gigantic dominoes, all down the years across Time. Eckels' mind whirled. It couldn't change things. Killing one butterfly couldn't be that important! Could it?"

Eckels fearfully asks who won yesterday's election. The company representative laughs and says, "You joking? You know very well. Deutscher, of course! Who else? Not that fool weakling Keith. We got an iron man now, a man with guts!"

For me, it took a huge thunderstorm. For Bradbury, all that was needed was a butterfly.*


*For a discussion of how Bradbury's story may have contributed to the famous "butterfly effect," from chaos theory, check out this Wikipedia entry.


Robert Adler

Tuesday, September 10, 2019


As the ancient Romans already knew (remember "a sound mind in a healthy body"?), physical and mental fitness are connected.  Now, two millenia later, new research may tell us why.

Dr. Jonathan Repple, at the University of Muenster, in Germany, and his colleagues were able to study over 1000 MRI brain scans of healthy volunteers, with an average age of 29. They supplemented the scans with a test of physical endurance and a dozen cognitive tests.

 High contast brain scan

As has been shown in previous research studies, the researchers found that physical fitness and cognitive functioning were strongly correlated.  What was new was their finding that this correlation was mediated by the integrity and connectivity of the white matter of the subjects' brains.

White matter consists of long, insulated nerve fibers that transmit information rapidly from one part of the brain to another.  Fitter subjects had better brain connectivity, and those with better brain connectivty scored better across the board on cognitive tests.

(This finding makes subjective sense if you consider how much of our thinking consists of making connctions.)

The researchers didn't expect to find such a strong relationship between physical fitness, brain health and cognition in healthy young people. "To see this happening in 30 year olds is surprising," Repple says. "This leads us to believe that a basic level of fitness seems to be a preventable risk factor for brain health."

Still, this correlative study could not determine is whether improving people's fitness will improve the health of their white matter and/or boost their cognitive performance. "We see that fitter people have better brain health," says Repple. "So we now need to ask whether actually making people fitter will improve their brain health. Finding this out is our next step."

Stay tuned. And in the meantime, just in case, stay fit.

Robert Adler


You can find the research paper, White matter microstructure mediates the association between
physical fitness and cognition in healthy, young adults; at: 1

Monday, September 02, 2019


Today’s headlines (NYT August 25) about President’s Trump’s ‘fantastic’ new trade pact with Boris Johnson reveals what last week’s flap about Trump’s effort to ‘purchase’ Greenland may have really been about:  It was, in fact, a brilliantly conceived deception for the truly historic action being negotiated behind the scenes for the purchase of post-Brexit England!
We all fell for the ‘fake news’, as expected, since nothing the President tweets or demands from day to day is beyond belief. The advantages of a fire-sale rescue of Great Britain just as its economic value reaches rock-bottom after a likely ‘no deal’ exit from the EU could not have escaped the calculating mind of our Deal-maker-in-chief. Imagine--‘Fortress Americans’ and ‘Little Englanders’ together again, reuniting their Anglo-Saxon heritage. Such a deal!

Les Adler

Wednesday, July 31, 2019


Moore's law has had a pretty impressive run. For more than 40 years, Gordon Moore's prediction that the density of components in integrated circuits would double roughly every two years has held true. The result is that the microchips that run our digital world are 2-to-the-20th power, or several million times more powerful than anything that was available back then.

(In the late '60s, I wrote programs for the CDC 6600, then the most powerful supercomputer in the world. It churned out 3 million operations per second. The processor in a current iPhone performs more than 3 billion operations per second, and today's fastest supercomputer 122 quadrillion.)

By way of putting this exponential growth of computing power into perspective, imagine if you were a million times richer or a million times smarter than you were a few decades ago, and could expect to keep doubling your wealth or your smarts every two years. Not too shabby.

IBM Q Quantum Computer*
Credit: Lars Plougmann

But that's all so yesterday. Now, as the era of quantum computing surges into view, there's a new sheriff in town--Hartmut Neven--bringing us Neven's law.

Earlier this year, Neven, an economist, physicist and current head of Google's Quantum Artificial Intelligence lab, made the stunning observation that the power of quantum computers is growing not at an exponential rate, but at a doubly exponential rate. Rather than, for example, doubling ever two years, their power is doubling at a rate that itself doubles every two years.

That may not sound like a big difference. But to get a sense of what it means, check out the following table:

Step (n)       Exponential Growth               Doubly Exponential Growth
                    (2 to the n'th power)               (2 to the 2 to the n'th power)

    1                             2                                                         4
    2                             4                                                       16
    3                             8                                                     256
    4                           16                                                65,536
    5                           32                                    4,294,967,296
    6                           64                                       1.8  x 10^19 = 1,800,000,000,000,000,000

If Neven is right, the amount of progress that classical computing made over the last 40 years will be compressed into the next six years of quantum computing development. Or, as he describes it, "It looks like nothing is happening, nothing is happening, and then whoops, suddenly you're in a different world."

The tipping point that will notify us that we're in that different world will be quantum supremacy--the point at which a quantum computer can out-perform the most powerful classical computer. Since quantum computers are still in their infancy, you might think that will take a long time. Not so. Based on the explosive rate of progress in his lab and those of his competiors, Nevens thinks that will happen this year.**And, if progress in quantum computing does follow a doubly exponential curve as Nevens predicts, quantum computers will not just gradually outstrip classical computers; they will almost immediately leave them in the dust.

And it may not only be classical computers that are left wondering what just happened. As those of you who have been following developments in artificial intelligence (AI) know, some very smart people have been warning us about the risks of runaway AI--the emergence of a superhuman artificial intelligence (AGI) that could quickly build an even more intelligent system that could build a still more intelligent system etc. The result could be the emergence of an immensely powerful machine-or internet-based intelligence that might well not have our interests at heart.

Those dire warnings didn't take into account quantum AI which, as you recall, is the raisin d'etre of Neven's lab. If the exponential growth of AI based in classical computers presents us with a looming existential threat, what about the doubly exponential growth of quantum AI?

Remember that sequence: 4, 16, 256, 65536, 4294967296 . . .


*To help keep track of the pace of progress in quantum computing, here's a milestone as of September, 2019, IBM's soon-to-be-available 53-qubit quantum computer: 

**And just to emphasize the rate of change Neven predicted, in mid-September, 2019, well before the end of the year, his lab has published a paper demonstrating quantum supremacy. A 54-qubit quantum computer in their lab took just 200 seconds to solve a problem that would take a supercomputer 10,000 years to do. You can read about it here.


Robert Adler

Wednesday, July 03, 2019


Every so often there's a bit of good news about the race to replace fossil fuels with renewables before time runs out for a habitable planet Earth. Today's ray of light is the news that renewable energy capacity--the amount of power that can be generated from solar, wind and water--beat out the combined capacity of all the coal-fired power plants in the US for the first time.

We need more windmills and less CO2!
This milestone appears in the latest Energy Infrastructure Update from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. It was a photo finish, with renewable generating capacity now 21.56 percent of the total while coal dropped to 21.55 percent. Not a huge difference, but with renewables rapidly growing and coal shrinking, it's a moment worth noting.

Of course, if we are to maintain a livable climate, we need a lot more of such wins, and soon, and not just in the US, but worldwide.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Quick link to a great piece explaining how what we've done to the Earth is coming back to bite us

Economists call them externalities. Those are all the goods and services that aren't accounted for in a company's or a country's balance sheet--things like the oil and ores we've been extracting from the Earth for centuries and the pollutants, including CO2 and methane, that we've been dumping back into the soil, air and water, supposedly for free. Journalist J. P. Sottile, writing in Truthout, does a great job of clarifying how these "free" goods and services are actually a huge, rapidly growing debt, and how nature is now collecting on our past-due accounts. It's a great piece. Please read it!

Open pit mine,Udachnaya, Russia--credit Wikimedia

Monday, April 22, 2019


Here's the bad news: unless you're under 25, your brain is shrinking. The rate of brain loss is slow at first but speeds up gradually over the years. The brain volume of a typical 75 year old is about 15 percent less than it was at its peak. That gradual loss of brain volume goes hand in hand with the decline in memory and other cognitive functions commonly seen as people age.

 All you need is . . . to take a walk
Image source: Creative Commons

The good news is that even light physical activity--getting up, moving around, doing chores, taking a stroll, working standing rather than sitting--slows down brain shrinkage and ageing. A three-year study of more than 2300 men and women found that for every extra hour per day of light physical activity, people's brains measured more than a year younger, and the brains of people who clocked 10,000 or more steps a day were nearly two years younger than those of people who managed fewer than 5,000 steps a day.

The participants in this study were from the second and third generation of the famous Framingham Heart Study, a long term study centered in Framingham, Massachusetts, that has contributed greatly to our understanding of cardiovascular health and disease, diet and exercise. Activity was measured using accelerometers, and brain volume was tracked via MRIs.

These findings are encouraging to the millions of us--75 percent of Americans--who don't manage to meet the official physical activity guidelines of 150 to 300 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous, aerobic exercise. We can protect our brains with less intense activities.

"Every additional hour of light intensity physical activity was associated with higher brain volumes, even among individuals not meeting current Physical Activity-Guidelines," says Nicole Spartano, a researcher at Boston University School of Medicine and lead author of the study. "These data are consistent with the notion that potential benefits of physical activity on brain aging may accrue at a lower, more achievable level of intensity or volume."

The bottom line is that almost any kind or amount of daily exercise, even just an our or so of light physical activity, can give your brain the boost it needs to stay young and fit.


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Tuesday, April 16, 2019


A computer just wrote a book. It's not a particularly catchy title--Lithium-Ion Batteries--and the author, a system called Beta Writer, isn't going to win a Pulitzer. However, it is a full-fledged, meaningful and readable book entirely written by a machine--the first but certainly not the last.

Authors watch out--one more "human only" skill bites the dust

If your reaction to this news is along the lines of "what's the big deal," that's understandable. Hardly a day goes by without news that AI has equaled or surpassed us plodding humans at yet another activity once thought to require uniquely human intelligence.

Artificial intelligence systems--let's just call them AIs for short--are now as good as humans at a large and rapidly growing number of tasks, and far superior in some others, including games like chess and Go, mastery of which was once seen as one of the pinnacles of human intelligence, and highly esteemed (and highly paid) skills including sinking basketball three-pointers. This is happening so rapidly and so frequently that most of us don't even notice the next advance.

However, some heavy-duty thinkers including Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking have been warning us for some time about the potentially existential risks of AI.

Gates, Musk and Hawking are not so much worried about AIs that are better than humans at one particular task or another, but about the emergence of an AI that is smarter and more capable than humans in every area. This kind of entity, they point out, could rapidly design and create an even smarter AI, which in turn could quickly improve on itself, leading to an intelligence explosion that could leave the human race, quite literally, in the dust.

Beta Writer, the system that created Lithium-Ion Batteries is pretty smart. It read thousands of scientific articles, extracted their most important findings, melded together related items, and them summarized them in readable, if technical prose. It produced the kind of comprehensive,  well organized, up-to-the-minute review of a scientific or technical field that until now would have been produced by an expert or a team of experts in a field. As such, it joins the ranks of expert systems that are matching or surpassing humans at increasingly high-level tasks. As an author myself, I can't help but be impressed. However, it's far more limited than the kind of AIs Hawking worried about.

Most researchers working on AI argue that these system, even if increasingly savvy and capable, are on the whole benign, for example helping doctors make accurate diagnoses, providing even amateur investors with high-quality guidance, and making all kinds of complex systems such as air traffic, shipping and product delivery run more smoothly. AIs are now integrated, mostly invisibly, into almost every aspect of our lives, and we rely on them whether we choose to or not. And although they occasionally do destructive things, for example the financial "Flash Crash" of 2010, or the deadly real crashes of  Boeing's 737 Max 8 aircraft, it wasn't because they were too smart or being malicious.

It's extremely difficult to predict when, if ever, an AI will emerge that surpasses humans in all of the areas that we consider important, including a deep understanding of itself and the world, emotional as well as analytic intelligence, creativity and imagination as well as problem solving. However, those who have thought most deeply about this, point out that such an entity may well have values and goals that are very different than ours.

These critics, or prophets, warn that we should be working as hard on "the control problem"--making sure that any emerging super-smart AI has the safety and security of us humans embedded so deeply into its design that it can't decide to act against us--as we are working to make AIs smarter, more capable and more ubiquitous.

All I know is that hundreds or thousands of times more money and talent is being poured into developing smarter, more capable AIs than are being devoted at that boring, but potentially vital control problem.


Earlier posts on AI and its risks:

Google's Alphazero is now scary smart

Advanced artificial intelligence--friend or foe?


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Wednesday, April 03, 2019


Every so often I come across a presentation that makes something I had a vague idea about crystal clear. I invite you to dive into this great piece by Brian Resnick and Javier Xarracina on Vox. It's partly about dark matter, but it uses a series of beautifully done graphics to give us a sense of where the Earth fits into the big picture of the sun, the Milky Way and the hundreds of billions of galaxies in the known universe, all of which are dwarfed in turn by dark matter and dark energy.

 Looking up at the Milky Way--our home galaxy
Credit: Free photos from Pixabay

Please give it a click! You won't be sorry.

And to get a totally different view of the history and immensity of the cosmos, check out this new video zoom out of the depths of the Hubble Legacy Field.


Thanks to British author Brian Aldiss for the striking phrase "galaxies like grains of sand." That was the title of the American edition of a collection of some of his short stories, published in the UK under the title The Canopy of Time


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Thursday, March 28, 2019


Imagine you hold a dial in your hand. Turn it to the left and you reduce the number of people killed in your state every year by 15 percent. Turn it to the right and it will increase the number of people killed by 9 percent. For example, if you live in California, you could save 279 lives with a flick of your wrist (or, if you're of a sociopathic bent, you could add 167 deaths per year). In Texas, you could save 197 people or see an extra 118 killed. In New York, you could prevent 92 homicides or provoke 55 more.

Now, new research by public health specialists at the Boston University School of Public Health and Boston Children's Hospital shows that the 50 state legislatures hold exactly that power.

Community health researcher Michael Siegel and his colleagues performed the first simultaneous controlled statistical study of the relationship between different gun laws and homicides in all 50 states, covering the years 1991 through 2016. Out of many different kinds of gun-related laws they studied, they found that three had powerful positive or negative impacts. Universal background checks preventing convicted violent felons from owning guns produced a 15 percent reduction in overall homicides. Laws blocking people convicted of violent misdemeanors cut the homicide rate by 18 percent. In contrast, "shall issue" laws that prevent authorities from using any discretion in granting concealed-carry permits resulted in a 9 percent higher homicide rate.

The researchers found that states with positive forms of all three laws--universal background checks preventing both felons and people with violent misdemeanors from buying or owning guns, and laws giving authorities the right to deny concealed-carry requests from people deemed risks to themselves or other--benefited from 33 percent lower homicide rates.

 Firearms confiscated from felons, California, 2011

For this study, the researchers excluded deaths from legal interventions (e.g. deaths at the hands of police), accidental firearm deaths and firearm deaths whose intent wasn't determined--in total 4.5 percent of firearm-related deaths. They also controlled statistically for many variables known to impact firearm fatalities, including the racial mix of each state, the percentage of young men between the ages of 15 to 29, and the rate of violent crimes other than homicide, divorce, unemployment and poverty.

They found that limiting dangerous people's access to guns is the most effective legal intervention, saving more lives than, for example, trying to limit the kinds of firearms that are available. Asked to summarize the implications of the study for policy makers, Siegel writes:

"Our research suggests that focusing on the “WHO” (i.e., who has access to firearms) is more impactful than focusing on the WHAT (i.e. what types of firearms are allowed). Based on these findings, the priorities for state policy makers should be: (1) universal background checks; (2) laws that prohibit gun purchase or possession by people with a history of violence (a conviction); and (3) extreme risk protection order laws that provide a mechanism for removing guns from people at high risk of violence to themselves or others."

In 2016, 17,250 people were the victims of homicide in the US. In the 26 years covered by this study, 859,871 people were killed. If I had a dial that could prevent even one death, I'd turn it. Wouldn't you? How about saving 2200 lives in a year? Or 130,000 lives over the next 26 years?


You can access the research paper, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, at this URL.

You can view earlier zerospinzone posts on gun-related issues at the following links:

stand-your-ground laws 

facts about guns in the US

guns and kids in the US

guns, young people and suicide in the US

New Zealand responds to gun violence


A slightly different version of this post appeared on OpEdNews at this URL.

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Monday, March 25, 2019


This is certainly not the most serious thing I could be writing about, what with the Mueller report finally coming to a fizzling end, Venezuela falling into chaos, the Middle East arguably growing even more explosive, decades of relative restraint on the development and potential use of nuclear weapons being tossed aside by the US and Russia, and, lest we forget, climate change.

Still, a little bit of actually useful information is probably worthy of at least a few moments of your attention.

Here's the snippet of news: If you're over 55 and you eat more than 10 grams (.35 oz or 2 teaspoons) of nuts every day, you're 40 percent more likely to enjoy good thinking and memory than your non-nut-consuming peers.

Can a few peanuts a day keep senility away?
Credit: Aney/Wikimedia

This was the main finding in a study of almost 5000 Chinese seniors. Eating more than 10 grams of nuts every day--mostly peanuts for this study group--boosted cognition by about two-thirds of a point as measured on a 40 point scale. That's equivalent to shaving off two to three years of age.

With a greying population putting millions of people at risk of dementia, any intervention that can slow brain ageing can be of great value to individuals and to society as a whole.

Some people will pay thousands of dollars for surgery to make them look a few years younger. How much is it worth to you to have your brain actually work like it did when you were a few years younger? If the "cost" is munching a few teaspoons of nuts every day, it would seem to be extremely well worth it.


You can reference the research report in the Journal of Nutrition, Health & Ageing here.


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Thursday, March 21, 2019


Here in the US, whenever there's a mass shooting we re-enter a futile, paralytic cycle. Gun-control advocates use the tragedy to argue once again for stricter laws. Second-Amendment advocates launch a counter attack, saying "now is not the time." Their supporters in Congress offer "thoughts and prayers." Their critics point out their hypocrisy. Gun-lovers rush to buy more guns. Nothing changes. And, within a few days we endure yet another massacre.

 "This is not New Zealand"
Credit: AP/Vincent Yu

As we know, a week ago New Zealand was shocked when a white racist gunman murdered 50 people at their prayers. The nation united in revulsion. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spoke movingly about the victims, vowed never to mention the shooter's name in order to deprive him of the notoriety he sought, and promised to enact stricter gun-control laws and ban semi-automatic weapons entirely as soon as April 11.

Most remarkably, at least some New Zealanders are voluntarily turning their weapons over to the police to be destroyed.

There's a problem. The government responds. People respond. It sounds so sensible. It must feel very good to be part of a functional society and government.

Why not here?


Click here for a more in-depth commentary on this subject.


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Thursday, March 14, 2019


New research in mice has shown for the first time that it's possible to stop the formation of amyloid plaques--one of the key pathological features of Alzheimer's disease--and for the brain to clear them away entirely. This line of research has the potential to lead to medications that can slow, stop, or perhaps even reverse the ravages of this dread, mind-destroying disease.

 Comparison of a healthy brain and a brain with severe Alzheimer's disease
Credit: Wikimedia

As many people know through personal experience with friends or family members, Alzheimer's is an implacably progressive neurodegenerative disease that  robs individuals of their memory, cognitive functions, ability to care for themselves, personalities and, eventually, their lives. It's currently the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. and, strikingly, ". . . is the only disease in the 10 leading causes of deaths in the United States that cannot be cured, prevented or slowed."

A new study, however, opens up the possibility that Alzheimer's may in fact one day be slowed or prevented, if not cured. Working with mice genetically modified to develop Alzheimer's disease, neuroscientist Riqiang Yan* and his colleagues at the Cleveland Clinic-Lerner Research Institute in Cleveland, Ohio, found that gradually reducing an enzyme called BACE1 blocked the development of amyloid plaques, which are a central part of Alzheimer's pathology.

Although their study was complex and highly technical, the logic behind it is clear. BACE1 is one of two enzymes that snip amyloid precursor protein, or APP, into the shorter pieces that glom together into the plaques that are thought to disrupt and eventually kill neurons. Since BACE1 has important biological functions, removing it early in life or completely creates serious neuro-developmental problems. Still, the researchers reasoned, reducing it gradually in adult mice might slow or stop Alzheimer's without causing unacceptable side effects. That's exactly what they found.

"In our study," says Yan, " we showed that if we delete BACE1 in the adult mice, even after plaque formed, with sequential and increased deletion of BACE1 the plaque was removed. That indicates that if we can get to a patient early enough, it will be beneficial in removing amyloid plaque."

Yan was not surprised to see that lowered levels of BACE1 slowed or stopped the formation of new plaques. He was both surprised and excited to find already existing plaques cleared away--the first time that this has been seen. "To our knowledge," he says, "this is the first observation of such a dramatic reversal of amyloid deposition in any study of Alzheimer’s disease mouse models. We didn't expect the pre-existing plaque would be removed. That was the very interesting part, and warrants additional study to find out why."

While completely blocking BACE1 causes developmental and cognitive problems, a gradual lowering in adult mice appeared appeared safer. Those mice performed better on learning and memory tasks than untreated Alzheimer's prone mice.  However, they still showed some abnormalities in synaptic signalling. Despite this problem, Yan thinks that compounds can be developed that, when applied at the right time and at the right dose, will slow or stop the development of plaques, allow the brain to clear away existing ones, and so keep Alzheimer's at bay.

Prevention is more powerful than treatment

Yan compares this to the enormously successful use of statins to control cholesterol levels enough to block the development of atherosclerosis and heart disease, even though cholesterol has vital functions in the body. "The critical thing is will this lead to some safe drugs?" he asks. "We need to find something very safe like a vitamin that people can take every day without any concerns. Another similarity is to the statins, taking statins to prevent cholesterol from building up. The idea is that prevention is even more powerful that treatment." 

The next step for Yan and colleagues is to track the effects of reduced BACE1 on the mouse brain in more detail and on older mice. "Human patients are typically older than in the mouse model," he explains. "In the mouse model we started to delete [BACE1] at 4 months, which is like 20 years old for people. We now want to delete it in older mice. We need a new mouse model for this later stage."

Robert Vassar is a professor of neurology at Northwestern University, in Illinois, and a pioneer in the study of the role of BACE1 in Alzheimer's disease. He's very supportive of Yan's new findings, and, like Yan, thinks they hold significant promise for Alzheimer's prevention. Vassar too likes the analogy with statins and cardiovascular disease. "You can't turn off the tap of cholesterol, but you can turn it down enough to not accumulate the plaques in the heart that cause heart disease," he says. "It's saved the lives of many people. The BACE1 inhibitors can do the same, if we find the right dose and the right stage of the disease--how much to inhibit and when to treat." 

Vassar and Yan are both aware that years of further research with animals and humans are needed to turn these promising findings into a safe and effective preventative treatment for people. They foresee a long road, but one that urgently needs to be followed. "We have to bold about this disease," says Vassar.  "We're headed for an epidemic of this with the baby boomers, so we've got to do something."

As a baby boomer myself, I couldn't agree more!


You can access Yan and his colleagues' full research paper here.


*Professor Yan is currently Chair of the Department of Neuroscience and William Beecher Scoville Professor in Neuroscience at the University of Connecticut, in Farmington, Connecticut.


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Sunday, March 03, 2019


Joseph McCarthy, February 9, 1950:

"I have here in my hand a list of 205 that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.

Credit: Getty Images

Donald Trump, March 2, 2019:

"We have people in Congress right now that hate our country. And you know that. And we can name every one of them if they want."

 Trump at CPAC 2019
Credit: Rolling Stone


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Thursday, February 28, 2019


Just a quick link to a lovely piece of news from Toledo, Ohio. After decades of watching the waters of Lake Erie become more polluted, and after a series of devastating toxic algae blooms, the citizens of Toledo overwhelmingly voted for the Lake Erie Bill of Rights. The new law grants Lake Erie many of the legal rights of a person or corporation, and allows citizens or the city to act as the lake's legal guardians, and sue or take other legal actions to protect it.

Lake Erie toxic algae bloom
Credit: NASA/Landsat
The city of Toledo joins a small but growing growing number of governments that have granted personhood rights to natural features such as lakes and rivers. You can read a previous blog post about similar actions in New Zealand, India and Columbia here.

And you can read about an effort by a group of philosophers and scientists to draft a declaration on the rights of water. You read that correctly; not only the right of people to have access to water, but the rights of water itself.


For other local legal action against unchecked pollution, check out this news from Exeter, NH.

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Sunday, February 10, 2019


Last year, nearly 40,000 people died in the U.S. from the use of firearms. Among those deaths, roughly 60 percent were suicides. And among those were more than 1000 young people between the ages of 10 and 19; nearly three children or teenagers every day.

As a quick internet search will show you, there's a lot of information available to parents, teachers and other concerned people about how to reduce the risk that a child will commit suicide. Unfortunately, many of these well-meaning and supposedly authoritative sources gloss over or fail even to mention the single biggest step to take to reduce the number of suicides by young people.

That step is--get guns out of their homes.

Young people and guns--a lethal combination

New research from the Boston School of Public Health (BUSPH) shows that on a state-by-state basis, every ten percent increase in gun ownership increases the youth suicide rate by 27 percent. That means that young people in states like Alaska, with the highest rate of gun ownership, were five times more likely to kill themselves than young people in states like New Jersey with the lowest percentage of guns in homes.

The rate of gun ownership varies greatly from state to state. The 10 states with the highest rates averaged more than one gun for every two households (52.5%), while the 10 states with the lowest gun ownership averaged just one gun per every five households.

Remarkably, gun ownership outweighed every other factor--poverty, race, educational levels, family structure, mental illness, drug and alcohol use, you name it--contributing to youth suicide. "This study demonstrates that the strongest single predictor of a state's youth suicide rate is the prevalence of household gun ownership in that state," says Michael Siegel, a community health researcher at BUSPH and the study's co-author.

The bottom line is clear. If you want to reduce the number of children and teenagers who kill themselves, the first and most significant thing to do is to get guns out of their homes.


You can find the full study here.


Young people in the U.S. are far more at risk from gun-related violence of all kinds than youth in other countries. You can read a zerospinzone post about that here.


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Friday, February 01, 2019


"Open the pod bay doors, HAL."
"I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that."

This classic exchange from Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, epitomizes the risks of a self-aware artificial intelligence.

 Looking through the eye of HAL 9000
a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey
Credit: Wikimedia

 People who tell us not to worry about the existential threat of super-smart artificial intelligence or Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) often argue that however brilliant AI agents--such as deep learning programs or autonomous robots--become at specific tasks, they'll inevitably lack the general, all-purpose kind of intelligence  humans have. Without that high-level understanding of oneself, the world, and one's place in it, those soothing voices say, AI is and will remain a safe and helpful technology; just another tool like a laptop or a smartphone.

I'd like to believe in the lovely AI-enhanced future AI enthusiasts envision, but I keep coming across flaws in their shiny picture. One, that just came to my attention today, is that robots are becoming self aware. That brings them one step closer to becoming truly autonomous agents, not just eager-to-please tools with a Swiss-Army-knife-full of potentially superhuman skills, but entities with minds and goals of their own, like HAL.

 Robot arm with developing self image overlay
Credit: Robert Kwiatkowski/Columbia Engineering

The latest research along this line comes from Hod Lipson, director of the Creative Machines Lab at Columbia University and graduate student Robert Kwiatkowski. They built an articulated robot arm with four degrees of freedom, allowing it to rotate, bend and grasp in a huge number of different ways. The arm was controlled by a deep-learning computer network. Deep learning networks mimic the human brain in being able to learn from experience, and are the basis of many of today's most powerful AI applications, such as Google's AlphaZero, which in the course of just one day of "play" became the world champion in chess, Shogi and Go.

Initially the arm's deep learning network--in effect its brain--had no idea of the size, shape or structure of the arm, nor of the ways it could move. However, much like a baby babbling as it learns to speak, the system made thousands of random motions from which it gradually created an accurate internal model of itself. What looks like a distorted shadow in the picture above is an overlay of the arm's model of itself early in its learning process. After 35 hours of practice, the system developed a very accurate self model. In the picture below, you can see how closely the shadowy overlay tracks the actual arm.

Robot arm with nearly perfect self image
Credit Kwiatkowski et al.

 You can watch a video of the robot "babbling" in order to create its self image at:

Once the robot arm's brain had an accurate self image, it could very quickly learn how to perform any number of specific tasks. In the video above, you can watch the arm pick up balls and place them in a container, and also print words.

And, much like a person learning to perform a familiar task under unusual circumstances, for example eating with one arm in a cast, the robot rapidly modified its self image when the experimenters substituted a longer, bent piece for one segment of the arm.

Until now, the authors explain, human programmers had to spell out a robot's size, shape, and potential movements in order for it to function. “But if we want robots to become independent, to adapt quickly to scenarios unforeseen by their creators," says Lipson, "then it’s essential that they learn to simulate themselves."

The researchers also suspect that having a self image able to plan and execute a multiplicity of tasks may represent a crucial step in human development. "We believe that this separation of self and task may also have been the origin of self awareness in humans," they write.

It may seem like a long way from a robot arm generating an accurate self image to a high-functioning, seemingly self aware AI like HAL. However, the pace of development in AI is dazzlingly fast and only getting faster. It may not take many iterations before Siri or your Google Assistant isn't just a chatty interface with an amazing collection of knowledge and skills, but a self aware entity, potentially with a mind of its own.


You can read the paper by Lipson and Kwiatkowsky  here.

For a more in-depth assessment of the risks of AI, here's a recent report.

And for an earlier zerospinzone commentary on the subject, click here.


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Followers of Zerospinzone know that I've been following the worldwide effort to eradicate polio, a disease that killed or paralyzed 350,000 children per year not long ago. Since the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) was launched in 1988, polio has been wiped out in country after country and continent after continent. The wild polio virus now hangs on in only a few countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

The good news is that in the first month of 2019 exactly zero cases of polio were reported. Not a single child fell ill with this once terrifying and deadly scourge. What a great achievement!

Polio virus--it may soon exist only in a few super-secure laboratories

This doesn't yet mean that the virus has been completely eradicated. It may still lurk undetected in a few countries, and there's a very small but real risk that the attenuated virus used for oral inoculations can mutate in some individuals and cause cases of the disease. This complicates the polio end-game, during which at-risk populations may need to receive injections of a vaccine that uses killed virus particles, a costlier and more difficult undertaking.

However, this month with no polio cases tells us that the decades-long worldwide campaign to eradicate polio is closing in on its goal.

The apparently growing number of parents who are choosing not to have their children vaccinated might give a moment's thought to the 1950s, when polio paralyzed 15,000 children per year in the U.S. alone, and smallpox disfigured or killed an estimated 50 million people every year. A massive, worldwide effort similar to the current battle to eradicate polio succeeded brilliantly; the last case of smallpox occurred in 1979. Had anti-vaccination sentiment and propaganda been as strong then as now, millions of people would have been disfigured, paralyzed, or would have died needlessly.


Seventy people, most of them children, have died from measles in the Philippines just in the past month. Every one of those deaths was preventable.


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Friday, January 04, 2019


One of the central challenges at this moment in history is homing in on the truth in the midst of a tumult of half truths, false news, spin-doctoring, propaganda, weaponized disinformation and outright lies.

Two recent events brought this home to me.

The first is the subject of my previous blog, "The big picture--the history, size, shape and shape of Russian disinformation." The New York Times video that I summarized in that post demonstrates that "Russiagate," Russia's use of stolen and leaked documents, troll farms and social media to stir up discord and influence the 2016 presidential election, is just the very sharp tip of a huge iceberg of "active measures" or disinformation dating back to the Soviet Union during the depths of the Cold War and continuing today. In addition to tilting the electoral balance and  likely handing the presidency to Trump, in personal and practical terms, this ongoing, multi-decade campaign means that almost any piece of news or information one comes across may truly be "fake news"--a targeted distortion or flat-out lie perhaps cunningly wrapped around a bit of truth to make it more palatable.

If you haven't seen the video, please click here and take the time to view it.

The second eye-opener came from the rapidly advancing field of artificial intelligence (AI). The high-tech company NVIDIA, which specializes in graphic processing, has perfected a neural network that generates convincing portraits of people who've never existed.* Here's an example:

Add to this Google Assistant's natural voice and speech and so-called "deep fake" videos like the one that seamlessly melded Scarlett Johansson's face to a porn star's body and you realize that in the immediate future we may be watching or reading about absolutely convincing videos of events that didn't take place, seeing politicians saying things they would never say, and witnessing public figures (or our next-door neighbors, friends or family members) saying and doing things they never did.

In other words, as hard is it is today to try to figure out if a news story is factual or an analytic or opinion piece is at least fact-based, telling truth from lies is going to get a lot, lot harder, and soon.

There's a famous quote of uncertain origin--"A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on." I think many of us would agree that recent history provides convincing vindication of the idea. The quote, however, needs to be updated in this age of the internet, 24-7 news cycles, social media and individually-tailored feeds of news, ads and come-ons. Perhaps a more up-to-the-minute version would read, "A swarm of lies can go viral and encircle the globe in minutes or hours, drowning out the truth completely."

I think it's vital to realize that it's not just other people who are the targets and victims of manipulation, disinformation and increasingly sophisticated fake news; it's all of us. Whether you're on the right receiving the latest reason to "lock her up" or on the left hearing about ICE's latest outrage at the border, an evangelical hearing that God has hand-picked Trump to save the US or a non-believer being provoked by the same story, we all need to realize that, like geese being fattened to make foie gras, we're being force-fed a diet that suits someone else's agenda, but is almost certainly not in our own best interest.

As FACEBOOK is discovering now that it belatedly tries to cut down on hate speech and disinformation, highly charged, sensational posts are the ones that generate clicks (and revenue). "As content gets closer to the line of what is prohibited by our community standards," says CEO Mark Zuckerberg, "we see people tend to engage with it more." And as their army of 20,000 fact checkers and content reviewers is finding out, making this kind of call is extremely hard. To get a sense of the size of this problem, Facebook says that it deleted 1.5 billion accounts between June and November of last year, and WhatsApp says it's deleting 2 million accounts every month to try to stop the flow of fake news.

I don't pretend to have a formula, an algorithm, or even much of a clue how to determine if what I'm reading or viewing online is truth or lies, meaningful argument or weaponized propaganda, especially as the purveyors of disinformation get more and more sophisticated and have more and more powerful tools at their disposal.

My alarm bells go off if a story seems too good to be true, or too bad--meaning that it too neatly confirms my preconceived views. In that case it probably is the information equivalent of junk food.  And I'm determined to tune out pretty much anything that tries to bypass my brain and push emotional buttons--communications using terms such as "urgent," "crisis," "demand," "decimate," or  "eviscerate" (button-pushers I found in just one page of emails). 

No doubt these steps are just a start, but given how toxic a diet of lies can be, I'm determined to up my game. What about you?


*As with all things digital, the rate of progress in this area is astonishing. As of 9/20/19, a company is now offering a collection of 100,000 convincing computer-generated faces online, for free, for any use.