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One funny thing: neural network candy hearts

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Janelle Shane is a research scientist in optics and recently conducted a very funny Valentines’s Day experiment. As she explained in her Tumblr post, “I collected all the genuine heart messages I could find, and then gave them to a learning algorithm called a neural network. Given a set of data, a neural network will learn the patterns that let it imitate the original data – although its imitation is sometimes imperfect. The candy heart messages it produced… well, you be the judge.

  1. The neural net did produce some that would pass for – and arguably improve upon – the standard messages.
  2. Others were in the same spirit, but perhaps not quite as effective.
  3. Others were, um, strange. I don’t know what they mean, but some of them might work on me.
  4. These will probably not be one of the standard messages anytime soon.

Turns out, AI still has a little ways to go before it can start writing our Valentine’s greetings. On that note, wishing you a very happy Valentine’s Day!

Flint water crisis: what’s being done?

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, environmental department director Liesl Clark and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist. Photo: Jonathan Oosting

Yesterday we wrote about how the people responsible for the Flint water crisis have not yet been held accountable. Partially because justice has not been brought to the city, a new Democratic governor (Gretchen Whitmer) was elected last fall and just last week announced a broad commitment to environmental issues including environmental justice. The Detroit News reported that Whitmer announced plans to overhaul the Michigan environmental department to more closely focus on protecting the Great Lakes, ensuring clean drinking water and combating climate change. Using a series of executive orders to make her first major shakeup of state government, the East Lansing Democrat said she was fulfilling a campaign pledge to be “more responsive to the people of Michigan” amid ongoing fears over the Flint water contamination crisis and emerging PFAS “forever chemicals” in groundwater.

She explained that “Right now communities across our state don’t trust the water coming out of their taps, and there is a real lack of trust in state government. It is time for that to change.” Whitmer’s first non-emergency executive order creates the new Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. The revamped department will also house new public advocates for clean water and environmental justice that will accept and investigate complaints from residents, along with a new  Interagency Environmental Justice Response Team.

But this top-down overhaul isn’t the end of the story. While Flint residents were given bottled water in the immediate aftermath of the lead contamination (and Gov. Whitmer is still calling for this program to continue) trust has been broken and residents are still wary about drinking tap water despite new tests stating that it’s safe. Officials had lied to Flint residents previously about the safety of water and trust isn’t automatically repaired just because a Democrat is in the governor’s seat. Additionally, Flint pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha (who tested kids’ blood lead levels after the disaster) still believes that Michigan’s state legislature is failing Flint, laying the groundwork for another disaster.

Why This Matters: Serious commitment from Michigan’s governor to help Flint and ensure that low-income communities in Michigan are protected against this sort of environmental injustice is critical but ultimately Gov. Whitmer needs federal support. As a nation, we must ensure that other cities like Flint aren’t betrayed in this way. We must make environmental justice a federal priority and our President and Congress must begin addressing the issue and using their powers to provide clean drinking water and a safe environment for all Americans. The 2020 election cycle is beginning to heat up and every candidate must be pressed on what he or she is going to do to ensure vulnerable communities are made a priority by our government.

What does consciousness mean in the animal kingdom?

The Atlantic’s Ross Andersen wrote a fascinating piece for the March 2019 issue of the magazine about animal cognition and the scientific community’s rethinking of how animals are aware of themselves and their surroundings. In the piece, he spends time with devotees of Jainism, an ancient religion whose highest commandment forbids violence not only against humans, but also against animals to get a sense of how they respect animal consciousness. He writes that, “in the West, consciousness was long thought to be a divine gift bestowed solely on humans. Western philosophers historically conceived of nonhuman animals as unfeeling automatons. Even after Darwin demonstrated our kinship with animals, many scientists believed that the evolution of consciousness was a recent event. They thought the first mind sparked awake sometime after we split from chimps and bonobos.”

While as humans we view ourselves on the top of the food chain and the brain power spectrum, Andersen challenges us to think about what consciousness means. Many “lesser” organisms exhibit complex behavior, such as birds who defy what their brain size should allow them to achieve. Mammals, in general, are widely thought to be conscious, because they share our relatively large brain size, and also have a cerebral cortex, the place where our most complex feats of cognition seem to take place. Birds don’t have a cortex. In the 300 million years that have passed since the avian gene pool separated from ours, their brains have evolved different structures. But one of those structures appears to be networked in cortexlike ways, a tantalizing clue that nature may have more than one method of making a conscious brain. Some scientists believe that crows are as smart as apes as they have an unusually large brain for their size, and their neurons are packed densely relative to other animals’. And while neuroscientists can measure the computational complexity of brain activity, but no brain scan has yet revealed a precise neural signature of consciousness.

Going further, fish have been shown to feel pain and team up with other fish for hunting and protection, honeybees exhibit complex communication with one another and numerous animals use tools to manipulate the world around them. If these behaviors add up to consciousness, it means one of two things: Either consciousness evolved twice, at least, across the long course of evolutionary history, or it evolved sometime before birds and mammals went on their separate evolutionary journeys. Both scenarios would give us reason to believe that nature can knit molecules into waking minds more easily than previously guessed. This would mean that all across the planet, animals large and small are constantly generating vivid experiences that bear some relationship to our own.

In the instance of honeybees, Andrew Barron, a neuroscientist from Macquarie University, in Australia, has spent the past decade identifying fine neural structures in honeybee brains. He thinks structures in the bee brain integrate spatial information in a way that is analogous to processes in the human midbrain. That may sound surprising, given that the honeybee brain contains only 1 million neurons to our brains’ 85 billion, but artificial-intelligence research tells us that complex tasks can sometimes be executed by relatively simple neuronal circuits.

Why This Matters: We highly recommend you read this Atlantic piece as it’s some serious food for thought and perhaps can serve as the start of humans reconsidering our relationship with other animals on this planet. Andersen noted through his research that Jains believe that humans are special because, in our natural state, we are nearest to this experience of enlightenment. Among Earth’s creatures, no other finds it so easy to see into the consciousness of a fellow being. So perhaps we can use our enlightenment to treat animals more kindly and protect their habitats and wellbeing.

One Valentines Day Thing: Sustainable Expressions of Love

Looking for something original and sustainable for your favorite Valentine?  Look no further!  According to Vox, the impact of the shipping of cut flowers from South America for the U.S. Valentines Day market is huge — causing 360 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions alone.  Last year 15,000 tons of flowers were shipped to the U.S. from Ecuador, and 30 cargo jet flights a day of just flowers arrive in Miami from Columbia in the week leading up to Valentine’s Day.  Here are some low impact alternatives to flowers.  

  • If you want to give something with flowers, how about a potted plant and this Sleepy Narwhale ceramic planter?
  • For a bouquet substitute, how about breadsticks?  Olive Garden has created these bouquet wrappers that you can download at home — each has a love-themed message.
  • For the person who loves sweets, ditch chocolates and instead buy chocolate-filled Candy Heart Shaped Donuts from Krispy Kreme.
  • For the coffee lover, just grab some organic, fair trade beans and a nature-themed mug like this Octopus one from Creativity Happens.

Court OKs Border Wall Environmental Waiver

Border Wall Prototypes   Photo: Mani Albrecht, U.S. Customs and Border Protection

The usually liberal federal appeals court in California sides with President Trump on Monday, ruling that the government has wide latitude to waive environmental laws to build a segment of the border wall in order to put on a speed construction of some border construction projects in southern California.  According to NPR, the court let stand a Department of Homeland Security decision to bypass environmental regulations — including the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air Act, and Endangered Species Act — to quickly construct barriers and roads near the U.S.-Mexico border.

  • The court’s opinion stated that  “[b]ecause the projects are statutorily authorized and DHS has waived the environmental laws California and the environmental groups seek to enforce, we affirm the district court’s grant of summary judgment to DHS.”
  • The Justice Department claimed that the ruling was “a victory for the Trump administration, for the rule of law, and above all, for our border security.”
  • The Center for Biological Diversity found in a 2017 study that more than 90 endangered or threatened species would be threatened by proposed wall construction along the 2,000-mile border.
  • The lawsuit challenged only the construction of 37 prototypes of the planned border wall in the Otay Mesa area of San Diego County, as well as a replacement for existing border infrastructure along a 15-mile stretch of the U.S.-Mexico boundary south of San Diego.

Environmental groups expressed disappointment about the California decision but vowed to fight the wall in Texas, where construction of a 5.5 mile section of the wall is imminent at the National Butterfly Center—the most diverse butterfly sanctuary in the U.S.  The wall will cut off 70% of the 100-acre sanctuary from the rest of it.

Why This Matters:  We are facing a massive extinction crisis and constructing more of this wall is an unnecessary risk on endangered species, such as many types of butterflies.  That is why environmental groups and the owners of the butterfly sanctuary filed a request to stop construction in Texas while the litigation goes forward.   Whatever happened to the conservatives’ fight for property rights? Apparently, those don’t matter when the “property” is a butterfly sanctuary as opposed to a ranch or private forest land.  The government’s law enforcement agencies have been driving heavy machinery through the butterfly center’s property without permission or notice, and plan to “take” the land needed for the wall by eminent domain.  To be fair, the Administration plans to “take” private property like ranches as well to build their wall.  Even property rights are “endangered” by the wall.

New Study Recommends Billions for Gulf Restoration Projects

Photo: Associated Press

The National Audubon Society published a new report yesterday calling for the largest ecosystem restoration effort ever attempted — a $1.7-billion slate of distinct restoration projects spanning the states of Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, Louisana, and Florida.  The funding for these projects is available due to the $20B settlement in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill litigation.  

  • Audubon recommends in its report 16 state-based, 10 region-wide and four open ocean projects, which
    together total more than 136,000 acres of restored or protected habitat for bird and human communities from south Texas to the
    Florida Keys.
  • The report identifies specific projects and programs that Audubon believes are critical to helping restore the region and its wildlife from devastating coastal erosion, oil spills, and other environmental and man-made disasters.
  • Over the last 80 years, more than 1,800 square miles of coastal forests, marshes, beaches and barrier islands have turned into open
    water in Louisiana alone, putting more than 2 million people at risk of flooding and threatening vital habitat on which birds and other
    species depend.

“The challenges are huge, but we have an enormous opportunity to save much of the Gulf Coast for both birds and people. We can’t afford to blow this,” David Yarnold, President and CEO of National Audubon Society, said in a statement.

In Florida, for example, the report recommends:

  • a $5.3-million project called the Cape Sable Restoration, which would “create, restore, and enhance coastal wetlands” in Everglades National Park. The program area impacts species ranging from Reddish Egrets to Roseate Spoonbills,
  • a $3.3-million project is recommended to protect and conserve habitats in Hillsborough County. That’s the Richard T. Paul Alafia Bank Bird Sanctuary Breakwaters, and
  • a $2.2-million project called Greater Tampa Bay Waterbird Rookeries Protection Initiative would protect habitats. The project stems from an oil spill that disrupted bird nesting.

Why This Matters:  The government will have many, many projects to choose from when deciding how to use the Gulf Oil Spill settlement money.  I (Monica) was part of the team of state and federal officials that chose the first slate of projects, and even with ample funds, the competition among projects is very tough.  The $20b will go fast — especially when you consider how much ecological harm was caused by the spill and how degraded the environment had become even before that.  Reports like this one are critically important to help unify public support behind the most ecologically important projects — rather than the politically expedient ones.  This is a “once in a generation” opportunity to heal the Gulf.  It is important to maximize the environmental benefits in order to rebuild and sustain the natural resource economy of the Gulf for the foreseeable future.  

To Go Deeper:  Read the full 16-page Audubon Report here.

Republicans lash out at Green New Deal

Photo: Scott Applewhite/AP

During Monday night’s rally in El Paso, TX President Trump railed against the Green New Deal resolution that was introduced by Congressional Democrats last week saying that it “sounds like a high school term paper that got a low mark.” As CNN explained, Trump brushed off policy proposals from Democrats, saying the push from progressive lawmakers “all has to do with 2020 and the election” The president further expressed his displeasure with the bold democratic plan by stating that “I really don’t like their policies of taking away your car, taking away your airplane flights, of ‘let’s hop a train to California,’ or ‘you’re not allowed to own cows anymore!'”

Additionally, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced yesterday that he wants the Senate to take a vote on the Green New Deal. Stating at a press conference that “I’ll give everybody an opportunity to go on record and see how they feel about the Green New Deal.” In response to this, Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) who introduced the legislation with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio said in a statement that “Republicans don’t want to debate climate change, they only want to deny it. They have offered no plan to address this economic and national security threat and want to sabotage any effort that makes Big Oil and corporate polluters pay. The principles of the Green New Deal resonate with the American people – a mission to save all of creation by investing in massive job creation. The Green New Deal resolution has struck a powerful chord in this country, and Republicans, climate deniers, and the fossil fuel industry are going to end up on the wrong side of history.”
Why This Matters: At this point, the Green New Deal is not legislation but a starting point for framing our discussion and negotiation of legislation that will address climate change. Climate change is such a massive issue that is affected by nearly every sector of our economy that curbing our GHG emissions requires big thinking and bold action. People often forget this but the original New Deal was not one piece of legislation but instead, it was a culmination of numerous bills and executive actions. Additionally, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was routinely accused of being a communist and a socialist for the programs that he proposed (which are wildly popular now with the American public like Social Security) in almost the exact fashion that President Trump and Congressional Republicans are criticizing the Green New Deal.

How will climate change warm your city?

Graphic: Matt Fitzpatrick/University of Maryland

Each year extreme heat kills more Americans than any other extreme weather event and for many cities, the future means that average highs will only continue to rise.  As CNN reported, the past five years have already been the hottest on record for our planet, but new projections published yesterday in the journal Nature Communications predict that it’s going to get a lot hotter for the 250 million people living in North American cities. Taking it a step further, Dr. Matt Fitzpatrick of the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science helped create a new interactive map to translate global forecasts into something that’s less remote, less abstract, that’s more psychologically local and relevant.

As Wired explained, Fitzpatrick looked at 540 urban areas in North America using three primary datasets. One captured current climatic conditions (an average of the years between 1960 and 1990), the second contained projections of future climates, and the third provided historic climate variability from year to year taken from NOAA weather records. (Depending on the city, climate might be more “stable,” or swing more wildly between years.) The researchers considered temperature and precipitation in particular, though of course these aren’t the only two variables when modeling the climate—more on that in a bit.

Why This Matters: If you play around with the interactive map it makes warming trends really tangible. It’s one thing to read that your city will be 8 degrees warmer on average in 60 years, it’s another thing to have a reference city that currently has a similar climate. For instance, here in DC, our 60-year projection will make our climate closer to Greenwood, MS which is almost 10 degrees warmer and 72% wetter. Considering how hot and humid summers here already are it’s a stark statistic. But for cities like San Francisco which is projected to have a climate closer to that of present-day Palos Verdes, CA, increased summer heat will be a problem in a city where most people don’t own air conditioners.

Flint water crisis: who’s to blame?

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Image: BET

As we wrote yesterday, what happened in Flint to cause water contamination at such a mass scale was a failure at many levels of government. However, despite this systematic failure, Flint’s residents deserve for the people who willingly (or even criminally) stood by when they knew something was wrong to be held accountable. While Michigan’s former Attorney General Bill Schuette originally brought criminal charges against 15 people, as PBS explained, three years later, no one is behind bars. Instead, seven of 15 defendants have pleaded no contest to misdemeanors, some as minor as disrupting a public meeting. Their records eventually will be scrubbed clean.

This has rightfully angered Flint residents who feel as if culpable officials are getting away with it. Four of five people at the state Department of Environmental Quality who were on the front line of the crisis have struck deals. The remaining cases mostly center on a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease and early disastrous decisions to use water from the Flint River. However, as MLive reported a couple of weeks ago, Michigan’s new solicitor general says she has some work to do to catch up on criminal prosecutions related to the Flint water crisis and promised to fix any problems she encounters. “We will right the ship,” said Solicitor Fadwa A. Hammoud, who Attorney General Dana Nessel has directed to oversee the Flint cases. “I appreciate the work everyone has done. I respect everyone who wants to see justice.” In addition to this, House Oversight and Government Reform chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland) says that he will reopen an investigation into Flint after former Republican Chairman Jason Chaffetz closed the inquiry in December 2016 despite objections from then-ranking member Cummings who called the move premature and inconceivable. As the Detroit News elaborated, Cummings has been particularly interested in documents relating to when former governor Rick Snyder became aware of concerns relating to Flint’s outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, a deadly form of pneumonia that killed 12 people and sickened dozens of others in Genesee County in 2014-15.

Why This Matters: This past election Michigan voters voted in a Democratic governor (Gretchen Whitmer) as well as a Democratic Attorney General who campaigned on an unbiased investigation of wrongdoing in Flint. It’s easy to point fingers at the other party during a crisis such as Flint but after a University of Michigan report concluded that former-governor Snyder “bears significant legal responsibility for the (Flint water) crisis based on his supervisory role over state agencies” as well as the fact that a major donor of his was appointed to lead the Flint investigation it’s easy to wonder why a Republican governor and AG didn’t act swiftly enough to expose and correct all wrongdoing. Either way, we must hold lawmakers accountable as providing safe water for their citizens is their duty. Flint is one of many communities in the United States that faces similar injustice and that’s why a legislative proposal like the Green New Deal, which prioritizes marginalized communities, is such a necessary part of our national dialogue.

One Sticky Thing: The Mud On A Remarkable New Pacific Island

A newly formed island in the South Pacific near Tonga — unofficially called Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai (Hunga Tonga) — is the first island of its kind formed since satellites began consistently taking pictures of Earth, according to NASA.  Scientists from NASA visited the island late last year and were surprised by both the new island’s staying power, and some of the things they found there, such as an owl and some super sticky mud.  CNN reports that the island was formed by a volcanic eruption in late December 2014 and it connected two older islands, but the scientists thought the island would submerge within months.  According to a NASA blog, the new island “immediately captured the attention of NASA scientists keen to understand how new islands form and evolve on Earth – which may also give them clues about how volcanic landscapes interacted with water on ancient Mars.”